Northern California cannabis growers scramble to protect crop from smoke impact
With 3.5 million acres consumed by flame across California, cannabis growers are holding their collective breath over the state, size and health of the crops in the coming weeks.
A little later than its wine counterpart, harvests primarily fall into October — commonly referred to in cannabis circles as “Croptober.”
Because of a heavy smoke hanging over the area for days in late August into September this year, some growers say it has caused a premature bud finish, which means the plants are tricked into thinking it’s later in the season and complete the budding process too soon, resulting in lower yield and smaller plants.
Smoke taint has even come up as a concern since the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond was inundated for days and days — weeks before the worst of the fire year is yet to come.
“We got concerned when the smoke started blanketing the area and blocking the sun. This is what terrified us,” said Chris Vaughn, a grower who owns Woodman Peak Farm in Laytonville with his wife Casey. “We thought we would see early flowering like what we had in 2017, but we’ve actually seen the opposite. We’re feeling optimistic about flowering. But we’re just hoping the crop is still sellable.”
Normally at this time, Vaughn is prepping to harvest 10% to 20% of the crops from his 840-acre farm in Mendocino County. His harvest is usually in full swing by the first week of October.
Despite hearing from fellow growers experiencing their plants failing to mature, Vaughn believes the colder air was countered by “the hottest September I’ve ever experienced” for his farm at a 2,700-foot elevation. During the heat wave, temperatures soared into the triple digits in Northern California.
And still burning and hovering at only about half containment in his county’s national forest is the 862,733-acre August Complex, the largest wildfire in California history, Cal Fire reported Thursday.
Every day, Vaughn blows ash off his plants and waters them to ensure the smoke residue will not penetrate the plants.
“We’re trying to put out the tastiest product we can,” he said.
The huge concerns over Vaughn’s livelihood have kept him awake at night.
“Will we do this next year?” he asked rhetorically. Being a long-time grower, the question remains, yet much is at stake — to the tune of at least $750,000 in product.
“I’m just not going to abandon it,” he said.
Throwing a wrench into an industry projected to top $57 billion globally and delivering much needed tax revenue since becoming legal in 2016 may hurt a budding industry.
Along the Mendocino, Trinity and Humboldt county lines — referred to as the Emerald Triangle — Nate Whittington has witnessed his quarter-acre farm and many of his neighbors’ crops “really getting dusted” with ash. But it’s the lesser concern than the plants finishing too early.
“You can wash off the plant, but everyone is doing damage control to get the plant production up. People are scrambling,” he said.
The last 12-day period of the harvest can make or break harvest yield, when the plants grow to a meatier product.
Whittington predicts yield will most certainly be down by over half of what a normal harvest may deliver, at least in his neck of the woods where Ladybug Herbal Sanctuary thrives over 5,000 square feet of greenhouse space.
Location makes a difference
Farther south, Sonoma Hills Farm grower Aaron Keefer shared that his crops, unlike others he’s heard of, has sustained “very little ash fall,” he said. “I feel bad for people affected.
A decreased yield is still possible, Keefer warned.
“For us, this is our busiest time of year. We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” he said.
Each year is different
Fume’s delivery and growing operation based in the Napa Valley is expected to remain up to par, with what appears to be a harvest coming a bit later. Napa County endured the huge LNU Lightning Complex, which at 363,220 acres is almost fully contained, according to Cal Fire’s update on Sept. 24.
“Every year we’ve had smoke,” Fume CEO Eric Sklar said.
But the harvest represents a mixed bag of when it’s ready, demonstrating that the weather presents no perfect science for farmers.
Sklar recalled premature bud finish of the crops in 2018 after the fires, with a seasonal harvest of high yield. Yields were down the following year. Now this year, he’s not as concerned about heavy smoke stunting the plants’ growth at least in the North Bay.
Perhaps they have adjusted to a climate filled with fire every year.
“What this does in terms of yield is still unknown,” he said.
Weather’s effect on cannabis spurs another growth business
Willow Industries, a cannabis decontamination firm with its headquarters in Denver and a facility in Oakland, has serviced Northern California clients bringing in plants that appear smaller than usual as a result of the wildfire’s smoke.
“The smoke doesn’t allow for the typical sunlight. And some of the cultivators are hoping they’re getting enough (yield) from their crops,” CEO Jill Ellsworth said. “We’re seeing variables in the temperature tricking the plants into flowering early. Some are not as robust with THC and smaller.”
Ellsworth’s company that started in 2015 treats the plants placed on trays that resemble baking pans, cleaning them in a chamber with a combination of oxygen and ozone.
Threat lingers beyond cultivation
If the trend continues with wildland fires changing the course and size of the cannabis crops, the long-term effects may hinder the industry.
“If the buds are smaller, the way the pricing is now, this could be extremely detrimental (to the distribution channel). Prices could go way up,” said Chris Miller, a Riverside geneticist that studies and clones cannabis.
Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times in San Diego County, Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or firstname.lastname@example.org