Can Cannabis Farms Weather Wildfire Season?

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Many marijuana crops are uninsured, which means that in the wake of disaster, farmers can face financial ruin.

In 2013, Joy Hollingsworth moved with her family from Seattle out to the country with a plan to build a cannabis business.

Washington State had recently legalized recreational marijuana, and Barack Obama had just been re-elected. For Ms. Hollingsworth, a former basketball player, and her brother, Raft Hollingsworth III, a former University of Washington student who had been growing medical marijuana, it seemed like as good a time as any to buy a farm and turn a profit.

So began the Hollingsworth Cannabis Company, a Black-owned family business in what has become a very white and increasingly corporate-dominated industry.

“Here are some city Black folks moving out to the middle of nowhere, a predominantly white area,” Ms. Hollingsworth, 36, said, recalling the early days in Shelton, a small city near Olympic National Park where the family built their farm. “I thought they were going to have a problem with us growing cannabis. The reality is most of our neighbors love weed.”

What they were worried about was water.

The area is prone to drought and has dealt with escalating unpredictable weather patterns over the last several years. “We’re getting more rain in August and more snow in the winter,” Ms. Hollingsworth said — so much snow, in fact, that last year one of her greenhouses collapsed under its weight.

The excess precipitation means too much water and humidity for crops to flourish. And in recent months, Ms. Hollingsworth said, they’ve had to worry about fires.

The West Coast’s most destructive wildfire season on record raged this fall, in the midst of the country’s most pervasive drought since 2013. More than five million acres of land have burned, and many farms, cannabis and otherwise, have had to evacuate.

While most crop farms are covered by insurance in the event of environmental destruction, insurers (including big banks) remain wary of cannabis farms. As of May 2020, a mere six companies nationwide offered insurance to farms that grow cannabis that contains more than 0.3 percent THC, the main psychoactive compound of the plant.

Hemp, defined as cannabis that contains 0.3 percent THC or less, qualified for federal crop insurance only starting this planting year. Many marijuana crops are uninsured, which means in the wake of a fire, farmers can face financial ruin.

Jeff Nordahl, 47, runs Jade Nectar, a small family-run cannabis business in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Wildfires came within a mile of his farm this fall, and Mr. Nordahl and his employees had to evacuate for nearly a month. “Three weeks of not being able to water cannabis during the 90-to-100-degree days will kill cannabis within three to four days,” he said.

So Mr. Nordahl found some workarounds to get his crops the bare minimum of water they needed. “This sometimes required hiking 12 miles with the blessings of neighbors to cross their property, gaining access through some emergency workers who knew me,” he said. “I had helped their family out many years ago by providing free cannabis oil to a family member who beat cancer, so they helped me access our farm.”

Though none of his crops burned, he still felt the effects of the fires acutely. “Even when your farm is not on fire, just the impact from the smoke and the potential damage there, and the sun being blocked out and such, the plant suffers unquestionably,” he said.

Keala Peterson, 31, and her mother, Kila Peterson, 60, known as Mama Ki, founded Sweet Creek Farm in Greenville, Calif., in 2014, after three years of growing pot for personal use on their 5,000-square-foot homestead. The younger Ms. Peterson called the wildfires “just another layer” in the difficulties of being a small family pot farm.

“It’s really unfortunate because most of the people that are impacted by these fires are small because by nature of where we’re located, you can’t be a big farm,” she said. “There’s not expansive flat lands to do acres. It’s pretty steep. And mostly, it’s just people living on their property.” In August, fire destroyed 80 percent of Ms. Peterson’s marijuana crops, as well as her parents’ home.

Wildfires often happen at a time of the year when cannabis can be vulnerable. Planted cannabis can survive fire if the soil has not been tainted, but when flowering, the stickiness of the plants can make them susceptible to getting coated by falling ash, soot or fire retardants.

Often, marijuana is harvested in September before the first frost, but marijuana farms on the West Coast can have a longer growing season because of the typically temperate climate.

“Harvesting right in the middle of September is probably really risky with that being peak fire season these days,” Mr. Nordahl said. This year, Jade Nectar planted a strain to harvest in early August and another for around Thanksgiving. “We want to avoid late August and September cannabis varieties, as these are the highest fire-risk times,” Mr. Nordahl said.

Sweet Creek Farm was able to do a “late replant,” thanks to new crops donated to them by a local nursery. Members of the community came out to help the Petersons replant their crops.

“We were kind of like cockroaches,” Ms. Peterson said. “As soon as it was safe to enter, we were able to water the 20 percent of the plants that did survive. We pruned them a third of the way up because the bottom branches burned, but they survived and we harvested them. We’re able to salvage some sort of a season.”

Some cannabis farmers chose to stay on their farms, in some cases defying evacuation orders, to try and save crops from fire using methods like watering down the plants. One of those farmers was Ms. Peterson’s father, a retired firefighter.

After surviving previous wildfire seasons, other marijuana farms have diversified into additional crops, or focused on growing inside (as the majority of Colorado’s cannabis farms do). But even indoor grows are not immune to wildfire damage.

Ms. Hollingsworth doesn’t yet know the impact of the smoke on her crops, which are grown in climate-controlled greenhouses, but “they’re not perking up as much as they usually do,” she said. Right now, she is most worried about the sky. “Sun rays, they can’t filter through the smoke,” she said. “And we really rely on the greatest resource that the planet has ever known, which is the sun, for us to grow.”

Still, Ms. Hollingsworth has no plans of giving up on her family business. Last year, she and her brother were featured on the cover of Cannabis Business Times, and they appeared on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” “I hope that we can continue on this pathway of growing sustainable cannabis and showing people that it can be done,” she said.

Ms. Peterson’s family plans to rebuild their house with wildfire considerations, including steel, solar panels and no windows facing the forest. “We’re going to keep going,” she said. “I want to raise my kids on my family property. That would be the dream, to continue the farmstead on to the next generation.”