Climate Change Creates Challenges For Marijuana Farmers

Californian cannabis plantation climate change
Cannabis plantation growing on the mountains of North California. Photo: Shutterstock

How climate change is affecting cannabis farming, especially in California. Both greenhouses and sun-grown crops have their downsides.

Two growing options present unique problems.

Wildfires and droughts ravaging agricultural land around the world have raised the stakes for cannabis farmers, who must decide whether to cultivate their plants in greenhouses or out in fields.

Indoor growing can produce more crops and greater profits, but it has more carbon emissions and high startup costs. Cannabis in greenhouses also requires lots of energy for optimal lighting, temperature, and humidity. These plants are usually grown from a clone, which can make them weaker than those grown from seeds, and more dependent on a controlled environment to thrive. The taste and flavor can also be altered in greenhouses versus pot produced in fields.

Farmers of sun-grown cannabis may save on these costs, but they face the risk of wildfires burning the land or smoking out crops, not to mention water shortages and extreme weather conditions.

In Mendocino County, a coastal California area with small cannabis farms, most plants are grown outside. One local farmer, Russell Perrin, says that as a result of climate change, the fire season is almost year-round at this point. In 2016, a fire rained ash on Perrin’s plants, giving them a tainted smell and making them unsellable.

“It felt like you were on Mars,” he said.

And when drought strikes, California cannabis farmers may not be offered the same benefits and protections as farmers of crops like rice or nuts.

“It’s unfortunate that at the [California] state level, cannabis is actually not designated as an agricultural crop,” said Michael Katz, executive director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance. Instead, cannabis is considered an “agricultural product,” which means the people growing it don’t have access to the same aid available to traditional farmers that are growing tomatoes or even hemp, Katz said.

With the history of criminalization and stigma against cannabis, there’s also a lack of federal research. Emergent Cannabis Sciences, a company based in Arizona, helps farmers develop controlled-environment agriculture and healthy plants. The industry needs more research and breeding to produce better crops, including those with drought-resistant genes, said Hope Jones, the company’s chief executive officer.

Commodities like wheat and corn “have decades and decades and decades of research,” Jones said. For cannabis, “we are at the beginning.”