Cannabis harvests threatened by Sonoma County’s Tubbs Fire - SFGate.com
California marijuana growers north of San Francisco continue to face mandatory evacuation orders as well as likely tens of millions of dollars in crop damage and loss amid widespread wildfires in Wine Country and surrounding areas.
There might be anywhere from 3,000 to 9,000 cannabis gardens in Sonoma County, according to county surveys. County revenues from cannabis are unknown but likely total in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
“We have a lot of people who have lost their farms in the last 36 hours, and their homes,” said Tawnie Logan, chair of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.
Logan said that unlike wineries, cannabis farmers generally cannot obtain conventional crop or fire insurance. Those that do get insured pay exorbitant rates for skimpy coverage. She said she knows of a two million dollar crop in a Santa Rosa greenhouse that was reduced to ash Sunday night.
The California Growers Association holds a conference call for the region at the beginning of every week, and Monday, 6 of 18 regional leaders were under evacuation orders or helping neighbors who were.
“We’re expecting some pretty significant property damage,” said CGA Executive Director Hezekiah Allen. “As damage numbers emerge, it’s going to be pretty stunning on all fronts, and certainly our membership has been directly impacted.”
Erich Pearson, director of SPARC farms in Glen Ellen south of the Tubbs Fire reported on Facebook early Monday: “We are safe but these fires in Sonoma Valley are really bad. Winds are too strong and it’s too dark to fly planes. Trinity Oaks neighborhood is gone.”
He added: “Glen Ellen is evacuated. ... They’re evacuating up here too but it’s a ridge away.”
Pearson stated he was staying with employees on the Glen Ellen property who refused to leave. SPARC’s Glen Ellen farm was preparing to harvest its annual outdoor crop Tuesday.
At 3 p.m. Monday, a SPARC farms staff member, who did not want to be named, said, “Our farm has experienced some pretty substantial damage.”
Leading cannabis attorney and Santa Rosa resident Joe Rogoway had to evacuate his family from their home Tuesday morning at 4 a.m., his colleagues stated. Rogoway’s Santa Rosa office remains closed Tuesday.
Another farm, Sonoma County Cannabis Company, sustained major losses, according to multiple reports. “There are no words right now to describe the loss, the heart break and the trauma that our beloved home and community is going through,” the company posted to its Instagram account. “We are trying to save what we can.”
Major Santa Rosa cannabis manufacturer CannaCraft closed its 110-employee business Monday and told employees to stay home, CannaCraft spokeswoman Kial Long said. For those who could not stay home, she added, CannaCraft’s headquarters south of the Santa Rosa evacuation zone was open to them as an evacuation center.
Long said she’s received no reports from the numerous Sonoma County cultivators with whom CannaCraft works but knows that several are in the line of fire.
Tuesday, CannaCraft opened with a skeleton crew that is working amid “awful” air quality, Long said. All employees are accounted for, but losses have been felt company-wide.
“We have no employees that were not impacted in some way or another,” Long said. “A lot of family, a lot of friends and a few employees did lose their homes.”
Regional dispensaries like Organicann reported being closed Monday, or could not be reached by phone during business hours.
Robert Jacob, the former Sebastopol mayor and former director of the Peace in Medicine dispensary in that city reported on Facebook this morning that he feared his house was gone: “Well, the fire was a block away from our house when James evacuated. 0% containment and 20,000 acres burning. I’m afraid we’re going to lose our house.”
The timing of wildfire season could not be worse for cannabis, because the delicate, fragrant flower buds bloom in the middle of fire season. Farmers had been cutting for the last couple weeks, but “there was a lot of stuff that's still heavy on the bush and our 8-12 weeks strains just getting ready to be harvested —that is tremendous loss,” Logan said.
“Especially when it’s ripe — I can tell you from personal experience, wildfire definitely will make your cannabis have a smoky flavor to it; just like wine,” Kristin Nevedal, executive director of the International Cannabis Farmers Association, based in the Humboldt County town of Garberville, said in a September interview.
“We’ve got about 30 percent of our farm still sitting out there —just covered. It’s going to be tough. All of our product is covered in ash and soot and just billows of smoke,” Logan said.
Beyond picking up the smell of the fires, smoke-exposed crops are more susceptible to disease, leading to unhealthy levels of mold, mildew and fungus.
Nevedal said farmers won’t know the extent of smoke damage until after the harvest season, which runs through October.
California is America’s No. 1 domestic producer of cannabis — growing an estimated 13 million pounds per year. Four out of 5 of those pounds of pot is shipped out of state, researchers estimate. Much of that pot is grown outdoors, and is planted in the spring and harvested in the fall.
Fire-prone Northern California harbors the world’s largest concentration of cannabis farms in the remote forested mountainsides of Trinity, Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Further south in Sonoma County, where the Tubbs Fire is burning, many commercial medical and soon-to-be-recreational as well as personal cannabis farms also exist, along with ancillary businesses.
Allen said Sonoma County’s location makes it a magnet for cannabis commerce. An acre of cannabis is worth an estimated $1.7 million, some analysts say.
“It’s located right there between three counties where so much of our product comes from, and its proximity to the Bay Area makes it a huge marketplace, with a lot of processing and manufacturing; just a huge industrial leader in general.”
Santa Rosa has emerged as the epicenter of the modern legal pot economy in California, said Logan, and the devastation there would be analogous to the effects on the technology industry, if a fire swept through Silicon Valley.
“What would we do if we had that loss? We’re just praying right now that rains come and that the winds don’t pick up and change direction,” she said.
Firefighters reported the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa was about one percent contained Tuesday morning.
The fires came not only at the worst time of the year, but in the toughest year in decades, because the entire industry is in the process of seeking local and state licensing under legalization Proposition 64, Logan said. Many companies had spent tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars leasing warehouse space in Santa Rosa in order to get a license. Now, those warehouses are gone and pot companies don’t have insurance to cover the sunk costs, Logan said.
“There’s going to be so many fundraisers needed for homes lost. We need to find a way to address the livelihoods lost, too.”