Historic California Wildfires Threaten Cannabis Crops

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Sonoma’s Sweet Creek Farms and WAMM Phytotherapies in Santa Cruz among first victims of record-breaking blazes.

California is on fire.

In the wake of a massive dry lightning storm last weekend, firefighters are now battling blazes across the state. Also in the mix: heatwaves, rolling blackouts, and the worst air quality in the world — plus a pandemic, of course.

As of Saturday, more than 1 million acres had burned and at least five fire-related deaths had been confirmed. Given several of the larger fires remain at 5% containment or less, it appears much more carnage is possible before the worst is over. As people flee their homes (or stay behind to save them), there are also a number of vital state industries facing catastrophic consequences.

Wineries, for instance, are facing what amounts to impossible choices as a blaze CalFire has dubbed the Walbridge Fire continues to ravage rural Sonoma County in Northern California.

Esther Mobley of the San Francisco Chronicle summarized the situation now facing NorCal vintners, who have faced off against fires before but face a uniquely devastating new wrinkle this time around.

“[The] arrival of destructive wildfires [this year] is aligning with the beginning of harvest — or, in the cases of many wineries, preceding harvest altogether,” she writes. “That presents a much larger threat to the wine industry: Could 2020’s grapes burn on the vine before anyone can pick them? And could lingering smoke irrevocably damage any grapes that remain?”

Just as wineries fear for their grapes, similar concerns are shared by California cannabis growers. Whether they’re in areas already fighting fires (Sonoma, Santa Cruz) or at heightened risk to experience one (all of the vaunted Emerald Triangle) with more dry lightning expected in the next several days, the stakes are truly existential for some small farmers.

Keala Peterson’s family-run cannabis operation, Sweet Creek Farms, is one business that has already absorbed substantial damages. Located in Sonoma County, the farm is now facing a reported $150,000 in losses, which amounts to about four-fifths of their season’s crop. That figure could also increase if Peterson is unable to salvage the unburned marijuana for sale.

“There are a ton of farms that are located in the fire’s path. No one’s out of the woods yet. This is just starting,” Peterson told Marijuana Business Daily. “We’re guardedly optimistic that those (unburned marijuana plants) could come to term, but with smoke damage, if the bud has set enough, it’ll just be smoky marijuana, and nobody wants to smoke that.”

Sweet Creek Farms isn’t the only cannabis farm in trouble. In Santa Cruz, WAMM Phytotherapies — a longtime medical cannabis nonprofit — has reportedly also lost a farm.

“We just found out that probably everything burned” founder Valerie Corral told Marijuana Business Daily, referring to WAMM’s northern Santa Cruz County farm. As with Sweet Creek Farms, WAMM’s farms are uninsured — a result of the ongoing failure of the federal government to provide legal cannabis operations with access to safe banking and insurance.

As of Thursday evening, a second WAMM farm in Southern Santa Cruz remained unaffected by the fires, but Corral’s words were not overly optimistic.

“It’s pretty awful here in Santa Cruz,” she said. “I have to be thankful that no one’s life has been lost.”

Another farm, Preferred Gardens, in Yolo County (west of Sacramento) also reported smoke damage to at least 2,000 of the farm’s 12,000 plants.

In comprehending the ways in which these record-breaking, devastating fires will impact the cannabis industry, it’s important to remember that plants don’t need to literally burn to be considered destroyed. Given the strictness of state testing standards, particulates from smokey air can render cannabis untouched by flame as worthless as if it had been fully incinerated.

Though some solutions — like rendering smoke-damaged cannabis into vaporizer oil, where the toxins are removed — do exist, the moment presents a bleak crossroads for an industry desperately trying to find its footing in a violently shifting world.

Somehow, however, having seen it all already, there’s a limit to the gloom those long-time growers are willing to wallow in.

“I’ve been through all different kinds of hell,” John Polley of Preferred Gardens told Marijuana Business Daily. “This is just another day.”

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