CALISTOGA, Calif. — Marijuana farmers and dispensary owners across Northern California are nervously watching as wildfires burn through some of the state’s prime cannabis growing areas and destroy valuable crops, which could drive up prices for consumers across the country.
“This is right smack in the middle of people’s harvests,” said Eli Melrod, the CEO of Solful Dispensary in Sebastopol, in northern California. “It couldn’t have been worse timing, frankly.”
A single marijuana plant can be worth up to $5,000, but pot growers can’t get crop insurance like traditional farmers or the vintners whose grapevines tend to get most of the attention here.
Wildfires are burning across parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, which are known for both wine and marijuana, particularly among high-end consumers willing to pay a premium for the name.
Complicating matters: Marijuana farms are built in remote areas with poor road access and don’t necessarily appear on firefighters’ maps of buildings to be protected. The growers often live largely off the radar, without health insurance or access to traditional job support systems such as unemployment insurance. Black market growers may be reluctant to tell friends and family members of the losses they’ve suffered.
“It’s just sad that we live in this underground world where we can’t discuss the true extent of the damage,” said Jessica Lilga of Alta Supply, a statewide wholesale cannabis distribution based in Oakland. “All remaining growers who did not literally lose their crops will be affected.”
It’s unclear exactly how many people work in the cannabis industry in northern California and how many cultivation operations exist. Lilga said she’s aware of “thousands” of grow operations but was reluctant to speculate, given the industry’s secretive nature.
But any interruption could have widespread implications for American marijuana consumers, legal or otherwise.
Millions of Californians consume medical marijuana, but even more pot is illegally shipped across state lines for black markets around the U.S. California’s legal cannabis market is worth an estimated $2.76 billion, according to marijuana analytics firm New Frontier Data, while the state’s black market is worth $13.5 billion, according to GreenWave Advisors.
Lilga, who lives in Santa Rosa, was evacuated herself when the wildfire ran over her neighborhood. She’s not sure she has a home to return to: “That cash that all these growers should be bringing in next month would help rebuild our burning cities if it were not all taken away.”
Lilga predicted that an otherwise good crop year means the state’s overall supply should be enough to meet demand without significantly impacting price. Still, many cannabis dispensaries and distributors are setting up GoFundMe accounts to help growers who have lost their crops.
Farmer Kim Tate of One Feather Ranch in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley said wildfires forced her to evacuate with her horses, leaving behind her entire year’s crop that was expected to yield about 350 pounds of cannabis. About two-thirds of the crop had been harvested and stored before the fire broke out, she said, but the rest remained in the fields and growing rooms.
As with wine, marijuana contaminated by wildfire smoke may leave behind an unpleasant taste for consumers, Melrod said. Tate said she hoped to use ozone to flush her organically raised plants of any toxins. Every bit will matter: A pound of high-quality marijuana is worth about $1,200 on the wholesale market.
“We’re going to see have to see how smoky it is,” she said as she tried to return to the ranch Thursday.
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