Outdoor Cannabis Farmers Facing Unprecedented Crisis in CA
A year ago
Chiah Rodriques is CEO of Mendocino Generations, a consortium of 60 outdoor, artisanal cannabis farmers based in Mendocino County—the heart of the Emerald Triangle. In this exclusive HelloMD interview, Chiah discusses how legalization in California may affect access to some of the best, cleanest and most effective cannabis flowers and products available.
Legendary Cannabis Farmers Are Calling it Quits
“People are definitely leaving the industry, including some farmers with Mendocino Generations. It’s one of the hardest, saddest parts of my job,” says Chiah. “Some are quitting because they are nearing retirement and feel the new regulations are beyond their ability to navigate. They’re saying, ‘Why should I put all my savings into something that isn’t workable?’”
Others are quitting because they’re not technologically savvy. Adds Chiah, “Along with our ongoing responsibilities, we’re now required to enter data, get inventory into the system and stay connected to the state and county.”
She explains that it takes farmers an average of 10 hours per week just to enter data for state- and county-mandated metric systems. Many areas of the Emerald Triangle have no broadband, meaning some farmers must travel significant distances just to access wifi.
Marijuana Farmers Struggling With “Big Cannabis” Demands
The relationship among farmers, state-regulated distributors, environmental agencies and the state licensing process is described as confusing, contradictory and most disturbingly for the Mendocino Generations farmers, geared toward “big cannabis” producers who can easily afford teams of accountants, attorneys, administrative assistants, consultants, social media specialists and marketing agents—all necessary to operate within the sphere of legal recreational cannabis.
“Patients may notice fewer varieties of cannabis flowers and products on the market since January,” says Chiah. “In part, it’s because of the license-to-license situation we’re facing. Many distributors were unable to get licenses right away. Farmers had to apply for temporary state licenses, and then had just 120 days to apply for annual licenses. The state realizes they are behind schedule, so that date may be extended.”
Cannabis Farmers Held to Impossible Standards
Outdoor farmers grow the majority of California’s organic cannabis—free of pesticides, molds and other harmful additives. Mendocino County is also famous for the development of some of the most celebrated cannabis genetics, created by a few of the very farmers leaving the industry.
Mendocino Generation’s farmers are vocal advocates for responsible environmental practices for all farmers, not just for those who grow marijuana. As stated by Sonoma County’s Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar during a recent state hearing, he can’t imagine any agricultural enterprise that could successfully operate under the constraints of today’s cannabis regulations.
“The state's Livescan fingerprinting systems are still not up and running. We were supposed to receive state templates addressing security, pest management and waste plans. These were promised some time ago. Now we have deadlines approaching and planting season around the corner. Do we create our own templates or risk forfeiting our 120-day temporary licenses? No one knows,” Chiah continues.
Legalization Costs for Outdoor Marijuana Farmers Skyrocket
Chiah and her husband are second-generation farmers who’ve been growing cannabis on their off-grid family property for nearly 20 years. They’ve been doing everything possible to ensure their farm complies with county and state guidelines. But compliance comes with a hefty price.
“We had a cultivation permit for a 10,000 square-foot mixed-light outdoor garden. For us, that means we place a tarp over our greenhouse to deprive light to our plants. Under the current regulations, we’re classified as a Tier 1 or Tier 2 mixed-light designation, which means we’re paying an an additional $6,000 above and beyond our $4,600 fee, essentially for a tarp,” Chiah says. “I think the state assumes we’re pulling in multiple harvests, but off-grid, small farmers can’t do that. If we don’t pay this gigantic expense when we get approved, we don’t get licensed. Many farmers are in this boat, and we’re trying to find a workable solution.”
Power in Numbers: Cannabis Associations Pooling Energy & Resources
The cannabis farming community hasn’t had the luxury of hiring lobbyists, social media influencers and political action committees. Mendocino Generations is banding together with like-minded organizations to try and create solutions and engender support.
“We’re working with the Mendocino Appellation Project, the Mendocino County Regional branch of the California Growers Association, a farmer co-op called Emerald Grown and the Round Valley Growers Association,” explains Chiah. “We’re all helping farmers on a regular basis.”
The groups are advocating for “an alliance of alliances” as a way to aggregate information and create more streamlined communication for cannabis farmers.
Small Marijuana Businesses Are Struggling to Survive
Chiah is an herbalist who for years has been making cannabis medicines combined with complementary herbs. She fears microbusinesses may be hit hardest by local and state regulations.
“There is no clear path for the amazing people who have been creating homemade cannabis salves and medicines, in some cases, for generations. I don’t believe pouring alcohol over a jar of herbs should be categorized as a volatile process. Concentrate-making requires mega-licenses, which is completely unrealistic for those who have cottage industries. Why do we have to go through this insane process to make salve?” she notes.
Stress Is Taking a Toll on Family Cannabis Farmers
Adrenal fatigue, burnout, anxiety and stress aren’t unusual in today’s farming community. “Everyone is using their cannabis medicine, but at some point, it’s not helping anymore,” Chiah says.
Half of Mendocino Generations’ farmers are families with small children. “Self-advocacy is taking its toll,” Chiah adds. “We have a member farmer who is pregnant and due next month. She’s a committed cannabis advocate who sits on six county working groups. She lives over two hours from the county seat and four hours from Sacramento. This is affecting her health and the health of her baby. We’ve started a fundraising campaign to help provide support.”
What Solutions Do Marijuana Farmers Propose?
“Reducing fees across the board is critical for small farmers, and maybe redefining the definition of what a small farmer is,” says Chiah. Humboldt County has a much broader interpretation of what constitutes a small farm. “We’re at a disadvantage in that way here in Mendocino.”
Marijuana cultivators must also prepay a fixed tax rate to Mendocino County. “No other industry has to prepay taxes. We pay thousands of tax dollars to the county, whether we sell one ounce of cannabis or not,” explains Chia. “Our money needs to be spent on good inputs, good soil, good supplies and good staff, which all benefits our county.”
Another escalating cost is testing, the fees for which have doubled, according to Chiah, who adds, “We’re paying for original and backup samples simultaneously, which costs $300–$500 per batch, depending on the lab you use. For those growing from seed, every individual plant must get tested. Because our costs are rising, farmers will have to charge more, and sadly, that cost will trickle down to patients and consumers.”
How Can You Support Cannabis Farmers?
Visit the California Cannabis Portal, which outlines the regulations currently in place for the industry.
Familiarize yourself with your city and county’s regulations. Attend meetings and learn how you can help your local community.
Is a favorite cannabis strain or product unavailable? Ask your retailer why. Learn how what’s happening on farms impacts access to healthy medicine.
Become a member of cannabis advocacy groups and stay abreast of the latest news.
Support outdoor, organic farmers by asking your supplier where your medicine comes from. Purchase your medicine from small, family farmers when possible.