Ask Our Experts: Wildfires’ Impact on the U.S. Autumn Harvest
Q: How damaging have the Pacific Coast wildfires been to the cannabis industry?
By Trevor Yahn-Grode, Data Analyst, and J.J. McCoy, Senior Managing Editor, for New Frontier Data
A: Normally, the autumn harvest season known as “Croptober” would be enough to keep cannabis cultivators occupied in the Pacific Northwest. This year, massive wildfires ravaging the region throughout California, Oregon, and Washington have them engaged in fighting for the survival of their farms and livelihoods.
As of October 1, the western wildfires had reportedly burned more than 6 million acres of land, razing thousands of buildings and killing at least 37 people. The worst conflagrations have been concentrated in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle region (including Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties), and in Southern Oregon, two of the most significant locales for cannabis production in the U.S., supplying both the legal and illicit markets. The unprecedented scale of the fires will very likely result in the destruction of significant portions of the cannabis crops in California and Oregon within days or weeks of their planned harvest.
“We really don’t know yet what the effects on crops will be. No pun intended, but it won’t be until the smoke clears that we know what we’re looking at,” explained Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., VP of community development for Flow Kana, located in Mendocino County, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. The encroaching August Complex Fire has scorched nearly 900,000 acres so far, an area of greater expanse than the entire state of Rhode Island.
Even for crops not destroyed outright by flames, secondary effects from wildfires can nevertheless be detrimental to cannabis production. Even where smoke and ash spared some farmers’ yields, water contamination or thievery may yet ruin them. While a typical harvest might see 2%-5% of California’s cannabis crops fail mold tests, some estimates double that, since sunlight-blocking smoke weakens plants’ resistance to mold, disease, and other pests.
“There are a lot of different things that contribute to loss,” Reiman noted, “and cannabis farmers are not able to insure their crops.” She detailed how lack of sunlight can affect the plants’ flowering, terpenes, potency, etc. Improper storage resulting from a sudden evacuation, toxic byproducts from burned structures, or a host of other unanticipated factors can add to heightened jeopardy to operations already holding on by thin margins.
“You have people already struggling in the system we have,” Reiman said. “The fires are absolutely a threat, and will continue to be. We need to work on the regulatory system” to better defend cultivators from disasters which are becoming increasingly prevalent.
Smoke, ash, and water contamination can each take their tolls on product quality; smoke-darkened skies can stunt the growth of cannabis plants even if cultivated in a greenhouse. The plants which remain viable can be tainted with an undesirable “barbecue” taste given to buds derisively nicknamed “beef jerky”, “campfire pot”, or “hickory kush.”
Illicit farms will lose entire crops to the fire, potentially impacting the legal market in unexpected ways. Such losses could make illicit supplies scarce, hence driving up prices on the street, and tempting some consumers to buy suddenly cheaper legal cannabis. Or, legal growers could take advantage of the price differences and revert to selling in the illicit market.
Further exacerbating the economic damage in the aftermath of the wildfires is the fact that high-THC cannabis businesses are not eligible for federal Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans. In a sign of how widespread the destruction is, PanXchange, which provides index pricing for the hemp industry, has decided to omit reporting prices for Oregon this month.
“The bigger threats to the regulated industry are the vulnerabilities in the system,” Reiman concluded. “If we had a robust program that allowed for insurance and other protections, it would not be as detrimental. When you have people already struggling in the system we have, the fires are absolutely a threat and will continue to be. We needed to work on the regulatory system to better weather the disasters.”