climate change brings uncertainty for cannabis farmers

Cannabis Farmers Facing Uncertainty from Climate Change

For New Mexico farmer Doug Fine, climate change came into focus when a black bear, fleeing a fast-moving forest fire, tore through his property and killed his family’s goats as the family watched.

“There’s nothing like wildfire-fleeing bears attacking your livestock before breakfast to hammer home the fact that humanity is in the bottom of the ninth with two outs,” he wrote about his experience in the introduction to his 2020 book, “American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade.”

He wound up not blaming the bear. But he’s not the only one noticing climate change differences in agriculture. 

“Climate change has affected the cannabis industry and agriculture in general,” Harvey Craig, who operates a hemp farm in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, told The News Station. He’s noticed it mostly with afternoon sunlight. “30 years ago I could put plants out, and they would thrive,” he said. “These days, if they’re getting midday direct sun. it burns the plants. There’s an intense sun factor,” he said. “And a lack of water and changing water patterns.” 

Those changing water patterns are showing up in different ways around the country. Harold Jarboe is vice president of Tennessee Homegrown in Readyville, Tenn. Though the company has been in operation for seven years, he has noticed a difference in the storm patterns from climate change causing havoc in his area.

“Before we would get about 65 inches of rain a year, and it used to be more spread out,” he told The News Station. “The last four, five, six years we have had events with seven inches in just a few hours. Moisture gets trapped in the plants for longer periods of time, making them more susceptible to botrytis, or gray mold, as it’s known in cannabis.”

“We’re beginning to understand that it’s creating risks for businesses, and there’s a lot we can do to mitigate those risks by focusing on resource efficiency.”

Derek Smith

It’s not just the plants, it’s also the land — and then the plants. 

“When you have huge weather events, erosion is the first thing that happens. When it rains that much, it rips. And cannabis doesn’t like to get its feet wet,” Jarboe said. 

The changing climate has also ushered new conversations into the industry. Derek Smith is executive director of Resource Innovation Institute (or RII), which helps growers and producers design best agricultural practices. 

“The clock is ticking. What are we going to do?” he asked rhetorically. “The smaller question in there is, ‘what does the cannabis industry want to do? What is our role in this climate constrained world?’”

The first thing farmers can do is plan ahead. Many cannabis facilities are indoors, which creates its own unique problems. 

“Most cultivation operations are using some electric lighting, some form of energy,” Smith told The News Station. “We start with a baseline of where they are and get them on a plan.”

RII offers peer-reviewed resources to help create best practices for individual farmers. Most importantly, the information shows how they’re faring compared to others. 

“We have a resource bench-marking platform that cultivation operations can give information to and help them understand how efficient they are relative to other cannabis farms,” he said.

The latest report published by RII is “Cannabis H2O: Water Use and Sustainability in Cultivation.” Among its significant findings is that by 2025, total water use in the legal cannabis market is expected to rise by 86%. 

“In that report we talk about how Western states are all facing these wildfires and droughts,” Smith told The News Station.

Though the cannabis industry uses significantly less water than other major agricultural crops, there are still many chances to be more efficient.  

“We’re beginning to understand that it’s creating risks for businesses,” Smith said, “and there’s a lot we can do to mitigate those risks by focusing on resource efficiency.”

One of the simplest and best things cannabis farmers can do is rotate their crops — a process that helps keep precious topsoil from disappearing. Tennessee Homegrown alternates crops the old-fashioned way, rotating its acreage with other plants and letting some fields lie fallow. Most others around him stick only with one crop.

“A huge amount of people here used to be tobacco farmers. They’re big on putting down the plastic,” Jarboe said. 

A growing body of research suggests that each cubic inch of topsoil we restore from the world’s farmland can sequester up to three billion tons of carbon annually. That’s significant. 

“And hemp’s substantial taproots are absolutely stunning at creating the conditions that allow for the building of topsoil,” Fine, that New Mexico farmer,  wrote in “American Hemp Farmer.”

Craig agrees. “You really get started by creating healthy soils. Rotate your crops — don’t grow the same thing every time. Soil health is everything.”

It’s not just cannabis, according to Kaitlin Urso with the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Topsoil. 

“That’s an agricultural issue that’s facing all crops,” Urso told The News Station. “There are things that can be done to preserve soil health and integrity: Don’t monocrop; have flowers to attract bees.”

The future will be brighter for all of us if enough farmers ditch their old, wasteful ways and latch on to these methods, according to Fine. 

“We’re all wise to root for an industry that helps with climate stabilization,” Fine continued. “If the regenerative farming mode catches on, farmers might even sequester sufficient carbon to buy us humans a crucial century to get our underlying infrastructural cards in order — the goal being to thrive, rather than panic, as we glide into the post-petroleum future.”

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