In conversations and discussions around our county, there is a general reluctance to be completely honest about some of the reasons why many local cultivators are in such dire straits. While I understand this reluctance, and while a lack of honesty and transparency may make some conversations less painful and less charged, it doesn’t serve the cultivation community, or the county at large, at all. Instead it merely panders to an outdated narrative.
Locally, we have an amazing group of smart, visionary, talented cultivators who are doing an inspiring job continuing their craft within the cannabis regulatory framework. I applaud this group of women and men and celebrate their successes. However, despite the success stories, this is a very grim time for the majority of local cannabis cultivators. For many, an avoidance of grappling with reality was a way of life, one which ultimately left them ill prepared to tackle the changes that are now sweeping the industry. Some spent profligately instead of paying down their debts and investing in their infrastructure, others naively assumed that the status quo would last forever. Many chose cultivating to avoid having to learn the skills that they now need so badly. Others adopted a “hell no” approach to anything that looked remotely like collaboration with county government. Ironically, this is largely the same group that shouts most loudly for support from the county government they were so unwilling to engage with in the past.
Despite all this, the biggest challenge for local cultivators isn’t local at all. Having spent nearly 50 years as the crucible of the cannabis industry, it’s very difficult for some people in Humboldt to acknowledge the fact that we’re now in a statewide production market. This broader production base brings economics to bear on local cultivators that skew the competitive landscape in favor of cultivators in more traditional agricultural regions of our state. Places like Santa Barbara, Davis, Salinas, all have a longer growing season, flat land, existing farm infrastructure, access to low cost/high productivity farm labor, and are within much closer proximity to our high-density population centers (customers!). Cultivators in these regions can therefor produce cannabis for far less than we can (decent quality and getting better) which means they can sell for less and still be profitable. I don’t wish for this to be true, but it is.
The single biggest issue facing local cultivators, whether they recognize it or not, is the pressure from a statewide market, and the reality that fixed permit costs favor a minimum production threshold of around 10,000sq/ft. This is the result of statewide legalization, period. This is not due to actions or decisions made by anyone in Humboldt county; not cultivators, not regulators, not politicians or civil servants. I know that many of you don’t want to hear this, because it speaks to our collective inability to reclaim the golden age, but it’s true nonetheless.
Perhaps the hardest part of this discussion for people to come to grips with is the environmental legacy of existing cultivation. I already know that you don’t want to hear this, but even a “small grow” located on a poorly built road on a steep slope with poor access to water is just plain bad for the environment. To imply that a cultivation methodology should be allowed simply because its “old school” or “Mom and Pops” or is “how we did it back in the day” is to miss the point entirely. That is the line that timber companies and timber families used when we pressed for more responsible land stewardship in the timber industry. Surely I’m not the only one that sees the irony here. Your mountain hideout is just that, a fabulous place to hide-out. Often, It’s not an appropriate place to cultivate anything but trees.
We’re all scared, this is hard and scary and uncertain and painful and for cultivators especially the loss is existential. When a cultivator can no longer grow, the loss goes way beyond income. Gone too is the equity in their property, not to mention the emotional and psychological loss associated with losing your whole identity. You’re left with nothing and nowhere to turn. I see you my neighbors and friends and I am most certainly feeling your pain. Trust me when I say that my own losses have been profound, and life changing. Its also worth reiterating that the economic damage is in no way limited to cultivators, so hey Humboldt at large, you should care about this too.
I also understand that cultivators who feel disaffected want someone to blame for their loss. Fine, but let’s at least put the blame where it should rightly fall, which is on the voters in California who passed prop 64. The day prop 64 passed, the regulatory framework began to coalesce and the competitive landscape began to tilt towards other regions of our state. Blaming our local government for these macro trends only takes our focus off of doing the work that could actually help local cultivators compete and succeed, but blaming the voters of California is not nearly as satisfying as shouting in Supervisor’s chambers, so the shouting goes on.
I care deeply about Humboldt County, and have spent my entire adult life here. My wife and I met here and have raised four children here. I’m here with four generations of my family trying to help keep as many jobs in Humboldt as possible and doing my damnedest to see as many local cultivators succeed as possible. But this effort has to be predicated on an honest discussion about how we got here and what the actual challenges are.
The real legacy of the “original” back to the land growers and homesteaders is the care for our environment. These environmental values are central to the cannabis cultivation ordinance. You can no longer suck streams dry and grade in the winter and spill fertilizer and fuel and spray all manner of toxins and be part of the regulated market. This raises the cost of production by adding layers of compliance and forcing people to improve their infrastructure in order to protect the environment. This is what we all wanted, this is what regulation looks like, and yes, this makes it less profitable to grow cannabis. But if we see the changes through a lens of environmental protection that the original growers helped establish across the watersheds of Humboldt, and if we agree that profit cannot be the only value, then aren’t we getting exactly what we asked for?
I’m also deeply concerned about the political health of our county at a time when we all have to be on the same page regarding the work that needs doing to nurture our economic future. The county heard our demands for a legal path to grow cannabis, and worked with growers for years (during which a lot of you stayed home and did not participate) to refine and establish the ordinance we now live with. Could it be better? For sure, but the fact is that a lot of cultivators invested a lot of time and money in this vision along with the county. As such there’s a commitment from the county that was made to the people who elected to engage in this vision. As such, it is not supportive to offer to allow unregulated hemp cultivation in Humboldt county that would simultaneously skirt existing environmental laws and create further economic damage to the cultivators who have stepped up to partner with the County and State. It is also not helpful to suggest that there are easy fixes to be had at the county level when, as detailed above, the challenges are statewide. Politicians and would be politicians offering this panacea to pissed off growers are either uneducated about the statewide cannabis market or are making a cynical grab for votes, both of which are worrying. In fact, that kind of pandering starts to look a whole lot like the populism that is causing such damage at the national level. The hard truth is that some people who have cultivated for a long time are going to have to stop. There’s just no way around this. The mission is to help as many permitted cultivators to succeed as possible while the industry matures and regulations shift at the national level.
What we should be doing instead is supporting the regulated cultivators who have joined with the county to make this work. HCGA, for example, provides a variety of educational and networking opportunities to help cultivators get educated about everything from workplace safety to legal compliance and hosts events to connect cultivators with distribution opportunities around the state. The county is working towards a coordinated branding effort that will highlight our local producers and the incredible skills of local cultivators and manufacturers. We should continue to support the continued creation of manufacturing jobs and the infrastructure investments that accompany them.
There is much we can do to help local cultivators and buttress our local economy, but we have to start with an honest conversation. Let’s avoid the pitfalls of populist promises and focus on supporting our nascent regulated industry.
Scott Davies has been in the cannabis industry in Humboldt County for 30 years. He is the co-founder of Humboldt Legends and executive committee chair on the board of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance.