It’s harvest season here in Humboldt.
First-run deps for folks at modest elevations and those with sound infrastructure are coming to market and buyers are snapping up high-quality flower. Purple gassy strains continue to be the rave and with bag appeal and a solid nose, prices are modest.
After conversations with many people in distribution, including some of the largest buyers in the state, one thing is clear … good weed is selling. If you are sitting on product, it means only one thing: It’s not cutting it in today’s market. Not the market of days past, or the marketplace we wish we had, but the one we actually have.
Buyers are increasingly discerning and want sorted pounds, with uniformity, consistency, strong COA’s and spot-on processing. If you meet these criteria, your stuff moves – fast. If you don’t, it won’t. It’s that simple.
Across the West Coast cannabis growing regions, a major shift is underway. Cannabis production, and the economic benefits traditionally associated with such, are going from the hands of many to the hands of few. Small mom-and-pop operators are struggling to compete with well-capitalized corporations and more skilled producers, and this trend will only intensify.
While the Craft industry (small-batch, high-end production) offers a glimmer of hope for select family farms, the challenge is that many folks operating in the space don’t possess the knowledge, husbandry, resources or even basic farming skills required to compete successfully in today’s “high-quality” flower markets.
In other words, it’s not just that small operations lack the capital, business prowess or proximity to major metropolitan markets as many argue. It’s that many simply aren’t producing a product desirable enough for increasingly discerning and judicious buyers and consumers.
I hate to say this, but flower that tastes awesome and looks like shit is not gonna cut here in Cali. Flower structure, outer trichome layer, color, nose and cannabinoid content dominate the sales conversation here in the Golden State, and I don’t see that changing over the immediate to the intermediate horizon. While I love terpene-rich sun-grown flower and understand that not all strains rock up and pod out, the market doesn’t seem to agree and wants what it wants.
I’m not a rocket scientist, but don’t find it useful to question or ignore current realities. Instead, I work diligently to meet market needs as sales velocity feeds the kids and keeps farms running.
To be perfectly honest, most operators in Humboldt County I’ve worked with are really bad at pot farming. Small, loose buds, poor trichome production, terpene sloughing, powdery mildew, mold, bugs and terrible drying and curing processes plague the many dozens of farmers I’ve met over the past decade. And to be very clear, every one of these operators told me they grow killer stuff and didn’t get why they were struggling.
The remote locations, the somewhat isolated lifestyles of many farmers, and the lack of exposure to true top-shelf flower have led to outsized and unwarranted confidence around production and skillset in many cases.
Sadly, I’ve lost friends (and perhaps gained a few adversaries) as I’ve shed light on the subject for consulting clients. Cannabis farming has been a very ego-driven business and we know that folks derive personal satisfaction and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment from their work, so I completely understand the angst. Many find it hard to accept that they have learned little about producing high-end product over the past decades and struggle with how ill-equipped they are to compete in the current marketplace. Coming to understand that one’s livelihood was based not on skill but on the fact that there was relatively little weed around is a tough pill to swallow.
Many are now exiting the industry while others are barely holding on.
In defense of the less skilled, we must not forget that until several years ago old, brown shit weed still fetched a fair ticket in the illicit marketplace…now those units are being purchased by folks from Arizona and elsewhere at $100-150 a pound, if at all. Given that long-time operators are suddenly competing directly for shelf space with corporate money and those who actually exhibit admirable cannabis farming skills, overconfidence has been largely replaced with fear, anxiety and depression.
Economically speaking, small communities across the West Coast are beginning to feel the pinch as excess rents (profits) go away. Fewer lifted trucks and less spending on fancy attire, boats, firearms, ATV’s, vacations, and dining out are hitting small businesses hard. With less disposable income and with the corporatization of cannabis markets, money is changing hands quickly. Corporate producers spend less on local consumption and this trend has only just begun. Over the coming years it’s estimated that 80 percent of California cannabis companies will fail and the pain felt by industry participants, local merchants and ancillary service providers will be significant.
It’s time we small farmers begin executing at a higher level. The reason many permit holders are struggling with distribution isn’t that the market sucks, it’s because their product does. The quicker growers can step up, hone their craft and begin producing something of value, the more they will realize that opportunity is ripe. Margins are slim, yes, but with efficient and effective production processes, a nice living can still be made farming ganja.
It’s the first inning of the regulated cannabis marketplace and to assume things are over is ridiculous. Skilled farmers are inking deals with celebrities, building brands of their own, and capitalizing on the rapidly growing industry and the fervor for high-quality products. And while prices continue to be very modest, the right stuff is flying off the shelves and will continue to do so.
The cannabis industry is now among our nation’s fastest-growing and there’s a place in it for skilled participants across the operating spectrum. The ability to meet consumer needs, adapt to their changing preferences and stand out among increasing competition will separate the winners from the losers.
Unfortunately, out West, many long-term producers are losing and will be wiped out in short order. Pockets of economic strength will remain and wealth creation will be significant for some, but not many. Local economies reliant on cannabis production will struggle and must be nimble and adaptive in order to succeed in this new paradigm. Will you do the same?
Jesse Duncan is a lifelong Humboldt County resident, a father of six, a retired financial advisor, and a full-time commercial cannabis grower. He is also the creator of NorCal Financial and Cannabis Consulting, a no-cost platform that helps small farmers improve their cultivation, business, and financial skills. Please check out his blog at, his Instagram at jesse_duncann, and connect with him on Linkedin.