Cannabis farms struggle to survive California wildfires without insurance

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California’s record wildfire season has left many cannabis growers concerned about Croptober – the primary harvest season for marijuana sold in California, where it’s legally consumed.

As fires continue burning into the record book, California growers – whose operations are federally illegal and therefore difficult to insure – are demanding protections for their billion dollar industry.

Cannabis farms, as well as wineries, agricultural farms, have been hard hit by the wide range of California fires, and the toll faced by cannabis farms is among the worst.

Since January, California has had more than 9,177 wildfires burning more than 4.1 million acres, which is more than double the old record in 2018, according to Cal Fire.

High in the hills overlooking the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, Kila Peterson and her daughter, Keala Peterson, are partners on Sweet Creek Farm, a small family-owned and licensed cannabis farm that also grows avocados and sweet bananas.

The cannabis venture started more than 10 years ago when Kila began growing it to produce CBD for her father, who had cancer. The mother-daughter approach is rooted in sustainability; their techniques include a solar-powered irrigation system fed by rainwater catchment and pollinator-friendly companion flowers, according to the farm’s website.

The Petersons continue to produce for recreational dispensaries, which were legalized in 2016. California’s Proposition 64, which was approved by 57.13% of votes, allows adults 21 or older, with certain restrictions, to legally grow, possess and use cannabis for non-medicinal purposes in the state. Federal law, however, outlaws the possession, purchase and sale of marijuana.

Sweet Creek Farm was badly damaged by the Walbridge Fire in August, destroying 70% of its entire crop. The loss, estimated at $150,000, wasn’t insured.

For the past three years, the farm has worked on fire prevention, but it wasn’t enough this summer.

“The damage was very severe, and we have a multigenerational family compound, and we lost one of our houses,” Kila Peterson said.

“I really didn’t understand how proactive you have to be in the fire management until this fire happened. I thought we were doing so well of our clearing and making sure we had dispensable space, and all that, but it’s really a level that I really didn’t understand until after the fire.”

These wilted cannabis plants still bear California Metrc tags, which are a part of the state’s track-and-trace system to monitor commercial cannabis activity across the distribution chain. (Photo courtesy of Ivan Redus)

The Walbridge Fire began in August and was a part of the LNU Lightning Complex, a rare series of lightning strikes across Lake, Napa, Yolo, Solano and Sonoma counties. Fires in the LNU Lightning Complex now are contained and have burned 363,220 acres, according to Cal Fire.

The farm suffered from the fires in August but was spared from the flames of the most recent fires in Northern California, which largely affected wineries. But smoke from those ongoing fires still could affect Sweet Creek Farm’s cannabis. Smoke contains a cocktail of chemicals, which could lead to cannabis absorbing lead or other harmful chemicals, Peterson said.

State certified testing labs are available for cannabis farmers, Peterson said, and they aren’t as backed up as testing facilities for winemakers trying to determine whether their grapes are smoke tainted. Sweet Creek Farm had its product tested by a certified lab, which found it clean of pesticides and heavy metals, she said.

California Cannabis Testing Labs and other labs comply with regulations for inhalable cannabis and other cannabis products. Services entail seven analyses and screenings: potency analysis, terpene analysis, residual solvent analysis, category I & II residual pesticide analysis, microbial screening, mycotoxin analysis and heavy metal analysis. The state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control provides a text of regulations that must be met when testing for quality standards. Cannabis that doesn’t pass these tests is thrown out unless remediation is possible.

Proximity to fire and smoke can determine the damage done to the crop. Ash can carry heavy metals, which cannabis growers remove by manually blowing it off, which may not be enough if the plant has started flowering, or washing the flowering buds, which may remove more ash, according to SF Evergreen, a San Francisco marijuana and cannabis news publication.

Although the tested product with salvageable damage would not be considered a premium smokable flower, Peterson said, it still can be used by extracting the oils and sold as a discounted bulk mass. Flower refers to the smokable section of a female cannabis plant, which is popular because it can be smoked in a variety of ways.

The challenges growers face are unlikely to affect consumers but could be disastrous to the businesses that supply growers, industry insiders told the San Francisco Chronicle.

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