Many of California’s cannabis growers are uninsured and in the line of fire

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The summer of 2020 has brought record-breaking heat waves and wildfires to California, with more than 3 million acres burned and smoke-filled air covering the majority of the state. As the fires burn, cannabis cultivators across the state are racing to finish and harvest their crops. But the fires can be disastrous for this process, in some cases even destroying plants that are spared by the flames.

While industry insiders report that these difficulties are unlikely to affect consumers, they could be a nightmare for the businesses that supply them.

Growers are being hurt worse than most other businesses hit by fire: Cannabis crops are more difficult to insure because growing the plant is still illegal under federal law.

Some cannabis businesses have already suffered because of the fires, such as Sweet Creek Farms in Sonoma County, which sustained building damage and lost the majority of its cannabis crop in August during the Walbridge Fire. The company estimates about $150,000 in losses from the crop, which wasn’t insured.

WAMM in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the oldest medical cannabis collective in the U.S., was forced to evacuate and is waiting to find out whether their operations can resume or whether fire or smoke damage will cost them their crop, which is also uninsured.

In Yolo County, Preferred Gardens’ owner David Polley is already dealing with smoke damage from nearby fires and worries that if the fires begin to spread to his area, he may face financial losses in the millions.

And there are additional challenges. Cannabis crops require a lot of tending like watering, feeding and trimming to make it to harvest. “The elongated periods of intense heat and the common occurrence of fire impact not only the plant, but her caretakers,” says Amanda Reiman, vice president of community development for the Flow Cannabis Institute in Redwood Valley (Mendocino County).

“The farmers and their workers still have to tend to the plants, even during fires and heat waves.” She adds that “leaving their crops and recent harvests unattended for periods of time can be very detrimental for the business.”
 

Reiman says that heat waves make it difficult for workers to tend to their gardens, add to water requirements and can slow the harvest, which usually happens during the height of fire season.

Dry summer heat is ideal for growing cannabis — until it gets above 90 degrees. When it gets that hot, “the plant begins to go into survival mode rather than spending its energy growing flowers,” says Julia Jacobson, CEO of Aster Farms, a cannabis company that lost its farm to a fire in 2018.

“It's possible that some farms in California experiencing abnormal heat spikes could see lower yields this year due to periods of time in which the plants are just trying to survive.” And increased water is crucial to keeping these plants growing. When fires push cultivators to evacuate their farms, these water requirements can be difficult to meet.

“While many irrigation systems are run remotely by an app on your phone, there are still in-person aspects to keeping the water flowing properly,” says Jacobson. “When we were evacuated from our farm during the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018, a portion of our crop died not from the fire but from lack of water because we couldn't access the property and fix the irrigation lines for over 10 days.”

Much like with wine, smoke from fires can also harm the cannabis harvest, although the extent of the damage can be variable. “Some of this depends on what was burning,” says Reiman, adding that “smoke from structures can be more toxic than smoke from wildfires because of the materials that are burned.” Thus some cannabis plants exposed to smoke can test higher in toxic chemicals and heavy metals, while others seem unaffected.

For example, Aster Farm tested its crop after it came into contact with smoke from the Camp Fire (Butte County) plume in 2018. “We immediately called our testing lab and ran extra tests to ensure nothing was contaminating the crop,” said Jacobson. The lab found no contamination, but even in this best-case scenario, she notes, “smoke can affect the smell and flavor of cannabis the same way it can with wine.”

Others have seen their crop contaminated by smoke. In 2017, Brown & Brown Insurance Services of California reported covering over $7 million in losses for cannabis companies in the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara. The claims weren’t for buildings lost to fire, but for crops lost to smoke contamination.

“Smoke and ash got into the greenhouse and coated the plants.” says Matt Porter, vice president at Brown & Brown. He said that testing showed that increased levels of lead and other substances “were a direct result of the smoke and the ash.”

Porter says that coverage for smoke contamination is rare, and even the policy that protected his clients has been discontinued after their large payout. His company mostly insures large growers in urban areas such as Los Angeles, but for those in “high-risk” areas like the hills of the Emerald Triangle (an area in Northern California known for cannabis cultivation), getting insurance is nearly impossible.

“Outdoor and greenhouse cannabis does not qualify for crop insurance,” says Jacobson. “When your crop burns, it's a complete financial loss. For an industry that has been deemed essential, being denied disaster insurance for the crop you spent a year growing is a hard pill to swallow.”

Still, some cannabis experts say it’s unlikely that the fires will affect the availability or quality of cannabis in California this year. “We have had major fires in cannabis cultivation regions of (California) every summer since legalization,” says Reiman. “The overregulation, overtaxation and lack of support for sun-grown farmers at the state level is a far bigger threat to the availability of quality cannabis in (California), in my opinion.”

Jacobson echoed this prediction, saying that “the majority of what is being cultivated is from a handful of large operators. As of now, we have not heard of any of these major players being hit by the fires.” Still, a week later, as the fires progressed, the situation became less clear. “As the August Complex Fire moves west, we’re seeing many licensed cannabis farms have to evacuate,” Jacobson said. “They are cutting down their plants in anticipation of their farms burning, which will also mean a reduction in yield across the board from Northern California cannabis farms."

And it’s not just the plants that are burned or cut that could be lost. The red smoke-filled skies in parts of California could also impact the cannabis supply. Jacobson points out that if these continue much longer, “outdoor cannabis plants will think it’s the end of the season and kick into the finishing stages of their flowering a month too early.” She says that “if this happens it could reduce yields this year significantly."

Chris Conrad, co-author of “The Newbie’s Guide to Cannabis & the Industry,” adds that “the heat destroys terpenes and cannabinoids, smoke odors damage the taste of the flowers, and ash and particulate that rains down may cause the crop to fail its potency and purity test.

“We won’t know the full extent of the loss until the end of the year, when those factors are taken into account.”

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