Oregon and California Flames Continue to Threaten Outdoor Cannabis Crops

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By September’s end, Oregon and California will have experienced more than 6,614 fires in 2017, burning 274,936 collective acres. And that’s only this year’s blazes through Oct. 1. In 2016, Oregon lost 186,317 acres to wildfires, its lowest yearly total since 2010. In 2012, more than one million acres were ravaged by flames — and California didn’t fare much better.

These fires destroy much of Oregon and California’s countryside and forests, which presents a significant concern to outdoor cannabis farmers.

Outdoor marijuana growers, particularly those in Southern Oregon and the Emerald Triangle, are concerned about the fires’ far-reaching effects on their crops. While there’s the obvious threat of fire destroying everything in its path, a surprising concern is the concealed sunlight due to the smoky haze.

In September, Brent Kenyon, veteran grower and owner of Oregon Cannabis Farms in Eagle Point, told OregonLive the smoke creates a “plastic layer” that suffocates the nearly mature plants. This lack of UV light can result in a smaller, less potent product — particularly in the critical end-of-summer flowering period. Furthermore, ashy smoke can contaminate the water supply, and while ash itself isn’t necessarily harmful to crops, fires have the potential to change farmer’s fields and yields drastically.

Oregon’s Outdoor Cannabis Industry

Outdoor-grown marijuana has its pros and cons, according to many long-time cultivators. Jeremy Moberg, president of the Washington Sun Growers Industry Association and the Okanogan Cannabis Association, told Ganjapreneur that outdoor crops have no climate control costs and a limitless light source, thanks to the sun. Outdoor farms are less expensive, and as some would argue, a more “natural” method of cannabis cultivation — grown as nature intended.

However, many growers find issue with the lack of control they have over a wild climate, which often results in limited annual harvests as well as high water usage. Additionally, only certain environments are viable for outdoor crops.

Territory also has a lot to do with the Oregon cannabis industry. Much like regional wine, different cannabis cultivars thrive in different climates. Norris Monson, an outdoor-grow expert and CEO of Rolling Joint Ventures, an Oregon consulting firm, explained regional differences in cannabis to Willamette Week. The Willamette Valley, Eastern Oregon, and Southern Oregon are the state’s main hubs for outdoor-grown crops with each region featuring unique cultivars. Indica-dominant varieties do better in drier colder temperatures and are more resilient to cold, while the Willamette Valley offers Sativa-dominant varieties their best chance thanks to early rains and dew.

Of the three, Southern Oregon is the choice region for cannabis growers — rains come later, plants mature longer, and the summers are sunny and dry. While these climates are idyllic for outdoor grows, they may not remain so beyond the next few decades.

Many of Oregon’s outdoor crops already mitigate the risks of outdoor growth by housing their plants in a greenhouse. These farms enjoy protection from the elements while still reaping the natural benefits and low start-up and operation costs of the outdoors. Greenhouse tents are great at safeguarding against pests and diseases but they’re a paltry defense against sprawling flames.

Why is Oregon on Fire?

Fires need three things to thrive: a spark, fuel, and the ideal climate. Whether a fire is man-made or sparked by a lightning strike or extreme heat, the flames develop into more catastrophic wildfires when the surrounding environmental conditions are just right. Oregon’s densely forested regions and relatively arid air provide ample fodder to keep blazes powerful and enduring. And Oregon’s climate is only getting warmer and drier.

According to dozens of studies and recorded climate data, annual average temperatures are rising across the Western United States. A recent statistical study lead by Noah S. Diffenbaugh examined the effects of global warming on extreme climate events and found that more than 80 percent of observed areas showed an increased risk for both severity and occurrence of heat extremes. This means that out of all the areas the study examined, a large majority will experience hotter temperatures and a higher risk of events like wildfire and drought.

To provide context for these rising temperatures, Oregon’s government assembled a team of scientists in 2014 to compile a collection of environmental studies and use their findings to provide policy recommendations. This collection of data, called The Oregon Climate Assessment Report, has shown hotter summers, less rain, faster-melting snow, and worsening air quality since 2014.

The Oregon Climate Assessment Report concludes that greenhouse gases are driving the change in climate so much that these hotter and drier summers could soon become the norm of the Pacific Northwest’s usually moderate temperatures. Hotter temperatures and a longer growing season for plants create a perfect storm for wildfires, said Donald Wuebbles, professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois in a 2013 interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  

California Knows This Feeling All Too Well

Wildfire season continues to rage farther south along the West Coast, too, engulfing thousands of acres up and down California’s farmland. Since Oct. 8, Sonoma County’s Tubbs fire has raged across the famous wine region, forcing home evacuations and burning through millions in property damage. The Tubbs fire threatens between 3,000 to 9,000 farms within Sonoma County lines, many of which were preparing for their fall harvest. Members of the California Growers Association say they expect “pretty significant property damage [that will]  be pretty stunning on all fronts.”

Outdoor cannabis cultivation is California’s most common method of production. Outdoor growing thrives particularly in areas with mountainous hills and open space, such as the Emerald Triangle’s Trinity, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties. A survey by the California Department of Food and Agriculture of outdoor California cultivators showed that the average canopy size covers 8,000 square feet, with about 73 plants yielding 175 pounds of cannabis per harvest. While outdoor cannabis fluctuates in quality, typical market prices range between $1,000 to $3,000 per pound, and an acre of cannabis is worth approximately $1.7 million.  

A single, ill-fated fire in a place like Sonoma County, which produces more than 1 million pounds of cannabis annually, has the potential to decimate millions in product and property damage, not to mention the smoky flavor infection, diseases, and mold due to smoke exposure.

Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, predicted in TIME Magazine that California’s hot and dry summers will become even hotter and drier as time goes on, despite the end of a six-year drought. In 2016, 6,986 fires burned 564,835 acres. Oct. 1, 2017 is showing similar numbers with 5,663 fires burning 232,936 acres. This doesn’t include the Tubbs fire, the Atlas fire, Canyon Fire 2, or any of the newsworthy blazes that have occurred since Oct. 1, nor the many more potential fires that may strike as California presses through its most dangerous month for flames.

The Future of Outdoor-Grown Cannabis

These dangerous flames aren’t going away anytime soon as temperatures continue to increase across the West Coast. As such, many cannabis cultivators are considering the appeal of indoor-grown cannabis, where they can control environmental factors and replicate successful yields. However, a handful of studies suggest indoor cultivation comes at the cost of large amounts of energy, which in turn produces greenhouse gases and contributes to the climate’s rising temperatures. Beyond that, indoor cultivation is cost-prohibitive for many businesses.

The West Coast’s burning acreage signals inevitable changes for the outdoor marijuana industry. Oregon’s government is taking steps by making outdoor cannabis more desirable for cultivators, but regulated cultivation has a long way to go before there’s enough useful research to minimize cannabis’ environmental impact.

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Forestry

About Author

Shanti Ryle is a professional writer and media producer with her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre from Southern Oregon University. With years of copy and media production experience, Shanti is passionate about telling humanity’s essential stories. From cannabis to podcasts, she’s developed content for Marijuana.com, Wayland Productions, Stride Search, and several freelance publications.

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