A cloudy summer and an early rain hampered Sonoma County’s 2018 outdoor cannabis haul, but the mood remained optimistic among growers one year after major wildfires marred the newly regulated crop’s harvest.
By this time in the growing season, the marijuana plants have been cut down in the fields and taken to warehouses. Workers are now cutting flower stalks off thick stems, trimming and manicuring the flowers before putting them in containers to cure in cool, dry rooms.
Workers in a bright room inside a warehouse Tuesday near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport were nearly done trimming a cannabis strain called strawberry diesel — one of 10 strains cultivated by Justice Grown in a 1-acre plot on a sprawling, wooded property southeast of Santa Rosa. The company lost nearly half of their 2017 crop in the Nuns fire, director of operations Shivawn Brady said.
“Last year would have been a fantastic harvest, we were so close,” Brady said. “We had significant crop loss, we had staff who lost homes. So this year’s harvest was very jubilant.”
There is no official tally yet for this year’s Sonoma County outdoor cannabis crop, which covers roughly 20 acres, according to county data. County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said 16 crop-loss inspections found several cultivation sites experienced a total loss, mostly because of the mold brought by early October rainfall. His department reports their findings to the county tax collection department, which then adjusts the tax requirement based on the loss.
“It was really an ideal season for a lot of crops,” Linegar said. “The fly in the ointment was the early rain, particularly for cannabis.”
The major obstacle for cannabis cultivation in Sonoma County is not weather. It’s regulation.
Terry Garrett, a managing member of the Sonoma County GoLocal cooperative, estimated the value of the local cannabis harvest has dropped by more than three-quarters due to local requirements that banned cultivation in certain areas and required steep upfront payouts to get permits to grow cannabis.
Garrett, who also serves on the Sonoma County Economic Development Board and the county’s cannabis task force, teamed with Sonoma State University economics professor Robert Eyler to develop an economic impact report for the local cannabis industry. Garrett said they expect to release a report in the next several weeks.
Garrett said their estimates put the value of the 2018 overall county cannabis harvest at about $230 million based on state licensing data and their industry standards for yield, and valued it at about $900 per pound. That’s down from between $1.5 billion to $3 billion annual value they calculated previously through interviews and surveys with industry experts.
Garrett said some dispensaries have reported only about 10 percent of the cannabis flowers currently on the shelves were grown in Sonoma County — compared with about 90 percent in previous years.
“That’s emblematic of what’s happened here,” Garrett said. “We’ve gutted the cultivation side of the business, which shifted much of the sourcing from Humboldt, Mendocino, Trinity, Sierra Foothills and farther south.”
Ned Fussell, co-founder of Santa Rosa-based CannaCraft, one of the state’s top makers of cannabis-infused products, said 11 of the 12 cultivators his business sources cannabis material from have left Sonoma County. Most have relocated to central California where local agencies have fast-tracked the permitting process for cultivators, he said.
“We were trying to stay local. We spent years trying to build relationships in Sonoma County,” said Fussell, who said they worked closely with the cultivators to shift their operations to cannabis-friendly Santa Barbara County. “We had 130 people who worked on the agricultural front, but we had to relocate those people.”
With the bulk of their cultivation operations in Santa Barbara County, CannaCraft may consider shifting their manufacturing operation there, too, Fussell said.
Many local marijuana growers have said they’ve been waiting to receive permission to cultivate in Sonoma County for nearly two years.
Brady said Justice Grown hopes its yield will hit 1,800 pounds grown organically and by Kosher standards, and after an estimated 8 percent loss because of pathogens, which she attributes to a rushed harvest schedule put in place after the early October rains. The company had expected the business to become profitable in about four years, but Brady said that projection has been adjusted to further into the future. Justice Grown is among a group of cultivators allowed to cultivate under a grandfathering provision Sonoma County created for existing operators that was meant to be temporary.
However, the county’s delay in processing permit applications has extended the length of that program.
Erich Pearson, SPARC founder and executive director, said waiting to get a permit for the Glen Ellen farms producing cannabis for SPARC’s four dispensaries in Sonoma County and San Francisco has made it difficult to repair or rebuild infrastructure damaged or destroyed in the 2017 Nuns fire.
The fire destroyed SPARC’s entire 2017 crop, forcing them to stock their shelves with cannabis grown elsewhere.
The uncertainty brought by Sonoma County’s delay in evaluating and issuing permits has other financial implications for cultivators trying to invest in their local businesses.
Pearson said the 2018 harvest is a bright spot for SPARC, which already has put two strains of biodynamic cannabis onto dispensary shelves — black light and purple punch.
SPARC can move marijuana flowers from the warehouse to the shelves faster than other cultivators because they’re not going through a distributor. They put the earliest batch onto the shelves to showcase the 2018 harvest and staff continue trimming cannabis at a rate of about five pounds per day.
“The quality was great this year,” Pearson said.
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or email@example.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.