San Francisco

'Devastating': Sonoma Valley Cannabis Farms Weigh Damage After Wildfires Torch Crops

Without access to federal crop insurance, for marijuana farmers who invested their life savings into their business "it will be all gone"

Erich Pearson looked out on blackened tubs of tall marijuana plants that only last week were beginning to be harvested. His crop now either fouled by toxic smoke and ash or scorched completely by the the raging wildfires that have devastated Northern California.

"Unless it’s metal, it’s not here,” said Pearson, the co-founder and CEO of SPARC (San Francisco Patient and Resource Center), while surveying the landscape. “It’s pretty devastating.”

His farm in the Sonoma County town of Glen Ellen produces cannabis for four marijuana dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

The harvest season was in full swing and many cannabis farmers like Pearson had just began to pick their crops when frenetic winds whipped through Sonoma Valley, charring entire neighborhoods and leveling family farms and vineyards.

Pearson said three homes on the property were destroyed, displacing eight people. Large sprawling barns that the business used for drying cannabis plants burned to the ground, leaving only their tin roofs as evidence of what had stood there.

Plants that didn’t burn entirely were covered in ash — absorbing the thick smoky air that clung to everything.

"With ash and soot and black on it," Pearson said it’s not likely to continue to grow after this."

Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, said Thursday that at least seven farms had been destroyed, and he expected the number to rise as residents who evacuated the area returned home and surveyed their land.

Grower organizations say the losses to the state’s estimated $21 million cannabis industry are likely to be staggering. Sonoma County alone is home to thousands of grow sites, and the region includes some of the state’s most prominent cannabis operations.

And unlike other agricultural producers affected by the wildfires, cannabis farmers face an even bigger challenge: lack of crop insurance.

"Since hemp is classified as a prohibited substance under federal law, it is not eligible for federal crop insurance," Heather Manzano, acting administrator of the Risk Management Agency, said in a statement. The agency oversees government insurance for farmers.

They also don't have access to traditional banking services, including loans, and operate on a cash basis.

If the area receives any federal aid, marijuana farmers won't have access to that either. The cost to rebuild will be entirely out of pocket. Pearson notes that for a lot of small farmers who've invested their life savings into their business, "it will be all gone."

Pearson said since the fire, he and his crew have spent the majority of their time helping impacted neighbors save pets and livestock.

"Taking care of everything from koi fish to horses," he said.

The California Growers Association, meanwhile, is raising funds through the donations site YouCaring specifically to help growers in California who have been affected by the fire and may have no recourse.

Pearson said his team of workers was beginning to turn its attention back to its own farm, where logs and piles of ash continued to smolder.

While most of the crops were un-salvageable, Pearson said, there was a possibility some could be made into oils. Still, he expected the company would have to lay off at least some of its 22-member workforce.

"You keep going," Pearson said. "And that’s all you can do."

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