Bucket List Oddity: A Cannabis Tour

Bucket List Oddity: A Cannabis Tour

Can you get high touching it?” None of my tour buddies inquired as such, but the guides “anticipated” the question from previous guests. I’m glad we didn’t ask. And of course, the answer is you can’t.

In late winter, I had the opportunity on an ice-crystal clear cold day to visit a “licensed” cannabis farm in Oregon’s Illinois River Valley, not quite reaching the northern California border. Regulations are stiff for visitors. After figuring out how to park the car in the tight spots, generally reserved for employees only, guests must enter a high-fenced secure area. The state of Oregon not only demands the tall divider but several other noticeable requirements, like check-in with full name and DOB, cameras seemingly in every nook and cranny, wearing a visitor’s badge and staying with the representatives. Security discipline is obvious.

Boutique Growers

This particular farm, East Fork Cultivars, is a “boutique grower” versus personal or industrial farms. More on those momentarily.

So, why were we there? The tour was arranged by the League of Women Voters of Rogue Valley and the Oregon Cannabis Association. The League has no position (yay or nay) on cannabis, but does have numerous environmental platforms. Most of us attended to better understand the effects on land and water use in two Southern Oregon counties (Jackson and Josephine) where marijuana has become an agricultural business. Apprehension is increasing in these areas as the crops here now represent the supply for approximately 50% of the U.S. [Much of that 50% comes from illegal activities.]

Don’t miss reading this. To be very clear, legal, ‘licensed’ growers cannot ship, sell or even test ‘product’ outside of the state. Nada! But the area (including northern California) is often called the Napa Valley of Cannabis. It’s just about perfect for cultivating. Since that has been the case for decades, there are ‘dark’ growers (illegal, unlicensed, black market sellers) who flood the market. Unfortunately, while all growers use water and soil, not all do so in the same manner. As with any industry, not all businesses make the (imaginary) Better Business Bureau list of earth-friendly companies.

Considering the business aspect briefly, who knows if it is the legalization of recreational cannabis in western states like Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and California, or other external forces, that has brought the price crashing down. But at this time, it has clearly tumbled. [For some very rough estimates, a decade or so ago, a pound could easily bring in more than $2000. A handful of years ago, perhaps $1600-$1900 or more. Just before legalization, an average may have been $1500 for average product; last year approximately $1200 – $1400 and this year perhaps as low as $600 for good grade, legal merchandise.] It is certainly no gold rush, nor a quick-rich scheme. Licensed farm owners may simply wish for a reasonable profit. Either way, they can’t depend on the big bucks.

This particular farm specializes in more medicinal varieties. In a vastly simplified short-hand, that could be translated as they grow plants higher in CBD and lower in THC.

CBD and THC are the two most famous chemical compounds (cannabinoids) you read about, as they are the most active. Both are considered “psychoactive” but that psychoactive element in THC is the one that produces the marijuana “high.” CBD is also psychoactive which is why it reportedly relieves the symptoms of a wide-range of ailments, BUT it is “non-intoxicating.” It doesn’t produce a euphoric feeling. CBD and THC work through different brain mechanism. CBD simply does not produce the ‘marijuana high’ that some are searching for and others frown upon. Many countries are dedicating major funds into researching the best medicinal types and uses of cannabis, especially considering its cost-effectiveness and limited side-effects compared to many pharmaceuticals. The U.S. isn’t one.

Surprising to me, I learned that the flowers of “hemp” (which is a specific variety defined by the US government, and an allowable commodity crop) does have medicinal properties if cultivated for it. Most hemp is grown for its stalks and then transformed into cloth, paper, rope and various commercial products.

Like a fine-wine grape, various strains, and new cultivations (phenotypes) of cannabis respond to even the slightest changes in their environment: soil type, weather conditions, topography. This is known as “terroir” (in both wine and cannabis industries). “Experts” can tell the difference. They can sometimes discern WHERE and HOW plants were grown. It may be self-evident that much of the mentor expertise was acquired in less-than-legal circumstances. That’s no longer entirely true, and these young-to-early-middle age owners said they have learned much online, from older growers and from the results of repeated spectrometry and other chemical lab analysis.

Industrial growers, who will probably outlast the others until supply balances with demand, generally grow their product entirely inside, within greenhouses. The boutique farm on our tour (approximately 10 acres) grows 5-6 months outside under the sun. Unlike some outdoor farmers who grow cannabis in pots (pun intended), the growers we observed plant in the ground. All of these differences (terroir) affect the cannabis end-product, which is strictly catalogued, analyzed and recorded by labs within the state. Crops are also examined for pesticides, mold and fungus as well as documented for plant parentage, cannabinoid profile, and terpene profile (the latter referring to smell).

Learning about the methods and practices of such farms was a significant reason for our tour, because it is part of the determination of how water and land are cared for while growing takes place. Even individuals who may support medical or perhaps recreational cannabis may pause due to environmental concerns. And that was the prime issue the League of Women Voters wished to explore.

The Bad Actors

While Southern Oregon, and other climate-friendly Oregon areas, have had their fair share of illegal growers over the years, northern California has long been a ‘scary’ zone for this activity. [‘Scary’ is my label, following many drives in these wilderness areas.] In rocky and mountainous terrains of California counties like Siskiyou, del Norte, Trinity, Shasta and Humboldt – much of it on public lands – growers had (and still have) concealed ‘businesses.’

Totally unregulated, this leads to pitiable restraints when considering water conservation or from abusing the land. It’s feared that pesticides will disturb both land and water for years or decades to come. Aside from the environmental distresses, there have been safety fears for local or state law enforcement, drastically poor upkeep of the area, rampant domestic abuse, and repeated reports of women brought in as “pickers” or “trimmers” and detained against their will. [Before you ask, I can verify that there is little cell phone coverage in some of these areas.] All-in-all, I think the term “bad actors” is fair and understated.

Clearly, legalization is not a total panacea to correct these areas of alarm. Some black-market growers still wish to do things ‘their way’ and not play the tax game. Nevertheless, they must now consider whether it’s worth the unnecessary risk as well.

The Good Actors

While I suspected that the Oregon Cannabis Association just wanted to show us the cream-of-the-crop, so to speak, I admit the farm process we saw was impressive. The bottom line lesson being that there are existing methods and procedures that can create good stewards of the land. The owners admitted not all growing operations are so strict. The East Fork Cultivars ‘grow’ organic, but since (at this time) the USDA won’t certify cannabis growers, the business is certified through an organization called Clean Green Certified, which qualifies sustainable, naturally-grown agriculture. Hence the label of “clean and green.” The East Fork owners focus on medicinals but also produce plants for essential oils, tinctures, ‘edibles’ and recreational marijuana.

They concentrate on crop rotations in small areas and organic soil amendments for their multi-field plants. Each year after harvest, they cut all stalks down and specialty-burn them into ‘biochar’ piles. This is then used to enhance the soil as well as an aid to water and mineral absorption.

One of 40 such businesses on “resident rural” land in Josephine County, they were lucky enough to have “inherited” historical water rights from this previous llama farm. [For your interest, they had kept some of the animals but, unfortunately the last of their “resident lady llamas passed away last fall.” They seek to adopt a rescue llama this year.] Back to water. They are required to track and precisely record their water usage. Having lived in Arizona and being intimately familiar with drip systems, I was also pleased to see this approach – as well as the compost supplementation they designed to work in concert with watering.

Not much on the property had that newly purchased stainless-steel kind of clean look, but things were neat and tidy. The one thing that did strike me as ‘store-bought new’ (as dresses were described when I was a little girl), was the storage room with literal floor-to-ceiling piles of large plastic bins. Another riddle solved. I have been wondering HOW our local Home Depot was selling pallet upon pallet (and shipment after shipment) of these black and yellow bins that were dominating floor space. Same for Costco. Why, I wondered?  Now I have an inkling.

Since this Illinois River Valley company cultivates special combination blends (like grapes blended for premier wines) they spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on spectrometry , potency analysis, gene tracking and other lab analysis to maintain certification. All this to jump through the correct hoops and to be able to track their own efforts. Since they grow organic, that means their approach to pests is also limited. They are restricted to only a handful of certain organic ‘pesticides’ to keep their status – and pride – in in their work.

Evidently, to some medical users this “Clean and Green” label is not just a philosophical preference. One kidney-transplant recipient told us it was vital for her.

Smell?

In your hay-day (be that years ago or last week) if you have smoked or been in the vicinity of marijuana smoke, you may equate that aroma to cannabis. Not being unpleasant, you may be confused when you hear virulent complaints about the appalling smell. I was in that camp. “What’s the big deal?” That is until I lived next door to people growing their own plants indoors (who knows how much). I learned then that the smell is not always trivial. Evidently, the essential key was that they were most probably venting it only a few yards from our house.

Dead skunk. Honestly, it smelled exactly like dead skunk. For days, we looked for signs of a black and white creeping creature, until we were clued into the truth. At first I was told, “just wait, the harvest season will be over soon.” But that’s not always how it works with indoor growing. I have a sensitive nose and thought I might go nuts after numerous discussions with the neighbors brought little long-standing relief. Apparently, the “venting” process exaggerates this scenario. Lucky for us, these students moved on. Nevertheless, my sympathies for those near such a problem will remain.

Before I and the other ‘cannabis tourists’ managed to inquire about smell, the guides brought up the subject. [I will mention now that there were no unpleasant smells – outside or inside. Even when we were in the aromatic “cutting room”, or viewing some early blooming greenhouse plants in tight quarters, it was fine.] Yet, smell is a frequent complaint for this industry. As such, many jurisdictions have established “good neighbor” policies (regularly transitioning those laws in search of balance).

The owners told us that this dream area for growing cannabis was also a dream area for growing Hops for a hundred years. According to them, hops (and to a lesser extent, lavender) have some of the same biochemical properties as cannabis and they too have a distinct aroma.

This makes the owners and supporters wonder if complaints are stemming from a bias against the crop, as the industry struggles to make its way out of prohibition. I believe there is probably truth to their point of view. Still………., bet they never lived next to someone venting it directly at them. Either way, most boutique growers strive to be excellent neighbors and good community members; this means working to assure that any related smells are controlled, mild and not long lasting. No dead skunks. [I can’t speak for the industrial growers, who probably do vent often.]

One last point about community. Many of these farms are in rural areas where the economy is often hardest hit by changing weather, mono-industry failures or loss of a single big employer. Cannabis farms employing seasonal workforces, and some year-round workers, are a boon. As example, most pay $20 /hour for ‘trimmers’ (not a terribly physical job, even if a skill). While sales are not allowed directly from the farms, their advantage to the community can be direct. The hourly wage is decent and similar employment is difficult to find in this type of area. Thus, the addition to the rural economy is appreciated by many in a small community – sometimes appreciated even by those who don’t approve of the product.

FINAL THOUGHT

The bottom line regarding this industry (legal only in 30 some states for medicinal and fewer for recreational) is that it is always under threat (from within or otherwise). It has difficulty working with the banking system. Read that as functioning without legitimate banking services.  As such, sellers are often forced into the cash realm.

For further consideration, no matter what you think about cannabis, it can be grown in environmentally responsible or irresponsible ways. Legalization allows for greater regulation, cleaner / safer product, less-costly medicine, substitutes for opioids, an addition to the tax kitty and hopefully good stewardship of our land and water compared to illegal growers. That may sound like a positive spin on the subject, especially to those who sincerely perceive marijuana as a gateway drug. However, it will continue to be grown, either legally or illegally, by either the good actors or the bad actors. One of our guides added that they see cannabis not as a “gateway” drug but as an “exit-ramp” drug. Something to consider in these days of widespread opioid abuse.

Regulations also preclude any drinking of alcohol or cannabis usage on licensed property. So, before you wonder, NO —– none of us left with a sample.

Picture credits: Thanks to members of the League of Women Voters of Rogue Valley

 

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