Is the next center of marijuana production in California former flower farms in Monterrey County, is it hoop-houses enjoying ocean breezes in Santa Barbara — or is it neither?
Prior to marijuana legalization, one line of frequently repeated conventional wisdom in certain cannabis circles was that once prohibition ended, The End Times would soon follow.
Once commercial cannabis became a thing and Big Something — big ag, big tobacco, big pot, big whatever — became involved, it was lights-out for the “Emerald Triangle,” the remote, redwood-forested counties of far northern California where mom-and-pop farms nestled on mountaintops and tucked behind river bends had provided the country with cannabis, and collected a neat profit in the process.
Either Philip Morris was already plotting with Monsanto and George Soros to buy up all of Humboldt County and patent the marijuana plant in the process — a conspiracy theory that you can still hear repeated today in some version, and in earnest — thus “stealing” the plant, or Big Marijuana would quickly figure out the futility of trying to supply Los Angeles’ marijuana demand with farms located on treacherous, one-lane roads an eight-hour drive away, and go to where land and labor were cheapest. In California, that means the land in least demand, which means the desert or the agricultural communities of the Central Valley, where cannabis would become a complement to the oceans of pistachios, almonds, stone-fruits, and other commodities produced by industrial agriculture.
Some version of this doomsday scenario figured in the minds of the old-school hard-line marijuana activists and first-and-second generation Emerald Triangle growers who found common ground with the police and prosecutors who had harried them for decades when they came out in opposition to legalization.
It was a compelling thesis, and there was some credible evidence — wholesale marijuana prices were indeed dropping and some of those farms were going out of business, and some old growers who could still make the nut financially were left out on technicalities, after they found that their unconventional arrangements disqualified them for state permits — but these arguments suffered from a few flaws.
First, beside the fact that such an enterprise was completely impractical, there was never any credible evidence that tobacco companies, Soros, Monsanto, or any combination of the three were plotting a land-grab of remote, hard-to-access, harder-to-develop-into-industrial agriculture former timber land in Trinity County. Marijuana grows well here thanks to an agreeable climate but it was planted as a practical matter, to hide it from the authorities; if you are the authorities, why would you go to the trouble of hiding?
Second, the thing about cheap land in California is that it is cheap for a reason. There isn’t a lot of water, and summers are long and hot — too long and too hot for cannabis plants, who, like humans, appreciate warmth but aren’t too keen on being baked to death. Massive marijuana farms have yet to spring up in the Central Valley, and where marijuana has been heralded as an economic savior in the otherwise moribund deserts— in a former prison in Coalinga, in unused warehouse space in the Mojave — it has yet to prove itself a profitable or viable enterprise.
A much likelier scenario is exactly what’s been emerging over the last year and a half: marijuana as an alternative or a supplement to wine grapes or ornamental flowers, which turns out, thrive in similar atmospheric conditions like those found in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties.
The Washington Post’s recent filing from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, where marijuana is touted as a “high-value commodity that could help reinvigorate” a fading “agricultural tradition” details both the growth and the limitations of this idea in action.
Central California between Santa Barbara and Monterey to the north has the highest concentration of licensed marijuana producers in the state, according to the newspaper. But even that only amounts to 330 acres in total in Santa Barbara — a “tiny fraction” compared to the seas of land under cultivation for wine grapes. At one point, according to one estimate, there were roughly 55,000 marijuana cultivators of various sizes in the Emerald Triangle, meaning if Santa Barbara wants to be the next best home for cannabis cultivation, there needs to be an extended period of growth, and proof that it can be sustained.
The truth is that everybody is still figuring out exactly what will work — and nobody can say with certainty what that will be. It’s becoming increasingly clear that what works with wine does work to an extent with cannabis — that is, there is something in the terroir, in the land and in the air, that determines how cannabis flowers affect the human brain and body. Which is to say it may matter very much exactly where a cannabis flower is grown, in the same way that it matters extremely to the market and to the palette if a grape comes from Napa County, or just a few hillsides away in Solano County.
And there are considerations far more earthly to consider. There’s the market, and there are margins. While marijuana is an estimated $4 billion-a-year industry in California, according to figures quoted by the Post, what those $4 billions will eventually buy is far from certain — will it be high-end flower, mid-range pre-rolls packaged like cigarettes, oil cartridges harvest from huge warehouses in the desert?
It could also be that the impractical Central Valley could become lucrative if local governments make it so. Many marijuana companies are still “jurisdiction shopping,” in the words of the Post, looking for the best combination of low taxes and low-enough labor costs that work for the bottom line. That works in most agricultural industries, but only so far. Wine is an object lesson yet again. You can’t grow a Napa cabernet in the mountains or in the desert, because that is not Napa. Cannabis may not be quite as picky — especially with indoor growing — but indoor growing is costly, and the cannabis plant is a more fickle mistress than some growers realize. It has yet to be proven beyond doubt that massive, mold, and pest-resistance high-quality cannabis can be grown reliably at scale.
Like a snow globe just snatched from the shelf and given a furious shake, the image of large-scale marijuana farming is hazy and unclear and has yet to coalesce and to settle. As a result, the Emerald Triangle is still with us — and the “next” one may be the one we know now, albeit in evolved form.