Northern California is overflowing with seasonal laborers who are cutting down and trimming the state's outdoor medical marijuana crops this week, and experts in the field forecast a bigger, longer, yet more conflict-ridden harvest than in years past.
California leads the nation in domestic cannabis production, and the state's pot growers bring in hundreds of metric tons of the fragrant, cane-like bush every harvest season, researchers estimate. This time of year, East Coast wholesale brokers tour farms in traditional growing epicenters like Humboldt, Mendocino and Lake counties, where a seasonal influx of trimmers — manual laborers from all over California and the nation — are paid in weed and cash to harvest this year's crop.
By Thanksgiving, the buds are dried and cured, and dispensaries as well as private collectives and the vastly larger black market throw harvest parties, celebrating the best buds of the year.
Outdoor medical cannabis continues to take market share from indoor-grown bud in Bay Area clubs this season. Often marketed as "sun-grown," outdoor and greenhouse-cultivated weed is cheaper and, some say, higher-quality and more sustainable. Earlier this month, Harborside Health Center in Oakland started advertising $30 eighth-ounces of sun-grown Afghan Kush, Blue Dream, Pineapple, and OG Kush.
Berkeley Patients Group in Berkeley has amazing deals, including $25 eighth-ounces of sun-grown Critical Kush, or Cali-O, and $15 eighths of sun-grown Tangerine Dream and Berry White. That's one-quarter the average street price for an eighth.
And Harborside Health Center general manager Rick Pfrommer said the outdoor harvest season hasn't even really gotten started yet. What patients are seeing right now is the "light deprivation crop."
Outdoor pot is usually planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. But "light dep" crops grow in greenhouses until June, then growers black out the greenhouse with tarps. Light deprivation tricks the plant into flowering early. Finished by August, the light-dep crop comes to market before the fall harvest, when a supply glut depresses prices.
Most light dep is shipped east where it can fetch top dollar, Pfrommer said. But as the local medical scene has turned to outdoor, it is seeing more light dep, too. "The light dep this year just continues to get better and better," he said. "But it's more of a tease for the fall harvest."
Farmers had a rough 2013 growing season compared to last year, experts say. Drought gripped much of California for the whole year, said Emerald Growers Association spokeswoman Kristin Nevedal. Then early rains dropped three inches of water on Humboldt in a single day in late September. Rains at that point in the season can cause mold and mildew, especially in unseasonably cold weather. "I think probably people are a little panicked over the rains we're had," she said.
Organic farm inspector Chris Van Hook said, "It was a very dry year and then we had a torrential downpour. A client in the Western Sierra foothills said it got so damp he lost his whole crop." Still, Van Hook said, "I think there's a huge crop coming in. For however much has gotten mold, twice as much is in covered greenhouses."
High-quality, certified outdoor medical cannabis should fetch about, $1,800 to $2,200 per pound, and go as high as $2,400 per pound, he said. The fall harvest is a great time to snatch up rare, Northern California heirloom strains, slow-growing sativas, and new crosses, he added.
"Hawaiian Snow will be coming back in," said Pfrommer. "It's absolutely delicious, with long, lime-green, sparkling, crystal-covered buds and a really nice, clean, 'up' sativa high." Harborside is carrying an heirloom Highland Thai Classic, and patients should look out for CBD-rich Lemon Kush crossed with True Blueberry, as well as Canna-Tsu (Cannatonic X Sour Tsunami). "This is our most forward-thinking, biggest commitment to sun-grown — and far and away the most amount of energy we've put into it," Pfrommer said of this year's effort. "We can't, as conscious planetary citizens, produce the amount of lamp-grown cannabis that we produce."
Indeed, the 2013 crop was grown amid renewed outcries over the environmental impacts of unregulated pot-growing, Pfrommer and others say. Licit and illicit farms are sucking fragile watersheds dry. Careless growers are cutting trees, grading hills, and applying dangerous levels of pesticides, rodenticides, and synthetic nutrients, researchers say. Van Hook called the water diversion alone "devastating" to Northern California rivers.
Patients and recreational consumers need to wise up to the damage and vote with their dollars, consciences, and actual votes, said Nevedal, Pfrommer, and Van Hook. Growers can obtain a new, free, best-practices guide through the Emerald Growers Association. Just like organic tomato farmers, pot farmers can get certified sustainable and organic.
The best of the bunch appears to be "Clean Green" certification, which ensures weed comes from farms that farm organically and store water instead of stealing it, Van Hook said.
"Patients need to be asking the right questions," Nevedal added. "How was this stuff grown? Did they use synthetic nutrients? Pesticides? Fungicides? If your facility can't answer all of these questions, you want to look for that Clean Green label."
Harborside and others like Berkeley's C.R.A.F.T. Collective carry loads of Clean Green-certified weed. And Van Hook said since the federal crackdown, he's been certifying more and more private medical collectives.
"People ask me, 'Where is the Whole Foods-organic-Slow Weed movement'?" Nevedal said. "I think it's happening right now."