Cannabis farmers cope with years of loss and prepare for the next fire season
By Carly Wipf
As the August Complex fire ripped through the Emerald Triangle in 2020, Humboldt cannabis farmer Sequoyah Hudson remembers the fear she felt not knowing when flames might reach her property.
“It was really scary because we were literally seeing embers fall on the ground, and were having to sit there and put them out,” she said.
Hudson was one of many Northern California cannabis farmers who lost crops to the 2020 August Complex fire, which burned 1,032,648 acres across Mendocino, Humboldt, Trinity, Tehama, Glenn, Lake and Colusa counties. Last year, the Knob, McFarland and Monument fires continued to devastate family businesses. Unsure what will happen this next fire season, growers are preparing for the worst. Some say they are not planning to grow cannabis at all, some may harvest early, while others are ready to face the flames.
Hudson’s farm, 8 Mile Family Farms, has a cultivation area of just under 20,000 square feet. She estimates about 75 percent of the farm’s crop was unusable in 2020 and 25 percent couldn’t be cultivated in 2021. The smoke gave her plants an ashy smell and taste, which made them unsellable. The family joked about selling the product under the name “2020 Aroma.”
“But it wasn’t really funny,” she said.
What was harvestable was simply left in the ground, chopped down or composted. Hudson said it was too expensive to harvest, trim and pay taxes on cannabis that wouldn’t turn a profit.
“It just wasn’t worth it to go through all that effort and maybe get your money returned, and not even make any money,” she said. “It just was overwhelming, especially after having such a loss from before.”
The financial loss was so great that Hudson and her husband plan to hold off on growing cannabis this year. In the meantime, her husband is working as a contractor and she is busy advocating for other cannabis farmers.
Hudson works at Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, a collective that provides services to cannabis businesses. The guild partnered with Redwood Roots, another cannabis company, to evacuate people and products from farms during the 2020 fires. Hudson is thankful they didn’t have to evacuate anyone last year but they are prepared to evacuate farms again if necessary.
But not every farmer wants to evacuate.
Duncan McIntosh, who currently grows produce, was growing medicinal cannabis at the time of the Helena Fire, which ravaged the Trinity Alps Wilderness in 2017. He remembers the impact of losing his cannabis crop when the fire seared the bottom half of the McIntosh Farm in Willow Creek.
“I could hear propane tanks exploding. I could see [fire] on the ridge that hopped to the river and at that point, my wife pretty much grabbed me by the collar and said, ‘We’re leaving,” McIntosh said. “It was the most depressing and helpless feeling I think I’ve ever encountered …. My homestead is my life. It’s not just a home, it’s a way of life and leaving that was traumatic.”
After evacuating once and realizing the fire department wasn’t anywhere close to his property, McIntosh returned to save his land and plants. He and his neighbors chopped down flammable trees and cleared brush as fire roared in the distance.
“We stayed and defended our lands,” McIntosh said. He added the fire department was overwhelmed ensuring the fire didn’t spread to Weaverville. “They didn’t even know that it burnt the whole bottom of my property and then on top of it, once we were there, we could not leave. This is a direct parallel to my experience during the Monument Fire.”
McIntosh didn’t leave the area during the Monument fire, despite official orders to evacuate. If 2022 brings another blaze, McIntosh said he will “absolutely” stay again.
“Nobody knows my water system like I do and nobody is going to care about my property like I do,” he said. “That’s why many of us have stayed.”
Jeremy Brown, co-owner of Booney Acres farm in Trinity County, counts himself lucky that his cannabis crop wasn’t destroyed by last year’s fires. The team was able to harvest its plants at the first sign of smoke and freeze them for storage.
The majority of Booney Acres’ 640-acre property burned so most of the flammable brush is gone. But smoke and ash particles from nearby fires still pose a concern. Brown said using the fresh-frozen method can help save cannabis plants before they are tainted by ash.
“Even if you have to cut it a little bit early, at least with fresh-frozen, you may get something out of it rather than nothing,” Brown said.
While the future for cannabis farmers remains uncertain this upcoming fire season, Hudson said she takes comfort in the fact that farmers across the Emerald Triangle will continue to look out for each other.
“It is really cool to see the camaraderie that comes out of disasters and everybody working together, being in touch and being available as resources, whether it’s providing tools, machinery, food or going to check on the place next door,” Hudson said. “It just reminds you that your neighbors or your community are there for you.”
Carly Wipf (she/her) is a freelance reporter who’s covered communities across Northern California. She lives in Humboldt County.