Better Off Dry: The Drought Improved California's Outdoor Marijuana Harvest

The man (right) who fell out of love with Pinot.

Summertime in Northern California is long, hot, and dry. The ideal atmosphere for a float down the Russian River is also the perfect climate for growing the things you'd want to bring along on that river trip. Hops, good wine grapes, and world-class cannabis all thrive in the heat.

As America finally cottons to the notion of cannabis as a legitimate industry, growing marijuana is proving itself a viable career. The average farmworker in America takes home a little more than $30,000 a year. California fruit pickers and animal stewards make slightly more money, but some farmworkers in the state can take home as much as $41,800 annually. That's the average wage for a farmworker on a marijuana patch, according to the Emerald Growers Association, a trade group for outdoor farmers. And if you own the plot of land where pot is grown, you can clear an average of about $100,000 a year, according to a survey of 50 pot farmers in nine counties.

That's more than timber workers and more than enough to be considered middle class.

Provided, of course, you can find the water.

The water question is every California farmer's problem. Even in wet years, contention over the disbursement of water around the state echoes in the halls of Congress. And amid the concern posed by the ongoing drought (it's the driest it's been in California's history; for the first time, no rain fell in San Francisco in January) marijuana has become an environmental bogeyman.

Media from the mainstream to Mother Jones followed a narrative presented by officials from the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, which suggested cannabis farms are the reason several streams in northern rural counties turned dry, thereby posing an existential threat to yet another signature California delicacy: salmon.

Some shriller sources went further, positing that the drought would harm the annual harvest of outdoor marijuana (branded “sun-grown” by the merchants looking to move what's still cheaper and less in demand than cannabis grown under lamps). LA Weekly warned us almost a year ago that, if things held steady, prices would double.

As with most doomsday predictions, it didn't exactly come to fruition. In fact, almost the opposite occurred: In the short-term, the drought not only improved the outdoor harvest, local dispensary buyers tell SF Weekly, but outdoor farmers are getting better prices per pound.

How can this be?

For starters, the harvest is smaller by as much as 20 percent, according to Rick Pfrommer, the main buyer at Oakland's Harborside Health Center, one of the busiest dispensaries in the state.

That's good for growers. A pound of sun-grown was fetching $1,800 in August, when enterprising growers are bringing hauls of “light-dep” to market (light-deprivation is the scientific method by which a pot planter fools his crop into flowering and budding early, usually by use of a tarp thrown over the plants to cut the use of sunlight).

By December, when the market is generally flooded with the recent harvest and when prices dip as low as $1,200 or lower, pounds were still going for $1,500. (At the dispensary counter, the cost of an eighth held steady.)

And those solid prices were for consistently higher-quality stuff, Pfrommer tells me recently. “Almost everyone I know grew smaller plants this year because of water being so tight. And as a result, they grew higher-quality herb.”

In flush years, farmers tend to indulge in cannabis's ability to take as much as seven gallons of water per day, per plant. “Cannabis can take a lot of water,” he says. “But when you overwater, you cause the cell walls to swell. You get bigger yields, and higher weight, but the buds themselves aren't the same quality.”

With only three gallons or so per plant, the buds are tighter and denser, Pfrommer tells me, with “more resin content because it's not a big, spread-out bud. … They also have a much more robust flavor.”

In other words, for conscientious growers, the drought could have finally broken the bad habits “endemic” in outdoor cultivation: overwatering and overfeeding.

It could also have put some crooks out of business.

I sat down recently with a serious industry player who made his name growing cannabis outside. I asked him how badly the drought had ravaged his plantings. He chuckled.

“I'm fine,” he said. “I'm on a well.”

This is significant. It wasn't taxpayers obeying plant counts that drained Sproul and Salmon creeks dry. It was the outlaws — gangs of Eastern European extraction, southeast Asians, or “Northern California hillbillies” (not one person I talked to recently complained about “Mexican cartels”) shipping pounds out of state.

It's a theory, but it has some weight. If you are an honest citizen and growing 25 plants on established property, you'll use groundwater. True, there are plenty of homesteader-like farmers growing on lonely hillsides far away from civilization while attempting to obey the law. But if you're entirely reliant on water pulled from a nearby stream, chances are you're a lawbreaker, my guy said.

2015 is shaping up to be another dry year. Nobody in agriculture is praying for clear skies and a dry creek bed. But so far, the apocalyptic drought has spelled disaster more for bad practices and bad players in the marijuana industry.

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