Small Growers Fear Changes Promised by Prop. 64

Has legalized pot put the small farmers of Northern California’s Emerald Triangle at risk?

Flow Kana’s co-founder Adam Steinberg started his company with a vision: He wanted to see branded flower on the shelves of dispensaries — products that told patients the “who, where, and how” of the medicine they were purchasing.

While the idea of branded flowers may seem commonplace in 2017, Stein-berg says the concept was novel when Flow Kana first put their business plan together.

“Two years ago, it was pretty much farmers going in and selling in bulk, by the pound, in turkey bags,” he says. “Dispensaries were throwing it in their own packaging and consumers had no idea where it was coming from. We wanted to create a model that added more transparency.”

To facilitate their plan, Flow Kana partnered with three co-ops in the Emerald Triangle — the triad of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties — so nicknamed because collectively, they represent the largest cannabis-producing region in the United States.

While the small farmers that make up these co-ops are, in Steinberg’s view, “cultivating and growing the best cannabis in the world,” they are not by nature marketing gurus or terribly familiar with the intricacies of distribution. An alliance was formed, and nowadays, patients can purchase Flow Kana products from dispensaries like Magnolia Wellness in Oakland and know exactly who grew the flower, where it was grown, and how.

To that last point: All of the farmers represented by Flow Kana adhere to a sun-grown organic approach. For Jane Futcher and Erin Carney, the women behind Wild Women Herbals, one of the craft farmers whose product Flow Kana distributes, the technique has become about more than just sustainability — it’s spiritual.

“Working with these plants has been a great spiritual blessing, as well as an economic one,” Futcher says. “The plants are very nurturing to us. As we nurtured them, they nurtured us in a way that we hadn’t anticipated.”

Indeed, Wild Women Herbals have immense respect for the plants that have become their livelihood. Since Futcher, who hosts KZYX’s “The Cannabis Hour” in Mendocino, was given some seeds 11 years ago and decided to grow them “as a lark,” the two-woman operation has found a deep passion for outdoor cannabis cultivation. Futcher says that all of their plants are named for important females in their lives, which serves to strengthen her spiritual connection to their work.

“I have a sister with whom I’ve been estranged for 40 years,” Futcher says, “and when I’m with the plant I named after her, there’s an energy exchange, and I feel like I’m with my sister, healing that relationship.”

While Futcher and Carney concede that it’s difficult to quantify how the care they instill in their plants translates to the finished product, the love they put into their work is exactly what Flow Kana wants patients to see.

“I think a lot of farmers up in the Mendocino area specifically are looking to us to be a voice for them,” Steinberg says. “Our job is to share their story, to actually put their name on the product and give them credit, and to help ensure that they will have a place in the market as things continue to develop and become more commercialized.”

Speaking to the women behind Wild Women Herbals, it is the specter of a fully commercialized cannabis industry that they fear most. Despite the fact that Proposition 64 in large part will not affect farmers like Carney and Futcher until 2022 — when the limits on farm sizes and permits will be lifted and corporate growers can come in and undercut prices — the two say that the current onslaught of regulations and taxes are already forcing many growers in the Emerald Triangle to throw in the towel.

Currently, Wild Women Herbals’ annual expenses include paying a steep tax to the water board, renewing their growers’ permit from the sheriff’s department, and paying an additional $50 per plant to the sheriff’s department, as  well as attorney’s fees, retaining special accountants, and the costly ordeal of having every plant tested to comply with regulations. Now California is also trying to push ahead with a harvest tax, which would force Wild Women Herbals to pay taxes on the gross yield of their crops.

“They want to tax us at the moment we harvest the plant,” Carney explains. “That doesn’t make any sense, because it doesn’t account for any plant loss. Every year, we have plant loss. A lot. It’s significant. There’s mold, there’s mildew, there may be critters — every farmer has plant loss, and here we’d be paying a tax on the gross and maybe on plants that we can’t even sell.”

A former midwife in the Bay Area, Carney sees parallels between her former profession and her current one.

“One of the things in midwifery I knew is no matter how I much I studied, I’d never know everything. I did over a thousand births, and I always felt like the longer I did it, the less I knew. This is similar. There’s always something new that you’ve never encountered before.”

Hopefully with the help of Flow Kana and advocates like Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Association, the advent of legalized recreational cannabis in California will not spell the end of craft farmers like Wild Women Herbals.

Futcher says all options are on the table.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see whether the regulations drive most people back into the black market, whether they cause a lot of people to go out of business, or whether they actually help businesses to thrive.”

Zack Ruskin covers news, culture, and music for SF Weekly.

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