The Fate of The Emerald Triangle, Part One

Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake shares insights on how small growers can survive after Prop 64.

When Tim Blake founded the Emerald Cup 14 years ago, he had no idea it would become one of the world’s premiere outdoor cannabis-growing competitions. In 2013, the event’s popularity led Blake to remake it. Originally a small, sometimes secret event in California’s Emerald Triangle — an area that includes Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties — the event became a public affair at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Last year, the Emerald Cup drew 30,000 attendees for a weekend devoted to music, education, and the best bud in the business.

“When we first came out to Sonoma County,” Blake recalls, “the farmers thought I was a traitor.”

Farmers from the Emerald Triangle — long regarded as the largest cannabis-producing region in the U.S. — were understandably keen to keep things local and off-the-radar. Decades of raids and fear-mongering from law enforcement have left many growers in the area with little interest in increasing their public profile. Far from wanting to alienate a community that was operating long before laws provided them any protections, Blake was eager to give patients a chance to meet the people who cultivate their medicine.

“All of the patients get to mingle with all of the farmers,” he says, explaining the choice to move the Cup south, to a larger venue. “It became a really wonderful gathering of the tribe. People come here to learn what we know — from genetics and breeding to terpenes and strains — and then they take it home to countries around the world.”

Blake’s decision to move the Emerald Cup is not the only thing that has placed him at odds with members of the Emerald Triangle community. By supporting Proposition 64 last year, he was treated to the wrath of small farmers who fear that legalization will kill craft farming as corporate interests swoop in and cut prices.

He concedes it was a heavy price to pay for what he feels was an essential step forward for cannabis.

“I felt like as long as patients couldn’t get cost-effective quality medicine, and as long as people were going to jail, that we had to get legalization in there,” Blake says. “I’m still glad we did that, but we are seeing some of the fallout now and it’s sad.”

Chief among the concerns Blake cites for the future of growers in the Emerald Triangle and other communities of cannabis cultivators throughout California is a seismic drop in price. Whereas a pound once fetched more than $1,000, Blake has seen prices plummet to as low as $600. While he acknowledges the benefit this cost reduction has for patients and consumers, it paints a grim picture for growers hoping to extend their livelihood into the impending legalized market.

Another issue is quality. Blake notes that patients now are accustomed to A-grade products, and are no longer willing to settle for lesser quality. While in the past, growers with subpar yields were often able to move their crops at reduced prices to stave off financial loss, now the market for B-grade cannabis is all but nonexistent.

“Nobody wants it,” Blake says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re in California or Georgia or Boston — they’ve all seen A-Grade and they know what it is, and that’s all that they want.”

Combine these factors with the stringent and costly testing soon to be imposed by state regulations on recreational cannabis, and many of the longtime players in the Emerald Triangle — growers Blake counts as neighbors and friends — may be forced out. By his own estimation, Blake expects that more than 50 percent of the small craft growers currently operating in the Emerald Triangle will soon be out of business.

“There’s going to be a lot of fallout in this industry in the next couple of years,” he says.

One way that some may be able to adapt is to follow the model currently playing out in the alcohol market. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Molson Coors Brewing Co. — the company responsible for Miller Lite and Coors Light — had a 2.9 percent loss in sales in the third quarter of 2017. However, high-end products like microbrewery beer, top-shelf spirits, and premier wine are all doing solid business.

Being branded as a high-end, niche cannabis grower may be the most viable path to longevity for those in the Emerald Triangle staring toward an ominous future.

“I was down in Monterey,” Blake says, “and I met a farmer selling cannabis clones [cuts from the mother plant of a specific strain] for $4. He used to sell celery starts for 2 cents a piece. Now he has orders for a half a million clones a week coming in. There’s no way farmers from the Triangle are going to be able to compete with that. The only niche they’ve got is the very high end. So we’re teaching them and they’re paying attention now. Many of them will be OK, but there are quite a few that won’t.”

Next week the conversation with Tim Blake continues, as we explore fire relief for Sonoma County growers, evolutions in the contest space, and the importance of education for the future of cannabis.

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