Harvest In Ashes

The North Bay wildfires have brought unprecedented losses to marijuana farmers, who were unable to insure their crops or deposit profits in banks.

While the North Bay fires destroyed thousands of businesses, many cannabis farmers had the added disadvantage of being uninsured. (Photo by Jessica Christian)

A year that was supposed to be a financial bonanza has turned into the “worst year on record” for Northern California cannabis growers. The catastrophic North Bay wildfires in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and other counties that claimed more than 40 lives and nearly a quarter of a million acres have also incinerated the hopes and fortunes of those whose marijuana farms and crops have been obliterated.

SF Weekly has not learned of injuries or fatalities among marijuana farmers. But with fires still burning, hundreds of people still missing, and evacuated areas just now being cleared for reentry, it’s certain that everyone in the fire-affected regions is coping with deeply difficult losses.

“I have confirmed reports of 23 farms damaged — 21 of those lost entirely,” Hezekiah Allen, executive director of industry advocacy group the California Growers Association, said Friday. (The number of damaged farms went up to 27 on Saturday.) “Many are still under mandatory evacuation orders and don’t know what is left of their home and crop. Some are staying in hotels hours away from home, uncertain if their houses remain.”

To be fair, every sector of the Northern California economy has been hurt by the fires — from winemakers to hotel workers to pizza parlors. But marijuana farmers in the fire’s path are going through a uniquely awful form of stress. Their businesses are perfectly legal and they pay taxes, but due to insurance laws, they couldn’t get coverage for their property and can’t be compensated for their losses.  

“The opportunity of legal cannabis is in ashes for many longtime California growers and their communities,” the California Growers Association says in a statement. “These growers have spent their life savings getting permits and preparing for state licenses. Recovery will be especially difficult because cannabis is a dramatically under-insured crop; growers can’t get loans and won’t qualify for federal recovery funds.”

Federal disaster-recovery money can be denied to legal marijuana farms, because cannabis is still illegal under federal law. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are spiteful enough to do just that.

Adding insult to injury, none of the marijuana farms had crop insurance — because they’re not allowed to buy it. Insurance companies won’t cover cannabis businesses, because weed is still federally illegal. A tiny number of cannabis-insurance providers do exist, but will only cover general injury liabilities or marijuana grown indoors.

But the biggest setback is that growers have to keep their cash savings on the premises. Cannabis businesses can’t put money in banks, which also fall under federal law. One Santa Rosa grow called Mystic Spring Farms had $2 million worth of marijuana and $10,000 in cash savings go up in smoke overnight.

Even those grow operations that weren’t in the line of the wildfires could suffer terrible losses. The fires probably won’t affect the price or availability of cannabis, but any plants exposed to smoke and ash could be damaged or susceptible to contaminants.

“It’s too early to know how this is going to impact the grows that were not directly burned but may have been exposed to ash and other toxic chemicals from the fires,” Madame Cannoli, manager for hash producer Frenchy Cannoli, tells SF Weekly.

Plenty of negative variables have put North Bay cultivators in a terrible spot. But one factor is coming through for them —  the generosity of the community.

Online fundraising campaigns have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the growers. Both San Francisco locations of the SPARC dispensary are collecting donations of nonperishable foods, toiletries, and pet foods.“For every story of loss, I am hearing three stories of bravery and five stories of hope,” Allen said last week. “Our community is strong, and we are going to get through this together.”

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