Is Pot Farming in My Future?
A 52-year-old organic farmer looks at the twists of fate that have brought her to a difficult decision: Should she switch from vegetables to marijuana cultivation?
More than 25 years ago, when I sat around with old college friends and smoked what turned out to be my last joint, I’m sure all of us would have laughed until we ached if someone had predicted my current situation. I’m now a plump, overeducated farmer who, with my husband and son, carves out a modest living as an organic vegetable producer. Gerry is the farmer; I’m the marketer, selling our produce at farmers markets around Redding, CA. Following a set of cultural, legal, and personal shifts that, for me, sometimes have an Alice in Wonderland-quality to them, I’m contemplating business decisions that leave me confused and a bit anxious. There’s now a real possibility that becoming a pot farmer may be the best route for my husband and me to recover from a 2009 bankruptcy and face up to the physical toll that farming has been taking on our ageing bodies. How on earth has this become my mid-life crisis?
We live in a tiny community in the mountains, where many people have clandestinely grown pot since the 1960s. In 2009, the U.S. Attorney General announced that the feds weren’t going to prosecute people who grew and used pot in accordance with a state’s medical marijuana regulations—even though, yes, marijuana cultivation is still illegal according to federal laws. Overnight, it felt like half our community got a prescription and began openly growing their own. The larger growers began supplying the medical marijuana dispensaries; folks who’d been just growing a little for themselves were now growing for all their friends. People who’d never grown suddenly felt the urge.
Liking to smoke pot does not, however, automatically make you a good pot grower. As a farmer familiar with greenhouses, growing seasons, soil amendments, fencing to keep out critters, etc., Gerry’s general agricultural expertise began to be widely sought after in whispered asides at the café. Students showed up in his community college class who openly wanted to learn organic gardening techniques to apply to their pot plants. He’s an intellectually curious farmer, so he bought the books and began asking questions of the more reserved “professional” pot growers, who responded well to him as a fellow horticulturalist. We’ve always been organic farmers, so he felt obligated to bring that perspective to his questioners: “Jeez, if you’re gonna use this as medicine, why would you use chemicals?”
We’ve seen trends take over in produce sales at the farmers market over the years, but growth in the marijuana market has been beyond explosive. It’s a land-rush, get-rich-quick mentality that has been sorting out the would-be pot profiteers by their skill sets, patience, and--no surprise--sobriety. If we could afford to just sit and watch, it would just be amusing. The stakes, however, may be getting much higher very soon, as California voters will vote on a proposition to legalize pot consumption and cultivation in November. A recent poll just showed that for the first time, a majority of voters approved the proposition.
Can we—and should we--start using our agricultural resources and marketing skills to raise pot? Hmm, we’re farmers in our fifties, with our primary farm worker, our teenage son, soon to leave home. We need to recover financially (nope, no retirement savings), and we need to shift our production model to one less labor intensive. We grow vegetables in a marginal climate that doesn’t quite allow us to make the farm self-sustaining...as we cast around for answers that allow us to remain farmers, we keep returning to this: If we no longer have to worry about legality and security issues, is marijuana the cash crop answer to all our problems?
If pot is legalized in California, who will be growing it? Cartels? Existing agribusinesses converting from grapes or cotton? Humboldt-area entrepreneurs, who are more than ready to scale up? Everyone, in their own backyards? Will prices tumble? Could we fill a niche demand for certified organic product, or just sell the clones (seedlings)? Will “locally grown” carry the same cachet for pot as it does for garlic?
When I sell vegetables, I have impassioned conversations with our customers about flavor, preparation, favorite recipes, etc. As a current non-user of pot, I don’t know how to have these conversations with potential customers. Am I willing to give up the direct sales model of the farmers market? I have no problem pressing excess tomatoes or melons on farm visitors, or donating items to local food banks. I want to hook children on our veggies, so I offer samples and farm tours for school kids. Somehow, I don’t think I can do this with pot. I support the medicinal uses of pot, but don’t enjoy being around obviously stoned people, and I sure don’t want to hire them. There is a lot at stake here that Gerry and I need to sort out soon, as neither our finances nor our bodies are getting any healthier. So, to my old college housemates, I hope you get a good laugh out of this essay, and if you’re still getting high, take a hit for me. Then, call me the next time you need some weed—I should have an answer by then.