When Oregon Blew It

Aldo Leopold, the great conservationist and writer, once wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I wonder what he would have to say about the way cannabis is grown in my part of Oregon.

Consider, for a moment, a nesting pair of red-tailed hawks, birds of prey whose mating patterns are monogamous, who protect and defend their home over many years. Think then of a private landowner who stewards her small farm with responsibility, and who watches and admires the hawks and their offspring. Consider the arrival of an industrial cannabis system next door, outsized in scale and suitability for its particular watershed, in essence large infrastructure made for substitute light, restricted air, and controlled climate for the purpose of a high yield, high cash crop.

Then come squirrels, which nibble at the crop’s roots. Next comes the cannabis growers’ response, the application of rodenticides, which they apparently have little knowledge about how to use, or maybe they just don’t care about the consequences. Imagine how that toxic substance moves through a system all connected—a system that might include insects, earthworms, the salamander, willow, song warblers, voles, squirrels. Picture the fatal kill of a single hawk. Then the empty nest.

***

White Oak Farm is situated in the hills of the rugged Siskiyou Mountains, which range from the coast of Oregon and California east, and where for a hundred miles the mountains arc into forests of fir, cedar, redwood, and pine. The farm is in the Williams Valley, a sub-watershed of the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon. It’s an organic vegetable and fruit farm on a southern slope, dotted with vigorous grape vines and fruit trees. I visited White Oak on a blistering day in May 2017, while dragonflies whirred and hummingbirds buzzed. Taylor Starr operates the farm with his wife Sarah Shea and their small daughter Willow, who ran through the perennial gardens in her summer dress like a sprite on the wind. Taylor (worn baseball hat, dirty T-shirt) sat down with me to discuss a complex issue splintering this small agricultural community: What happened to this community after cannabis was legalized?

The town of Williams, the home of White Oak Farm, is truly at the “end of the road”—only one small highway goes in and out, with the Siskiyou Mountains as a backdrop. With a population of 2,500, Williams has an active agricultural Grange (part of a US historical tradition of fraternal farmer organizations), a community center for a preschool and kindergarten, a few small general stores, a gas station, a bar, and a taco shop.

Taylor told me the history of the last fifty years of this place: People escaped conventional American culture to live in teepees and yurts, drive old Subarus, and shit in outhouses (you were up and coming if you had a composting toilet). A community of activists, artists, and farmers was born. For a long time, folks scraped together a living selling trinkets at craft fairs, plants and vegetables at the local market, and medical marijuana—which became legal in Oregon way back in 1998. “People grew medical marijuana to make extra income, not to create an empire,” Taylor said.

Empire builders would come later. As Steve Marks, the Executive Director of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, told Cannabis Wire, “The thing that was foreseeable was that Oregon’s system was crafted in such an open market way. You could have multiple licenses for growing. You could be vertically integrated…up the supply chain. You knew, with the interest, there was going to be a Gold Rush. It was going to be a very capitalistic, rough and tough market.”

In 2014, Measure 91 passed in Oregon, legalizing the production and use of cannabis for recreational purposes. The bill was signed into law by Governor Kate Brown in 2015. Since then, the state has been overwhelmed with the regulatory aspects of managing both the new recreational and the existing medical industries, as well as monitoring overall cannabis production—including how much is grown and the use of pesticides and water.

This has particularly negative ecological implications, among other repercussions. With the rapid influx of out-of-area growers developing the industry, and regulation continuing to be a problem in the state, the result has been an uncontrolled boom that is slowing down and leaving a great deal of ugliness in its wake.

The Oregon Health Authority released a report in May assessing the state’s medical marijuana program, citing many challenges faced by the state, including, as the report put it:

• “Insufficient and inaccurate reporting and tracking” of cannabis farming

• “Inability to validate grow site locations”

• “Dispensary and processor inspections [that] did not keep pace with applications”

• “Not enough inspections and enforcement of grow sites”

• “Resources unable to meet regulatory demand”

Among other things, the state has thus far not been able to track how much cannabis is in the medical system, according to the report, nor can it track its medical grow sites.

According to the report, in December 2017 the rate of compliance for reporting the cultivation of usable marijuana products was 26%. The state has admitted that “the program simply does not have the staff resources to issue civil penalties for the number of non-reporting growers.” This raises the question: How many illegal sites are operating in the state?

One result of all this is a continued overproduction of cannabis in the state, which is finding its way into out-of-state markets. Oregon’s US Attorney, Billy J. Williams, submitted a statement about cannabis in the state in response to the report, stating that Oregon’s cannabis industry “…is out of control. The industry’s considerable and negative impacts on land use, water, and underage consumption must be addressed immediately.”

Another report was released in July by law enforcement officials with the Oregon–Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, which, among other things, found that: “Illicit grow operations scar Oregon’s distinct ecosystems, by employing excessive amounts of pesticides, rodenticides, and herbicides, clearing vegetation, and clustering plants near water sources—disproportionately affecting ecologically critical areas.”

The report also found that some counties that have come to rely on cannabis income may face “a critical economic risk” as cannabis prices fall due to overproduction. It also had worries about  “acute hydrologic strain” on the water system because of “the exponential growth of cannabis cultivation.”

***

Oregon’s particularly lax regulation combined with the expanded economic opportunity attracted an influx of bad actors. And, as a result, the state’s cannabis community, in particular the growers in the southern part of the state, changed. For a long time before the legalization of recreational marijuana, growers were operating on a small scale as family businesses. Some were compliant with state laws regarding medical marijuana, and others sold cannabis into in-state and out-of-state black markets, but in both cases most of these growers were part of the local community. Many of these small growers are beginning to get out of the business now, due to the overproduction of cannabis in the state since the passage of Measure 91, driven by both licensed and unlicensed moneyed interests who are developing large-scale cannabis farms, and who often do not live or participate in the local community, and thus have less investment in the care of the land and community.

Another group has also emerged: an influx of growers planting large-scale monocropped cannabidiol (CBD)-rich hemp on many acres. It remains to be seen how they might contribute to and fit in with their local communities. Michael Johnson, Chief Operations Officer at Siskiyou Sungrown, a southwestern Oregon licensed cannabis grower offers this, “Many people have jumped off of the cannabis bandwagon and jumped onto the hemp bandwagon. The market for hemp is worldwide, and there’s a lot of ‘hope’ around this being the next best thing for Southern Oregon.”

But, he fears, there are too many growers producing more than the market can bear. “At the end of the day, hemp is heading the same way that cannabis is — with rock bottom pricing and a saturated marketplace,” Johnson said.

***

Map of the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion.

The Williams and Applegate Valleys became popular locations to grow medical marijuana under the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program during the seventeen-year gap between 1998, when medical cannabis became legal, and 2014, when recreational cannabis became legal. But as soon as the potential market expanded beyond 75,511 patients (in 2015) to a consumer base worth $280 million a year in 2016, small growers knew they could be forced, or bought, out of business. The legislation required that cannabis be grown on “Exclusive Farm Use” land with irrigation rights, where the highest quality topsoils are located. Some farmers cashed in on the rush by selling their farms at inflated prices.

The investors—venture capitalists, lawyers, and others—then paved over Class One and Class Two agricultural soils (the highest quality soils to grow crops) with gravel and rock, and constructed large-scale cannabis farms, essentially industrial warehouses of marijuana over several acres. Many of these new cannabis farms did not fit the landscape, in a topography known for its rustic charm and agricultural substance. “I’m not anti-cannabis,” says Taylor Starr, of White Oak Farm. “I’m anti-industrial. It’s a bad fit for the environment. It’s a bad fit for the community. I don’t have a problem with starting a business, but to me, it’s the scale—if it’s not going to use the dirt, the sun, the wind, then it shouldn’t be on farmland. Put it in industrial zones.”

The cannabis boom also brought other challenges to our communities, like traffic, theft, and violence. My own quiet two-lane rural road has a maximum speed limit of forty miles per hour, though I sometimes have to follow a tractor down the road at twenty. Now I encounter vehicles flying down the road at seventy-five. I no longer allow my children to ride their bikes there. A longtime resident of the Applegate was beaten into the hospital after asking a grower to slow down on the country roads. He is seventy-three.

At the local gas station and cafe in Applegate, I notice the new cannabis growers: white men mainly, who often drive brand-new trucks. It’s a scene that clashes with the transients who park their vans on the side of the highway, or the young dreadlocked hippies who hang out in parking lots with dogs and signs that say, “Fast trimmers for hire!”

All communities change, but something here is being lost. The Applegate Valley, of which Williams is a part, sits on the border of California and Oregon, in the great Rogue River Basin. The valley hosts a rich agricultural heritage of mixed farms—hay and woodlands, beef and dairy, tulips and prunes, pears and vineyards, and, in recent years, organic vegetable and seed production. The mountains surrounding the Applegate and Williams Valley are some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the contiguous United States, hosting populations of endemic plant and tree species and many rare species of animals including the Marten, Pacific Fisher, Northern Spotted Owl, and Roosevelt Elk. In addition, the Applegate River, a tributary of the great Rogue River, is a habitat for native Coho salmon, a rare subspecies endemic to this region that is struggling to maintain its population. Our small Thompson Creek watershed, meanwhile, hosts more than twenty small rural businesses, including a lavender farm; an organic cidery; an organic seed producer; growers of organic vegetables, grains, and beef; a small vineyard—and now, primarily, a line of cannabis farms up and down the road. I went to see a neighbor to get his opinion of the drastic changes in the landscape and what he thought might be the larger impacts on the watershed. Jakob Shockey works with the Applegate Partnership & Watershed Council as a restoration ecologist and lives on his parent’s homestead, which at one time, housed several generations of the family.

His commitment to land stewardship and community has always impressed me. He’s a tall man with a wide grin, and over green tea he told me about a neighbor who once described the Applegate area this way: “It’s poverty with a view.” In other words, people move here for the beauty of the landscape, but have a tough time making a living.

Jakob has worked for years with private landowners to help them restore the creek systems, and now he’s working with cannabis growers, at least the ones interested in preserving the land, which he says are few and far between. “I don’t walk creeks without express permission anymore,” he said. “It used to be that I can walk up on the neighbor and ask to walk the creek. And now, no way. It’s become a culture of locked gates, paranoia, dogs, cameras.”

And the questions remain: What will happen now that the boom has slowed, and in the aftermath of Oregon’s regulatory failure? What will occur in Oregon’s marketplace once other states legalize? And what kind of footprints will be left behind? The economy is thriving for some, but those interested in preserving the integrity of the ecosystem have little leverage.

For instance, Jakob tells me, it’s difficult to encourage some cannabis growers to consider alternatives to chemical-intensive production. Voles, which are relatives of the mouse, are a problem because, like squirrels, they nibble roots and chew on stalks and on drip lines where they can sense the water. As a result, D-Con rat poison is spread on a substantial scale, and thanks in part to the lack of oversight, they are often misused.

The vole starts the cannabis contaminant chain reaction. The problem rodent, after ingesting the poison, becomes sicker and sicker until it’s picked off by a predator, perhaps a hawk. The poison travels right up the food chain, with no checks on usage and scale. Agricultural producers can purchase rodenticides “over the counter”—with no license or certification, according to Kaci Buhl, an Oregon State University Extension statewide pesticide specialist. “They are not restricted-use pesticides.” In northern California and southern Oregon, the endangered Pacific Fishers and Northern Spotted Owls have been poisoned and hawks are disappearing. “It’s a Silent Spring moment in a sense,” Jakob said, “because it is killing the entire trophic system in the forest.”

I’m worried about this transformation not just for the wildlife, but because of the possible water pollution to the watershed and on my organic vegetable business and on my community. My husband and I started our farm in 2006 and have been farming five to seven acres of organic vegetables ever since. We have never grown cannabis, though we’ve talked about it, but really, our interest is in food. Farming changes landscapes, but it’s always been our approach to manage the land for biodiversity, for the integrity of the ecosystem, to leave borders of land flowering in native shrubs and plants, to maintain habitat for any number of insects and butterflies, to encourage the substance of a place.

If cannabis were to be grown in a way that accommodates this pace of nature, that mimics the biological systems inherent on earth, that understands the complexity of soil tilth, of what it means to hold the land as refuge for future climate change and uncertainty, respect for the future, then perhaps so many of us wouldn’t have a problem with the cannabis industry. But we do.

***

I happened to run into a large-scale investor of one local cannabis farm, a man named Wayne, at a winery on a cool June afternoon. He was a handsome black man with graying hair and a leather jacket.

I asked why he was visiting. He replied, “I own a cannabis farm. Checking in on my investment.”

Bingo. “Oh, which farm?” I casually asked.

“The old Woodcock ranch. On Highway 238?”

“No shit,” I said. “I know that place.”

Wayne, a venture capitalist from Kansas, was forthcoming about his million-dollar investment. He was frustrated that he couldn’t build houses on his farm because of Oregon’s stringent land use laws, which restrict housing on Exclusive Farm Use land (a zoning designation meant to keep farmland from being broken into parcels too small to farm).

I asked him, “Have you heard from the community? People are quite upset with all the greenhouses you’ve put up on that land.”

He shrugged. “No, hadn’t heard a thing.” He smiled and sipped his wine.

Out-of-state corporations and investors, like Wayne, have been building light deprivation greenhouses that cost more than $60,000 to build and even more to power, with twenty-four-hour lighting to maximize the buds they produce. The investors sometimes come with years of experience growing marijuana in a basement to avoid detection. Ultimately, they are transferring these skills to the outdoor setting.

In 2017, property values were rising; there was a 24% increase in the Town of Williams land values in the last two years since legalization, though I’ve noticed a substantial decrease in industrial-sized operations moving into the area since California legalized. In fact, many grow operations aren’t even in production this year despite the large investments in infrastructure. Advocates tried to write in a residency requirement into the cannabis law, something that would have slowed the development of the industry and barred out of state interests, but that amendment didn’t make it into the final version.

One of the new cannabis grow sites in the region where the author lives. (Photo provided by Melissa Matthewson)

Most of all, community members here continue to lament the layers of rock put down on Class One and Class Two soils. Town meetings highlight the struggle to balance community needs and municipal budgets. County commissioners are the only representatives who can field the issues, and their hands are more or less tied because they need the tax revenues, especially in struggling counties that used to depend on industries like logging and mining.

One evening in the summer of 2017, I attended a meeting at the downtown Medford library to listen to a panel of experts discuss the issues around food and cannabis. The room was filled with hundreds of people: cannabis growers, concerned community members, activists, farmers, ecologists, government officials. A local television reporter stood off to the side. The question was posed: What are the challenges and opportunities around cannabis and food agriculture? Josh LeBombard, a representative for the Oregon Department of Conservation & Land Development, suggested that some opportunities do exist in cannabis legalization, including the opportunity to use quality agricultural land for a high-value agricultural product like cannabis. Growing cannabis also reduces pressure to convert farmland to residential.

The opportunities, though, are not necessarily in balance with the challenges. Because of Oregon’s regulatory problems, the opportunity to develop a sustainable cannabis industry is overlooked.

At the cannabis meeting, the Jackson County Water Master, Shavon Haynes, reported that since 2015, 106 groundwater applications were filed, all related to cannabis, which could pose stress on the water system. To use water for agricultural purposes in the state of Oregon, a landowner must have a right to draw that water, assigned by the state and federal water agencies. The history of water in the West is a nuanced and complex subject, and farmers have historically had to negotiate over water. Some cannabis growers, though, are plowing ahead with their farms with or without these rights.

Ninety-five per cent of the new groundwater applications have been for nursery use, which cannabis falls under, and which allows for a longer period of time for irrigation during the season. Landowners are not allowed to irrigate from surface waterways during the winter season. Particularly in the West, where water is scarce, enforcement of irrigation rights is imperative to the integrity of our watersheds. And enforcement isn’t easy as there aren’t resources to regulate unchecked water use.

In fact, regulation is mostly based on the honor system. Cannabis actually uses less irrigation water and more efficient delivery methods than crops like hay or vegetables, but some farmers and community members question the honesty of many growers about how much water they are pulling and whether they have a right to the water. Down the road from where I live, a grower from Texas cleared the hillside of trees, dropped a culvert in the ravine, pushed the hillside over, and then filled the ravine, which inevitably will impact waterways by filling the creek with sediment from the eroded hillside.

“People are putting in big ponds next to the creek,” said Jakob, “which is not good for the aquatic system” because they create “massive cesspools of invasive species like bullfrogs.”

“The regulatory authorities can’t keep up,” Jakob said.  He worries about now, as the industry wreaks havoc on the ecosystem, and the future, when the cannabis boom in the region is over, either because of tighter regulations or other states legalizing.

Even if some cannabis growers wanted an operation more in harmony with the ecosystem, they have few resources to lean on. Currently, there is a lack of education and research on best management practices for sustainable cannabis production. Oregon universities can’t research the plant as much as they’d like because they could jeopardize federal funding to the institution, since the crop remains federally illegal. The community has assembled and distributed pamphlets on best management practices, as well as holding workshops, but it is unclear if that can that be enough to encourage better management.

Another problem is the loss of water rights in the region over time—many of the cannabis grow sites are only using a few acres, and if the rest of the land is not used for irrigation, those rights can be cancelled after five years of non-use. Because of the scarcity of water and the complexity of agricultural water uses, it’s critical to preserve these agricultural water rights for the future agricultural use of the property, or our fruit and vegetable crops could end up in a default drought. Some sort of co-existence with other agricultural crops is one possible solution, though it doesn’t currently exist (though some growers are experimenting with its viability)—a mixed system of cannabis and hay, cannabis and grapes, or cannabis and vegetables.

***

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” If so, then how to reconcile the impacts that cannabis agriculture is having on soil systems?  

Soils are important for preventing erosion, for modulating effects of greenhouse gases, for food production and regulating floods and droughts, for recycling nutrients, cleaning waste and water. They are the foundation of a healthy landscape. If we take just the soil resource, in particular the limited remaining high quality soils we have for food production, can we really afford to pave over valuable land for a recreational drug? Isn’t there a better way to grow the plant? In an organic farming system, or at least one that manages for soil health, farmers build organic matter, they pay attention to the soil life from fungi to bacteria to earthworms. A system that farms with integrity holds the ecosystem as a model for engagement with the land. That’s where some of the cannabis industry seems to be failing.

I visited a friend, Elise Higley, who owns Oshala Farm, an organic herb farm in the Applegate, in southwest Oregon, that grows medicinal herbs like burdock, nettle, mullein, and clover, among others, on contract for various large companies. She’s also an activist and a fireball, with wild curly hair and a no-nonsense disposition. “Applegate is an oasis of agricultural soils not contaminated by pesticides and herbicides, which as a medicinal herb grower is important to me,” she said. “We need to protect the Applegate as a soil refuge from the threat of paving over this soil heritage.”

Cedar Gray, CEO of Siskiyou Sungrown, thinks that cannabis can be grown here in a mutually beneficial way that works with the natural environment. Cedar and his wife Madrone have been long time legal growers of medical marijuana in Williams. I went to visit their operation, which is a 2.5-acre recreational site of 2,500 plants. We sat on the deck, which overlooks the cannabis fields. Their workers scurried about to manage the greenhouses and plants. Cedar and Madrone’s crop of cannabis is grown on their farm, outdoors, roots in the soil, with the sun and water and wind. Much of what they grow is processed into their extract products, though some is sold to other processors, and some sold as flower to be smoked. They grow using mostly organic standards (though the federal government doesn’t allow organic certification of cannabis).

As the sun beat down on us, Cedar told me, “It’s funny and sad that there’s the general attitude that cannabis needs to be grown in something other than native soil. There’s a lot of people growing on pretty good ag land and they are spending huge sums of money importing soil mixes when they could just amend their native soil, and the plants would do great.”

Cedar acknowledged the community conflicts over the new corporate cannabis system moving into the region. “It’s a really unfortunate agricultural model, especially down here in southern Oregon. If they want to have to have an operation like that, it should be in White City, or in the Medford warehouse district because that operation could occur on a parking lot,” he said. “Everyone would be a lot happier.”

***

The ripple effects of the cannabis economy are numerous. Some rural businesses are flourishing due to the industry’s growth: farm suppliers, soil suppliers, irrigation companies, those who run service businesses for landscape work, the local grocery stores. One local company, Ewing Irrigation, has changed its entire business structure to cater to cannabis growers.

But what will happen in five years when more states have legalized and the prices drop? When all the private operations sell off? What happens to the land?  

What happens to my land, my family farm, which is steadying itself as cannabis surrounds us on all sides. Will we survive these changes?

I can return to the hawk, I suppose, and nature, which always reminds me of the right thing to do. I can return to wildness, of how to farm with ecosystem benefits, with wild grasses and rattlesnakes nesting on the range. I can come back to the idea of resilience, too, of security for a food system, and the preservation of agricultural soils for the future.

And we can remind ourselves of our local history, which included the gold rush: that greed never turns out well. That if we are not careful, what will be left in its wake will be a community divided, a quality of life degraded, and an environment undone.


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