Emerald Triangle

Cannabis Cultivation, Carbon Budgets, and the Promise of Biochar

(Note: This is the final post in a brief end-of-the-year series on marijuana cultivation. After this series is over, GeoCurrents will take a short break. More conventional posting will resume by the middle of January.)

As is explained in a previous post, most marijuana growing currently carried out in California and neighboring states is environmentally destructive, generating a gargantuan carbon footprint. But it need not be. As I have learned from interviewing small-scale growers in northwestern California, the cultivation of cannabis can be done in an environmentally benign manner. The problem, as these producers see it, is the fact that neither the marijuana market nor the environmental movement gives them any credit for their efforts. They persist nonetheless, with the more devoted among them trying to figure out how to reduce their impact as much as possible.

The purpose of this post is merely to provide the perspective of a small group of individuals engaged in an interesting and legally nebulous* activity, not to advocate on their behalf. My own eco-political viewpoint, it is essential to note, deviates markedly from theirs. I adhere to the philosophy of eco-modernism, which holds that environmental protection is best achieved through continuing economic growth and technological progress, whereas they tend to be eco-romantics, skeptical of—if not hostile toward—both high technology and untrammelled economic development.

It is also important to note that although my interviewees all consider themselves ardent environmentalists, they themselves deviate from conventional green thinking, most importantly by veering toward a form of left-wing libertarianism. As is common among rural property owners, they are not opposed to the notion of property rights, and they generally think that they should be able to do they think is best on their own lands, allowing for reasonable exceptions. As a result, they are not fond of land-use restrictions and permitting regimes, and they are happy that the county in which they live is quite relaxed about such issues. Most of them also own guns, drive trucks, ride all-terrain vehicles, use chainsaws, and do not hesitate to employ heavy earth-moving equipment. Their culture might best be described as an unlikely hippie-redneck synthesis, which is precisely why I find it so fascinating. But unlike either the stereotypical hippie or redneck, these people tend to be well-read and highly intellectually engaged.

Environmentally conscientious growers are helped by the fact that cannabis is a hardy plant that is not particularly troubled by insects or other pests. To be sure, in greenhouses and indoor cultivation facilities, some pests can multiply uncontrollably, especially spider mites. But the growers I interviewed claim that in their operations this is almost never a problem. They did mention a few minor issues with leafhoppers and caterpillars of unknown species, but they also maintain OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthat manual removal is adequate to keep their populations in check (small-scale growers typically lavish extraordinary attention on each plant). Their only real problem is bud-mold during the maturation period. Some spray neem oil on their plants during the earlier vegetative stage to reduce mold infestations, but once the buds have started to form the only remedy is manual removal followed by the spraying of alcohol to thwart further spread. Disagreement about the efficacy of this technique, however, is pronounced.

As mentioned in previous posts, one of the major forms of environmental damage associated with outdoor cultivation if the use of rodenticides to control woodrats. My informants again insist that this is not an issue in their operations. Woodrats do not actually eat cannabis plants, Woodratthey told me, but rather use the stems for nest building. One grower admitted that he had had a rat problem in his first year of operation, but after one season of concerted trapping he no longer suffers much damage. Separating gardens from the surrounding woods and meadows with stout redwood fencing, a precaution demanded by the county, also seems to help in this regard. Fencing also prevents harm from feral hogs, which can otherwise be a huge headache. Hogs do not eat the plants, but they do root into the irrigated soil for worms, causing extensive damage.

Although outdoor marijuana growing is vastly less carbon-intensive than indoor cultivation, it is certainly not carbon free. Everyone that I interviewed pumps water from wells, as cannabis is a water-demanding crop and the area in question has a Mediterranean climate with a rainless summer. One grower hopes to install solar panels to operate his pump, and another outlined a scheme for storing runoff during the rainy season, but as it now stands, they all use either grid-delivered electricity or fossil-fuel-powered generators. In the harvest season, the dehumidification of drying rooms is also necessary. In a year such as 2014, when the initial rains were relatively warm, dehumidification can be a major energy drain. During this season, intensive illumination is also required for trimming crews during the evening hours.

cloning2Even larger energy expenses are encountered among those who plant clones rather than seeds. Clones have one huge advantage over seeds, as every plant is guaranteed to be female, and males are worthless. The main problem with clones is that they cannot be grown exclusively under sunlight until late May, which reduces their growing time and therefore limits their size. This restraint stems from the fact that clones are obtained from indoor growers who keep them under light for 18 hours a day; as cannabis flowering is keyed to day length, if a clone is planted when the nights are still relatively long, the plants will prematurely bud. As a result, even outdoor growers sometimes augment the sun with artificial illumination for the first few weeks or even month of the growing season. Even Light Deprivationmore energy-demanding is the greenhouse-based system of light deprivation, which requires especially early planting but allows especially early harvesting, the latter achieved by artificially reducing day-length in the early summer with opaque coverings. But according to the more environmentally fastidious growers, “light dep” is halfway to indoor cultivation and is therefore to be shunned.

Some of those who grow by seed disdain the entire cloning procedure as unnatural. They further argue that clones are often weak, especially if they are derived from old mother-plants, and that even in the best of circumstances they never develop proper taproots. The main problem faced by those who grow from seeds is the fact that roughly half of their plants will be males, which not only must be uprooted and discarded, but which can also contaminate an entire crop if they release pollen before they are detected. Daily vigilance is needed to avoid this potential disaster. To remain within the new-ebb-n-flow+blackjack-clones3-16-10-0301county’s 25-plant limit throughout the season, such growers are therefore restricted to some 12 or 13 plants in the end. Some purchase expensive “feminized seeds” to try to increase the ratio of females to males, but the efficacy of this technique is also much debated.

But if carbon emissions are an unavoidable consequence of the cannabis production process, some growers nevertheless think that their operations can be carbon neutral or even carbon negative in the end. The key procedure here is carbon sequestration, Biochar1accomplished by burying charcoal the soil. Charcoal used in this manner is called biochar, which is defined by the Wikipedia as:

a name for charcoal when it is used for particular purposes, especially as a soil amendment. Like most charcoal, biochar is created by pyrolysis of biomass. Biochar is under investigation as an approach to carbon sequestration to produce negative carbon dioxide emissions. Biochar thus has the potential to help mitigate climate change, via carbon sequestration. Independently, biochar can increase soil fertility of acidic soils (low pH soils), increase agricultural productivity, and provide protection against some foliar and soil-borne diseases. Furthermore, biochar reduces pressure on forests. Biochar is a stable solid, rich in carbon and can endure in soil for thousands of years.

terra pretaAs environmentally diligent growers are quick to note, biochar has been used to enhance soil fertility and texture for thousands of years. It has been revealed as the secret ingredient of the perennially fertile terra preta soils of the Amazon Basin, which formed islands of agricultural productivity in an area otherwise noted for its impoverished soils, almost useless for long-term farming. These anthropogenic soils terra preta mapare discussed in detail in Charles Mann’s best-selling book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, a work well known among these growers. Interestingly, much of Mann’s analysis is rooted in the scholarship of geographers such as William Devevan who had trained in the old Berkeley school of cultural geography, the source of my own graduate education.

Growers who use biochar in hope of neutralizing their carbon budgets are also concerned about soil fertility. Charcoal by itself does not enhance fertility to a significant degree and can even be harmful if used in raw form, but it does allow fertility maintenance by greatly reducing nutrient leaching; it also boosts soil porosity and water retention. Biochar enthusiasts claim to be making investments that will last for thousands of years, permanently improving the quality of their lands. Growers who use biochar also argue that it produces healthier plants than those grown under other conditions. They have not, however, carried out any controlled experiments.

The growers I interviewed produce biochar in a crude manner. They simply burn piles of firewood during the rainy season, and then shovel dirt on the glowing embers after the flames have died down. The resulting charcoal, along with the potassium-rich ash, is then thrown into large hand-dug holes, approximately four feet deep and ten feet across, where it is mixed with manure, compost, and native soil and then allowed to age for months before planting. The growers admit, however, that this process is far from ideal, as it is both wasteful and polluting, generating a great deal of smoke. Much preferable, they contend, would be wood pyrolysis, which would allow them to capture both the flammable gasses and the smoke particles, turning them into useful products. The video pasted in below, produced at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, shows what they regard as an ideal system, one that would produce not only biochar but also wood-gas for home, water, or greenhouse heating, as well as wood tar (creosote); how exactly the wood tar would be used remains unclear**. But despite the enthusiasm of a few growers, no one has yet constructed a pyrolysis apparatus. One problem is that dreams here tend to exceed realities. Whether that results from excess consumption of the crop produced on these micro-farms remains an open question.



Finally, the enthusiasm for biochar extends beyond carbon sequestration and soil improvement to encompass landscape management. A significant amount of wood must be cut every year, they insist, to preserve the existing ecological balance. The area in question supports a vegetational mosaic in which dense redwood and tanoak forests predominate on north- and east-facing slopes, but where south- and west-facing slopes are, or at least were, mostly covered by grass. Rainfall is heavy enough, however, that forests spread everywhere in the absence of human intervention. In earlier times, regular burning maintained the mosaic. Native Americans burned extensively, and the sheep-raising settlers who replaced them intensified the practice. But with fires all but eliminated, grassy slopes are being colonized vigorously by Douglas fir and a few other light-loving tree species. As a result, open-country animals such as jackrabbits (hares, actually) that were formerly abundant have been diminishing in number. Biochar production, its proponents argue, thus helps maintain a higher level of biodiversity than would otherwise be found.

biochar2One grower goes so far as to contend that biochar offers a global solution to almost all problems associated with climate change, energy production, and agricultural productivity. Here my deeply cultivated skepticism kicks in. At the local scale, biochar does seem to offer a number of advantages, but in planetary terms I suspect that its promise is quite limited. But I would certainly like to see more research on the topic.

* As mentioned in the first post in this series, the growers in question all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. According to the federal government of the United States, however, their activities are completely illegal.

**Wood tar does have a wide array of potential uses, the most intriguing of which are medicinal and gustatory. Food preserved by smoking is essentially conserved by tar. According to the Wikipedia,

Tar Liquor SaunaIn Finland, wood tar was once considered a panacea reputed to heal “even those cut in twain through their midriff”. A Finnish proverb states that “if sauna, vodka and tar won’t help, the disease is fatal.” Wood tar is used in traditional Finnish medicine because of its microbicidal properties.


Wood tar is also available diluted as tar water, which has numerous uses:

  • As a flavoring for candies (e.g., Terva Leijona) and alcohol (Terva Viina)

  • As a spice for food, like meat

  • As a scent for saunas. Tar water is mixed into water, which is turned into steam in the sauna

  • As an anti-dandruff agent in shampoo

  • As a component of cosmetics.

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NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry

Emerald Triangle MapOn December 4, 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting story on a severely underreported matter: international seasonal labor migration to the “Golden Triangle” of marijuana cultivation in northwestern California. This report—“With Harvest Season, ‘Trimmigrants’ Flock To California’s Pot Capital”*—captured many of the more intriguing and important aspects of the phenomenon. But it also missed some significant things and made a few doubtful assertions. This post seeks to provide a more comprehensive picture.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to outline my own sources of information. Although the evidence in most GeoCurrents posts derives from a variety of published materials and on-line sources, this one relies entirely on oral interviews. Since my earliest years, I have spent a considerable amount of time recreating in Mendocino County, arguably California’s cannabis core (neighboring Humboldt County, however, would contest that claim). After a close friend moved to the county, I began to meet his neighbors and attend local events. I have been to road-association meetings, informal community gatherings, and even assemblies devoted to dealing with troublesome neighbors. The last-mentioned gathering led to a particularly riveting experience: an afternoon in a Mendocino County courtroom considering requests for restraining orders. As the case that I was interested in came last, I got to witness six compelling micro-dramas, several of which involved marijuana cultivation in one way or another. The tragedy, pathos, and unintended comedy of the proceedings surpassed anything that I have seen on film or in television shows.

I have devoted time to exploring Mendocino County because I find it an environmentally gorgeous and culturally captivating place. Eventually, although probably not until retirement, I plan to write a historical geography of the county, focusing on the history of land-use. I have not yet dipped into the local archives, but I have been informally gathering oral histories from talkative residents for some time.

After listening to the NPR story mentioned above, I arranged to meet first with a few marijuana growers and then with a group of itinerant workers to discuss the issues faced by “trimmigrants.” The growers interviewed all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. All of them found the NPR report to be insightful but incomplete and somewhat exaggerated. But my sample of growers, it is necessary to note, is both highly limited and confined to one small area. As a result, this post should not necessarily be taken as representative of the larger enterprise.

According to the NPR story, European trimmers are favored by most growers over American youths, who are often disparaged as “hippie kids.” The reporter interviewed a young man named Fermin who had been unsuccessfully seeking work for a month and was forced to “dumpster dive” for food. My sources were not surprised by Fermin’s plight, but they nonetheless expressed doubt that American trimmers per se face discrimination. In their operations, local youths are the first to be hired and the last to be let off. Partly this is due to basic community ties, but it is also a matter of these youngsters’ deep experience with a demanding job. One local girl joked about “being born with a pair of scissors in my hand,” and others told of not being allowed to watch television or listen to music as children until their daily allotments had been trimmed. But people like Fermin, scruffy outsiders with Pit Bull Terriers, would only be hired in a case of desperation.

Fermin’s problems extend beyond his appearance, choice of pet, and lack of local contacts to encompass his gender. Men, everyone agreed, are disfavored when it comes to the delicate job of trimming. Although they agreed that they were being “politically incorrect,” the growers insisted that women have, on average, much better fine-motor skills than men, as well as more patience with a grindingly monotonous task that often goes on for more than twelve hours a day. Trimmers are usually paid by the pound, as noted by NPR, and as a result the slower-working men make much less money than the generally faster women. But quality also factors in, as buds must be carefully manicured but not trimmed down so much as to cut into the weight, and workers must remain vigilant in searching for mold, the growers’ worst nightmare. Relatively few men, I was informed, can pass the test of the more demanding artisanal cannabis cultivators. When young men do find work, it is more often in harvesting, hanging buds, and covering unharvested plants with plastic sheeting before rain events. There is much less demand, however, for this kind of labor than there is for trimming.

Of the seasonal workers I interviewed, four were locals (three female, one male) and four were Spaniards (all female). Three of the Spaniards came from the same part of Spain, an area well known for both its high-end tourism and countercultural flair. Some of them have been coming to the Emerald Triangle for years, but one was on her first trip, having been tearfully forced to leave a 14-year-old daughter at home. They all talked about the difficulty of finding employment in Spain, and all maintained that a two-month stint in California could allow them to subsist for the rest of the year back home. Getting work for the full two months, however, did not always prove easy, as small-scale growers only hire trimming crews for a week or two. As a result, they had all traveled back and forth among different “grows” in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties. In finding such work, all were indebted to another person hailing from the same region of Spain. This woman’s outsized personality and immense knowledge of cannabis processing, gained in Morocco and India as well as in Spain and the United States, allows her to serve as a kind of informal, international go-between. When issues arose among the workers and between the workers and their employers, she would be called, in Spain, for consultation.

Other aspects of the NPR story generated skepticism among the growers. They scoffed at the assertion of one cultivator who claims to harvest eight pounds per plant, and then laughed when he said that the plants in question are of the OG Kush variety. Eight-pound plants are legendary: everyone has heard of them, but no one has actually seen one. And while OG Kush is indeed the cultivar of the year, in hot demand by the metropolitan cognoscenti, but it is a notoriously poor producer, usually yielding fewer than two pounds per plant. In the end, my sources could not decide whether the grower interviewed by NPR was greatly exaggerating the yield of his plants, or whether they themselves needed to do something to improve their own cultivation.

The NPR story ended, as these things often do, on a doleful note:

But as laws around the country change — making marijuana legal — analysts say the pay scale is bound to go down, making trimming more like any other low-paid farmwork. And, like farmwork across the country, marijuana production is already becoming mechanized — gradually making trimmigrants a thing of the past.

California-top-cash-crops-1024x638These assertions, not surprisingly, generated much discussion. The first elicited general agreement: the prospect of full legalization makes growers nervous. The idea that mechanization is replacing manual trimming, however, evoked only scoffing. Attempts have been made, they told me, but all have failed. One grower even purchased a $14,000 automatic trimmer a few years ago, a machine designed to process hops (Humulus [hops] and Cannabis are very closely related plants). But the buds had to be pre-trimmed before going into the mechanism, as it cannot handle large stems, and then post-trimmed after coming out, as medical-marijuana dispensaries are exacting customers. More problematic, the machine had to be shut down and cleaned several times an hour, as the resinous buds would quickly gum-up the cutting blades. After a few days of operation, the machine was put into storage and has remained there ever since.

But as alluded to above, threats to marijuana cultivation across the Emerald Triangle are very real. Prices are steadily dropping, and some growers are now having a difficult time making ends meet. The real problem is that of competition from indoor cultivation, which is coming to dominate the market. Indoor buds are more uniform than those grown under the sun, generally have less mold, and are usually more potent as well. As a result, they command a steep price premium, and many medical dispensaries are no longer even willing to sell outdoor pot.

The growers that I interviewed are both dumbfounded and heartbroken by this development, as indoor cannabis cultivation is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of agriculture imaginable, whereas their own “sun grown” product is environmentally benign. They cannot understand why the marijuana market, of all things, would disdain organic farming and instead embrace a hyper-technological, eco-hostile form of production. Regional and generational antipathies also come into play. My interviewees are mostly in their 50s and 60s, and they strongly identify with the neo-rural cultural values of the Emerald Triangle; their indoor competitors, in contrast, are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and are largely based in major metropolitan areas. “We invented this business in the 1970s,” my sources argued, “and we did so under extraordinarily adverse conditions, and now these environmentally unconscionable kids, these corporate wannabe LA pot-snobs, are undermining our livelihoods! How can that be?”

Farmers, in my experience, almost always complain, about both the weather and their agricultural markets, whether they grow wheat, corn, or cannabis. But as we shall see in subsequent posts coming next week, the environmental arguments made by Mendocino County pot growers are difficult to deny.

*The text version of this article at the NPR website is abbreviated; listen to the audio version for the full story.

Note that the location for the story has been keyed to Mendocino’s county seat, Ukiah, rather than to the actual places of cultivation and processing alluded to in the post.

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Unnecessary Environmental Destruction from Marijuana Cultivation in the United States

cannabis legal status mapOver the past several years, the campaign for marijuana legalization has surged ahead in the United States. Colorado and Washington have voted for full legalization, and a number of other states now allow the consumption of medical cannabis. Yet the U.S. federal government still regards the substance as a “Schedule 1” drug, more dangerous and less useful than cocaine or methamphetamine. The position of cannabis in American society is a deeply charged issue undergoing a sea change in the court of public opinion.

drug harm graphMarijuana legalization advocates make strong claims. By most objective measurements, cannabis is less harmful than alcohol from both a social and a medical perspective. But those who favor legalization would be advised not to overstate their case. As is true in regard to any substance, marijuana generates problems. Perhaps its most severe drawback is environmental damage, an inconvenient truth that is usually overlooked by legalization supporters. Consider, for example, the graph on the left, recently posted by the renowned blogger Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is a proponent not only of marijuana legalization but also of its judicious use, as reflected in his book, The Cannabis Closet. Although I am persuaded by most of Sullivan’s arguments, I think that he erred in posting this graph, which purports to show the extent of damages imparted by various drugs. Are we really expected to believe that alcohol is more harmful that heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine? It would seem that the purpose is to shock rather than inform.

Although I am tempted to break down the graph and criticize its various components, I will confine my attention to one feature: the environmental damage of cannabis production. According to the figure, such costs are almost negligible, as can be seen in the inset illustration (which I have modified to highlight cannabis). In reality, the environmental damage imposed by marijuana growing is massive.

The most extreme form of environmental degradation associated with the cannabis industry stems from indoor cultivation. Growing indoors requires not merely intensely bright lights, but also extensive ventilation and dehumidification systems. The result is a gargantuan carbon footprint. According to a well-researched 2012 report:

The analysis performed in this study finds that indoor Cannabis production results in energy expenditures of $6 billion each year–6-times that of the entire U.S. pharmaceutical industry–with electricity use equivalent to that of 2 million average U.S. homes. This corresponds to 1% of national electricity consumption or 2% of that in households. The yearly greenhouse-gas pollution (carbon dioxide, CO2 ) from the electricity plus associated transportation fuels equals that of 3 million cars. Energy costs constitute a quarter of wholesale value.

Colossal energy use is not the only environmental drawback of indoor marijuana cultivation. Plants in such artificial environments are susceptible to a variety of pests and pathogens, often requiring heavy doses of biocides. Spider mites are a particular problem for cannabis producers. In order to prevent mold infestations, growers maintain low humidity levels, favoring mite proliferation. And as noted by the Wikipedia, “[their] accelerated reproductive rate allows spider mite populations to adapt quickly to resist pesticides, so chemical control methods can become somewhat ineffectual when the same pesticide is used over a prolonged period.”

Growing sun-loving plants in buildings under artificial suns is the height of environmental and economic lunacy. Outdoors, the major inputs—light and air—are free. Why then do people pay vast amounts of money to grow cannabis indoors, regardless of the huge environmental toll and the major financial costs? The reasons are varied. Outdoor cultivation is climatically impossible or unfeasible over much of the country. Everywhere, the risk of detection is much reduced for indoor operations. Indoor crops can also be gathered year-round, whereas outdoor harvests are an annual event. But the bigger spur for artificially grown cannabis appears to be consumer demand. As noted in a Huffington Post article “indoor growers … produce the best-looking buds, which command the highest prices and win the top prizes in competitions.” In California’s legal (or quasi-legal) medical marijuana dispensaries, artificially grown cannabis enjoys a major price advantage, due largely to the more uniformly high quality of the product.

Journalists have been noting the environmental harm of indoor marijuana cultivation for some time. Unfortunately, few people seem to care. In 2011, the San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that environmental concerns were leading some consumers to favor outdoor marijuana, but any such changes have not yet been reflected in market prices. In the cannabis industry, as in the oil industry, ecological damage does not seem to be much of an issue.

dead fisher marijuanaBut even if indoor cultivation were to come to an end, the environmental harm of cannabis cultivation would not thereby disappear. Outdoor growing usually relies on heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, which can easily pollute waterways if not done correctly. Total water use is pronounced as well, which is an issue in the dry-summer cultivation areas of California. The most serious eco-threat, however, is posed by the rodenticides used to combat wood rats. These poisons endanger not merely rodents, but also the carnivores that prey upon them. In far northwestern California, the fisher (Martes pennanti)—rare to begin with—has been put in serious jeopardy by backwoods cultivators.

Cannabis can be raised in an environmentally responsible manner, as it often is by individual growers. Healthy outdoor plants suffer little damage from insects and other invertebrates. Mammals seldom eat the leaves, and wood-rat gnawing causes only minor damage in most areas. The highest yields, moreover, are obtained by those who avoid chemicals in favor of compost, manure, and biochar (buried charcoal). The liberal use of biochar, moreover, can actually generate a negative carbon footprint, as it involves sequestering carbon in the soil. Biochar is also one of the best long-term agricultural investments imaginable; the tierra preta soils of the Amazon, made by indigenous peoples before 1500, have maintained their fertility for centuries in an environment otherwise characterized by impoverished soils that cannot retain nutrients.

Cannabis production by stateGiven these advantages, why is organic cannabis cultivation in general, and the use of biochar more specifically, not more widespread? One crucial issue, which holds for organic farming the world over, is the amount of labor required, which is considerable. But equally important is the lack of consumer demand. In the cannabis market, relatively few buyers consider environmental costs, focusing instead on quality and appearance. And even those who do care about ecological consequences are thwarted by the impossibility of certifying sustainable production. Perhaps carbon-negative biochar-produced cannabis could command a price premium in some markets, but consumers have no way to know if such methods were actually used.

California top cash cropsThis situation is more than a little hypocritical. Both legalization advocates and the environmental community simply give a pass to some of the most environmentally destructive agricultural practices found on Earth. Pot consumers themselves tacitly support hyper-destructive “farming” by their eagerness to pay a premium for indoor product. Yet these same groups tend toward green politics, and many of their members are unforgiving when it comes to “non-sustainable” practices used by other farmers. Self-interest usually generates some level of moral blindness, but here it seems to be particularly pronounced.

California Precipitation Emerald Triangle MapIf cannabis cultivation in the United States were to move in an environmentally benign direction, California’s leading position would be greatly enhanced. California is unquestionably the top marijuana producer in the U.S., and the crop is without doubt the state’s most valuable. In his masterful 2010 Field Guide to California Agriculture, geographer Paul F. Starrs estimated the value of the California cannabis harvest at between $19 and $40 billion: if the former figure is correct, the crop is worth roughly half the value of all other agricultural products in the state; if the latter figure is accurate, then its value exceeds that of everything else combined. Due to climate, top-quality outdoor cannabis is difficult or impossible to produce in other states. Low humidity is required during the long maturation period in September and October; otherwise, mold infestations can rage out of control. Owing to its Mediterranean climate, California has favorable conditions, although in the prime growing counties of the Emerald Triangle, located in the wettest part of the state, mold is still the growers’ bane. As a result, cultivators welcome the Diablo Winds, warm dry easterlies that periodically blow in the autumn months. As is always the case, geography matters.

(Note: much of the information in this post was derived from interviews with cannabis growers, persons who understandably prefer to remain anonymous.)


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The 1970s Transformation of California’s North Coast

The previous GeoCurrents post noted that Mendocino County remained in the Democratic-voting camp after California’s geopolitical transformation largely because it experienced a demographic transformation of its own during the same period. The first glimmerings of this sea change can be dated to 1957, when artist Bill Zacha settled in the coastal village of Mendocino and established an art center. According to a 1962 Look magazine article, the town was moribund, its dwindling population dependent on a dying lumber industry. But the village—as it is often called to distinguish it from the county of the same name—was blessed with a scenic location, as well as a stock of fine Victorian houses that had escaped the fires that had periodically devastated most other coastal California communities.

Northern California in the 1950s and early ‘60s had a booming economy and a thriving art market. The established artist colony of Carmel (officially, Carmel-by-the-Sea) had become too pricey for many aspiring artists. Enough demand had built up that where Zacha settled, other followed. By 1962, Look described Mendocino as “the most talked about art center in northern California.” The village’s population, the article claims, jumped from 500 in 1958 to 1,165 in four years later. It is now less than 1,000; Mendocino’s residents have adopted rigid historical preservation rules, making it all but impossible to build within the village. As the local arts community has expanded, it has been forced to spread geographically as well, helping change other parts of the county in the process.

The real transition, however, came in the early 1970s with the migration of hippies from San Francisco and environs. (I used the term “hippie” advisedly, as it is widely used for self-identification; a local 2008 blog post, for example, was devoted to “Celebrating Mendocino County’s Counter Culture Hippie Past [Which is Not Past in Mendoland].”) The hippie movement was originally urban, but its followers were soon gripped by a “back to the land” imperative, and Mendocino beckoned. A several-hour drive from San Francisco, Mendo boasted a mild climate, a stunning coastline, extensive redwood forests, and a thriving arts colony. In those days, it also had relatively inexpensive land, logged-over timberland newly subdivided into ten to forty acre plots (four to sixteen hectares). By 1970, a significant migration was underway.

From a scholarly perspective, the hippie movement, both in Mendocino and more generally, is an understudied phenomenon. It is not the sort of topic that graduate students would be encouraged to select for their dissertations. Some good works of journalism, however, have been produced, along with some excellent fiction. T. C. Boyles’ novel Budding Prospects, set near Willits in north-central Mendocino, is something of a classic. Also recommended is Nicholas Wilson’s limited-edition photo-essay, Mendocino in the 1970s: Peoples, Places, and Events of California’s Mendocino Coast. But overall, as academics are wont to say, more research is needed.

As I find Mendocino County and the hippie movement that transformed it significant, interesting, and understudied, I have long given it some attention. My connection to the county dates back to my earliest memories. In 1962, when I was five, my parents bought a minuscule share of a 29,000-acre ranch in northeastern Mendocino County. The land was slated to become prime recreational property along a new reservoir that would arise with the damming of the Eel River, a project that would have flooded out Round Valley. The highpoint of every year of my childhood was a camping excursion to “Mendocino,” where we had the run of the vast ranch. The thought of reservoir inundating the property helped turn me into a radical environmentalist, a position that I later repudiated in full. Interestingly, plans for the massive dam were killed in the late 1960s by then-governor Ronald Reagan; according to some, Reagan was motivated by his sympathies for the Native Americans of the Round Valley Reservation.

My early visits to Mendocino were in the pre-hippie 1960s. I subsequently got to know that subculture fairly well, although I did so in a different part of the state. Hippies did not move just to Mendo and Humboldt, but rather streamed out to almost all rural, wooded parts of northern California. (Only in the so-called Emerald Triangle of the north coast, however, did they move in such numbers as to fundamentally transform local cultures.) I encountered the movement in the early 1970s, after my family moved from the Bay Area to rural Calaveras County (population 12,000 at the time) on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Hippies in Calaveras were not scarce, “wannabe” hippies were numerous, and the attitudes of the movement deeply influenced certain subcultures of the local high school. After graduating from Calaveras High in 1975, I went to the University of California at Santa Cruz; UCSC’s mascot, the Banana Slug, tells you all you need to know about its proclivities. I have, in other words, gained a certain understanding of the movement through close observation.

I was reacquainted with Mendocino in 2002, when I moved back to California from North Carolina, and my best friend from high school moved to the Anderson Valley. In visiting him, I met a number of his neighbors and friends. I have also gone to many local community events: county fairs, concerts, variety shows at the local (all-solar) grange hall, and even road-association meetings. I have talked to local residents at length, many of whom have been more than happy to tell their stories, and several of whom are both deeply knowledgeable and as intellectually sophisticated as any university professor. Actually, a few of them are, or were, professors themselves. This list included for many years Kary Mullis, Nobel laureate in chemistry. I never met Mullis or attended any of his legendary parties, but I have certainly heard stories. From his Wikipedia article:

Mullis writes of having once spoken to a glowing green raccoon. Mullis arrived at his cabin in the woods of northern California around midnight one night in 1985, and, having turned on the lights and left sacks of groceries on the floor, set off for the outhouse with a flashlight. “On the way, he saw something glowing under a fir tree. Shining the flashlight on this glow, it seemed to be a raccoon with little black eyes. The raccoon spoke, saying, ‘Good evening, doctor,’ and he replied with a hello.” Mullis later speculated that the raccoon ‘was some sort of holographic projection and … that multidimensional physics on a macroscopic scale may be responsible’. Mullis denies LSD having anything at all to do with this.

My forays into Mendocino County over the past ten years have been conducted in the spirit of cultural-geographic fieldwork. I trained in a geographical school that emphasized—some would say fetishized—fieldwork, especially as done in the tradition of Carl O. Sauer, founder of the (old) Berkeley School of Cultural Geography. Fieldwork to Sauer meant getting to know the land as closely as possible, which essentially meant getting to know the local people and learning from them. My first book, Wagering the Land, based in Northern Luzon in the Philippines, was wholly within the Sauerian tradition. But in the mid-1990s, I abandoned my local specialization and instead focused on the global scale. But I never lost interest in old-school fieldwork, and I have been re-engaged in it, albeit in an unfocused and desultory manner, for a number of years.

In the next post, I will draw on these experiences to describe the hippie migration to Mendocino County and its consequences in more detail.

The 1970s Transformation of California’s North Coast Read More »