THE CANNABIS CONVERSATION: Legacy Farmers | Lost Coast Outpost

Across
the state of California, communities are discussing the importance of
legacy cannabis farmers. According to the Origins Council, a Nor-Cal
advocacy group, legacy farmers are those who have cultivated in
historical producing regions for at least twenty years. Humboldt,
Trinity, Mendocino, Sonoma, and other counties throughout the state
have lots of them. Legacy farmers are of cultural and historical
significance as their efforts paved the way for cannabis legalization
and normalization. They have contributed significantly to their
respective economic regions and have been outspoken advocates for
personal freedom, environmental protection, and creating loving
communities.

Ice Cream Cake Dep, 2021. Photo: Jesse Duncan.

Given
mounting production in both legal and illegal channels, limited
retail outlets, increasingly discerning consumers, and a predatory
tax structure, legacy farmers are at risk. And it’s hard to see.
Suicide rates among the cultivation community are rising, people are
going out of business and some growers are left with little ability
to replace the higher-than-average incomes growing cannabis
historically provided.

While
many consumers prefer outdoor flower as they believe it’s more
environmentally responsible and generally higher in medicinal
compounds like terpenes, acquiring dispensary shelf space is
challenging for sun-grown farmers. Most localities across the state
ban dispensaries and well-capitalized corporations pay slotting fees
for shelf space…a pay-to-play arrangement of sorts. Vertically
integrated corporations have their own dispensaries and tend to push
proprietary products, while some distributors require large
production to onboard farms as clients and ignore the small-lot
production batches many farms produce. Legacy cultivators feel they
are being pushed out of the industry they created and are crying
afoul – cursing the corporatization of cannabis markets and rapidly
declining wholesale prices.

A
recent pricing report from New Leaf Data paints an unsettling picture
stating that “of all the factors weighing on legacy state outdoor
prices, market commoditization, succinctly demonstrated by outdoor
growers selling almost exclusively to processors for extraction, is
the most inevitable and least reversible.” While this is certainly
not a popular conversation in sun-grown legacy regions, the data is
becoming crystal clear. Currently, outdoor flower accounts for just 12% of sales volume among reported transactions in legal states.
Last year at this time it was 26%, the year before it was 35%.

In
other words, the market is changing, and quickly. The outdoor flower
that Humboldt’s reputation was built on is rapidly losing market
share and that has legacy farmers and communities nervous. While
there is a renewed push to highlight the benefits of sun-grown
products and provide them some shelf space, a sun-grown resurgence
will play out slowly over time and will benefit only the best
operators. Consumers and retailers are increasingly discerning and
not all farms will meet the quality mark. With a proliferation of
climate-controlled greenhouse flower across the state and explosive
growth in the high terpene full spectrum extract markets, folks just
aren’t as excited about outdoor as they once were.

Blueberry Dep, 2021. Photo: Jesse Duncan.

And
begrudgingly, I get it. The last few seasons have been really smoky
and a lot of outdoor product was tainted and caused problems for
distribution companies and retailers. Additionally, cannabis is a
plant where environmental exposure is critically important to
outcomes. You can grow the same strain in one set of environmental
conditions versus another and have the finished product look entirely
different, so much so that you might not recognize it as the same
cut. As we know from other industries, product quality and
consistency are key. If I own a dispensary and want to put a SKU on
1/8-ounce jars of a certain type of flower, I don’t want it to look
totally different from run to run or from farm to farm.

While
for some cannabis connoisseurs the variability of cannabis expression
is acknowledged, accepted, and revered, for others, it is clearly
not. The simple truth is that indoor flower and greenhouse flower
grown with strict environmental controls are far more consistent.
This consistency, for many distributors and retail outlets, is highly
desirable. Additionally, because of climate controls, indoor and
greenhouse product is often more visually appealing with a heavier
outer trichome layer, less leaf, and a tighter, more podded-out bud
structure. While I make a living managing sun-grown operations and
grow large, beautiful buds outside, I don’t find outdoor matches up
visually with what one can do in a controlled environment. Although
educated consumers understand that cannabis bag appeal is just one
buying criterion, purchasers and retailers are currently emphasizing
that over other attributes.

When
growing light deprivation flowers outdoor it is harder to keep the
flower color on point. Flowers tend to darken or bronze as they near
maturity and not many operations use shade cloth the last two weeks
to prevent scorch and terpene loss. For full-term flowers, I find
they often disappoint visually after being dried and processed.
While term buds look gorgeous on the vine, they often dry a bit
sterile, at least when compared to indoor or greenhouse products.
The buds look hairy and don’t boast of the same calyx formation as
other grow types. After being trimmed the buds often lack contour
and are rounded or oval and just don’t have the same character in
most cases.

Additionally,
I know some consumers who don’t like sun-grown flower as it gives
them an allergic reaction when consumed. While recent evidence
suggests cannabis pollen, and perhaps THC itself can trigger allergic reactions, outdoor flower is fully exposed to the elements. Just as our cars are dusted with pollen from surrounding vegetation,
such is the case for outdoor-grown plants as well.

Nonetheless,
there is still hope for sun-grown farmers. I personally prefer
consuming full-term flower grown in native soil and many others do as
well. Despite scary times, not all is lost for the ganja warriors of
Humboldt and beyond. By aggressively focusing on sales/marketing,
quality improvements, production increases, and cost savings,
sun-grown farmers can stay in the game and eventually capitalize on
better times to come with interstate markets and broad adoption of
organic certification for cannabis.

Dosilato Dep, 2021. Photo: Jesse Duncan.

Sales
& Marketing

Launching
a brand is an expensive endeavor and is out of reach for many family
farms. That said, several well-established brands source products
from partner farms. These brands have already done the leg work in
creating an online presence and securing valuable dispensary shelf
space. Some are fans of sun-grown flower and have an ever-expanding
footprint that family farms can benefit from. Co-branding or
piggybacking on the success of a reputable brand, getting product
into jars or pouches, and ultimately achieving retail shelf space can
radically improve your price per pound. Of course, without an
exceptionally high-quality product, this will never happen. In
Humboldt, partnering with brands is often viewed as heresy or as
selling out, but for some, it can be a viable path forward.

Quality
Improvements

Having
lived in Humboldt my whole life and having consumed cannabis for
nearly three decades, I’ve seen that flower has largely declined in
quality here in the Triangle. Weed tastes greener and smokes hotter
and harsher than it did a couple of decades back. Bowls don’t ash
like they used to and instead, often char out and are largely
un-smokable for me.

High-quality
or top-shelf commercial flower is visually appealing with a tight,
podded-out structure and heavy outer trichome layer. It tastes like
it smells and goes down smooth while delivering the desired effect.
Many “premium” flowers are poorly formed, ugly, hairy, and harsh.
By focusing on genetics, plant structure, pruning, organic or
quasi-organic nutrient delivery, sugar content, artful stress, and an
active flushing program, your flower can stand out from the rest and
get some real momentum in the marketplace.

Increasing
Production

Increasing
production is a real possibility for most farms, even those doing
quite well. I’ll never forget several years back when a retired
soil scientist told us we could increase production by 20% or more if
we got serious about soil structure and biology. Note the garden he
toured was my mentor Mike’s and had two plants that went over 13
pounds.

Whether
growing in soil or another medium, focusing on more advanced
techniques like crop steering or simply manipulating the size and
shape of your plants through topping, pruning, coring, and opening
can meaningfully impact your bag weight. Supplemental feeding –
especially through a foliar regime that pushes nutrients through the
leaves – is another way to radically boost yields, as are strain
selection and quality of starts.

Of
course, every grower you talk to is killing it. Clearly not the case
as I still see tons of Instagram posts where farmers are growing
lanky Christmas trees instead of more stump-like bushes that really
pack on the weight. Many trellises’ have huge canopy gaps and lots
of finished tops aren’t even fist-sized.

Cost
Savings

During
the multi-decade cannabis bull market where prices were high,
cultivators could be a bit loose with the budget. They could
“overpay” for products and services and many did. As things have
tightened up meaningfully, largely absentee farm owners should get
back in the dirt personally as a way to reduce labor costs. Putting
goods and services out for bid is another way to potentially save.
Rather than simply accepting “dope grower” prices for inputs,
construction, or consulting services, requesting discounts,
purchasing in bulk, or shopping around can lead to significant
savings.

National
legalization is moving slower than many of us would like. Biden is
not a huge fan of recreational cannabis and there is growing chatter
that republicans may make a strong showing in the mid-term elections.
Even with a national marketplace, some states will seek to protect
their own producers and limit imports from other places. Given such,
I expect another tough year or several years here on the west coast.
Upping our cultivation game, being proactive concerning sales and
marketing, and tightening our belts seem like the best path forward.
The economic vibrancy of our community is depending on us so I wish
everyone well.

###

Jesse Duncan is a lifelong Humboldt County resident, a father of six, a retired financial advisor, and a full-time commercial cannabis grower. He is also the creator of NorCal Financial and Cannabis Consulting, a no-cost platform that helps small farmers improve their cultivation, business, and financial skills. Please check out his blog at, his Instagram at jesse_duncann, and connect with him on Linkedin.

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