The State of Legal Weed Farms: A Viewpoint from our Cannabis Correspondent
Legal cannabis in Southern Oregon has had four years to get its feet and shuffle for position in the green rush. I wanted to know what it’s like to run a cannabis farm right now as the dust settles a bit. To get my hands dirty with the issues, I talked to some local, small farmers and F.A.R.M.S. Inc. (a farmer-run, nonprofit organization working to protect Oregon’s craft cannabis farmers).
What gives Southern Oregon craft cannabis its identity? “Passion, culture, and terroir,” according to Noah Levine, owner of Benson Elvis, a locally owned-and-operated family farm. “To me, craft cannabis is defined by purpose and passion. You have to be passionate about growing amazing cannabis. And you have to let that passion drive your purpose: to put quality first—before profit.”
Amanda Metzler, president of F.A.R.M.S. Inc., suggests, “To achieve handcrafted quality requires skilled growers, harvesters, dry-cure and packaging persons who sincerely care about the final product.”
Alas, remaining true to your craft and keeping your head above water are not always easy tasks. Kendra Freeman, co-owner of Oso Verde, another of the valley’s craft farms, laments, “All of the rules and regulations,” which she says have taken away from the community aspect of farming. “[They] are turning it into working for the man again.”
“Family and small farms are vital to our economy and well-being as a nation,” Metzler beams, “Not only do they support the competitiveness and sustainability of rural economies, they serve to protect and enhance natural resources and the environment.”
Thanks to the cannabis industry in the Rogue Valley, the availability of new jobs has been a true blessing to a struggling workforce. “We are super important to communities because we are the diverse farms that hire people and support humans more than monetarily. We give people a sense of belonging, tools, and resources to be superheroes in the world,” says Freeman.
However, the rocky beginnings to legal cannabis in Oregon have created countless operating hurdles for these small businesses. Entrepreneurs are trying to step out of the shadows to partake in a vibrant cottage industry, contributing to the long-term health of their communities. But it’s sometimes hard to know when you’ve strayed from the roots of cannabis.
Legalizing an industry overnight makes almost everything hard—even the basics. “We had to learn the rules and regulations
applicable to running a legal business,” says Levine, thinking back. “Employment laws, O.S.H.A. regulations, and payroll taxes were never a concern in the medical days. We also had to adapt from the largely unregulated medical market to operating in the highly regulated, recreational market. Every move we make in the field is now replicated in METRC. Essentially every task is done twice; once in the field, and once online.”
Metrc (Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance), is a company that basically organizes marijuana regulation for governments, their first rodeo being Colorado in 2013.
New digital items must be created through a multi-step process and correlated to RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags attached to every plant or product package at every step along the way. If you plant a seed, take a clone, move a plant to a new room, switch the light cycle in a room, want to work with new varieties that your farm doesn’t have available or just throw out a bad plant, then you better have a computer with internet access handy. Let’s not even touch on harvesting and selling it! Farmers must track all of that and more in the dysfunctional state system on top of running a business.
But wait—there’s more! The Metrc tracking system . . . sucks. It’s slow. It glitches. If an O.L.C.C. inspector walked onto a farm in the meantime, they might be in violation if the physical work was done before while waiting for the wheel of death to finish spinning on screen. Wait, who’s watering the plants? Often covered in sweat and lacking sleep, our neighbors and friends are trying to keep up with the hard work it takes to survive as a small farmer, trying to be good family-members and community-members and trying to help implement a new industry.
If predictions are correct, this is just the beginning of the rush—and the issues. According to Freeman, “We are located in the best climate in the world to grow amazing cannabis. People have been doing this for so many years here–since the 60’s.” And now it looks as though the future of Southern Oregon will be filled to the brim with cannabis too. “Cannabis is not new to Southern Oregon—just the bureaucracy is new,” she adds.
“Hopefully in five years we will see national legalization which will put Oregon on the map as one of the nation’s premier cannabis growing regions,” hopes Levine. To me, Benson Elvis remains one of Southern Oregon’s biggest success stories in legal cannabis. But in talking to Levine, I learned, “The most important thing people should know about small farmers is that we’re struggling.”
Lawmakers in Oregon seem to be catching on to the issues and pushing for our success. But the flowering future of craft cannabis in Southern Oregon will not blossom without getting dragged through the weeds first. In part this is because laws and regulations have been shaped not by the traditional, grassroots cannabis industry, but rather by big money interests familiar with politics. This leaves small farmers already burning the candle at both ends with even more to keep up with to ensure the future of their livelihoods.
Regulators are indifferent to the unique struggles of small farmers as a matter of policy. Rules dictate they view licensees indifferently and without compassion. They don’t care if the best cannabis survives the tumultuous period or if Marlboro themselves are Oregon’s state weed. Whichever companies can spend money on regulation, break the least rules and/or not get caught or at least find money to pay the fines or endure the shutdowns for violations are the ones that will survive to represent what is arguably the most important state to the future of cannabis in this country. That is scary because it sounds like corporate cannabis.
Cue Metzler at F.A.R.M.S. Inc.: “In a perfect world—and likely a future state—we won’t have to defend our rights to grow small-volume, legalized crops with sustainable farming practices on our own land. However, until that day comes, we are here to stand up for our liberties, our professionalism, and our emerging cannabis industry through education, cooperation, and legislation.” I have to say it’s an idea long overdue in being implemented.
If people like Freeman are right about their predictions, this sort of cooperating and organizing will be necessary to the survival of craft cannabis and to keeping the cannabis spirit alive as corporations, legislators and regulators charge into the game with dollar signs in their eyes. She worries, “I think cannabis in five years will be federally legal but more corporate and 100 more rules that do not make sense! In ten years, I think it will be owned by the huge conglomerates and the quality and [un]sustainability will ruin our planet. The laws currently in Oregon are creating a trash pile over two miles wide with Metrc tags and single use plastic.”
I love our region and the cannabis that comes from it. I want the world to know about these amazing cannabis farmers so that the fight to keep cannabis alive during prohibition was not in vain. Thankfully, some cannabis crusaders are pushing on. In celebration of the farmer, a F.A.R.M.S. Inc. brand is set to launch in 2020, just in time for a new presidential era. Metzler says the brand is a “craft cannabis collective that helps small-batch farmers stack up against mass producers. With less time spent on paperwork and product-pushing and more time spent on growing and perfecting their craft.”
An Oso Verde sentiment rings true here in the Valley of the Rogue: “When you buy from a small farm you are supporting your community. You are supporting someone that gives back to the community. Every dollar counts.”