Pesticides From Industrial Agriculture Are Contaminating Weed

Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

No mention of California’s Salinas Valley—a stretch of ridiculously fertile farmland near the state’s Central Coast, a few hours’ drive in either direction between San Francisco and Los Angeles—can long resist invoking literary legend John Steinbeck, who used the area (and its striving laborers’ hopes and dreams) as inspiration and a backdrop for his most famous works.

Now, the area is the stage for a modern-day morality play, a sort of parable of opportunity and ambition crashing headlong into reality—and a warning for any future marijuana entrepreneurs who want to cultivate long rows of cannabis flowers anywhere near strawberries, lettuce, stone fruits, almonds or any other of the state’s big-time crops. They’ll have to contend with California’s existing vast industrial agriculture complex’s unyielding addiction to pesticides, which tainted one of the first large harvests of the marijuana legalization era’s green rush.

In the same place where their ancestors might have toiled for pennies for industrialists, today, tourists shop for overpriced tchotchkes on Monterey’s modern-day “Cannery Row.” But books don’t balance budgets—and in the Salinas Valley’s case, neither does tourism nor modern-day industrial agriculture.

Well before California voters legalized marijuana in November 2016, cannabis entrepreneurs had eyed the area as the marijuana industry’s new fertile crescent.

It made sense: Much closer to population centers than remote and mountainous Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties, the Salinas Valley even boasted better climate, its backers claimed—a prime microclimate perfectly suited for flowers.

And indeed, for many decades, farmers in the Salinas Valley provided the country with bouquets and table arrangements. But after the flower industry decamped for cheaper shores overseas, there were millions of square feet of empty greenhouses, just begging for a new tenant. This was going to be the “Silicon Valley of agriculture.”

As fortune-seeking would-be weed magnates snapped up every inch of available real estate in the state’s traditional “pot basket,” big-time investors took one look at the Salinas Valley’s vacant greenhouses and made their move.

Almost overnight, real estate prices skyrocketed. Farms that sold for $1.1 million went—quickly—for $5 million. Rents rose from pennies per square foot to $1. More than 60 companies applied for local marijuana-cultivation licenses, as the Cannifornian reported in May.

Local elected officials, exhausted by years of constant cuts to police and schools (but mostly schools), guessed that cannabis could boost the local budget by $80 million.

The first harvest was going to be vast—so vast that industry observers and more than a few small cannabis producers worried that it signaled the end, a glut of supply so enormous it would crash all prices. One company, GrupFlor, leased out 2.6 million square feet space to marijuana cultivators. Another, Harborside Farms—the cultivation arm of the Oakland-based marijuana dispensary, which boasts to be the country’s largest—invested $30 million in greenhouses to supply the burgeoning demand.

Last year, when the first harvest came in, as predicted, there was a crash. Weed did become worthless—the newcomers’ own Salinas Valley weed. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s Green State reported, Harborside’s first harvest failed pesticide tests.

To be sold in retail stores after January 2, California cannabis must meet standards that are “near-organic,” as Green State put it, with levels of residual chemicals far below what’s allowed on food products. In the meantime, many marijuana producers are “self-policing,” refusing to stock cannabis tainted with chemicals meant for commercial agriculture.

Harborside says it never used pesticides—but a nearby planting of broccoli did.

What was sprayed on the broccoli found its way to the cannabis flowers, Harborside CEO Steve DeAngelo suspects. As Green State noted, “up to 30 percent” of pesticides sprayed on one crop make their way to others. Considering commercial farmers in California farm country apply a whopping 3,500 pounds of pesticides per square mile, this is raising serious concerns over whether marijuana and other crops can co-exist.

In addition to Harborside’s first failure, other farmers—small farmers—have had “entire year’s crop rejected” because of pesticide drift, said Chris Van Hook, the director of a clean cannabis certification program that follows USDA organic standards.

Harborside didn’t give up.

Taking advantage of its deep pockets and abundant resources—like lawyers and lobbyists—the organization added huge ventilation systems to its greenhouses to keep wayward contaminants out. According to DeAngelo, after six months, the greenhouses started producing clean marijuana that cleared tests—and the latest crop yielded a 2,000-pound harvest, he said.

But whether other operations in other parts of the state will be able to adjust—and whether the adjustments will matter—is still an open question.

The most common pesticides include the feared and loathed myclobutanil, a fungicide sold under the brand name Eagle 20. The stuff is safe to eat and so can be sprayed onto strawberries, but when heated, it turns into poisonous hydrogen cyanide gas.

This is why it’s banned from use in tobacco farming. Patients in Canada have reported suffering symptoms including respiratory and central-nervous system problems after smoking tainted weed.

Even if a marijuana grow is operating in an hermetically sealed environment, it may still carry pesticide contamination. Chemicals and heavy metals can seep into the water table—and if otherwise-pristine weed uses that water, it, too, could fail testing standards.

“We won’t be able to grow cannabis next to traditional, full-scale agriculture. It just won’t be practical,” said Hezekiah Allen, a former Humboldt County grower and currently the executive director of the California Growers Association. “I live in Yolo County. I see the crop dusters. It’s not going to work.”

This might be good for the small farmers back up in Redwood country, who are legitimately worried that they’ll be forced out of business by the pseudo-industrial big boys, like the new strivers in the Salinas Valley. Wouldn’t that be poetic. 

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