How California’s Independent Cannabis Farmers Can Stand Up To Big Marijuana

The future of cannabis is in the hands of independent farmers and growers who must overcome their fears and work together in full transparency.

On November 8th, the long-held prohibition of marijuana is likely to go up in smoke. But a win for California’s Proposition 64 is just the beginning: It is an opportunity for our Golden State to set the gold standard for the nation’s cannabis industry. In the state that gave us both Steve Jobs and Alice Waters, pioneers of technology and sustainability, it is our trust to bequeath future generations of Californians an industry that will both lead the global marketplace and uphold the values of craft production and environmentalism that our state holds dear.

But while the latest polls predict Prop 64 will pass by a comfortable margin, some of California’s 53,000 small cannabis farmers still have mixed feelings about legalization. Many worry that the mainstreamification of their crop will put an end to the heritage cottage industry that has sustained them for generations; others, I believe rightly so, know that the existing medicinal market is ultimately too small to sustain all the players in the state. The question is, can California embrace the inevitable evolution of the industry, honor its existing constituents, and do it all within a scalable model that can ultimately satisfy the entire nation in a federally legal landscape? Indeed, not only is this possible, it is our responsibility to preserve the livelihood of our citizens and the land on which we all live. But to do this, our small farmers and growers must band together, embrace scale, and stand up to Big Marijuana. The answer is in the establishment of cannabis agricultural cooperatives.

All nascent industries naturally move toward efficiencies that lead to consolidation, and the market dictates the kind of scale and consistency that a large operator would bring. But as so many in craft industries like coffee, cacao, and wine already know, scaling production often means compromising on quality. California’s pot industry, however, is not in its formative years. Our farmers produce an estimated 10 to 20 million pounds of cannabis annually, and have been satisfying most of the national market for as long as anyone can remember. We already have the supply; if we can organize widespread collaboration among our existing players, then we can implement the efficiencies and tools needed to scale for the mainstream market. If our current growers, manufacturers, and distributors will come together to work in a centralized ecosystem, they can dwarf any standalone corporate operator without sacrificing their unique Californian values.

Our independent farmers care about the efficacy of their medicine, making great efforts to craft high-quality cannabis that is free of mold, mildew, insects, and harmful chemicals. They are the keepers of rare genetics and hard-earned trade secrets, and they are vital stewards of our land, standing for sustainability and community. Many even rely on their cannabis yield to help subsidize the crops of organic fruits and vegetables that feed our health-conscious families. But if California farmers don’t gain scale, they leave the door open for massive commercial grows, which often churn out low-quality cannabis by methods detrimental to the environment, and risk the breakdown of the wholesome framework they’ve worked for decades to create.

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity of meeting and working with at least a dozen cooperative groups of cannabis farmers who have come together to share their knowledge, best practices, and tools. These dozens of cooperatives alone have the power, as yet unharnessed, to offer the market every single variety of cannabis imaginable—every flavor, color, and aroma, and every desired effect—at every level of quality and price. Together they represent hundreds of thousands of pounds of product ready for market, much of which currently goes the way of garden trimmings because they lack the bandwidth and operational efficiencies to keep up and compete.

But imagine if these dozens of cooperatives became hundreds of dozens of cooperatives. We’d be talking about tens of millions of pounds of carefully cultivated, high-grade cannabis that the entire nation could enjoy. We could do this in a manner that is standardized, transparent, and traceable, and we can see this industry evolve in the right way from day one. The terms of Proposition 64, though not perfect, include incentives to protect the existing medical marijuana community, keeping out large corporate operations for a period of five years. In that time, we can build the framework for a healthy, locally supported industry that will stand the test of time.

Just as the coffee grower who cultivates his own beans utilizes a centralized drying, roasting, processing, and packaging facility so that, together with other craft coffee growers, he can leverage volume to have a voice on the larger stage, we can do the same with cannabis. The formation of co-ops would ensure the financial benefits that stem from consolidation—new access to bulk prices for soil, nutrients, and equipment would cut costs significantly—and farmers would at last be able to leverage size for negotiating power in bigger and better deals. Co-op farmers can educate and empower one another; share their seed stock and proprietary genetics to ensure ever-elevated quality and distinction in the marketplace; and help each other navigate confusing legal and accounting challenges by establishing centralized processes.

The future of cannabis is in the hands of these independent farmers and growers who must overcome their fears and work together in full transparency, as well as in the hands of California consumers who must treat cannabis as they do food and wine, with an appreciation for all things local, wholesome, and organic. If we can start collaborating in a meaningful way, we can foster a healthy cannabis ecosystem and safeguard the people’s right to clean, nontoxic cannabis for years to come. As California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom is so fond of saying, “As California goes, so goes the nation.”

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