COLORADO: The advent of the legal marijuana industry has spawned some scale-up effects. One obvious outcome is that inefficiencies have surfaced as significant liabilities. Another is that farmers are getting squeezed and are, therefore, compelled to push their agro-ecosystems to maximum short-term productivity. In this environment, risky and sometimes questionable practices emerge and often result in catastrophe. The bad press around pesticide abuse is a case in point: in Colorado, this year, agencies have mandated large-scale recalls of edibles, while in Washington, private researchers have identified forbidden pesticides in a variety of products.
This pattern is likely to continue, given the current industry environment, with farmers facing the squeeze from all sides. The current combination of regulatory structures, low energy prices and low profit margins for farmers almost guarantees a certain level of pesticide abuse, pushing farmers towards over-crowded growing conditions in environments devoid of natural checks on pests and pathogens.
In agricultural ecosystems, most of our pesticide problems follow from management practices that attract pests to vulnerable crops in the first place. Farmers well know that a dense canopy of luscious, nitrogen-rich cannabis is a giant pest target. Critters can move happily through the canopy, swinging on webbing, piercing and sucking and having a grand time. To make matters worse, because these indoor agro-ecosystems are isolated from natural ecosystems, they have no contact with native natural defense systems. Instead, farmers have to buy, preserve and apply pest-thwarting critters and microbes, which can rack up materials and labor costs. In many cases – as in an infestation crisis – farmers will deem pesticides to be a more economic choice.
In Washington, the state’s tier system forces over-crowding by mandating area limitations based on canopy area, pushing growers to accommodate as many plants as they can possibly fit. Under this system, farmers can grow up to 30,000 square feet in a Tier III operation, 10,000 for a T-II and 2,000 for a T-I. That means that every square foot has premium value and must produce a maximum value. To add to the fun, spatial limitations encourage growers to use hydroponic systems – as containers and media are bulky – and hydro spawns pests. With few other affordable options, pesticide use is an obvious outcome. In contrast, Colorado marijuana growers are now able to stretch their limbs, since the state has lifted vertical integration provisions that forced most cultivators to grow on-site. And, having learned from others’s mistakes, Oregon has avoided this pitfall from the beginning.
But, other forces continue to push farmers to crowd too many plants into confined spaces. In Colorado, where real estate is expensive and square footage is dear, many producers still grow on-site because they are locked into investments from the days of mandated vertical integration. What’s more, in all states, growers face a tough economic climate, wherein marijuana behaves like a fungible commodity and the price paid to farmers trends ever downward. Enter cheap fuel, which means cheap electricity, and the compulsion to grow indoors is irresistible. Equally important, growing indoors is a familiar mode for a large sector of the industry, and farmers do what has proven to work for them. And, finally, to exasperate the situation, because of federal prohibition, farmers can’t borrow money and buy insurance to buffer their risks. So, they contain losses with pesticides.
But. We’re learning. As consumers continue to step up and demand clean marijuana – and as ecologically-minded farmers emerge and voice their opinions – the political climate will change and regulatory change will follow. Consumer health and healthy ecosystems are important issues these days, and in the case of marijuana, they are tightly linked. We’ll live to enjoy clean legal pot.