I was in the bedroom and Jill was watching TV when I smelled smoke,” says Subcool, of TGA Genetics and Weed Nerd fame. “Jill went on deck and yelled: ‘We need to leave now!’ Flames were racing down the hill at 80 miles an hour.” Subcool and Jill were able to escape with a handful of belongings, but they lost a lifetime of work. “The town is gone. The crops are gone. We lost everything,” says the legendary geneticist, echoing a refrain that’s grown familiar since wildfires first swept through Northern California, burning more than 307 square miles, killing 42 people, and causing more than three billion dollars in insured losses.
The key word there is insured. Because Federal regulation makes it difficult for growers to get crop insurance or use conventional banking, the cash-only cannabis industry is hard hit. Subcool estimates a 12-million-dollar loss: all his plants, seeds, equipment, and personal belongings—including priceless books, music, and photographs. “I wasn’t really expecting that at 56 years old,” he says, laughing.
Fortunately, the legendary breeder had one kind of insurance: because he distributes his seeds widely, he has the ultimate file back up. “The mother plants were burnt up in the fire, but they’re not dead,” he explains. In fact, he’s already back in business—but from a new Arizona location. “I sent out 20 orders this week,” he says.
This type of turnaround is impossible for cannabis entrepreneurs who rely only on the sale of finished product. The fires destroyed some of the largest farms in the state’s multi-billion cannabis economy; and the timing couldn’t be worse. The legal recreational market just opened on January 1, and growers across the state sank millions into compliant gardens and grow rooms, only to watch their farms burn into the charred wasteland. In addition to the loss of plants, seeds, and equipment, many farmers report the loss of their cash savings—yet another bitter side effect of federal prohibition.
Despite little hope of recovering their losses, the grow community has been quick to help its own—and provide relief for medical patients. Subcool has been working with the Grow Tube Roundtable to raise money and provide aid to those who have been displaced by the fire. His friend, Patrick King, has used his Cloverdale business as a base for relief efforts. When many official agencies were still struggling with red tape, his Soil King Garden Center offered food, shelter, transportation, and even temporary housing for pets and farm animals.
As growers struggle to assess the damage, there is rampant speculation about how the fires will affect the industry. Will the property loss slow the downward spiral of price per pound? Erich Pearson, the CEO of San Francisco’s largest licensed dispensary, doubts we’ll see much of a difference. Despite the widespread loss, he estimates that the fires only destroyed about five percent of this year’s crop. Cannabis data insights company BDS Analytics is estimating the decrease in product could mean a 10- to 20-percent price increase, which likely won’t last for long—in other words: not much of a silver lining.
Farming is a notoriously risky business, and cannabis farming has always been particularly risk-prone, with threats ranging from powder mildew to the DEA. Historically, the industry has attracted rebels and daredevils.
But that’s changing in the face of legalization; many of the farmers who lost everything were making a concerted effort to go legit—crossing their Ts, jumping through hoops, and paying steep licensing fees and taxes. And yet they won’t reap the rewards of state or federal safety nets. In a country where mainstream agriculture is subsidized, it seems particularly dubious that California’s licensed tax-paying farmers can’t even get crop insurance.