A region of California known for some of the world’s best cannabis continues to experience drought and high heat. Wildlife in parts of Oregon is, for now, less vibrant than it once was. And East Coast hurricanes are decimating crops in a pinch.

These are realities for cannabis and hemp growers growing outdoors in 2022. The few sources Cannabis Business Times spoke with for this story say weather catastrophes are becoming more frequent and severe than has been the norm for decades, and that climate change is the culprit for many of those shifts.

Humboldt County comprises part of a temperate rainforest that stretches from near Prince William Sound, Alaska, to south of California’s San Francisco Bay, according to Radford University. 

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Lindsey Renner, owner of Native Humboldt Farms, says that when she grew up in Humboldt, it used to rain all fall and winter, often downpouring. That’s no longer the case.

Almost every year for the past seven years, we have had these extreme heat waves during the summer, and those have been producing lightning storms that have been the cause of [wildfires] up here,” Renner says, adding that weather conditions are becoming more abnormal and are on track to become more extreme.

In 2022, Native Humboldt Farms, located in Southeastern Humboldt, experienced an unexpected late snowfall in May and rains throughout June and early July, Renner says. Then, a heat wave blanketed the region in the second half of July and all of August.

“It had been pretty wet, and when everything heated back up, it seemed to be more humid this year than it’s been in the previous like five, seven years,” Renner says. “So, we actually had a lot of issues.”

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Mold crept in on the cannabis, and Native Humboldt Farms experienced plant losses, Renner says.

Native Humboldt Farms applies a lot of potassium to its plants, which Renner says helps them adapt to heat stress, and sometimes needs to install shade cloth protection.

The California government calls drought “a new, drier normal.” Under those persistent conditions, Native Humboldt Farms uses living soil, including mycorrhizal fungi, Renner says.

“It really helps with the water retention,” she says of living soil. “The reason actually is because you have all of this microbial life going on under the soil, and they’re moving through and creating these little pathways as they’re interacting with the plant. As they’re creating those pathways, they’re also creating pathways that nutrients and water can travel.

“So, it stops the compaction of the soil so that when you water, it’s really sinking in and it’s moving through all these channels, and then it becomes more easily available to the plant to uptake.”

In addition, Renner says Native Humboldt Farms reuses living soil and avoids disturbing it too much because that can destroy the beneficial pathways that microbes and worms create in it.

Other signs of the times have come in the forms of water restrictions on Canada’s West Coast. The Sunshine Coast Regional District in British Columbia instituted various water bans on cultivators in 2022 due to drought.

In Southern Oregon, East Fork Cultivars’ 33-acre sun-grown cannabis and hemp farm in received more rainfall in 2022 than it has in recent years, says CEO Mason Walker.

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“It was a wetter year this year, and it was very welcome—knocked some wildfires down and refilled some aquifers, refilled some irrigation districts, that kind of thing, but [we’re] still technically in a drought,” Walker says. “So, that has lingering effects, and we’re seeing a lot of wildlife issues with that. We’re seeing tree species dying. We’re seeing effects on migrating fish. And those are all interconnected. That’s not just environmental concern; that has some real impacts on people, too.”

In September 2020, Walker and East Fork’s Nathan Howard, co-owner, and Aaron Howard, co-founder and chief cultivation officer, dug fire lines with a tractor they had converted into a giant rototiller to fend off the Slater Fire that had encroached within a quarter mile of the farm, as CBT then reported.

“The years since, 2021 and 2022, we haven’t had fires that close,” Walker says. “But we’ve been definitely blanketed with smoke for months at a time. And that has … health impacts on our employees. It also can have impacts on our growing season.

“One that people don’t talk about a lot because it’s sort of mild, but it does have an impact, especially as the market gets tighter, is when you have smoke in the air, you’re filtering light. Cannabis really needs a full spectrum of light to put its best flowers on. We have filtered light for several months during the growing season; it can really impact flower structure, yield, potency, terpene production.”

Photo by Shane Stiles

East Fork Cultivars’ farm in Southern Oregon.

Respiratory issues due to wildfire smoke and heatstroke are employee health concerns that Walker says East Fork works to avoid through personal protective equipment and a safety partnership with state regulators and the business’ workers’ compensation insurance company.

As far as the welcome September rains this year, they were heavy enough to cause mold losses on some early-maturing plant varieties, Walker says.

East Fork Cultivars has seen that climate risks and climate threats are increasing, he says, adding that “… the drought … exacerbates so many things—less water on hand; water’s a great tool for farming and for cooling and all that—and way more tinderbox fuel for wildfires. Hopefully we’ll see the drought conditions ease because it does go in cycles.”

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In part to improve plant resiliency, the East Fork team follows regenerative practices, such as using beneficial microorganisms, making ferments in house that it applies as fertilizers and creating its own pesticides that it applies as foliar sprays and drip drenches.

The business is also relying on the resiliency of seed genetics. “We’ve learned a ton doing our hemp side, where we grow entirely from seed; that’s I think the future of cannabis farming outdoors is growing from seed, because seed plants are just way more naturally resilient than clonal plants,” Walker says.

He adds: “Clonal plants have been used in cannabis because of the sort of meticulous demands of flower consumers—they want a very specific terpene profile, a very specific flower structure, a repeatable experience. It’s way easier to achieve that with a clonal plant; it’s a genetic copy of its other sisters.

“But I would say over the last several years, thanks to legal hemp, we’ve seen breeding practices catch up significantly in commercial cannabis breeding, where we have some really stable seed lines now.”

Across the country, South Carolina-based hemp company BrightMa Farms is placing a large priority on genetic development to assist growers in overcoming climate obstacles, says founder and CEO Harold Singletary.

RELATED: How BrightMa Farms is Striving to Create Opportunities in Hemp

Singletary and his team are committed to creating a circular economy that will utilize industrial hemp for bio-based manufacturing and biotechnology applications. One aspect of that is a breeding partnership with Swiss company Puregene AG, which involves using artificial intelligence and machine learning to create genetics that grow best under various environmental conditions, and fiber and grain developments that suit myriad commercial applications.

Singletary says growers in each region can benefit from specific genetic plant traits. “Understanding the pests …, obviously soil, weather conditions—we bottle and work through all of those variables for best outcomes,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Puregene AG

BrightMa Farms’ Harold Singletary inspecting hemp stalks during a 2021 visit to Puregene AG in Switzerland.

In 2022, BrightMa, located in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region, had partnered with South Carolina State University to test various CBD cultivars with another grower in the area. A hurricane came through and wiped out the grower’s plot.

Hurricanes didn’t destroy plants or structures at BrightMa’s 15,000-square-foot greenhouse in Cordesville, S.C., this year, but one caused a roughly two-day power outage.

In this part of the country, battering hurricanes are part of annual climate cycles.

“You’ve either got to button up and shut down and brace,” Singletary says. “Or—the blessings about a hurricane versus a tornado—you’ve got time. You know it’s coming; you really see the forecast. So, you’re going to do your due diligence, get that field harvested and stored, or count your blessings and a couple of Hail Marys. I think you have to have a plan for bad weather as far as being on this [hurricane] belt and work with it and understand what you’re facing.”

Singletary says hemp has the ability to not only sequester carbon while growing, but to create hemp-based concrete to for shore restoration and to develop batteries for electric vehicles.

He adds of climate change: “For those not seeing it, it’s in front of us. I tell people, some of the sustainable impact we’re trying to bring to market, change our narratives—it has to happen now, but it’s not going to be in our lifetime that we see the results. This is the next generation and the generation behind them. It took decades of what we did to the planet. It’s going to take just as many to reverse it.”

Looking back at the effects of climate change, Renner recalls to CBT that the 2020 August Complex Fire came within several miles of Native Humboldt Farms.

It started from lightning during an extreme heat wave,” Renner says. “We ended up evacuating. It literally looked like the apocalypse. It was 11 o’clock in the morning; the entire sky was just like a really dark red; there was ash falling all over our plants. We got down around the cannabis and we tried to put as much water on the beds as we could before we tried to evacuate.”

California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (now the Department of Cannabis Control) recognized it as an emergency and allowed the farm to quickly harvest and bring the yield to a licensed facility, she says.

Renner says that in her experience, the hardest part about cultivating cannabis outdoors is timing key practices like planting and harvesting around weather events.

“We try to make as good of a plant as we can in the spring,” Renner says. “Then we kind of just have to roll with the punches after that—because we’ll have all these plants ready for the cycle, and ‘OK, well, it’s still raining,’ or ‘OK, well, we need to plant,’ and ‘It’s a heat wave now, and we just have to try to do it.’ We had some plants that were supposed to be planted early August. It was just so hot, and a lot of them didn’t make it.”

Renner says Native Humboldt Farms works to ensure plants receive the microbes, nutrients and other inputs they need and avoids force-feeding them so they can withstand extreme weather and other adverse conditions such as pathogens.

“As much as you can prevent it, that’s the best,” Renner says. “Plants definitely do have a hard time coming back after they are so stressed, but they absolutely can. There’s definitely measures you can take. Plants are pretty resilient. They’re like little soldiers. So, they can definitely come back. But anything that we can do to try to not let them experience such stress, we try to.”