Here Comes the Bud

By John Mattingly

Behold a field of ripe brew barley: Its long, bearded grain heads swaying hypnotically in a gentle breeze … we think of the yeoman farmer who planted and tended it to maturity where it ended up as beer that became a can or two that led to a teenage driving death, a domestic beating, a robbery, a sloppy incoherence or a dung-faced expression.

Behold a field of wheat: Golden in the setting sun … we again think of the Jeffersonian farmer out there, the one Thomas called the “incorruptible peasant,” who nurtured the staff of life that grew straight and tall and some of it became a whiskey that ruined a life, a liver or a child.

Behold a field of cannabis: The sweeping sea of serrated leaves and bulging buds gives a moment of peaceful pause before we begin to see DEA agents swarming the field with big guns and growers running, shooting, or lying face down in the dirt. All of this chaos around a plant that might have replaced opiates for someone with chronic pain, or relieved nausea for a cancer-chemo patient, or helped someone sleep, or comforted someone with glaucoma or epilepsy, or just provided a peaceful afternoon of listening to music or chilling with friends.

The curious hypocrisies that surface when we talk about cannabis are due for an attitude adjustment. There are cases of violence and diminished capacity from cannabis use, but much of the violence comes from the endless, pointless whack-a-mole game of enforcement and evasion, and any conversation of substances that diminish brain capacity must include alcohol, food additives, polluted drinking water and red meat.

Rules governing the growing and distribution of the many products available from cannabis are clearly necessary. But the rules should be, as near as possible, fact/reality/science based rather than perception/ideology/fear based, and enforcement should aim for proportional restraints on cannabis relative to real risks. For example, either liquor dispensaries should obey the same rules as cannabis dispensaries, or vice-versa (or verses in the vices). A factual assessment of the risks of alcohol use may conclude that they are greater (and therefore in greater need of enforcement) than those risks associated with cannabis.

In over fifty years in agriculture, the enthusiasm I see in young farmers for cannabis is as heartwarming as an early spring sunrise. Contrasted with the stories of young farmers all over the country struggling, and in many cases going broke, growing corn and soy, or fathers unable to pass along the farm to the next generation because commodity prices are trapped in the cheap food policies of our agricultural system, policies that trap farmers in a cheap compensation package, for life.

Cannabis – as hemp, CBDs and THCs – can change a farmer’s compensation package considerably. It all depends on reality-based policies, and water. Speaking of which, the proposal made by Renewable Water Resources (RWR) to purchase and export 22,000 acre-feet from the San Luis Valley intersects directly with a true blue cannabis revival in the SLV, and brings up a good question: Can cannabis compete with the great and growing cities for water?

Presently, water leaves the SLV in the form of potatoes, vegetables, alfalfa, small grains and oil seeds. And livestock. People don’t think of farmers as water exporters, but, for example, a ton of good alfalfa is about 10 percent water, or 200 pounds, or 25 gallons. A 1,000 pound cow is about 700 pounds, or 100 gallons. One hundred pounds of potatoes is about 50 pounds, or six gallons of water. While these crops generate substantial revenue and form a part of the human food web and rural community, the water needed/consumed to produce these crops has had a substantially higher dollar value when re-used to extinction by the GGCs. Until recently.

Hemp and cannabis can be grown in the Valley and they are crops that can pay more for water than the GGCs. Based on information gathered from public sources, one acre of cannabis can produce 2,000 pounds of premium bud with two acre-feet of water applied over the growing season (less for greenhouse operations and in some instances more for an outdoor grow with flood irrigation.) At $600 a pound wholesale, $1.2 million per acre gross income is possible, meaning that an acre-foot of water can generate about $600,000 in revenue. Per year.

The RWR project suggests $2,000 for an acre-foot, but a realistic expectation is that it will cost a lot more: Probably $6-7,000 an acre-foot of HcU (historical consumptive use) water. On the other hand, if a cannabis grower could use that same acre-foot to produce half a ton of premium bud, that acre-foot of water is worth about $25,000. Per year.

To delve into more large numbers, imagine a 130- acre center pivot planted to cannabis. Each plant needs 20-25 square feet, or roughly 2,000 plants per acre yielding a pound of premium bud from each plant. At $600 a pound the gross income approaches $150 million for a 130-acre pivot. Do that once every five years and Valley farmers could finally make a sandwich big enough to share while having the resources to engage in deep stewardship of their farmland and sustain the local economy.

To try on truly large numbers, if the 22,000 acre-feet prized for export by RWR was all applied to cannabis production, at the rate of two acre-feet per acre yielding 2,000 pounds an acre at $600 a pound, the economic value of 22,000 acre-feet of Valley water (kept right here in the Valley growing premium bud) would be 11,000 acres times 2,000 pounds, or 22 million pounds at $600, or about $13 billion annually. One can imagine thousands of small growers making over $1 million gross from one acre cannabis operations. While this is a wildly speculative prospect (and not without its own potential horror stories), it’s also totally rational to apply SLV water to growing spuds and carrots and alfalfa, and, in rotation, high value crops such as cannabis and hemp to expand the local balance sheet.

Forbes Magazine carried an article suggesting that cannabis production was going to be a battle to the bottom; thus investing in cannabis production now would be like “buying a hops farm just before the end of Prohibition.” This may be true, if only cyclically, but it may also be true that demand for bud would see exponential growth after legalization when thirty more states see a green light that causes black markets to compress and lobbyists to advocate for steep tariffs on imported bud.

No one really knows how much cannabis is grown or ultimately consumed in the U.S. Estimates include about thirty million pounds grown legally, and perhaps that much again grown in the black markets or for personal use. It’s difficult to predict the impact of 22 million pounds of premium, legal bud from the SLV hitting the market, but clearly a phase-in strategy backed up with spuds, barley, and alfalfa would be best.

But legalizing the bud has hazards in addition to supply/demand/market functions. A lesson learned from Humboldt County in California is that legalization of cannabis sometimes suppresses production far more effectively than criminalization ever did. Every governmental body that could find a way to link a tax or a fee to the growing of legal cannabis in Humboldt found a way to tap into the revenue stream. The cost to growers of full compliance approached the plot of a sequel to Kafka’s “The Castle.” Many in Humboldt went into debt or took a chapter under the weight of compliance costs.

When frustrations rise and big money is involved, black markets explode and law enforcement can become personal. But this troubling outcome isn’t inevitable if lessons are learned. To wit: If the golden goose is forced into a rabbit hole, the goose will lay a few rotten eggs. Conversely, if the golden goose is given free range with a see-through perimeter fence, there will be good eggs for all.

History tells us that our society can adapt to the socialization of controversial substances. Like alcohol. Following Prohibition, wine makers became cultural icons of discriminating taste, and whiskey distillers now barrel about with dignity, and boutique beer brewers make up a charming confederacy of liquid jesters. The day is already here when “single malt” bud growers are seeing their approval rating rise. And compared to Big Pharma, bud barons are civil servants.

John Mattingly cultivates prose, among other things, and was most recently seen near Moffat.