By Shwa Laytart
The October 2017 fires in Northern California will go down in history as the most destructive fires that California has seen. A fire practically the size of San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and Fresno, combined. More than 8,400 structures were destroyed, leaving behind nothing more than ash, molten automobiles and lifetimes of memories. Governor Jerry Brown said the damages could be in the tens of billions of dollars.
As the EPA begins to help with the cleanup, the two industries that make up a significant amount of Northern California jobs, the wine and cannabis industries, try to pick up the pieces and find their way out of the smoke and onto a new path forward.
27 wineries have been damaged by the fires, one of which was the family-owned Paradise Ridge Winery. This year’s vintage was expected to be one of the greatest of the last twenty years. No one knew this better than Rene Byck. Rene runs the Paradise Ridge with his wife and sister. “We lost the entire 2017 batch, as well as around eight thousand cases of 2016.” They were fortunate enough that their estate vineyard escaped the fires. Their iconic winery, however, was not that fortunate. They now have to file a claim with their insurance and begin to rebuild. A process that won’t happen overnight. Dan Barwick is Paradise Ridge’s winemaker, and Rene’s brother-in-law, and he already knows what he has to do first. “I am now going to batch and tag each vine,” so that they can track the effects of the fire on next year’s harvest, “but we’re dealing with a bunch of unknowns right now.” The vines have some heat damage, but they won’t immediately know the overall effect of the fire on the grapes of 2018. “Only time will tell.
The 27 wineries damaged by the fires were not the only agricultural industry that took a major hit. More than 34 cannabis farms have been affected by the fires as well. That doesn’t take into consideration the non-registered grows or the remaining grows contaminated by the ash and smoke. The California cannabis market is estimated to be worth $6.5 billion by 2020, and that does not include off-market cannabis sales.
Ashley Oldham, a farmer who is recovering from the fires, has a new mission: to make the best of it. She not only lost her grow, she also lost her home. “I’m just fortunate to have my life, kids, animals and a community that is there to support me when needed.” Ashley, a single mother of three, is a second generation cannabis farmer, and the founder, operator, and CEO of Frost Flower Farms. She is the fourth legal permitted grow in Mendocino County. She now has to start from scratch, “I’m determined to make a comeback greater than my setback. I have to turn this into something beautiful.” She’s open to investors and has set up a GoFundMe page to help. Ashley is one of the first growers to apply biodynamic principles to cultivating cannabis, principles that are already being used in the wine industry.
This is where some of the commonalities begin to fade. Insurance is a major advantage that the wine industry has over cannabis. Unlike wineries, cannabis companies are unable to insure their crops, nor can these cannabis businesses get bank loans to rebuild. Cannabis businesses have a challenging time even acquiring a bank account.
Another painful difference is the reminder that the stigma still lingers around cannabis. For example, the fundraising site YouCaring.com stopped a recent campaign to raise funds for the cannabis community fire victims. YouCaring stated that even if your State has approved cannabis, it is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government.
Though there is no insurance company or banking institution to help the cannabis industry, those within the cannabis community have come out in support and are reinvesting in those hurt most. This has also been seen within the wine community as those wineries who were not directly affected by the fires are helping those in need in a number of ways.
While FEMA and insurance companies take their time to assess the situation, both the wine and the cannabis community have taken action, from housing folks who lost everything to delivering supplies where it’s needed. Both of these industries make up the communities that Northern California residents call home. Both the wine and cannabis industries are coming together and will no doubt grow stronger by doing so.