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Growing pains

To say that cannabis farming is growing in Southern Oregon would be a gross understatement.

As of Aug. 29, 666 marijuana license applications had been submitted in Jackson County — second only to Multnomah County’s 682 — with 477 in Josephine County. When it comes to growers, Southern Oregon was running away from the pack — 474 growing applications were filed in Jackson County and 400 in Josephine. Clackamas County was third with 334.

In fact, a large and growing number of working adults in Oregon make their living from the plant in some way, either directly or indirectly. As of Aug. 29, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission reported more than 53,000 marijuana worker permit applications had been submitted statewide since 2016.

With any new industry, especially one that’s expanding so fast, there are bound to be growing pains. Talk to growers in the area and they’ll tell you they can’t sell their product in Southern Oregon because there is just too much flower. So their product heads north to Portland and the surrounding areas.

“A community can only absorb so much of an influx of new people, otherwise it changes the community,” says Jamin Giersbach, a member of the Oregon Cannabis Association. “When there’s an influx of people coming for money, it changes the landscape.”

Giersbach, who holds four OLCC licenses in the area with his wife, Melissa, including for Essence Farm in Applegate Valley and Rogue Farmers, a hydroponic garden store in Talent, says there is a great deal of tension between medical and recreational growers — which is understandable.

“The medical growers feel like they are being left out, and they have legitimate reasons why they shouldn’t be,” he says. “They have been loyal and feel like they are being pushed out of this emerging industry. It’s a tough place right now. There are so many farms in Oregon, and people are having a hard time making a living.”

When prices fell hard last fall, it made people hesitate, Giersbach says. Owning a grow store allows him to witness how farmers have been navigating the competition and uncertainty.

“You can see patterns,” he says. “We saw for a few months there was this hesitation, now they are going full steam ahead. They are realizing there is still a lot of room to do stuff in this industry.”

Many medical farmers are changing with the times, because they have to in order to make a living.

“We’re anticipating 30 to 50 percent of our members will be OLCC participants by the end of 2018,” says “Pioneer” Pete Gendron, president of the Oregon Sungrowers Guild, with core membership in Oregon’s “green belt” of Jackson and Josephine counties and roots in helping to strengthen the relationships between medical patients and growers, while advocating for the medical program at the state level.

“We’ve included a much more inclusive membership structure to respect our medicine and historical members that still need representation. This has been a much maligned and underrepresented community, and we seek to refine that injustice,” says Gendron, who says he plans to run for Josephine county commissioner.

For Adam Smith, founder and executive director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance, the issue is about keeping the money generated by Oregon’s cannabis industry here in Oregon.

“When rec passed, everyone talked about how this is the next craft industry. Yes, but there are companies coming from out of state with deep pockets, buying up brands,” says Smith, a political organizer with a background in drug policy reform. “They are pushing locals off the shelves.”

Still, that’s not the biggest problem, according to Smith. He says the inability to sell outside the state leaves growers stuck with a tiny market.

“Growers in Oregon, many of them world-class, are facing an existential threat in the oversupply crisis,” Smith says, adding that if it continues, the state is likely to lose the majority of its locally owned industry.

“There is an easy fix for this — by allowing licensed transfer between legal states sooner than later. Otherwise, the only survivors will be deep-pocketed, out-of-state and foreign companies. Then, once the walls do come down, Oregon will be home to a multi-billion-dollar industry that it won’t significantly own. That will be an economic disaster for the state, as well as for the quality and biodiversity of Oregon cannabis.”

Smith is optimistic that this is a time when those who have stakes in the industry can come together and determine how they want to move forward. His organization, for example, is launching a PR campaign aimed at helping consumers easily identify locally grown craft cannabis. Growers have an opportunity to participate by becoming members of the organization.

“People in Oregon care,” Smith says. “We care about local and sustainable and ethical. We don’t have to get everybody. But if you are going to pay for mid-priced to top shelf, you certainly have a choice to buy from those engaged in their communities. The majority of retailers are Oregon-owned and are not vertically integrated and are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. This is a good opportunity for them.”

Kristine Miller, co-owner and grower at Moon Shine Gardens, a recreational cannabis garden on the outskirts of Grants Pass, says she sees the local growing community coming together. Her farm, which was focused on legal adult use from its start in 2016, grew 3,100 pounds in its first year. Last year, it harvested close to 4,000 pounds. She recognizes the importance of hiring her team locally and paying them a living wage as well as choosing to build community with other farmers, rather than being competitive.

“I’ve grown up and worked with really great farmers who have helped each other out, but cannabis farmers have been really secretive about growing practices and what nutrients are being used in their spring schedule,” Miller says.

“I do feel like the community of local farms is coming together, because there are people with more resources coming in. People are desperate, the market is scary, and it’s really expensive to start a farm. There are a lot of outside investors that are buying into or buying their companies, and in Southern Oregon we are going to be in the minority when it comes to locally owned and locally employed,” she says.

Jessica McClain, the farm’s office manager, agrees. “You can choose to be secretive and competitive or you can choose to band together and set the market standard, like pricing and quality,” she says.

Mason Walker, a Craft Cannabis Alliance board member and CEO of East Fork Cultivars, a CBD-focused farm in Takilma, says he sees a great future for cannabis in Southern Oregon. “We have the opportunity to be the Napa Valley of cannabis,” he says. “We have the water, the temperature is amazing, a lot of environmental factors are perfect, the talent is here, the cultivation experts are here. With good policy and concentrated effort, I believe it can be a tourist destination.”

You can follow Liz Gold on Twitter/Instagram @lizstacygold or read her blog at www.14karatliving.com.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Jamin Giersbach, right, helps a customer inside Rogue Farmers hydroponic store in Talent.
Photo by Kara Estabrook Foreground to background Courtney Moran, of Earth Law LLC, Pete Gendron, Oregon Sungrown president, along with Oregon Sungrown members Lorinda Olsen, Lorianne Carey and Jared Watters talk about Oregon's cannabis industry.