Pes­ti­cides hin­der pot crops’ move to farm­land

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Jackie Flynn

Cal­i­for­nia’s recre­ational pot mar­ket be­gins com­mer­cial li­cens­ing in Jan­uary, and in­dus­try lead­ers have long ex­pected cannabis farms to go from clan­des­tine to con­ven­tional.

That means aban­don­ing the steep hills in the re­mote moun­tains of Hum­boldt and Men­do­cino coun­ties for the tra­di­tional agri­cul­tural lands in the Cen­tral Val­ley. There, the ground is flat and con­nec­tions to city mar­kets are abun­dant.

But one large ob­sta­cle to such a move looms: the ram­pant pes­ti­cide use across Cal­i­for­nia’s farm­lands. With the state’s de facto or­ganic stan­dards for le­gal cannabis, it could mean the best place for pot farm­ers is the wild­lands where they started.

“We won’t be able to grow cannabis next to tra­di­tional, full-scale agri­cul­ture. It just won’t be prac­ti­cal,” said Hezekiah Allen,

ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Cal­i­for­nia Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. “I live in Yolo County. I see the crop dusters. It’s not go­ing to work.”

“This is go­ing to lead to huge con­flicts,” said Chris Van Hook, di­rec­tor of Clean Green Cer­ti­fied, a sus­tain­able cannabis cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram that op­er­ates in place of the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture’s or­ganic pro­gram. “We have had farm­ers who have had their en­tire year’s crop re­jected be­cause they were next to a blue­berry field.”

For Steve DeAn­gelo, 59, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Har­bor­side Farms, broc­coli was the likely cul­prit in a sim­i­lar con­tam­i­na­tion. DeAn­gelo was one of the first large-scale pot farm­ers to set up shop in one of Cal­i­for­nia’s most pro­duc­tive farm­lands — the Sali­nas Val­ley.

In 2016, he es­tab­lished 200,000 square feet of cannabis green­houses and grew weed fol­low­ing or­ganic stan­dards, but the farm’s first har­vest failed test­ing due to pes­ti­cides — chem­i­cals he said he never ap­plied. He sus­pected con­tam­i­na­tion by pes­ti­cides blown over from crop dusters on a neigh­bor­ing broc­coli farm.

Pes­ti­cide drift is ram­pant in mod­ern agri­cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to a 2016 re­view in the jour­nal Com­pre­hen­sive An­a­lyt­i­cal Chem­istry, up to 30 per­cent of pes­ti­cides sprayed on crops don’t end up where they’re sup­posed to.

“If you looked at a map of agri­cul­ture in the Cen­tral Val­ley, just the sheer con­cen­tra­tion of in­dus­trial farm­ing — you’d see the prob­lem im­me­di­ately,” said Do­minic Corva, founder and so­cial sci­ence re­search di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for the Study of Cannabis and So­cial Pol­icy, a non­profit based in Seat­tle.

Farm­ers in Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Val­ley, the state’s largest agri­cul­tural re­gion, ap­plied more than 150 mil­lion to­tal pounds of pes­ti­cides to crops in 2015 (the most re­cent year data are avail­able). That’s an av­er­age of 3,500 pounds per square mile and makes up more than 75 per­cent of all pes­ti­cides ap­plied across the state, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cal­i­for­nia De­part­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion.

Mean­while, state pot reg­u­la­tors plan to set con­tam­i­na­tion fail­ure lev­els in the ranges of a few parts per mil­lion. Be­cause sci­en­tists gen­er­ally don’t know the risks of in­hal­ing burned pes­ti­cides, the state has pro­posed some of the coun­try’s tight­est lim­its on more than 60 pop­u­lar cannabis pes­ti­cides.

“Un­like agri­cul­tural crops, when it comes to cannabis goods, sci­en­tists have rather lim­ited knowl­edge of how much an av­er­age per­son may in­gest or in­hale or use a cannabis prod­uct on a daily ba­sis,” said Char­lotte Fadipe, as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of Cal­i­for­nia’s De­part­ment of Pes­ti­cide Reg­u­la­tion, in an email.

One pes­ti­cide threat­ens cannabis grow­ers more of­ten than any other. Farm­ers ap­ply my­clobu­tanil — of­ten called Ea­gle 20 — to a va­ri­ety of crops to pre­vent pow­dery mildew. My­clobu­tanil isn’t deemed harm­ful if eaten, but if smoked, my­clobu­tanil turns into cyanide gas, which could be danger­ous. Thus, reg­u­la­tors have pro­posed lim­it­ing my­clobu­tanil on cannabis to lev­els that are as lit­tle as one five-hun­dredth of what’s al­lowed on other crops.

Pes­ti­cides drift­ing over from a con­ven­tional farm to a cannabis farm are only part of the prob­lem. When farm­ers spray pes­ti­cides as well as resid­ual pes­ti­cides in soil and water are also ma­jor prob­lems for pot grow­ers eye­ing reg­u­lar farm­land.

In the Cen­tral Val­ley, farm­ers spray pes­ti­cides on al­monds and stone fruit just be­fore the fall pot har­vest, the “ex­act worst time for cannabis,” Allen said.

“This is a del­i­cate flower,” said Swami Chai­tanya, of Men­do­cino County’s Swami Se­lect Cannabis. “If you’re go­ing to spray Ea­gle 20 on this, you’re never go­ing to get it off.”

And pes­ti­cides don’t break down eas­ily in the en­vi­ron­ment. Some can per­sist in soils for up to 20 years, ac­cord­ing to Reg­gie Gaudino, vice pres­i­dent for sci­en­tific op­er­a­tions and di­rec­tor of in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty at Steep Hill Labs, a cannabis test­ing fa­cil­ity based in Berke­ley.

“The dirt­ier or more agri­cul­tur­ally in­clined a place is, the more pes­ti­cides will get into the water,” he said. Th­ese hid­den pes­ti­cides can be taken up by cannabis, a plant that is nat­u­rally good at pulling chem­i­cals out of the en­vi­ron­ment.

At Har­bor­side Farms, DeAn­gelo did two ma­jor things to pre­vent con­tam­i­na­tion. First, the farm be­gan grow­ing weed from seed, rather than buy cut­tings, which are of­ten dipped in pes­ti­cides. Sec­ond, Har­bor­side in­stalled enor­mous ven­ti­la­tion sys­tems to push fil­tered air through its green­houses and keep pes­ti­cides from drift­ing in.

It worked. Af­ter six months of tran­si­tion time, Har­bor­side Farms grew con­tam­i­nant-free cannabis.

“It is not im­pos­si­ble for con­ven­tional agri­cul­ture and or­ganic cannabis to co-ex­ist,” said DeAn­gelo.“We’re do­ing it now. I just har­vested 2,000 pounds of clean cannabis.”

But DeAn­gelo said his farm has re­sources smaller farms don’t, in­clud­ing full­time lawyers to talk to neigh­bors and county reg­u­la­tors.

Even with tight pes­ti­cide rules, there should be enough clean cannabis for all of Cal­i­for­nia’s con­sumers — even­tu­ally. Cal­i­for­ni­ans use about 2.5 mil­lion pounds of cannabis an­nu­ally, while the state pro­duces an 11 mil­lion-pound sur­plus for ex­port.

“We have no prob­lem pro­duc­ing clean cannabis in Cal­i­for­nia. We just need to make sure it’s that cannabis that gets on the shelves,” Allen said. “At the end of the day, th­ese are the best prac­tices.”

Van Hook said the in­dus­try’s pes­ti­cide strug­gles should yield new so­lu­tions for other crops.

“There will be ag­i­ta­tion and con­flict, but we’re mov­ing to­ward cleaner prac­tices,” he said. “Hope­fully five to 10 years from now, it will lead to safer pes­ti­cides and safer ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle

Chris Van Hook (left), di­rec­tor of the Clean Green Cer­ti­fied pro­gram, meets with Swami Chai­tanya and Nikki Las­treto be­fore in­spect­ing their cannabis farm in Men­do­cino County.

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