During the final, fire-scorched days of August, Jeremy Moberg of CannaSol Farms slept on the roofs of houses and trailers in order to monitor the wildfires that were working their way around his land in Okanogan County. “So many people left and didn’t want to deal,” he says, including a few of CannaSol’s employees. (He said they are no longer employed with the company.) When Moberg or any of his remaining tough-it-out neighbors saw a fire getting too close to a house, they’d scramble onto their tractors and cut fire lines into the soil to protect it.
Meanwhile, they watched government-funded firefighters tearing around in trucks that didn’t carry much water and needed to hook up to city fire hydrants to be effective. “It was an incompetent response,” Moberg says. “We’ve got a negative feedback loop of funding to fight fire, which creates more fire—with 100 years of fire suppression and massive mismanagement of rangeland and forestry, we have a bill to pay. We’re paying it this year and we’ll pay it again next year.”
Fire, Moberg says, has become “a way of life here in Okanogan County.” He grew up in the nearby town of Moses Lake and worked for nearly two decades as a biologist, leading efforts to restore salmon habitats and developing new methods for mapping spawning streams. During those tense, late-August days, he lost 100 acres of timberland, plus barns, cars, and solar-powered wells to the fires, but not his house (he soaked the area around it with 18 sprinklers and a pump drawing from a nearby lake) or his acre of cannabis (which was flanked by moist alfalfa crops).
Moberg has heard about a few growers whose crops burned, but doesn’t expect that to have much effect on the much-anticipated fall harvest, when a tide of cannabis will be headed to retail stores.
Not everyone is so confident. Under normal conditions, the huge supply of fall-harvest marijuana should push prices down, but Brian Yauger of the cannabis analytics site TetraTrak says his team spent weeks trying to forecast fall prices in Washington before giving up. “I’d love to be able to tell you what will happen,” Yauger says, “but the best answer I can give is: ‘I don’t know.’” There have been too many changes in the market over the past year—plus drought, fires, and legalization in Oregon, which will stem the cross-border trade—to draw any reliable conclusions. And last week, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board issued new rules allowing grey-market medical dispensaries to apply for fully legal recreational licenses, which could also have unpredictable effects.
Some Seattle-based cannabis specialists (such as Maryam Mirnateghi of the dispensary Fusion and Dominic Corva of the Cannabis and Social Policy Center) have heard concerns about the fires in eastern Washington: burned crops, theories that changing air quality will increase microbial growth, and smoke blocking out some of the light spectrum, fooling plants into thinking it’s autumn and causing them to bloom early. But Moberg, as well as Anthony Love of the Keep It Green farm in the Methow Valley, say those hypotheses are overblown. Both use light-deprivation techniques to control the plants’ flowering cycle and say the haze is well timed for their harvests, with the added benefit of keeping plants cooler.
Moberg has been a self-described “guerilla grower” since the 1990s, though he says his father and brother, both attorneys, have pleaded with him to stop telling that to journalists. But Moberg wants to make the point that he’s cultivated marijuana in all kinds of conditions, from deep wilderness to indoor grows, and—despite the droughts and wildfires—is an evangelist for outdoor cultivation.
“The weed is just better,” he says, and explains that outdoor cultivation is enduring a bad reputation from the old prohibition days, when clandestine, backwoods grows had trouble maintaining quality control. “I grow in soil, I grow microbes in my soil, I grow with organic nutrients, no pesticides and no energy waste.” Outdoor growing, Moberg says, is also more environmentally sustainable—he cites a recent paper by energy scientist Evan Mills, which found that a single joint of indoor-grown marijuana had a carbon footprint equivalent to leaving a 100-watt light bulb on for 75 hours. (The study also estimates that US indoor cannabis production uses six times more energy than the country’s entire pharmaceutical industry.)
“Why waste our energy when we could just grow it out here?” Moberg asks. “We’re going to kill this indoor craziness.”
And he’ll keep risking fires to do it.