Just as grape growers keep watch for the moment of peak ripeness, cannabis farmers have for generations monitored the color of the bud’s trichomes, an aromatic crystal resin that transforms from clear to milky white, then gold to amber.
For many, the signs are there. It’s time to bring the crops in.
The outdoor cannabis harvest has begun across the North Coast, the first year when the state will attempt to measure and tax the crop within a new regulated system.
“They’re just as busy as the grape growers,” said Tony Linegar, Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner. “That on-edge feeling this time of year — it’s the same.”
There are no official figures available yet to estimate the acreage of cannabis being harvested from outdoor farms this season. Farmers in the unincorporated area of the county are currently applying for business permits, with some existing operators seeking retroactive permission. No permits have been granted yet. None of Sonoma County’s nine cities has allowed outdoor cultivation beyond small personal gardens.
Based on pending applications with the county, cannabis farmers are seeking permission to legally grow marijuana on roughly 40 acres of land in the unincorporated area next year. More applications are coming in daily.
Linegar estimated the county may ultimately approve about 200 acres of outdoor cultivation in the coming years.
To compare, vineyards cover about 60,000 acres of Sonoma County land, producing a grape harvest worth $581 million last year.
But legal cannabis is the county’s most lucrative crop, per acre. Depending on the size and quality of the harvest, an acre of Sonoma County grapes is currently worth about $9,764, on average, Linegar said. An acre of cannabis is worth about $1.7 million, based on industry standards for yield and the current wholesale value of marijuana, about $500 a pound.
While much cannabis is grown year-round indoors under artificial lights — a process that allows growers to harvest three to four crops a year — the fall harvest of the region’s outdoor crop is the culmination of a process that starts around June.
Even outdoor plants are typically grown in pots to avoid exposing the plant to fungus and other foes that might transfer from the ground soil. From early on, growers have steady work pruning the tops to coax plants into growing into a full, bushy shape and monitoring for moisture and pests. In mid to late August, workers cut the top flowers off the earliest maturing plants, giving flowers on lower branches more sun and time to ripen.
The outdoor harvest is expected to hit high gear this week for many cannabis cultivators in Sonoma County, depending on farming practices and varietals. For others, the work continues until the rainy season arrives in mid-November.
Past a locked gate, a gravel road winds past vineyards and redwoods to the heart of a 60-acre parcel south of Santa Rosa where a strain called AK-47 was ready to harvest.
Annalisa Hopper took pruning shears to a 6-foot-tall cannabis plant in a 200-gallon fabric pot, one of about 850 potted plants in the 1-acre field holding about a dozen different strains.
“It’s my 12th harvest,” said Hopper, 32, of Santa Rosa, part of the local crew working for an Illinois-based company called Justice Grown. “Ten years ago I didn’t talk about what I did.”
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