Failing pot farms are killing this California town’s economy
Not long ago, Garberville could have held the title of California’s busiest city without a traffic light. Thousands of tourists filled the small town’s restaurants and bars after spending the day craning their necks at the towering redwood trees on the nearby Avenue of the Giants. And hundreds of cannabis farms in the surrounding hills of Humboldt County brought millions of dollars into the local economy.
But today, the city is on life support. The legalization of cannabis in California has killed many of those pot farms, leaving empty storefronts and a cratered Garberville economy. Overproduction has reduced the wholesale price of cannabis in California by up to 95%. This has made pot cheaper for consumers, but it has also made it impossible for many farms to survive.
“The economy here is down,” said Laura Lasseter, director of operations for the South Humboldt Business and Visitors Bureau. “… The economy in South Humboldt is in a state of crisis and 90% of this state of crisis is due to the cannabis industry.”
Garberville is the most visible sign of an economic collapse that is reverberating throughout the surrounding “Emerald Triangle,” a three-county region that includes Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties. For decades, this area was the cannabis-growing capital of the entire country, but now pot farms are dying and taking the local economy down with them.
County Supervisor Michelle Bushnell, who represents Garberville, said sales tax collections are down and storefronts across town are empty. She has lived in the city since the 1970s and said she had never seen the local economy so depressed.
“I’ve been here my whole life and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it this bad,” Bushnell told SFGATE. “… I would really like to say, hang in there and try and things will get better. But I say this for a year. I said a year ago that in a year we will get through this, but it’s already been a year and it’s not better. In fact, it’s worse.”
Cannabis is harvested at Huckleberry Hill Farms, located just beyond Garberville in Southern Humboldt County.
Courtesy of Huckleberry Hill Farms
Meghan Joyce, general manager of local grocer Chautauqua Natural Foods, said business was down 12% last year and the store is debating reducing hours.
“We relied on so many cannabis farmers and people in the cannabis industry to keep our storefronts full and business in town,” Joyce told SFGATE. “It’s hard to see where we’re going to get it from.”
The New Yorker once described Garberville as having “the rough edges of a gold rush town, but with peace flags and hemp lattes.” Now the gold has left town, leaving rough edges and no one who can afford a hemp latte.
“Nobody’s Making Money”
The first wave of cannabis growers came to Garberville and the greater Emerald Triangle in the 1960s and 1970s, when people following the “back to the land” movement took advantage of the region’s affordable real estate to build their farms. The cool nights, consistent sunshine and abundant water of California’s Northern Coast Ranges made it an ideal environment for growing cannabis. Pot quickly became a source of income for many of these early homeowners.
In the 1980s, the federal government waged a brutal war against illegal cannabis cultivation in the Emerald Triangle, yet the industry continued to grow. And then California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, creating a green rush of new cannabis farms. Soon, Humboldt’s farms were shipping cannabis to dispensaries across the state and even fueling the nation’s illegal market. According to some estimates, the Emerald Triangle grew 60% of the pot in the entire United States.
A cannabis plant grows on a pot farm in Humboldt County.
The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im
But the same things that made Southern Humboldt County one of the best places in the country to grow pot before legalization are now working against it. After voters legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, the region’s dense forests and long, winding dirt roads that were good for evading law enforcement became costly when it came to driving. a legal business.
Wendy Kornberg, owner of Sunnabis, a small cannabis farm 20 minutes down a dirt road from Garberville, said all the pot farmers around have either given up or are on the verge of bankruptcy. “Everyone is struggling. We all had to raid our kids’ college funds,” she told SFGATE. She said these farm failures have dried up the city’s economy.
“I grew up in Garberville, from 1977 until I graduated high school in 1995, and I’ve never seen so many empty storefronts. The entire side of one of the streets is just empty storefronts. It’s a little scary when you look at it from that perspective,” she said.
Lasseter, of the visitor’s bureau, estimated that Humboldt County is on track to lose 50% to 70% of its cannabis farms. She said the biggest problem for farmers in the region has been the state government’s permission for massive pot farms. Initially, California voters approved a legalization plan that limited cannabis farms to just 1 acre for the first five years of legalization. But in 2017, the state created a loophole for companies to endlessly “stack” smaller licenses so they could expand their pot farms to more than a million square feet.
Cannabis is harvested at a pot farm in Garberville, California.
Marcos Borsatto / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm
Expensive state regulations have added even more costs to growing cannabis, which many small farmers cannot afford. Joshua Sweet, who owns multiple Garberville buildings as well as two pot farms, blamed the collapse of the cannabis industry on overregulation. He is currently being sued by the state over an irrigation pond that the state says was built illegally.
“Before regulation, left to its own devices, this community was safe [and] alive socially, culturally and economically. Within five years of the fix, it has completely collapsed,” he told SFGATE. “No one is making money.”
‘It’s trickling down to everyone’
Bushnell, the county supervisor, acknowledged that county government could have done more to support the local cannabis industry.
“Could we have done better? Yes. Could the state have done better? Absolutely,” Bushnell told SFGATE.
One of the county’s most controversial actions was the imposition of a cultivation tax on legal farms in 2017 that charged farmers based on their square footage, not the amount of pot they actually sold. This added tens of thousands of dollars in costs to small farms. Eventually, the county reduced the tax rate by 85% and then suspended the tax entirely last November.
Kornberg, the cannabis farmer, said she always opposed the cultivation tax, but still defended the county’s work to help legalize pot farms.
“People want to blame somebody, and it’s easy to blame your local representatives, but Humboldt did some amazing things to help us create an easier path to legalization,” Kornberg said.
Sequoyah Hudson, a farm owner and CEO of the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, said business owners and many of the county’s political leaders never appreciated the cannabis industry, even though it was feeding millions of dollars into the local economy.
“[It was] taken absolutely for granted,” Hudson said. “It was such a supporter of our local economy behind closed doors. People who were opposed to the cannabis industry just weren’t aware of it.”
Redwood trees are seen at Richardson Grove State Park on August 12, 2013, in Garberville, California. As the local cannabis industry declines, some hope the area’s natural beauty can attract tourists to boost the economy.
Ian C. Bates/Chronicle
Mary Halstead, owner of Paper Mill, a stationary and art supply store in Garberville, said her business is down 40%. She acknowledged that the local economy was dominated by cannabis.
“Everyone either worked for a farmer, was a farmer, or got laid off seasonally. That’s all anyone has done here,” Halstead told SFGATE. “My husband does tree work, even he has very little work now because no one has money to hire him to work on trees. It’s trickling down to everyone, to every local business.”
Leaders in the city have largely given up on the idea that the cannabis industry will ever return to its pre-legalization scale. Instead, they are trying to bring more tourists to the city. Lasseter said Garberville’s best hope for an economic comeback is to bring more tourism to the area’s natural beauty.
“What we’re working on is trying to stay positive and educate the community on how to transition into tourism. Mother Nature is not making another Giants Causeway or Lost Coast. It’s here, and the decline of cannabis can’t take that away,” Lasseter said.