Sonoma Valley cannabis farm goes up in smoke
The air was full of smoke, as it was everywhere in the Sonoma Valley the second week of October. But mixed with the smell of burning wood and plaster was a familiar spicy, slightly skunky odor – one widely prevalent in the Emerald Triangle of late, especially during harvest season.
Several plots of mature green cannabis plants glowed green on the 3-acre farm, part of the 450-acre former turkey ranch off Highway 12 near Glen Ellen; more grew in greenhouses beneath white canvas roofing. But edges of the fields were singed, and everywhere the nearly-mature flowers (or 'buds' in the parlance) seemed oddly dark.
Nearby, three large warehouses lay in crumpled ruin, their corrugated walls and roofs a cluttered heap of twisted metal. Mounds of small, quarter-ounce medicine bottles lay in a jumble along one side of a collapsed warehouse, empty and discolored by heat and smoke.
Surrounded by still-smoking stumps and scorched vineyards, the Gordenker Turkey Ranch had recently become home to the cannabis farms of the prophetically-named SPARC. Originally it stood for the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center and now, merged with Santa Rosa's Peace in Medicine, it's a budding regional powerhouse in recreational and medicinal cannabis production.
This year's fires, though, coming as they did just days before major harvesting were to get underway, proved a major buzzkill for the 'nice dreams' of SPARC.
'We've lost about 50 percent of our crop,' said Marcus Mulvaney of Legion of Bloom, one of the managers of the pending harvest. The plants on the edges of the open-air, biodynamic garden were burned by the heat of the blaze, but the smoke not only tainted the flowers' flavors but depleted the THC content – heating the flowers begins the process of decarboxylation, releasing the psychoactive cannabinoids.
So the buds – the projected primary crop of the property – are unsellable, and unsmokeable. Well, perhaps not unsmokeable. But not as flavorful, pleasant and valuable an experience as they had hoped.
The only way to recover value from the many pounds of pot being grown (SPARC is unwilling to discuss numbers, ironically) is to send everything to a lab for extraction, the lengthy and complex process that filters out undesirable compounds and plant material. The result is a refined oil of cannabinoids (THC and CBD) and terpenes, the esters that give marijuana its distinctive, some say therapeutic aromas.
Above the ruins of 50,000 square feet of warehouse – only a single building a tenth that size remains – the sound of a helicopter beats through the hazy air, like a scene from 'Apocalypse Now.' It's not an unreasonable association.
'This is Nuns Canyon,' pointed out SPARC founder Erich Pearson, gesturing toward the cleft in the Mayacamas where a fire began in the late on Sunday, Oct. 8. He woke in the middle of the night to see smoke and fire rising in the canyon below the house where he was staying far up Trinity Road.
Then he saw the orange blazes erupt across the Valley on the flanks of Sonoma and Bennett mountains.
'Woah, this isn't just one fire,' he remembers thinking. 'If I could see five or six from my view right here, this is Armageddon.'
Not long ago, Pearson was boasting, 'SPARC farm will be among the first ever certified biodynamic cannabis farms in the world,' and he promised 'state-of-the-art Dutch Greenhouses utilizing the latest innovations in commercial horticulture.'
Now he's looking at a harvest that might be, at best, a quarter of the value they had banked on. And a jumbled ruin of a cultivation facility, and a ruined harvest.
It's far from a unique story, when the recent fires burned many cannabis plots, both legal and illegal, in several counties. Hezekiah Allen of the California Growers Association said seven farms were lost in Sonoma and at least 30 farms statewide had fire damage, damages that cut deep into the state's estimated $21 billion cannabis industry.
'I can't build a new cultivation barn, because the county won't permit it now,' Pearson said. 'The county's going to have to relax the permitting process.'
Instead the county agreed that Pearson could rebuild the long-standing warehouses under the permits originally issued to the Gordenker Turkey Ranch.
And on Oct. 24, the Board of Supervisors not only once again waived delinquency penalties for all commercial cannabis cultivation until Nov. 17, and until Nov. 30 for all cultivation facilities located within the mandatory evacuation zones – which includes the SPARC farm. They also voted to prorate or adjust the cannabis business tax based on crop loss due to fire. The SPARC farm is eligible for such an adjustment.
So at Gordenker Ranch, the work goes on. A small crew, most of them masked with the now-familiar N95s, harvest full-grown plants and suspend them upside down from a series of clotheslines running the length of the sole remaining warehouse.
A slender young man, Joey Ereneta, director of cultivation, oversees the task. 'We were maybe a week away from peak potency,' he says from behind his mask. 'But we still can do the extraction. And we still keep the plants separated by varietal – the cannabinoid ratio and terpenes will survive the extraction process.'
But they can't sell the flowers, he sighs. 'And that was the point.'
The loss of the SPARC cannabis ranch wasn't quite total, and for that Pearson thanks the fire crew who were on the scene when he showed up in the early hours of Oct. 9.
'The entire dry room, cure room, with all of our cannabis from this season, was on fire,' he says. 'But when I got down there, there were multiple engines and a bulldozer, trying to control the fire.'
Though it was too dark and chaotic to recognize the fire crew, Pearson now thinks it might have been the Mayacamas Fire Department. 'The family always hosts the annual fundraiser on the property. I wouldn't be surprised if it was them, saying 'Hey, it's the Gordenkers! Let's get down there.''
The Gordenkers lost several homes on the property; about nine or 10 residents were displaced, including Missy and Austin Levy, owners of Bee-Well Farms. Family doyenne Lenore Gordenker, 92, now lives in Sonoma. When told about the fire and loss of the homes, warehouses, everything, Pearson said she thought for a moment, then said, 'It's OK. We'll rebuild it.'
Erich Pearson and his partners in SPARC have taken a similar attitude. 'We've all huddled and we're ready to build it, bigger and better,' he said.
Email Christian at email@example.com.