How Has Cannabis Legalization Affected Small Farms So Far?

The legalization of recreational cannabis is changing the farming landscape in parts of Oregon. Oregon voters passed Measure 91 in November 2014, and recreational cannabis became legal in the state the following July. Prompted by anecdotal reports, especially from Southern Oregon, about unintended consequences for Oregon farmers, several OSU Small Farms faculty surveyed attendees at the recent OSU Small Farms Conference, on February 18th, in Corvallis.

We used a rapid assessment method known as “dot posters,” in which willing participants use dot stickers to answer one or more questions written on posters. The survey method is meant to be fun, interactive, and low-pressure, and was first used by OSU Extension Economist Larry Lev and Small Farms Specialist Garry Stephenson while conducting research on Oregon farmers’ markets.

We set up the posters in the lunch line at the Conference, so that all of the approximately 900 attendees would have the option to participate, and 155 did so.

Effects – positive and negative

The first question was whether “the legalization of cannabis production” had affected their farm. Seventy-nine percent of survey participants (122) said that it had little or no effect, while 22% (33) indicated that it had “quite a bit” or “a lot” of effect. We then asked this latter group to say more about the effect on their farms, whether positive or negative, and we counted the number of times each effect was mentioned. Table 1 provides the full list of effects given by participants, with the number of mentions in column 2.

Most of the negative effects participants reported related to resource scarcity, for example: higher land prices and less land for growing food, less water for irrigation, more competition for labor, more expensive inputs, and less greenhouse space available for lease. Traffic and safety were also expressed as concerns, as was a “negative” impact on “community engagement.”

Negative Effects #
Increased land prices 15
Water: quality, availability; water rights violations 7
Harder to find labor 5
Increased input prices 4
Increased traffic 4
Safety concerns 4
Hard to find greenhouse space to lease 3
Farmers switching to cannabis 3
Increased negative community engagement 3
Misuse of good soil 3
More unpermitted dwellings 3
Lack of enforcement of the regulations 3
Travelers camping looking for work 2
Competition between enterprises 2
Lack of resources for property owners to make leasing decisions 2
Employees under the influence 1
Increased competition 1
Unknown impacts of increasing cash economy 1
Monocropping 1
Environmental impacts  

Positive effects participants reported included diversified and increased income, leading to improved economic viability; increased local cash flow and the creation of new businesses; improved communication between food and Cannabis growers; increased property values; and the possibility of improved safety with the demise of “illegal grows.”

Positive Effects #
Diversified income stream 9
Increased cash flow in local economy 6
Growing own supply saves money 5
They buy inputs (manure & hay) 4
Increased interest in growing things 4
Co-existing with cannabis grower brings infrastructure and financing help to property 4
New growing techniques adopted 4
Creation of new business 3
Increased viability of very small farms 3
Regulations may reduce safety concerns with illegal grows 3
Growing hemp increases income 3
More conversation between food growers and cannabis growers 2
Keeps existing agricultural supplier business in operation 2
Increased access to land 2
Increased property values 1
More labor available in Spring 1
You can make a living from your farm 1

Our final question was, “what suggestions do you have to improve the situation?” People provided a wide range of answers, related to public policy (changes related to laws, regulations, implementation, and enforcement), education and communication, marketing, and more sustainable production methods.

Suggestions #
A way to sell at farmers' market and edibles and plants 6
Cannabis needs to be embraced within the farming community so that we can share resources & knowledge to help cannabis production become healthier for people & the planet. It is farming & can be a great crop for small farms. 4
Cannabis growers should buy local, be a part of community 4
Use extra space effectively: lease 3
Federal legalization: get rid of black market 3
More education on fertility management 3
Awareness of water contamination 3
More research on growing methods 3
Local enforcement of water rights 2
Consumer education 2
Support from medical community 2
Better management of leftover soil 2
Decrease chemical inputs (rodenticides, etc.) 2
Better business plans 2
More resources 1
Easier, simpler explanation of regulations 1
Better communication between all parties 1
Come up with better process based on stakeholder input 1
Secede 1
Map location of operations 1
Legalize growing fiber hemp 1
Zoning/tax funds restrictions 1
Acreage minimum 1
Eliminate medical grows 1

Survey limitations and next steps

Our dot survey allowed us to hear directly from farmers all over Oregon about the wide range of positive and negative effects related to cannabis legalization, as well as their creative ideas for improvement where needed. The survey design did, however, have some shortcomings. First, we did not ask participants where their farms are located, which would have shed light on which parts of the state have been most effected.

Southwestern Oregon, for example, with its hot, dry summer and autumns, provides an ideal climate for production. According to statistics from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, one-third of large commercial outdoor marijuana grows are in Jackson County alone (Medford Mail Tribune, September 26, 2017). In addition, by keeping the first question simple, asking whether or not a farm has been affected by cannabis legalization, we don’t know whether the “yes” answers reflect positive or negative effects. We can extrapolate somewhat from the actual lists of effects and how often each was mentioned.

Because OSU receives federal funds, faculty and staff are not legally permitted to provide information on any aspect of production, processing, and marketing of cannabis. However, cannabis production is clearly affecting Oregon agriculture. Our survey sought to shed light on the opportunities and challenges that cannabis legalization may be creating for small farms in Oregon.

The most significant finding from this initial survey seems to be that cannabis legalization is affecting at least some farms in multiple ways, both positive and negative, and that the situation is complicated and worthy of further study. Additional research may be most useful regionally, in areas of the state most affected.

In Southern Oregon, for example, the Rogue Valley Food Systems Network is convening groups of stakeholders, including land use planners, cannabis and food producers, community groups and agencies to explore similar questions and work towards community-based collaborations and problem-solving.

Many thanks to the Small Farms faculty and additional volunteers who helped implement the survey at the Small Farms Conference. Many people, many dots, and a lot of conversation.

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