Fall means harvest for farmers
Bringing to a close the long cultivation season and marching us inexorably towards winter. This fall has been a wet one; the last time I can remember close to this much rain during October was 2007, and I don’t think that year was nearly as wet as this year has been. Our rainwater collection pond has gone from nearly empty to nearly full in the space of three weeks.
California remains in a drought, so the wet weather is a welcome relief for the parched landscape. Creeks are gurgling and chattering again, rivers are flowing well. It is a joy to see the land become moist and soft; seeds sprout and grass grows green again. For farmers though, heavy rains during the harvest season can prove to be tricky business. The hard-packed earth turns to mud, clinging to boots and making vehicles slip and slide. Straw mulch and cover crops for ground cover are essential to making sure that soil does not erode, and that nutrients do not enter the streams.
At Happy Day Farms, we cultivate dozens of different crops on a micro-scale for our Community Supported Agriculture program and for farmers markets. Two acres of production means that we must maximize use from our limited space, but it is enough for us as a family operation. October marks the time when we bring in the last of the summer bounty, harvesting a colorful panoply of peppers, eggplant, squash, beans and tomatoes. The last of the basil is picked, the apples are in, and, of course, the cannabis is ready.
Our soil has been built up over the last six years from rocky clay to a rich, dark loam. We tend it carefully, adding organic amendments and lots of compost. If you feed the soil, it will feed the plants. As a micro-scale diversified farm, every inch counts and we make the most of our space by inter-planting and rotating the many different crops that we grow.
In the spring, we prep the cannabis terraces and plant them to salad mixes, cooking greens and brassica (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli), with a space left for each cannabis plant. We start the cannabis in hoophouses, and after they show sex (male/female) we plant out female plants into the open spaces between the greens. As the cannabis grows, we harvest the greens, creating more space for the expanding ladies.
During the cool-weather crop season (fall-winter-spring) we cultivate many different leafy crops and heading brassica, both in the cannabis terraces and in the other rows that aren’t as wide and deep. When we make the transition back to the hot crops in May, bed space is always at a premium. Farming can be either a mad dash of desperate juggling, or an elegant choreography of interwoven cycles. Often it’s a bit of both.
As the warm season commences, we will finish harvesting the greens from between the cannabis plants and will then plant in basil, peppers, eggplants and tomatoes, which do well; they are all heavy feeders that enjoy the rich loam and the stout doses of compost. We avoid planting cucurbits (squash, melons) within the same rows as the cannabis because they are prone to powdery mildew which is also a foe of the cannabis plant.
We cultivate more than a dozen cannabis strains that we have selected from seeds that we make each season. Many are Indica hybrids that finish early, helping us to stay ahead of the fall rains that make an appearance here in Northern California each season. Our later strains are still done in early October, helping us to be finished with harvest by Halloween, when the days have become short and the mornings are dark. Summer has gone by the wayside for another year, meaning farmers look forward to the coming winter downtime. It has been a long season, but it’s not over yet.
We like to bring in the heavy tops before the rains come, which means that harvest is often driven by the threat of moisture. Plants that aren’t topped before the rain are more likely to experience breaking of branches and the potential for mold in the thick, dense colas. We like to say “a bud in the bag is worth two on the bush”, and will commence harvesting anything that is thick and dense prior to the rains. This helps us to ensure the quality of the medicine we send out into the marketplace, and makes for fewer worries during the rains.
We practice the “3 D’s” for harvest; is it Dense, is it Dank, is it Done? You need at least two out of the three to commence harvesting, although density is the biggest factor in the face of approaching rains. With any crop, harvest is a major part of the work but with cannabis it is even more so than most. It takes a lot more effort to cut, hang dry and process cannabis than it does cabbage. Each individual branch gets cut in waves, two or three different cuttings to maximize sunlight and wind exposure to all parts of the plant. We usually harvest once every 5-8 days, with three cuttings on each plant. The harvested branches are hung on galvanized wire, strung into racks between vertical 2×4’s.
Space is always at a premium in the drying shed; we pack them in close with very little vertical space between the bottom of the hanging row above and the next set of strings. Fans for air movement are critical, as is some method for removing moisture from the air. Some farmers use wood stoves, some use dehumidifiers. Wood stoves are nice because they don’t require electricity (many cannabis farms are off-grid, solar based) but it is a careful process to maintain a constant temperature without it getting too hot. Curing should be slow, 6-10 days dependent on the thickness of the harvested flowers, with some taking as long as 14 days to cure.
Trimming and processing the cannabis harvest takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. It is an economic booster to the rural communities, as workers flood in to help with the process. Cannabis dollars support local businesses, increasing sales as the trickle-down effect spreads resources throughout the community. Many folks work as trimmers, though there is no longer enough work to support all of the job seekers. Too many people arrive looking for work, creating a strain on localities when they do not find the sought-after opportunity. There is often a subtle tension between more conservative elements of the community and those who arrive to help process the harvest.
This tension exists in the policy discussions on the local, state, and federal levels. Cannabis is coming out of the shadows, slowly transitioning from decades of Prohibition into a new era. How that process will play out is a subject of much discussion and consternation. So many lives have been affected by the evils of a Prohibition system, feeding the prison-industrial complex and the budgets of law enforcement through asset forfeiture seizures. This corruption will go down in history as a time in which governments used their power to extract resources from citizens through flawed laws supported by a massive propaganda effort. It is slow to change; so many people were indoctrinated into the “reefer madness”, the shadows of which we struggle to emerge from.
One of the reasons we chose to go public with our farm and way of life was to try and shed light on the reality we live. As farmers, we participate in the natural rhythms of the world, cycling through the seasons as producers of quality nourishment and medicine for people we know and love. Medicinal cannabis is an integral part of our farm and our way of life, and we felt it was important to share it with the world, to try and move the conversation forward.
As a sociologist, I’m a big believer in positive social change created through citizen action. Sharing our methods of cultivation and striving to produce in as sustainable a manner as possible is our way of seeking to improve our locality while having an impact on the broader conversation. In a world damaged by industrial practices, we need a regenerative agriculture for the 21st century. As cannabis comes online as a major agricultural crop, it is important that we manifest positive methodologies and communication strategies. Together, we can learn and replicate practices that will heal ecosystems damaged by decades of industrial land-use practices. It will be a slow process, but one we must accomplish; the health of the planet, and thus our human survival, hangs in the balance.
Written by Casey O’Neill
Published in issue 126 Weed World magazine