85% of Humboldt County pot farmers call for co-op support, survey finds

By ISABELLA VANDERHEIDEN | ivanderheiden@times-standard.com | Times-Standard

October 19, 2021 at 3:30 p.m.

A recent survey from the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy and Cooperation Humboldt found that the vast majority of local cannabis cultivators want more cooperative support, yet there are almost no cannabis cooperatives on the North Coast.

The survey “Corporate Cannabis is Coming: Cultivators, Are You Ready?” sought to identify what services cannabis farmers are lacking locally. Of the 82 survey respondents, 85.6% said they would like assistance in developing cooperative systems, according to Nicole Riggs, affiliate researcher for the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy.

“Our hypothesis is that the problem is due in part to regulatory roadblocks, and in part because farmers are yet to define what an ideal cooperative would look like,” she said. “In the next phase, we’ll be exploring just that. We’re interviewing many farmers to understand what their needs, their hopes are for co-ops, and simultaneously, we’re seeking advice from legal experts in cannabis to get clarity on how a particular rule will impact co-ops.”

Drew Barber, owner-operator of East Mill Creek Farms in the Mattole Valley, helped start Uplift Cooperative in 2018 – the only cannabis cooperative in Humboldt County.

“Uplift Cooperative is a cannabis producers cooperative that was founded by myself and some of my neighbors in the lower Mattole Valley between Honeydew and Petrolia,” he said. “We’re using a bunch of different tactics and strategies to do that and we’re really just trying to reduce the cost of production and increase costs of value at sales. A lot of it has to do with the complexities of regulations.”

In essence, they’re looking to connect small cannabis farmers to increase their viability in the marketplace.

“The small producer doesn’t necessarily have all the skills needed to produce their product, get their product to market at the value that they need and do all of the various compliance pieces,” Barber said. “So we’re trying to ease some of those burdens and basically work together where we can to gain those benefits. Other businesses that we’re competing against — like these larger-scale operations — have plenty of funding, plenty of staff and personnel but most small farms don’t really have staff and personnel. I get these calls, ‘Hey, can we talk to your compliance officer?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you’re talking to him! You’re also talking to the owner and the grower.’ ”

Barber said the Uplift Cooperative is also looking to market their product together.

“That involves having a cooperative brand that all the farmers own that we can put out in the world and really share the burden of the entire marketing process from finding the right distributor, putting the product in the right bag or jar, getting it to the right shelf space at the retail shops, and then communicating with the community of people who frequent those shops as well as the budtenders who work at those shops,” he said. “Those are a lot of steps for each individual farm to handle.”

As cannabis producers struggle to make ends meet as the market tanks, Barber said it is crucial for the county and the state to offer more support to cultivators.

The Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy and Cooperation Humboldt’s ultimate goal is twofold, Riggs said.

“First, we want to arm farmers with solid research and realistic options to establish formal or informal cooperatives or to go to trade associations to lobby for improved policy based on their needs,” she said. “Second, to document the process of putting at the center of decision-making the very people that will be impacted by decisions, in this case, cannabis farmers on the North Coast. This is design thinking for social innovation, an approach to problem-solving that’s particularly suited to complex situations.”

Barber believes cannabis cooperatives would serve as a significant stabilizer in the marketplace for farmers.

“Both in terms of how the entity works in that all the profit belongs to the member-owners, but it can be returned in a variety of different ways,” he said. “Some farms have big years and then small years, just based on the nature of agriculture. You might have a farm that’s not making much money this year but they’re making a lot of money next year, so they end up having these highly cycling tax burdens. If the co-op steps in and are helping to bring in the capital to the farms by holding the brand and by running sales, they’re able to mellow out those spikes and drops in income for the member farm.”

Barber noted that the process “is a little wonky” but said cooperatives are a great tool in keeping capital local and keeping quality high. Famers just need a little bit of incentive to initiate the process.

Isabella Vanderheiden | Reporter

Isabella Vanderheiden covers Humboldt County government, environment and cannabis news for the Times-Standard. Isabella earned a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Humboldt State University and has written for several Humboldt County news outlets.