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Emerald Triangle communities were built on cannabis. Legalization has pushed them to the brink

News Feed
Monday, February 27, 2023

In summary Cannabis has been king in this rural area of northern California. But as prices plummet, communities and business owners are hurting, with no clear solutions in sight. Many blame Proposition 64 for undermining small growers. HAYFORK — It’s shortly before 8 a.m. and a touch above freezing at the Trinity County Fairgrounds. The food bank’s February distribution won’t begin for another half hour, but the line of cars already stretches into a third row of the parking lot. Joseph Felice, his red Dodge pickup idling with the heat cranked up, arrived around 7 to secure a spot near the front — eighth, to be exact — and ensure that he gets his pick of this month’s harvest: frozen catfish filets, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, cans of mixed fruit, cartons of milk. Getting here early is crucial, because by the time the final cars roll through some two hours later — 210 families served — all that’s left are a few packages of diapers and noodles. Things are getting desperate in this remote, mountainous community in far northern California, where cannabis is king — the economy, the culture, the everything. Over the past two years, the price of weed has plummeted and people are broke. The monthly food bank distribution moved from a church to the fairgrounds last summer to accommodate surging demand. There’s only one sit-down restaurant left in town, a Mexican joint that closes every day at 6. Some residents have fled for Oklahoma, where it’s easier for cannabis cultivators to get licensed. Others are stuck, unable to unload their properties amid an abundance of supply and a dearth of demand. “I don’t see the same faces that I did before,” said Felice, 67, who performed maintenance work for a local grower for five years, until they called it quits at the end of last season. Felice lost not just his income, but also free housing on the farm. The food distribution is now a crucial bridge between Social Security checks and trips to Redding, 60 miles away, where he can get cheaper groceries. “I had plenty of money working out there,” Felice said. “But now that it’s gone, you have to do something.” First: A line of cars waits to receive food from the Trinity County Food Bank at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Second: Volunteers Jeff Mummy (right), Michael Merrill (center) and others prepare bags of food. Third: Volunteers Terry Scovil (center), and Shendi Klopfer load the car of a resident with food. Photos by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters Just what that something might be for Hayfork — and the rest of the famous Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — is unclear.  For decades before California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, this rural region of about 245,000 people was the base of weed cultivation for the entire country. The effects of the price crash, which has been particularly acute in the past two years, can be felt throughout the three counties, both within the industry and far outside of it. Cultivators who can barely make ends meet are laying off employees, slashing expenses or shutting down their farms. That means money isn’t flowing into local businesses, nonprofits are getting fewer generous cash donations in brown paper bags, and local governments are collecting less in sales and property taxes. Workers who spent their whole lives in the cannabis industry are suddenly looking around for new careers that may not be there. Store clerks, gas station attendants and restaurant servers who relied on their patronage now find themselves with reduced hours, meager tips or out of a job altogether. A sense of despair and heartbreak has taken hold in many communities. People whisper about friends who are thinking about divorce or who killed themselves because they could not handle the financial devastation. And the pain is compounded by a feeling that their suffering has been all but invisible, overlooked by most Californians and dismissed by government officials who have never made good on the promises of legalization. “We’re constantly at war. That’s how it feels,” said Adrien Keys, president of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, a trade association for the local legal cannabis industry. Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters These communities have been here before, stuck in a boom-and-bust cycle that played out with gold mining and cattle ranching and fishing. The last time, when the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, cannabis cultivation flourished after the legalization of medical marijuana and filled the void. Now it’s unclear whether there’s anything left to sustain the local economies. Some imagine that growing tourism can be the salvation, or attracting new residents with remote jobs and a desire to live way off the grid, or perhaps a logging revival driven by the urgent need to thin out California’s wildfire-prone forests. Others hope that a cannabis turnaround might still be possible. But for a small, isolated town such as Hayfork — population: 2,300; high school student body: 88; empty sawmills: two — the answers are not obvious. The fear that the community could ultimately wither away is real. “Long-term, I’m worried about it,” said Scott Murrison, a 68-year resident of Hayfork who owns half a dozen local businesses, including the gas station and mini mart (revenues down 10-15% over the past few years), a grocery store (down by as much as a third), the laundromat (bringing in about half of what it did when it opened a decade ago), a bar (stabilized since adding food to the menu), a ranch (hanging on, because there’s still demand for locally-raised beef) and a couple of greenhouses (leased to his nephew, who is not growing cannabis this year). Scott Murrison inside a hoop house full of unused cannabis growing equipment in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters Without any real opportunities for young people coming out of school, Murrison said, they will have to move away, leaving Hayfork without a future. “A good, viable community needs those families and the young people,” he said. “A bunch of old people are just boring.” Boom and bust It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Cannabis should have been the sustainable alternative to gold and timber, a renewable resource that can be replanted each year. For a long time, it was. Despite the challenges of growing an illegal crop, including enforcement raids that still scar residents, the “war on drugs” kept product scarce and prices high. The lure of easy cash attracted people from around the world to the Emerald Triangle, an annual flow of “trimmigrants” who could walk away from the fall harvest season with thousands of dollars in their pockets, much of which was spent locally. “Everybody was making so much money it was insane,” Murrison said. “You could be here by accident, you could make money. Either trimming or growing or hauling water or if you had equipment, leveling spots or digging holes.” Then came Proposition 64, the ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2016 that finally legalized recreational cannabis use and commercial sales in the state, though they remain illegal under federal law. Proponents including Gov. Gavin Newsom pitched it as both a social justice measure and a boon for tax revenues. But the “green rush” that resulted has arguably harmed the Emerald Triangle more than it helped. Pots full of soil sit unused and growing weeds on Scott Murrison’s land in Hayfork on Feb. 7 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters New farmers, sometimes licensed and often not, streamed in, flooding the market with cannabis. A cap on the size of farms intended to give small growers a head start was abandoned in the final state regulations, opening the door to competing cultivation hubs in other regions of California with looser restrictions. And with most local jurisdictions still closed to dispensaries, the legal market has been unable to absorb the glut, resulting in plunging prices and a vicious cycle in which farmers grow even more weed to make up for it. Cultivators who might have commanded more than $1,000 for a pound of cannabis just a couple years ago said it is now selling for a few hundred dollars, not enough to break even with their expenses, taxes and fees. Commercial cannabis sales in California actually fell by 8% last year to $5.3 billion, according to just-released state tax data, the first decline since it became legal in 2018 and a further cramp on the industry. State tax revenue dropped from $251.3 million in the third quarter of 2022 to $221.6 million in the fourth quarter. “You can’t keep printing a dollar,” said Trinity County Supervisor Liam Gogan, who represents Hayfork and nearby Douglas City, where he said business at his grocery store is down an estimated 20%, a decline he expects is less than many other shops in town. Some parts of the Emerald Triangle are better positioned to weather the cannabis downturn; the coast is a tourist draw, the newly rechristened Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata is undergoing a major expansion and there are government jobs in the county seats. But things are precarious in the vast rural expanses, which is most of Trinity County, where there are no incorporated cities. It has one of the smallest and poorest populations of any county in California — just 16,000 residents and a median household of about $42,000 a year. Outside of the Trinity Alps Wilderness in its northern reaches, there is little economy beyond weed. “It’s what we got,” said Gogan, who dismisses the possibility of tourism or any other industry offsetting cannabis losses as delusional. “No one’s knocking the door down.” Like many locals, he dreams that, with the exodus of cultivators and a drop in production, cannabis prices could rebound slightly. Some are noticing a modest recovery recently from the bleak depths of last year, when the most distressed farmers offloaded their product for fire-sale prices below $100 per pound, or simply destroyed crops they couldn’t sell. There have been nascent efforts at the state Capitol to help small cannabis growers. Newsom and legislators agreed last year to eliminate a cultivation tax after farmers from the Emerald Triangle lobbied aggressively for relief. But the intervention is far from enough to ensure their future in a turbulent cannabis market. State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents the north coast, blamed Proposition 64 for setting up family farmers for failure with a litany of “suffocating rules.” He is preparing to introduce legislation this spring that could undo some of those regulations for small growers, including an “antiquated, cockamamie licensing structure” that requires them to keep paying annual fees even if they fallow their land because of the price drop and a ban on selling cannabis directly to consumers, something that is allowed for other agricultural products. “These are solutions that will help stabilize the market and lift up family farmers for generations to come,” McGuire said. “The state needs to have a backbone to get it done.” Newsom, who once called himself the “poster child” for “everything that goes wrong” with Proposition 64, declined a request to discuss what’s happening in California’s historic cannabis communities. A spokesperson directed CalMatters to the Department of Cannabis Control, which did not make Director Nicole Elliott or anyone else available for an interview. In a statement, spokesperson David Hafner said the department has “made a point of regularly monitoring and visiting the Emerald Triangle and engaging directly with licensees to understand their challenges in real time.” Hafner said the department has advanced “several policies and programs that have directly or indirectly supported legacy growers in the Emerald Triangle,” including granting more than 1,000 fee waivers to cultivators in the region, revising regulations to more closely align with traditional farming practices and providing $40 million to bolster licensing efforts in the three counties. “The Department stands ready to assist policymakers,” Hafner said, “in developing actions that improve the legal cannabis market.” Though growers in the Emerald Triangle have been sharply critical of how the state has regulated cannabis, particularly its early decision to forgo a strict acreage cap, one recent development may be promising: In January, Elliott requested an opinion from the state Department of Justice about what federal legal risk California would face if it negotiated agreements with other states to allow cannabis commerce between them. That could eventually open a pathway for growers to export their weed out of California, a market expansion that some believe is the kick-start that their operations need. An increasing strain The escape hatch may be closing for those seeking a way out of the industry. When the value of cannabis dropped, so did the worth of the properties where it’s grown — even more so for the many farmers who, because of environmental lawsuits and bureaucratic negligence, have yet to receive final approval for their state-issued cultivation licenses. After years of operating on provisional licenses, they still do not technically have a legal business to sell to an interested buyer, if they could even find one. Some are simply abandoning the properties that they have built into farms with greenhouses and irrigation systems, though evidence of this dilemma is anecdotal. The Trinity County Assessor’s Office said it could not provide data on recent property sales levels or prices. “There’s no way I could get out of my property now what I put into it,” said Keys of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, who figures he would be forced to walk away entirely if he stopped growing. “I don’t know if I could sell it at all.” Buildings for cannabis growing sit unused on Scott Murisson’s land in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters For those residents who stay, the strain is only deepening. The number of people in Trinity County enrolled in CalFresh, the state’s monthly food benefits program, in December was 31% higher than the year before and more than 71% higher than the same period in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic and inflation crisis, according to data compiled by the California Department of Social Services. That’s nearly three times the rate of increase for the entire state. Jeffry England, executive director of the Trinity County Food Bank, said his organization is handing out two and a half times as much food as when he took over the position six years ago. He estimates that the food bank serves about 1,200 families per month, as much as a fifth of the whole county’s population. It has added three new distribution sites in the past year. “It’s getting really bad,” England said. “There are some of them who are in line at the food bank who used to be our donors.” Jeff England manages the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters Not everyone who is struggling dreams of leaving Hayfork behind. Herlinda Vang, 54, arrived about seven years ago from the Fresno area, where she worked as a social worker at a nonprofit and grew vegetables near Clovis. Sensing the opportunity of recreational legalization, she moved months before the passage of Proposition 64 to start a cannabis farm. Vang has come to appreciate how safe and quiet the community is compared to a big city, where she worried about her youngest children, now 14 and 11 years old. She can hear the birds when she wakes up in the morning. “What I’m doing is also helping other people, saving other people’s life, too,” she said. “So that is something that I enjoy doing.” Herlinda Vang in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters But last year, Vang had difficulty getting county approvals and wasn’t able to start growing until mid-July, about six weeks later than she wanted. Her plants were small by harvest time, leaving her with less to sell at the already reduced prices. Even as she is making less than a third per pound now compared to when she first started growing, Vang remains committed to her farm for at least another few years to see if things will turn around — especially if interstate trade opens up and expands the market. Without many other skills or job prospects locally, she doesn’t expect she could make much more money than she does now trying to find more traditional work. She also loves that, on her farm, she sets her own rules and schedule, and is able to prioritize being a mother as well. “I cannot give up. I have put everything I have in here,” Vang said. “I have to hang in there for a couple more years and see if I can make it work.” That has meant sacrifices. Vang has stopped shopping online for new clothes and jewelry, sending money overseas and buying pricier groceries, such as seafood. She gave away three of her nine dogs and only takes her family out to dinner on rare occasions. Like many of her neighbors, Vang now supplements her pantry with staples from the food bank, though like many of her neighbors, she is also doing her part to hold the community together, helping to coordinate a new distribution site in Trinity Pines, a mountain settlement of predominantly Hmong farmers. A Facebook group called Hayforkers has become a forum for people looking for assistance or giving away extra food and household items. “I am a very tough person,” Vang said. “I’m happy that even though my income is not the same, but my family, my health remains the same and the people that I know, the community at large still love each other, still comfort each other.” First: Packaged noodles are part of the “cultural bags” distributed to Hmong community members by the Trinity County Food Bank at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Second: Cars line up at the Trinity County Fairgrounds for the food bank distribution. Photos by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters. Ira Porter is also on a shoestring budget. He covers his $200 per month rent by collecting cans and bottles — there are fewer than there used to be — from people who don’t want to travel all the way to the county seat of Weaverville or Redding to turn them in. Porter, 59, used to do maintenance and repair work on cannabis farms, fixing cars, water systems, and trimming machines. His wife was a trimmer.  “I’d be busy all year round, you know, because there’s always something to do,” Porter said through the window of his white Volkswagen sedan as he waited at the Hayfork food distribution with his pug Biggee in his lap. “I don’t know how many of these farmers left, but I’m not getting any calls this year as far as to do that.” Ira Porter and his dog Biggee wait in line to receive food at the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters As the line of cars slowly worked its way through the parking lot of the Trinity County Fairgrounds, past the volunteers handing out boxes of vegetables and bags of noodles, Porter cataloged the things he loves about Hayfork: The open spaces. The fresh air. Hanging out at the creek looking for gold. Being able to leave the keys in his car at night and not having to lock the door to his house. Chopping wood for kindling in the winter. “I moved up here to get out of L.A. because it’s a zoo down there, and there’s just too many people, and they’re all pissed off because they don’t got no elbow room,” Porter said. “Up here, it’s just beautiful. I love this place, you know? I mean, cannabis industry or not, I want to live here and die here.”

Cannabis has been king in this rural area of northern California. But as prices plummet, communities and business owners are hurting, with no clear solutions in sight. Many blame Proposition 64 for undermining small growers.

Joseph Felice (right) and Kim Payne wait in line to receive food at the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

In summary

Cannabis has been king in this rural area of northern California. But as prices plummet, communities and business owners are hurting, with no clear solutions in sight. Many blame Proposition 64 for undermining small growers.

HAYFORK — It’s shortly before 8 a.m. and a touch above freezing at the Trinity County Fairgrounds. The food bank’s February distribution won’t begin for another half hour, but the line of cars already stretches into a third row of the parking lot.

Joseph Felice, his red Dodge pickup idling with the heat cranked up, arrived around 7 to secure a spot near the front — eighth, to be exact — and ensure that he gets his pick of this month’s harvest: frozen catfish filets, eggplant, winter squash, potatoes, cans of mixed fruit, cartons of milk. Getting here early is crucial, because by the time the final cars roll through some two hours later — 210 families served — all that’s left are a few packages of diapers and noodles.

Things are getting desperate in this remote, mountainous community in far northern California, where cannabis is king — the economy, the culture, the everything. Over the past two years, the price of weed has plummeted and people are broke.

The monthly food bank distribution moved from a church to the fairgrounds last summer to accommodate surging demand. There’s only one sit-down restaurant left in town, a Mexican joint that closes every day at 6. Some residents have fled for Oklahoma, where it’s easier for cannabis cultivators to get licensed. Others are stuck, unable to unload their properties amid an abundance of supply and a dearth of demand.

“I don’t see the same faces that I did before,” said Felice, 67, who performed maintenance work for a local grower for five years, until they called it quits at the end of last season.

Felice lost not just his income, but also free housing on the farm. The food distribution is now a crucial bridge between Social Security checks and trips to Redding, 60 miles away, where he can get cheaper groceries.

“I had plenty of money working out there,” Felice said. “But now that it’s gone, you have to do something.”

Volunteers Terry Scovil (center), and Shendi Klopfer load the car of a community member with food from the Trinity County Food Bank at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
First: A line of cars waits to receive food from the Trinity County Food Bank at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Second: Volunteers Jeff Mummy (right), Michael Merrill (center) and others prepare bags of food. Third: Volunteers Terry Scovil (center), and Shendi Klopfer load the car of a resident with food. Photos by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Just what that something might be for Hayfork — and the rest of the famous Emerald Triangle of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — is unclear. 

For decades before California legalized recreational cannabis in 2016, this rural region of about 245,000 people was the base of weed cultivation for the entire country. The effects of the price crash, which has been particularly acute in the past two years, can be felt throughout the three counties, both within the industry and far outside of it.

Cultivators who can barely make ends meet are laying off employees, slashing expenses or shutting down their farms. That means money isn’t flowing into local businesses, nonprofits are getting fewer generous cash donations in brown paper bags, and local governments are collecting less in sales and property taxes.

Workers who spent their whole lives in the cannabis industry are suddenly looking around for new careers that may not be there. Store clerks, gas station attendants and restaurant servers who relied on their patronage now find themselves with reduced hours, meager tips or out of a job altogether.

A sense of despair and heartbreak has taken hold in many communities. People whisper about friends who are thinking about divorce or who killed themselves because they could not handle the financial devastation. And the pain is compounded by a feeling that their suffering has been all but invisible, overlooked by most Californians and dismissed by government officials who have never made good on the promises of legalization.

“We’re constantly at war. That’s how it feels,” said Adrien Keys, president of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, a trade association for the local legal cannabis industry.

Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

These communities have been here before, stuck in a boom-and-bust cycle that played out with gold mining and cattle ranching and fishing. The last time, when the timber industry collapsed in the 1990s, cannabis cultivation flourished after the legalization of medical marijuana and filled the void. Now it’s unclear whether there’s anything left to sustain the local economies.

Some imagine that growing tourism can be the salvation, or attracting new residents with remote jobs and a desire to live way off the grid, or perhaps a logging revival driven by the urgent need to thin out California’s wildfire-prone forests. Others hope that a cannabis turnaround might still be possible.

But for a small, isolated town such as Hayfork — population: 2,300; high school student body: 88; empty sawmills: two — the answers are not obvious. The fear that the community could ultimately wither away is real.

“Long-term, I’m worried about it,” said Scott Murrison, a 68-year resident of Hayfork who owns half a dozen local businesses, including the gas station and mini mart (revenues down 10-15% over the past few years), a grocery store (down by as much as a third), the laundromat (bringing in about half of what it did when it opened a decade ago), a bar (stabilized since adding food to the menu), a ranch (hanging on, because there’s still demand for locally-raised beef) and a couple of greenhouses (leased to his nephew, who is not growing cannabis this year).

Scott Murrison inside a hoop house full of unused cannabis growing equipment in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Scott Murrison inside a hoop house full of unused cannabis growing equipment in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Without any real opportunities for young people coming out of school, Murrison said, they will have to move away, leaving Hayfork without a future.

“A good, viable community needs those families and the young people,” he said. “A bunch of old people are just boring.”

Boom and bust

It wasn’t supposed to go this way.

Cannabis should have been the sustainable alternative to gold and timber, a renewable resource that can be replanted each year. For a long time, it was.

Despite the challenges of growing an illegal crop, including enforcement raids that still scar residents, the “war on drugs” kept product scarce and prices high. The lure of easy cash attracted people from around the world to the Emerald Triangle, an annual flow of “trimmigrants” who could walk away from the fall harvest season with thousands of dollars in their pockets, much of which was spent locally.

“Everybody was making so much money it was insane,” Murrison said. “You could be here by accident, you could make money. Either trimming or growing or hauling water or if you had equipment, leveling spots or digging holes.”

Then came Proposition 64, the ballot initiative approved by California voters in 2016 that finally legalized recreational cannabis use and commercial sales in the state, though they remain illegal under federal law. Proponents including Gov. Gavin Newsom pitched it as both a social justice measure and a boon for tax revenues.

But the “green rush” that resulted has arguably harmed the Emerald Triangle more than it helped.

Pots full of soil sit unused and growing weeds on Scott Murrison's land in Hayfork on Feb. 7 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Pots full of soil sit unused and growing weeds on Scott Murrison’s land in Hayfork on Feb. 7 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

New farmers, sometimes licensed and often not, streamed in, flooding the market with cannabis. A cap on the size of farms intended to give small growers a head start was abandoned in the final state regulations, opening the door to competing cultivation hubs in other regions of California with looser restrictions. And with most local jurisdictions still closed to dispensaries, the legal market has been unable to absorb the glut, resulting in plunging prices and a vicious cycle in which farmers grow even more weed to make up for it.

Cultivators who might have commanded more than $1,000 for a pound of cannabis just a couple years ago said it is now selling for a few hundred dollars, not enough to break even with their expenses, taxes and fees.

Commercial cannabis sales in California actually fell by 8% last year to $5.3 billion, according to just-released state tax data, the first decline since it became legal in 2018 and a further cramp on the industry. State tax revenue dropped from $251.3 million in the third quarter of 2022 to $221.6 million in the fourth quarter.

“You can’t keep printing a dollar,” said Trinity County Supervisor Liam Gogan, who represents Hayfork and nearby Douglas City, where he said business at his grocery store is down an estimated 20%, a decline he expects is less than many other shops in town.

Some parts of the Emerald Triangle are better positioned to weather the cannabis downturn; the coast is a tourist draw, the newly rechristened Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata is undergoing a major expansion and there are government jobs in the county seats.

But things are precarious in the vast rural expanses, which is most of Trinity County, where there are no incorporated cities. It has one of the smallest and poorest populations of any county in California — just 16,000 residents and a median household of about $42,000 a year. Outside of the Trinity Alps Wilderness in its northern reaches, there is little economy beyond weed.

“It’s what we got,” said Gogan, who dismisses the possibility of tourism or any other industry offsetting cannabis losses as delusional. “No one’s knocking the door down.”

Like many locals, he dreams that, with the exodus of cultivators and a drop in production, cannabis prices could rebound slightly. Some are noticing a modest recovery recently from the bleak depths of last year, when the most distressed farmers offloaded their product for fire-sale prices below $100 per pound, or simply destroyed crops they couldn’t sell.

There have been nascent efforts at the state Capitol to help small cannabis growers. Newsom and legislators agreed last year to eliminate a cultivation tax after farmers from the Emerald Triangle lobbied aggressively for relief. But the intervention is far from enough to ensure their future in a turbulent cannabis market.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat who represents the north coast, blamed Proposition 64 for setting up family farmers for failure with a litany of “suffocating rules.” He is preparing to introduce legislation this spring that could undo some of those regulations for small growers, including an “antiquated, cockamamie licensing structure” that requires them to keep paying annual fees even if they fallow their land because of the price drop and a ban on selling cannabis directly to consumers, something that is allowed for other agricultural products.

“These are solutions that will help stabilize the market and lift up family farmers for generations to come,” McGuire said. “The state needs to have a backbone to get it done.”

Newsom, who once called himself the “poster child” for “everything that goes wrong” with Proposition 64, declined a request to discuss what’s happening in California’s historic cannabis communities. A spokesperson directed CalMatters to the Department of Cannabis Control, which did not make Director Nicole Elliott or anyone else available for an interview.

In a statement, spokesperson David Hafner said the department has “made a point of regularly monitoring and visiting the Emerald Triangle and engaging directly with licensees to understand their challenges in real time.”

Hafner said the department has advanced “several policies and programs that have directly or indirectly supported legacy growers in the Emerald Triangle,” including granting more than 1,000 fee waivers to cultivators in the region, revising regulations to more closely align with traditional farming practices and providing $40 million to bolster licensing efforts in the three counties.

“The Department stands ready to assist policymakers,” Hafner said, “in developing actions that improve the legal cannabis market.”

Though growers in the Emerald Triangle have been sharply critical of how the state has regulated cannabis, particularly its early decision to forgo a strict acreage cap, one recent development may be promising: In January, Elliott requested an opinion from the state Department of Justice about what federal legal risk California would face if it negotiated agreements with other states to allow cannabis commerce between them.

That could eventually open a pathway for growers to export their weed out of California, a market expansion that some believe is the kick-start that their operations need.

An increasing strain

The escape hatch may be closing for those seeking a way out of the industry.

When the value of cannabis dropped, so did the worth of the properties where it’s grown — even more so for the many farmers who, because of environmental lawsuits and bureaucratic negligence, have yet to receive final approval for their state-issued cultivation licenses. After years of operating on provisional licenses, they still do not technically have a legal business to sell to an interested buyer, if they could even find one.

Some are simply abandoning the properties that they have built into farms with greenhouses and irrigation systems, though evidence of this dilemma is anecdotal. The Trinity County Assessor’s Office said it could not provide data on recent property sales levels or prices.

“There’s no way I could get out of my property now what I put into it,” said Keys of the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance, who figures he would be forced to walk away entirely if he stopped growing. “I don’t know if I could sell it at all.”

Buildings for cannabis growing sit unused on Scott Murisson's land in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Buildings for cannabis growing sit unused on Scott Murisson’s land in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

For those residents who stay, the strain is only deepening.

The number of people in Trinity County enrolled in CalFresh, the state’s monthly food benefits program, in December was 31% higher than the year before and more than 71% higher than the same period in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic and inflation crisis, according to data compiled by the California Department of Social Services. That’s nearly three times the rate of increase for the entire state.

Jeffry England, executive director of the Trinity County Food Bank, said his organization is handing out two and a half times as much food as when he took over the position six years ago. He estimates that the food bank serves about 1,200 families per month, as much as a fifth of the whole county’s population. It has added three new distribution sites in the past year.

“It’s getting really bad,” England said. “There are some of them who are in line at the food bank who used to be our donors.”

Jeff England manages the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Jeff England manages the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Not everyone who is struggling dreams of leaving Hayfork behind.

Herlinda Vang, 54, arrived about seven years ago from the Fresno area, where she worked as a social worker at a nonprofit and grew vegetables near Clovis. Sensing the opportunity of recreational legalization, she moved months before the passage of Proposition 64 to start a cannabis farm.

Vang has come to appreciate how safe and quiet the community is compared to a big city, where she worried about her youngest children, now 14 and 11 years old. She can hear the birds when she wakes up in the morning.

“What I’m doing is also helping other people, saving other people’s life, too,” she said. “So that is something that I enjoy doing.”

Herlinda Vang in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Herlinda Vang in Hayfork on Feb. 7, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

But last year, Vang had difficulty getting county approvals and wasn’t able to start growing until mid-July, about six weeks later than she wanted. Her plants were small by harvest time, leaving her with less to sell at the already reduced prices.

Even as she is making less than a third per pound now compared to when she first started growing, Vang remains committed to her farm for at least another few years to see if things will turn around — especially if interstate trade opens up and expands the market.

Without many other skills or job prospects locally, she doesn’t expect she could make much more money than she does now trying to find more traditional work. She also loves that, on her farm, she sets her own rules and schedule, and is able to prioritize being a mother as well.

“I cannot give up. I have put everything I have in here,” Vang said. “I have to hang in there for a couple more years and see if I can make it work.”

That has meant sacrifices. Vang has stopped shopping online for new clothes and jewelry, sending money overseas and buying pricier groceries, such as seafood. She gave away three of her nine dogs and only takes her family out to dinner on rare occasions.

Like many of her neighbors, Vang now supplements her pantry with staples from the food bank, though like many of her neighbors, she is also doing her part to hold the community together, helping to coordinate a new distribution site in Trinity Pines, a mountain settlement of predominantly Hmong farmers. A Facebook group called Hayforkers has become a forum for people looking for assistance or giving away extra food and household items.

“I am a very tough person,” Vang said. “I’m happy that even though my income is not the same, but my family, my health remains the same and the people that I know, the community at large still love each other, still comfort each other.”

Ira Porter is also on a shoestring budget. He covers his $200 per month rent by collecting cans and bottles — there are fewer than there used to be — from people who don’t want to travel all the way to the county seat of Weaverville or Redding to turn them in.

Porter, 59, used to do maintenance and repair work on cannabis farms, fixing cars, water systems, and trimming machines. His wife was a trimmer. 

“I’d be busy all year round, you know, because there’s always something to do,” Porter said through the window of his white Volkswagen sedan as he waited at the Hayfork food distribution with his pug Biggee in his lap. “I don’t know how many of these farmers left, but I’m not getting any calls this year as far as to do that.”

Ira Porter and his dog Biggee wait in line to receive food at the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
Ira Porter and his dog Biggee wait in line to receive food at the Trinity County Food Bank distribution at the Trinity County Fairgrounds on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

As the line of cars slowly worked its way through the parking lot of the Trinity County Fairgrounds, past the volunteers handing out boxes of vegetables and bags of noodles, Porter cataloged the things he loves about Hayfork: The open spaces. The fresh air. Hanging out at the creek looking for gold. Being able to leave the keys in his car at night and not having to lock the door to his house. Chopping wood for kindling in the winter.

“I moved up here to get out of L.A. because it’s a zoo down there, and there’s just too many people, and they’re all pissed off because they don’t got no elbow room,” Porter said. “Up here, it’s just beautiful. I love this place, you know? I mean, cannabis industry or not, I want to live here and die here.”

Read the full story here.
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The environment is losing. Which means we’re all losing.

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The cause of the environment is losing the public debate.Whether the goal is to reduce air pollution, keep pesticides and nitrogen out of waterways, enforce water conservation or, in the florid words of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, take the “exit ramp off the highway to climate hell,” the agenda to preserve the globe’s natural ecosystems has been set on its heels.The latest blow came from Europe last week. The Greens, who only five years ago muscled their way into the center of European politics, and the driving force behind the commitment to cut the continent’s net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050, were clobbered in elections to the European Parliament, losing more than a quarter of their seats.This came hot on the heels of a major setback on this side of the Atlantic, where New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) stunned pretty much everybody by halting a long-awaited project to charge a fee on drivers in some parts of Manhattan to reduce congestion and tailpipe pollution and to raise money for modernizing the city’s subway system.Ms. Hochul claimed she was acting out of a sudden — and implausible — concern for low-income New Yorkers’ pocketbooks. (The project, which was due to take effect just weeks after the governor’s U-turn, would have helped New York’s air quality and crammed streets and invested in transit opportunities for low-income people, by asking that those who use the roads more pay more.) But congestion pricing is very unpopular in the New York City suburbs that Democrats need to regain the House majority in November.The double punch to the environmental agenda suggests other voter concerns are taking precedence over climate change and clean air, such as inflation — most notably, high energy prices. The result is resistance to environmental policies that impose visible costs on people. Hostility toward environmental restrictions has usually come from the right of the political spectrum. Yet concerns about the costs imposed by green policies on businesses and ordinary citizens has stymied environmental strategies even in liberal-minded regions.In the United States, the conventional narrative that blames Republicans for the nation’s climate trajectory is not quite right. Democrats in places such as Washington state, New York and the U.S. Senate have rejected well-crafted climate plans, pushing alternatives that are often more expensive, yet hide the costs from voters. And they have not stood up enough to environmentalists, NIMBYs (“not in my back yard”) and others blocking efforts to build the pipelines, power transmission cables and wind projects needed to decarbonize.Overall, climate policymakers have failed to find the sweet spot that delivers on environmental goals and also satisfies European farmers upset at the end of diesel subsidies for their tractors and New Jersey commuters who would rather not shell out $15 to drive into the city. Instead, the environment has become another battleground in a broader ideological war between city and country, elite and “ordinary” Americans.The Biden administration has tried to get around the problem by branding its environmental program as a battle against inflation. Yet polling suggests that Americans think the Inflation Reduction Act will make inflation worse and do more harm than good to workers and the economy.Regardless of how the effort is branded, from Long Island to the French countryside, the message is that enough voters are not yet convinced that the effort is worth the costs.The challenge extends beyond the green agenda. It requires overcoming the radical polarization that has reshaped politics from New York to Brussels, to convince voters of the legitimacy and fairness of government action —whether it is in the service of preserving natural ecosystems or any other priority.Ironically, the environmental policies that tend to elicit the strongest opposition — such as congestion pricing — often are the least expensive for society at large. This leaves policymakers with few good options. They must acknowledge popular constraints, explain convincingly why action is needed, ensure their plans mitigate the impact on those who bear most of the costs, particularly the most vulnerable, and advance policies that keep costs as low as possible relative to benefits.They must find the sweet spot soon. There is not much time left to slash greenhouse gas emissions and prevent devastating climate damage. And the solutions are likely to become more expensive. Hard though it might seem, persuading drivers to buy subsidized electric vehicles is relatively easy. Convincing them to pay more for tractor diesel, meat, household heating and air conditioning, or driving into Manhattan, are harder.

California voted to ban new diesel trucks at ports. Why did L.A. and Long Beach just add 1,000 more?

While California waits for the EPA to act, more than 1,200 trucks have obtained new registrations to move cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach this year; 90% run on diesel.

More than 1,000 diesel-powered cargo trucks — which should’ve been banned from serving California ports — were granted access to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach due to inaction from the Biden administration, according to harbor records.In April 2023, the California Air Resources Board voted to ban fossil fuel-powered big rigs from obtaining new registrations to serve the state’s 12 major seaports, a landmark rule that was slated to go into effect on Jan. 1. But one year later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not granted a waiver for California’s so-called Advanced Clean Fleets rule. As a result, state air regulators have been unable to enforce the regulation, which has allowed trucking companies and independent operators to continue adding diesel-snorting big rigs that can pollute port communities for up to a decade. Aggressive and impactful reporting on climate change, the environment, health and science. Since the start of the year, more than 1,200 trucks have obtained new registrations to move cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to data obtained by the Los Angeles Times. About 92% of the newly registered trucks had diesel-powered engines, which are known to emit cancer-causing particles and planet-warming carbon emissions. The Advanced Clean Fleets rule is one of eight clean-air policies that California regulators are still waiting for the Biden administration to sign off on. Collectively, these rules were expected to prevent 11,000 premature deaths and provide $116 billion in health benefits over the next three decades, according to the American Lung Assn. But that assumed the rules would be implemented on time. Seven of the eight pending policies should’ve already gone into effect. The federal inaction has resulted in delays in adopting zero-emission technologies or reducing emissions for trucks, boats, trains, construction machinery and lawn equipment. And the deferred policy implementation could have national implications, as several other states have expressed interest in adopting California’s more stringent rules rather than the EPA’s.Heading into an unpredictable election year when the presidency and both chambers of Congress are up for grabs, environmental advocates want to see these rules prioritized.“Any further delay in the waiver process really does risk that we’re going to see more diesel trucks on the roads or working at the ports,” said Will Barrett, national senior director of clean air policy with the American Lung Assn. “We’re also going to see more gasoline-powered equipment like leaf blowers and lawnmowers when those sales should have been stopped. The transition to zero-emission technology in these sectors is delayed, and because of that, we’re concerned that we’re just going to see this equipment live on, putting out more pollution for longer than it should have.”The EPA declined to comment on the addition of more diesel trucks at Southern California ports and the pending Advanced Clean Fleets waiver. The Small Off-Road Engines rule, adopted in 2021, would ban the sale of gas-powered yard equipment including leaf blowers, lawnmowers and other equipment. It was scheduled to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 887 premature deaths and provide $9 billion in public health benefits. The Commercial Harbor Craft rule, adopted in 2022, would require new ferry boats and excursion vessels to be zero-emission where feasible. It also calls for more watercraft, including commercial sportfishing boats, to replace their older engines with newer, cleaner models to reduce pollution. It was scheduled to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 531 premature deaths and provide $5 billion in health benefits. The In-Use Locomotive rule, adopted in 2023, would establish age limits for trains operating in California and gradually phase out diesel engines. The rule would guarantee all train fleets would be zero-emission no later than 2058. It was slated to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 3,233 premature deaths and provide $32 billion in public health benefits. The Advanced Clean Cars II rule, adopted in 2022, would require an increasing percentage of new cars sold to California auto dealerships to be zero-emission or plug-in hybrids. The regulation would eventually culminate in a ban on selling new, gasoline-powered cars by 2035. It is slated to go into effect in 2026. It is expected to prevent 1,287 premature deaths and provide $13 billion in public health benefits. The Advanced Clean Fleets rule, adopted in 2023, would ban fossil fuel-powered cargo trucks registering to serve California ports and railyards. It would ultimately require all cargo trucks serving the ports to be zero-emission in 2035. It also established zero-emission requirements for governmental and large commercial fleets. It was scheduled to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 2,526 premature deaths and provide $26 billion in public health benefits. The In-Use Off-Road Diesel-Fueled Fleet rule, adopted in 2022, would phase out some of the dirtiest engines from agricultural and construction equipment. It was scheduled to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 571 premature deaths and provide $6 billion in public health benefits. The Transport Refrigeration Units rule, adopted in 2022, would phase out diesel-powered refrigeration units for cargo trucks. It was slated to go into effect last year. It is expected to prevent 177 premature deaths and provide $2 billion in public health benefits. The Heavy-Duty Omnibus rule, adopted in 2020, would establish cleaner engine standards and require warranties for new heavy-duty vehicles. It was scheduled to go into effect this year. It is expected to prevent 2,480 premature deaths and provide $23 billion in public health benefits. Environmental experts say the Biden administration has been tied up with its own jam-packed federal environmental agenda, which may have slowed the review process for California’s rules. In the past year, the EPA has approved new rules for cars, heavy-duty trucks, new coal- and gas-fired power plants and methane-leaking oil wells. Those federal rules are expected to have little bearing in California, where state regulations are already more strict. Due to its notoriously poor air quality, California holds the distinction as the only state that can regulate vehicle emissions, so long as it obtains permission from the EPA. The state has used these powers to adopt groundbreaking rules, such as requiring cars to be outfitted with catalytic converters and check engine lights. “That’s the dance that’s been going on since the mid-1960s,” said Ann Carlson, a UCLA environmental law professor and former transportation czar with the Biden administration. “California leads, in part, because EPA grants its waiver. Then California pushes the rest of the country.”Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom and state rulemakers touted news that the sale of new zero-emission trucks had doubled in 2023 compared with the prior year, putting the state two years ahead of its goals. This mostly resulted from the sales of thousands of medium-duty pickup trucks, such as Ford’s F-150 Lightning and Rivian’s R1 lineup. Zero-emission big rigs remain a small fraction of sales and existing fleets serving state ports. All those cargo containers that come into the Port of L.A., seen here in March, have to go somewhere. For now, most will be aboard diesel-powered big rigs. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times) Asked about the outstanding Advanced Clean Fleets rule, state officials were optimistic the Biden administration would take action.“We’re of course eagerly awaiting the U.S. EPA to grant our waiver, and we expect them to take action very soon,” said Steven Cliff, executive director of the California Air Resources Board. “We’re seeing 1 in 6 new trucks sold is zero emissions,” Cliff added, “and going forward, that’s going to benefit Californians, especially those who live near ports who have been most impacted by pollution.”Nearly 23,000 cargo trucks are registered with the Port of Los Angeles, the busiest container port in the Western Hemisphere. About 94% of those are diesel trucks, and another 5% burn natural gas. One percent are zero-emission: 271 cargo trucks are battery-electric, and nine are hydrogen fuel-cell.The Port of Los Angeles announced last year that it had reduced diesel particulate matter by 88% since 2005, due, in part, to better controls for ships and cleaner truck engines.The Advanced Clean Fleets rule was expected to rapidly accelerate zero-emission adoption, starting with the 2024 ban on fossil-fuel truck registrations. In the year leading up to that deadline, trucking companies went on a buying spree, according to public records.More than 9,000 trucks obtained new registrations at both ports in 2023 — almost triple the amount registered in 2018. The vast majority of these trucks had diesel-powered engines.The registration of diesel trucks continued into the first half of 2024. More than 1,100 diesel trucks were registered at the ports so far this year. Seventy-six electric trucks and 19 hydrogen trucks received approval to move cargo in the same time. Many truck drivers serving the ports are independent owner-operators, running their own small businesses with their big rigs instead of working for a large company with a fleet. They have expressed concerns about the high upfront costs of purchasing electric trucks, which are significantly more expensive than diesel-powered models.Mercer Transportation Co., an owner-operator transportation company, registered the most trucks so far in 2024, enrolling 131 diesel trucks at both ports, including several with engines over a decade old. Performance Team Freight Systems Inc., a Santa Fe Springs-based company, introduced the most zero-emission vehicles, with 23 electric trucks.Under the fleets rule, the existing fleet of diesel and gas trucks would be allowed to visit the ports until they reached 18 years old or a maximum of 800,000 miles traveled. Trucks that exceed 800,000 miles driven can operate for only 13 years.Agmark Transportation registered a diesel truck with an engine from the year 2000, which would not have been allowed if the EPA had granted California’s waiver.The delayed rule would also prevent any fossil-fuel truck from moving cargo at the ports in 2035. But environmental advocates would still like to know how the state plans to offset any unintended pollution and carbon emissions resulting from late implementation.“What we fully expect and strongly endorse is, when these waivers are signed and official, anything that has been done to increase pollution beyond what was designed in these programs really needs to be addressed quickly,” said Barrett, of the American Lung Assn. “If that’s the addition of hundreds of diesel trucks into the port drayage fleet, we would call on our state agencies to look at those and see what they can do to get those out of the fleet as quickly as possible.”

Billionaire-backed plan to erect a model California city qualifies for the ballot

The tech leaders backing the measure must now convince Solano County voters to get behind the audacious idea of erecting a walkable community with tens of thousands of homes on what is now rolling prairie.

The billionaire proponents of a brand new city that would rise from the rolling prairie northeast of the San Francisco Bay cleared their first big hurdle Tuesday, when the Solano County Registrar of Voters certified the group had enough signatures to put its proposal before local voters in November. The group backing the measure, called California Forever, must now convince voters to get behind the audacious idea of erecting a walkable and environmentally friendly community with tens of thousands of homes, along with a sports center, parks, bike lanes, open space and a giant solar farm on what is now pastureland.Led by entrepreneur Jan Sramek, a former Goldman Sachs trader, the venture is backed by a sparkling roster of tech titans, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman; venture capitalist Marc Andreessen; and Patrick and John Collison, who founded the payment-processing company Stripe.In an interview Tuesday, Sramek said the question before Solano County voters is nothing less than “a referendum on what do we want the future of California to be.”The state, he said, was once a great place “that built all these incredible things, bridges, water infrastructure, great public works, and now it is this oasis for the rich, or people who bought houses when they were cheap and they get to live here.”Amid a critical lack of affordable housing, he said, his proposed new city offers a way “out of this defeatist-build-nothing-argue-about-everything mode.” But the proposal faces opposition from some local leaders, along with environmental groups concerned about the loss of natural habitat. Project opponents said a recent poll they conducted found that 70% of the people surveyed were skeptical. “There’s a litany of reasons” to oppose the project, said former Solano County Supervisor Duane Kromm, who has pushed for growth limits in the county and heads the group that funded the poll. Among the reasons, he said, is the county’s longtime commitment to keeping development confined to existing cities, along with what he said is a lack of transparency by project proponents.Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) went so far as to publish an op-ed against the project in the local newspaper, writing: “I strongly support efforts to increase the number of good-paying jobs, implement clean energy, and provide opportunity for our region. But these efforts require sound public policy that works with our community, not lavish promises that may never be realized.”Some of the opposition stems from California Forever’s rocky introduction to the local political scene: The effort, launched under a cloak of secrecy, became ensnared in controversy last year amid unfounded speculation that the land buyers were foreign agents intent on espionage.That’s because for years before proponents revealed their plans, they used an LLC called Flannery Associates to buy up land from farmers in a vast swath of the county, stretching from Rio Vista in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and west toward Travis Air Force Base, without telling anyone why. News of the mysterious land sales, in an area so close to a crucial military installation, led some people, including government officials, to speculate it might be part of an effort by foreign spies to gain military secrets. Last year, it was revealed instead as a bold plan to build a new city from the ground up and reinvent how housing is built in California.In January, Sramek unveiled blueprints of the new community and announced his group would begin a signature-gathering campaign to put a measure before county voters to amend zoning regulations. His group spent $2 million on those efforts from January to March. The group also began rolling out a list of benefits voters could expect from the new community.Among them: a pledge to create at least 15,000 jobs; $500 million to assist with down payments for housing, scholarships and other benefits for residents; $200 million to revitalize the downtown core of Solano County communities such as Rio Vista, Benicia and Dixon; and commitments to preserve open space, create walkable neighborhoods and improve traffic flow on nearby roadways.On May 12, Californian Forever announced it was in conversations with 12 employers interested in expanding into the county. On May 21, the group said it had given out $500,000 in grants to local organizations. And on June 4, the group promised to build a regional youth sports complex, so children wouldn’t have to travel as often to San Francisco or Sacramento for club sports.Sramek has moved with his family and their golden retriever to the Solano County town of Fairfield. He said Tuesday he feels welcomed in his new community and professed to love the heat — even on a day when the temperature topped 100 degrees. He said he believes voters can be persuaded that his project could help solve the state’s housing crisis and improve the county’s economic standing. People have been “disappointed by developers before,” he said. But he said his group is “really serious” about keeping its promises.Some elected officials say they are listening.Ron Kott, the mayor of Rio Vista, a city of about 10,000 that abuts the property California Forever wants to develop, said he sees “a lot of advantages.” Among them, he said, it could enhance his town’s retail scene, and possibly bring a much-needed health care clinic.“I need more business,” he said. “I need more sales tax revenue. I need essential services.”

The world agreed to ban this dangerous pollutant — and it’s working

For the first time ever, researchers have detected a significant dip in atmospheric levels of hydrochlorofluorocarbons -- harmful gases that deplete the ozone layer and warm the planet.

For the first time, researchers have detected a significant dip in atmospheric levels of hydrochlorofluorocarbons — harmful gases that deplete the ozone layer and warm the planet.Almost 30 years after nations first agreed to phase out these chemicals, which were widely used for air conditioning and refrigeration, scientists say global concentrations peaked in 2021. Since then, the ozone-depleting potential of HCFCs in the atmosphere has fallen by about three-quarters of a percentage point, according to findings published Tuesday in the journal Nature Climate Change.Though small, that decline comes sooner than expected, scientists say — and it represents a significant milestone for the international effort to preserve the layer of Earth’s stratosphere that blocks dangerous ultraviolet sunlight.As humanity struggles to control greenhouse gas pollution that has already pushed global temperatures to unprecedented highs, scientists said the progress on HCFCs is a hopeful sign.“This is a remarkable success story that shows how global policies are protecting the planet,” said Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at the University of California at San Diego and Cornell University who was not involved in the new study.Just over 50 years ago, researchers realized that a hole was forming in the ozone layer over Antarctica, allowing cancer-causing radiation to reach Earth’s surface. The main culprits were chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which could destroy thousands of ozone molecules with a single chlorine atom and linger in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.The discovery prompted countries to sign the 1987 Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out production of CFCs. Under the terms of the agreement, rich countries would halt production first and provide financial and technical assistance to low-income nations as they also moved away from the polluting chemicals. Production of CFCs has been banned globally since 2010.But the most common replacements were HCFCs — compounds that have about one-tenth of the ozone-depleting potential of CFCs, but could still cause significant damage. The most commonly used HCFC also has roughly 2,000 times the heat-trapping potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. So in 1992 nations agreed they would abandon these chemicals as well.“The transition has been pretty successful,” said University of Bristol researcher Luke Western, the lead author of the Nature Climate Change study.The United Nations estimates that the world has curbed 98 percent of the ozone-depleting substances being produced in 1990. It takes decades for those manufacturing bans to translate into fewer products sold and fewer HCFCs in the atmosphere. But Western’s research, which drew on data from two global air monitoring programs, shows that turning point has finally arrived.HCFCs’ contribution to climate change peaked at about 0.05 degrees Celsius (almost a tenth of a degree Fahrenheit), Western said, and their abundance in the atmosphere is expected to return to 1980 levels by 2080.“This milestone is a testament to the power of international cooperation,” said Avipsa Mahapatra, director of the Environmental Investigation Agency’s climate campaign. “To me, that signals potential to do a lot more, and it gives me climate hope.”Mahapatra said the success of the Montreal Protocol could inspire efforts to curb planet-warming pollution — which hit another record high last year. By setting clear, enforceable targets that were cognizant of each nation’s needs, she said, the agreement propelled people to take action while remaining the only treaty signed by every country on Earth. It is credited with helping the world avoid millions of skin cancer cases and as much as a full degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming.But the work is not done, Mahapatra said. Much as HCFCs were a flawed substitute for CFCs, they have now been replaced by a new class of refrigerants — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — that are considered climate “super pollutants.” Although the Montreal Protocol was amended in 2016 to call for a reduction in use of HFCs, they are often used in air conditioners, refrigerators and insulation.Ultimately, transitioning away from fossil fuels will be far more complex than curbing the production of ozone-depleting substances, Western said. The Montreal Protocol affected a relatively small industry, and it required companies only to change their products — not their entire businesses.With climate change, “You’re up against a bigger beast in some ways,” Western said.

Cattle are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Hawaiian seaweed could change that.

Local businesses in Hawai’i are getting big funding boosts to help make farmed algae part of the solution in addressing the amount of methane cattle produce.

Limu kohu is most traditionally destined for poke bowls, but the distinctive-tasting seaweed is now increasingly in demand for cattle to reduce the amount of methane they burp into the atmosphere.  Parker Ranch cattle are among the first of Hawai’i’s livestock to be fed farmed red algae. In previous trials, the seaweed has been found to reduce the amount of methane the animals belch by an average of 77 percent, according to Kona-based business Symbrosia.  The algae’s ability to mitigate cattle’s greenhouse gas emissions has elevated Symbrosia and Blue Ocean Barns, another limu kohu farm based in Kona, in the growing international seaweed farming industry. Fueled by its litany of potential applications and climate change-mitigating properties, the World Bank predicts the industry could be worth almost $12 billion by 2030. And that is attracting immense public and private investment interest across the globe, including in Hawai’i.  The federal government awarded Symbrosia more than $2.2 million in grant funding this year, including a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic market development grant for $1.2 million late last month.  That catalytic funding will increase the five-year-old operation’s production by 1,600 percent, Symbrosia CEO Alexia Akbay said. That means just over 6,000 cattle could be eating Seagraze, the red algae product, as part of their diet. The cap is currently 250 cattle.  Cattle on Parker Ranch have been among the first of Hawai’i’s cattle to consume limu kohu as part of their diets. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023 With a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, awarded in January, it plans to streamline its currently labor-intensive production process, one that involves three stages of finicky cultivation and drying. Blue Ocean Barns signed on with two major mainland dairies, as well as ice cream producer Ben & Jerry’s, raising $20 million. Symbrosia last year signed on with Organic Valley, the nation’s largest farmers cooperative, and Danone, the country’s largest yogurt producer.  The recent injection is “really the next step for us to start expanding commercially for our products, for both local producers like Parker Ranch and then some larger companies like Organic Valley,” Akbay said. But the company does not appear to be leaving any time soon, given the growing conditions and Hawai’i’s unique climate. Symbrosia is expanding its footprint from a quarter of an acre to 15 acres and looking to increase its staff by 70 positions, Akbay said. That’s partly because of the year-round growing climate for the seaweed farm. “We probably harvest a little bit more frequently, ship out product more frequently, just because the seaweed grows so quickly,” Akbay said. But now the race is on to commercialize and scale the product across the world, given how high demand might be in the future, says Jim Wyban, who developed pathogen-free shrimp which underpins the global shrimp industry. Jim Wyban is a proponent of strengthening the local food system, particularly through fish and algae farming. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023 Going global Major dairy and beef producers worldwide have started expressing serious interest in methane-reducing seaweed since researchers in Australia discovered its potential. The country’s first commercial harvest was in 2022.  Meanwhile, the Global Methane Pledge, with 155 signatory nations, specifically targets livestock because they contribute the bulk of agriculture’s emissions. And agriculture accounts for 37 percent of the world’s total methane discharged by humans. A single cow produces between 154 to 264 pounds of methane per year. The U.S., which commands a 20 percent share of the international beef industry, has a cattle population of more than 87 million. “They’re going after a really big problem,” Wyban, a leader in Hawai’i’s aquaculture industry, said of the seaweed companies.  Read Next The promise and the perils of Hawaiʻi’s renewable energy revolution Jennifer Oldham, Capital and Main The global market for seaweed-based animal feed supplements could be worth $1.1 billion by 2030, according to the World Bank.  There has been local interest beyond Parker Ranch, Hawai’i Cattlemen’s Council managing director Nicole Galase said. But many ranchers want to see results first, Galase said. Symbrosia’s research with Parker Ranch is slated to last nine more months. The red seaweed has been associated with faster weight gain in cattle, more milk production, and even faster wool production in sheep.  “We want this research and ingenuity coming up because we do want options. Ranchers are always looking for a way to improve,” Galase said. “That takes research, that takes people trying things.”  But having a locally-grown and produced product is not going to keep more livestock in Hawai’i, where a large proportion of cattle are shipped to the mainland. The number of cattle shipped to the continental U.S. is mainly determined by how much grass Hawai’i has at any given time, a factor largely dictated by drought, Galase said.  A valuable crop There are several other algae-based markets, including construction materials, fertilizers, and other agricultural inputs, bioplastics, biofuels, and fabric. Each represents an opportunity for greater environmental and economic sustainability, said Todd Low of the state Department of Agriculture. “There’s three kinds of value to seaweed: There’s the ecosystem services, the filtering of water and benefits to the environment. There’s carbon sequestration, … then there’s this value-added processing,” Low said. Algae already sits just behind cattle as Hawai’i’s fifth most valuable agricultural crop. It was worth $45 million in 2022. Hawai’i’s entire aquaculture sector is anticipated to reach $600 million by 2034, according to the Department of Agriculture.  “There’s a whole world of different value-added things,” Low said. “For us, the focus on macroalgae or seaweed is the vehicle into that world.” State lawmakers have expressed interest in aquaculture recently, though Hawaii has largely ignored fish and algae farming in the past, instead favoring land-based farming. Little has materialized from legislation introduced in recent years. But algae has still grown as an industry, with little help. What Symbrosia and Blue Ocean Barns have shown is that Hawai’i can compete in the aquaculture space, Low said.  “Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Stupski Foundation, Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation. Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Cattle are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Hawaiian seaweed could change that. on Jun 8, 2024.

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