How Legal Weed Is Killing America’s Most Famous Marijuana Farmers
by Natalie Fertig
EUREKA, Calif. — On a sunny day in the spring, Thomas Mulder walked through his greenhouse, down a narrow path between two long, knee-high, wooden planters. In a few weeks, the greenhouse would be full of marijuana plants a foot or two high—indica-sativa hybrid strain Sour G, or White Tahoe Cookies with its characteristic golden hairs around the flower. A few more months and the plants would reach Mulder’s shoulders. But at that moment, the planters were empty as Mulder gestured with his hands to show how tall his crop would eventually become. Mulder has three greenhouses that sit on this flat patch of land deep in the mountains of Humboldt County. This part of his farm is accessible only by a steep, newly paved road that passes in and out of Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and giant trees crowd so close on either side of the property that you don’t even notice Mulder’s farm until the last bend of the road.
It’s pretty obvious why Mulder’s parents chose this place in the late 1970s to grow marijuana. Back then, camouflage ropes pulled tall branches over the clearing to hide the illegal but highly prized crop from Drug Enforcement Administration helicopters; huckleberry bushes grew among marijuana for extra concealment. Now, the array of bright white buildings would be easily spotted from above, that is if anyone was up there looking. The berry bush camouflage came out when Mulder bought this land a decade ago when California became the first state to approve medical marijuana.
Since then, as the stigma around marijuana has evaporated in a grassroots legalization movement that has swept the nation, Mulder’s farm has thrived in a three-county region known as the Emerald Triangle that has become to high-grade cannabis what Napa Valley is to wine—a tentpole of the Northern California economy. In an ideal season, Mulder’s farm produces about 1,000 pounds of cannabis, an amount that should earn him $1.5 million. After taxes, fees and farm operating expenses, Mulder can expect about $100,000 in net income. It has afforded him enough money to own his own house and set aside a retirement account and a college fund for his children. No longer an outlaw like his parents, Mulder is the very picture of middle-class respectability. He has served on the local school board for a decade without anyone batting an eye at how he earns a living.
In theory, business should have gotten better for Mulder after voters passed Proposition 64 in 2016, legalizing recreational marijuana. But the opposite has happened.
The costs of shifting his farm from California’s loosely regulated medical marijuana program into the stringent legal market have been high. Mulder actually lost money last year—the worst loss his farm has ever experienced—and he had to dip into his retirement fund and his children's college fund to keep from closing. A few years ago, his retirement savings totaled over $80,000. After last year, he says, he has about $500 left.
Mulder is not alone. As industrial-sized growers in places like California’s famously fertile Central Valley have flooded the market, the price of legal marijuana has plummeted by more than half. An array of upfront fees and stricter regulations, combined with a lack of access to bank loans, are all reasons farmers in Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties say they can’t afford to remain in the legal market. Only 2,200 farmers applied for cannabis licenses last year, according to California NORML, compared with the estimated 30,000 or more growers who existed in the Emerald Triangle pre-legalization. It’s hard to know how many of the rest are continuing to grow in the illicit market. An estimated 10 percent of growers have simply shut down. Some expect that number to rise fivefold by year’s end.
“The regulatory climate in California and the cost of all of those regulations certainly does make the prospect of a viable small farm really small,” says Trillian Schroeder, a cannabis farm consultant in Humboldt County.
In effect, legal marijuana is doing what the DEA’s war on drugs never managed to accomplish. Some observers fear the era of cannabis in Humboldt—legal and otherwise—is over.
“I don’t want to see more victims of the war on drugs,” Mulder says. “But now it’s different because it’s a different war—it’s pricing [farmers] out.”
“I wish I could go back in time,” he says. “Maybe not pass Prop 64.”