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Wet summer leaves cannabis farmers concerned about climate impacts

Cannabis and Flooding WEB

VESTAL, NY (WSKG) — With parts of New York experiencing record rainfall this year, cannabis farmers are finding extreme weather to be a significant cause for concern as the state moves ahead with its legalized adult-use market.

Cannabis plants are particularly sensitive to heavy rain and heat. Many farmers struggled with the former this year, some losing large swaths of their entire crops.

"Because hemp is so sensitive to water, the plants literally drowned and died because the roots couldn't get any oxygen,” Allan Gandelman*, president of the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association told WSKG while walking through a cannabis field at his farm in Cortland.

Gandelman said he lost nearly an acre of hemp, nearly 2,000 plants, due to flooding this year. The plants that survived, Gandelman said, yielded less usable product than in dryer years.

Hemp plants are cannabis with a concentration of THC, the psychoactive chemical that causes a high, less than 0.3%. Hemp growing was federally legalized in the 2018 farm bill, largely spurring a boom of hemp and CBD products.

Cornell University** professor of plant breeding in the horticulture section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, Larry Smart, said he’s heard from many farmers with similar stories this year.

He agreed that more frequent extreme weather events like floods, draughts and heat waves spurred by climate change, may be a persistent challenge for New York growers. But the region may fare well compared to other locations across the country.

"Actually, I see New York as being in a favorable position nationally because we will continue to have sufficient rainfall,” Smart said. “We will be able to continue to grow our crops without irrigation. The only thing we're going to have to mitigate is these extreme rain events that lead to flooding. And again, we can mitigate that with tile drainage, raised beds, and again planting crops that cannot tolerate that rain on our best drained soils."

Smart also believes growers will find it safer and easier to grow cannabis in greenhouses or under high tunnels, not only to avoid flooding, but also to control the plant's chemical properties to remain in compliance with state regulations.

"As our new cannabinoid hemp rules take effect, I think growers are going to see the benefits of growing in a controlled environment,” Smart said.

Gandelman said he will try to continue growing outdoors. Next year, he plans to grow high-THC cannabis for the adult-use market, but he worries what may happen if there is another rainy summer since those crops tend to be even more sensitive to water.

"If we had a year like this in a THC crop, we'd probably see a lot of loss," Gandelman said.

He believes indoor or otherwise covered growing operations create additional waste, require irrigation and use large amounts of electricity compared to growing outdoors.

“The downside of greenhouses is you need a lot of electricity for ventilation and also they're made of plastic and metal. Plastic comes from fossil fuels so now it's even less sustainable,” Gandelman said. “And so our goal is to be as sustainable as possible and hopefully we don't have to move our entire farming operation under plastic."

*Gandelman is owner of Head and Heal, which is a WSKG underwriter.

**Cornell University is a WSKG underwriter

Vaughn Golden has been reporting across New York since 2016. Working as a freelancer while studying journalism and economics at Ithaca College, Vaughn has reported for a number of outlets including the Albany Times Union, New York Post, and NPR among others. Prior to coming to WSKG full-time, Vaughn was a reporter for the Watertown Daily Times. Vaughn now covers government and politics for WSKG.