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Is Pot the Next Cash Crop for Farmers in Texas?

Agriculture commissioner candidate Kinky Friedman argues that marijuana legalization is the future of Texas. But for farmers in states where growing it is legal, the crop has come with a new set of problems.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
Candidate for Commissioner of Agriculture, Kinky Friedman at home on his ranch in Medina on Dec. 12, 2013.

Vanishing salmon and fields trashed by trespassers are the most common agricultural side effects of marijuana growth in California, experts there say. The idea agriculture commissioner candidate Kinky Friedman promotes of a hemp farming utopia brought on by the legalization of marijuana in Texas, they say, might be more pipe dream than reality.

"It is the green thread that weaves its way through all of our lives," Friedman said of marijuana during an interview with The Texas Tribune's Evan Smith. "This is not about long-haired hippies smokin' dope. It is about the future of Texas."

Friedman, a humorist and writer who counts famous pot smoker Willie Nelson among his close friends, has said that legalizing the plant for growth in Texas would bring wealth to farmers who could grow marijuana for medicinal and recreational uses and its sister product, hemp, for fiber, oils and food. Currently, it is illegal to grow and possess marijuana in Texas and most other states, and while hemp is legal for consumption, Texas and most other states do not allow farmers to grow it. 

Experts with experience in the legal pot industry in other states, though, say a host of regulatory and environmental factors could complicate any potential benefits growing marijuana might have in Texas. 

States that have recently legalized marijuana growing, including Colorado and Washington, have just gotten started, so they are difficult test cases to assess. But in California, where medicinal marijuana cultivation has been legal since 1996 and is plentiful, many farmers say the crop hasn't been as good for agriculture as Friedman has suggested.

Much of the problems farmers and scientists in California report stem from the fact that under federal law, the plant remains illegal, so states cannot legally regulate its growth as they do other crops.

“Without prohibition, you wouldn’t have this problem,” said Tony Silvaggio, an environmental sociologist at Humboldt State University in California, who has researched the effects of marijuana farming in California. 

Water use for marijuana growth is one of the most important aspects that state law cannot regulate today. Growers of the water-intensive plant in California are siphoning precious supplies in a time of drought. California wildlife officials and fishermen have said that endangered salmon are dying off because marijuana farms are sucking the rivers dry.

The biggest effect the marijuana industry has had on farmers there, said Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau office, is an increase in trespassing cases. The lure of cash has prompted some who don't own farmland to secretly grow marijuana on others' private property. That means the plant is also taking water used on that land to grow other crops. 

"Marijuana is being grown on their property without their knowledge. … The trash and some of the chemicals that are left behind are the liabilities that they have to deal with,” Jones said.  

Additionally, because growing marijuana is still illegal under federal law, agricultural advisory offices are not allowed to give marijuana farmers advice about how to best grow the crop and what pesticides they should use. Silvaggio said many growers use fungicides approved only for ornamental plants that have never been tested for later human consumption. If marijuana were completely legal, growers could be educated about using safer pesticides. 

If Texas were to join other states in legalizing marijuana, Silvaggio said, the federal government may be more likely to follow suit. That would allow states to regulate its growth. But since marijuana is illegal, it's impossible to know precisely what legalization would mean for Texas farmers.

“We don’t know anything empirical about what happens when serious professional farmers are allowed to do this,” said Jonathan Caulkins, who has studied the economics of marijuana growth at Carnegie Mellon University's Heinz College in Pittsburgh. But he suspects the price of marijuana would fall if it was mass produced, which could reduce its demand in the black market and reduce crime.

That doesn’t mean Texas farmers would benefit, though. Marijuana plants are difficult to harvest because the buds must be individually snipped from each plant. That work is labor intensive, and most farm workers today don’t have those skills.

The market for marijuana producers is also unlikely to get very big, Caulkins said, because it’s a high-yield crop. Only about 10,000 acres nationwide would be needed to satisfy the country’s demand, he said. If farmers grow more marijuana, they could oversaturate the market and drive down prices. 

Hemp, on the other hand — which comes from the same plant as marijuana but has less THC, the chemical that produces a high — is easier to harvest, and demand in the U.S. is rising. Friedman has suggested that the first step to marijuana legalization is to allow Texans to grow hemp, which is used in a variety of products, from clothing and twine to edible seeds, protein powder and cosmetics such as moisturizers and essential oils. 

Hemp has long been legal in Canada, but only a few hundred growers have licenses to produce there, Caulkins said. That doesn’t bode well for predictions of a hemp revolution in Texas that Friedman argues would occur if the state legalized growing it. A Congressional Research Service report on hemp last year came to a similar conclusion, noting that hemp crops can also cross-pollinate with marijuana crops. That means farmers growing hemp could suddenly find that their product has enough THC content to make people high, putting them in the crosshairs with the law — or that marijuana growers’ products would lose their potency. 

Even if hemp and marijuana growth become possibilities for Texas farmers, it’s not clear that it would be a moneymaking enterprise. Those who profit most from agricultural production are typically at the end of the supply chain, like grocery stores or bakers, Caulkins said — not farmers. 

“The people who are going to make money are going to be the bakeries that buy [it] … and put it into brownies,” he said.

Still, Friedman has insisted, that translates into revenue Texas could use to pay for taxpayers' priorities. "All of the candidates are talking about education," he said. "I'm the only one saying how we can fund it." 

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