As the cannabis industry in Southern Oregon continues its rapid upward trajectory, Oregon State University Extension is taking a leading role in helping to navigate challenges that are emerging between the established agricultural community and cannabis growers in the Rogue Valley.
Working with the nonprofit Rogue Valley Food System Network, Extension helped convene community meetings and focus groups with cannabis growers and traditional farmers and ranchers to better understand the concerns of each group.
The findings recently were published in a study in the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Maud Powell, associate professor of practice in the Oregon State Extension Small Farms program and chairperson of the RVFSN, co-authored the study.
Powell said each group had its own concerns: Marijuana growers feel vilified even though they are bringing money into the community. Yet, recreational marijuana growers resent medical marijuana growers because they have fewer regulations by which to operate. Licenses are expensive for both and conventional farmers aren’t as heavily controlled.
Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers expressed concern over competition for water resources from growing marijuana. In rural areas, some say, enforcement of illegal water use is complaint-driven, and often is missed.
For the Rogue Valley Food System Network, environmental concerns topped the list, with water and pesticide use the most troublesome. Many network members worry that pesticide runoff from new cannabis crops will damage streams important for fish habitat. Participants also feel that industry regulations and land use policies are confusing or non-existent. Some people insist the cannabis industry is bringing in more traffic, noise and odors. Increasing crime is also an issue.
Overall, stakeholders spoke about the need for training programs, regulatory training and educational conferences for networking and information sharing among those who grow marijuana and the established agricultural community.
“There are both potential risks and opportunities with the cannabis markets,” Powell said. “There’s more cash flow in the community and an increase in property values. And young, energetic people are moving into the area. But the competition for natural resources is real.”
She added: “Southern Oregon is a hotbed of cannabis in the state. Our climate – hot, dry and with more water than the east side of the state – is perfect for growing marijuana. The industry continues to grow, which has produced opportunities and challenges.”
Jackson and Josephine counties now host 314 licensed recreational cannabis growers, who share a changing agricultural landscape with orchards, vineyards, vegetable farms, seed industries and livestock ranches. Medical marijuana operations, however, are more difficult to track because of regulation and enforcement differences.
To facilitate Powell’s work, the Rogue Valley Food System Network brought together a multi-disciplinary group, including land and water managers, a labor expert, environmental decision-makers and more. Notes from 531 unique conversations were coded and categorized for use in developing future research questions designed to guide cannabis-related policies at the state and county levels.
“It’s really important to have a local person in the community that might be a high-profile neighbor who would help continue the conversation in a civil way,” Powell said. “The food system network will be there to consult if needed.”