It's been a bumper-crop year for Oregon cannabis entrepreneurs. Since recreational sales started last October, dispensary shelves have filled with well-marketed innovations—everything from vapes made for women to pre-rolls that can pass for cigarettes to CBD dog treats.
Agriculture is the foundation of this new industry, but it hasn't been highlighted in marketing, partly because many cannabis growers are still secretive about their operations. But there's reason to suspect the next step for Oregon cannabis is to highlight the farms, as we've seen with cheese, wine, hops and berries.
To do that, Oregon growers will have to start talking about terroir. Just like wine, outdoor-growing areas for cannabis can be defined by geographic features like soil and weather during the growing season. Just as wine is classified into American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, the future of cannabis might be ACAs: American Cannabis Areas.
Imagine walking into a dispensary and seeing your Sour Diesel labeled "Applegate Valley" or "Yamhill-Carlton."
It might take a while to designate regions that small, but this is already something the Oregon Cannabis Business Council says it's working on.
"There would probably end up being at least a dozen, if not more, appellations in the state," says Donald Morse, director of the OCBC. "It could become our most valuable cash crop."
Right now, Oregon cannabis growers are generally split into three main regions: Willamette Valley, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon. Each region has a distinct climate, growing season and certain strains that flourish there, according to Norris Monson, an outdoor-grow expert and CEO of Rolling Joint Ventures, an Oregon consulting firm.
"Cannabis has a natural range that's similar to tomatoes," Monson says. "It likes warm and dry. Psychoactive strains traditionally originate from either high mountainous regions like Afghanistan or Pakistan for indica, or from tropical equatorial regions like Jamaica or Vietnam for sativa."
Just as certain varieties of grapes are native to certain environments—think how pinot noir thrives in the cool, moist Willamette Valley—certain strains of cannabis do well in certain areas. Weather is a challenge for Oregon outdoor growers, especially in the northern part of the state.
When it comes to matching strains to climate, Eastern Oregon is the most like Pakistan, where indica comes from. Once you get east of the Cascades, it's drier, colder and there's less "insect pressure," as Monson puts it. Indicas thrive there because they are more resilient to low temperatures, and the first frost decides when growers harvest.
In the Willamette Valley, early rains and heavy night dews make the climate the closest this state gets to Jamaica—though it's still pretty far from it. Sativas have the best chance there, so long as they mature early, before the rainy season starts. "Some growers in the valley use leaf blowers to dry dew from plants and to expedite drying," Monson says.
Southern Oregon is the best of both worlds for cannabis growers. It has the longest season because the rains come late, allowing plants to mature longer. "The region has the ability to grow the largest variety of strains in Oregon," Monson says. Even in the relatively dry and sunny south, late-flowering sativas struggle to mature before the long, wet season sets in.
But as with wine, the primary way to discover which strains grow best in a certain areas is to actually plant different strains—and then track the results. If some terroirs yield successful grows, cannabis planted there could become more valuable, especially if growers in a region are held to specific standards. As with wine, there might be tighter standards for calling yourself "Josephine County" cannabis than just being grown in Josephine County.
This is one aspect where the state's aggressive oversight of the cannabis industry might pay dividends. The state is implementing a seed-to-sale tracking system that will standardize information on the origins of any cannabis product, says Morse of the OCBC.
"Through the tracking system, we would be able to keep people honest," he says. "You wouldn't be able to just slap an appellation on it. We know exactly what marijuana is coming out of McMinnville."
And, Morse adds, some folks in Salem see the value of that.
"There are people in the statehouse," he says, "who have a long-term vision where Oregon cannabis would be in demand throughout the country in legal markets, sought out by people from Florida, Texas, Massachusetts."