By Mikal Jakubal
If the full moon of two weeks ago was the “Ripoff Moon,” as my thieving neighbor put it, this dark moon has to be called “Rot-off Moon,” in dubious honor of the brown stem mold that is sweeping Northcoast pot gardens.
“Stem mold” or “bud mold,” as it’s alternately called, is a species of the fungus Botrytis. It is one of the many predictable pests of marijuana in damp climates and appears each fall at harvest. What makes it so vexing and anxiety-inducing is that it starts invisibly on the stems of the biggest buds, rotting them from the inside out.
Often, the first sign is a yellowed or wilted bud leaflet or two. Pulling the bud open reveals either brown slime or grey fuzz where green, crystal-coated calyxes, pistils and leaflets should be. Trying to cut the rot out is often futile, with each successive cut leading deeper and deeper into the bud structure until nothing is left but a disheartening pile of brown and green clippings destined for the compost pile.
Of the many crop-loss threats a small-scale cannabis farmer faces on the Northcoast, bud mold has become the most serious, far surpassing losses to law enforcement eradication efforts.
For many growers, this is the worst mold year they’ve ever experienced. The combination of a long, wet spring with rains persisting well into June, a relatively cool summer and an unseasonably heavy rain in September has provided an ideal climate for mold growth. The fact that everyone has doubled and tripled crop size this year means that a farmer’s limited time is spread thinner, with less time per plant to monitor and take preventative measures.
Once it starts, Botrytis can race through a crop, destroying most of the large buds in mere days. Since it forms mostly in large, maturing buds, the usual remedy for mold is immediate harvest of the surrounding healthy ones. But, what do you do when half of your crop—which this year is three times a large as you normally handle—shows signs of mold all at once?
This is the dilemma that many growers face at this very moment and there is some major freaking-out going on in Garberville. Stores are selling out of heaters, dehumidifiers and propane. I’ve spoken with many, many growers and only a very few are not having mold problems. It was even a topic of discussion on the popular Thank Jah It’s Friday radio program on KMUD radio this morning.
Throughout the hills, large piles of moldy buds are being tossed on the compost heap as growers race to get plants cut and dried before mold can consume their entire season’s work. I’ve heard of people putting large fans outside in their gardens to keep the air moving, though this is probably about as effective as a bucket brigade trying to make a river run uphill. Many people get up early and shake the dew off of each branch. Others cut large branches at once, hanging the whole thing indoors in a dry-room to be properly processed later. The best solution, for those who have the money, is to hire a large crew to do an accelerated harvest, converting your entire house into a drying shed.
Of my four documentary subjects, one harvested early and another is in the process of a slow, phased harvest. Neither had any significant mold. The other two, however think they might have as much as 30% crop loss. One of the two is also a meticulous breeder and she lost years of breeding work when carefully pollinated flowers rotted off the stem.
The accelerated harvest has pushed my ability to keep up with filming. Where I might have otherwise had weeks to show the harvest process, I’ve now had to run around to grab footage of plants being cut before they were gone. With mold running amok, no one is going to wait for me and my camera. Of course, the mold has also added a significant new level of tension to the story, temporarily backburnering concerns about the coming vote on Proposition 19 and the effects that might have. It’s hard to worry about something that might affect you next year—for better or worse—when your entire crop is melting before your eyes.
Farming of any kind is never predictable and pot-growing is no different. I wonder if a future, legalized cannabis industry will have crop-loss insurance available for bud mold?