ENID, Okla. — Marijuana has brought a lot to Oklahoma in the last three years, but for local farmers, a whole new set of challenges have arisen as a result of the boom.
With new outdoor marijuana farms popping up, rural farmers have in recent months raised concerns over regulations and enforcement around grow permits, land sales, herbicide drift liability, and rural water and electric usage.
Meanwhile, the number of cannabis grows permitted in September had exceeded the number of wheat, pork, soybean, cotton and dairy farms, according to a recent letter to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Association from several Oklahoma agricultural groups.
Farmers and advocacy groups have continued to reach out to legislators and OMMA, hoping for help.
Michael Kelsey, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association, has lauded the recent work of OMMA and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, but says progress still needs to be made.
Kelsey’s organization was one of the signatories that called for a moratorium on the approval of grow licenses earlier this fall.
Since the middle of 2020, he said the OCA was receiving calls from members about the number of grow houses popping all over the place.
“A lot of (calls were about) how the acquisition of property was being done was in cash transactions — that’s not normal,” Kelsey said. “That makes it questionable — not necessarily wrong, just questionable. There were also questions of it being foreign, domestic or Oklahoma-owned.”
Wes Mongold, the undersheriff of Major County, said law enforcement agencies have been overwhelmed with the amount of legal and illegal grows, so the partnerships between agencies to regulate Oklahoma’s medical marijuana industry are paramount, especially as they continue to adapt with the medical marijuana industry.
Farmers on both sides of the cannabis coin raised concerns about land purchases, agreeing that uptick in marijuana land sales had increased.
Cannabis farmer Jed Green, the founder and director of Oklahomans for Responsible Cannabis Action, said the organization members have seen farmland values rise over the last year and half.
“We have seen a lot of private equity firms, one led by Bill Gates, just gobbling up farmland across the U.S. We have also seen a lot of foreign interests working to gobble up farmland, not just in Oklahoma,” Green said. “As enforcement comes online, you’ll see those types of purchases start to slow down.”
In the first two and a half years of medical marijuana legalization, there were major enforcement issues, Kelsey and Green both said.
Now, with OMMA cooperating with the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, more inspectors and more enforcement, both Green and Kelsey expect to see illegal operations continue to decrease.
“What we saw with OMMA, early on, was a lethargic response,” Kelsey said.
That changed, he said, when Adria Berry was appointed OMMA’s director and as the state Legislature budgeted the agency with funds for more inspectors.
“Now that enforcement has been happening in the last three to six months, that problem is going away,” Green then said. “A lot of folks don’t realize that because they are still caught up in thinking it is out of control.”
ORCA has also proposed two petitions aimed at cannabis advancement and enforcement of those policies.
Herbicides and marijuana
Marijuana is not treated with any chemicals and is considered a sensitive crop.
“Some herbicides can harm other crops,” Green said. “When there is herbicide drift that kills a high-value cash crop, there are liability issues there. That liability falls on the person who sprayed it, to pay for the marijuana.”
ORCA has suggested the addition of marijuana grow operations to the state Department of Agriculture’s sensitive crop registry.
Orchards, watermelon patches, vineyards and other sensitive crops are listed on the registry, with a map available online.
In the three years since legalization, there have been nine claims of crop damage to marijuana from aerial spraying, Green said.
This year, there were three, he said. Of those three, only one of those was determined to be 2, 4-D overspray (a general herbicide). A claim was filed, and that is in process, Green said.
Insurers, though, are hesitant to write insurance for anyone because of the threat of a high-dollar marijuana claim, he said.
“There is also a lack of knowledge of the valuation of the crop,” Green said. “ORCA has been working with people to help them understand how to value these crops through different phases. Insurance companies do not have the expertise to know how to value the crop, because it is newer (legally).”
Cannabis farmers and traditional crop farmers seemed to feel differently about what is actually a problem between herbicide use and utility infrastructure.
“There was an exponential increase in utility use, because of the sheer number of grows popping up,” OCA’s Kelsey said. “Some of these grow facilities require so much of that resource, either electric or water or both, that it really burdens the local rural infrastructure.”
He said rural water districts are being overloaded.
“Talking with some of our rural electric cooperative friends and rural water district friends, they echo that concern about strains,” he said.
Green, however, said he believes the strain on rural water and electric loads should go down as illegal operations are weeded out.
Additionally, he said the issue isn’t the marijuana crop itself using exorbitant amounts of water compared with traditional crops. Instead, it is the infrastructure issue.
Cannabis water usage is typically drip irrigation, which Green said is the most water-efficient manner of irrigation.
“A cow drinks about 25 gallons of water a day, we have 4.3 million cows in Oklahoma,” he said. “We really do cut down on water usage, as opposed to traditional agriculture that uses the center pivot irrigation systems. One of those can go through a million gallons of water a day.”
Green said rural water and electrical infrastructure weren’t ready to take on the cannabis boom.
“Better water infrastructure doesn’t hurt anything, and we know rural Oklahoma could use some help with that generally speaking,” he said.
This story is the last in a series about Oklahoma’s rapidly growing medical marijuana industry and its effects on the state’s criminal justice, agriculture and government.