Out of the Ashes

Columns - Guest Column

Mike Ray lost his home and his grow in the California Butte fire. Now he’s rebuilding his community through cannabis.

January 27, 2016

Photos courtesy Mike Ray

Sept. 10, 2015, is a day I will never forget. It was about 24 hours before my family, along with hundreds of our neighbors, lost our homes.

The Butte Fire started in a small ravine in neighboring Amador County. Like most disasters, it was caused by the intersection of several independent factors, like record-breaking drought or a set of power lines. These items individually would be considered aggravations, but together proved destructive, deadly and life-changing for a massive segment of my neighbors in Calaveras county.

It was Thursday night when I got the call from my brother. He told me it looked like the fire had shifted directions and was heading toward Jesus Maria Road, where our property sits.

I felt guilty as I walked around the tech-style cannabis event I was at, shaking hands and meeting new people excited and enthusiastic about the “booming” industry. I was a long ways away and unable to help as my family packed up as much as they could fit into three cars before being forced to evacuate. I needed to get out of there quickly and get on the road as soon as I could.

The 100-mile drive from San Francisco to Calaveras felt like a thousand. About an hour away is when it all began to really sink in. This was actually happening, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. I started noticing the ash coming down from more than 30 miles away: It looked like dark and dirty snowflakes so thick that I was forced to turn on the wipers. It was dark by the time I met my family in the small town of San Andreas. There was no moon that night, or if there was I couldn’t see it. The sky was orange and looked alive. The 100-foot flames raging off the mountainside could be seen from miles away.

Cannabis and Calaveras County

To get a full impact of the destruction, it may help to know a bit about Calaveras County, which is nestled in the heart of Gold Country, and my business.

One of the poorest counties in California, Calaveras can’t boast much industry other than its few schools, hospitals and government center. There is one industry that has historically been kept quiet, but has kept a large portion of the residents afloat since the ’70s: cannabis. It’s easy to dismiss Calaveras County as a large cultivation area as it pales in size (and press) to her neighbors up north in the Emerald Triangle. But it very much exists. As a beautiful place with fertile soil and a mild climate, it has seen a huge influx of growers migrating from other areas. We have mountains, trees and wildlife just about as far as the eye can see in all directions. For me, it was where I grew up and where my family called home.

When I launched my company, Bloom Farms (bearing the name of our property) a year or so earlier, I did so with one objective in mind: I wanted to reconnect with people. Having worked in finance in New York City and then in the San Francisco tech scene, I began to feel more and more disconnected from real people I relate with most. I don’t know what type of person that is, but I do know it’s not bankers and stockbrokers.

As a lifelong staunch opponent of the (forever-failing) “war on drugs,” I wanted to pass along what cannabis was for me, so I did what entrepreneurs do. I sold my vision to a few people and started building a team. I wanted to show that this amazing plant could be part of a healthy and fulfilling life. I wanted to show that the negative stigmas that are associated with stoner culture weren’t real, and that it wasn’t only about getting super high, eating junk food and playing video games. For the record, I do love me some “Call of Duty”; but for me, cannabis should be treated the same as everything, with personal moderation, responsibility and integrity.

I saw an opportunity to reconnect with people who may have otherwise been turned off by the negative social stigmas. This was an opportunity for me and my team to truly ease suffering, promote relaxation, inspire creativity and ultimately increase overall quality of life.

Bloom Farms, located in the heart of Calaveras County, became a place where my company would cultivate beautiful organic cannabis flowers, rich in aroma, taste and effect. We specialized in high-CBD varieties. This year’s crop was a very special 30:1 CBD-rich strain called ACDC. My team worked hard to care for 99 beautiful plants intended to benefit the thousands of patients Bloom Farms provides for. Every effort was made to cultivate and care for our crop with the utmost respect for the environment and the people it would soon help. After all, this was my home, and these were the values that were instilled in me by my family.

Unfortunately, that September, everything was lost. The entire season’s work was thick ash. A lifetime of memorabilia and memories were engulfed. Both of our houses on the property were rubble. In a small twist of irony, the only thing left standing was an 80-year-old barn my father inherited with the property when he bought the place in the early ’70s. Somehow, our tractor also was spared in what I ultimately feel was a sign of sorts. The universe was gently urging us to rebuild and “get back to work.”

After the shock has worn off and everything continues to unfold, I count my family as lucky. We are part of the fortunate few that carried some level of fire insurance. It will not be enough to rebuild, but it will be enough to get started.

Ray's entire season's grow was completely lost in the fires. He has fire insurance (though not for his grow), but it won't be enough to rebuild entirely, just enough to get started again. As much as 80 percent of the county was uninsured for fire.

Estimates say the monetary damages caused by the Butte Fire could top $1 billion. As much as 80 percent of the county were uninsured. Calaveras is poor, and fire insurance is expensive. Many families couldn’t qualify and, if they did, simply couldn’t afford it. They are truly paying for it now. In an area that looks much like a war zone, many of its long-time residents are living in tents and makeshift structures. Those without tents are Butte Fire refugees seeking asylum in the homes of their friends and neighbors.

Our grow was not insured, as options for insuring cannabis crops are slim and extremely expensive. I would say 99.9 percent of cultivators do not have grow insurance for those reasons.

The cannabis farmers were some of the hardest-hit. Imagine countless hours of backbreaking work. Imagine spending months nurturing and caring for a beautiful and lush garden, dreaming of the day when it’s all packaged up and ready for market. The pride that comes with making something real is powerful. Being confident that this year’s crop would take care of you and your family until next year when you were more than willing to do it all over again. Imagine doing something that you love and doing it well, and then suddenly losing it. And then trying to reconcile how you are going to survive the next 12 months with zero income.

Contrary to popular belief, you will not meet many wealthy cannabis farmers. Society has taught us that the marijuana industry is a path to huge stacks of cash and endless riches. Speedboats and fancy cars for everyone. The reality is that the cannabis industry is more or less made up of hard-working folks who make enough to get by and live a happy life. There are many victims in this tragedy. My heart goes out to all of them, but especially the farmers. They have lost their homes, they have lost their gardens, and many have lost their ability to make ends meet over the coming year.

Rebuilding in the New Legislative Landscape

I have spoken with many people about the fire, from cultivators and patients to reporters. The outpouring of support has been amazing. I am urging people to rebuild, but to make sure that they do it the right way and pay attention to what is happening politically. As legislation begins to roll out to regulate the industry, it is going to be important to play by the rules, if you want to be granted a license.

We will wait for the politics to shake out before we attempt to cultivate again. There are lots of changes happening with the next presidential election cycle this fall. Once we see that things are going to be licensed and permitted, we will certainly attempt to obtain a permit. Once the licensing process is written and established, one of my goals will be to host licensing seminars for the farmers in the area to help them get licensed as well.

If I could pull even the slightest silver lining out of this, it would be that this disaster has brought the community closer. People are helping each other in every way possible and trying to get organized in an effort to somehow recover. We are all hoping for the best.

At Bloom Farms, my team is committed to doing what we can to help the community rebuild by donating money to the Calaveras Community Foundation. They are an amazing organization and are approaching everything in the right way. In partnership with Magnolia Wellness Oakland, our goal is to donate 100 percent from the sale of our Highlighter Vape Pen products, up to $25,000. It is a drop in the bucket, but we hope that it will make a small difference.

What is next for the community? Will most of the residents rebuild? Will the leaders of the community decide to take a stance and support an industry that is right around the corner from regulation and legalization?

A future where cannabis tourism thrives in California is a certainty. The question is which community is going to take the lead. I am convinced that, at just 100 miles from the Bay Area, Calaveras County could become the Napa of cannabis. Just like disaster, opportunity is often born from the intersection of multiple independent factors. Maybe the industry that for decades has kept most of the county’s residents afloat will be the exact thing to pull the people of Calaveras out of the ashes.

About the Author: Mike Ray, director of Bloom Farms, lives in Calaveras County, Calif. and has worked in the cannabis industry for 10 years. He is also on the board of directors for the California Cannabis Industry Association.