Thursday, January 29, 2015

Cannabis in the Cornfields: Then and Now

Cannabis is grown in cornfields all over the United States. This plant was found in an Indiana cornfield.
In August 2006, clad in safety gear that protected her from the scraping stalks, Wisconsin ecologist Kaitlin Whitney was collecting ecological data in one of the Dairy State's numerous cornfields when she came upon five marijuana plants "bursting with buds ready to harvest." Her presence even spooked the bud tender, who just so happened to be tramping through the corn to check on the plants. The anonymous grower split, leaving Whitney with both an interesting story to tell and more excitement than she probably expected that day (she was, after all, walking through cornfield after cornfield for her job).

That story became the lede in an article Whitney wrote for The Atlantic this past fall on cannabis growth in Wisconsin cornfields. "Almost every corn grower I spoke to that summer had a tale of discovering marijuana in their cornfields at harvest time," she wrote. "Which led me to ask: What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

Whitney attributes the "recent" phenomenon to modern technology, such as auto-harvesting combines and GPS field mapping, that keeps farmers out of their fields. She argues that marijuana growers have quietly moved into this blind spot in modern agriculture, siphoning the water, soil, and chemicals meant for the primary crop. The technology that turns today's cornfields into more isolated environments may indeed be one reason why growers prefer them. But Americans had been growing weed in cornfields - whether their own or someone else's - long before the advent of helicopter pesticide application and tractors with WiFi. See, for example, the following clippings:
From The Oakland Tribune, July 28, 1948.

From The Denver Post, August 15, 1934.
From the Woodland Daily Democrat (CA), September 7, 1934.


From The Denver Post, July 18, 1948.




AP story from November 22, 1967.

From the Rocky Mountain News, June 13, 1946.

















From the Corona Daily Independent (CA), July 15, 1947.
There are more, but hopefully my point is made: growing pot in cornfields is not a recent deal. But even after a slight redaction to make it less historically ignorant, Whitney's original question is still valid and important:

"What is it about the nation’s largest crop that has made it so attractive to marijuana growers in recent years?"

It's relatively simple, actually. Corn (Zea mays) grows tall and green; so did the first few strains of pot (Cannabis indica) grown by Americans from about 1910 - 1975. Both plants are also camp-followers: plants that thrive in open, human-disturbed environments. The neatly organized, irrigated landscapes of cornfields give pot plants everything they need. Plus, as Whitney notes, cornfields are dense, uncomfortable, and disorienting places where very few people go stomping around. Of course, growing cannabis in corn was even less risky if the pot grower happened to own or lease the farm, as was the case in several of the examples above.

The millions of acres of corn added to the American landscape after mid-century to support livestock and produce ethanol have only given the nation's outlaw horticulturalists millions more acres to grow pot. Whitney hit on this as well, and even mentioned Ralph Weisheit's study of cannabis growth in rural, Midwestern America, Domestic Marijuana: A Neglected Industry (1992).

Finally, economic downturns such as the Great Depression of the 1930s, the recession of the 1980s, the so-called "Great Recession" of the late 2000s, and others provided Americans with plenty of incentive to grow pot in their own or someone else's cornfield; as Dave Carter of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union said in 1986, "I would imagine these days there's probably a couple farmers with some pot growing between the corn rows - any way to make some money these days." As the landscape historian J.B. Jackson would put it, the "official" landscape and the unapproved, improvised, "vernacular" landscape overlap in the world of cornfield pot growing.

The logical follow-up question to Whitney's first is "should anyone be concerned about this?" She starts to answer this question, but only extends it to farmers who've found pot growers pilfering their soil, irrigation water, and chemicals. Understandably, they're upset - and more than a little jelly, as small-time weed farmers are making a killing with a few plants while they're often struggling to profit from thousands. And although Whitney nearly ran into one by accident, apparently finding and arresting cornfield pot growers is really hard;  members of law enforcement she interviews say confirmed reports of marijuana grows rarely result in arrest.

This illustration from the Rocky Mountain News in 1986
 shows cannabis growing between two corn plants.
My biggest concern is not for the farmers - who honestly aren't giving up that much in the way of resources by unknowingly sharing their cornfields with a handful of cannabis plants - but for the unknowing black-market consumers of marijuana that has been doused with industrial-grade fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.

Do these cornfield cannabis growers wash their crop after harvest? Would that even do any good? I imagine the ones who care would, but participants in a black-market economy don't normally give a shit about any of that. They just want the money.

In the end, the story of cannabis in cornfields yields yet another compelling reason why we need regulated, responsible cannabis production in the United States.