The Emerald Cup 2017: Bigger, Busier, and Bittersweet

Enhanced production value and bulked-up facilities helped make this year’s Emerald Cup an easier, more pleasant experience, a nice touch as everyone prepares for the unknown.

SANTA ROSA, CA. – Like a harvest, the Emerald Cup is (and will always be) a work of art in progress, a living evocation of the Northern California cultivator community at the point in time in which the show is being thrown. The 2017 iteration was particularly interesting in that the layout and feel of the show was like last year, only bigger and better. Improved production value and an expansion of square footage available for vendors in the highly trafficked 215 Section resulted in a subtle but vastly improved attendee experience. Yes, the aisles became impassable at times, and water could be hard to find, but overall everything was just easier, with more places to just hang out. The new section with tables and chairs in the back of the teeming Experience Sungrown Hall was a big hit judging by the its occupancy rate.

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 Beneath the surface, a lot was going on. With January 1, 2018 marking the official beginning of the end of a way of life in California, the meaning of what the transition would mean was lost on no one. Conversations with growers spanning two days revealed the complete range of comfort with how they are prepared for the coming regulatory storm, not to mention getting their ducks in a row with respect to things like distribution. A common response to the question, “Do you have your distribution lined up,” was, “We’re taking cards.” One farmer held up a half dozen cards from prospective distributors he had gathered just that morning.

The recent NorCal fires that devastated more cannabis farms than were reported in the media also hung over the event, even reshaping it. In the Marketplace section, about a dozen exhibitors were unable to attend because of the fires, their empty spots a reminder of what was lost. Fire Relief Fund jars on every table were another reminder. Those contributions as well as a small carveout from each contest entry fee enabled Emerald Cup founder Tim Blake to announce during the awards that $75,000 had been raised to help victims of the fires. Those funds will be added to the many other fundraisers that have taken place since the October fires stole nearly $4 million in aggregate losses from members of the industry. “About 70 folks in our community…lost significantly in the wildfires,” said Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association, during the awards.

Sadly, there was a bit of a discrepancy between the amount of money being plunked into the jars and the vastly larger amounts being spent on product. We do not currently have any hard numbers gathered by the show, but anecdotally exhibitors, who by and large set up shop at the Emerald Cup to do business, were doing brisk business. The operator of one farm noted a significant increase in sales of flower this year, no doubt the result of the imminent imposition of taxes. Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of this last, incredible opportunity?

Exhibitors also spoke about the changing face of events like the Emerald Cup because of new regulations requiring each vendor to have a retailer’s license, the imposition of track-and-trace requirements, prepackaging, no more samples, and other seemingly crippling burdens. Some people just thought the show would be a lot smaller as a result. Noted cannabis lawyer Omar Figueroa stood at the back of the hall, a huge smile on his face. “I think there may be a solution,” he said slyly. He’s working on it. That good news for anyone who likes their consumer cannabis festivals to include cannabis.

Keeping the Emerald Cup at scale also is a necessary thing. It’s a four- or five-ring circus with each part trying to outshine the other, and that’s what makes it work. Two days is never enough to take it all in. This year, with bands like The Roots performing, the ICFA Concert Hall could not be avoided. As well, the three-track seminar schedule provided staggered sessions on relevant, timely topics, featuring knowledgeable speakers. In all, about 30 individual sessions focused on subjects such as how to prevent microbial contamination seed-to-sale and hot to navigate labor agreements.

Though the uncertainty of the future was on everyone’s mind, the countervailing excitement by so many people to be able to proudly offer their products and brands to a wildly enthusiastic public more than outbalanced any fear of the unknown or heartbreak over recent loss. Major deals were in play at the show, with big plans afoot, and not all of it native-born, but even those struggling to make it into the light, into running a “legitimate” business, know that the future belongs to cannabis. We all take that as a given.

Here is the complete list of Emerald Cup winners.

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