On a recent visit to the Rif region of Northern Morocco, we observed a dramatic and widespread evolution in cannabis cultivation techniques, centered in key geographical areas. We have previously reported on the rise of modern hybrid varieties in the Rif, which are rapidly outcompeting the traditional kif landrace. However, these recent developments go far beyond the introduction of new varieties, and point to a potential transformation of the entire industry.
The Rise of Row-Planting
The most noticeable change is the obvious increase in row-planting. With this method, rows of evenly-spaced holes are created to house individual plants. According to one farmer, each plant is given a full square meter (1.2 yd2) of space. The holes are often filled with nutrient-rich soil and compost, in order to provide the growing plants with optimum nutrition.
During Seshata’s last visit to Morocco in 2015, there were already reports that some farmers had adapted their methods and begun to plant in rows. No first-hand evidence was yet available, and it is clear that the practice was not widespread at that time. But by 2017, vast swathes of countryside around the Rif town of Bab Berred were carpeted with neat rows of cannabis plants, giving the landscape an appearance oddly reminiscent of the tea plantations of Darjeeling, or the vineyards of Tuscany.
Of course, row-planting is far more labor intensive than the traditional method of broadcasting seeds (indiscriminately throwing seeds by hand over a broad area). So why has it taken off so dramatically in recent years? We’ll explore the reasons behind this evolution, and what it means for the wider Moroccan industry.
An Influx of Feminized Seeds
While traversing the area, it becomes apparent that male plants are not present in these carefully managed fields. According to reports on the ground, feminized seeds are becoming much more prevalent—and some farmers are even beginning to propagate clones. A decade ago, feminized seeds were extremely rare in the Rif, and clones were essentially unheard-of.
Now, we regularly hear reports of bulk purchases of feminized European seeds destined for Morocco. On some larger farms, plant count can range anywhere from 200,000 to over one million individual cannabis plants. Wholesale prices range from around €0.60 for large bulk orders, to over €1 for each single feminized seed. Needless to say, the emerging feminized seed market is becoming hugely valuable in its own right.
These valuable seeds are often germinated inside polytunnels, carefully nurtured until they are a few inches tall before being transplanted into their specially-prepared holes. In this way, farmers can ensure the seeds are protected during the earliest and most vulnerable stage of life and increase their chance to realize their full potential in terms of yield and quality. Of course, this also ensures that 100 percent of the plants in the fields are female.
Improved Plant Care
There are several other advantages to row-planting. Plants can be left to grow wider and bushier, increasing potential flower sites. Sunlight is able to better penetrate the canopy, leading to higher yields per plant and per field. Conversely, “broadcasting” typically creates fields full of tightly-packed plants, which grow tall and unbranched due to their limited space.
Maintenance, pruning and watering of individual plants has become much more manageable. Indeed, individual plant care was practically unknown a few years ago, except perhaps for the “good seeds” that farmers would save for planting close to the farmhouse. However, it’s important to point out that this hasn’t always been the case. Prior to the 1960s—when farmers in the Rif primarily produced kif sold as herbal cannabis, and the hashish trade had not yet begun—individual plant care was the rule, not the exception. So in some respects, these recent developments are in fact a return to older techniques, albeit on a far larger scale.
Higher Crop Quality
Harvesting methods are also improving as the need for high-quality product intensifies. The final quality of the outdoor cannabis harvest in Morocco is generally low; plants typically have a brownish appearance and poor aroma due to being sun-dried at high temperatures.
However, we were fortunate enough to inspect the harvest of one farm utilizing these new methods. We observed well-formed, light green flowers with a definite citrus fragrance and abundant trichome coverage. Apart from an extremely high presence of seeds (male cannabis pollen is ubiquitous in Morocco, and is routinely blown across the sea to Spain and France), the sample resembled high-quality outdoor cannabis of the standard grown in Spain or the Netherlands.
Why Are Hybrid Varieties So Important?
The European influence explains the popularity of hybrid varieties such as Amnesia, Critical and Cheese in the cannabis fields of Morocco today. Of course, the simple fact that they produce several times as much resin as kif is obviously another significant point in their favor. According to a local source, kif yields around 1.5% of its total weight when frozen and “sifted,” while modern hybrids reportedly yield around 2.5-4.5% when using identical techniques.
Hashish made from these new varieties is often stickier and harder to handle, (possibly due to increased presence of terpenes) but it is potent and extremely fragrant. Furthermore, it’s often possible to discern the characteristic aroma of the variety the hash is made from. In today’s connoisseur market, that fact alone has wide consumer appeal. Plant selection criteria have dramatically changed. Traditionally, farmers would select good hash-producing plants from the local population, reportedly with some introductions over the years from other hash-producing regions such as Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. These landraces were known for their high resin production, but were generally not favored for their aroma.
Related – Morocco’s Evolving Cannabis Industry: Droughts and Demands for New Strains Push Farmers to Innovate
Today, most European consumers increasingly want and expect the famous, prize-winning modern hybrids over the traditional, earthy flavors of the past. Thus, selection criteria in Morocco have sharply moved away from merely finding good hash producers in favor of varieties that European markets are actively demanding—and are prepared to spend significantly more money on.
What’s Driving These Dramatic Changes?
Overall, these changes point to a rapid transition occurring within the Moroccan cannabis industry, which is almost certainly driven by changing European demand. Moroccan hashish has long suffered from an international reputation for mediocre quality, while availability and diversity of high-quality cannabis products in many European countries has simultaneously grown as laws on cultivation relax.
While Moroccan hashish remains the most consumed in Europe by far, it is becoming a great deal harder for local producers to sustain the prices and demand they have historically enjoyed. The market has long been defined by a dominant amount of low-quality hash; farmers throughout the Rif are now sitting on stockpiles of poor-quality hashish they are simply unable to sell. Now, the best (or perhaps only) means of remaining competitive is to take the opposite route and focus on improving quality, even if it means that initial investments are higher. Thus, the game is now on to raise standards in the hope of bringing the industry up to speed with rising international expectations and ensuring continued competitiveness.
There is a clear and obvious need for the Moroccan hashish industry to evolve in response to global market pressures. The question of how successful these efforts will be has yet to be answered. But if no gains are made, it seems inevitable that the industry—and the farmers and families whose lives are inextricably entangled with it—will suffer immeasurably.
In subsequent installments, we’ll go into detail on improved harvesting and processing methods, new hash-making techniques and equipment, as well as taking a closer look at the economic forces acting on the industry. We’ll also discuss the potential effects on the local landrace population, and the possible outcomes of losing the kif entirely.