July 2020

Contract Farming: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


I am honored to be quoted in Marijuana Business Daily’s article “Contract cannabis farming gaining popularity in California, but practice draws lawsuits,” discussing the various ways folks can lawfully structure their businesses to meet the needs of a volatile cannabis market. Since the topic appears to be hot, an overview of the legal logistics might be helpful. 

First, the article referenced “sharecropping,” a type of agreement popularized during the Reconstruction Era (i.e. post-slavery) where predominantly Black farmers were rent-owing tenants. The landowner was able to unilaterally demand “agreements” wherein farmers received a share of the crops rather than a share of the profits, and would become indebted to the landowner if the yield was less than the rent. In that way, sharecropping was an early and brutal form of ensuring the systemic oppression of Black farmers after slavery. 

Today, however, the “bargaining power” between landowner and a potential contract farmer are often quite the opposite. Indeed, farmers in the hills were first to run out of cash due to the exorbitant land-use costs associated with legalization, causing the downstream bankrupting of entire communities throughout rural California. Unlike land barons of the Reconstruction south, Northern California’s rural landowners were the first to be thrown to the land-use wolves while venture-capital backed conglomerates swept up swaths of land in the Central Coast and Central Valley where land-use quagmires were reduced or negated entirely.

Of course, market volatility and our industry’s dangerous penchant for handshake deals make these agreements inherently vulnerable to predation by the party with greater bargaining power. Thus, the deal MUST be in writing, and the compliance issues (regulatory, labor law, etc.) must be fully thought through. Here’s a few legal issues to keep in mind: 

1.  California Law Expressly Allows Cannabis to be a Lawful Subject of a Contract.

We start the analysis from the premise that cannabis is a lawful subject of a contract. (Cal. Civl. Code §1550.5.) This law opened the floodgates for cannabis businesses to engage in lawful business, including any number of relationships framed by the economics of a transaction. However, with great opportunity comes great responsibility, and these deals are now subjected to all applicable laws, most notably California’s stringent labor laws. More about that below.

2.  All Deals Must Be Strictly Compliant or the Deal Is Off

The regulatory analysis is simple: the deal is compliant or the deal doesn’t happen. Thankfully maintaining strict compliance is not rocket science, as the parties must simply disclose their relationship in whatever manner is required. In the recent Caliva v. Toast Holdings et al., trial court case out of Santa Clara (the first case that I am aware of that discusses the regulatory disclosure requirements in a civil action), the court relied on BCC “Guidance” to note that licensed cannabis businesses may contract with unlicensed businesses in certain circumstances. (P. 10.) However: 

“The unlicensed business is not permitted to share in any royalties or a percentage of profits or revenue of the licensee unless disclosed as an owner or financial interest holder of the license.”  (Caliva v. Toast Holdings Inc. et al., Order Granting Plaintiff’s Preliminary Injunction. March 5, 2020. Santa Clara Sup. Ct., No. 19CV343016.) 

This ruling is consistent with the white labeling analysis provided by the BCC in 2019, which states:

“The Bureau has learned that some licensees may be conducting commercial cannabis business at the direction of non-licensees who may be considered to have an ownership or financial interest in the commercial business and should thus be reported in accordance with sections 5003 and 5004 of the regulations.” (FSOR, p. 19.) 

Again, it’s not rocket science: just disclose and move on, or don’t do the deal. 

3.  These Deals Require Significant Due Diligence

As the litigation matters discussed in the MJ Biz Daily article make clear, pernicious (often venture-capital backed) license holders may prey on legacy farmers who did not have access to licensure. Check out our prior blog called “Snakes in the Grass: Due Diligence and the Proper Vetting of Potential Deals” for more about how to reduce risk by choosing someone trustworthy to do business with.  

At the risk of redundancy, if the other party refuses to disclose or be disclosed during your due diligence discussions, drop it like it’s hot and find another deal, or be at risk for the types of worst-case scenarios discussed in the MJ Biz article

4.  These Deals Are Subject to Labor and Employment Law.

In the Old World, a worker who was to be paid at the end of the season was vulnerable to getting ripped off by disgruntled property owners who could blame a low yield on the worker. Thankfully, this wage-theft is almost impossible in the New World, since non-owners are almost always considered employees entitled to the sweeping protections of California’s employee-friendly laws. We view this as a GOOD THING because it protects laborers from being preyed upon. 

The party performing the labor cannot be deemed an independent contractor unless the rules of AB-5 apply, and misclassification is grossly unwise. However, some folks prefer employee status for various reasons, including mitigating or negating “products liability” and “joint and several liability” which may apply to an independent contractor or sweat equity employee, depending on the circumstances. 

Thankfully the other half of our law firm is an employment law guru, Sarah Smale, so stay tuned for a detailed blog on Farm Labor Contractors (“FLCs”) in the cannabis farming context that is due out soon. 

5.  Thinking Through Insurance and Risk Allocation is Critical

An additional layer of complexity relates to insurance and workers comp issues, since an independent contract laborer hired by a licensee may have trouble getting cannabis-specific workers comp. However, while dual employer liability cannot be waived by contract, those risks and liabilities can be shifted via indemnity clauses and related risk allocations.  

Additionally, each party obtaining their own insurance policies could cause a battle of insurance companies, should third-party liability arise. Instead, the existing policy holder can usually add the other as an “additional insured” and reduce risk of contentious dispute.


If structured appropriately, contract farming arrangements can provide a lifeline to struggling farmers by allowing landowners to meet the overwhelming demands of the regulated system, and by allowing a legacy farmer to get their foot in the regulated door. And our industry needs more legacy farmers in the marketplace, that is for damn sure, so creative (but strictly compliant) contracts should not be overlooked as a means to the ultimate end of rebuilding a thriving cannabis agricultural ecosystem for our rural regions. 




PART 4 Of 5:

The Business Fundamentals Every California Cannabis Business Should Know: CONTRACT FUNDAMENTALS

OR “Dude, Where’s My Indemnity Clause and Other Super Fun Terms Every Cannabis Business Should Know” 🙂 

As California cannabis entrepreneurs are increasingly relying on written agreements over handshake deals, a primer on common terms may be helpful. Notably, business owners/operators who have a working knowledge of these terms will be better able to negotiate deals, enter into agreements, and address contract disputes. Particularly in our volatile emergent industry, those businesses who fully understand the terms they are binding themselves to will be better protected in their business dealings and, as such, may be more likely to survive this difficult transition period. Here’s the rundown:

The essential terms (aka the “material terms”) form the crux of the agreement, usually money for product, or money for services. It often makes sense to begin the contract with a clear description of these agreements, because that’s the point of the contract in the first place, right? Importantly, however, a contract consisting only of these terms is nothing more than a “purchase order,” meaning the parties don’t have any agreements about what happens if one party can’t hold up their side of the bargain.

Thus, the essence of the agreement should also include, at minimum, (1) what happens if the money isn’t paid or comes late, (2) what happens if the product or service is delivered late or is unsatisfactory, (3) the “term” of the agreement (i.e. a recurring deal or one-time thing) and (4) how the contract can be terminated.

In our view, a delegation of the requisite  regulatory responsibilities is also an essential component of cannabis-related contracts to ensure strict compliance with applicable laws.

Written agreements commonly shift inherent risks from one party to another, depending on the economics of the deal. The most common risk allocation terms are (1) indemnity clauses, (2) limitations on liability, and (3) insurance requirements.

Indemnity Clauses
Indemnities are where one party assumes the risk (i.e. costs) of a loss potentially incurred by the other party. Indemnities are usually tethered to losses caused by the indemnifying party, but some folks sneak in broad language requiring one party to cover the other for unrelated losses, so be wary.

For example, some common distribution agreements ask farmers to indemnify the distributor for issues with the “composition” of cannabis flowers, which may make sense because the farmer grew the product. But if damage occurred after the product left the farm (such contamination caused by grading/sorting on the distributor’s dirty machines), then an indemnity makes less sense.

Another example is in the white-label manufacturing context.  A brand owner who contracts with a manufacturer for producing a product under the owner’s brand may reasonably require that the manufacturer indemnify the brand owner for product liability claims.  However, if the brand owner requires the manufacturer to use specific formulas or processing methodologies, the manufacturer may want to exclude from its indemnification obligation liabilities caused by compliance with the brand owner specifications where a COA was obtained.

Since an indemnity clause can have massive financial repercussions if a deal goes south, no one should sign off on an indemnity clause without understanding what the heck it actually means in the real world.

Limitations on Liability
Contracts often include a liability “cap,” meaning one party will “cap” the maximum damages the other party is entitled to, often irrespective of fault or the total actual damages. However, limitations on the types of damages are also common, as one party may agree to “direct damages” (arising as a direct result of nonperformance), while seeking to limit “consequential damages” (arising as an indirect result of the nonperformance).

The following example may be helpful:

A distributor agrees to pre-pay for $50,000 worth of cannabis, but the cannabis delivered is unusable. The “direct damages” consist of the $50,000, but the “consequential damages” would include the distributor’s lost profits (which at 100% markup would be an additional $50,000), for a total loss of $100,000.
Thus, if a farmer’s entire season is riding on a single deal, and nonperformance would result in the farmer’s inability to fund the next season, those folks may not want to agree to consequential damage limitations.

Also be careful when a limitation of liability clause attempts to cap the other party’s indemnification obligations.  For example, if a manufacturer in a white-label agreement promises to indemnify a brand owner for product liability claims, but then limits its indemnification obligations to the amount of fees the manufacturer was paid by the brand owner under the agreement, a brand owner could be significantly exposed to product liability claims that are the result of the manufacturer’s wrongdoing.

Insurance Requirements
Insurance is a great way to shift risk, as insurance can pay losses the parties may not be able to cover, which is extremely common in California cannabis. Particularly for products liability, the benefit of a contractual insurance requirement cannot be overstated.

Representations and Warranties
“Reps and warranties” are the factual assertions one party makes to the other, such as “Seller represents and warrants its operations strictly comply with all applicable law and regulations.” Although reps and warranties do far more than allocate risk, they are a great way to minimize risk by requiring the other party to declare basic assumptions.

In addition, representations and warranties can detail a receiving party’s expectations about a product or service, such that if the representations and warranties are not met, the receiving party can clearly reject the product or service and either not be liable for the contract price or be entitled to a refund.


Although no one wants to think about what happens if the deal falls through, wise business operators will include dispute terms in their agreements. Here’s a few of the most common:

Choice of Law and Venue
Most folks want to be governed by California law because no one wants to be defending a cannabis contract under federal rules. Locking down the venue (aka the County) is wise too, as farmers and distros/manufacturers are often in different locations. Getting a venue closer to home is often ideal, particularly if the home court is friendly to cannabis.

Mediation and Arbitration (“ADR”)
Mediation/arbitration clauses are designed to keep folks out of court. Mediation is generally non-binding, meaning the mediator facilitates a discussion but the parties are not bound. Arbitration, on the other hand, is a more formalized process the parties usually agree to be bound by.

Particularly in cannabis, where there is no shortage of odd or novel disputes, alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) requirements can be helpful.

Force Majeure
A “force majeure” event is something beyond everyone’s control, such as  fire, pandemic, and riots, all hot button issues in today’s world. This term excuses the parties from performance when something truly unexpected happens. In light of volatility in our market, wise entrepreneurs will not leave this clause out of their written agreements.

In closing, courts look to the “intent of the parties” as reflected in the language of the contract in adjudicating contract disputes, meaning the company’s owners and/or operators themselves must understand what they are binding themselves to. While attorneys are helpful to negotiate and prepare the contract, the onus is on industry, i.e. the businesses themselves, to have a working knowledge of these terms and how they affect later disputes.

Stay tuned for the final piece of this series, “Contracts Overview: What Paper to Push?” which will include a sample Purchase Agreement! Make sure you’re on our email lists:

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