Hopeful and Worried about Pot Amongst California’s Vineyards

Hopeful and Worried about Pot Amongst California’s Vineyards

In the fertile hills where the country’s best wine grows, workers are busy with the fall harvest. However, they are also plucking the fragrant and sticky buds of California’s legal weed. Yes, pot is growing in the vineyards. Not competitively, just as a valuable commodity expected to revitalize a disappearing agricultural tradition along the Central Coast.

Among the ocean breeze, cannabis is thriving, offering hope and making one wonder if too much of a good thing really does exist. California legalized its marijuana industry less than a year ago, but from Monterey to Santa Barbara, farmers have more cultivation licenses than anywhere most counties, threatening to even upend the Emerald Triangle, where illegal cultivation flourished for decades.

Legal Weed among the Vines

“We are nearly right in between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the two big consumer hubs,” explained John De Friel, whose seed lab and farm nestles among wineries and cabbage patches. “We really did not foresee how advantageous that would turn out to be.” California’s marijuana industry rakes in $4 billion annually, boosting the local tax base. It does not come without some concern, however.

Legalization is reordering the geography and business of marijuana cultivation, sprouting crops in areas they never grew before. The new greenhouses are forcing conservative communities to revisit long-held beliefs, like this one, where growers are confronting a plant still stigmatized despite its legalization. For now, the novelty of growing marijuana here is proving a benefit, but some worry for how long.

In Northern California, decades-old prohibition of the marijuana industry proved an immense challenge to transforming the illegal market into a legal one. With the market competing against low-cost, unregulated pot, farmers who comply with stringent and pricey regulations are struggling to find consumers and make ends meet.

Cultivation Concerns

However, growers along the Central Coast complying with the regulatory process are finding it easier without a flourishing black market to compete with, as is the case in other areas. By the end of the year, though, all legal weed farmers must meet the strict licensing requirements of the state, an endeavor that can see them face charges if they cannot pay for the process, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. This expense can bankrupt many, but there is no denying the commercial logic of being legal.

In November 2016, when voters approved recreational pot, they expanded a legal market only accessible to 200,000 legitimate medical patients. Now, anyone 21-years or older can buy it freely. It empowered cities and counties to make their own rules, including banning sales and cultivation outright.

Because of this, many potential cultivators are still shopping for a jurisdiction, trying to locate areas with the best climate, the lowest marijuana taxes, an experienced workforce, and a desirable location. In a bid to attract weed farming in Santa Barbara, where free trade economics have destroyed many agricultural jobs, the county sets a very low four-percent tax on cannabis revenues.

Santa Barbara Marijuana Industry

Not long ago, lucrative vineyards began replacing a slowing dairy and beef industry in the Santa Barbara valley. Now, although just a small fraction of land devoted to wine farming, the roughly 330 acres of cannabis farms appear likely to do the same to vineyards. More pot farms will come, since the “Santa Barbara brand” of fine wine could boost cannabis sales to a new market of consumers.

Some government officials, who all desire the tax boost legal weed offers, worry if the changing agricultural landscape could influence the local culture. How much is cause for concern? Das Williams, chair of the county Board of Supervisors and fierce opponent, said, “What sets Santa Barbara County apart is our willingness to face reality, that marijuana is already in our communities and that pretending it will go away on its own is fantasyland. But, I will be the first to say I hope it does not get too big.”

A cut-flower industry thrived once in the southern parts of the county. Generations ago, Japanese and Dutch immigrants chose the area for its climate. Their descendants’ nurtured orchids, daisies, and carnations for decades, but since the U.S. signed a free-trade agreement with Columbia six years ago, the cut flower industry died, along with its history.

Hope of Promise

Native to Santa Barbara, Graham Farrar operates Glass House Farms, which cultivates five acres of weed on the outskirts of Carpinteria. The farm, state-of-the-art, grows thousands of pounds of pot annually, employing 50 people, who, unlike those working on vineyards, have permanent work. When grown in greenhouses, farmers can harvest as much as three crops a year.

The free-trade agreement with Columbia was, in part, to help the country win its battle with coca, the plant containing the primary ingredient for cocaine. However, it opened space for large greenhouses in the United States instead. Not for growing flowers, but for cultivating cannabis, a drug the federal government considers more harmful than cocaine.

According to Farrar, “Here we are just replacing one cut flower with another.” Lab-coated employees pick, dry, and pack cannabis for sale. A small nursery conducts research, and each greenhouse, with a drip irrigation system, contains a $100,000 device to control odor and prevent the pungent smell of weed from permeating nearby homes.

Farrar, who has a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology and a history of working in the software industry, said, “Hiding is no longer a valued skill. The net of all this, the government, the climate, the compliance culture, is that this is a very goldilocks spot.” He holds one of just three licenses that Santa Barbara issued to sell legal weed for recreational use.

He intends transforming the traditional cannabis dispensary, which frequently has the feel of a bookstore for adults, into an appealing attraction for new consumers. One section will house weed grown locally, but the store will also sell concentrates and buds from across California. Eventually, he says it will become a showroom of sorts, as more people start using weed delivery services.

“Most customers have not even walked in the door yet,” Farrar explains. “And Santa Barbara, as a brand, rings a lot more bells for people than other places.” Early estimates predict that initial quarterly marijuana tax revenues could run as high as $3 million, funds that will benefit law enforcement and essential public programs.

Illegal Marijuana Industry Crackdown

Over the last few weeks, sheriff’s deputies have been busy raiding targeted farms in the backcountry areas of Cuyama Valley and Tepusquet Canyon, seizing crops worth millions of dollars. Earlier this year, during the devastating mudslides, huge marijuana plants slid down into Montecito, a few short miles from Farrar’s cultivation facility, a reminder of the illegal crops growing among citrus orchards and avocados that remain hidden to authorities.

“I get that it is a whack-a-mole approach,” said Dennis Bozanich, deputy county executive in charge of the marijuana portfolio. “But, we do have to do something to make this fair for those complying with the law. Our job is to make life as hard on them as possible and hope they may just go somewhere else.” For Williams, taxes will help “pay for some mental health services and save a few public libraries.”

However, given the lucrative profit margins that marijuana promises, Williams worries it may wipe out what little remains of the cut flower industry. The cultural message that young folks receive from being so close to large-scale production of marijuana is another concern of his, “I grew up in this community, and I do not know, for any practical purposes, how marijuana could be any more accessible than it already is, but I do see as a danger anything that legitimizes it more.”

Future of Legal Weed

Overlooking the Sanford Winery, Iron Angel Ranch uses hoop houses made of steel and plastic to shield pot plants from the wind and sun. They are a reminder of the quasi-legal days, when cultivators were growing weed for medical patients. There was a high risk of raids, so they became hidden grows that are now a small segment of the farm’s production.

Hoop houses stretch along Santa Rosa Road, connecting Highway 101 with Iron Angel Ranch. Mathew Kaplan, a farm manager who markets the marijuana under the name Vertical, believes that the 20 acres currently under cultivation would become five-times more by spring. “We get lumped in with farmers in this county,” he said. “That just is not the case in other parts of the state.”

Despite this, Kaplan plans, with his partners, to turn Iron Angel into somewhat of an attraction, mimicking the model Sanford and other wineries have been using for years. Tourists may some day stay in cabins on the hillside property overlooking the Santa Ynez River, with vineyards as far as the eye can see and stables for training racehorses.

There are Spanish moss-dripping oak trees dotted across the property. A few Black Angus cattle roam about, and a bobcat Kaplan calls the “laziest or slowest in the world,” given the healthy population of deer. “I absolutely want more of us to come here. It would be great,” Kaplan explained. “It is always better to be part of a broader community.”

Final Thoughts

Land in the country’s most fertile vineyards is extremely pricey, unaffordable for many cannabis cultivators in the valley. However, the economics are tempting: One acre of cannabis yields roughly five times what an acre of grape vines ever could. The county did consider limiting the number of licenses to issue, but for now, officials are allowing the free market to decide on who wins and who loses.

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