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California Farmers Consider Cashing In On A New Crop . . . Marijuana

Ezra David Romero
Valley Public Radio

California farmers are known for producing some of the finest fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world. But what if big agriculture here also included marijuana? If the legalization of recreational pot makes it onto the November  2016 ballot and passes, local growers might have a new crop to harvest.  FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports that some Central Valley farmers are already eyeing just that possibility. 

A few years ago Los Banos FarmerCannon Michael discovered a one-acre illegal marijuana grow on his land.

"So I think there's absolutely a role for big industrial commercial production and I think there will always be a role for craft producers if we take the time to get it right."

“They had made reservoirs and they were pumping water,” Michael says. “They had buried generators. They had this whole encampment and we knew nothing about it.”

He says the forbidden plantation was worth around $19 million dollars. That’s more than his 11,000 acres of tomatoes, cotton and other crops bring in in one year. That got him thinking.

“So if that’s a market that’s viable then we would definitely look at it,” Michael says. “I don’t know if I thought if I put in a 200 acre planting of marijuana would the market sustain that?”

But this idea of cannabis becoming a major player in mainstream agriculture is contingent on California voters. There’s a very good chance backers of legalizing marijuana will gather enough signatures to put a measure on the ballot next fall. If it passes, growers like Michael would still face significant hurdles. The state would need time to develop regulations, local laws could further restrict growing, and cannabis would still be illegal under federal law.  Still, becoming a big grower early could make sense for farmers like Michael who have land and resources. 

Credit Nina A.J., Creative Commons / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode
Marijuana could become the largest legal cash crop in California if if it passes on the fall 2016 ballot.

“To me it’s just another potential option for something that could be a benefit to the farm and continue to help us rotate properly and then also make some money hopefully.” Michael says.

But small farmers already growing legal medical marijuana aren’t necessarily dreaming of a California with rolling hills of pot. Especially if big growers eventually push out smaller existing farms.

"If we again start allowing people to have these large groves the violence will go up again." - Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims

“I don’t really see any clear benefit,” says Hezekiah Allenwith the California Growers Associationrepresenting over 500 members. “It doesn’t seem like it’s been terribly good for the natural resources or the people of California. Certainly our hope is that we kind of avoid consolidation and we don’t really move in that direction.”

He says the strain of cannabis called hemp, which has low levels of THC, may be beneficial to farm on a large scale. Hemp can be used to make paper, clothing and even soaps.

“So I think there’s absolutely a role for big industrial commercial production and I think there will always be a role for craft producers if we take the time to get it right," Allen says.

If large farmers focus on hemp, Allen hopes that growers already cultivating marijuana for medicinal use won’t be harmed. At the moment cultivation is legal for medical purposes. But the actual number of plants a medical-marijuana cardholder can grow is limited and varies by county. The statewide standard is six mature plants or 12 immature plants.

Credit Fresno County Sheriff Facebook
Fresno County Sheriff Facebook
Around 20,000 mature cannabis plants were found at this marijuana grow in 2013 in Fresno County.

Growing weed also takes a lot of water, but not quite the 400 gallons it takes to grow a pound of almonds. Allen says it takes 150 gallons of water to grow a pound of pot.

Law enforcement also plays a big role in growing practices. Take Fresno County where Sheriff Margaret Mimshas waged an all-out war on marijuana, closing down hundreds of illegal grows.

“For me it really started out as the violence issue: the home invasion robberies, the homicides, the assaults, the assaults with a deadly weapon,” Mims says. “All of that started increasing in these large marijuana grows.”

"We're not leaving the hobby segment, but we're creating a whole new segment in our business that's specifically for commercial." - Christian Long

Her officers have encountered gangs, booby traps and military grade weapons at grow sites.    

She also says marijuana has negative effects on human health. If cannabis becomes legal in California, Mims says she’s afraid violence will get out of hand again.

“If we again start allowing people to have these large groves the violence will go up again,” says Mims. “We have to take into consideration how we reconcile the difference between state law and federal law.”

She hopes whatever initiative passes includes some sort of control by local enforcement.

“As long as that happens we’re all going to come out ahead because then cities and counties can make up their own minds about what they want to do with their own land use ordinances,” Mims says.

She also doesn’t think existing growers will want to pay taxes and fees that come with legalization. Others like Christian Long in Fresno are looking forward to the full legalization of the crop.

Credit Ezra David Romero
Christian Long with Current Culture H20 hopes that the legalization of marijuana brings a boom to business.

He’s the vice president of the Fresno-based hydroponics company Current Culture H2O.  They sell systems that people use to grow all sorts of plants, but most of his business is from people who grow cannabis. Today he’s working on a system with 12 tubs connected together by PVC pipes, this time growing broccoli.

“This is 12 sites total, so the roots just grow right down into the water like that,” Long says.

Long says they’re currently working on a modular system that could be used on a large scale.

“Now we’re at the point where a lot of our new business actually is these commercial growers,” Long says.  “We’re not leaving the hobby segment, but we’re creating a whole new segment in our business that’s specifically for commercial.”

He says he thinks it will take about 10 years for cannabis to catch on as a large regulated crop.

“If the laws do change I think that we’re going to see kind of a reemergence of home growers specifically and people that want to grow their own medicine,” says Long.

But Long says that’s just the beginning. He’s hoping for a boom come late 2016. And to get ready for the influx of orders Current Culture H2O is expanding to a 30,000 square foot building to accommodate future orders. 

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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