Cannabis farmers argue their crop is compatible with other crops, despite winemakers' concerns

In the early morning, low-lying fog rolls into the Santa Rita Hills, obscuring the view of the vineyards and farms dotting the countryside. Quails, rabbits, and squirrels scurry to safety as the occasional car zips by on Santa Rosa Road, which cuts through the area, connecting Lompoc to Buellton.

click to enlarge Cannabis farmers argue their crop is compatible with other crops,  despite winemakers' concerns
LEARNING TO COEXIST : Cannabis farmers argue there are no incompatibilities between cannabis and more traditional agriculture that can’t be worked out.

Almost 8 miles down the road, west of Highway 101, Kathy Joseph grows wine grapes on a roughly 130-acre plot of land. Joseph has harvested grapes here for the last 25 years to produce wine for her own brand, Fiddlehead Cellars, and to sell to winemakers throughout Santa Barbara County and other parts of the state. 

The majority of her vineyard is dedicated to pinot noir, while she also grows grapes for chardonnay. Both varieties thrive here and benefit from the cool, coastal fog that rolls in and lingers every morning.

“This is why pinot noir loves it here. It demands a cool climate,” she said. 

But the fog has a downside. After rolling in, it leaves a layer of moisture on the grapes, which can spur mildew growth if it’s not addressed. Joseph tries to harness the wind that sweeps through the hills to dry off the grapes, but it isn’t enough. To prevent mildew from ruining her crop, workers at the vineyard also spray the grapes with a mildewcide. For decades, she said, this process wasn’t an issue. But that changed earlier this year when a cannabis farm moved in just northeast of her property.

Cannabis undergoes stringent state-mandated testing to ensure no chemicals have touched the plants. If a substance is found, the plant is destroyed. Earlier this year, the owner of the cannabis farm near Joseph’s vineyard filed a complaint with Santa Barbara County against her vineyard, alleging the mildewcide drifted over and landed on some of the plants, she said. The county confirmed that it’s investigating a complaint, but officials wouldn’t say who is involved.

Following this, Joseph switched to an all-organic mildewcide spray, which won’t affect cannabis testing, but it also doesn’t work as well in preventing mildew. After making this switch, most of Joseph’s chardonnay grapes became infected with mildew. They’re now unusable, she said.

Similar issues have begun affecting avocado farmers throughout the county, especially in Carpinteria. Some farmers have expressed concerns about being unable to hire companies to apply pesticides at their orchards out of fear that they could be sued from accidentally contaminating nearby cannabis farms. 

During the public comment period of the county Planning Commission’s Aug. 8 meeting, John De Friel, who owns a cannabis farm near Joseph’s vineyards, said this problem of spraying applications isn’t unique to cannabis. According to county regulations, pesticides drifting from one crop to another is illegal in all cases.

“Drift is a criminal trespass. It is regulated by the county agricultural commissioner,” he said. “Any implication that drift is allowed by some crops versus another one is completely untrue.”

As long as they’re conducted appropriately, spraying applications aren’t a problem, De Friel said at the meeting. Regardless, some farmers cite this issue as an example of how, under current county regulations, cannabis is incompatible with other farming industries. 

Cannabis farmers disagree. 

In other California counties, and in some parts of Santa Barbara County, cannabis already coexists with grapes and other crops without major issues. But the path to achieve this level of crop compatibility in the unincorporated areas of the county remains unclear.

Points of contention

click to enlarge Cannabis farmers argue their crop is compatible with other crops,  despite winemakers' concerns
BUREAUCRATIC HURDLES : At least seven cannabis farmers are tied up in an appeal process that will significantly delay how long it takes them to receive their county business license.

Slightly northeast of Joseph’s property, Blair Pence has operated his vineyard and winery just west of Buellton on Highway 246 for close to 15 years. Like Joseph and other grape growers in the area, he primarily grows pinot noir and chardonnay on about a quarter of the 200-acre property.

About two years ago, Pence said, the horse ranch across the street from him was sold and converted into a cannabis farm. Soon after, another sale and cannabis conversion occurred at the property directly east of his vineyard. 

Pence claims the proximity of his winery to both of these farms created numerous issues, most noticeably a persistent odor that customers complained about. To escape the obnoxious smell, Pence said he and his wife began spending most of their time at their rental home in Montecito. 

Additionally, he said, the ranch experienced a decrease in its equestrian business. Clients expressed feeling unsettled and intimidated by the armed security guards monitoring the farm to the east of Pence’s ranch while riding their horses. 

Earlier this year, the sheriff’s Cannabis Compliance Team raided and shut down both farms for operating with fraudulently obtained licenses, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The farm that was directly east of Pence was part of a four-day raid in late June, during which the compliance team seized 20 tons of processed cannabis and eradicated about 350,000 plants. 

After dealing with these illegal farms, Pence is attempting to prevent other cannabis farmers from obtaining permits in the area. In May, he filed appeals on two different permits the county’s Planning and Development Department has approved for cannabis cultivation projects located off Highway 246.

These are the only appeals on which Pence is listed as the aggrieved party, but members of a group he cofounded have appealed other cannabis cultivation projects in the area. The Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis—a group of farmers, winemakers, and county residents—has been vocal in calling for the county to adopt more stringent cannabis regulations. 

Pence said different members of the coalition will appeal every project the county approves along the stretch of Highway 246 through the Santa Rita Hills and into the Santa Ynez Valley.

“There’s 13 of them right now in process right here in our little 2-mile stretch,” Pence said. “Absolutely all 13 will get appealed. The county has pushed us into this place.”

As of Aug. 11, the county has approved 25 cannabis land permits. Seven have been appealed. Four of those appeals are for projects on Highway 246, one is for a project in Santa Ynez, and two are for projects in Carpinteria, according to county data. Pence said the coalition, which has members in each supervisorial district, plans on appealing more projects as they are approved.

In addition to the prospect of dealing with circumstances similar to what he experienced with the previous cannabis farms near his property, Pence said he also appealed these projects because he’s concerned that the terpenes—organic compounds produced by a variety of plants—released by cannabis can alter the taste of wine grapes, although there is no scientific proof that this happens. 

Pence said he’s even more concerned that the materials used on some cannabis farms, such as fencing, hoop houses, and lighting fixtures, affect the aesthetics of the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Ynez Valley.

“It’s a blight on the landscape, and it doesn’t belong. … [Highway 246] is the gateway to the Santa Ynez Valley … and it’s also the gateway to the Santa Rita Hills,” Pence said. “So this is a critical area for both the wine industry and tourism, and for residents and for the perception of the Santa Ynez Valley.”

Pence said many of his problems with cannabis could be addressed if the county required all cannabis to be grown indoors.

At its Aug. 8 meeting, the county Planning Commission held hearings for the two appeals Pence filed, which were the first appeals on outdoor cannabis farms the commission has discussed. Earlier this year, the commission denied an appeal on an indoor farm in Carpinteria, which has been passed on to the county Board of Supervisors.

Despite a nearly nine-hour meeting, the commission only discussed one of the projects and didn’t make a decision on Pence’s appeal. The majority of commissioners expressed concern over several aspects of Santa Rita Valley Ag Inc.’s project, including a lack of detail in its lighting plan and how the company planned to keep the 25 shipping containers it plans to use for processing out of the eyesight of Highway 246 drivers. 

While Planning Commission Chair John Parke said he wasn’t as concerned about the project details, he and the rest of the commission got hung up on the programmatic environmental impact review (PEIR) the county completed when crafting its cannabis ordinance. Planning staff use this document as a guideline when reviewing cannabis permits to check whether the project would negatively affect the environment.

Commissioner Dan Blough acknowledged that that project met the specifics of the county’s ordinances but said he didn’t think the regulations themselves are adequate. 

“I’m perplexed as to whether we … should continue this and work on a compromise, or uphold the appeal,” Blough said. “But I’m not comfortable with that, because in my view, it’s us and the board that didn’t make the right decisions and didn’t create the right structure moving forward.”

Commissioners were concerned that the PEIR doesn’t take into account the size of some of the cannabis farms being discussed or the concentration of farms in a small area, like the stretch on Highway 246. Parke said the commission needs more information on the PEIR before making a decision on the appeals discussed at the meeting, as well as future appeals.

“I think somebody has to educate me that this PEIR is adequate, because I can’t find that right now,” Parke said. “And in the absence of that finding, I think that this would warrant the preparation of a new environmental document. I think an EIR analyzing the cumulative impact of all the projects along Highway 246 is really what we need.”

The hearings for both appeals were postponed until Sept. 13, when planning staff will give a presentation on the PEIR used to review cannabis cultivation projects before the commission decides how to move forward on both projects. Pence considers this a victory. He said he wants the county to slow down and really examine how a high concentration of cannabis farms could affect a small area in between the Santa Rita Hills and the Santa Ynez Valley. 

John Harris, one of the leaders behind the Santa Rita Valley Ag Inc. project, told the Sun that he and the other owners are disappointed with the result of the hearing, but they feel confident that planning staff will be able to demonstrate how the project complies with the PEIR and the county’s regulations at the next hearing. He said he believes a lot of the concerns being raised about cannabis farms can be attributed to its being a new industry.

“I think at this point the conflict is based on fear rather than on reality,” Harris said. “You’ll need some period of time to understand how it will all work, but there’s adequate land to support [all farming] industries [in the county].” 

Potential to coexist

click to enlarge Cannabis farmers argue their crop is compatible with other crops,  despite winemakers' concerns
A NEED TO ADAPT : Some of Kathy Joseph’s grapes became infected with mildew after switching to a less effective mildewcide that won’t affect a nearby cannabis farm.

A few miles east of Pence’s property, Sara Rotman and her husband, who comes from a family of Carpinteria-based avocado farmers, have grown medical marijuana on their ranch since 2015. 

They originally purchased the ranch on Highway 246 in 2014 as a retreat place and for Rotman’s horses, she said. But the farm’s purpose quickly changed. Three weeks after buying the property, Rotman became gravely ill and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“That led me on a rather lengthy odyssey through Western medicine and non-Western medicine, and we quickly discovered that science has no cure or real help for Crohn’s other than some very, very frightening drugs, which didn’t function for me anyway,” Rotman said. “We very quickly discovered that cannabis was the only thing that was able to help me in any way and immediately founded a collective.”

After cultivating medical marijuana on the property for four years, Rotman obtained a provisional license from the state to continue growing as she navigates the county permitting process. She filed a permit application for her farm, Busy Bees Organics, in November 2018, which the county Planning and Development Department approved on May 7. Ten days later, an avocado grower on Santa Rosa Road, southwest of Rotman’s farm, appealed the project.

 “I can tell you [the appeal has] been a surprise to my husband and I because we have enjoyed positive relationships with our immediate neighbors throughout our whole existence,” Rotman said. “So, it’s been surprisingly disappointing for me to be pointed out as somebody who’s a challenge.”

 The farmer appealing Rotman’s project, Sharyne Merritt, declined to comment. 

 According to a copy of the appeal, Merritt’s attorney for this process is Courtney Taylor. The San Luis Obispo-based attorney is also representing Pence in his appeals, as well as winemaker John Wagner, who is appealing a permit that Santa Barbara County approved for another cannabis farm on Highway 246. 

 The Planning Commission originally planned to hold a hearing to discuss the appeal on Rotman’s farm in July, but it was postponed to Aug. 28. Planning staff told the Sun the hearing has been delayed again and that a new date hasn’t yet been set. 

Despite these appeals and the open opposition from some residents, Rotman ultimately believes that the cannabis and wine industries can coexist—and even thrive together—in the county. She points to her own personal experiences as proof.

“We have a great relationship with our neighbors on either side, both of whom are traditional agricultural,” Rotman said. “We have grapes on one side and broccoli on the other … and we’ve had zero conflict with them.”

The same is true in other parts of the county and elsewhere in the state. The Sonoma County-based Wine Industry Network held its third annual Wine and Weed Symposium in August, where leaders from both industries assembled to discuss how they can work together and learn from one another.

The keynote speaker at this year’s event was Corey Beck, who is the CEO and winemaking chief of film director Francis Ford Coppola’s wine company. Last year The Family Coppola began selling its own line of cannabis products and only lost two of its 10,000 wine club members in the process. 

In a clip of his presentation, which is available online, Beck said the company decided to embrace cannabis rather than compete against it.

“We’ve looked at [cannabis] as an opportunity,” he said. “If you choose to look at it as a competitor, you’re going to miss out on a few things.”

However, throughout the state and locally there are some instances where the industries may have to compete, such as for land and agricultural labor, which is already in short supply. And although not all wine drinkers are weed smokers and vice versa, winemakers may be concerned about cannabis cutting into wine’s market share, Harris of Santa Rita Valley Ag Inc. said. 

“The vineyards see competition for consumers buying their products and see pressure on that from a new industry,” Harris said. 

However, he added that he thinks “vineyards and cannabis cultivators can continue to grow and thrive symbiotically in Santa Barbara County.”

Rotman agrees. Prior to becoming a cannabis farmer, she built a career in the branding and marketing world. Through this lens, she said she can see a lot of opportunities for both the cannabis and wine industries to thrive together. She said the way organizations in Sonoma County have embraced this combination serves as a good example for Santa Barbara County. For example, tour company The Sonoma County Experience offers combined wine and cannabis excursions to educate guests about the county’s historic wine industry and budding cannabis businesses.  

But tensions need to cool in Santa Barbara County before widespread collaboration is a possibility. It’s still early in this process, but 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino hopes people begin to feel better as the county starts rejecting unfit projects and approving solid ones. 

Lavagnino and 1st District Supervisor Das Williams have been criticized by some people over their perceived support of the cannabis industry. In his defense, Lavagnino said he doesn’t think banning cannabis in the county would’ve been effective, given the county’s past problems with illegal farms years before voters legalized cannabis. At least by creating a regulatory framework, the county can work to identify and eradicate illegal farms—such as the ones busted near Pence’s property—while having the resources to monitor legal projects, Lavagnino said.

In regard to the complaints winemakers have raised over cannabis, Lavagnino said that if there are real consequences that emerge as this process continues, the county will obviously have to address them. For example, if wineries drastically lose clients because of cannabis odors, the county will have to do something to protect them, he said.

He further noted that, ironically, the concerns winemakers are raising over cannabis remind him of the issues residents raised about the wine industry in the mid-2000s. Prior to then, there were vineyards in the county, but not a lot of wineries or tasting rooms. Residents appealed most of the wineries that county staff approved and complained that they would ruin the perception of the county, he recalls. 

Now these tasting rooms are a major part of the county’s wine industry, which was estimated to be worth about $1.7 billion in 2013, according to a report Stonebridge Research Group completed for the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association in 2015. Last year, wine grapes were the county’s second highest yielding crop, grossing more than $121 million, according to the county’s most recent agricultural production report. 

Lavagnino thinks cannabis can similarly benefit the wine industry the way that tasting rooms have if vintners and local cannabis farmers are open to working together.

“There’s going to be a whole tourism industry over pairing cannabis and wine,” Lavagnino said. “Cannabis isn’t going anywhere. … It’s here; there’s a huge base of people who enjoy this product. Why not lean into that?”

What’s next?

click to enlarge Cannabis farmers argue their crop is compatible with other crops,  despite winemakers' concerns
BUSTING ILLEGAL GROWS : The county Sheriff’s Office Cannabis Compliance Team has raided and shut down numerous illegal cannabis farms near the Buellton area this year.

The county’s working to address some of the issues that residents have raised over the last year since it implemented its existing regulations. At its Aug. 20 meeting, the Board of Supervisors continued to move forward with changing the business license process, placing a cap on the total acreage of cannabis allowed in the county, and implementing odor abatement in some situations.

However, many of these changes are dedicated solely to the county’s Agricultural-I zone and don’t address issues in the Agricultural-II zone, which is where most vineyards and farmers are located. The Agricultural Commissioner’s Office is creating an informal stakeholders group to examine how to rectify some of the issues between cannabis growers and traditional agricultural farmers, said Assistant Agricultural Commissioner Rudy Martel. 

“There’s got to be understanding with whatever their issues are, regarding cannabis growers and what conventional agriculture are experiencing,” Martel said. “[We] hope there can be understanding and movement forward so that both can coexist.”

Even if the county can work through some of these existing problems, there are upcoming issues that may further complicate matters.

While there’s been a lot of debate regarding cannabis cultivation, the Board of Supervisors has yet to approve its plan for retail cannabis stores. Lavagnino said the county is planning on permitting eight stores throughout the unincorporated area of the county.

The Aug. 8 Planning Commission meeting offered an early glimpse of some issues residents might raise as this process begins. Residents expressed concerns at the meeting about proposed plans for a non-storefront cannabis delivery service moving into Old Town Orcutt next to Elmer’s. 

The commission decided to reject the proposal based on the idea that the space should be reserved for a retail store that generates foot traffic, not because the business is cannabis related.

In addition to permitting and regulating cannabis grows and retail stores, the county will allow farmers to grow hemp throughout unincorporated areas next year. Hemp is a variety of cannabis with a THC concentration of less than 0.3 percent, and the crop has a number of uses—including fiber, paper, and oils, the latter of which is often marketed as having medical benefits.

Congress passed the farm bill in late 2018, which removed hemp’s status as an illegal substance. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working on its regulatory frameworks for farmers to follow. After that’s complete, California must submit its own plan to the federal agency. Once those are in place, the county will adopt its own standards—although because hemp is a crop, the county’s hands are tied when it comes to crafting its own regulations.

Supervisor Lavagnino said he believes that once they’re allowed, farmers will opt to grow hemp if they can’t obtain cannabis permits or if they own a smaller property where cannabis will soon be banned. A potential proliferation of hemp grows could be a problem for residents, as hemp has a similar odor to the cannabis currently being grown as marijuana.

Cannabis farmer De Friel made this point during the public comment period of the Planning Commission’s appeal hearing for Santa Rita Valley Ag Inc. on Aug. 8.

“Hemp is coming, and it will not be regulated,” he said, “so in a lot of ways the cat’s out of the bag with a lot of these issues, and people won’t be coming to the Planning Commission for similar approvals.”

Given the existing odor and spray application issues, plus the potential for such problems to become more complicated as hemp and cannabis retail stores enter the county, Lavagnino half-jokingly said residents can forget about petroleum and oil projects for a while. For the foreseeable future, cannabis will continue to dominate most county discussions. 

However, he said he hopes this is all part of an adjustment phase that will get better in time.

“I would love to look back on this five years from now and say, ‘Wow, now why was this such a big deal?’” Lavagnino said. 

Staff Writer Zac Ezzone can be reached at [email protected].

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