Will The Winds Shift?
By Paul Pot
Nestled between the daily chaos of Los Angeles and the posh serenity of Santa Barbara lies Ventura County, California, an intentional slow growth county that has changed little since the heydays of surfers and Woodies. Geographically it includes the fertile crescent of the region known as the Oxnard Plain. Its rich soil rolls inland from the shore, creating vast expanses of citrus groves and avocado trees, vegetable gardens and strawberry fields forever. To the north the land quickly turns mountainous, heavily wooded and covered with thick brush that’s ideal for wildfires.
It is also a county in-between on the new cannabis regulations. There are no legal pot farms in the county, and “go slow” or even “go slower” is the watchword from county farm officials. This is in contrast to Northern California counties where pot farming is robust. Now, as the county rises from the smoke and ash of the Thomas Fire — already ranked as the worst in California history — they find something in common with their NorCal neighbors; the horror of massive wildfires sweeping across farmlands and urban areas, fanned by high winds and dry conditions.
Massive destruction, power outages, evacuations, displaced animals, crop and smoke damage, water crises, horrible air quality, homes, lives and businesses lost — all now common to the rural counties of both Northern and Southern California. This is the new normal, said California’s Governor Jerry Brown.
These cannabis farms, along with all Northern California farms are still feeling the effects of the fires from months ago. Now Ventura County must rise from the smoke and ash as they have already begun to do. There have been countless stories of rapid community outreach to help one another in crisis, but the new year’s cannabis regulations will be met with a much slower approach.
Reuters News Agency spoke with Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the California Growers Association who stated,”Things could be worse for the marijuana industry in the state, except for the fact that particularly hard hit Ventura County does not issue permits for pot farms.” He also said the smoke billowing from these recent fires “could be damaging for (pot) growers in San Luis Obispo County, up the coast to the north of the city (of Ventura) as well as in L.A. itself, “ he said. “These fires are burning in a more urban type area, and that smoke is going to contain contaminants that are not typically in wildfire smoke,” Allen said.
San Luis Obispo County has a number of cannabis farms, some over an acre large, while L.A.’s growers — which number in the thousands — are usually small indoor grows located in garages, spare warehouse spaces, or even entire houses. Since San Luis Obispo lies to the north of the fires, the smoke went their direction, passing through Santa Barbara County along the way.
With the recovery underway and the new year bringing in new cannabis regulations, it was time to find out how the county was dealing with these two major issues. It seems the wind can determine a lot.
A key source is John Krist, CEO for the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. When asked how the fires had affected the county farmers and ranchers he responded, “It has affected cattle ranchers by charring thousands of acres of grazing lands and destroying fences, barns and other structures,” he added. “It has also damaged hundreds of acres of avocado groves. It will be some time before we know whether those trees will recover, but there has been significant loss in the burn zone.”
Krist said that more than 75 percent of our avocado acreage is outside the fire perimeter, and unaffected. “There was also damage to some citrus groves in the Ojai Valley. Because the fire stayed in the hills, it didn’t affect much beyond the grass and trees,” he said.
It was the luck of the wind that spared or destroyed so much. Fillmore area ranchers reported heat from the fires caused the fruit to ripen and fall to the ground. The current crop will suffer and losses are expected to be big.
Out on the Oxnard Plain, small farmers like the A&F Ranch, till 187 acres, including numerous vegetables, but mostly strawberries. There are “57 varieties” proclaims Arnold, the ranch’s co-owner. He described how the wind acted “almost like a curtain” to protect their fields from the fires. They aren’t concerned about smoke and ash damage, either. He feels fortunate. But when asked about any plans to add cannabis or hemp to their crop rotation in the new year, it brought a quick and terse “no.” He indicated farmers around there wouldn’t be interested in cannabis in any form.
When John Krist was queried on the cannabis question, he responded, “I don’t have much to say on cannabis. There’s really no legal framework in place yet in this county for production and if growers are planning to enter the market they haven’t contacted me or my organization to discuss it.”
Up in the hills around Ojai the winds were more cruel and capricious. Ojai’s lone pot dispensary, The Sespe Creek Collective, was forced to close for more than a week due to smoke. “It has been difficult financially but I am grateful we are all spared,” reported the collective’s president Chelsea Sutula. She sources most of her cannabis stock from Central Coast and NorCal growers. “I am not aware of any local Ventura County farmers seeking licenses, only in Santa Barbara County and points north,” she said.
Not far away an indoor organic Ojai producer, Michelle Lopez of Wild At Heart Ojai, reported a different take. “We are safe from the damage but now dealing with very bad air quality. No residue of smoke or ash can get into our closed air systems and process,” she said.
“Since we do all anaerobic lacto-ferment, I am happy to report we did not receive any damage to our probiotics. Just one benefit of this process.” She also said, “We are looking to add cannabis to one or two of our products. We don’t know the steps to take to get our product licensed by the state or county.”
So how will the county’s farm community move forward into the cannabis era? This leads to the office of Steve Bennett, Ventura County Supervisor. He had this to say regarding new cannabis regulations: “The Board of Supervisors has directed staff to return within 90 days after the State releases the new cannabis regulations with recommendations, consistent with the board’s direction, with proposed regulations of commercial, medical cannabis businesses in unincorporated Ventura County,” added Bennett. “At this time, the commercial sale and delivery of adult use cannabis is banned in Ventura County, and staff has been directed to return to the board with information about commercial cultivation of hemp.”
The county staff is expected to return with recommendations based on guidelines already laid out in a letter from Bennett to the county’s Board of Supervisors, dated November 7, 2017. That letter states “In deference to the concerns expressed by members of the board, we propose that staff take a “go slower” approach when they bring back recommendations,” he stated. “In particular we request that their recommendations include no more than two manufacturing/processing permits, no more than two dispensary/delivery permits, and no more than two testing facility permits for the unincorporated areas.”
The letter goes on to say that “regarding cultivation permits, our Sheriff strongly prefers that we start with indoor cultivation permits, and we recommend that our “go slow” approach follow that request for this initial effort at developing county guidelines. In addition we prefer to have all cultivation permits be for organic production to avoid the impacts of pesticide use and to limit the number of initial cultivation permits to three small indoor operations.”
Based on previous government procedures, citizens can expect these will likely be the rules for Ventura County farmers and businesses in unincorporated areas when they are adopted later in 2018.
So when the winds have cleared the smoke away, it is certain the county’s farms and communities will rebound, but it may be some time before cannabis shoots are pushing up through the rich Ventura County soil. Indoor growers will likely lead the way and be the first to raise legal cannabis in the county but many farmers here will be happy to just get back to normal.
For more information visit:
Sespe Creek Collective, sespe.org
Wild at Heart Ojai, WildAtHeartOjai.com