Changing culture puts pot growers in peril | TheUnion.com

Changing culture puts pot growers in peril

Jake Abbott
Special to The Union

On Sept. 5, all of the marijuana plants being grown at The Mighty Lichen Farm in the Brownsville area of Yuba County were cut down.

At some point on the night of Sept. 5, Enosh Baker's medical marijuana garden was cut down.

It wasn't one of the several volunteers he had working for him on his farm in the Yuba County foothills. He doesn't think it was the county or sheriff's department, which have been actively monitoring pot grows throughout the area for violations of the current cultivation ordinance.

"We don't know for sure who it was, but we have our suspicions," said Baker, owner of Mighty Lichen Farm in the Brownsville area. "It wasn't the county or the Yuba County Sheriff. The county and law enforcement go about their business methodically and safely. If they want to come in and cut down a grow, they put a notice on the gate, say they are coming in tomorrow in broad daylight and ask you to cut down the plants first."

Yuba County Sheriff's Lt. Wendell Anderson, who is also in charge of the department's marijuana enforcement team, said they have no record of Baker or his farm.

"As a department, we would go through the proper channels and serve a search warrant before taking any action," Anderson said.

Baker, 32, believes it was a group of "neoconservatives" and "vigilantes" in the county that have been actively doxing cannabis farmers like himself.

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"They are taking a social libertarian stance in that they just discovered the use of Google Maps and feel it's in their right to dox people," Baker said. "I don't think there is any ill will against me as a person. They have no idea who I am other than the fact that I'm contributing to industry in this ghost town."

Buck Weckman, who started Yuba County Families Against Cannabis Trafficking and the political action committee Stop Commercial Pot, has been a leading advocate in trying to eliminate the spread and growth of the marijuana industry throughout the Yuba-Sutter area.

Weckman published an opinion piece regarding the need for Yuba County to declare a state of emergency due to the significant amount of illegal marijuana grows throughout the area ­— what he estimates to be more than 1,000. Included in the article was an aerial photograph of Baker's farm.

"I don't believe that any law-abiding citizen took any part in the action you are talking about," Weckman said. "I think it was one illegal marijuana grower taking from another marijuana person. This is how it goes on all the time; this is why marijuana growers are so heavily armed. It's just another example of the low caliber type of person the marijuana grower is."

Weckman said he got a call about a week ago from an individual accusing him of somehow being involved in cutting down the plants at Mighty Lichen Farm, which he said is not true.

"If they have a complaint with me, I'd be happy to meet them in front of the sheriff's office and we can go in together and file a complaint," he said.

Anderson said his department has not received any reports of a group of people going around and cutting cannabis farmers' plants.

"The likely scenario we tend to see would be a theft," Anderson said. "That's not uncommon. It's a valuable commodity often stolen, but we have no knowledge of any vigilante groups."

Either way, Baker said someone snuck onto his property from a nearby creek in the middle of the night, pried his fence open and crawled on the ground, to cut each plant at the base, all while two of his workers were sleeping on an outside deck within 20 feet of the garden.

No recourse

Baker doesn't only grow cannabis on his 80 acres in the foothills. The marijuana he grew was only a fraction of his farm, he said, that has everything from apples, pears and plums to figs, olives and grapes, among other things. But because cannabis is such a lucrative plant, it basically was paying to keep the farm running and the upfront costs for the other crops.

Now, Baker is in jeopardy of losing his farm because he has nothing to harvest this year in terms of his main moneymaker. He is facing a mortgage payment and property taxes that are beyond his means to pay.

The problem for him is that he lives and operates his business in a county and region that is opposed to outdoor cultivation and has reduced the amount of plants that can be grown in recent years. Although recreational marijuana was legalized by California voters in 2016 and will be sold commercially in licensed stores Jan. 1, Baker's farm is in violation of Yuba County's current ordinance, meaning his options are limited.

"There is no recourse for someone doing what I do," Baker said. "There is no farm insurance for people that farm cannabis. There is no law enforcement that is going to care, though I wish they did. I've talked to the sheriff in the past, who seems like a nice guy, but he isn't going to destroy his career in a conservative county and go after a bunch of thieves that cut down a cannabis grow."

County ordinance change

Baker graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a degree in wildlife biology. Aside from being a working artist and writer, he also spent time as a microbiologist for Stanford University while pursuing his undergraduate degree. Several of his research articles have been published online at PubMed.gov.

Baker went back to school to pursue his doctorate but his endeavor was cut short when police pepper sprayed students at the Davis campus. He was one of several affected, he said.

As a primary plaintiff in the case, Baker received a settlement check. He had a choice: either finish his doctorate, or follow his passion for agriculture and start his own farm. He chose the latter and used the money to put a down payment in 2012 on a piece Yuba County land.

At that time, the county had established its first marijuana ordinance, which allowed for both indoor and outdoor cultivation. For a property his size, he could grow up to 99 plants.

In addition to starting his farm, he wanted his property to be a place where people could go to practice art and culture, as part of an art residency program. At one point, it was even the site of an internship for UC Davis sustainable agriculture students.

"We employ principles of permaculture in both the physical design of the property and the crops we select and grow," Baker said. "I cultivate over 200 species of perennial crops, as well as raising goats and chickens."

The location and foothill landscape was perfect for what he wanted to do, but it came at a price.

"Our land on this property was valued at approximately $4,500 an acre, which is very high," Baker said. "Similar farmland should typically be valued at approximately $1,000 an acre. So, in selling it at that price, they were also selling the opportunity for profit. People realized it was worth it. Frankly, this area needed revitalization because there is no industry at all and not a lot of money is being brought into the region."

Because the new ordinance allowed for up to 99 plants on certain sized parcels and the landscape was perfect, cannabis farmers saw the foothills as an opportunity to start up their businesses, he said. That, in turn, benefitted the area because those farmers put money toward new infrastructure, repairing roads and the local economy.

"People happily did that, and I did too because I thought I was investing in the future," he said.

But after concerns were lodged in 2014 by local residents regarding the "effects of marijuana cultivation on their neighborhoods and the quality of their lives and the lives of their families," the Yuba County Board of Supervisors decided to initiate a review of its ordinance, according to a 2015 staff report.

Then in April 2015, the board passed an urgency ordinance that repealed its existing guidelines and replaced them with a limit to the maximum number of plants that could be grown regardless of parcel size to 12 plants, and a complete ban on outdoor grows. The ordinance states "the board finds that immediate action, in the form of an urgency ordinance is necessary to curb the potential influx of large scale marijuana cultivation in the County."

Yuba County Supervisor Andy Vasquez said the issues with illegal marijuana grows in the county, as well as throughout the state, are only beginning, and will get worse before becoming better.

"He got his crop stolen, and that's going to continue to happen and create problems for the law-abiding citizens of our community," Vasquez said. "That's what (these kind of operations) are bringing into the community: cartels and guns. We've had two deputies shot, there have been people killed.

"The fact that it's getting bigger and bigger, I'm not really fond of the press ignoring the facts. You cannot ignore the violent aspects of illegal grows and ignore the fact they are using deadly chemicals in the field that is polluting the watershed."

County supervisors weren't alone in curbing the industry's growth in the area. Last year, the majority of Yuba County voters defeated three different marijuana-related measures: increasing the number of medical marijuana plants that could be cultivated; guidelines for medical marijuana dispensaries; allowing commercial cannabis activity within the county.

Baker said the shift in public opinion baffled him and other cannabis farmers in the area.

"The whole reason we moved here was because of that original ordinance," Baker said. "I'm not certain why they are opposed to it at this point. The wave is coming but, they still want to stop it."

Moving forward

Despite his cannabis garden being cut down and the amended cultivation ordinance, Baker said he is going to continue growing food on his farm and will try to be creative in finding funds to keep his dream alive.

"We are going to keep going until we cannot. This place is gorgeous so we are going to try and rent it out as a 'Bud and Breakfast' and try to make enough that way to pay back the mortgage payments and property taxes. If we are unable to do that, then I'll probably find other ways to economically recover, but there is not much you can do when your back is against the wall and you owe money to the bank," Baker said.

He said he is thinking about requesting a reassessment of his property because of the local stance on marijuana and the banning of outdoor grows. He said he believes the assessed value of the property is roughly eight times too high.

Baker acknowledged that the Aug. 1 incident in Oregon House, in which two Yuba County Sheriff's deputies were injured in a shootout with a man who was at an illegal marijuana cultivation site, doesn't help his argument that cannabis farmers do not pose a risk to the general public.

Still, he said the stereotypes some people have regarding marijuana farmers need to change because they do not accurately reflect many of the individuals working in the industry today.

"I wish some people wouldn't paint cannabis farmers with such a broad brush," Baker said. "My question is, have they not considered there could be an example of a good cannabis cultivator? That's not a difficult leap to make. If they gave someone the opportunity to do that, I'm sure they would step up to the plate and all those fears of pit bulls and automatic weapons would be put by the wayside."

Jake Abbott is a reporter for The Appeal Democrat in Marysville. He can be reached at jabbott@appealdemocrat.com.