Charles Benner: Bad news possible for the small cannabis farmer | TheUnion.com

Charles Benner: Bad news possible for the small cannabis farmer

Other Voices
Charles Benner

The growing season for cannabis is almost over. Again that sweet, distinct aroma is in the air. If the small farmers can hold on through this season, next year they might qualify for a state license, making their cannabis farm a legal business.

My friend Sandra is one of those who need to hold on. In her 50s and in ill health, she has lived alone since her father died and left her the house. For 10 years, she has managed to get by growing cannabis. But last year, when the Nevada County Board of Supervisors banned all outdoor growing, Sandra panicked and moved her entire garden into a greenhouse. She has pinned her hopes on qualifying for a state "cottage license" in January.

Meanwhile, a community advisory group is holding meetings, trying to come up with a new county ordinance. Sandra and many farmers like her are just trying to stay under the radar while they await a decision on their future.

One afternoon Sandra texts me. A helicopter is circling her house and her panic attacks are coming back. She wants to know what is happening at the meetings. Do I think she will get a license?

As soon as she picks up the phone, I hear her voice sounding weak and tired. "Tell me it's good news."

"I don't know," I say. "How many acres do you have?"

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"Like you, two point something."

"People living on under 5 acres might not get licensed." After a long silence I ask, "What are you going to do?"

"Continue what I'm doing … but then it's totally illegal."

The sadness in her voice is palpable.

"Yes," I say.

Sandra worked in health care for many years, until her dad was dying and she had to quit her job to take care of him.

"His retirement was paying for the house," she said, "but he didn't think he was dying so soon. If he'd filled out the paperwork differently, I would have got his full retirement, $4,200 a month."

"Forever?"

"Yeah. And now I only get $900. Big difference."

"Wow. How much is your mortgage payment?"

"$2,800."

"So without growing, how are you gonna make up the difference?"

"I don't know. I'll have to do indoor or something."

"So if they made you take your greenhouse down, you would have to grow in your garage?"

"Winter and spring."

"And then just wait through the summer?"

"I couldn't do that," she pauses and sighs deeply. "God, I'm really bummed. I have to continue growing," she says. "I mean, I have to."

"You are not alone. So many people depend on this. Think of all the laid-off trimmers. And hardware stores, grocery stores, restaurants, everything would see a 30 percent drop in sales — the impact will be huge."

"Huge," Sandra agrees. "If you do Google Earth, even though it's a few years outdated, it's like every four houses have a patch."

"If you could get to the meeting tomorrow …"

"I wouldn't be able to speak. I'd be too nervous."

"I know. And you risk retribution when you stand up and give your name."

Sandra's voice suddenly gathers steam.

"This isn't the life I chose. I was trying to finish up nursing school, and then I had to have knee surgery on both sides. I can't sit at a 9 to 5 with the arthritis in my spine. I can't do that."

"No."

"And people don't pay out here. They don't even pay $15 an hour. You're lucky if you get that."

"Plus, with everybody lookin' for work at the same time …"

"Yeah," she says. "It's gonna be a disaster."

When she hangs up, I think about the years I've known her. How she treats her plants like living children. They thrive with the love she gives them, and with them, she thrives too. She isn't getting rich. She just wants to make a living, to maintain a peaceful life.

Sandra is a good citizen, a good neighbor, and a good farmer. There are a thousand small farmers like Sandra. We don't hear their stories because we keep pushing them back into the shadows.

What else can she do? What else can any of us do, when we are fighting for our survival?

Charles Benner lives in Grass Valley.

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