Charles Benner: Save the residential agricultural cannabis farmer | TheUnion.com

Charles Benner: Save the residential agricultural cannabis farmer

Charles Benner
Other Voices

At a recent meeting of the Nevada County Board of Supervisors a new cannabis ordinance was considered which would allow state licensing for properties designated Agricultural or Forest.

This is a good step forward, and follows in the spirit of Measure W, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a ban on cannabis cultivation.

However, the board is still considering a total ban on all Residential Agricultural land. There are estimates of up to 4,000 growers in this county. Of these it is estimated 500 may be living on residential agricultural lands. Most of them depend on cannabis farming for a living, and forcing them underground is not a solution if the county wants to control cannabis farming.

Other aspects of a new ordinance were also discussed, such as forcing all cannabis farmers to build permanent greenhouses to replace their hoop houses, which they are now using efficiently and are heavily invested in. Strict codes and regulations such as setbacks from property lines may disqualify many farmers. Harsh penalties for noncompliance were proposed. The imposition of high fees and taxes is also a topic of debate. All these will discourage many farmers.

If the county isn't seen as a trustworthy partner interested in the farmer's success, many farmers who would otherwise qualify for a license might think twice about applying for one. And if many of them don't, the regulatory system will fail.

If the supervisors want regulations to succeed, they must listen to the will of the voters expressed in my survey on Measure W, who said they want to help the farmers survive — and prosper. Many now living on residential agricultural properties genuinely wish to become legal.

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A friend of mine lives on 2 1/2 acres of residential agricultural property. For 10 years she has survived by growing cannabis. She was hoping for a state license to grow 25 plants, but under this new ordinance, she will be denied. The same is true for three other growers on her street who are growing cannabis, making some income, or providing for their own medicine. All these talented growers live on residential agricultural zoned land.

Another friend, who lives on 2.75 acres residential agricultural, knew his small lot size was at risk of only a very small license at best. So he took the chance and invested his entire savings to buy 10 acres of residential agricultural land near his home.

To get to his lot in the middle of the forest, he drives a dirt road past other secluded 10-acre lots, many with green houses already on them. With no neighbors anywhere nearby, he leveled out a small pad, and went $20,000 into debt to erect an 80-foot-long hoop house to cultivate cannabis.

Throughout the last 10 years, this farmer has employed many part-time workers — for trimming, gardening, and other jobs. He estimates spending $28,000 or more a year in wages paid out to his workers; he and his family spent $18,000 a year at the BriarPatch food co-op, with another $12,000 a year at grow stores and nurseries. Add $8,000 a year or more spent at hardware stores, for auto repairs, electricians, plumbers, landscapers, and others — buying clothing, going to restaurants and movies. Evidence that cannabis farming has benefitted everyone in this economy.

In 10 years, this man went from being unemployed to becoming a bud trimmer, and then finally a cannabis farmer. He didn't get rich — he made a living.

Now the county wants to shut him down. Put him out of business. And there could be 500 or more residential agricultural zoned small farmers just like him.

After Measure W passed, a community advisory group spent 10 months studying, debating, and voting on recommendations to approve commercial cannabis farming for some residential agricultural zoned lands.

The county is about to approve state cultivation licenses on 10 acres of agricultural or forest zoned land only. And they are about to ban all cultivation if the 10 acres are zoned residential agricultural. The only real difference between the two is a word on a document — the word Res before Ag on the title. Both of these 10 acre lots look the same, smell the same, and both have no neighbors anywhere nearby.

Why would the one be deemed legal and not the other?

The Board of Supervisors needs to listen to the clearly-expressed will of the people. Regulating the farmers and supporting their livelihoods is good for everyone.

Charles Benner lives in Grass Valley.