Could Marijuana Become California’s Next Big Ag Crop?

Feb 17, 2016

California farmers produce more food than any other state on the country. But what if the state’s Big Agriculture also included marijuana? Backers of a ballot measure to legalize marijuana in California have started collecting signatures. And if it makes it onto the ballot and passes, Golden State growers might have a new crop to harvest. 

Some Central Valley growers are already eyeing that possibility, including Los Banos farmer Cannon Michael.

A few years ago Michael discovered a 1-acre illegal marijuana grow on his land.

“They had made reservoirs and they were pumping water,” Michael says. “They had buried generators. They had this whole encampment and we knew nothing about it.”

He says the forbidden plantation was worth around $19 million. That’s more than he makes on 11,000 acres of tomatoes, cotton and other crops in one year. It got him thinking.

“I don’t know, I guess if I thought if I put in a 200-acre planting of marijuana, would the market sustain that?” says Michael.

Cannabis becoming a major player in big agriculture depends on whether Californians vote to legalize pot. If a legalization measure passes, the state would still have to develop regulations on how marijuana can be grown — and farmers would have to figure out which crops grow best. Even still, becoming a big grower early on makes sense for farmers like Cannon Michael, who have land and resources.

“To me it’s just another potential option for something that could be a benefit to the farm, and then also make some money hopefully,” Michael says.

But small farmers already growing legal medical marijuana say they don’t want big ag to push out smaller existing farms.

“I don’t really see any clear benefit,” says Hezekiah Allen with the California Growers Association, representing over 500 members. “Certainly our hope is that we kind of avoid consolidation and we don’t really move in that direction.”

Allen does think there is one role big farms can play: growing hemp, which has lower THC levels and can be used to make paper, cloth and soap.

Federal raids on medical marijuana are still happening in California. Some local sheriffs are going after pot farms, too. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, for example, has waged an all-out war on marijuana, raiding grows not only in cities but in the Sierra Nevada and on farmland.

“For me it really started out as the violence issue: the home invasion robberies, the homicides, the assaults, the assaults with a deadly weapon,” Mims says. “All of that started increasing in these large marijuana grows.”

Her officers have encountered gangs, booby traps and military-grade weapons at grow sites.

“If we again start allowing people to have these large grows, the violence will go up again,” says Mims.

She hopes whatever initiative passes includes some sort of control by local law enforcement.

“As long as that happens, we’re all going to come out ahead because then cities and counties can make up their own minds about what they want to do with their own land-use ordinances,” says Mims.

She also doesn’t think farmers used to growing peaches or tomatoes will want to pay taxes and fees that could come with legalizing the marijuana crop.

But companies that sell supplies for growing medical marijuana say they’re getting ready for a boom if big ag gets in on the game.

At Current Culture H20, a hydroponics company in Fresno, Christian Long sells water-based systems to help people grow all sorts of plants and vegetables. But most of his business comes from people growing cannabis.

One of his systems consists of 12 tubs connected together with PVC pipes to grow broccoli. It’s a modular system that could be used on large-scale farms.

“We’re not leaving the hobby segment, but we’re creating a whole new segment in our business that’s specifically for commercial,” says Long.

He’s expanding his warehouse by 22,000 feet, anticipating that orders will increase if a measure legalizing recreational marijuana passes later this fall.

Copyright 2016 KQED

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