Retiring Sonoma County ag leader: Cannabis can be lifeline for grape growers, dairy farmers
After eight years at the helm, Tony Linegar retired last week as Sonoma County agricultural commissioner, having overseen a tremendous amount of change in the farming sector that fetched a local record $1 billion of crops in 2018.
The 54-year-old Chico State graduate will be most remembered for his advocacy to treat cannabis and hemp just like any other crop, helping erase weed’s lingering stigma as a “stoner drug.”
He was instrumental in drafting local regulations for cannabis and hemp cultivation. He had vast experience with cannabis - which California legalized for recreational sales in 2018 - since he had previously worked in Mendocino County as its ag commissioner. He earlier worked in Shasta County, where he started in 1995 as an ag inspector.
Linegar took action here when vineyard owners violated local rules and had been vocal about upholding environmental and pest and disease protections in his talks with the politically influential wine sector. Although wine grapes represent a dominant 70% of the overall crop value of the county’s ag sector, he sees an industry in transition due to competitive pressures and evolving consumer tastes.
He thinks cannabis can help those small grape growers who are struggling to survive. Area dairy farmers, who have dealt with declining prices in the organic milk market, also will start growing or leasing their land for hemp and cannabis cultivation, he said.
Linegar sees the county’s agricultural sector becoming more balanced after a decadeslong dominance by the wine grape business.
“I do see more diversity coming into agriculture almost by necessity,” said Linegar, who is moving to Hawaii. “Whenever you have so many eggs in one basket, you are really vulnerable not only to market fluctuations but also pests and diseases. If you get a devastating pest come in, that can wreak havoc on a monoculture.”
Linegar spoke with The Press Democrat about lessons he learned during his tenure that began in 2012, and made some predictions about the future of the county’s ag industry. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you think Sonoma County has gotten cannabis regulation right, especially since there is a wide range of rule-making within the state from the permissiveness of Santa Barbara County to restrictive regulations of Napa County?
A: We came out of the gate with a pretty conservative policy and fairly restrictive. I feel like now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. The permitting program for cannabis use permits has been slow. It’s a cumbersome process. I think the Board of Supervisors is interested in figuring out a way of expediting the permitting of cannabis projects. They are looking to make permits ministerial similar to the vineyard permits we issue - what we call an over-the-counter permit.
Q: Where do you think local cannabis rules will go in the future?
A: I see properties in less residential areas that will be the ones we encourage for more cannabis production. I can see raising the cap - it’s currently at 1 acre per parcel - that have less neighborhood compatibility issues. Also, we will make more permits over the counter.
Q: Has the stigma of cannabis lessened within the agricultural sector in Sonoma County?
A: I do think the opinion of the agricultural community has evolved even over the past couple of years. There are a couple of things that are contributing to that. One is hemp has become legal federally and at the state level. There are certainly some conventional farmers that are interested in hemp. The other thing you have is the wine grape market is very much on decline right now. There is surplus fruit on the market.
We already have had some in conventional agriculture that have become interested in cannabis. It’s still a little bit taboo in the ag industry to support cannabis. A lot of folks in the ag industry are conservative in their values by nature. Now, with the wine grapes at the place they’re in, I’m hearing a lot more interest. You could see vines come out for cannabis - absolutely.
Q: What about water usage for cannabis, especially concerns the crop uses much more water than other farming?
A: Everybody has made a huge deal out of water and how much cannabis uses. But look at the return on your investment for every gallon of water you use to produce that product. (Linegar’s office estimated last year the value of local cannabis yield equals about $5.9 million per acre, far outpacing the almost $13,000 average per-acre value of wine grapes.)
If you look at it from that perspective, you can have less land in production, and use so much less water, and produce exponentially greater gross value. I have to think we have to start looking at it that way. If you are looking at grape growers, they are looking at how do I keep my land in agriculture? I really think that over time we are going to start looking at cannabis as agriculture, as it should have been looked at from the beginning.