Watch out Wine Country, Weed Country is catching up

Cannabis was included for the first time in the Sonoma County crop report and it showed a remarkable $123 million in cash value for the weed that was harvested.|

Annual Sonoma County crop reports over the past decades have chronicled one primary story: The rise of the wine grape as our most prized crop.

The fruit overtook milk production in 1987 and has since increased in cash value by 607% to $540 million in value in 2021.

Over the years, the reports have told many other tales, such as the demise of once-coveted crops — namely, prunes and pears — and the persistence of apples from its heyday of the beloved Gravenstein to a niche crop now surviving in its use in hard cider and apple cider vinegar.

Agriculture, after all, is always evolving and changing — including the rise locally of plant-based food manufacturing. That was especially the case over the past year.

In 2021, cannabis was included as part of the tally for the first time in the report and it showed a remarkable $123 million in cash value ― not including hemp, which is legal under federal law. The figure included about $1.6 million in such nursery products as seedlings and plants.

That makes marijuana the third most valuable crop in Sonoma County. Weed was barely edged out by milk production for second place by a difference of less than $2 million.

“It’s a milestone,” said Erich Pearson, founder and chief executive officer of Sparc, which operates a biodynamic cannabis farm in Glen Ellen and oversees 5 acres in Sonoma County.

“Sonoma County needs to diversify. Grapes are not the end-all anymore,” added Pearson. His company also has a manufacturing facility in Santa Rosa and retail outlets in San Francisco, Sebastopol, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.

The report comes as cannabis growers and their allies said they still feel stigmatized in their treatment compared to other farmers and ranchers even after the 2016 passage of Proposition 64, which legalized adult cannabis use in the state.

Most notably, the county is rewriting its problematic cultivation ordinance in a debate that has pitted the industry against some rural residents who don’t want such activity in their neighborhoods. And unlike other crops, marijuana farmers are taxed after harvest, bringing in $1.1 million in revenue for the county last year.

“I think there is still a lot of stigma with cannabis even here in California and even here in Sonoma County. This (report) will help normalize that,” said Lauren Mendelsohn. She’s a Sebastopol attorney who works with local growers and is a board member of California NORML, acronym for the cannabis advocacy group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In fact, the inclusion of cannabis was an addendum to the report that was compiled by the county’s Department of Agriculture. Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith told the board of supervisors on Oct. 4 he will include hemp in the full 2022 report and its specific cash value.

Hemp has been legalized at the federal level as a result of the 2018 farm bill, which removed it from the definition of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act. Sonoma County has 24 acres of hemp, a plant that does not have enough compounds to trigger psychoactive symptoms.

The main issue continues to be that cannabis is listed as a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level, which means the federal government has determined it has no medical use and a high risk for abuse.

President Joe Biden announced last month a review that may reclassify it as a lower risk, which would open up more business possibilities and less regulatory burdens.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau doesn’t have any cannabis growers on its board of directors, said Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director, citing that cannabis is still illegal at the federal level.

“If it changes at the federal level, that changes the conversation,” Ghirardelli said.

While the debate continues at all levels of government, the report did shed a notable spotlight on what cannabis growers contend is one of their strongest arguments: They don’t need a lot of land to grow their legal weed.

There were almost 50 acres of licensed cannabis farms in Sonoma County, which provided a value of $2.45 million per acre on last year’s crop where marijuana was priced at $570 per pound. All but 3 acres were outdoor cultivation.

In contrast, there were 58,761 acres for wine grapes, which provided a $9,220 per acre value.

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the Sonoma Valley, told Smith during his appearance in front of the board she appreciated the inclusion of cannabis and specifically noted the report shows that the crop has a very light footprint.

“It is a good barometer to start recording that. And it’s important for our neighbors who are concerned about where cannabis is cultivated, to point this out that it really occupies a very few acres in our county,” Gorin said.

In fact, cannabis may be able to be a lifeline to other farmers, especially the local dairy industry that has been struggling amid rising supply costs that have not kept pace at the rate processors buy their milk. At least five dairy operations have closed since June, Ghirardelli said.

Pearson said he leases land from one dairy farmer, which he declined to identify.

But cannabis crop values can fluctuate.

Pearson said he expects a lower total for 2022 given the drop in the wholesale price. In some cases, the price per pound was half as much compared to 2021 amid competition from illegal out-of-state product.

The publication Leafly said the California crop for 2022 should be valued at about $1 billion, down about 40% from last year. That would still place cannabis as the sixth most valuable crop in the state on a wholesale basis.

Some smaller growers may not be able to survive, he noted, but the outlook can improve if they are given the ability to sell their flower directly to consumers and allow for more tourism given the value of the Sonoma name, especially for out-of-state consumers.

Mike Benziger, owner of GlenTucky Family Farm in the Sonoma Valley, remains bullish and noted this year’s crop was one of the best in terms of quality he harvested from his 5,000-square-foot plot at an elevation of 800 feet on Sonoma Mountain.

His family operated Benziger Family Winery until they sold it in 2015, and he later transitioned into growing cannabis and specialty fruits and vegetables. He has credited the plant with helping combat the side effects of cancer treatments.

Benziger said he doesn’t know if cannabis could eventually overtake wine grapes in the future, but he has been surprised at the cash value that was listed in the crop report, given the tax rates and regulatory obstacles that cannabis faces compared to other crops.

More research on the plant’s effect for medical use along with allowing tourism for on-site sales will boost the crop value, he said.

“If we are able to take the gloves off … we’re going to get close to wine grapes,” he said. “I don’t look at it as competition. I look at it as cooperation.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Bill Swindell

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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