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Retiring Sonoma County ag leader: Cannabis can be lifeline for grape growers, dairy farmers

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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.

Q: Is hemp production the initial step into eventual cannabis production for local farmers?

A: I’ve always called hemp the Trojan horse for cannabis. It’s going to break down a lot of the perceptions and barriers for cannabis. People are going to just recognize this is another crop. It will hopefully put the whole odor issue of cannabis to rest. We bent ourselves into pretzels in trying to regulate odor from cannabis.

Q: Has Mendocino County regulated cannabis correctly or not, especially since it has been at the heart of marijuana production for decades as part of the Emerald Triangle and cannabis is integral to its culture?

A: I really feel Mendocino County has missed the boat. They are the Napa County of weed. They always have been. I still own a home in Willits. Nothing has changed in the town of Willits since I was there last. Mendocino County is ripe for cannabis tourism, and I feel the powers that be there have failed to recognize and take advantage of that. I feel it could bring more jobs and tourism. I’m not saying blow it wide open. Some smart planning could really be a boon for Mendocino County.

Q: What do you see for the future of wine grapes and vineyard development? There has been a lot of new planting in the Petaluma Gap area in the last couple of years, but those vines will start to produce fruit when there is a glut in the retail wine market.

A: We are reaching an equilibrium with the market in terms of the supply and the current demand. For the first time since I have been here, we have had vineyard managers saying to us when they see these new vineyard developments going in: ‘What are we doing?’ There are some vineyard managers upset about that, because they are not selling their fruit and they don’t have a contract for this year and they are looking across the street at these new developments. It is more than a cyclical downturn that we are experiencing.

Q: What type of new vineyard restrictions could be considered?

A: I could see some limitations on new projects. It would be in relationship to our critical watersheds in the county and in relationship to tree removal for climate change. The board has made a commitment to do something about climate change. Also, something could be done in regards to steep slopes. We currently allow vineyards on hills up to a 50% slope. Those could be areas where I could see dialing it back.

Q: Are you concerned about smaller grape growers in Sonoma County being able to stay in business?

A: I think small growers are particularly vulnerable to these market fluctuations. Also, people who own large tracts of dairy land. They are the two most likely sectors that will move to cannabis first.

Q: How concerned are you about the viability of our local dairy industry, since farmers are still experiencing tough market conditions even after switching most of their production to organic milk?

A: I do think it’s going to be a struggle for our dairies over the coming years. I think the ones that are going to survive are going to be the ones that diversify their operations. Cannabis has the ability to subsidize some of these dairy operations. These are the people who own the large tracts that are the most appropriate for cannabis production. I know of situations where dairymen are leasing an acre to a cannabis grower for a lot of money. I have seen lease rates between $60,000 and $100,000 per year — if the land is eligible to grow cannabis. (Linegar wouldn’t reveal which local dairies have entered the cannabis business.)

Q: We have seen protests by animal rights activists against local poultry producers and duck farms. Do those attacks make it harder for ag businesses to continue to operate in Sonoma County?

A: We are fortunate to be in the North Bay. But we are unfortunate in that we are an easy target for a lot of these activist groups who make their home in the Bay Area. That is hard for a landowner to deal with. Over time, it can affect the resolve of somebody who is committed to keeping agriculture on their property. I was really thrilled the district attorney is charging these people with felonies and sending a message: Don’t come into Sonoma County thinking you are going to hop over our fences, grab birds from our operations and make your political statements. If you do, there are going to be consequences. Animal agriculture is part of our history here, and I would hate to see that be lost because of these animal activists.

Q: The $2.4 million-a-year apple industry has a long history in the county. The beloved Gravenstein apple is arguably part of our culture, especially in west county. What’s the outlook for apple growers given that almost all the apples go to processing at Manzana Products Co. in Graton for organic apple juice, applesauce and organic cider vinegar?

A: Manzana is a major factor in terms of success of the apple industry in Sonoma County. They buy most of the apples we produce. Ninety-five percent of apples go to processing. I do think as hard cider gains in popularity, you could see more orchards planted for cider and that could help soften the blow of somebody like Manzana buying less apples. I do think Manzana is the linchpin for the wholesale survival of the apple industry here.

Q: What developments do you see in organic agriculture? Organic wine grapes are still a small portion of the overall crop. Organic apples are more abundant as a result of Manzana. Has the public backlash toward the herbicide glyphosate changed the paradigm to moving more toward organic?

A: One of the reasons we don’t have more organic grape growers is weed control. We have sulfur, which is organic, to deal with powdery mildew. But in weed control, there is not a good organic herbicide. If you invent an organic herbicide that works really well, you will be a zillionaire. They really don’t exist. That is one of the main hurdles for grape growers becoming organic. It is having a reliable and affordable way of weed control in the vineyards. Particularly, when you have vineyards on steep slopes as we do.

Q: What’s a threat to local agriculture many local residents don’t yet realize?

A: We are in a battle with urbanization. We have a lot of people moving into Sonoma County from urban areas who don’t understand agriculture. All the time, I am seeing people buying ag parcels and putting their McMansions on them. They’re not using the land for agriculture. I think that’s a big threat to agriculture.

Q: Has there been any specific battle on this issue?

A: I really think hemp was representative of that battle. Here’s a crop not everybody likes and it produces an odor. That’s why I fought so hard for hemp to be grown on agriculturally zoned land here without additional restrictions. That was putting a stake in the ground to say these lands are for agriculture. That’s the primary use for these lands. And we can’t let these people moving in from out of our area dictate to us what we can grow. They bought a piece of agricultural land, and they immediately complain about what their neighbors are doing around them.

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

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