California counties maintain tradition of excluding value of legal cannabis production

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Four decades ago, the agricultural commissioner of Mendocino County created a maelstrom when he included cannabis on the county’s annual crop report, estimating its value at a whopping $90 million, second only to timber.

The 1979 controversy reached Sacramento, where the state Senate issued a formal reprimand. And “gentle, aging county agricultural commissioner” Ted Eriksen Jr. was asked to rip the page with one line mentioning cannabis out of every printed report, according to news reports.

“It was viewed as, ‘This guy is speaking the truth, this is the reality of what’s happening on the ground,’” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar, who held the same post in Mendocino County from 2009 to 2012. “But it wasn’t socially acceptable to be putting it out there.”

Fast forward to 2019, two years after dispensaries across California began selling cannabis to anyone 21 years or older. Nearly 9,500 cannabis cultivators have temporary licenses to grow statewide. But Sonoma County’s $95.8 million cannabis crop, the estimated gross value of the plants grown locally and legally in the 2018-2019 fiscal year before any processing, was nowhere within the annual crop report released by the county last week.

Instead, Linegar gave an oral presentation to the Sonoma County supervisors about the value of cannabis when he introduced the county’s official crop report, which showed local agricultural products in 2018 surpassed $1 billion for the first time, including the county’s $777.6 million grape crop.

Based on data from county taxes collected from cannabis cultivators in the fiscal year ending in July, Linegar’s estimate provided the clearest look yet at how much cannabis is being grown lawfully in Sonoma County.

Linegar said he came prepared with financial data because supervisors asked him about it last year. He also believes reliable data about cannabis will provide key information that could help strengthen agriculture as a whole in the county and potentially encourage farmers and ranchers to grow cannabis as a way to bolster traditional crops and products.

“You need to grow something that gives a big return per acre in Sonoma County because the cost of land is so high here,” Linegar said in an interview Monday. “We have to grow crops that produce a good return per acre, and certainly cannabis does that.”

There’s nothing in state law or memorandums between the federal, state and county governments that explicitly prohibits any type of crop or agricultural commodity from being listed in the annual crop report, including cannabis.

But since legalization, no California counties have updated their reports to include cannabis, the annual flowering herb known worldwide as a signature California product.

As part of their core duties, county agricultural commissioners are required by the state to create yearly reports on “the condition, acreage, production and value of the agricultural products in his county,” according to California agricultural code. The reports are ultimately provided to the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture.

But cannabis remains illegal under federal laws. And the data within helps local farmers apply for state and federal grants and provides key information that informs banks and investors dealing with the agricultural sector, Linegar said.

That link to federal funding has made California hesitant to include cannabis with traditional agriculture, said Hezekiah Allen, former executive director of the California Growers Association, who until recently worked in Sacramento as a lobbyist for the industry.

“It’s just another reflection of the many ways that cannabis isn’t quite treated like agriculture,” said Allen, who is current president of Global Cannabis Innovators, a Toronto-based investment firm. “One of our core complaints as growers is that there’s this tremendous double standard.”

State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, who represents the Central Coast, proposed a bill this year inviting counties to include cannabis in a formal addendum to annual crop reports, but stops short from requiring it. The California Legislature passed the measure and so it awaits action by Gov. Gavin Newsom. A similar bill last year on a variety of cannabis topics dropped mention of crop reports.

The bill empowers counties to report on legal cannabis production and is “another step forward” in legitimizing cannabis, said State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who represents the North Coast from Marin to the Oregon boarder. McGuire said the federal government must follow the lead of states in legalizing cannabis, calling federal prohibition “arcane and ridiculous.”

“If cannabis was listed as an agricultural crop, agricultural values would skyrocket by the billions,” McGuire said.

Sonoma County leaders have started asking for the data anyway.

In his crop report presentation to the county supervisors last week, Linegar included estimates for cannabis value for the fiscal year July 2018 to July 2019 as a raw agricultural product before any processing: more than $95.8 million grown on 16 acres.

Broken down by growing method:

- Cannabis grown outdoors: $70 million

- Cannabis grown indoors: $12 million

- Cannabis grown in greenhouses: $13.8 million

The board has not given any direction to Linegar about whether to include it in the 2019 crop report.

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose family has an organic farm, said officially tracking and publicizing cannabis production data makes logical sense and could help shape policies and business decisions as the role of cannabis in the county’s overall agricultural production is better understood.

“The crop report’s purpose is to track the productivity of the agricultural land and track the rise and sometimes fall of different agricultural industries in Sonoma County,” Hopkins said. “To me it seems a natural fit.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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