The vineyard's owners faced an unenviable choice. Farming their land in California’s Santa Barbara County, home to cool, moist Pacific air, they could spray their growing Chardonnay crop with a fungicide that would protect it from mildew. But that raised the risk the chemical could drift onto their new neighbor’s burgeoning crop of cannabis. Any trace of spray would render the cannabis unsaleable, and the vineyard owners would be liable for the lost crop, potentially owing millions of dollars.
The vintners, who asked not to be identified, opted to spray a less effective fungicide. When harvest arrived, they were stuck with 35 acres of Chardonnay they couldn’t use due to unchecked mildew.
When California’s Proposition 64 passed in 2016, legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, many vintners worried that it would creep into their neighborhoods and even take away customers. Three years later, some have had their fears confirmed, while others have seen little impact. Only half the counties within the state allow commercial cannabis farming. Napa County's local government, for example, has instituted a ban on commercial cultivation for now. But several other wine regions are grappling with how the new cash crop is impacting vineyards.
The change is most acutely felt in Santa Barbara, due to permissive regulations. “Santa Barbara County is experiencing significant and unexpected challenges with cannabis cultivation,” said Alison Laslett, CEO for Santa Barbara Vintners. She is worried about safeguarding a nearly $2 billion local wine industry.
A patchwork system
The intent of Proposition 64 was to give small growers a head start by issuing temporary licenses to grow (the proposition banned licenses for parcels larger than 1 acre until 2023). California then left it up to local officials to decide how to regulate cannabis production and sales.
Cannabis farming coexists with grapes and other crops in counties such as Monterey and Mendocino, without significant disputes. But other counties have opted to ban all commercial cannabis activities. (Under the state law, residents are still allowed to grow up to six plants for personal use in unincorporated areas.)
Santa Barbara County has adopted some of the most lenient regulations for commercial growth in the state, leading to an influx in cannabis farms. The region, not previously known for cannabis, has issued 843 active growing permits. By comparison, Humboldt County, known for its cannabis culture even before legalization, has issued 653 permits.
Santa Barbara vintners are already feeling exposed by cannabis’ impression on the area, citing the sight, smell and prospective discordancy with how the two crops grow.
Among their chief concerns is the lack of regulations imposed upon the cannabis growers. “Vineyard development and winery construction go through an extensive review process, yet they have given cannabis farms carte blanche, which is incongruous from what has been standard for open land agriculture in Santa Barbara,” said one vintner. (Many of the vintners interviewed for this story asked not to be identified, to avoid starting arguments with their neighbors.)
This is all part of a slippery slope that began with the county passing a moratorium on new farms. When Prop 64 passed, Santa Barbara County supervisors allowed anyone who said they had already been growing medicinal cannabis to add their name to a registry. Adding their name to the list would grandfather them in as legal growers. The growers did not have to provide any evidence, however. In fact, county supervisors rejected a measure recommended by the planning commission to have staff ask for documentation and research the veracity of the statements.
In late 2017, California announced that it was going to begin issuing temporary cultivation licenses. Santa Barbara used its registry to define eligibility. Anyone on the registry could sign an affidavit declaring they had been growing cannabis prior to the moratorium. The affidavit allowed them to obtain a state license. This led to a surge of cannabis farms. Many have questioned whether some affidavits were falsified. “It happened so fast, and we were unprepared,” said another vintner. “The county should have known what they were giving the green light to.”
That green light allowed a rapid expansion of cannabis farming into land zoned for agriculture, next to the region’s 27,000 acres of vineyards, with almost no restrictions. While state licenses allow only 1 acre per grower, the rules allow growers to have multiple licenses. Local governments decide how many licenses one grower may have. Santa Barbara County supervisors voted not to limit that number. That allowed farmers to "stack" licenses, combining permits for neighboring acres of land, creating large farms, some upwards of 100 acres.
“When you put cannabis in the middle of agricultural land, even though it looks like a plant, it doesn't mesh with anything else there,” one vintner said. Perhaps the most critical element of cannabis and vineyards sharing land is the potential risk of herbicide or pesticide drift. By law, cannabis may not be commercially sold or used in any form if it tests positive for any inorganic substance. Even sustainably farmed vineyards use products that are widely accepted in wine and other crops, but are forbidden with cannabis. Grapegrowers could be liable for any damage to cannabis crops as a result of products used in their vineyards, with potential damages as high as $2 million per acre.
Santa Barbara County is a windy spot. Its coastal mountain ranges are oriented east-west as opposed to north-south, allowing extensive fog and reliable coastal breezes to roll in off the Pacific. Vintners admit they don’t know how big the buffer zone is for drift, as the winds can vary from day to day, but they feel like the risk is constantly looming. No vintners have been sued so far, but cannabis growers have filed complaints to county authorities.
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On the flip side, cannabis can release organic compounds called terpenes, one of which is eucalyptol, known for tainting the flavor of grapes. The Australian Wine Research Institute has linked the location and leaves of eucalyptus trees to the concentration of eucalyptol, or minty characters in wine made from grapes growing nearby.
Several winery representatives also reported tasting room customers who were overwhelmed by the aromas of growing cannabis wafting in and left. The county has not imposed odor mitigation requirements in these agricultural areas, and large farms can create an immense stench.
Hoop houses (a type of greenhouse that’s built using PVC pipe in a hooping or bending system) and storage and processing units have sprung up, which many deem an eyesore in a region that boasts over 200 wineries commingled with towering oaks, row crops and cattle farms. “Visual beauty is one reason to come here,” said one vintner, adding, “We know our scenic valley has transformed dramatically.”
A coalition of Santa Barbara cannabis farmers dubbed “Good Farmers, Great Neighbors,” have been working to counter arguments that cannabis shouldn’t grow near other crops such as wine grapes. The group cites a poll where Santa Barbara voters favored policies to strengthen the industry, and the belief that it's complementary to the wine industry. On its website, the group also claims that less than 1 percent of the county’s agricultural land is used for cannabis. (The group did not respond to requests for comment.)
In Sonoma County, 60,000 acres of vines have been able to coexist seemingly happily with cannabis. Corey Beck, CEO of Francis Ford Coppola Winery and former president of the Sonoma County Vintners, said the county has done a good job in setting up areas for cannabis growing, manufacturing and selling. “I’ve heard very little about issues with neighboring cannabis farms and we have experienced no issues,” said Beck.
To get a permit to grow cannabis in Sonoma County, the proposed area must be outside of both ecologically sensitive and rural residential areas. Environmental and land-use studies are conducted, and if a proposal is appealed, a majority vote is then required from the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to move forward. The lengthy process has delayed cannabis growth in the county, limiting outdoor cultivation to roughly 20 acres.
For Beck, water use is a critical sticking point, besides potential pesticide drift. “During drought years the wine industry takes its lumps and we continue to look toward new technology to reduce our water use, and it will be no different in the cannabis industry,” he says.
Banned for now
Across the county border, cannabis farming has been stymied in Napa. Following the state legalization, the county quickly imposed a moratorium on commercial cannabis growth. That freeze was set to last through December 2019.
Earlier this year, the Napa County Cannabis Association began polling the community about whether it wanted cannabis in Napa. After collecting over 8,000 signatures to put a measure allowing commercial sales and cultivation on the March 2020 ballot, the group suddenly withdrew their initiative, citing optimism that the board would vote in favor of the idea.
But just weeks ahead of the expiration of the moratorium, the Napa County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban all commercial cannabis activities in unincorporated areas, including the growing, processing and selling of cannabis in stores.
Ryan Klobas, CEO for the Napa County Farm Bureau, says he went to Santa Barbara and saw the impact of cannabis cultivation firsthand. “It has been polarizing for many people, and it requires a lot of community education,” said Klobas, noting that it's the No. 1 topic he’s been asked to speak about.
Klobas said when determining their position, the unintended consequences that have been prevalent in Santa Barbara stuck out, and echoed Beck’s remarks on water usage. “The experts we talked to told us that a cannabis plant can use up to 3 gallons of water per day, which far exceeds what we use for wine grapes.”
There have also been complaints outside of California, including in Oregon, where cannabis has been legal since 2014. McMinnville grower Moe Momtazi, who owns and farms the Maysara Vineyard, is in a legal battle with a neighboring cannabis grower, claiming drift of eucalyptol terpenes damaged his grapes.
Finding common ground
“If cannabis can co-exist with the right regulations, and not be intrusive to our neighbors, then it should be available to a farmer who needs to put food on the table for their family,” suggested Beck, noting that the wine industry is going through some growing pains as consumers are drinking less, and thus wineries are using fewer grapes. I’m not suggesting the trend is here to stay, but if you are a grapegrower and can’t find a buyer in the short term, your choice in agricultural crops which provide a return such as grapes are limited.”
Leaders of the estimated $6 billion cannabis industry say California cannabis is poised for growth. Yet they have witnessed an oversaturated market without enough licensed dispensaries to distribute what is being grown. Nearly 75 percent of California cities have outlawed cannabis stores.
Napa is still open to the prospect of cannabis growth. Despite its new ban, the board of supervisors and county officials plan to arrange for a series of public forums on commercial cannabis in early 2020. They hope to develop a better understanding of where commercial cultivation could take place, and on what scale.
As everyone adapts to the current market conditions, the hope is that both industries can coexist. Laslett said she’s surprised by what's been allowed in Santa Barbara County. “We don't want to be unfair to cannabis, but we also have an obligation to ensure vintners are informed of the consequences of having cannabis cultivation in their region,” she says.
Santa Barbara supervisors have announced that they plan to rein in the cannabis industry by imposing stricter regulations and conducting more enforcement. But it will be a difficult task. California’s temporary licenses will expire later this year, which means cannabis growers will have to go through land-use permitting within their respective counties. That processes affords neighbors a chance to appeal. But temporary license holders can apply for a provisional license that will allow them to continue growing for at least another year. The debate has just begun.