Sonoma County farmers want to cultivate hemp—now legal under federal law—but that won't happen any time soon, says county agriculture commissioner Tony Linegar, a fierce advocate for farming and farmers, including those who are growing cannabis now or have yet to receive the necessary permits.
Hemp looks and smells like cannabis. For some local detractors, it's just as objectionable as cannabis and ought to be stopped before it takes root here.
"Solving the challenge of how hemp can fit into the agricultural landscape will be a balancing act with many opposing interests," Linegar says. "It's a worthy cause if it creates opportunity for local farmers. Hopefully we can come out of the process with the opportunity intact."
For the time being, Linegar is pushing the Sonoma County Supervisors to follow the lead of 13 counties around the state that have passed temporary moratoriums on commercial hemp cultivation. Mendocino blocked hemp cultivation in February; Marin adopted its own moratorium in March. He's suggesting to the Sonoma supervisors that they do the same at the April 2 meeting.
The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill opened new opportunities to grow a crop in the U.S. that humans have been growing for thousands of years. The history of hemp in America is already well-known: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson grew it. Thomas Paine, who helped jump start the American Revolution, saw hemp growing wild and concluded that it would ensure that Americans would always be free and never under a foreign domination.
As agriculture commissioner, Linegar's job is to protect, preserve and expand farming and ranching in Sonoma County—where and when that's possible. Biodiversity has been one of his mantras over eight years on the job. "Hemp is an amazing plant botanically speaking," Linegar say, as he extols its many virtues and uses, which includes "the possibility to create new kinds of plastics that would be biodegradable, as well as new building materials like hempcrete."
Hemp was outlawed by the federal government in 1937—the same year that cannabis was prohibited. Ever since then, the sturdy hemp plant has been found guilty by association. The plant belongs to the cannabis family, but it's not rich in THC and doesn't produce intoxicating effects.
"I've taken a deep dive into the hemp world," Linegar says. "I know the only way you can distinguish a field of hemp grown for CBD from a field of cannabis with THC, is to take samples of the female plants from both, bring them to a laboratory and have them tested." Commercial hemp under the Farm Bill can't have more than .3 percent THC content.
For that reason, and despite his overall enthusiasm for the plant, Linegar wants the county to approve an emergency ordinance to enact a moratorium on growing hemp. He'd like to see hemp eventually join the list of crops that are grown and harvested here, in part because the plant would bring diversity to fields and farms. For agriculture to survive in Sonoma, it has to produce products that bring a solid financial return per acre planted. On that score, hemp blows grapes out of the water. "In Colorado an acre of hemp produced for CBD brings in about $60,000 per acre," Linegar says. "An acre here of the most highly sought-after grapes might bring in 5 to 6 tons an acre and sell for $5,000 a ton at the high end. You do the math."
Some financially strapped Sonoma County farmers are chomping at the bit to start growing hemp: "We have already had numerous inquiries at the Department of Agriculture from conventional farmers who want to grow hemp," Linegar says.
Nobody's getting the green light, at least not yet. Hemp presents a major conundrum for the county. "There are pros and cons on all sides," he says.
Linegar identifies three reasons to put the moratorium on hemp: Sacramento has yet to issue final regulations about hemp cultivation (that's expected to happen this year). There's also a loophole in state law allowing for the cultivation of hemp for research purposes without registering with a county agricultural commissioner (or be tested for THC).
"That loophole could be exploited," Linegar says. "It has been the impetus for most of the county moratoriums in effect in California."
And third, male hemp plants have the potential to pollinate female cannabis plants. That pollination would produce seeds with diluted THC content, which could make smokable cannabis a less valuable cash crop. Hemp pollen can move as far as 30 miles, says Linegar. "In Oregon, the proximity of hemp to cannabis is already a problem. If we have both crops here, hemp farmers growing male plants would have to be at a safe distance from female cannabis plants. We don't want incompatible land use."
But the biggest issue of all is squaring up the bulky legalization regime so pot growers in Sonoma can participate in the new recreational cannabis economy. "First and foremost we owe considerations to people who have been diligently pursuing legal status by complying with the rigorous local and state regulations for licensing," he says. "Having passed an ordinance that allows for cannabis cultivation in late 2016, I believe the county has an obligation to protect [the growers'] interests."
Linegar would like Sonoma County to wait until Sacramento creates statewide rules and regulations for hemp. He'd like to see the county avoid some of the cannabis controversies that have divided communities following Proposition 64's passage.
Linegar believes that any rush to regulate locally could find the county scrambling "down the same rabbit hole that it went down with cannabis. Some of the same people in Sonoma County and elsewhere, who have opposed cannabis, would also oppose hemp. For one thing, it would smell. For another, if mistaken for cannabis it could present similar concerns around public safety."
He adds, ""I understand that cannabis is prohibited in areas zoned Rural Residential and Agriculture Residential. I can accept that, but [other] places that are zoned [for agriculture], have to be maintained and defended for farming and ranching. I draw the line there. The primary use for that land is agricultural, not residential."
He says cannabis and hemp farmers ought to be able to grow on land that's zoned by the county as Land Intensive Agriculture, Land Extensive Agriculture and Diverse Agriculture. "We have had a huge influx of people from urban areas who don't understand agriculture and don't appreciate or respect that they are moving into areas zoned for agriculture. We can't kowtow to them."
Linegar returns to the subject of CBD, even as he wonders which products the Food and Drug Administration will ultimately approve. But the CBD horse has left the stable. "There are all kinds of CBD products out there already that consumers purchase and use. Enforcing restraints has been non existent." Hemp can be cultivated to be high in CBD.
A robust embrace of the potential for hemp, he hopes, may well persuade anti-cannabis agonists to reconsider their opposition.
"Unfortunately, there's guilt by association," Linegar says. "The way cannabis has been over-regulated has the ability to color the way hemp is regulated. That would not be in the best interests of our farmers."
Marin State Assemblyman Marc Levine's got a pretty good idea going this week. He introduced AB 1648 on Tuesday in an effort to streamline the state-mandated environmental review for affordable housing that's built on local school district surplus properties.
The idea, of course, is to bring teachers and parents closer to the schools they work at or send their kids to. The bill would give authority to school districts to provide housing preference for teachers, who often cannot afford to live where they work in pricey Marin. Levine's bill takes aim at the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by requiring approvals of affordable housing projects on school district-owned properties within seven months of the filing of a certified record of the CEQA proceedings with a court. That's a long way of saying that his bill would limit or eliminate costly lawsuits from neighbors who may disapprove of the affordable housing plan.
In a statement, Levine notes that the same CEQA rule applies to the building of sports stadiums and called on lawmakers to expedite the process for affordable housing, too. Marin Superintendent of Schools Mary Jane Burke's in favor of the local pols' latest legislative push as she notes that having affordable-housing options for teachers and staff "will enable our schools to attract and retain a quality workforce," she says. "Our students deserve the very best educational opportunities and retaining qualified staff is paramount to making this happen."
Napa State Senator Bill Dodd's got a pretty good idea, too, that's now making its way through Sacramento's committee process. SB 290 would, for the first time, allow the State of California to take out an insurance policy on itself in the (pretty likely) event of future wildfires or other disasters. "Why doesn't the state have disaster insurance to reduce its financial exposure," he asks, non-rhetorically.
Dodd's bill is co-sponsored by Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara and state Treasurer Fiona Ma. The bill authorizes their agencies, and the governor's office, to "enter into an insurance policy that pays out when California has unexpected disaster costs." It would basically work like a home insurance policy.
Dodd notes in a statement that this is how they do it in Oregon, not to mention at the World Bank. They've both used insurance policies to protect taxpayers from financial exposure after a disaster, though it's unclear when Oregon has faced a big disaster of any kind, besides those freakish neo-Nazis of Portland. OK, that time Mt. St. Helena blew up, that was pretty bad.
Closer to home, In the last 12 years, California has experienced 11 of the 20 most destructive fires in its history, the senator observes, including last year's Paradise Fire, which was the most destructive fire in state history and has a $8 billion price tag for Californians to chew on. Dodd's bill is parked in the Senate Committee on Appropriations, awaiting its next vote.