The first cannabis harvest in Calaveras County since 2017 has come at a time with numerous challenges for area businesses.
Those mainly include regulatory barriers and potential wildfire smoke impacts, along with small COVID-19-related costs for some.
Additionally, a pending Nov. 3 ballot measure to change the way cannabis is taxed is weighing on what this year’s harvest will yield in terms of tax revenues.
Whereas rates were previously based on income, Measure G proposes a canopy tax. Officials estimate that would likely yield higher tax revenues for the county in the range of $1.5 to $3 million, especially if businesses don’t do well this year with a state glut in canopy or quality concerns.
Only 35 of 190 possible permits have been issued, which signals the green light to grow, per Greg Wayland, interim director of the Division of Cannabis Control. About 75 others are still in various stages of the lengthy state and county-licensing process.
Most of the current farms are outdoors at this time, although there are some mixed light grows and a few indoor grows, as well.
The county has issued approximately 200 Cannabis Background Clearance Badges, and some local farms have already started harvesting.
Murphys-based farmer Jennifer Smith said that with the exception of mounting a thermometer on a wall in a newly built off-site processing facility, she hasn’t incurred many new costs related to COVID-19 safety for harvest, which will start in a few weeks for her farm.
Smith, who estimated there to be about 15 legal cannabis farms in the county, said she’d be employing about 15 trimmers, around 70% of whom would be local hires.
On the buildout side, however, prices have gone up for various supplies like PVC piping, fencing materials, T-posts and water tanks, which Smith attributes to more people starting home gardens during the pandemic.
“As we were building out, people were becoming interested in growing their own food and raising their own livestock, so that put additional pressure on our supply lines,” Smith said.
While COVID-19 has done little to impact operations, long periods of wildfire smoke are a real concern this year, as dense clouds of smoke obscure plants’ access to sunlight during a critical period when buds are developing.
Another major concern – one that winegrape growers share – is smoke taint ruining the crop.
“We’re walking side by side with (grape growers) through this with the same worries, but they have crop insurance,” Smith said. “We do not and we don’t know how this is going to show up in state testing, because we haven’t had this stringent of testing during such a heavy fire season.”
There’s also a potential for a mix of water and ash to turn into lye, which could present problems for testing as well, said business owner Kevin Clay, who added anecdotally that he’d heard of another local grower experiencing this after washing plants.
In an interview with the Enterprise Monday, Clay said he was planning on harvesting plants in Mokelumne Hill this week.
With regards to fire concerns, Clay said he has worked with the San Andreas Fire Protection District to ensure entry points onto the property are accessible for firefighting. He’s also considering installing a sprinkler system that could connect to a water tender.
“Fires have just reignited our concern to make sure everything we do is fire-compliant,” he said.
Addressing fire safety is one of a number of regulatory measures Clay and other growers have had to navigate in their quest to cultivate.
Clay said he’s got a binder full of laws cannabis farmers have to abide to, including Business and Professions Code, county chapter codes, state law, federal law, cannabis-specific laws and agriculture laws.
“We’re just trying to grow some weed here, you know?” Clay joked. From getting a structural engineer to sign off on drawings for a building or submitting an updated site plan to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), among other tasks to stay compliant, “It’s a constant menagerie to find our way through the regulations and actually be a farmer.”
To meet a county restriction stating that generators cannot be used as a power source, Clay has had to establish a new service connection with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
The generation issue was a roadblock for Neal, owner of a farm in Valley Springs who did not provide a last name.
With many farms in remote locations, generators are typically used as a more cost-effective alternative to working with a utility to install the infrastructure necessary to be connected to the grid.
CDFA staff have been out to farms in Calaveras County in recent weeks to ensure site compliance with state requirements for tracing individual plants.
With the inspections, the state is walking farmers through a new tracking software system called Metric, also known as Track-and-Trace, to ensure that all plants are sufficiently tagged.
Clay said the learning curve for the system “is a vertical line.”
Despite having to jump a number of regulatory hurdles, Smith said she is optimistic with the county board of supervisors considering allowing new license types for manufacturing and processing.
Smith, who moved operations into Lake County after the 2018 cultivation ban in Calaveras County, considered herself “one of the lucky ones. I have had a much easier transition than some.”