By Dawn Dolan
With a panel of local experts converged, the audience had an immediate reminder that the preferred industry term is “cannabis” from moderator Heather Irwin, the Press Democrat’s dining editor and author of the Emerald Report.
Irwin launched into a discussion of the new regulations that have only just been released. The late date of publication is causing a scramble for this industry, previously operating as black market farming and commerce, and now working to come into regulation compliance. But these new rules may change with the wind. Says panelist Zach Crafton, CEO of Big Moon Sky, “The industry is in an infant state of regulations. There are already proposed changes.”
Regulation is heavy, with the panel feeling that the rule-makers were being overly cautious, which is making it difficult on the small growers. Tawnie Logan, Chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, noted that this was the most highly regulated plant of all time. “The over-scrutiny comes from a lack of data. The wine industry has tons of data.”
“It is good for those few businesses that are well organized,” said Erich Pearson, who is the founder and CEO of SPARC, and a long-time advocate, legislative consultant, dispensary operator, and cultivation expert.
One of the greatest concerns brought forward from the new regulations was the lack of a cap on the number of licenses that one person may hold on 1-acre cannabis farms, which is considered a large farm by the industry.
Until now, most cannabis farms have been in the 5,000-10,000 square foot size (One acre has 43,560 square feet). That one entity may hold more than one “large farm” license could mean that a well-funded person or company could snap up the limited number of licenses and create a super-farm network, shutting out the small, local growers.
It was cited that there are only 2,000 permits being issued in 2018, and yet there are approximately 50,000 growers in California. The idea of how one entity could get many of the limited permits was not discussed within the context of the application system.
Of interest was the projected breakdown, cited by Logan, of those current cannabis farmers who would comply with the new regulations. According to her, they estimate that 10% of the current players in this market will go to the regulated market, and 30% will stay on the black market side of the fence. Of the 60% left, some will be disqualified by having their operations in the wrong zoning areas, or fail due to a lack of resources, like lack of access to banking, no business plan, or no track record in the industry. Some others may have the resources, but may not want to jump into the regulated ring until they see how this will shake out, so are biding their time for now.
Growing practices were discussed as a concern for sustainability in the North Bay is important to locals, and this sentiment is driving the push for outdoor growing. A question from the audience about indoor growing practices, which seemingly have better controls and better production, sparked a conversation about being good stewards of the land.
Said Pearson, “Indoor growing is not sustainable. Outdoor grown [cannabis] can be just as high of quality.” Branding is important, and continuing the Sonoma County branding vibe, with a “make cannabis local” theme may prevail. Modeling marketing after the wine grape AVA system (American Viticultural Areas), growers can look to many wine grape-growing neighbors for sustainable growing practices.
Pearson told the audience of his talks on agriculture with Mike Benziger, well-respected for his winery’s biodynamic farming practices. Discussions on the principals of organic and biodynamic growing were important in learning what cannabis growing could be, with Benziger’s mantra “respect the land” dominant. “Talk with your neighbors”, says Pearson. He believes that part of this is about education, and structuring cannabis farming in such a way able to earn respect from locals and neighbors.
Moving the discussion to labor, the panel cited that at this point there has been very little cross-over from the vineyards to the cannabis fields, but the key issue of a lack of overall labor is one the state faces in general. The stigma of working with cannabis and the threat of federal regulations, combined with no access to insurance, banking issues and no workman’s compensation may prevent some workers from making the move. Perhaps more specialized, the cannabis industry looks for horticulturists with focused knowledge of the plant and its particular growing practices. Service providers may be the greater area in which the wine industry may see a tug, with fence builders, packaging, and distribution services providing an overlap.
As for visitors to the North Bay, Logan says one of the issues is how to integrate a sustainable tourism into the existing tourism channels. “I can see the perspective of concern for another industry bringing more tourists to our area.” However, Crafton was clear that, “We are still a long way off from Sonoma County tourism. Our consumers (at Big Sky) are currently looking for a safe, discreet delivery.”
In other words, these consumers are not yet ready to be open to any tourist-type activity. Says Pearson, “The stigma of cannabis is a large mountain to climb.” That said, the idea of staying on a cannabis farm’s B&B, where farmers can showcase the property, the food, and edibles seems feasible. “We want to honor the traditions of our Sonoma County culture.”
All were clear that cannabis and wine do not make good bedfellows, so the idea of combined tasting rooms does not sound like a realistic idea. Says Erin Gore, “Alcohol and cannabis amplify each other; they don’t belong together for recreational consumption at the same time.”
However, food and cannabis do go together, and very successfully cites Gore, Founder and CEO of the Garden Society, a women-targeted wellness brand. Gore says her company’s private food and cannabis pairings sell out whenever they are offered. “This will become an area for more growth,” she notes. She also talked about the dosage rules, which have now changed. Her company is focused on the low dose edibles, which is 5-10 mg per piece. She says this is the equivalent of “one glass of chardonnay”. They are seeing an overlap in audience, who may want pain relief, or may not want to wake up with a hangover. “Seniors and women are the largest growing market.”
It appears that the next five years will be one of dynamic movement as well as challenges for the cannabis industry, from shifting regulations, to farm practices and on to tourism issues.
The session ended with the announcement of dates for the 2018 Wine and Weed Symposium, May 10 in San Luis Obispo and August 2 in Santa Rosa.