California’s Central Coast — Santa Barbara County, in particular — has for decades maintained healthy, deep roots in the agricultural industry.
With the state set to begin regulating a legal commercial marijuana industry Monday, many in and around the region are preparing for the expansion of a crop that had previously been either extremely limited or banned.
But while many are predicting a new gold rush for some of the state’s more agriculturally conducive areas, at least one Santa Barbara County industry insider is cautioning that the local effects of marijuana legalization can’t truly be gauged until the county and its cities establish their regulations for taxes and other aspects of the industry.
“We haven’t seen a lot of people coming from out of the area and coming here specifically to cultivate cannabis, but I don’t know, that might change next year,” Mollie Culver, a consultant with the Cannabis Business Council of Santa Barbara County, said 10 days before the end of 2017.
“But, any place that has a strong and diverse agriculture economy, there’s positive environmental factors for being able to cultivate all kinds of crops,” she added. “So, Santa Barbara (County) is great for all kinds of crops, including cannabis.”
Even if there isn’t a massive influx of operators moving into the county, the county’s registry of cultivators shows that the area will likely have a robust industry.
The county reported that 249 growers registered with the county between April 17 and June 30 this year, and county officials believe there were more illegal grows that weren’t registered.
Santa Barbara County is appealing to cannabis cultivators, according to those close to the industry, for many of the same reasons that so many other crops are grown in the area: climate and fertile soil being among the top qualities.
One outsider looking to enter the Santa Barbara County market is David Ross, a grower who now operates his Todem business out of Amador and El Dorado counties. Ross, who attended Santa Barbara City College and UC Santa Barbara, is exploring a few sites in the county for his business, including areas of the Lompoc Valley, which had 55 registered cultivators this year — the most for any region in the county.
Ross said he was drawn to the Lompoc area by both its history in the flower industry, among other agricultural ventures, and the City Council’s apparent support for bringing the industry into the city.
“That sparked my imagination with what could possibly happen there with my business,” he said.
Ross said that Santa Barbara County was particularly desirable for him because it can support year-round grows, thanks to temperatures that rarely fall below freezing. This is not the case in most areas north of the Central Coast.
“And I’m assuming there’s a lot of infrastructure set up for older flower industry and seed industry (operations), and that could definitely benefit me and other businesses like mine,” he said.
Typically, South County areas have been more conducive to greenhouse grows, while North County areas have traditionally hosted more outdoor grows.
Richard Smith, who runs a cannabis delivery service and plans to open a storefront in Lompoc, said he believes outdoor grows will present a very specific challenge for operators.
“You will be guaranteed to have mold spores,” he said. “No matter how clean it looks and no matter your preventative measures, you’re gonna have mold spores.”
While mold spores are common for other crops in the area, he said he thinks the cannabis regulations will be tighter than those for other crops and that the mold will cause some businesses to either have to dispose of their plants or find other ways to manufacture them for sale.
Culver acknowledged that mold is “definitely a concern,” but she said that cannabis farmers will have to manage it much like their noncannabis counterparts are already doing.
“With the proximity to the ocean, a lot of these areas are subject to heavy moisture and fog, so those are certainly things that any farmer is having to look out for with any crop,” she said, noting that moisture leads to mold. “It’s certainly not unique to cannabis, unfortunately.”
While environmental conditions are key, Culver said she thinks that economic conditions — particularly taxation levels — and general attitudes surrounding the industry will also loom large for any would-be growers.
So far, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors has had just one specific discussion on cannabis taxation and hasn't yet adopted any guidelines.
“I know the county has the same goal that we do, and that is to create a long-term stable market that’s gonna benefit the jurisdiction,” Culver said. “If you set the rates too high or too low, that’s not gonna work.”
She said she’s looking forward to remaining in discussions with county leaders as the county moves toward its regulations with the benefit of seeing what other counties and cities around the state have already done.
“Our county has really taken a lot of time and is really trying to be very comprehensive and get this right,” she said. “I think there’s certainly been lessons learned on what to do and not to do from other jurisdictions that jumped into this a little bit quicker. I’m pleased that we do have that record to look at and see what is the more successful and less successful model to look at in terms of renewing these ordinances, and let’s learn.”
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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