Cannabis harvest heats up in Sonoma County

At Justice Grown farm in rural Santa Rosa, Tuesday, Sept. 27 2017, marijuana is trimmed for drying. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

JULIE JOHNSON,

Just as grape growers keep watch for the moment of peak ripeness, cannabis farmers have for generations monitored the color of the bud’s trichomes, an aromatic crystal resin that transforms from clear to milky white, then gold to amber.

For many, the signs are there. It’s time to bring the crops in.

The outdoor cannabis harvest has begun across the North Coast, the first year when the state will attempt to measure and tax the crop within a new regulated system.

“They’re just as busy as the grape growers,” said Tony Linegar, Sonoma County’s agricultural commissioner. “That on-edge feeling this time of year — it’s the same.”

There are no official figures available yet to estimate the acreage of cannabis being harvested from outdoor farms this season. Farmers in the unincorporated area of the county are currently applying for business permits, with some existing operators seeking retroactive permission. No permits have been granted yet. None of Sonoma County’s nine cities has allowed outdoor cultivation beyond small personal gardens.

Based on pending applications with the county, cannabis farmers are seeking permission to legally grow marijuana on roughly 40 acres of land in the unincorporated area next year. More applications are coming in daily.

Linegar estimated the county may ultimately approve about 200 acres of outdoor cultivation in the coming years.

To compare, vineyards cover about 60,000 acres of Sonoma County land, producing a grape harvest worth $581 million last year.

But legal cannabis is the county’s most lucrative crop, per acre. Depending on the size and quality of the harvest, an acre of Sonoma County grapes is currently worth about $9,764, on average, Linegar said. An acre of cannabis is worth about $1.7 million, based on industry standards for yield and the current wholesale value of marijuana, about $500 a pound.

While much cannabis is grown year-round indoors under artificial lights — a process that allows growers to harvest three to four crops a year — the fall harvest of the region’s outdoor crop is the culmination of a process that starts around June.

Even outdoor plants are typically grown in pots to avoid exposing the plant to fungus and other foes that might transfer from the ground soil. From early on, growers have steady work pruning the tops to coax plants into growing into a full, bushy shape and monitoring for moisture and pests. In mid to late August, workers cut the top flowers off the earliest maturing plants, giving flowers on lower branches more sun and time to ripen.

The outdoor harvest is expected to hit high gear this week for many cannabis cultivators in Sonoma County, depending on farming practices and varietals. For others, the work continues until the rainy season arrives in mid-November.

Past a locked gate, a gravel road winds past vineyards and redwoods to the heart of a 60-acre parcel south of Santa Rosa where a strain called AK-47 was ready to harvest.

Annalisa Hopper took pruning shears to a 6-foot-tall cannabis plant in a 200-gallon fabric pot, one of about 850 potted plants in the 1-acre field holding about a dozen different strains.

“It’s my 12th harvest,” said Hopper, 32, of Santa Rosa, part of the local crew working for an Illinois-based company called Justice Grown. “Ten years ago I didn’t talk about what I did.”

Hopper was among about a dozen workers bringing in the first variety ready for harvest at the Justice Grown farm. The company has cannabis projects in several states, including Illinois and Pennsylvania, and the Sonoma County garden is its first in California, according to the organization’s local director of operations, Shivawn Brady.

Brady is a Sonoma County native and member of the county’s cannabis policy advisory group, and she agreed to bring a reporter and photographer to the site on the condition its exact location not be disclosed. They have a permit with Santa Rosa to process and distribute the crop and a pending cultivation permit with Sonoma County.

“Cannabis requires a lot of labor and monitoring during those last phases,” Brady said.

Only a small fraction of Sonoma County’s outdoor cannabis harvest will be considered legal this year, meaning it was grown by farmers with pending or approved local cultivation permits. The Sonoma County Growers Alliance has estimated there are about 5,000 cultivators in the county.

Linegar said he imagines cannabis will become a way for less profitable types of agriculture to stay in business by leasing portions of their property for marijuana production.

“If cannabis can be used to maintain a diversity of agriculture in Sonoma County, I am all for that,” Linegar said. “If you consider how small the footprint (of cannabis) is, it alleviates the concern it will overtake all other agriculture. It’s not going to take over the county.”

The vast majority of cannabis produced in Sonoma County and the Emerald Triangle counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity counties will remain part of the illegal market, fueled by the high price of marijuana elsewhere in the country.

The value of marijuana has long lured thieves and spurred violence in Northern California during harvest, causing heightened concerns over security. Last week, two Santa Rosa men were shot and killed near an illegal marijuana garden on an agricultural property off River Road outside Forestville. Investigators have said they suspect the killing was connected to the marijuana but have not elaborated on what took place.

Cannabis industry leaders have said the steep costs associated with becoming a legitimate business in Sonoma County also keeps many would-be legal growers in the black market. Industry experts say it can cost anywhere between $20,000 and $250,000 to meet the new requirements, depending on variable costs like permit fees, biologic studies and changes to the land.

Legal marijuana “is still a fraction of what’s out there,” said Tim Ricard, cannabis program manager for Sonoma County.

Farmers operating legally are bracing for a major change to the bottom line, said Tawnie Logan, board chair with the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.

At $1.7 million, the return per acre for cannabis seems high, but it’s quickly whittled down after paying workers, taxes and other operational costs, Logan said. Unlike other businesses, cannabis producers can’t count on routine business expense deductions because of federal tax laws.

But cultivators are also gaining access to other benefits, like the opportunity to buy supplies at wholesale prices at mainstream agriculture supply stores, said Logan, who is involved with her fiance’s cannabis farm in northwest Sonoma County.

“This is the first year we’ve been able to be honest with the type of activity we’re engaged in,” Logan said. “We’re getting wholesale prices — that’s about a 20 percent cost savings, which is really phenomenal.”

At the Justice Grown farm, cultivation director Chris Hayes has overseen the planting of about 1,200 cannabis plants. After years working in greenhouses in his previous job with Peace in Medicine dispensary, he’s been delighted to watch the ecosystem at the new site unfold. The yellow jackets that swarm midafternoon and the dragon flies emerging in the late afternoon have been keeping a cannabis-hungry caterpillar at bay.

“And the mountain lions keep my staff from wandering around the property,” Hayes said with a laugh.

Up the hill from the garden, a team of about eight people stand and sit around tables in the shade, using trim scissors to remove the large fan leaves off clusters of buds called colas. It was an initial round of pruning before the plants are hung to dry.

Drying typically takes one week or two. The plants are then trimmed again into neat buds with size and precision dependent on whether the flowers will be sold to consumers as flowers to smoke, or transformed into another material, like a concentrated oil.

Standing at one end of a table, 24-year-old Corey Scott of Santa Rosa changed the music to a Buffalo Tom album. His coworkers ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s. Some had more than a decade of experience and others were trimming for the first time. This was Scott’s fifth harvest.

“It’s definitely exciting — it’s like Christmas,” Scott said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.