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Tawny Tesconi, the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, recently took the job that once was held by her older brother, former Press Democrat farm reporter Tim Tesconi, who retired as the farm bureau’s top staff member in 2015.

Tawny Tesconi, 56, became the group’s interim director in December and was named to the permanent position in March. She brings 29 years of experience in fair management, including eight years as the manager of the Sonoma County Fair. She also served more than a year as the director of General Services for the County of Sonoma.

Here she discusses such topics as cannabis, a proposed county housing bond and a recent animal rights demonstration at a county egg farm. Her answers have been condensed for readability and length.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: In the Farm Bureau’s May newsletter, you wrote about the efforts to regulate legal cannabis. What would you highlight for readers?

TESCONI: I’m not so sure everybody knew what they were biting off when they voted for (the state initiative). The fact that cultivation of cannabis comes with some challenges is nothing that anybody had thought through. I think it’s growing pains right now.

People were hoping that the illegal grows (would become legal). It doesn’t seem to be happening for a number of different reasons.

I personally can say that I have no desire to have somebody growing cannabis next door to me. I can understand people’s concerns. But from a standpoint of Farm Bureau, we’re all about protecting a property owner’s rights to do what’s legal and lawful on their property. So do we support the thousands of illegal grows? Absolutely not, because they’re not legal. But if there is a cultivator out there and he’s following all the rules and regulations and requirements and getting his permits, then we’re definitely not opposed to what they’re doing.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: How optimistic are you that the county will have the means to deal with the illegal grows?

TESCONI: One thing we believe at Farm Bureau is that the cannabis industry needs to be policing their own. It’s something we’ve done when we’ve had farmers not necessarily following the best management practices. We as an industry, as a fellow grape grower or livestock producer, have said to that farmer, ‘Hey, you know what, you’re making us all look bad. So how can we help you bring yourself back into compliance?’ And I believe the cannabis cultivators out there need to figure a way to self-police because there isn’t going to be enough public funding available to manage and deal with all of these illegal grows.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: Your members are divided on the issue.

TESCONI: I think where we’re mainly divided is the concern about public safety. I’ve had a few of our members call because they have illegal grows next door and they’re concerned about personal safety. Another area that members have voiced a concern about is smell.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: Can cannabis cultivators join the Farm Bureau?

TESCONI: Yes, as a business member, because the California Department of Food and Agriculture does not recognize cannabis as an ag crop at this point. Our guiding principles for cannabis say that if a person is (a Farm Bureau) ag member already and starts cultivating cannabis, their ag membership is not in jeopardy. But if a person who just grows cannabis comes and wants to join the Farm Bureau, then they’re a business member. And we have lots of business members.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: What are some of the “guiding principles” the Farm Bureau has developed on this issue?

TESCONI: They’re very tactical. For example, I have heard that (cannabis cultivators) have to provide brick-and-mortar bathrooms. That’s not required right now for our annual crop production, even for vineyards. You’re allowed to have port-a-potties. And so again we don’t want to see that regulatory creep. All of a sudden we don’t want to have to be doing brick-and-mortar bathrooms.

There is other stuff, though. We agree with additional setbacks for cannabis. It’s all about public safety. Do we feel that there’s a public safety concern with somebody out there growing tomatoes? Absolutely not. But is there a public safety concern with somebody growing cannabis? And so those measures (for cannabis), the required fencing and the required setbacks and (such) precautions are all things that we are supportive of because we feel that is a cutout from traditional agriculture.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: You wrote about a cultivator who spoke of spending over $1 million on efforts to obtain a permit to grow an acre of cannabis. What do you think about such expense in order to meet regulations?

TESCONI: If the county leaders are interested in getting these cultivators legal, then it seems like it’s counterintuitive to have such a huge upfront cost to being able to get through the application process and through the permitting process. Because it’s probably just going to continue fostering the illegal grows, especially since there’s going to be so little public funding available to deal with the illegal (operations). There was all this hope that all this sales tax was going to come from cannabis that would help support cleaning up the industry. But the sales tax isn’t there. So now we’re going to continue seeing these illegal grows exist because there’s not enough funding to go out and try to get them all cleaned up.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: The Farm Bureau voiced opposition to a proposed $300 million housing bond, with the funds to be raised as a tax on property. What were the concerns.

TESCONI: First of all, we felt that the housing bond as proposed was weighted heavily on money coming from our farmers, in the sense that it was based on property values. It takes a lot of land to grow food and to grow wine grapes. For example, one of our dairymen estimated that his costs were going to be in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $16,000 a year. Some of our grape growers were saying it was going to be $25,000 a year just to cover this housing bond. If we want to keep diversity in agriculture in Sonoma County, those kinds of overweighted burdens are not going to keep it diverse, are not going to keep it sustainable. So that’s really what was our concern. And on top of that, we already do farmworker housing. We’re doing our part.

(The Farm Bureau also supports efforts to) revamp the permit process. Is there a way to find some sort of relief for the housing developers? We really felt there was a need for a much stronger dive into how can we make housing development more practical before we come toward the taxpayer to get more money.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: Five hundred animal rights activists held a demonstration in May at an egg farm outside Petaluma. Some activists were arrested for trespassing and their leaders acknowledged removing about 10 chickens, the health of which was disputed by the two sides. How do you respond to their arguments that animal agriculture is inherently inhumane?

TESCONI: First of all, I think Sonoma County was targeted because of opportunity more than animal management practices. As you know, the organization was having their national meeting in Berkeley. We have an egg producer here in Sonoma County who also sells to a high-profile company on Amazon. We weren’t targeted because of bad management practices. We were targeted because we were going to be a good story. Regardless of what the concern is, nobody should have the right to go on somebody else’s property and steal property from them, and that’s really what was done.

We’re going to continue educating the public about the good animal husbandry practices that we have in our industry. Everybody has some sort of regulatory agency that they’re reporting to constantly. And we’re going to continue educating our members about how to manage a situation where an activist shows up on their property and violates the law. We would like to see more teeth put into the outcome of those people that were arrested. It needs to be more than a misdemeanor when you steal somebody’s property. It needs to be a felony.

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: What are some big challenges facing local agriculture?

TESCONI: For urban and rural communities, water, managing groundwater and surface water is a challenge. I actually feel like farmers can be the savior in that situation, because we have the opportunity for recharge. We’re the ones putting water back in the ground by keeping open space and through good farming practices. I think that is always going to be a concern: How do we manage our water but still grow food for the people locally and the people throughout the world?

I looked it up the other day. I think if Sonoma County were a state, we would be like the 11th or 12th biggest in agriculture production based on gross value. We’ve got a significant role to play in feeding America and feeding the world, so water is a big issue.

The other thing, too, is we need to continue fostering next generation farmers. How can we keep these traditional legacy families in farming when there are so many challenges to it?

Also, there’s a whole group of people out there who didn’t grow up in farming who want to be farmers. And how do we help them?

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PRESS DEMOCRAT: What is the outlook for your members?

TESCONI: Agriculture will always be strong in Sonoma County. I think our farmers have done a great job of reacting to public concerns. We’re a lead county in sustainability and good farming practices. And I think our public loves agriculture. So I think there’s a bright future for farming in Sonoma County. Will it be different in 100 years? I can tell you I grew up picking prunes, and I’m not that old. So will there be maybe different crops 100 years from now? Possibly so, but I think farming will always be the lead industry in Sonoma County.

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You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.