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Where’s it grown? California may soon assist cannabis farmers in letting customers know

Sonoma Hills Farm is a place of big dreams for Aaron Keefer. He’d like, for example, to be known for his cannabis crop.

And the vice president of cannabis cultivation could get a big hand in that this year from the state. It’s preparing rules so consumers will know what specific area their weed comes from.

Much like their grape-based cousins — the American Viticultural Area, or AVA — appellations are regulatory indicators of the geographic origin for the grown food and beverage crop. The provider may then label their package as coming from that region.

As a 17-year chef-turned rancher and farmer, Keefer hopes one day the 37-acre farm will turn into an all-day venue for guests and locals who want to enjoy the finer things about Sonoma County. The 48-year-old, who grew up on a farm in upstate New York, envisions a scene in which guests stroll around the grounds learning about cannabis grow operations, cattle ranching and beekeeping with wine in their glasses and a farm-fresh meal awaiting. The scene may amount to a dream come true for foodies seeking a destination.

First, the former French Laundry culinary gardener plans to become the first organically-certified craft cannabis grower. Paving the path to prosperity for Keefer, the state closed the public comment period on May 6 for its Cannabis Appellations Program. Now the comments are being reviewed and will be made available to the public, the California Department of Food and Agriculture indicated.

California’s 66-page proposal defines a set of rules designed to allow growers to use a named territory on the packaging of its cannabis. Think Maui Wowie’s strain and its influence on the Hawaiian Islands. Only licensed cannabis farmers may participate in the program, according to CDFA spokeswoman Rebecca Foree.

“If commercial cannabis farmers want to have a geographical indication that is protected in California, they must enter the regulated cannabis market,” Foree told the Business Journal.

“Consumers have come to trust appellation labeling for wine, and the same will hold true for cannabis,” state Sen. Mike McGuire told the Business Journal. “This statewide framework will protect the North Coast’s status as the world’s premiere growing region into the future.

The Democrat from Healdsburg, whose 2nd State Senatorial District represents the heart of marijuana growing and wine producing, wrote the bill with its amendment that championed the cause. The bill was just amended in the California Assembly last month to incorporate the Business and Professions Code.

The state statute requires the program launch by Jan. 1, 2021.

Before that, the California Office of Administrative Law will review the regulations as written, allow the public to be heard on the matter and ensure the new proposal follows the rule of law. The state’s Department of Finance may also be involved.

All the bureaucracy aside, Keefer sees much potential — especially since his location has a distinct advantage. The Petaluma Gap already represents one of the 18 wine AVAs in California. The American Viticulture Area distinction makes the setting ideal for more than making knock-your-socks-off pinot noir. Its marine climate with wide temperature swings and soil-rich coastal geography serves marijuana plants without the need for chemicals to spur growth.

“It used to be growers would try to hide their plants in pots that’s not conducive to real growing. They’d use potting soil that gave the plants a salt-based diet,” Keefer explained.

Keefer planted this year’s crop at Sonoma Hills Farm in mid-May with half an acre of marijuana that were grown in rows like vegetables on the farm.

“We called it our quarantine garden,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis prompting a call to supply nourishment for the needy. “When COVID hit, that half acre grew to three acres to grow food.”

His hope is the October harvest will serve him well as far as being “a money maker” in his first year.

A good bounty would represent redemption for a farmer-turned-businessman who insists on playing by the rules. He admits the cannabis black market hidden in the shadows still thrives, and “it’s not fair” to growers trying to do the right thing, despite the massive expense.

“It’s tough to compete with the black market,” he said.

The rules are as plentiful as the taxes to operate a grow operation.

“It’s mind-boggling when you think about all the lost taxes to a black market growing for 70- to 80% of the sales,” he said, estimating that half the price placed on his cannabis will go toward taxes and fees. “A lot of things are wrong with the legal market.”

After all, an industry valued at $40 billion nationwide presents much opportunity for local jurisdictions trying to get a piece of the pie.

“(Local governments) thought it would be a boon,” Keefer said.

But like many other cannabis business advocates, Keefer believes the time will come for cannabis to live up to its potential as a productively legal commercial product. The formation of appellations to label the origin of the product the consumer is buying helps spearhead that effort.

Solful Chief Executive Officer Eli Melrod, as a cannabis dealer, agrees.

“I think absolutely it would be helpful. To customers, where a product is grown is important. People love visiting Sonoma County — to see the grapes, to taste the wine. We have some of the best wines in the world here. Now they can taste the best cannabis in the world,” he said, adding an endorsement to Keefer’s idea of making his farm a venue for visitors.

Melrod urged the industry to try to have patience.

“It’s a natural evolution that people are looking for those kinds of experiences. It takes time. We’re still in the early days. We have to have that perspective. From a regulatory perspective, there’s still work to do,” he said.

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