On a rural 15-acre property in southeastern Sonoma County, what was once a bucolic home for developmentally disabled adults is slated to be remade into a new kind of homestead.
Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Alexa and Curtis Wall hope to transform the Penngrove property where they live into a working farm for cannabis surrounded by pasture, cactus, roses, hedges and peach trees. Alexa Wall hopes to finally test the future of a local — and legal — crop she’s been pushing leaders to support in her role as board chairwoman of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, an association of marijuana cultivators.
The Walls cleared a key hurdle June 13 when county planning commissioners unanimously approved their plan to grow about a half-acre of cannabis in a combination of greenhouses, outdoor plots and indoor rooms.
Their business model contains features echoed in about five dozen other applications for outdoor cannabis farms now on the desks of county planners. The Walls, like many other local marijuana growers, hope to compete against giant producers by focusing on artisan products, sustainable farming practices and a tourist-friendly farm to visit should the county one day allow cannabis farms to entertain customers, a model employed by wineries across the county.
“The only way we’re going to compete is if people see value in our flowers beyond how high it gets them,” she said. “We’re a family-owned company with biodynamic farming practices — Sonoma County grown.”
Two years after Sonoma County began taking applications for newly legalized cannabis businesses, entrepreneurs and their critics are finally getting long-sought public hearings before the Board of Zoning Adjustments, a panel charged with deciding whether all but the smallest outdoor farms can operate.
Most if not all of the outdoor cultivation proposals approved by the zoning board are expected to be appealed, requiring the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to evaluate critics’ concerns and give the final rejection or approval. A majority vote is required.
Wall has been an outspoken critic of the county’s slow pace, saying that it’s failed at its mission to encourage existing growers to enter the legal market. Instead, the black market is thriving.
Out of all sectors of the marijuana industry, cultivation has hit the greatest snag in Sonoma County. Dispensaries are proliferating in Santa Rosa and manufacturing and distribution companies are opening up without much concern, but growers — particularly outdoor farms — have been slower to launch amid costly regulations and searing resistance from neighbors.
“It’s really the outdoor commercial grows that are the most concerning and pose 99% of the issues we’re dealing with,” Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairman David Rabbitt said.
Rabbitt said the outdoor projects, unlike those in warehouses, are the most problematic because of marijuana’s skunky smell and the potential for crime. It’s a cash-based business still illegal under federal law.
Southern California is emerging as the primary engine of legal cannabis production in the state, with massive greenhouse farms the size of 100 football fields in Santa Barbara County and more than 700,000 square feet of production so far licensed by the state in Los Angeles County. Humboldt County remains an Emerald Triangle stronghold for growers, with nearly 43% of the 515 acres of cannabis licensed so far by the California Department of Food & Agriculture.
Where cannabis is grown in California
Active cultivation licenses issued by the California Department of Food & Agriculture*
Top 10 indoor producers (in square feet)
689,480 Los Angeles County
444,920 San Bernardino County
416,180 Riverside County
274,240 Sacramento County
263,120 Alameda County
182,120 Santa Clara County
164,060 Monterey County
129,560 Sonoma County
92,120 Kern County
92,120 Shasta County
* Excludes locally-approved cultivation operations that have not yet received state licenses.
Top 10 outdoor producers** (in acres)
220 Humboldt County
144 Santa Barbara County
50 Mendocino County
45 Monterey County
29 Yolo County
18 Trinity County
10 Sonoma County
9 Lake County
4 San Luis Obispo County
4 Santa Cruz County
** Includes greenhouse and mixed-light producers.