Californians could soon be seeing cannabis farms like this one in Colorado. (Vince Chandler, Denver Post file)

California cannabis farms could soon be a reality

Alameda County’s draft ordinance would allow two existing dispensary operators to add cultivation in pilot program

DUBLIN, Calif. — As if California’s cows weren’t happy already, Alameda County is developing rules on allowing the cultivation of marijuana in outlying rural areas.

At a recent public forum on the rules, where the dress code was cowboy hats and dusty boots, local farmers and ranchers expressed a host of concerns, including the impact on irrigation, safety, land use — and what would happen if livestock somehow got into a marijuana grow.

“They get high, Paul,” said another man in the audience, as the room erupted into laughter.

The cannabis talk is a new frontier for the county. The rules that are established for medical marijuana would be the foundation for allowing recreational use. With the November passage of Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana, the state has until 2018 to begin issuing retail licenses and come up with regulations related to the growing, selling and dispersal of recreational cannabis.

Alameda County’s draft ordinance on medical marijuana would allow two existing dispensary operators in good standing to apply to add cultivation to their business in the first phase of a pilot program.

Cultivation would have to be on zoned agricultural land, said the county’s assistant planning director, Liz McElligott. The county has just two dispensaries currently in unincorporated areas — Garden of Eden and We Are Hemp, both in the Hayward area.

But given that marijuana would likely be grown in greenhouses in unincorporated Alameda County, some farmers questioned if this would be a waste of agricultural land, and could instead be on industrial-zoned property.

Cattle and calf production makes up 42 percent of the county’s total agricultural production, according to the 2015 agricultural crop report. The county had about 185,000 acres of harvested crop in 2015 and produced nearly $50 million in agricultural production. Cattle sales made up $21 million of that total, according to the report. Growth of both red and white wine grapes yielded a total of $15 million in 2015.

The second phase of the pilot program would later allow two additional marijuana farm sites, not connected with existing dispensaries. According to the draft ordinance, six dispensaries would be allowed in the county, with no more than four in West County and two in East County.

The revised ordinance is almost at the home stretch before it goes before the Board of Supervisors, likely in March, for approval. It’s also expected to go before the Planning Commission next month. The agriculture committee plans on giving recommendations to both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on items related to the farming aspect of cannabis.

Crystal Keesey, of Eastside Environmental, who serves as a liaison between cannabis farmers and regulators, was part of a stakeholders group put together by the Board of Supervisors and staff. She told members of the county’s agricultural committee on Jan. 11 what other California counties have done so far in terms of cultivation regulation.

For example, Humboldt County registered 2,200 marijuana businesses, although 20,000 grow farms are estimated. Registration is a first step to receive state licensing, she said. Calaveras County charged $5,000 per registration, Keesey said, gathering more than $3 million for the county in revenue.

But McElligott said Alameda’s draft ordinance so far does not have anything in the works about registration of cultivation farms in the same way.

The agriculture committee meets again on Jan. 24 to discuss recommendations to give the Board of Supervisors after public input. These areas include security, water irrigation, the use and definition of greenhouses, agricultural land use, and potential specific locations within agricultural-zoned land that could be good sites for cannabis cultivation.

This story was first published on EastBayTimes.com