Saturday, January 28, 2023

Mendocino Cannabis Operators Gather with an Eye on Survival and Reform

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Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

-Dylan Thomas

On February 27th, about thirty cars lined the remote street just off Highway 1, an unusual sight in the otherwise tiny town of Leggett.  Residents gawked as they drove past, straining to see what had brought the trove of vehicles to their sleepy town.

Approximately sixty attendees, predominantly male, created a traffic jam of sorts; congregated around the entrance to the “Club House” created by 3rd Gen Family Farms COO and Founder, Brandon Parker. From the young to the old; from button-up shirts to camo jackets; from the freshly shaven to the scruffy-bearded, cannabis operators arrived, heralding Parker’s call to action.

Brandon Parker, 3rd Gen Family Farms, Moonshine Melts, Terpy Van Winkle, Dying Breed Seeds [Photo by Lisa Music]

Parker, a charismatic man wearing tan, Carhart overalls, greeted his friends and guests with a firm handshake and hearty welcome. Attendees mingled, greeting old friends and making introductions in the clubhouse, a space with pinball machines, a diner-style bar, and banners from the plethora of Parker’s brands and awards.

The current economic crisis facing cannabis operators throughout California has left many small, legacy operators looking for creative ways to stay afloat while they await state and local counties to provide relief and reform to the industry, that they say, they built.

Susan Tibbon of Lovingly & Legally Grown, said she and her husband Paul, had a thriving medicinal marijuana business prior to Prop 64. They made the leap into the regulated commercial cannabis industry, only to now face the possibility that this may be their last year in business.

Tibbon, an elder with a regal stature and amber threaded blue eyes, said that the county’s equity program is too little, too late for most cannabis operators. Tibbon has been awaiting the issuance of the state-allocated cannabis tax revenue monies for about ten months. To her knowledge, only one person in the last two years has received an equity grant from Mendocino County.

Tibbon is also concerned with the high taxes that accompany the grant funding if and when it should arrive. She said that the funding is taxed at 31%, an estimated $15,500 tax that the county will not allow growers to pay from the grant funding itself; a restriction that Tibbon says is county imposed. She believes that for many struggling financially, the tax burden and delayed distribution isn’t much of a lifeline.

Sticky Fields’ Jesse Robertson told us that, despite the current cannabis economy, he’s not giving up. Robertson, in a backward baseball cap and crisp white t-shirt, said he couldn’t imagine not growing; not to mention, he’d probably have a hard time finding a 9-5 considering his face is blasted on the internet with “monster” cannabis plants. Social media, he said, has to be part of all cannabis operators’ business plans. “It’s free advertising,” he told us.

Standing behind an up-ended wine barrel, Parker’s booming voice silenced the myriad of conversations, all eyes attuned to the man who called the group to Leggett to help his fellow cannabis operators find “the proactive approach”.

In a phone conversation prior to the event, Parker had told us that this wasn’t a meeting to complain about the issues within the industry, but to discuss ways to take action now for the future of the cannabis community.

Holding true to his word, after a cheer-inducing introduction, Parker turned the meeting over to Michael Katz, Executive Director of the Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) to discuss proactive ways to deal with issues that cannabis operators face in dealing with the county’s Mendocino Cannabis Program (MCP).

Only a small percent of cannabis operators have been fully licensed through the county. Most applicants were made to go through a resubmission process using the county’s online portal. The move was said to have been made to digitize previously paper applications to help the program staff move through the licensing process quicker. However, the implementation of the portal has not gone smoothly; the portal was launched later than anticipated and cannabis operators were not informed of the existence of the portal until the program sent out emails two weeks after the portal was opened. The vast majority of Mendocino cannabis operators are operating with an embossed application receipt; some operators have been waiting for county processing for six years.

In addition to portal completion, some operators are now faced with letters from the county stating that the operators need to provide documentation on vegetation modification on their properties. Katz said that the county is asking for prior documentation that is not required in the county’s cannabis ordinances. “They are not making it easy to engage [in the program],” Katz said.

According to Katz, MCA is working on behalf of the cannabis operators of Mendocino but needs operators to join the fight and be vocal. Currently, the county has a special meeting scheduled for Wednesday, March 2nd at 9 a.m. to discuss a variety of issues facing the county’s cannabis program. Katz encouraged the group to send letters to the county regarding the vegetation modification issues, county-level tax reform, and a revision of the fallowing procedures (taking a year off).

Currently, the county’s fallowing procedures do not allow cultivators to maintain their state license, thus eliminating their ability to purchase wholesale products for the next season or to sell the previous year’s crop.

As Katz spoke of the numerous county-level hurdles that the operators faced, the crowd grew incensed. One cultivator said that he believes the county is trying to find ways to kick small farms out of the permitting program. According to him, he submitted the county-required Appendix G form necessitated for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance, something that arose after the state determined the county was not adequately providing proof of site-specific compliance through their permitting process. The cultivator said that each time he corrected an issue on Appendix G, the county planner found another issue with the documentation, time and time again. He said it was apparent to him that the planner was simply trying to find ways to discourage his continuing in the program.

Other operators agreed that the process had been long and arduous, many saying they were in the process for years awaiting approval, only to be faced with new hurdles erected just before the finish line. However, no one in the group appeared at their breaking point; instead, they were bolstered by the hardships they’ve endured, not willing to let the county or the economic crisis detour them from their path to legal and successful cannabis operations.

Mendocino cultivator, Casey O’Neill, took the helm of the wine barrel to speak to his fellow farmers about the upcoming season. O’Neill told the group it was time to buckle down on expenses, take on more of the work themselves, and to work with the land for low-cost nutrients and drought measures. He said that this was the year to scale back.

Parker’s Trophy and Awards [Photo by Lisa Music]

Many of the cultivators at the meeting discussed scaling back, focusing on quality over quantity, and cutting costs of production. Marty Clein, owner of Martyjuana Farms in Covelo, passed around some of his personal stash, bright green, tightly trimmed buds coated with resin, the pride in his work evident. He said that he keeps his plants smaller, resulting in less volume, but, in his opinion, superior cannabis. Just one of Clein’s three businesses, he said he’s been beating the pavement to get his brands into the hands of would-be customers, putting hundreds of miles on his car to build relationships with dispensaries in Sacramento.

Parker took center stage at the end of the meeting to address money equating to survival. With his many brands and ventures on display, Parker discussed moving away from the wholesale flower business model. He said the days of selling turkey bags full of weed at the end of the dirt road, were over; cultivators have to create a consumer-ready product and market it, he said.

Before the meeting started, Robertson spoke to us of the trials of building online followings only to have accounts deleted by social media sites – accounts that had boasted over 100K followers for a small, legacy farmer before deletion.

First attempt at cannabis packaging for Tokin’ Terps [Photo by Lisa Music]

By a show of hands, every operator at the meeting had their own brand, although some were just getting their brands off the ground. Heather Haglund, of Tokin’ Terps Family Farm, showed us her packaging for the farm’s Fatso OG strain. She said the packaging wasn’t compliant, so it was only for her personal use.

Cultivators are now not only growing cannabis, but managing businesses, and navigating the county and state’s regulations while trying to market their products to consumers, often with a huge learning curve when costly mistakes could financially devastate the farmer.

The group discussed forming cannabis granges, joining co-ops, and working on direct-to-consumer retail through MCA. Once-upon-a-time outlaws, talked about legal strategies, applauding the pro-bono work that lawyer Hannah Nelson has been doing for the cannabis industry. They talked of national and even international policy.

If one were looking for the down-trodden, the hopeless, or the weed-grower of days gone by, they were not to be found in Parker’s assembled group. Instead, a group of determined business owners coalesced with a fire and an action plan in place; banding together to enact change on local and state levels while forming alliances that lower the costs of production and create diversified outlets for their products. First on their list of actionable items is going to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors with their concerns on Wednesday, March 2nd.  Armed with the knowledge that the cannabis industry yielded $113 million in revenue last year in Mendocino County, this group is coming together to help each other survive as they demand to be given a piece of the pie of the industry they helped create.

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