Agriculture

Is there big money in Merced County hemp? Farmers say yes, but supervisors ban it

Nearly 200 acres of marijuana discovered in Merced County

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke speaks during a news conference announcing the investigation of a 194-acre Merced County marijuana grow at the Merced County Sheriff's Office in Merced, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.
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Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke speaks during a news conference announcing the investigation of a 194-acre Merced County marijuana grow at the Merced County Sheriff's Office in Merced, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors put a 45-day moratorium on the growing of hemp on unincorporated farmland, a move that critics say will cost them money and prevent them from providing local jobs.

County officials said they need time to put the proper regulations in place before allowing hemp to be grown. The board passed the temporary freeze with Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza casting the single “no” vote.

Hemp comes from cannabis plants that are high in CBD content (the part used for medical reasons) and low in THC (the part that gets people high). To be considered hemp the plant has to test at 0.3 percent THC or less, according to David Robinson, the county’s agricultural commissioner.

Robinson said there are concerns over whether the hemp could be used to hide the growing of marijuana, which is totally banned in the unincorporated parts of Merced County. The plants could also be a problem by harboring pests, emitting an odor and other concerns.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is still in the process of drawing up regulations for growth and testing. In the meantime, Merced County leaders have failed to be forward-thinking about the hemp, according to District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel.

“I think we should have been up to speed with this. Right now we’d be making a different decision,” he said on Tuesday. “I’m not saying I’m for or against it. I’m saying I’m disappointed in us. I really am. I think we should have been way ahead of the curve on this.”

A number of other counties have implemented a similar moratorium, according to officials. San Joaquin and Tulare are the only counties so far to do it in the Central San Joaquin Valley.

The U.S. imports about $800 million worth of hemp to be used for its fiber, seed and oil. Among the biggest foreign growers are Canada and China, according to the California Hemp Association. Local farmers and processors see the potential to make that money here.

The temporary ban frustrated farmers and hemp-related business owners alike.

Farmer Alex McCabe, a former Livingston city councilmember, said he’s growing hemp in Ventura and Santa Cruz counties and wants to grow in Merced County.

“My farm right here in Merced County will put over 100 people to work,” he said. “Merced County residents deserve jobs. They deserve the right to labor, the right to work. And me, as a farmer, deserve the right to farm.”

He said the moratorium means he’ll take his investment to Madera.

The ban also covers plants grown by research facilities. Richard De Andrade said his company, Solare Ventures Inc., is getting into industrial hemp and doing the kind of research that regulators need when making decisions around the plants.

The ban has a direct effect on that research, he said.

“We’re working with the University of California on research in the field and moratoriums only discourage companies like us from participating,” he said. “It closes the door for actual research to be done in actual growing conditions.”

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said the ban is necessary so that regulators can get a better handle on its oversight. “I want the safeguards in place to guarantee what they’re growing is, in fact, hemp,” he said.

He pointed to a November bust deputies made in Dos Palos of 194 acres of cannabis. The farmer believed he was growing hemp but the company that tested for THC was giving him bad information, according to Warnke.

County staffers said they would likely ask for an extension on the ban, saying they may be able to have the process figured out by January or February.

“The wheels of government turn so slowly. I don’t want to wait for the state and federal government,” District 5 Supervisor Scott Silveira said. “I want us to proceed full steam ahead.”

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