Deputies take down 21 illegal weed greenhouses and rooms on Merced County property

The largest illegal marijuana cultivation site of the year so far was busted up on Thursday in Merced County in a former tow yard, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Merced County deputies served a search warrant in the 27000 block of Ingomar Grade in Gustine, detained 12 people and confiscated 8,086 plants growing in makeshift greenhouses, Sgt. Ray Framstad said.

On the property were 21 greenhouses and rooms for growing that were full of plants and dry products worth at least $2 million to $3 million on the street, Framstad said. The greenhouses were inside trailers and storage containers.

“It’s the biggest this year and it’s the biggest outdoor nursery that we’ve seen,” he said. “This is a facility from start to finish.”

Deputies regularly break up illegal cannabis sites in rural parts of the county, like the 12,040 marijuana plants confiscated in May.

The property was reported to the Sheriff’s Office because it was an eyesore and residents were tired of seeing all the trash that collected and chemicals drained into the creek, according to Framstad.

“When we passed the ordinance in Merced (County), that was our biggest concern, keeping people from out of the area setting up shop in Merced County,” Framstad said. “Many of the people we contacted today are from out of the area, out of the state.”

Merced County Board of Supervisors voted in 2017 to push all growing inside and reduce the number of legal plants to six, which is also the state standard.

Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke has been an outspoken opponent of cannabis cultivation, saying it attracts violent crime and funds cartels and other organized crime.

Using the techniques and types of plants used at upscale indoor cannabis growers, Framstad said, outdoor growers can harvest three to four times a year rather than the traditional annual harvest.

None of the workers were armed but deputies found four firearms on site, according to deputies. Workers may have also been at risk of industrial injuries as chemicals, pesticides and exposed wires were found all over the property.

The Sheriff’s Office suspects the site was being grown by organized crime, Framstad said. A relatively new team from the Sheriff’s Office is targeting “quality of life issues,” he said.

Information collected on Thursday may lead to other illegal sites or rooms holding product, Framstad said.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.