California's Largest Legal Weed Farms Face Conflict In Wine Country What makes California great wine country also makes it great for growing marijuana. Santa Barbara County has some of the nation's biggest legal pot farms, which leads to conflicts with other farmers.

California's Largest Legal Weed Farms Face Conflict In Wine Country

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The conditions that make California great wine country also make it great for growing marijuana. Nearly two years ago, California legalized recreational marijuana. Much of the regulation, though, was left up to counties. Santa Barbara County paved the way for some of the nation's biggest legal pot farms. And as Claire Heddles reports, that growth has led to some conflict.

CLAIRE HEDDLES, BYLINE: Nestled in northern Santa Barbara County, a two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, the Santa Rita Hills are ideal for pinot noir. That's why Kathy Joseph came here to plant Fiddlestix Vineyard.

KATHY JOSEPH: The plants are over 20 years old, which comes through in the wines we make. The topography is just right. The proximity to the ocean is incredible - difficult to find a pinot noir district this good.

HEDDLES: We take an ATV around the vineyard. To the west, neighboring grape vines extend as far as we can see.

JOSEPH: So pinot noir on the right, you'll see it going through the veraison process.

HEDDLES: But there's a new neighbor in town. This March, a hundred-acre farm popped up. It's growing cannabis.

JOSEPH: We've lived together with other vegetables - lettuces and cauliflower and broccoli and snap peas and walnuts - very happily.

HEDDLES: But this new crop is different. In June, Joseph learned the fungicide she's been spraying on her grapes for decades could be drifting onto the cannabis. The state has said if any pesticide or fungicide touches the marijuana plant, it can't be sold. So while the county investigates, she's using a more expensive and far less effective spray on her grapes nearest the cannabis farm.

JOSEPH: We may lose crop because we can't protect it.

HEDDLES: That neighboring pot farm is owned by John De Friel.

JOHN DE FRIEL: We use this facility for producing seeds and pollen in our breeding programs. We can go take a look.


He takes me to a warehouse of refrigerated shipping containers. Here, he'll examine and crossbreed thousands of seeds in pursuit of the perfect cannabis plant.

DE FRIEL: You know, for the last several years, our focus really has been just asking what can this plant do? How many different traits are there to make measurements on?

HEDDLES: He takes this scientific and strategic approach to most things. Like, when California legalized recreational pot, he went to all 65 of Santa Barbara County's planning meetings.

DE FRIEL: We participated in the political process. We went to public meetings. We gave feedback.

HEDDLES: And the county listened. Santa Barbara has issued one-third of all the cultivation permits in the state, more than any other county. And farmers can combine licenses. That's what De Friel did. He has nearly a hundred separate permits for neighboring plots of land, which means he now has one of the largest legal weed farms in the U.S. He says conflicts with other farmers are as old as agriculture itself.

DE FRIEL: And it's just farmers learning how to farm next to each other, which is not new for California.

HEDDLES: Cannabis isn't new to California either, just newly taxable. Economist Peter Rupert studies cannabis in Santa Barbara. His findings suggest the county's pot had a higher value than its wine but was produced on a tiny fraction of the land. So Rupert says the county is positioning itself to earn significant tax dollars from cannabis.

PETER RUPERT: Growing here in California is easy. My guess is once they open up interstate commerce in cannabis that, you know, California will really take over.

HEDDLES: But winemaker Kathy Joseph wants to make sure it doesn't take over California's traditional crops.

JOSEPH: I have nothing against cannabis. It existed whether it was legal or not legal, and this just allows it to be controlled a little bit more responsibly. But that isn't what happened.

HEDDLES: For its part, the county says it's still learning how to regulate this budding industry.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Heddles in Santa Barbara County.


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