A resounding cheer went up in the Plumas County Board of Supervisors’ meeting room as a vote on an urgency industrial hemp growing moratorium was narrowly defeated Tuesday, June 4.
The proposed temporary moratorium required Supervisors to conduct a roll call four-fifths vote to pass or fail. Supervisors Lori Simpson and Kevin Goss voted against it. Although Supervisors Sherrie Thrall, Jeff Engel and Michael Sanchez are in favor of the temporary moratorium, the four-fifths vote was not realized.
Emotions were high as industrial hemp growers, attorneys, educators and others against the ban out-numbered those supporting it.
“I’m mad, I’m angry and I’m scared,” said third-generation Sierra Valley rancher Rick Roberti.
The Robertis followed county regulations last year and were legally allowed to raise hemp. Rick Roberti told Supervisors he believed he would be allowed to grow a second year and had $500,000 invested in this year’s crop. He and his family were ready to plant that week.
Joseph Munoz, a resident of the county for 48 years, told Supervisors that he didn’t have a problem with CBD oil (cannabidiol) or with hemp, but the inability of the county to regulate hemp was the problem. Munoz encouraged Supervisors to support Sheriff Greg Hagwood’s temporary moratorium request.
In fact, so many people turned out for the public hearing, that a first-floor courtroom was opened for seating. The meeting was live-streamed to that courtroom to allow for uninterrupted participation. They were also invited to the third-floor Supervisors’ room to comment.
On May 22, Hagwood requested a public hearing to consider adoption of what he called an uncodified urgency ordinance that, if approved, would impose a temporary moratorium on the cultivation of industrial hemp in unincorporated areas of the county. By temporary, he meant 45 days. Even if approved after that time, the date would put growers too far into the season to plant, several residents pointed out during the hearing.
Hagwood’s proposal would also prohibit established agricultural research institutions from growing hemp. “Cultivation of industrial hemp in violation of the prohibition in the interim ordinance will be a public nuisance that may be abated by any means available by law,” Hagwood said in his written proposal to Supervisors.
Hagwood’s request stemmed in part from a visit sheriff’s officers, planning and building representatives, the agriculture commissioner and other county representatives made to Genius Fund, a proposed industrial hemp-growing commercial enterprise on April 16.
The Genius Fund is located off Highway 70 in Sierra Valley’s Beckwourth area. It is in the location of a former tree farm and a previous cannabis cultivation company called Aquarius.
The parent company is based in Los Angeles. It has a 70,000-square-foot cannabis operation in that area. And internet sources state that the Genius Fund “is a leading cultivator and distributor of premium cannabis products,” and “is a private equity fund with $40 million under management, focusing on investments in cannabis space.”
Hagwood said that California has really put the cart before the horse when agriculture commissioners were told to start issuing permits to grow industrial hemp. This direction also came to Plumas County Agricultural Commissioner Tim Gibson.
The problem with that directive is that federal, state and local requirements and guidelines aren’t in place, Hagwood explained.
The federal government has legalized hemp production through the 2018 Farm Bill and reclassified it so it is no longer a schedule 1 drug. Growing hemp and marijuana are legal in California, but regulations are still not in place for hemp. Counties do have the opportunity to set their own guidelines for production on any cannabis.
Counties were still waiting for state guidelines in order to determine what they are going to do about hemp cultivation. By early May, 22 counties had approved commercial industrial hemp cultivation.
Hagwood said he believed that when Plumas County voters defeated Measure B by a 3 to 1 margin last year they clearly indicated that they wanted no commercial cannabis operations. Hemp is classified as cannabis although it is developed with very low concentrations of THC (tetrahydrocannebinol) and far higher CBD values.
At this point Hagwood shared a video taken of the Sierra Valley Genius Fund operation.
When sheriff’s officers and county department representatives visited the Sierra Valley location Hagwood was alarmed at what they found. Two guards with automatic handguns with scopes were on the premises.
A lot of building materials had been hauled in and some grading had been done, Hagwood said. Underground piping and wiring were also being installed, and four long greenhouse/wind tunnels were in place and being developed. And trees had been cut. All of this was being done allegedly without permits, he said.
Hagwood said what they found was a “significant operation.” He added that it has the potential of being “one if not the largest hemp operation in the state of California.”
Other violations of county environmental health codes were noted when it was discovered that travel trailers were running their sewage hoses out into the dirt or into small pits.
What Hagwood said about the experience and the attitudes was that it “speaks to a frame of mind and I find it very unconscionable and disturbing.”
What also troubled Hagwood was that when they asked the two security guards for paperwork they were allegedly given fraudulent information.
And when they asked what university associated testing lab was going to conduct the hemp testing for THC levels, they were given the name of Loyola Marymount University in LA. Hagwood said there was no agreement his office could find between the Genius Fund company and that university.
Two days later, Hagwood said a Genius Fund representative said they had a new agreement with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln for testing services. Again, Hagwood said they could find no one who knew of the agreement at the university.
Hagwood also said that they found many hemp starts that were awaiting planting. These were still in the containers marked with the dated paperwork showing they were quarantined until inspected by the county’s agriculture commissioner. The labels indicate they were shipped from Oregon Jan. 23, yet Tim Gibson, ag commissioner said he was not contacted to do the required inspection.
Besides having no contact with representatives of Genius Fund to inspect plants, Gibson said no one had applied for a permit to grow hemp.
Word from department heads
Randy Wilson, Plumas County Planning director explained that Supervisors directed planning commissioners to draft an ordinance concerning home cannabis cultivation and related issues. The commission conducted the required workshops and public hearing and presented Supervisors with their proposal recently.
Wilson went on to say that commissioners were handling proposed guidelines for growing hemp separately and have not started that process.
Tim Gibson as the county’s ag commissioner said the situation is a “very difficult predicament for me.”
Gibson said that he understands the situation from the hemp growers’ side, but also understands Sheriff Hagwood’s situation.
“There’s a global rush on,” Gibson said about hemp and its products. The state still hasn’t come up with its guidelines to pass down to counties. And once that’s done, Plumas County can determine that is it wants to do.
In this county there’s one person to manage everything and that’s himself, Gibson said. He added that he appreciated the support the sheriff’s office had provided.
County Building Director Chuck White said, “I’ve been on a number of visits out there,” meaning to the Beckwourth hemp cultivation site.
He said he’s trying to be as “friendly as we can,” and give people time to get permit applications in place so they can move forward.
Environmental Health Director Jerry Sipe said he was working to get a health and safety plan in place for the Genius Fund development.
“We need to get it right,” said Hagwood about the entire process.
Without having a detailed plan in place, Hagwood said it creates problems for law enforcement, the courts, Environmental Health, the district attorney, county counsel, the ag commissioner and others.
“We need to do this right,” he repeated, or the county could be left to clean up a mess.
California/Nevada attorney and hemp grower Kevin McInerney criticized the sheriff for his response to one hemp operation in Plumas County.
McInerney said, “If there’s a problem with one grower, get an injunction,” that’s law 101.
McInerney said he purchased one of the Sierra Valley ranches. His company now has 450,000 hemp plants in the ground. Complying with Plumas County’s 2018 regulations for legally growing hemp, he said that his company is using the services available at the University of Nevada, Reno. This is the same testing facility that the Roberti family used last year.
George Bianchini, CEO for McFarmaceutical in Novato and S.G. Farms, told Supervisors that he’s an expert in the field. In a June 3 email to Supervisors he said that he is a licensed cannabis researcher.
While Bianchini didn’t go over his letter of listed objections to the moratorium in the public hearing, he did state that if they approved the moratorium, “I will sue you.” He has won in at least one other suit in another county in California.
Quincy resident Nansi Bohne asked how many citations were issued during the sheriff’s visit to the Genius Fund operation? When she was told that Supervisors were not at liberty to comment during the public hearing, Bohne then asked why people weren’t arrested for the violations.
No citations or arrests were made.
Glenn Miller, PhD with biotechnology and natural resources at the University of Nevada, Reno, works with Plumas hemp growers in testing and experimentation.
Miller said he is always looking for more opportunities for testing. New strains of cannabis/hemp are being offered all the time, he explained and he’s interested in what he can learn. “We’re all new to this,” he said. He added that hemp is a very valuable project and is very diverse.
One attorney, Sabine Banks, told Supervisors that the company she represents, Nature’s Holiday, has 1,000 acres to prepare for planting and the “eleventh-hour notice,” of a proposed moratorium was unacceptable. “We don’t have 45 days,” she said. Planting must be done now.
Dave Roberti approached supervisors stating that there’s “not been one murder, not one shooting” on his property since he and his family started raising hemp last year.
Roberti said that he usually has a rifle in the truck, he always has and that didn’t mean he was going to shoot someone.
“I’d love to spend some time on this,” he said about devising regulations, but he has plants to get in the ground. He and his family stated that they received no notification that the rules were changing for growing hemp this year.
Roberti was one of many from his family who spoke including fourth generation representative Kristin Roberti.
Among other issues, Kristin Roberti said her family had to find a viable way to support themselves. Beef and alfalfa hay were down in prices. She added that alfalfa also takes more water than a hemp crop.
Tiffany Williams, who identified herself as the mother of four, also lives on a ranch where they intend to raise hemp.
As a rancher, she’s vested in preserving a way of life for her children. She said her children ride their bikes on the roads and they play in the fields and she saw no danger posed by hemp growers.
She said, “Hemp is an agricultural crop that I can stand behind.”
Quincy resident Kathy Felker, known for her opposition to commercial cultivation of cannabis (marijuana) said that about half of the counties in the state have approved regulations not allowing hemp production.
After Supervisor and chairperson of the board Michael Sanchez closed the public hearing, he invited Supervisors to state their opinions and concerns.
Supervisor Lori Simpson said she had a few questions. She asked ag commissioner Gibson how many hemp-growing applications he had received this year.
Gibson indicated that he received six applications but one of those was for Sierra County.
“Did you approve Nature’s Bounty?” Simpson asked Gibson.
He responded that he remembered seeing it, but didn’t recall approving it.
Looking over the proposed moratorium, Simpson said, “The language is abominable.”
Simpson said that because the federal government has approved growing hemp it is legal for banking — that’s an issue for state’s like California that allow marijuana for medical and recreational use —people have to pay in cash at dispensaries.
Simpson added that it is no longer a schedule one drug, so that should no longer be a concern.
Then Simpson turned to the language in Measure B that allowed voters to determine if commercial cannabis could be grown in a county also included hemp. “I don’t recall it being in there,” she said.
Hagwood said that his point was that the voters didn’t want it.
Simpson went on to say that the federal government was okay with growing hemp and the county should have been considering hemp regulations in December.
Simpson also pointed out that Supervisors gave the sheriff’s office $100,000 for code enforcement and that should cover any concerns.
“Many, many of you are my friends,” Supervisor Sherrie Thrall said when it was her turn.
She said she’s not one for more rules and regulations, “But right now we don’t have any,” concerning hemp.
Supervisors didn’t have many meetings in December. “I feel bad we didn’t take a deeper look at it,” Thrall said.
“I wish we’d taken this up three months ago,” said Supervisor Kevin Goss.
He went on to say he thought he knew about hemp until he listened to people during the public hearing. He suggested that they wait a week to make their decision.
“I’m listening to the voters,” Supervisor Jeff Engel said. He’s not against CBD oil. He is against the kind of activities that the sheriff revealed. “When I first saw that in closed session I was pissed,” he said about the video of what the sheriff’s office and others found at the former Aquarius site.
“We’re here today to make a decision,” Sanchez said. He added that he was against Goss’ proposal to wait a week to decide.
Sanchez eventually went around the table again to discuss it. Goss withdrew a motion to wait one more week to make a decision.