MENDOCINO Co., 3/23/21 — Mendocino County has opened a “request for proposals” (RFP) for farmers to participate in the county’s two year industrial hemp cultivation pilot program as of March 15. The application window will close on March 26, and up to five initial applicants will be selected for the initial program, although so far none have applied. Today, Elizabeth Garcia from the county’s Agriculture Department provided an overview of the program at the regular Board of Supervisors meeting, and the supervisors unanimously approved proceeding with the pilot program (agenda documents here).
The county’s proposed pilot program for industrial hemp cultivation will select up to five farmers by April 5, Garcia explained to the supervisors, and the program will run for two years. Selected applicants will be chosen by a number of weighted criteria, including distance from permitted cannabis farms, water use, integrated pest management plans, pollen plans, site maps, and more (see full RFP here).
Selected participants will be required to register with the California Department of Food & Agriculture and pay a $900 registration fee, and potentially some additional related fees — the county application fee will be waived for the first year. Applicants will be selected by a review panel including two supervisors, selected as Glenn McGourty and Maureen Mulheren, and the University of California Extension, and will be selected by a weighted score using the established criteria. So far no prospective farmers have submitted proposals, Garcia told the board.
An industrial hemp program was first considered in February of 2019, once the crop had been approved for legal cultivation on the state and federal levels, but was initially delayed by the previous Board of Supervisors — at least in part due to concerns about the potential impact of hemp cultivation on the county’s permitted cannabis farms.
Some cultivators have expressed concerns, specifically that pollen drift from hemp farms could damage existing commercial cannabis gardens, and during today’s discussion, several supervisors raised questions about the use of staff time and water for the pilot program. In the proposed program, distance from permitted cultivation sites, pest and pollen management, and water usage are all considered weighted factors in selecting applicants, Garcia told the board today. In addition, regulations state that commercial cannabis and industrial hemp can not be cultivated at the same site, and the program will require clones purchased from certified nurseries.
The supervisors voted unanimously in favor of the program after establishing that McGourty, who has participated in the program’s development, and Mulheren, in lieu of executive office staff, would sit on the selection panel. Supervisors and commenters said they believed that participants would be more likely to grow hemp for CBD products, as opposed to fiber uses, which would require a different business plan than farmers planning other hemp-based retail products such as cloth or paper. Hemp can be grown in all zones in which row crops are allowed, which is all zones in the county, although the Coastal Commission has not approved the program in the coastal zone.
Prior to approving the program, Supervisor Haschak, who represents District 3, asked whether his district could opt out of the program, and public commenter Monique Ramirez, a permitted cannabis cultivator representing the Covelo Cannabis Advocacy Group, requested that tribal governments be involved in any site located near tribal lands, as is the case with cannabis cultivation, and noted that the Round Valley municipal advisory council had expressed opposition to the program when it was proposed. Ramirez also stated her concern that identifying possible pollen can be “very challenging,” as it “can be just one branch per plant.”
In response to a question from Supervisor Mulheren, Garicia noted that the Ag Department had planned four annual visits to collect samples from the pilot farms, which she said was within staff capacity although distance from Ukiah was not a factor in the proposal selection process.
There is no acreage cap in the proposed program, but a minimum of 1/10 of an acre, and Garcia said she anticipated farmers would scale up slowly over the course of the program. Supervisors Williams and McGourty both noted that Oregon hemp farmers had experienced issues with market gluts, but McGourty said he did not anticipate that as an issue for pilot program participants due to the need for a business plan in the RFP.
How the commercial cannabis and industrial hemp industries in the county could overlap or conflict came up repeatedly, with Williams saying that he felt the farmers and ranchers that previously expressed interest in the program were in fact largely interested because applications to the commercial cannabis cultivation program were closed.
Two public speakers, Devon Jones of the Farm Bureau and Ron Edwards, spoke in favor of the program’s future potential for the county, with Edwards saying the comparatively simple regulatory process and code requirements, banking options, and federal legality could assist with research and outreach for the county’s commercial cannabis industry. McGourty noted that these legal protections would also allow industrial hemp farmers access to crop insurance and other mechanisms assisting traditional ag that are not available to many commercial cannabis farmers. It was unclear whether the final product would be taxed by the county and how.