The vineyard’s owners faced an unenviable choice. Farming their land in California’s Santa Barbara County, home to cool, moist Pacific air, they could spray their growing Chardonnay crop with a fungicide that would protect it from mildew. But that raised the risk the chemical could drift onto their new neighbor’s burgeoning crop of cannabis. Any trace of spray would render the cannabis unsaleable, and the vineyard owners would be liable for the lost crop, potentially owing millions of dollars.
The vintners, who asked not to be identified, opted to spray a less effective fungicide. When harvest arrived, they were stuck with 35 acres of Chardonnay they couldn’t use due to unchecked mildew.
When California’s Proposition 64 passed in 2016, legalizing the recreational use of cannabis, many vintners worried that it would creep into their neighborhoods and even take away customers. Three years later, some have had their fears confirmed, while others have seen little impact. Only half the counties within the state allow commercial cannabis farming. Napa County’s local government, for example, has instituted a ban on commercial cultivation for now. But several other wine regions are grappling with how the new cash crop is impacting vineyards.
The change is most acutely felt in Santa Barbara, due to permissive regulations. “Santa Barbara County is experiencing significant and unexpected challenges with cannabis cultivation,” said Alison Laslett, CEO for Santa Barbara Vintners. She is worried about safeguarding a nearly $2 billion local wine industry.
A patchwork system
The intent of Proposition 64 was to give small growers a head start by issuing temporary licenses to grow (the proposition banned licenses for parcels larger than 1 acre until 2023). California then left it up to local officials to decide how to regulate cannabis production and sales.
Cannabis farming coexists with grapes and other crops in counties such as Monterey and Mendocino, without significant disputes. But other counties have opted to ban all commercial cannabis activities. (Under the state law, residents are still allowed to grow up to six plants for personal use in unincorporated areas.)
Santa Barbara County has adopted some of the most lenient regulations for commercial growth in the state, leading to an influx in cannabis farms. The region, not previously known for cannabis, has issued 843 active growing permits. By comparison, Humboldt County, known for its cannabis culture even before legalization, has issued 653 permits.
Santa Barbara vintners are already