Potheads playing politics A grassroots organization to legitimize outdoor Big Sur farms is gaining steam

By Joe Livernois

They gathered in the hall, soiled and sweaty after a full day on their farms. The Lab in the Barnyard Shopping Center near Carmel is an arts center, but this evening it serves as their modern-age Grange Hall. The Grange movement was founded more than 150 years ago to advance methods of agriculture and to promote the social and economic needs of America’s farmers. But these folks don’t traffic in traditional agricultural commodities. They are the Big Sur Farmers Association, a nonprofit “mutual benefit corporation,” and they grow marijuana.

There’s a sort of uncertain excitement about this group. They’ve spent decades toiling, quietly and underground, in the backwoods. Their strains have developed rabid fans of users, both recreational and medical. They survived the silly decades-long war with the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, or CAMP, a multi-agency police operation with an air force and agents who delighted in burning their crops. They’ve been raising families, shopping locally, working under the canopy and fulfilling a demand. And soon their farms could be formalized as tax-paying legal operations — as long as they don’t botch up their probation.

“We’ve got generations of growers who represent the history of Big Sur,” said Ondine Gorton, secretary-treasurer of the farmers association. There’s a legacy out there; one farmer who started growing in the Palo Colorado region in the ‘70s is now in his 70s. The growers are ready to come out from the under the shadows. They’re seeking legitimacy, Gorton says. “They all want to be able to put their money in the bank someday,” she says.

“Much like how microbreweries and small wineries in Napa provide a product that is markedly distinct from large-scale produced alcohol products, sun-grown cannabis will have a different price point and serve a different clientele from mass-produced cannabis.”

On July 10, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to approve a “pilot program” for their outdoor grow operations. The program will give the Big Sur growers a chance to prove they can abide by the rules and the restrictions. It’s an opportunity they are eager to embrace.

The pilot program proposal represents new life for Big Sur farmers. Less than two years ago, lured by the prospects of a new taxing source, Monterey County officials jumped aboard Proposition 64, which allowed counties to grant permits for cannabis grow operations. However, the new county ordinances expressly excluded outdoor farms, requiring that all commercial cannabis farms be indoor operations. Big-money operators — including a good number of regular local farmers and hospitality industry heavyweights, savvy attorneys and private investors — snatched up what was left of the flower-growing greenhouses and secured county permits to develop basic strains of cannabis.

It all happened fast, and Big Sur growers were left behind. They didn’t think it was fair, and it probably wasn’t. They’ve been around for decades, developing products with an international reputation. They’ve acquired deep knowledge about how natural soil conditions, watering needs and climate impact their buds. They are like botanists, with a very specific specialization. More important, they’ve been supporting their families with their crops for many years. But when they finally had the chance to come out from under the shadows, they got bowled over by big-city interests.

So they organized, forming the Big Sur Farmers Association. And they’re trying to figure out how to play local politics, how to navigate the county system. It’s all new for them. They spend a lot of time at the county courthouse, talking to county supervisors, county officials and coastal commissioners. They’ve secured a land-use attorney. Gorton said they’ve been showing up at meetings for the past two years, whenever cannabis was on the agenda, even when Big Sur cannabis wasn’t. “We wanted to make sure everyone knew we were around,” Gorton said.

About two dozen farmers filtered in to The Lab on June 20 for the monthly association meeting. The association represents about 40 farmers from Big Sur and the mountains above Carmel Valley; several other non-farmers who support the cause are also members.

The group spent the first hour visiting with one another, swapping warm hugs and family news and sharing pizza, while Gorton and Oliver Bates huddled in a corner, coming up with an agenda for the evening. Bates is the chairman of the BSFA board and a grower seeking formal county recognition.

Big Sur cannabis farmers are pushing a “Santa Lucia appellation” to promote their product.

A grower with an unkempt Mohawk — blame the ball cap he’s been wearing all day — told me that law enforcement is still sending up helicopters over back-country farms. He said he looks forward to getting legal so he doesn’t have to worry about them anymore.

Bates finally calls the meeting to order. He runs a rather loose meeting. Gorton keeps things on track. Bates announces that the primary order of business is the upcoming Board of Supervisors meeting.

The association brass has come up with a no-BS strategy for the Board of Supervisors, with very specific targeted messaging. It’ll be the best chance that farmers will get to present their proposal in a public setting, and Gorton doesn’t want supervisors flooded with a long line of supportive speakers, especially if they’re redundant or if they ramble off topic. (Editor’s note: It’s a good strategy, a strategy that would certainly benefit other grassroots organizers who hope to impress local councils and boards.)

In any case, the supervisors’ meeting could make or break Big Sur farmers as they push for formal legitimacy.

“We believe, hope and pray that our window is July 10,” said Bates.

County officials acknowledged that they were initially skeptical about sanctioning outdoor cultivators. A county report released last month indicated that Monterey County Resource Management Agency officials consulted with their counterparts in other counties that had allowed outdoor grows — places like Humboldt and Butte counties. Those officials said they experienced a “myriad of struggles” trying to enforce environmental damage and plant limits.

Circumstances have since changed, according to the report, mainly because enforcement policies have evolved and improved.

The supervisors’ meeting could make or break Big Sur farmers as they push for formal legitimacy.

Brandon Swanson, the representative from the county’s Resource Management Agency assigned to the pilot program proposal, did not respond to efforts by Voices of Monterey Bay to seek comment on the proposal.

The Big Sur Farmer’s Association is proposing small-scale, limited farms as a pilot program to prove “effectiveness, safety and success.”

The group says it would like to promote “legacy farms” in the hills of Big Sur, including the backcountry behind Carmel Valley. “This pilot program will eliminate much of the danger associated with new development, shrink the black market and create new tax revenue,” according to the proposal.

The result would be “small scale, artisanal and boutique farms” that will serve a more refined market. “Much like how microbreweries and small wineries in Napa provide a product that is markedly distinct from large-scale produced alcohol products, sun grown cannabis will have a different price point and serve a different clientele from mass-produced cannabis.”

In fact, Big Sur farmers are promoting a “Santa Lucia appellation” to promote their product. They say they believe the appellation will improve the status of cannabis for the entire county.

Back at The Lab in the Barnyard, members of the Big Sur Farmers Association listen attentively while Bates and Gorton explain what’s at stake on July 10.

Gorton tells association members she’s confident the Big Sur proposal will get the three votes they need for approval. A couple of weeks earlier, a group from BSFA brought their proposal to a county advisory committee created not long ago to review cannabis proposals. The advisory committee members included Supervisor Luis Alejo, chairman of the board, and Supervisor John Phillips, a former county judge. Gorton said that meeting went better than expected. An attorney who represents the power brokers in the Salinas Valley cannabis industry even expressed support for their proposal.

The big question, assuming the pilot program is approved, will be how many farms supervisors will allow.

This is all new to everybody, Gorton said, after the meeting. It’s new to us and it’s new to the county. The Big Sur farmers are learning how county processes work, while county officials are learning the horticultural science and economics of cannabis.

Letter: Concern over cannabis grows in Big Sur
Qualified Big Sur growers not on public lands

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Joe Livernois

About Joe Livernois

Joe Livernois has been a reporter, editor and columnist in Monterey County for 35 years.