The Heart of Dankness
A long–simmering conflict over cannabis odor and pesticide use continues in Carpinteria
Smell, What Smell?
On a recent afternoon, Hans Brand steers his electric golf cart-type vehicle from the main office of his Carpinteria cannabis farm to a sprawling greenhouse that seems big enough to fit a football field inside it. Inside the structure, at any given moment, Brand’s farm, Autumn Brands – the moniker is a mashup of his family’s name as well as co-owner Autumn Shelton‘s – is growing thousands of marijuana plants in various steps of development. Because of the gentle climate and some basic technological innovations, Brand is able to churn out six cannabis harvests per year whereas most outdoor grows are limited to one or two annual growing cycles.
Autumn Brands is easily one of the largest marijuana farms in California, and yet it isn’t until we step inside the greenhouse that I notice the infamous scent – many Carpinteria residents would call it an odiferous stench – of flowering cannabis. Brand proudly points to a large airduct that surrounds the greenhouse like a curtain; it is pumping air mixed with essential oils that counteract the smell of the cannabis terpenes inside. “With that system, you can’t smell a thing outside,” he tells me.
Inside the greenhouse are row after row of tiny plants called clones; once the clones begin to take root, the farm must tag and track each plant as it processes through different growing stages using a state-mandated track and trace system called METRC. The farm must account for any plants that fail to grow or are damaged before reaching the flowering phase, when they are removed from non-stop light and subjected to light-deprivation, which mimics the change from summer to autumn and tricks the plants into flowering.
“Every plant gets a tag and as it moves through the greenhouse we can always track where it’s been all the way back to the mother plant,” Brand says. “When the plant is four or five months old, we move it to the greenhouse to flower with 18 hours of light. Only plants that reach this flowering phase will eventually be reported to and taxed by the state. We move the 500 plants onto the manifest, and within three days we must have an individual blue METRC tag on each plant. The tag stays with the plant for its whole life,” Brand continues, “so if a plant dies in the greenhouse we have to take that number and tell the state this plant died. We take it out of rotation to destroy it, but we have to hold it for a week so if they want, the state can come and look at it.”
Autumn Brands is an industry leader when it comes to not just mitigating odor and responsibly tracking its plants, but also in terms of basic crop-growing efficiency. A nearly invisible watering system brings just enough moisture to the soil of each plant; there are no sprayers, so the greenhouse is the opposite of humid. And although there are several fans placed around the greenhouse, none of them are turned on. “Some growers insist that cannabis plants need to have all this wind to grow, but that’s not true,” Brand insists. “These plants are really remarkably easy to grow.”
Inside a nearby warehouse, recently harvested plants are set aside to dry, a process that removes most of the plants’ actual weight. Once separated from their stalks, the trim-ready buds are dumped into large plastic bins, then weighed and distributed to one of 18 surgical mask and glove wearing Latina wowen who busily trim the flowers with identical pink scissors. Music is blasting and the women snip away at a rapid clip; large, well-manicured buds are packaged as individual eighths of an ounce, the smaller buds are set aside to be rolled into pre-rolled joints that are also produced onsite.
Every last speck of weight must be accounted for, so there are security cameras in the trimming room and a full-time employee who keeps measure with a scale. “Everything starts with him and comes back to him,” Brand explains. “It has to be the same weight or else you have a problem.” Each trimmer has a two-week goal; if they exceed it, they receive a two-week raise. Everyone can do it fast, but we also care about quality.”
Brand tells me that the remaining marijuana trim is sold to a third party which then produces it into vaping extracts. Thanks to the ongoing controversy over vaping-related respiratory illness caused by additives used by unscrupulous manufacturers to dilute the extract, vape cartridges are just a small fraction of the farm’s market. In fact, the lack of onsite oil extraction at Autumn Brands may well explain why, despite its vastness, unlike other greenhouse operations in Carpinteria, the farm simply doesn’t emit the dank odor that has elsewhere descended upon the town.
The Green Zone
The intensity of the controversy over Carpinteria’s cannabis odor is explained by the fact that while the city has no cannabis farms within its limits, the town is surrounded by unincorporated county land that used to be used for growing mostly avocados and flowers. Driving around town, you can tell the city limits block by block; on one side of the street are houses, schools, cemeteries, and the like; on the other are the ubiquitous greenhouses which are often built right up to the curb. Some of the houses were built after the nearby greenhouses – but while those buildings were still being used to grow tulips or orchids rather than cannabis.
My first visit to Carpinteria was on a Friday afternoon a month ago, when my son’s Santa Barbara High School played an away game at Carpinteria High School. Driving into town I could smell marijuana here and there, but not nearly as strongly as when I watched him play. The dank odor of marijuana was nearly overpowering, which wasn’t surprising given that the school is bordered on one side by greenhouses. That said, none of the kids playing on the courts or the nearby softball field seemed to notice, and neither did any of the parents milling about mention it.
Some Carpinteria residents are so fed up with the smell that they formed a group called Concerned Carpinterians to lobby the county to do more to regulate the cannabis industry surrounding their town. The group’s main tactic is urging residents to call in their odor complaints or suspicions of illegal activity to the responsible county officials and writing open letters to newspapers decrying First District Supervisor Das Williams for cozying up to cannabis interests, exposing the fact he took in $62,000 in campaign contributions from the industry last year alone.
And on February 27, three residents, Gregory and Marllus Gandrud and Paul Ekstrom, representing the Santa Barbara County Coalition for Responsible Cannabis filed a class action lawsuit against four marijuana farms, Ever-Bloom, Ednigma, Melodious Plots, and Saga Farms. The complaint alleges that the home of one of the plaintiffs is located just 100 feet away from one of the defendants’ farms, making life there intolerable and the house impossible to sell. Interestingly, the plaintiffs claim they are not anti-cannabis ideologues and all they want is for the farms to live up to their responsibility as good corporate neighbors by either sealing their greenhouses or implementing “carbon-based filtration methods so that no odors or chemicals from the vapor-phase systems” intrude on their property. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, they have “focused on lining their own pockets with unimaginable profits from this modern-day cash crop.”
A few weeks after my first visit to Carpinteria, I toured the area with Peter Dugre, a spokesperson for CARP Growers Association which was formed two years ago and represents farm operations such as Autumn Brands that are working hard to minimize odor, follow all state laws and regulations, make frequent charitable donations to the community and pay decent wages to their workers. According to Dugre, CARP Growers represents some 12 farms and other companies, or what he roughly estimates as 80 percent of the cannabis producers in the area.
As we drove around town, Dugre pointed to greenhouses being used to grow cannabis that were interspersed with those growing other plants, including avocados; several farmers including Hans Brand also grow both cannabis and avocados. Passing by certain farms, even those utilizing seemingly the same odor neutralization technology as Autumn Brands, one could still clearly smell the cannabis. But the odor wasn’t particularly strong and in most cases seemed confined to the immediate area surrounding any particular farm.
“CARP Growers was formed by a core group of farms and from the start, the goal has been to lead by example, set best farming practices and establish ourselves as the best of the best,” Dugre tells me. “Some folks choose not to be members; it’s voluntary, like the chamber of commerce.” That said, potential members are subject to a vote by the group’s board of directors. “They have to qualify through our membership process,” Dugre continues. “First and foremost is compliance with every state and local code. If someone isn’t meeting the standards of best practices, then they won’t get the vote.”
The group’s mission took a substantial publicity hit last month when one of its founders, Barry Brand, who owns Arroyo Verde Farms, was raided by Santa Barbara County’s cannabis task force; sheriff’s deputies didn’t arrest Brand but cited him for a misdemeanor and confiscated 100 gallons of illegal cannabis oil extract from his property.
“Barry Brand was one of the founding members [of CARP Growers] but whatever licensing irregularity that went on there, disqualified him and he voluntarily stepped away from his membership,” says Dugre. “It seems to be an example of how strict cannabis rules are. You can’t mess around. If he was growing flowers on that farm, nobody would be over there inspecting where every piece of the product is, but in cannabis farming you have to expect a member of state or local law enforcement to show up at any time.”
Green vs Green
The close proximity of so many avocado and cannabis crops has posed a major problem for avocado farmers in Carpinteria because the state tests cannabis contamination down to parts per billion and avocados, while not requiring as much pesticides as certain crops, are typically subjected to aerial spraying by helicopters. But last year, the two Oxnard-based companies that perform aerial spraying for avocado orchards refused to do so out of fear of the liability that would arise should the pesticides drift into nearby cannabis farms.
On May 16, 2019, CARP Growers sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors essentially offering to indemnify the companies of any liability. The letter stated that after a test was performed with a helicopter spraying water from the air, the cannabis community “agreed to explicitly hold applicators harmless for potential drift of pesticides” and that should any cannabis test positive for pesticides, “no legal action would be taken against pesticide applicators for product loss.” According to Dugre, the potential deal fell victim to an endless back and forth between lawyers and insurance companies and ultimately went nowhere. “Some people still manage to get around this and spray,” he says, “but to my knowledge the helicopter spraying didn’t happen last year.”
Typically, a chemical product called Agri-Mek with the active ingredient Abamectin would be used to spray avocados. With that no longer viable, farmers can choose between two organic alternatives: Entrust, whose active ingredient is Spinosad, or PyGanic. But farmers and sprayers consider these products generally less effective, meaning they would be have to be applied more frequently to have any noticeable impact on the crop.
Avocado farmer Scott Van Der Kar has been vocal in his criticism of cannabis farms but has a nuanced position when it comes to pesticides. “I kind of bristle when people talk about pesticides because the real problem is that the greenhouses were built 40 and 50 years ago and were built for flowers,” he explains. “Now they have been allowed to convert to cannabis, which has completely different impacts, and that is the crux of the issue.”
When it comes to pesticide drift, Van Der Kar agrees with what Dugre told me, which is that there hasn’t been a single documented case of that ever happening in Carpinteria. Yet despite this, and despite the fact that his farm, which also grows lemons and cherimoyas, doesn’t actually border a cannabis farm, he is still limited on what he can spray on his trees. “We are having to spray materials that require multiple sprays rather than once a year,” he complains. “Is four times with one pesticide better than one time with another?”
Van Der Kar also claims that despite the cannabis industry’s anti-pesticide stance, many farms do use organic sprays which can still be toxic to certain organisms, as opposed to simply populating the harvest with aphid-eating ladybugs, which is what I observed at Autumn Brands, for example. Van Der Kar says he used to see Barry Brand at meetings regarding pesticides and that Brand had always insisted he was following the rules.
“Here’s a guy I’ve known for years and have done business with,” Van Der Kar points out. “It’s a perfect example of the dangers of taking people by their word, which is what the cannabis industry wants. It gives them an opportunity to get a permit, but there’s a bad element, and this is what happens when regulations are enforced based on taking peoples’ word on what later turns out to be false.”