Humboldt County Growers Alliance

Show Date: 
Monday, June 26, 2023

Tom Jackson:  Well, hi, everyone. I'm Tom Jackson, president of Cal Poly Humboldt, and I'm here again with my dearfriend and colleague, Dr. Keith Flamer, president of the College of the Redwoods. 

Keith Flamer: Hey, Tom. Good to see you, as always.

Tom Jackson: Good to see you. Sporting that C.R. gear as alway. 

Keith Flamer: I'm always advertising! 

Tom Jackson: Good luck with the advertising. You know, we have one of the best jobs in the world. We get to talk to so many different people in Humboldt County about the things they’re doing. And today we have a very special guest with us, the executive director of Humboldt County Growers Alliance, Natalynne DeLapp. Good to see you, Natalynne. 

Natalynne DeLapp: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Tom Jackson: Oh, we're glad you're here. How did you get into this business? 

Natalynne DeLapp: Well, you know, that's actually an interesting story. I came to Humboldt after graduating from community college. 

Keith Flamer: And which one?

Natalynne DeLapp: at Mira Costa Community College and down in Southern California , I then transferred to Humboldt State, now Cal Poly University to get a degree in environmental science with an emphasis on public policy.

I came in as a biologist, but always knew and understood advocacy because I understood that when I saw things that were wrong, we needed to do something about it and so wanted to take that into a policy perspective. I then had the opportunity of working with the Environmental Protection Information Center, which is a local environmental organization for eight years, and that is through the green rush.

So from 2009 to 2016, I was with that organization and really was part of the coalition of community members, environmentalists and cannabis industry, people that were saying there's a problem. This is an unregulated industry. It's having impacts on our environment, our society and on our community. And we need to do something about that. And that was part of the first cannabis land use ordinance development that happened after Governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Medical Marijuana Regulation Safety Act.

And so I participated in coalition with other environmental organizations to help draft the first Cannabis land use ordinance that was adopted in Humboldt County and was the first in the state of California. 

Tom Jackson: Well, that's there's a lot of change there. I want to ask a related question, though, because somewhere in the last few years, say since it became legal in the state, I'm guessing you've noticed some significant changes or challenges that are suddenly different than what you recall beforehand. Can you talk a little bit about a few of those? 

Natalynne DeLapp: Well, cannabis became legal with Proposition 215, which was passed by voters in 1996, which is called the Compassionate Use Act. And so that was for medical marijuana to be able to be given to patients. And so from 1996 until 2015, we had these laws, but there were no rules.

Like I said, Governor Brown signed into law the Medical Marijuana Regulation Safety Act in 2015. And then voters approved Proposition 64, which is the Adult Use Legalization Act. And so it's not that things all of a sudden went legal. We're talking about 25 years of history around cannabis cultivation across the state of California. What has happened, though, in the last eight years, you know, since late 2015, 2016, has been bringing a substantial amount of preexisting operations all across the state of California into compliance with local land use laws and in conformance with state laws.

And so in California, we have 58 counties, and I don't even know how many cities, but each one of them writes their own rules for how cannabis will be regulated in their jurisdictions. And then we've got the state rules on top of that. And so what has been created is very complicated. All cannabis operations do need to follow state laws like Sequoia, the California Environmental Quality Act, Clean Water Act, endangered Species rules.

And so all of these businesses, whether you're a cultivation operation or a manufacturer or in retail, are up against challenges of becoming permitted with their jurisdictions and receiving their state licenses. And so here in Humboldt, we had over 2300 people signed up and said and admitted that they were part of the 215 era and that they wanted the opportunity to become legal in Humboldt County's realm.

That was 2015, 2016. Here we are today in 2023, almost eight years later, and there has been a substantial reduction in total cannabis operations in the county. Back in 2015, they estimated that there were perhaps up to 15,000 individual growers around the county by maybe 6,000 to 8000 people. Today we have less than a thousand legal cannabis businesses, cannabis cultivation businesses.

And the sheriff estimates that there are fewer than 1000 illicit grows that remain. And so simple math, 2000 divided by 15,000 would show that we've had an 87% reduction in cannabis in this county over the last eight years. That has both positive benefits for the environment and for society, but it also has negative benefits for our economy. And so Humboldt County, Mendocino County, Trinity County, all of which are known as the Emerald Triangle because of the amount of production of cannabis that they're historically known for, are also suffering some of the greatest impacts to our rural economies the loss and sales tax revenue that are being felt in our rural areas that are not being felt in other parts of the state. And so, you know, there are a lot of benefits that can be said. You know, our hills are quieter. There's fewer people on the road. Our environment is been cleaned up. Our cannabis businesses are following HR laws. Everybody has workman's comp. You know, you're doing all all of the things that it means to be a real business in California.

But we've also lost a lot. And so we are seeing the impacts of that on our community that are dramatic. 

Keith Flamer: And so now you're really involved in the policy aspect of this business. And I imagine based on your schooling, you were taught to also look back and say, what could we have done better? So tell us, what could we have done better in the last eight years in terms of policy but also outcomes?

Natalynne DeLapp:  think that what I have learned in the last 12 years of doing policy is that it needs to be adaptive because things are not foreseen. There are always going to be blind spots that are unintended consequences. And so a very prime example is in Humboldt County. In 2015, the concept was out of the forest and onto the farms. This is now legal. We do not need to hide anymore. And so let's bring these farms out of these areas that are remote. They have a lot of sensitive species or wildlife or water issues. And let's bring them down into the sun, onto the flat land and onto agricultural lands. 

But what that did is it brought cannabis, which is and has been a prohibited plant that people have their preconceived notions about in Florida, into areas where it didn't used to exist.

And so there are areas around Carlotta and Hydesville in the Van Duzen River Valley, up in the Niland area, out in the Mattole River Valley honeydew area that didn't traditionally have cannabis and now did and now does. And so there are social impacts to that. 

Keith Flamer: So for, for example, what are the social impacts? 

Natalynne DeLapp: There are still people that do not want to see or smell cannabis in their neighborhoods.

And when I say neighborhoods, cannabis is only allowed on parcels greater than five acres. So we're not talking about residential development. We're talking about areas of our county where parcel sizes and homesteads are a minimum of five acres, and most of them are over ten acres. So these are not cannabis operations in neighborhoods. These are cannabis operations in very rural, large parcel parts of our county.

Tom Jackson: We're here today with the executive director of Humboldt County Growers Alliance, Natalynne DeLapp. This is fascinating. So far I'm learning more about the industry or the side parts of the industry that I didn't really know existed in. And, you know, one of our alums, Cal Poly, Humboldt, and, you know, we're starting a cannabis degree. It's in fact, it starts this fall semester.

In your mind, what are some of the things a student who wants to pursue this degree? What do they really need to be thinking about before they, or as they're coming into the university? 

Natalynnn DeLapp: You know, I think it's really incredible that Cal Poly is branching out in this way. And, you know, I think of a university like Davis that has a viticulture program here in Humboldt.

We are known for cannabis. And so to develop a cannabis degree is part of that heritage is part of that history. I do think that there's a big opportunity for people with this type of education that I believe is going to be developed to work within the agencies that are these regulatory structures to have that knowledge of, ‘What does it mean to be from a ‘cultivation region’, and then how to incorporate the history, the culture into the regulatory process.

We are still not out of prohibition. We are still talking about a Schedule 1 controlled substance, according to the Federal Government. I do not foresee that changing in the next 1 to 2 years. I could be wrong, but I ... I don't see that on the immediate horizon. So we are talking about what will eventually become what a multi-decade unwinding of prohibition when alcohol prohibition ended, iit didn't end overnight. We it took decades to normalize alcohol back in, develop the regulatory structures. I mean, alcohol wasn't even allowed to be shipped across state lines. Winemakers were not allowed to sell their ssmall-batchwinery production from California to New York until the 2000s, 70 years after the end of prohibition. And so it's not like a light switch.

Something sometimes things happen in policies changing. It's like a light switch. You know, same-sexmarriage, you know, one day it was not legal and then the next day it was. Cannabis prohibition is not that way so we need another generation of people to carry the baton to take on advocacy roles, to take on regulatory roles, to take on roles within policy, with policy staff, with, you know, legislators to help educate much the same way I have for the last 15 years, but also say I'm getting tired and we need another generation of people who are optimistic, who believe that change can happen and want to put their best foot forward. 

Tom Jackson: I'm guessing, too, there's a there's other markets that are now competitors to the cannabis industry, or the evolution of cannabis, from call it tobacco to other products that are freely available on the market.

Where else do you see some of the trends leading us going forward? 

Natalynne DeLapp: I think that agriculture in general in America is seen as big agriculture. It is a commodity and it's run through corporate, corporate, it's corporatized, it is efficient and it's, you know, fastest to market. And there's a lot of competition. What we have here in Humboldt County as well as in our areas like the Emerald Triangle, Mendocino and Trinity is a craft product.

We're talking about a farmers' market product, not a commercial product. And so I always use the example of like an heirloom tomato grown by our small family farms. Those tomatoes have a better flavor smell. They're fresher and they are probably more nutritious when it's grown in large batches. You're using pesticides, herbicides, it's tilled, it's done as efficiently as possible to give the people access to the cheapest product possible.

We're not trying to build and we are not willing to compete in a commodity market because we are not commodity cannabis. We are growing on such a small scale agriculturally here in Humboldt, we do not allow farms greater than eight acres and in fact less than 2% of all cannabis farms in Humboldt County are greater than one acre in between acres.

So 19 - we have 19 farms - that are between one acre and eight acres. When we think of agriculture, we're talking about hundreds of acres of cultivation, and that's what we're seeing in the southern parts of our state in Lake County, Salinas, Monterey, Santa Barbara, where they're growing cannabis at scale, we're talking 10, 50, 150 acres of commercial production. 

Keith Flamer: So how can we compete? How can our small farmers really compete with the big corporate system? 

Natalynne DeLapp: We can't. We can't compete. And just like our Shake Fork community farm down Highway 36 is not trained to compete with, you know, organic lettuce. You know what we're looking for are customers and consumers who are looking for an artisanal product. 

Keith Flamer: Understood. 

Natalynne DeLapp: And so that is where that value will be. But what we need is access to our customers. What California created broke this supply chain between farmer and consumer. We have to go through licensed distribution, licensed retail, and then the consumer buys it from a licensed retailer. Our farmers who are producing this product don't know who their customer is right? 

Keith Flamer: I understand. Yeah. 

Natalynne DeLapp: And so one of the things that we are working on is Humboldt County Growers Alliance. We work in partnership with another organization called Origins Council, and that is our statewide trade association. And we are sponsoring legislation with Assembly member Pellerin out of the Monterey area for farmer-direct sales at events. So it's just like a farmer's market, a farmer's market-style event. All right. So we are cautiously optimistic that we can get this piece of legislation across the line.

We've already tried twice before in 2018 and last year, both times it was opposed and we could not get that. We need farmer-direct sales. So that is also why we're working with Congressman Huffman. We have sponsored legislation with him called the SHIP Act, which, when federal legalization happens, we are seeking to include the ship act within that legalization language that would allow farmer-direct sales to customers across state lines. 

And so we know that there's people who want craft sun-grown cannabis that's grown with environmental stewardship by small family farms, but we just don't have access to those markets yet. 

Tom Jackson: Similar to wine?

Natalynne DeLapp: Similar to wine. 

Keith Flamer: I see. So what's what's the rationale for the opposition to what you're proposing on the state level? 

Natalynn DeLapp: The opposition historically came from monopolistic retailers in Southern California that frankly want to control the access to consumers.

Keith Flamer: So it's really strictly based on business model.

Natalynne DeLapp: Business model, yes. But there are there's not enough retail in California still, because of local control, 68% of the state does not have legal access to cannabis retail. 

Keith Flamer: You said 68%

Natalynne DeLapp: 68% of the state. So even though Proposition 64 was passed by almost 60% of voters, 68% of people still can't access it in their hometown.

Tom Jackson: I didn't know that. That's interesting. So now, all in all the challenges I'm hearing, certainly (laughs) are challenging in many respects. If you had a magic wand and could isolate one or two of those, if you could just wave it and help rejuvenate the industry in a way that we could have it thriving in Humboldt County, what would you do? How would what would how would you use that magic wand? 

Natalynne DeLapp: I always say I want to rule the world, but, you know, you just put me on the spot. That's the part that gets cut. (Laughter)

Keith Flamer: That's the part we're going to leave in. (Laughter)

Natalynne DeLapp: Unfortunately, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. And so California said, and voters of Prop 64 said, that cultivation would be restricted and that there would be no grows greater than one acre. That policy was surreptitiously removed at the 11th hour due to political reasons, which is what has unleashed these really large-scale operations.

What I would like to see is that the legacy-producing regions of the state are given the opportunity to have access to market, have access to their customers, have access to their two retail. We need streamlined regulations. And I know and I'll say this as an environmentalist, whenever an industry group says we need to streamline regulations like your hair, like you flinch, like, no, but we could do things in a much smoother way from a regulatory standpoint.

An example of a simple policy that should change is every single plant that is grown has to be tagged with this track and trace tag every single plant. That's not necessary. You can do this in a way that still ensures that the state understands where these plants came from without having extremely onerous tracking that make it very difficult for a small family farm to be able to have the time to both cultivate their plant, run their businesses, support their families, or tag all their plants, remain compliant, stay up to date with every single regulation that they have to.

And so these small farms have so much that they have to do. And I see all of them now have a graduate degree and compliant regulations because they're in it for six years now. They are the people who are left are the smartest, the most resilient, and possibly the most stubborn individuals remaining. And they really do care about this place and they want to make it work, but they just need to be enabled through our regulatory structures, through the state, and opened up access to markets.

Keith Flamer: So it sounds as though that you just described yourself,  just just a little bit. 

Natalynne DeLapp: Just a little bit. Just a little bit stubborn and resilient. Persistent. 

Keith Flamer: So you did. Okay, I see. So we have talked a lot today about the influence of corporate business versus the small farmer. How can we help our small farmers thrive in the future?

Natalynne DeLapp: So here in Humboldt County, there is something that I do want people to be aware of. It is a citizen initiative called the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative. This is was new regulation and legislation that was written by a small group of people here in the county that would completely amend Humboldt County's general plan and our two cannabis land use ordinances, as well as our local coastal development plan.

So this HCRI was put forward and, people may have heard about it last year, was going to protect small farmers. This is a 38-page policy document that will have negative impacts on cannabis businesses and cannabis farms of every size in the county. It is scheduled to go to voters in March 2024. And so I really encourage people, if they're starting to hear about this, it's still called the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative.

At some point in time, it will be it'll be given a letter if this is going to continue moving forward, which I do believe it will be on the ballot on March 5th, 2024 to please educate yourself. Voting is a responsibility. Having an educated population about the causes and impacts of our yes-or- no vote is very important.

And please make sure that you're aware that there is this initiative that is going to likely be on the ballot and that it will harm farmers. It's not good for Humboldt and it's not good for the environment. This is not a fence-setting issue because it will go to voters and it's binary. Yes or no, it's black or white.

The document can't be changed. It's not like legislation where it's opposed unless amended. We don't have that opportunity. This thing is written, it's in stone. And if it is approved by voters, it cannot be changed without going back to voters, which policy needs to be adaptive? It needs to be flexible. We don't know what the future holds with federal legalization.

So we need our county ordinances to remain fluid. And as the state changes everything, it's we're still in this fluid area. We cannot lock it in cement. 

Keith Flamer: So I talked to a lot of students that are just out of high school. No idea what they want to do, but they do want to get into the cannabis business.

No, no, no idea what part of that business that that they want to be part of. What would you advise a student to do, knowing what's happening in the future, knowing that growing may not be the best business, but but there's also other pieces. 

Natalynne DeLapp: I think a well-rounded liberal arts degree would be very helpful. So cannabis could and should be one part of it, if that's what they're interested in. But definitely study science, study business, study, marketing, study communications, study policy, and that will make a well-rounded individual that has the adaptability and the flexibility that's going to be necessary for a changing job market. We don't know what cannabis business is going to look like in California in the next few years. I do believe we are on the pathway toward federal legalization, but like I said, it could be five years down the road.

It could be ten. It could be next week. I don't know. So keep it is one part of the portfolio. You know, don't put all your eggs in one basket. Do what you love. But also if you're really into plants. Study agriculture, take botany classes, make sure that you're familiar with soils. Because if it's not going to be cannabis, there's going to be other pathways and other job opportunities that will support that person's interests.

Natalynne DeLapp: Thank you. I've been giving that a long fight since and since the last time we spoke years ago. I'm trying to think how CR can get involved with that. So thank you for that.

Natalynne DeLapp: I mean, your agricultural program is very reputable. So, you know, having people and kids, students out with their hands in the soil is really important, which they are, which they do every single day. Thank you. 

Tom Jackson: Hands-on learning. The executive director of Humboldt County Growers Alliance, Natalynne DeLapp,, thank you so much for your time today and for sharing information about the industry. 

Keith Flamer: I have learned a lot, so thank you so much.