Tony Linegar was hired as Mendo’s Assistant Ag Commissioner in 2001. He became Mendo’s Ag Commissioner in 2009 when long time Mendo Ag Commissioner Dave Bengston retired, and stayed until 2012 when he took a job to the south as Ag Commissioner in Sonoma County. (Coincidentally, Linegar left not long after Supervisor McCowen was elected and Carmel Angelo took over as County CEO.) We always kinda liked Linegar as Ag Commissioners go because, like his predecessor Dave Bengston, he was fair-minded and returned phone calls.
Upon retirement, Linegar is moving to Hawaii which was the occasion of an interview Linegar did with Press Democrat reporter Bill Swindell on Friday which we doubt many Mendolanders noticed. Linegar still maintains a home in Willits and the interview addressed several issues which are relevant to Mendo as well as Sonoma County. Among other things, Linegar developed Sonoma County’s cannabis regulation regime which, in Sonoma County, is administered out of his Ag Commissioner’s office.
Some excerpts (with annotations):
Linegar: “We came out of the gate with a pretty conservative [cannabis regulation] policy and fairly restrictive. I feel like now the pendulum has swung in the other direction. The permitting program for cannabis use permits has been slow. It’s a cumbersome process. I think the Board of Supervisors is interested in figuring out a way of expediting the permitting of cannabis projects. They are looking at ways to make permits ministerial similar to the vineyard permits we issue — what we call an over-the-counter permit.” … “I see properties in less residential areas that will be the ones we encourage for more cannabis production. I can see raising the cap — it’s currently at 1 acre per parcel [Mendo allows a max of only 10,000 square feet per parcel, less than a quarter of what Sonoma County allows; much more restrictive, and Linegar calls the one-acre limit in Sonoma County “conservative” and “fairly restrictive”] — that have less neighborhood compatibility issues. Also, we will make more permits over the counter.”
ms note: No one in Mendo has ever mentioned “over the counter” pot permits where an applicant simply comes in with his zoning approval and his state signoffs and gets his permit.)
Linegar: “We already have had some [growers] in conventional agriculture who have become interested in cannabis. It’s still a little bit taboo in the ag industry to support cannabis. A lot of folks in the ag industry are conservative in their values by nature. Now, with the wine grapes at the place they’re in [the current glut], I’m hearing a lot more interest. You could see vines come out for cannabis — absolutely.”
ms note: No grape grower in Mendo has ever (publicly) mentioned pulling out grapevines and planting cannabis. Nor would they, given Mendo’s cockamamie pot permitting program.
Linegar: “Everybody has made a huge deal out of water and how much cannabis uses. But look at the return on your investment for every gallon of water you use to produce that product.” (PD reporter Swindell: “Linegar’s office estimated last year the value of local cannabis yield equals about $5.9 million per acre, far outpacing the almost $13,000 average per-acre value of wine grapes.”)
Linegar: “…If you look at it from that perspective, you can have less land in production, and use so much less water, and produce exponentially greater gross value. I have to think we have to start looking at it that way. If you are looking at grape growers, they are looking at how do I keep my land in agriculture? I really think that over time we are going to start looking at cannabis as agriculture, as it should have been looked at from the beginning.”
ms note: Pot as a way to keep ag land in ag? And all this time the grape growers were saying they were the saviors of ag land.
Linegar: “I really feel Mendocino County has missed the boat. They are the Napa County of weed. They always have been. I still own a home in Willits. Nothing has changed in the town of Willits since I was there last. Mendocino County is ripe for cannabis tourism, and I feel the powers that be there [in Mendocino County] have failed to recognize and take advantage of that. I feel it could bring more jobs and tourism. I’m not saying blow it wide open. Some smart planning could really be a boon for Mendocino County.”
ms notes: “Some smart planning…”? Is Linegar saying Mendo’s pot planning is not smart?
Linegar on wine grape regulation: “I could see some limitations on new [vineyard] projects. It would be in relationship to our critical watersheds in the county and in relationship to tree removal for climate change. The [Sonoma County] board has made a commitment to do something about climate change.”
ms notes: What is the likelihood that Mendo’s new Climate Action Advisory Committee will even mention grapes? And, further, if they did, what would the Supes do? (Hint: Nil, and Nothing.) PS. At present grape growers can denude entire rangeland landscapes of all vegetation including woodlands without a single permit required; permitted cannabis growers are not allowed to remove a single tree without a permit.)
Linegar: “Also, something could be done in regards to steep slopes. We currently allow vineyards on hills up to a 50% slope [if a geologist signs off – ms]. Those could be areas where I could see dialing it back.”
ms notes: Mendo has no grading ordinance for ag land and hence no restriction on steepness of vineyard planting no matter how steep.
Linegar: “I think small growers are particularly vulnerable to these market fluctuations [a reference to the current price drop for grapes due to a glut]. Also, people who own large tracts of dairy land. They are the two most likely sectors that will move to cannabis first.”
ms notes: So Linegar is saying that small vineyards (in Sonoma County) may switch to pot. Not likely in Mendo as long as 1) pot remains illegal at the federal level and 2) Mendo’s permit process for cannabis is orders of magnitude more restrictive than for grapes.
Linegar: “Cannabis has the ability to subsidize some of these dairy operations. These are the people who own the large tracts that are the most appropriate for cannabis production. I know of situations where dairymen are leasing an acre to a cannabis grower for a lot of money. I have seen lease rates between $60,000 and $100,000 per year — if the land is eligible to grow cannabis. (Swindell: “Linegar wouldn’t reveal which local dairies have entered the cannabis business.”)
Linegar: “One of the reasons we don’t have more organic grape growers is weed control. We have sulfur, which is organic, to deal with powdery mildew. But in weed control, there is not a good organic herbicide. If you invent an organic herbicide that works really well, you will be a zillionaire. They really don’t exist. That is one of the main hurdles for grape growers becoming organic. It is having a reliable and affordable way of weed control in the vineyards. Particularly, when you have vineyards on steep slopes as we do.”
ms notes: Another benefit of cannabis! It’s already a “weed,” so no need for poisonous “weed control.”
The entire interview can be read on the Press Democrat’s website: pressdemocrat.com/business/10697266-181/retiring-sonoma-county-ag-leader