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A Midwest farm kid by birth and inclination, I’ve spent portions of recent summers living adjacent to two nascent California mid-coast marijuana farms. Now, as California and eight other states ready themselves to vote on loosening their marijuana laws, it’s worth considering what it’s like living next to the crop my neighbor last summer called “the next wine grape.”
I first met my California neighbor over the fence. He’s a local firefighter, husband, father, and landowner. He seemed understandably sensitive about his property being used to grow medical marijuana, though perhaps not as sensitive as the family that was renting a house on his property. The home-renters had overreacted, he said, to the unannounced late-night visits of the licensed marijuana grower who was also using land on the farm. Apparently, the previous tenant of the house had reported the operation to the county sheriff. A “stink,” as we Midwesterners call it, had ensued but no consequences had come of it, the sheriff being too busy, the neighbor told me, to enforce the law. The only real result of the reported violation had been that the tenant, a concerned parent of three small children and a recent out-migrator from Los Angeles into the California countryside, had immediately moved back to the coast, threatening a lawsuit over the remaining lease, not wanting to subject her kids to the culture of the crop that was growing in the field below her rural rental … quite literally right under her nose.
Concerned, I suppose, that I would be the prototypical stick-in-the-mud visiting Midwesterner, the neighbor kindly offered to show me the grower’s license to cultivate medical marijuana, though the volume of cannabis being grown, so far as I could see, was far in excess of what could reasonably be used medically by a single individual or family. I kept whatever objections I may have had mostly to myself, trying to buy his “new wine grape” rationale, though inside I found myself wondering. And having spent a considerable amount of time in some of the California’s best-known wine grape regions – Napa/Sonoma, Paso Robles, Carmel Valley – I wasn’t entirely sure I bought his premise. Wine grapes have been a boon not just to rural economies but to arts, culture, and community in the countryside. Despite their perceived elitism, tasting rooms, cafes, gifts shops, and free or low-cost events put on by vineyard and winery owners often bring stakeholders together to find common cause, while simultaneously attracting visitors and new residents. Perhaps the same will be true of legalized pot, though the verdict is still out.
I had happily rented in the area once before, in the fall of 2009, though this summer, marred by raging wildfires and evacuations, turned out to be a far cry from a vacation. Many illegal growers in the rugged midcoast mountains lost their crops in the conflagrations—some, as reported by major media, actually shot at fire personnel trying to save them—but so far as I know my neighbors’ crops thrived in the unusually warm, smoky conditions. His grower made it behind fire lines to nurse the precious buds throughout the period of greatest danger, and by the end of my summer in the cabin, the smell of weed blooming infused the unusually still air for miles, penetrating upholstery and clothes both indoors and out with its uniquely pungent odor, infiltrating everything, so much so that when I took my car into the shop, or offered acquaintances a lift into town, I was certain they would, taking a whiff of the car seats, confuse me for yet another Gen X pothead. Something of a goody two-shoes, I suppose, by comparison with my age peers elsewhere in Legalization Nation, I was powerfully and probably needlessly self-conscious about it.
I thought about the neighbor’s erstwhile renter—the mom who moved her family far away rather than expose her children to the marijuana culture. Had she been a stick-in-the-mud, or had she merely known, as I do, that living next to cash-crop agriculture on even a small-scale is enough to cause many urbanites and suburbanites to reconsider rural living. We know this phenomenon all too well back home in the rural Midwest—metropolitan drop-outs coming to live, cheek by jowl, across from multi-generational (legal) farms like the one owned by my family—and inevitably objecting to the sounds, the smells, the chemicals—of our culture: agriculture. As a younger (Gen X) ruralite and spirited advocate for new crops to boost rural economies, it’s often assumed that a vote for legalization would be a “no-brainer” for me, but after my experience this past summer, I am no longer sure.
Not being a smoker myself, I can’t claim to understand marijuana culture intuitively, nor can I claim to know how rural life in states like Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, and Nevada will change once and if marijuana becomes “the next wine grape.” But I do know it will change, and change significantly. Having been raised on a farm in the Midwest, I understand that commodity-crop agriculture changes a community and a region in ways those voting on legalization ought to at least to consider this election season. Unlike in the Midwest, where we mostly harvest our corn and beans ourselves, the cannabis crop in California seems likely to be harvested and grown, plantation-style, by someone other than the well-to-do property-owner, as is often the case with the wine grape. The marijuana property owner, in effect, acts as patron of the hacienda, generally hiring workers to do his bidding. This means paid growers, paid harvesters, and the steady stream of visitors—mostly city to country—wanting to enjoy some homegrown on site. It also often means exponentially larger water usage and sometimes strained relations in communities where growers and non-growers share fence-lines, roads, and wells. Once (and if) the illegality issue is taken off the table, perhaps this latest sanctioned cash crop, will learn to live in harmony with residents.
Whatever the decision on legalization, I hope folks living in cities, suburbs, and exurbs will consider the Not-in-my-back-yard (N.I.M.B.Y) phenomenon as it relates to marijuana growing. And if they would object to the smells, the suspicions, the increased water usage, the late-night visits, the hacienda and patron system cropping up in their own quiet cul-de-sacs and gated communities, they might more carefully consider their ballot. To vote YES with integrity, America’s metropolitan voters would want to walk a mile in their country cousins’ shoes, imagining whether, if, and to what extent, they would be comfortable living across the fence from this powerful “new” agriculture.
Zachary Michael Jack is a seventh generation ruralite. His latest book on social change is March of the Suffragettes: Rosalie Gardiner Jones and the March for Voting Rights.