The country is progressing on the issue of marijuana even though it remains illegal at the federal level. According to Pew Research, in a poll conducted this year, 91% of Americans think it should be legal for either recreational and medical use. In San Mateo County, growing cannabis has only been legal since 2017, and it maintains broad support across voters. Cannabis production must occur only on lands designated for agriculture. Although many cities have a marijuana business tax, the county decided not to add marijuana tax at the request of farmers so that it would keep costs lower for the industry. But like any issue, there are two sides.
In the Latinx immigrant community, the consumption of marijuana is generally frowned upon, and youngsters that use it can be labeled marijuano — a term that connotes laziness, without direction, and even criminal. So for many farmworkers, the idea of growing cannabis is problematic. Some choosing to earn less before having to tell their children that they produce “weed.” Over the hill, consuming cannabis is normalized and seeing a white techie smoke is no big deal. But for Black and other minority youth, it’s a different story.
At the end of 2020 and into early 2021, Castillo Seed Company, a hemp farm located on Cabrillo Highway in Half Moon Bay, didn’t pay its farmworkers for about eight weeks. Farmworkers there made less than $30,000 per year, so a two-month pay gap was disastrous for extremely low-income people. If it were not for the community organizations and community activists, the consequences could have been far worse for these families. This case was anecdotal evidence for anti-cannabis folks that the hemp and cannabis industries would only bring more trouble to farmworker life. Hemp and cannabis are different legally; although they’re the same plant, they contain different levels of THC.
To add salt to the wound, this past July, two cannabis producers that share a property in Half Moon Bay were robbed: Half Moon Grow and Dark Heart. This case involved an armed robbery with shots fired, but luckily, no one was hurt. This incident caused outrage and concern in the local Latinx community and seemed to further confirm for many that cannabis was no good. I reached out to one of the farm owners to learn more about what happened and asked for an opportunity to speak with the farmworkers to get their opinions. He welcomed me with open arms.
I was immediately impressed by the transparency and friendliness of one of the owners. It’s not common to meet young farmers anymore. He provided a tour of the operation and answered all my questions about paying taxes, environmental impact, safety, labor, etc. Having a degree in agriculture and rural development, as a former FFA member and as a former employee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, I have seen many farms in my lifetime. Half Moon Grow is truly an example to follow regarding production, labor conditions, housing and stewardship. One farmworker told me, “this is the best farm in the whole region.”
At Half Moon Grow, the farmworkers shared that compensation is higher than any other farm in the county, around $20/hour — which is considered extremely low income by county standards. They provide full-time employees with health care coverage, paid sick leave and some receive housing benefits. Of course, this is made possible by a high-value crop, and cannabis can go for $800 to $1,400/pound. To compare, corn is about $150/bushel, and one bushel is 56 pounds. That means that corn is about $2.67/pound. However, cannabis’ regulations are the strictest in the agriculture industry, which skyrockets costs that a traditional crop does not face — it comes down to margins.
The county’s ag industry has been steadily declining and is losing jobs, tax revenue and a way of life for our costeños (from the coast). As an advocate for agriculture, I’m concerned that we’ll no longer have farmworkers and their families living here in a matter of years. Yes, we can probably retrain many farmworkers to enter other industries, but it’s not that easy, with education and language barriers often being an issue. I’m also concerned that some communities are not being heard, but based on my experience at Half Moon Grow, I hope they can find a middle ground and share the fruits of a thriving business.
Cannabis is here to stay, and being “frenemies” is a better option than antagonizing an industry that isn’t leaving. Cannabis may be the ag industry’s Hail Mary.
Rudy Espinoza Murray is a resident of Redwood City, husband and father. He has a degree from Cornell University in agriculture and rural development, is passionate about the ag industry, and is the director of marketing for a national pro-housing nonprofit.