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Will Marijuana Become California’s Next Big Ag Crop?

California farmers are known for producing some of the finest fruits, vegetables and nuts in the world. But what if the state’s big agriculture also included marijuana?

Some Central Valley growers are already eyeing that possibility, including Los Banos farmer Cannon Michael.

A few years ago Michael discovered a 1-acre illegal marijuana grow on his land.

“They had made reservoirs and they were pumping water,” Michael says. “They had buried generators. They had this whole encampment and we knew nothing about it.”

He says the forbidden plantation was worth around $19 million. That’s more than he makes on 11,000 acres of tomatoes, cotton and other crops in one year. It got him thinking.

“I don’t know, I guess if I thought if I put in a 200-acre planting of marijuana, would the market sustain that?” says Michael.

Cannabis becoming a major player in big agriculture depends on whether Californians vote to legalize pot. If a legalization measure passes, the state would still have to develop regulations on how marijuana can be grown — and farmers would have to figure out which crops grow best. Even still, becoming a big grower early on makes sense for farmers like Cannon Michael, who have land and resources.

“To me it’s just another potential option for something that could be a benefit to the farm, and then also make some money hopefully,” Michael says.

Cannon Michael farms over 11,000 acres in Merced County. He says he thinks a marijuana crop could be worth investing in if it becomes legal.
Cannon Michael farms over 11,000 acres in Merced County. He says he thinks a marijuana crop could be worth investing in if it becomes legal. (Ezra David Romero/KQED)

But small farmers already growing legal medical marijuana say they don’t want big ag to push out smaller existing farms.

“I don’t really see any clear benefit,” says Hezekiah Allen with the California Growers Association, representing over 500 members. “Certainly our hope is that we kind of avoid consolidation and we don’t really move in that direction.”

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