Hemp Farms In San Diego County Boom, And Neighbors Say, So Do The Headaches
For months, residents of a suburban Encinitas neighborhood have clashed with the hemp farm next door, blaming the farm for the nausea, dizziness and respiratory problems that they say have bothered them since October.
Bob Echter, owner of Fox Point Farms which is home to the hemp operation, and Josh Schneider, CEO of Cultivaris Hemp which has been operating the hemp farm on Echter’s property, deny the neighbors’ claims. They chalk them up to the neighbors’ dislike for the smell of the hemp plants.
Now Echter and Schneider are closing the farm down, and Echter is selling the land to a developer who has announced plans to build a residential farming community called an “agrihood.” That plan has been in motion since before the neighbors started complaining about the hemp farm.
Still, tensions remain high.
The neighbors await the results of environmental testing and an investigation by county, state and federal agencies — all spurred by the neighbors’ complaints — to determine whether the farm misused pesticides.
And the neighbors and their allies are pushing for further regulation of the hemp industry in hopes of protecting residents from similar problems in the future. The response they have gotten has been disappointing, they say, with officials shuffling them back and forth between agencies, raising questions about what, if anything, government agencies can do to help them.
“It's been frustrating; it has been maddening,” said Susan Pignataro, who has lived in the Fox Point neighborhood for five years. “All you want is help. And all we were doing was getting brushed off, being told it's the county's responsibility. And then the county would say, it's the city's responsibility.”
The situation in Encinitas underscores the growing pains of a fairly new industry that is booming and largely unregulated locally.
San Diego County has 51 licensed hemp growers and is home to the third highest number of growers of any county in California, according to state data released July 22. Yet farmers in the county face very little regulation beyond the licensing, THC sampling and monitoring of planting, harvest and destruction activities required by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Encinitas is the only local jurisdiction in the county to restrict hemp beyond what the state requires. The San Diego Board of Supervisors, which has not adopted any restrictions on hemp in unincorporated parts of the county, has shifted its focus to developing rules for cannabis cultivation, after overturning a ban of growing cannabis in January.
Since 2019, when the county first launched its industrial hemp cultivation program, the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures has investigated 10 hemp farms across the county for odor, lighting and signage complaints. Other than the two open pesticide investigations into Fox Point Farms and Cultivaris Hemp, only one violation was found regarding signage. None of the others resulted in enforcement action.
San Bernardino and Riverside are the only counties with more hemp growers than San Diego. Riverside County now requires buffers in unincorporated areas between hemp farms and certain neighboring properties, including residential communities and schools, and is limiting the amount of water farmers are permitted to draw off.
In Ventura County, some cities initially implemented temporary stops to hemp cultivation, while they dealt with complaints from residents. This was something some Encinitas residents pushed for initially as concerns rose regarding Fox Point Farms.
As of January, at least 28 of the 58 counties in California had put restrictions in place for hemp farms, according to tracking done by Sutter County agricultural commissioner Lisa Herbert, who is also a member of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Hemp Advisory Board.
At a virtual planning commission meeting in May, regarding changes to the municipal code for cannabis and industrial hemp, Fox Point neighbor Barry Pedler pushed for further regulation, pointing to setbacks implemented by other cities in California.
“For 24 years we’ve lived across the street from the Dramm and Ecther greenhouse facility at 1150 Quail Gardens Drive without problems until the intensive hemp cannabis production started,” Pedler said. “I and neighbors have been suffering from serious effects: debilitating respiratory issues, sinus inflammation, harsh, harsh coughing, eye irritation.”
Residents pinpoint hemp as problem
A second-generation flower farmer, Echter had grown just flowers on the 21-acre plot of land next to the suburban neighborhood bearing the same name for many years. The farm, part of Dramm & Echter, has been there since the 1960s when Encinitas was the self-proclaimed flower capital of the world — the neighborhood built around it a few years later. But now, much of the flower industry has moved to Latin America, pushing flower farmers like Echter to look for alternatives to stay profitable.
Then in 2019, when the California Department of Food and Agriculture launched its system to let farmers grow commercial hemp, Echter began cultivating it in hopes of making more money. Last year, he brought in Cultivaris Hemp to help. In 2016, California passed a law allowing the cultivation of industrial hemp, which is derived from the same plant species as marijuana, but unlike marijuana, has a THC content under .3%. That level of THC, tetrahydrocannabinol, cannot produce an intoxicating “high” when consumed.
Hemp is used in a variety of commercial and industrial products, but it also can be cultivated for human consumption. For example, Cultivaris Hemp, which mainly produces young plant clones, produces smokable hemp in the offseason.
The neighbors’ complaints started back in October, shortly after Cultivaris Hemp came into the picture.
Those claiming health impacts from the farm live along a stretch of road, dotted with cul-de-sacs, that borders the farm. Many of their front doors offer a clear line of sight to the greenhouses located on the southwest corner of the farm.
Echter’s shift to hemp has frustrated neighbors. Residents Joe Williams and Jane Dore, who have both lived in the neighborhood for at least 30 years, said they had to leave their homes periodically over the past year to take a break from the conditions of the area. Both live within 700 feet of the farm.
“People can't speak,” Williams said. “When your skin starts burning, itching — your eyes start — it's just, there's something wrong with this situation.”
Dore, who’s lived in the neighborhood for 48 years, grew up alongside the flower farm and remembers moving in when the houses were still being built. She said there were never any problems living alongside the property until hemp entered the picture.
“People had to go away. They were leaving, having to rent other places,” said Dore, who stayed periodically with her children in Carlsbad. “That was costly for everybody to have to go rent something else and be away or go if you didn't have people in a different part of the city.”
Pignataro has also left periodically per recommendation from her physician, and when home, sleeps with two air purifiers and a humidifier by her bed. She’s dealt with a choking feeling and nausea, which have sent her to the emergency room twice since November 2020. On her second visit, she was diagnosed with exposure to pesticide.
“I’m on various medications to try to help with this coughing and this choking feeling,” Pignataro said. “So I've lived there and hadn't had any problems until recently. And some of the folks in the neighborhood lived here just for decades and had no issues, no health issues. And now we are getting really, really sick.”
Pignataro’s physician also reached out to the county’s Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten multiple times on behalf of her and the other neighbors. Those concerns were pushed to the City of Encinitas and the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, which regulates San Diego's hemp program.
Farmers say odor the only issue
To Echter and Schneider, the problem the neighbors have is with odor. Echter says the neighbors' complaints started around the time the hemp began to flower in the fall, producing a stronger smell than the non-flowering plant. Both said they had not seen concrete evidence from neighbors that would indicate that any health problems were a direct result of the hemp farm, pointing to a lack of health problems among workers at the farm.
“They are conflating causation with correlation,” Schneider said. “When doing agriculture, there are agriculture things that get done, and that land has been agricultural for longer than the land has been residential.”
Schneider, who took over the hemp operation at Fox Point Farms in fall 2020, said that he’s tried to do everything he could to reduce the odor impact of the hemp cultivation on the neighbors but has been unsuccessful in quelling concerns that he said didn’t stop at times when the greenhouses were largely empty. His company installed carbon/activated charcoal filters, at the city’s request, to scrub odors from the air and made sure to close the greenhouses on warm days. They also added plastic bulb crates to the entrance to the farm within the neighborhood to slow the wind passing through.
“We were very careful at mitigating as much as we could in the way of odors and trying to address the concerns of the neighbors reasonably, but other than stopping what we were doing, I don't see how we could have done more,” Schneider said.
Farmers face environmental probe
The neighbors first took their complaints to the City of Encinitas, the San Diego County Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures and the California Department of Public Health, prompting visits to the farm by city and county officials. Officials that visited the area did notice an odor but ultimately found nothing out of compliance.
They treated the situation largely as an odor issue, telling neighbors no further action could be taken because agriculture is exempt from public nuisance complaints like odor.
Neighbors continued to complain to officials, expanding to more city, county and state agencies. Most officials ultimately pushed complaints to the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures, the regulatory agency for industrial hemp, which in return referred neighbors to the City of Encinitas. Neighbors eventually escalated the issue to state and federal environmental officials.
As a result of those complaints, the hemp farm is now the subject of environmental sampling and an investigation into whether pesticides were used appropriately there. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and CalEPA are performing the environmental sampling, while the county’s Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures is investigating both Cultivaris Hemp and Fox Point Farms for pesticide exposure.
The U.S. EPA is questioning whether Cultivaris Hemp properly used chemicals, made by ProKure Solutions, that it advertised on its website. The agency sent a letter to chemical company ProKure Solutions, copying Cultivaris Hemp, saying that ProKure Solutions may be “producing and distributing unregistered and misbranded pesticides.” The EPA letter referred to the language in the “vendor spotlight” on the Cultivaris Hemp website which described how the chemicals were being used on the farm. That webpage has since been taken down.
Both the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures have conducted soil sampling in the neighborhood and are currently compiling results. The Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures has also performed site visits and inspections, interviewed the residents and growers and reviewed records as part of the investigation.
Schneider said Cultivaris Hemp used the products flagged by the EPA, ProKure D Extended Release Gas and ProKure V, according to label and did not incorporate them as pesticides but used one as an odor mitigation tool to improve air quality and considered the other one for cleaning. The initial "vendor spotlight” said the products were used to eliminate bacteria such as mold, yeast, algae and mildew spores. Schneider said Cultivaris Hemp has stopped using the ProKure Solutions products.
inewsource reached out to ProKure Solutions multiple times. Each time, an employee who answered the company’s listed phone number said they would get back with a comment on the situation but never did.
The Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures expects to release its report in September. If pesticide misuse is confirmed through either process, the San Diego agricultural commissioner, which is the regulatory agency on the matter, could issue a warning or notify the two companies of violation, reinspect, institute fines, request they cease and desist or refer action to the district attorney or state.
Residents want protections, regulation
At least one driver of the tension between the neighbors and the hemp farm is going away.
Cultivaris Hemp is moving its base to Vista, and Echter is moving his flower farm to Mexico and his warehouses to Carlsbad. Schneider’s operation is nearly done moving, while Echter plans to move by the fall.
But despite the farm’s closure, the neighbors still want to see new restrictions on industrial hemp to prevent similar situations from coming up again. They want setbacks that would put distance between their homes and the farms. They also want a clearer complaint system to help them resolve concerns about hemp operations.
But the Fox Point Farms residents don’t know where to go to get those changes.
The city attorney is evaluating whether Encinitas’ current odor ordinance can apply to the cultivation of hemp and cannabis, according to city councilmember Tony Kranz.
Separately, under a local law passed last year, the City of Encinitas will have some regulation in place. Once implemented, Measure H, which will allow cannabis retail, cultivation, product manufacturing and distribution, will give the City of Encinitas the ability to revoke or suspend industrial hemp licenses in response to excessive noise, odor or loitering problems. The city attorney will also evaluate any changes to the ordinance as a result of the measure, according to the City of Encinitas.
Many Encinitas residents don’t consider that enough. Setbacks, for example, cannot be implemented under Measure H. City planning commission chair Bruce Ehlers said voters would have to approve any additional rules or restrictions on hemp farms under the measure.
Kranz, whose district includes Encinitas Ranch, which contains all the land zoned for agricultural use in the city, says that because of the limited amount of agriculturally zoned land, he doesn’t expect this problem to resurface within Encinitas any time soon, including when growers turn to cannabis.
“There's a handful of owners,” he said. “I don't know that any of them have expressed an interest in cultivating cannabis, so I don't know that there's going to be an issue with cultivation. I think our early issues are likely to be the result of retail operations.”