Business / Economy

Q and A: Peter Hernandez on hemp

County supervisor shares his concerns, suggests getting creative to counter odor nuisance.
San Benito County Supervisor Peter Hernandez at a March 2019 meeting. Photo by John Chadwell.

Peter Hernandez was one of three San Benito County supervisors who recently supported a 45-day hemp moratorium that ultimately failed to pass.

Although Hernandez said he doesn’t have a problem with hemp itself, he thought a moratorium was necessary so that the county could do its due diligence regarding odor nuisance and cross-pollination between hemp and cannabis crops.

Hernandez spoke to BenitoLink on April 9. He said his pro-moratorium stance was reaffirmed after a meeting with San Benito County Agricultural Commissioner Karen Overstreet, where he was informed the United States Department of Agriculture is considering a requirement that would disqualify felony offenders over the last 10 years from obtaining a permit for hemp cultivation.

“You’re not going to have that expectation of someone who is growing a tomato plant or any kind of normal ag commodity,” Hernandez said.

BENITOLINK: You have mentioned that one of your concerns with hemp is cross-pollination with cannabis. What distance of separation would you feel comfortable with?

HERNANDEZ: I was talking to the ag commissioner; she was my main source because she knows where all the current ag crops are. In that meeting she mentioned we need to have a layout of what we have, where our cannabis grows are, what are the potential places people are considering. Her big thing is that we don’t know until we get people pulling permits, or are trying to pull out registration. We don’t know.

That makes sense, but to a certain extent if we don’t set some kind of ground rules first, then we’re going to end up pushing away someone or stopping them, which can be a takings issue under the Constitution, if they do a grow right next to a school. And we’re like “No, you can’t do that because the ordinance says that it’s a nuisance within certain amount of feet between a school.”

Personally, my reaction would be, we shouldn’t allow it anywhere within the city limits, just to mitigate the nuisance part of it. It should be county and if it’s county then we gotta consider the potential properties or the potential places where it’s going to be considered. And it’s more about mitigating the impacts at that point. The long and short is we don’t have an answer.

Is there even cause for concern regarding cross pollination when cannabis cultivation in unincorporated parts of the county is supposed to be indoors?

That’s what I’m learning. It’s all about due diligence. Right now the budding life cycle, when it buds in like August-September, that’s when it’s most capable of impregnating other plants. But then, with hemp, they are trying to create only female strains, from what [Overstreet] was saying, and that actually minimizes the possibility.

But we have to figure out with these cannabis grows—they have fans, and their own enclosed system. How much pollen is escaping these things? I know that goes deep into the details, but if we are talking about being serious about mitigating the impacts then we have to.

[Pinnacle Strategy President] Victor Gomez said it himself, the hemp pollen can fly technically a mile, a mile and a half. And the problem isn’t just cannabis impregnating hemp, or cross-pollinating hemp, it could be hemp affecting cannabis. So there has to be a separation. If it’s in an enclosed facility it’s definitely a less of a risk, but it doesn’t guarantee it. By law, we have to destroy a hemp grow if the THC levels goes past 0.3%.

There have been a few community members (I remember Elia Salinas being one of them) who have stated illegal hemp activity is basically nonexistent.

I would agree with that.

You mentioned during the supervisors meeting that it’s easy to see the illegal part of it, but it’s hard to see the legal part of it using it illegally, what did you mean by that? How do you see hemp being used illegally?

Let’s say you pull a license for cannabis and you pull a license for hemp, then you have the connecting points to two different businesses and you can technically be involved in cannabis legally, but then if you’re doing any kind of illegal activity, if you want to grow your business, you want to have an extra margin. Then you can technically use funds that are from cannabis and use them through hemp means.

There could be money laundering, that’s the best way I can put it. You can get illegal money and use it legally. At that point it expands your ability to grow, illegally though.

Is that your only concern of illegal activity with hemp?

Yeah. Hemp by itself is not a problem. It’s like the taco guy at the border. If someone sways him or her to start selling coke through the back door, you don’t want to discourage the taco vendor but you also want to tell him don’t be getting involved with these kind of things where someone is using your business to ultimately launder their money.

Someone will make the argument, “Well, why not just use the taco vendor instead of going through hemp?” You have a grow, you have land that you need. You need land to be able to grow. A taco vendor doesn’t need land, they just need meat and whatever they put on tacos.

I’ve mentioned this before and it seems it hasn’t gotten enough focus, We have Highway 25, which is considered federally a high-intensity drug trafficking corridor. I’m not saying that we are going to stop it, but I am saying that we should be aware of it and figure out how to protect ourselves from it.

It’s never been about hemp. It’s been about separating cannabis and hemp because, I think, when you separate the two you minimize the risk. People are still going to try to do things illegally, but at least at that point it’s easier to find out.

There’s people doing illegal things and using good avenues like hemp to do their illegal activity.

Odor is another concern that has been brought up regarding both hemp and cannabis. How do you envision the county approaching odor control?

[laughing] Maybe putting up a wind barrier. We have to be creative.

Hemp has a lot of different uses. Technically it’s, I think, more valuable than cannabis because hemp you can use for textiles, you can use it for food. There’s a lot of different uses so there’s a lot of different values. It is a good marketable crop, but at that point, you also have to consider all the different impacts these industries are going to create. There are going to be more trucks, processing part, the manufacturing. There is going to be distribution in all of these things. My biggest point, because hemp does more, is that there has to be more mitigation. That’s probably the most accurate term. I don’t want to control hemp, but I don’t want to ignore that there’s going to be impacts.

Cannabis and hemp aren’t the only crops with a noticeable odor. Garlic is grown in Gilroy, and the San Benito Foods tomato cannery creates an odor every summer during the canning season. Yet cannabis and hemp odor seem to attract more attention as a nuisance. What about odor control?

Those are right to farm so there’s already precedent. There’s already history. Because there’s history then it’s easier to say we know these are the impacts and you can plan for them. Hemp is brand new. No one can be honest and say we know how to deal with the impacts, unless they are talking about other countries. And at that point it’s still different because we have different laws and different ways of dealing with these things.

I asked them to bring them to the table. I said, “Look if there are other places that are dealing with hemp, educate us.” But we didn’t get any information, at least not yet.

Regarding cost recovery, what costs do you see San Benito County needing to recover with hemp? Are these costs different compared with cannabis?

A lot are the same. It should be less, though. The upfront costs, maybe the permitting costs, you would have to deal with the U.S. Department of Agriculture element. Them requiring you don’t have a felony record within 10 years, we would have to do a Live Scan or some kind of background check. That would be similar but I still think there would be less ongoing because I know that with hemp you’re dealing with an inspection phase when it’s about to bud. With cannabis there’s ongoing. It’s a lot more expensive because they’re basically having things bud year round, from what the ag commissioner told me. With hemp it’s a lot more seasonal.

How should the county could supervise the financial aspect of a local hemp industry?

There’s two things. One is through a development agreement, but because of the USDA and the rules that sound like they’re coming down with anyways, an ordinance is what the ag commissioner is likely to recommend.

What kind of ordinance?

It would be a little broader. It would apply to the industry. Specially with her concern, which is nuisance, you’re dealing with making sure that your mitigating nuisance throughout the county. The developer agreement is more one-on-one. The ordinance would be: these are the rules that apply to everybody and that way we make sure we’re mitigating the problems like the nuisance issue.

What would the ordinance do financially?

It would at least allow for cost recovery, which I believe is really important.

In 2017, San Benito County was designated a high intensity drug trafficking area (HIDTA) which allows the county the use federal resources toward drug control efforts. Has the county used any resources available from the HIDTA designation? How could this be applied to local regulation of hemp?

I haven’t heard those details yet. I had a conversation with the sheriff but it’s still ongoing. I haven’t gotten into that conversation about those funds.

When it comes to hemp, I don’t know if you can use those funds. If there is a way to use the funds to separate the two maybe. But those would probably be more justifiable with just cannabis.

Is there anything you would like to add?

It’s not in my nature to not be due diligent and considerate of what the needs are in my community. My goal was never to try to get into micromanaging agriculture products, but it was to be diligent enough to realize my goal is to protect the public interest and to make sure we are mitigating the impacts of anything that we deal with, whether it’s developments or hemp. I don’t want to gloss over anything. It’s never been my nature to just say “OK, go ahead.” I’ve never been a rubber stamp kind of guy. My convictions don’t allow me to do that.


Noe Magaña

Noe Magaña is BenitoLink Co-Editor and Content Manager. He joined BenitoLink as reporter intern and was soon brought on staff as a BenitoLink reporter. He also experiments with videography and photography. He is a San Benito High School alumnus with a bachelor's in journalism from San Jose State and a Liberal Arts Associate's Degree from Gavilan College. Noe also attended San Jose City College and was the managing editor for the City College Times, the school's newspaper. He was a reporter and later a copy editor for San Jose State's Spartan Daily. He is a USC Center for Health Journalism 2020 California Fellow.