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Central Coast grape growers, legal cannabis cultivators seek common ground

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - Two agricultural crops on the Central Coast are still trying to find common ground.

Deep divisions remain between the established, decades-old wine grape growing industry and the upstart cannabis business that has taken root. The multi-million dollar businesses are learning how to grow together side-by-side.

Wine grape grower Kevin Merrill with Mesa Vineyard Management in northern Santa Barbara County grows wine grapes for multiple labels. He says the issue is with the way the cannabis is grown.

"It's the open growing cannabis that is a problem to vintners like us," said Merrill. "The Farm Bureau stance, for example, is that cannabis should be grown inside, then you don't have to worry about any drift falling on it, they do that in other counties – they do that in Ventura County. The smell is the other issue people are concerned with."

Merrill's company has been growing grapes in the area since the '70s. He says the business is constantly evolving and now the challenge is finding a way for both industries to coexist..

"Not everybody is OK with cannabis, or are comfortable with it and that's fine," said Teddy Cabugos of Sunstone Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sunstone Winery is among the first of local wineries to embrace legal cannabis cultivation.

"This is a new industry. It's new to a lot of people and so I have to be sensitive to that fact," Cabugos said, "Next year we will be converting a very small portion of the acreage of our grapes into cannabis and so diversifying – not only the land – but the product, changing with the times, the generations to come and really looking toward the future."

Merrill and his fellow vintners on the Central Coast have spent decades growing wine grapes now considered among the highest quality in the industry. He knows that cannabis is here to stay.

He says grape growers and legal cannabis cultivators can work together, in many cases side by side, in various growing regions. But he says it has to be a "two-way street."

"That's what grape growers are looking for. How can the guy growing the cannabis work together with the grower next door to ensure he can continue growing the grapes he had been growing for many years before they came along," Merrill said.

Cabugos said the biggest challenge will be bridging the generational gap for the industry to meet its full potential.

"I think that the younger generations are all, or most of them, are okay with cannabis or either use cannabis or some type of product," Cabugos said. "It's going to take a while, especially in this county, but I believe in five years after all these talks and everything is figured out, maybe federal legalization at all that stuff, California will be king of that industry as far as production and at the top of that it will be Santa Barbara County."

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Keith Carls

Keith Carls is a reporter at NewsChannel 3-12. To learn more about Keith, click here.

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