If there is a such thing as a warrior for regenerative agriculture, Suzy Israel is one of them. As an attorney working for a small nonprofit that fights for regenerative farmers and homesteaders, Suzy takes on battles against government entities that challenge small farmers and their right to farm. I met Suzy during my fight with Gary, Indiana for my family’s right to use regenerative practices at our home farm. She fought the city of Gary with relentless fervor, leading to our victory.
However, it was her own story that intrigued me. She and her husband had just purchased an abandoned farm in Mendocino, California; in the middle of the Emerald Triangle. Our conversations surrounding her rural farm house and farm renovations sounded so whimsical, yet familiar as I was doing the same thing in an urban area.
Both Suzy and I are from the Midwest so I was most intrigued by her experience moving to Mendocino. The Midwest is so far removed from the cannabis happenings in California, specifically the Emerald Triangle, that it often feels like we’re light years behind. So it was a pleasurable learning experience catching up with Suzy and getting her feedback on the current state of cannabis in her area.
Aja: Do you think that legalization is fostering a collapse in California communities that have depended on the legacy market?
Suzy: You know, I think so. The regulations are impenetrable, and I know that the small farmers, the legacy farmers, just wish that it had stayed illegal because they cannot afford to comply. Even if they logistically are able to comply with the requirements, they can’t afford it. So it’s really wiping out the little guys or it’s just driving them back underground. So the craft marijuana is really at risk here, which is very sad.
Aja: Have the small growers gone to more specialized growing practices? How are they differentiating their products from what’s going on in the legal market?
Suzy: Frankly, I’m not involved in the legal aspect. I’m really not much involved in cannabis here, other than an outside observer. I don’t handle cannabis law, or have cannabis clients, (so I’m) just judging from social media, the articles, and the efforts that the county supervisors are making to streamline the process. I think the good thing about Mendocino County and the Emerald Triangle, is that there is a culture of small cannabis growers and they’re very sophisticated and they appreciate good product. So I think at least locally, the legacy growers are still doing okay, because their craft is appreciated here. It’s appreciated very much.
So, I don’t know the answer as to economically how they’re fairing. I do know that the Sheriff’s department and the prosecutor’s office will generally leave them alone, unless they are degrading the environment. They are very serious about that.
Aja: I’ve heard a lot of stuff going on with media saying that the cannabis growers are destroying the wildlife and they’re destroying the waters, the natural resources and things like that.
Suzy: Yeah, and that’s the narrative that’s going out here. I just can’t believe that the legacy growers are doing this because the legacy growers I know are very conscientious and they love nature and they love plants. It would astound me if the legacy growers were that indifferent to the environment. I think the unintended effect of legalization is that people from the outside are coming in, because they know it’s a friendly environment for cannabis growing. They’re coming in and buying up the land and pushing out the legacy growers and just doing whatever they need to do to make their money. I don’t think they have a craft attitude towards cannabis. So yeah, I know there’s a fair amount of environmental degradation going on. I don’t think it’s the legacy growers though.
Aja: You know, it’s so interesting, as I was reading up on that, I was wondering how much of that is propaganda, because we’re talking about California, which is the fifth largest agricultural economy. How can they blame all of that on cannabis growing?
Suzy: You’re right, because the Sheriff’s office will raid camps if there are pesticides and water diversion. Water is a huge issue here, regardless of the crop. People are coming down on the vineyards and the wineries because they use a lot of water. Water is a huge deal.
Aja: And you know, as of December 2020, Wall Street started trading water futures to hedge against shortages in California. That is very concerning to me because California is already dealing with water scarcity, and they’re saying that California as well as global markets are going to be dealing with more water scarcity. So I’m wondering if any of these farmers, and not just cannabis farmers, but farmers that you’ve come in contact with, are using regenerative practices to confront what is going on with the water crisis?
Suzy: Yes. First of all Northern California, especially Mendocino County, has a great culture of small farmers, regardless of crop. In fact, the cannabis farmers love plants of all kinds and they love nature, and so most of the legacy cannabis farmers I know are also lovingly tending to their tomatoes, and their other vegetables. But definitely regenerative farming is a big deal here. Also, I know because of my work with the nonprofit, helping small farmers. Regenerative farming is really taking off across the country.
Aja: So what attracted you to this small non-profit?
Suzy: Really the regenerative ag practices. My grandparents were farmers. My parents grew up in a small farming community. So I had that ethos already. Then I realized that industrial agriculture is not working. I’m not sure it ever actually worked in the first place. I think it was the narrative that was given to Americans. But yeah, I just knew that I wanted to contribute to the regenerative agriculture community. I do not have a green thumb. So I think being a lawyer is the best way I can contribute.
Aja: Did you get more into regenerative agriculture when you moved out to California, or was that something that you were into when you were in the Midwest?
Suzy: It’s funny, because my parents always had chickens and huge garden and I, maybe like most kids, just kind of rejected it or never paid any mind to it at all. Then when I became older and had my own son and moved to California, I realized how important it was. So I got back into it. I guess I was a little late to the game, and it was after the crash, probably my experience tracked a lot of people’s experience. After the housing crash of 2007 and 2008, I just realized that the big systems that we’ve come to depend on, were just not reliable so I think that’s what started it.
Aja: Suzy, I’m wondering how many of these cannabis farmers, especially in California, are using regenerative agriculture practices to hedge against the increase in land prices.
Suzy: Like you mentioned earlier, regenerative agriculture ends up using less water, because of the practices. You are absolutely correct about the land prices, it’s crazy. Even up here, well everywhere, the land prices are just crazy. Outside of the central valley, much of California isn’t really amenable to row crops. So yeah, what little land you have, you need to farm more intensively. You know, your vegetables and your cannabis and small livestock poultry. Nobody can afford to buy a thousand acres and just plant a bunch of weed and water it, it’s not the way that works out here. I think the physical landscape, really lends itself to regenerative agriculture. Also, the culture here is just environmentally conscious. So, make fun of California, if you will, but there is a very strong environmental sentiment here, and that includes the small farmers and ranchers.
Aja: It also has me thinking about the food growers and land prices. Somebody who grows tomatoes and cucumbers is not going to get the same amount of return as somebody who grows cannabis. I’m wondering how the food growers have been impacted by the increase in land prices that cannabis is causing in California.
Suzy: It has to be a struggle. I know the small farmers are struggling. I don’t see them being able to expand because their return is too small. The new guys coming in to buy land to monocrop cannabis are totally affecting the small farmers. They can’t compete. Even if you have the best tomatoes in the world and sell them for a premium price, you’re not going to make enough money to outbid outside cannabis interests. It’s impossible. Then the other thing is, I know we have a lot of legacy growers, but those sales are under the table. So it’s going to be difficult to buy land and compete, even if you do have the money. I don’t know how that would logistically work with real estate sales, taxes, and coming above ground. I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that the outside interests have a leg up when it comes to purchasing land. It is in my opinion, to the detriment of small cannabis farmers and small farmers here in the Emerald Triangle.
Aja: So as somebody who represents regenerative farmers, what do we need to be looking out for nationally? What is on the horizon for us when it comes to regenerative agriculture?
Suzy: Everything is just a struggle. There have to be some systemic changes for regenerative agriculture to make financial sense, because the little guys, all the people I represent, they’re struggling so hard. They’re just running up against brick walls, when it comes to regulations and even the implementation of those regulations. This system is designed for big ag, and there’s no mechanism to protect the small farmer.
Here’s an example, because I have been actually thinking a lot about this. In my prior life, I was a public defender for 15 years. Now under the constitution, a person charged with a crime is entitled to representation, if they cannot afford a lawyer, they will be appointed a lawyer. That’s Gideon versus Wainwright. So if you commit a crime, you are protected by a lawyer because you’re facing jail time. But in the civil arena, you do not have those protections. So small farmers are routinely abused by the process. They’re abused by bureaucrats and there is no recourse. For example, if a small farmer gets citations for some zoning infraction, which isn’t really a zoning infraction, because the right to farm act protects them. But if they receive a citation, they can’t afford $5,000 to $10,000 for a private attorney. Luckily, the non-profit I work for, we can help small farmers. But we can only help so many. It shouldn’t be a luck of the draw. So yeah the system’s rigged, I guess, is what it boils down to.
Aja: How does the Right to Farm Act protect, or how is it suppose to protect, small farmers? Also, is this just rural farmers or is this urban farmers as well?
Suzy: The answer is, it depends. Each state has their own right to farm act, or at least most of them do. It’s not a national protection, so each state can implement it as they see fit. Some states have a very robust right to farm act, Michigan comes to mind. But some states’ right to farm act winds up protecting big ag, instead of small ag. Generally, the big picture is if you have a farm, you’re not allowed to be zoned out of existence. What that means is, if the suburbs are expanding into rural places and the new people moving into a subdivision are like, “Ooh, farms smell and they’re noisy,” they can’t sue the farmer for doing farming things.
Aja: I know you don’t work in the cannabis industry as an attorney, but you do live in the Emerald triangle. Do you think federal legalization will cause communities that have depended on the legacy market for so long to struggle even more?
Suzy: I don’t think so, just because the federal government seems mostly status quo. For example, under the Obama administration, if I’m not mistaken, their policy was to leave farmers alone. I think the Trump administration rescinded that policy. But I don’t think there was actually any enforcement. Now with the new administration, I think there’s some hope that feds will just lay off altogether. I know that at least in California, the federal government has been ignored for years. They haven’t come in, I don’t think there has been any task force or major enforcement. I mean, it’s funny, when I’m in the car and I listen to the radio, there are ads for wholesalers. You know, “we’ll buy your flower,” and then there are testimonials from cannabis farmers on the radio as well.
Suzy: Yeah. So it’s out in the open, and so I don’t think any policy changes in the federal government would make much of a difference. What would be nice is if the federal government allowed it, and then the cash can be put in a bank. I think that would make things a lot safer. It’s a cash economy, and so during harvest season, there are a lot of robberies and a lot of violence. People get killed and that’s a huge concern for law enforcement. There’s not that much law enforcement here and they’re stretched thin during harvest season trying to protect the cannabis farmers.
Aja: Suzy, is there anything else you want to leave our readers with before we sign off?
Suzy: Well, I wish the little guys the best. That’s where my heart is, for the little guys, so I’m rooting for all of them.
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Aja Yasir is a wife, mother, holistic gardener and folk herbalist living in Gary, Indiana. She uses regenerative methods such as habitat restoration, intense biodiversity, and Korean Natural Farming to grow over 200 varieties of fruit, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms at her urban home. In addition, Aja is the host of Abundant Living and Gardening Podcast, the Executive Director of Gary NORML, founder of Blaze Summit: Conversations on Cannabis, and Cannabis Sommelier.