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Stark wooden beams form the skeleton of a greenhouse at Dramm & Echter, one of the few flower growers left in Encinitas. Owner Bob Echter hopes a new crop sprouts in the unfinished structure, one he never thought he would touch when he bought the property in 1995.
That was before soaring water and energy costs, before cutthroat global competition, before minimum wage hikes and before Proposition 64 legalized pot growing (if a local jurisdiction signs off).
Now, Echter’s goal is to dedicate less than an acre of his flower-growing operations to marijuana.
“I care deeply about farming,” Echter later said in his dimly lit warehouse, buckets of wrapped roses at his feet. “Without this, the path to keep doing that here isn’t as clear.”
The Encinitas City Council is open to the idea. It cited the wilted flower industry when it established a subcommittee in February to explore allowing marijuana cultivation on farmland.
The Council also had reviving agriculture in mind last year when it passed an urban agriculture ordinance. Backyard bees, small farms and community gardens are popular with much of the community — but would marijuana farms fly?
Prop. 64 passed in Encinitas with 65.2 percent in favor — the widest margin of support in the county. But two years earlier voters rejected the local initiative Measure F, which would have allowed medical marijuana dispensaries.
Councilman Mark Muir said even those who voted to legalize marijuana probably wouldn’t want a pot farm near their house. In February, he cast the lone vote against setting up the subcommittee, which will also look at security measures and tax rates.
“I care about public safety and the influence it might have on our youth,” Muir said, adding that it’s uncertain whether the federal government is going to crack down on marijuana.
He also quipped that he doesn’t want the red poinsettia on the city’s seal to be replaced by a green marijuana leaf.
“I don’t want to change that image, nor do I want to change that culture, nor do I want to change that environment,” Muir said.
It’s an image with deep roots. In 1923, Paul Ecke relocated his poinsettia-growing business to Encinitas, bolstering the area’s self-proclaimed status as the Flower Capital of the World.
Paul Ecke Jr. made poinsettias synonymous with Christmas by donating them to TV shows such as “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” At the height of the family business, it produced more than 90 percent of the world’s poinsettia stock.
The city doesn’t have stats on how much farmland has been lost over the years, including to high land values enticing growers to sell. Yet memories of the heyday give some idea.
“In the 1960s, it was mostly cut-flower growers, and they were just everywhere. You couldn’t drive down the street in Encinitas without seeing them. It was the big business in town,” said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, whose first job in high school was in the local flower industry.
Times have changed, Larson said, and Encinitas should adapt to support growers.
Councilman Tony Kranz, half of the two-member subcommittee, agrees.
“We have a historic ag industry that’s just been crushed by the offshoring of horticulture,” Kranz said. “The pressures on this particular market are tremendous. Some people would say, ‘So be it, let them go out of business. Let them have their ag land and let it go fallow.’ I’m not inclined toward that perspective.”
A big question before the subcommittee is where marijuana growing might be permitted in the city.
Kranz said cannabis farms could make sense on agriculture-zoned land like Echter’s, but probably wouldn’t be a good fit at neighborhood nurseries right next to homes.
The concern over neighborhood character prompted the Council in February to rule out pot dispensaries. So while farms could be allowed, Encinitas residents would have to go outside the city to legally buy marijuana.
A touch of humidity hangs in the air as Echter strolls through one of his greenhouses. Sun shines through a translucent roof on rows of roses, which grow in crates off the ground. Piping feeds the roots nutrient-rich water, and what’s not absorbed goes back into the system.
It’s a setup called hydroponic growing, which Echter turned to in response to rising water costs, a major factor in squeezing out neighboring greenhouses. With this innovative spirit, Echter said, the farm bested everything from harmful insects to surging energy costs.
The next challenge he faces: Many of his 90 employees are paid minimum wage, which went up to $10.50 an hour in January, and will reach $15 an hour by 2022.
In response, Echter said he has searched for new flowers that could be profitable, and emphasized lean business practices. He worries it may not be enough.
Hence, marijuana. Echter loosely estimates the crop could generate half of his sales despite taking up a fraction of his land.
He’s looking to grow cannabis in a .91-acre greenhouse, while continuing to cultivate flowers in an adjoining 18 acres of greenhouses.
Echter acknowledged the federal government may crush his plan. Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t made his disdain for marijuana a secret.
Echter is considering growing both medical and recreational marijuana, and is optimistic the federal government will at least spare the latter if enforcement ramps up.
Echter, whose dad started the business 45 years ago, said his father’s declining health has led him recently to think about the future of the property.
“I’ve been thinking about succession planning. And part of my succession planning is to try and keep this for farming,” Echter said.
Dramm & Echter is within the 850-acre Encinitas Ranch development, which includes homes, a shopping center and a golf course.
Encinitas Ranch Homeowners Association President Dick Stern said Echter could meet resistance from neighbors if he moves forward with plans to grow marijuana.
“The analogy I like to use is that Encinitas is made up of five dysfunctional siblings,” Stern said. “Cardiff, Leucadia and Old Encinitas might like this idea, but Olivenhain and New Encinitas, where Encinitas Ranch is, are less inclined.”
Opposition could also come from the San Dieguito Union High School District board, which at its May 11 meeting will consider a resolution “limiting youth access to marijuana through storefronts and cultivation.”
But Echter said he’s found neighbors are receptive. The surrounding area retains somewhat of a rural feel, though there are 110 homes to the west, which aren’t part of Encinitas Ranch. He recently knocked on each of the doors to share his plans.
“One-third didn’t answer the door. One-third had no opinion, though they may have garnered an opinion later. And of the other one-third, it was 4-1 in favor, which is encouraging,” he said.
The biggest concern: security.
A security assessment ordered by Echter calls for signage alerting those on the property they’re on camera, security guards and motion-sensor lights. It also recommends a security guard check the IDs of those stepping foot in the marijuana-growing area.
If all goes according to current plans, the lion’s share of ready-to go marijuana and cannabis products — potentially a target for thieves — would be immediately be picked up by wholesale distributors and then go to licensed Southern California dispensaries, according to Erik Williams, partner in the cannabis consulting company Will & May.
Williams said the remaining portion would be stored in vaults.
The idea, he said, is to boost security, but still keep the property low-key.
“We don’t want this to look like a maximum-security prison. That’s not what the neighborhood and community want,” Williams said.
Filtration systems, he claimed, would keep the smell from wafting to neighbors.
If cultivation gets the city’s blessing, it’s unlikely big marijuana farms would take root, since there are few large plots left. And representatives of two such parcels – the Leichtag Foundation and Weidners’ Gardens – said they have no plans to grow cannabis. They both said, though, they support growing done by others with standing in the community.
Evelyn Weidner opened Weidners Gardens with her late husband, Bob, in 1973. She sold the business a few years ago, but still works there a few days a week.
Weidner stressed that she’s not a fan of people smoking recreational marijuana, but said she wants to support flower growers.
“Somebody has to grow it. It won’t be us. But if that’s what keeps growers like Bob (Echter) in town, I’m OK with it,” Weidner said.
Clarification: After this story published, Tony Kranz clarified a quote attributed to him. This post has been updated to reflect that he said, “Some people would say, ‘So be it, let them go out of business. Let them have their ag land and let it go fallow.’ I’m not inclined toward that perspective.”