January 17, 2018

Western Growers Annual Meeting: Reade Becomes Chairman; Cannabis Session Attracts Big Crowd

More than 550 attendees enjoyed networking socials, captivating educational breakout sessions and thought-provoking keynote speeches during Western Growers 92nd Annual Meeting in Las Vegas on October 29 – November 1, 2017.

During the meeting, Craig Reade, CEO of Bonipak Produce, Santa Maria, CA, was officially inaugurated as the 2018 WG Chairman of the Board of Directors while David Gill of Rio Farms and Gill’s Onions was recognized as the 2017 Award of Honor recipient for his visionary leadership in the agricultural community. Guests pondered over the political musings of P.J. O’Rourke during the PAC Lunch, gained insights into millennials from Kristen Soltis Anderson at the Chairman’s Luncheon and laughed with comedian Jim Gaffigan during the Award of Honor Dinner.


This year brought a collection of memorable breakout sessions:

•   Healthcare: A panel of state and federal healthcare experts discussed a variety of issues ranging from the state of play for the Affordable Care Act to the prospects of single payer healthcare.

•   Immigration: Political insiders from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Cato Institute and AmericanHort touched on the prospects of immigration reform, the pros and cons of Chairman Goodlatte’s “The AG Act” bill and the strategy for moving an agricultural solution forward.

•   AgTech: Six startup companies with technology solutions for the fresh produce industry competed for real-time investments from S2G Ventures, a food and agriculture venture fund. Two companies—AgVoice and Hazel Technologies—walked away with a $2.25 million total investment offer. (See separate story.)

•   Building, Preserving, and Protecting Capital: The panel of financial and insurance experts helped guests unravel the mystery of the economic outlook, equity markets, and private equity opportunities for ag.

•   Top Chef: The always popular Top Chef workshop featured two phenomenal chefs who demonstrated using everyday fresh produce in gourmet meals.

One of the most popular breakout sessions was surrounding the topic that is garnering many questions and concerns lately: cannabis. With the adult use of cannabis now legal in California as of January 1, 2018, the workshop examined the emerging state regulatory and marketplace structures for cannabis. Additionally, this standing-room only session delved into the risks and challenges legal cannabis presents both for entrepreneurs looking to seize the opportunity of the burgeoning new industry and for producers of fresh produce concerned about competing for limited resources such as labor and water. Employer liability was also discussed and the challenges cannabis production presents in that arena.

Western Growers Vice President and General Counsel Jason Resnick led the lively and passionate discussion between Lori Ajax, chief of the California Bureau of Cannabis Control; Henry Wykowski, general counsel at the California Cannabis Industry Association, Aaron Johnson, partner at L+G, LLP Attorneys At Law; and Jeff Brothers, co-founder of FLRish, Inc.

From beginning to end, the workshop engaged each of the attendees through compelling stories of cannabis use to the risks employers may face as the drug becomes legal in California. Johnson quickly captured the audience’s attention by sharing his personal story of how a severe neck injury triggered an addiction to painkillers. He was not able to quit his opioid habit until he learned that he could control the pain with a small dose of marijuana daily. He indicated that the injury caused—and still continues to cause—so much pain that without the use of cannabis, many of his daily activities would be difficult to accomplish.

“Small doses of cannabis can be beneficial to you. It was and still is for me,” said Johnson. He, along with Wykowski, went on to discuss how there have been proven studies that demonstrate how cannabis treatment has provided relief to many suffering from diseases such as Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes.

As the afternoon continued, panelists highlighted the challenges of trying to regulate a drug that is legal in several states, but not yet legal on the federal level. A significant challenge of getting involved in this new industry can be navigating through the nuances of regulations that are constantly changing. For example, Internal Revenue Code Section 280E prevents marijuana businesses from being able to qualify for deductions since cannabis is still considered a federally-banned controlled substance. However, there have been a couple of Tax Court cases in which the court allowed deductions for certain non-marijuana products sold at dispensaries.

“If you want to get into this [cannabis] industry, partner with someone who’s already involved and understands all the nuances,” advised Brothers, who started a Salinas-based cannabis cultivation company long before the drug was even legal in California. “Don’t rush in!”

Ajax then shared how the California Bureau of Cannabis Control understands the frustrations about complying with two different set of laws and was working to develop a regulatory scheme by the January 1 implementation date. Growers listened intently hoping to glean as much information as possible about this new crop. For some, the session was to learn how to take advantage of the opportunities that growing marijuana could present, but for others, it was learning how to mitigate the risks.

WG President & CEO Tom Nassif asked the question that was top of mind for many of Western Growers members, “What will the effect of cannabis production be on agriculture in California in terms of resources such as water and labor?”

Brothers stated how the the cannabis industry impacts agriculture can’t yet be determined, but stressed that “the cannabis workforce isn’t seasonal like traditional agriculture. Our labor is full time and permanent.”

The labor topic continued as John D’Arrigo of D’Arrigo Bros. Cos of California inquired about the use of the drug impairing employees at work. Many ag employers are concerned about their employees’ ability to properly function in jobs that require them to use heavy machinery, such as operate tractors or run equipment in the production plants.

“How do we know if an employee is high or if they just have marijuana in their system from their use weeks before? Should employers implement a zero-tolerance policy?” asked D’Arrigo.

Though the answer to how long the drug can stay in your system is still inconclusive because it can vary from person to person, Johnson chimed in with his personal views, “The choice is up to the employer. But if I wanted to work for your company and you had a zero-tolerance policy, I wouldn’t be able to apply.”

When the session concluded and the nearly 100 attendees started to exit the room, more in-depth conversations amongst the guests at Western Growers Annual Meeting about cannabis were just beginning to form.