Contributed Photo: Bayacan, LLC, will retrofit a 53-acre greenhouse at NatureSweet to grow cannabis.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – On the longest day of the year, the Graham County Board of Supervisors held its longest meeting of the year and, in the end, approved a resolution to rezone two greenhouses at NatureSweet’s facility in Bonita to allow commercial cannabis cultivation.
Bayacan, LLC, filed the rezoning application to change it from General Land Use Certification to Unlimited Manufacturing to allow it to grow medical-grade cannabis in accordance with Graham County.
Citing a need to represent the best interests of all of Graham County over the desire of a sliver of the population, Supervisors Paul David and John Howard voted in favor of the zoning change.
The decision will mean that 23% of the county’s property taxes will be paid by the two companies, and funding for Eastern Arizona College and the Bonita School District that comes directly from NatureSweet will continue.
At the conclusion of the five-hour marathon meeting on Monday, Chairman Danny Smith – whose district covers the Bonita area – said while he appreciated the effort put forth by NatureSweet and Bayacan, he didn’t feel the concerns of the area’s residents were adequately addressed and cast the lone dissenting vote. The zoning change had twice been given unfavorable recommendations by the Graham County Planning and Zoning Commission.
“I have a really hard time telling the people that have to live next to this for their real and perceived impact on their lives to pound sand and live with it,” Smith said. “I would still rather see some sort of agreement that didn’t have such an impact on the surrounding neighborhood.”
NatureSweet will sell its greenhouse Site 6 to Bayacan Inc. with the successful rezoning, which will utilize the site to grow medical-grade cannabis. The operation will only include the cultivation of the plant and harvesting of its fruit, with no processing or sales taking place at the site. A second greenhouse, Site 5, was also included in the rezoning, and Bayacan may purchase that at a later date to expand its operations.
For its part, the diversification of the greenhouses will allow NatureSweet to create a world-class research and development facility at its greenhouse Site 1 with a possible later expansion into Site 2. NatureSweet’s greenhouses at Site 3 and Site 4 will still be utilized for tomato cultivation, along with possible other agriculture products.
The zoning request was presented to the board by Heather Dukes, of Dukes Law PLC, who represented Bayacan, NatureSweet Executive Chairman Bryant Ambelang, and Frank Van Straalen, a principal with Bayacan. That last name may ring a bell, as Van Straalen previously worked for EuroFresh, who created the greenhouses before selling to NatureSweet. Additionally, the approval means the return of Eurofresh co-founder, Johan van den Berg, who is also a principal with Bayacan. Van Straalen and van den Berg are also involved with The Pharm, a cultivation site in Willcox that utilizes a Dutch greenhouse for cannabis cultivation.
Dukes advised that Bayacan was merely asking the board to allow it to make use of the multi-million dollar facility to grow a similar crop to what has already historically been grown there.
“We are asking for approval to grow and harvest a crop that is very similar to what is already being grown in these greenhouses,” Dukes said. “Both crops are grown in a controlled environment indoors, hydroponically, and they are harvested and shipped to consumers. Both crops emit certain odors as all agricultural crops do. And they use similar amounts of water.”
On Monday, the Graham County General Services Building’s board meeting room was packed to capacity with standing room only even after more chairs were brought. The first four rows (and then some) were filled by NatureSweet workers, who would soon be out of a job if the zoning application failed to pass, according to Van Straalen who previously advised that the facility would shutter its doors if NatureSweet’s plan to diversify was not permitted.
In looking at those agricultural workers, Supervisor David said he would not be responsible for putting them out of work.
A good number of those employees spoke at the meeting in favor of the zoning change, however, an equal amount of those associated with farms in the Bonita area also spoke against the proposal. Those who spoke out against cited morality reasons, along with concerns over the possible smell of the cannabis emanating to where they live or work and the additional traffic the facility would bring.
One of the main families against the zoning is the Fleming family, who breed horses at their Fleming Thoroughbred Farm, which is the closest facility to Site 6. The Flemings believe that cannabis cultivation will be detrimental to their business due to the horses being able to smell the cannabis. They and others also were concerned that residential property values would be lowered and suggested that Bayacan instead build a new facility closer to the Safford area or somewhere “out in the middle of nowhere”. However, the Bonita area is an agricultural area and a similar crop has been historically grown at the greenhouses for nearly 30 years.
Additionally, some of the opponents’ concerns were seemingly addressed previously, however, as Bayacan advised it would utilize air systems to reduce the possibility of smells escaping the facility, and the traffic wouldn’t be any higher than when the facility was previously in fuller operation as a tomato producer. Additionally, water use was also addressed and Bayacan advised it would be utilizing a hydroponic system that would use essentially the same water as NatureSweet previously did while cultivating tomatoes. However, many upgrades will be utilized at the greenhouse, including black-out screens to help with plant production and conform to the dark sky ordinance.
The rezoning also received strong support from the business and education community, with the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and Eastern Arizona College endorsement. Some major business leaders who also spoke in favor included Kempton Chevrolet co-owner Kip Kempton, III Counties Distributing owner Tim Linden, Shane’s Place bar owner Shane Jones, Double R Entertainment owner Reed Richins, and real estate developer and five-generation farmer Ted Prina, who said there should be no question to the zoning’s approval.
“If this were about putting corn in a greenhouse no one would be in this room,” Prina said. “And I don’t think the state has a right to tell us what we can plant on our personal property. This is a win-win. I don’t see how you guys (the BOS) can not approve of this.”
The board also previously approved rezoning an area in Eden for a commercial cannabis cultivation operation headed up by Colvin Farms, which was also brought up by Keith Alexander, Eastern Arizona College’s special assistant to the president for community and government relations. Alexander said he would not want to see a precedent where one entity gets approved while another similar operation is not.
Kempton spoke about the possibility of losing the NatureSweet tax base that would put the county in a tax crisis and cause every other business and residential property taxes to increase as NatureSweet currently accounts for 20% of the county’s property taxes. However, if the zoning measure was passed, Bayacan and NatureSweet together would then represent 23% of the county’s property taxes.
As far as any morality argument, Supervisor David – who is part of the Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition and advised he didn’t vote for either medical marijuana, which passed in 2010 as the AMMA or for recreational marijuana, which passed in 2020 – said that argument was null and void as Arizona voters decided democratically to legalize the growing and use of cannabis and it is therefore just another agriculture plant in Arizona.
“Now that marijuana is legal, it should be no different than someone growing barley, corn, or hops or tobacco farming next door,” David said. “It’s legal now and until that’s changed that’s the way it is.”
Supervisor Howard – who has also been involved with the Graham County Substance Abuse Coalition for years and served as the committee chairman for the House of Hope sober living facility which was recently built – echoed David’s stance for the rights of property owners to farm what they want on their own land. Howard advised that he heard the same “not in my backyard” issue when looking for a site for the sober living facility and that eventually, neighbors learned the reality of the situation that rose above their fears. He said the same thing will likely happen with the cannabis cultivation facility, and that he took a surprise visit to The Pharm to see if that operation truly emits odors as bad as opponents of the new cultivation site advised.
“I drove out to Bonita (on) Saturday because I toured the facility (The Pharm) last week and I thought, ‘OK, did I miss something? The smell that everybody is talking about. Did I miss it? Did they try to fool me? Because there is a trust issue here in this room about Bayacan and NatureSweet’ . . . So, I drove out there myself and I drove by four times back and forth on Saturday. Did I smell something? Yeah, I did (at) about a hundred yards. Was it real strong (to) knock me on my truck and give me a headache? No, I did not smell that. I did not smell that.”
“This position is not about marijuana and the effects it has on people. That’s not what we’re here for – to tell you what marijuana does. I don’t want marijuana. I don’t like marijuana, but it’s here folks . . . That’s not this fight. Property rights is a big fight in my mind as a farmer . . . Nobody tells you what crop to put in your field.”
One point opponents made was the description of how many jobs the cultivation site will create. While Bayacan has announced about 160 new jobs at start-up with a ramp-up to about 600 jobs at full capacity and that Graham County residents would fill those positions, opponents correctly advised that in its heyday EuroFresh had to bus workers up from southern Cochise County and utilize prison labor to fill its positions. Bayacan has shown more than 200 applications for jobs, with 97% coming from Graham County, most from the Safford area.
“These are high-paying jobs that we fully intend to source from this county,” Ambelang said. “There’s one other option, and that’s I close it.”
With the zoning change to allow cannabis cultivation, Bayacan will move forward with the purchase of Site 6 and begin the approval process from the state to cultivate cannabis.
“NatureSweet and Bayacan want to thank the Graham County community and Board of Supervisors for this tremendous opportunity to diversify the greenhouse campus in Bonita,” the companies stated in a press release after the vote. “The Supervisors and County staff spent a significant amount of time learning about the history of the greenhouses and our future plans to create sustainable operations by selling Site 6 for medical-grade cannabis cultivation and adding a research and development component to the NatureSweet campus. They worked tirelessly to meet with Graham County residents, small businesses, and community stakeholders during this process, and we want to recognize their considerable efforts.”
“NatureSweet and Bayacan also extend gratitude and a whole-hearted thank you to our supporters. We were successful as a result of their willingness to talk with their neighbors, sign letters of support, and communicate their opinions to the Board of Supervisors through emails, phone calls, and impromptu meetings at community events and even the grocery store.”
“The professionalism and dedication of the Graham County Chamber of Commerce must also be recognized. We thank Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vance Bryce and the members of the Chamber Board who immediately recognized the job opportunities as well as the positive economic and fiscal impacts associated with our plan. Their assistance with the Bayacan job fair and various community meetings was instrumental to our success. We look forward to our continued partnership with the Graham County Chamber of Commerce as we move forward with implementing the greenhouse diversification.”
“We also want to thank the NatureSweet employees, their families, and UFCW 99 for remaining dedicated to the NatureSweet organization during a tumultuous last few months. The livelihoods of NatureSweet families are a key consideration of our plan, and this rezoning approval has provided options for continuing their employment at the greenhouses.”
“While this rezoning approval was a crucial victory for us, our work here is not finished. We are committed to implementing the diversification plan in the coming months and years in accordance with state and county requirements and regulations. We are committed to recruiting job applicants from Graham County. And we are committed to being a good neighbor and partner within this community.”
“Individuals who are interested in employment opportunities can visit www.bayacan.net to submit their resume and/or fill out an application.”