NatureSweet to close if it can’t sell greenhouse to grow cannabis

Contributed Photo: NatureSweet says it will close its Bonita facility if it cannot sell greenhouses to Bayacan to grow cannabis.

By Jon Johnson

BONITA – NatureSweet, which grows tomatoes in several large greenhouses at its facility in Bonita, recently told its employees that it would shutter operations if a sale of one of its greenhouses to Bayacan for the growing of cannabis was not approved by Graham County.

Bayacan previously applied for a rezoning for greenhouse number 6 to grow cannabis, however, the company withdrew its application after receiving a rejection recommendation from the Graham County Planning and Zoning Committee and a hearing with the Graham County Board of Supervisors that appeared to be heading toward rejection.

On Thursday, NatureSweet President and CEO, Rodolfo Spielmann, met with the businesses more than 200 employees and informed them that the business was losing millions of dollars each year at the Bonita location and that without the diversification of selling greenhouse number 6 to Bayacan it will cease all tomato production at the end of its current cycle in July, leaving most of the employees without a job by the end of the year.

Diversification with cannabis cultivation is the only viable option with a greenhouse facility of this size, NatureSweet said in a press release.

“By selling Site 6 to Bayacan, NatureSweet can then explore options for the remainder of the greenhouses, such as a research and development/innovation center, possibly in partnership with a public university,” said Spielmann.

The plan for diversification has been supported by a number of Graham County businesses, the press release stated, as well as the Graham County Chamber of Commerce and residents who support job growth and continued property tax funding for the Bonita Elementary School District and Eastern Arizona College. Since 2013, NatureSweet has paid more than $4.7 million in property taxes to the Bonita Elementary School District, representing approximately 75% of the total taxes levied for the School District. In fact, NatureSweet paid more than $650,000 to the School District in 2020 alone. NatureSweet’s taxes account for approximately 40% of the School District’s total budget. A few landowners near the NatureSweet greenhouses have voiced opposition to the proposed medical-grade cannabis cultivation on Site 6. Despite their opposition, NatureSweet and Bayacan (the cannabis company that would purchase Site 6) have made ongoing attempts to work with those property owners to address all concerns. In addition to the benefit of increased tax revenues and 600-plus good-paying jobs, Bayacan has also offered to make an annual donation of $120,000 to the Bonita Elementary School District after their first year of operations.

“Due to the opposition of a few adjacent property owners, it remains unclear whether the Graham County Board of Supervisors will support the necessary zoning approvals for the diversification plan, and time is running out,” the release states.

Graham County Board of Supervisors Chairman Danny Smith told the Gila Herald that he has thoroughly reviewed the issue and that most residents of the area are not in favor of the selling of the site to grow cannabis. Supervisors Paul David and John Howard previously stated that they would follow the will of the residents in the area.

“There are many different approaches Bayacan could have taken or perhaps will take in the future,” Smith said. For one year I have tried to bring the attorneys representing Bayacan and local residents together in case they could work together and to this point, all indications are that the vast majority of residents in the affected neighborhood do not want this activity in their neighborhood.  Of those who attended Graham County P&Z and BOS public meetings, it is 10 to 1 not in favor.   I have hosted meetings, taken tours, visited neighbors, and listened to every concern (for and against). I want to acknowledge those that believe this proposal to be a great idea and for reasons that I can agree with. To this point, Bayacan has had one application in which P&Z sent an unfavorable recommendation to the BOS. Their application came to our board and they pulled their application on the same day.  NatureSweet can always file another application and proceed.  All indications are that the Bonita school district board does not want money from selling recreational marijuana.”

Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald: Supervisor Danny Smith (R, District-3) shown during a January BOS meeting, said Bayacan is free to submit an application for a zoning change.

Spielmann made it clear to NatureSweet’s employees, as did the Executive Chairman, Bryant Ambelang, in recent meetings with the public that it believes diversification with cannabis cultivation is the only viable option with a greenhouse facility of this size.

“By selling Site 6 to Bayacan, NatureSweet can then explore options for the remainder of the greenhouses, such as a research and development/innovation center, possibly in partnership with a public university,” said Spielmann. Without the necessary approvals from Graham County, Spielmann outlined the timeline for wrapping up the current tomato cultivation cycle through July, followed by two to six months of clean-up and then immediate closure. The company will explore relocation opportunities for some of its employees, but a majority will be left without employment by the end of the year. NatureSweet plans to offer incentive packages and severances for its employees who stay to help finish the last cycle or the clean-up operations.

Martin Hernandez of The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 attended the April 8 NatureSweet meeting with employees, who are members of UFCW Local 99. During the meeting, Hernandez spoke to the NatureSweet employees, noting that the “Union appreciates NatureSweet being transparent with all of its employees. It would be a shame if a few neighbors stood in the way of some really good, high-paying jobs,” Hernandez said. “UFCW Local 99 is encouraged by the partnership between NatureSweet and Bayacan to diversify the site’s greenhouses with medical-grade cannabis cultivation and the desire to ensure good jobs for the community.”

Photo By @_kingjayy: Neighboring residents in Bonita have spoken out against a proposed zoning change to grow cannabis at the NatureSweet site.

“This is Naturesweet’s narrative and they are entitled to it,” Smith told the Gila Herald. “I have been asked today (April 8) by those representing NatureSweet to facilitate a meeting between Nauturesweet and adjacent property owners.  Press releases like this one hours later in which those neighbors are blamed for employees losing their jobs makes conversations much more difficult.”

“Unfortunately, the situation is framed with only one solution in which NatureSweet must sell approximately 20% of their plant on their timeframe, right now to this one company to make this one product, or else. I fully support NatureSweet in their desire to be profitable and contribute to our economy.  I appreciate their employment of Cochise County residents, the taxes they pay, and the economic impact they have on Graham County.   I can’t compel NatureSweet to apply for a zoning change or a variance and maybe someday they will. There is much more to this situation than one narrative.  I will always advocate for people to talk to each other without using the press making communication much more difficult. I am always going to work hard to bring people together where possible.”

The BOS will also make a decision this month regarding a zoning change to the M-X Unlimited Manufacturing Land Use Classification to allow a commercial cannabis farm of between 35-37 acres in Eden.

Unlike the Bonita greenhouses, the Eden farm will be outdoor and just down the road from a current 100-acre hemp farm that Colvin Farms has operated for the past two years. In that case, the neighbors spoke in favor of the farm and there was no local opposition as the Graham County P&Z gave the zoning change proposal a positive recommendation with a vote of 5-1.