Beset by the woes of California’s cannabis industry, the scion of Benziger Family Winery who has become a cannabis farmer said he is “just squeaking by,” despite his well-known family name and the kudos his cannabis products have garnered.
Mike Benziger of Glentucky Family Farm in southern Sonoma County has long been considered a liaison between the worlds of wine and weed, and the farm’s output has been described as “world-class” by industry sources. Like many cannabis entrepreneurs, however, he is struggling.
Though the herb has a reputation for inducing relaxation, the state of the industry is anything but mellow. In the five years since California voters approved a broad legal marketplace for cannabis, obstacles including skyrocketing taxes and restrictive regulations have forced many industry operators out of business.
“It is unsettling that our fate is not completely in our own hands. There are only so many bumps in the road we can survive, and it’s been bumpy.”Mike Benzinger, Glentucky Family Farm
“The craft cannabis industry here in California is in crisis and on the brink of collapse,” Amber Senter, a noted advocate, said in January. Senter is co-founder and executive director of Supernova Women, a nonprofit organization that works to create opportunities for people of color in the industry.
Senter’s remarks came during a rally at the state capitol in which cannabis advocates, small farmers and business owners called for an overhaul of the California marijuana tax system as they struggle to keep afloat amid rising operating and regulatory costs.
In Danziger’s corner of the world, Sonoma County supervisors unanimously approved a cannabis cultivation tax reprieve in late January. But not even the tax reprieve may help Sonoma farmers, who have seen cannabis prices plummet while state and local taxes either rose or gobbled up a chunk of their bottom line.
‘It’s been bumpy’
Danziger said in an interview Saturday that three of the main obstacles are taxes, oversupply and COVID-19.
“Like all small farmers, we are just squeaking by and only if everything goes right,” he said. “It is unsettling that our fate is not completely in our own hands. There are only so many bumps in the road we can survive, and it’s been bumpy.”
In mid-2021, the state may have produced as much as three times as much cannabis as customers in the state can consume, according to Natalynne DeLapp, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance. And COVID-19 closed dispensaries for a time in 2020 and early 2021, disrupting sales.
On the positive side, Benziger said his family’s established position in the area has helped sales, albeit with a different product than wine.
“I believe our association with Benziger Family Winery has been a plus since Benziger is recognized as a leader in biodynamic and organic farming and has a good reputation as a responsible land manager,” Benziger said. His cannabis farm also uses the biodynamic approach.
Among other things, the biodynamic farming system follows a sustainable, holistic approach incorporating organic, usually locally-sourced materials.
“Since we grow medical plants, purity is very important and biodynamic certification guarantees this,” he said. “Being certified biodynamic has given us an important point of distinction and a pricing advantage.”
His years with Benziger Winery taught him the value of cultivating and keeping good customers.
“We spend a lot of time educating and befriending our good friends and customers,” he said.
Sights on the future
With this in mind, Benziger held a harvest celebration for friends, customers and the general public, releasing his farm’s 2021 cannabis offerings at Sebastopol’s Solful Cannabis dispensary Saturday.
“I’m really looking forward to this launch and release. Solful has always been there for our family and I look forward to meeting with their customers and team members,” Benziger said before the event.
Industry expert David Downs praised Benziger’s product.
“Glentucky Family Farm is a wine country veteran with an ultra-organic approach — the result is world-class outdoor cannabis that rivals indoor,” said Downs, a senior editor at Leafly.com, an online news outlet that also serves as a marketplace where customers can order cannabis online with local businesses.
Cultivating marijuana indoors allows the grower to completely control the environment, including temperature, light source, CO2 levels and humidity, without having to worry about weather. Indoor typically produces flower with higher THC percentages, according to Leafly.com.
Benziger says he is looking forward to a good year in 2022, “but we take nothing for granted. 2021 was a great year for growing tomatoes, peppers and marijuana. It was warm, sunny and dry,” the organic farmer said. His farm also grows vegetables.
“We were lucky enough to sell all our pot at a good price and get it on the shelf early (in 2021) when demand is high. We also have orders for the other crops we grow in quantities that we hope to be able to fulfill,” Benziger said. “We are starting to prepare now for 2023 hoping to understand the best we can how to stay ahead in a crazy, changing, up-and-down market.”