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October 18, 2017

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The buds of wrath: Why this marijuana farm inflamed a community

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Kyle Johnson / The New York Times

Richard Wagner on his property with the Maysara Winery behind him in the distance in McMinnville, Ore., Sept. 16, 2017. In the Willamette Valley of Oregon, longtime residents in the area are clashing with the new cannabis farmer next door.

MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — “This is hostile territory. Everyone hates us.”

I was riding up a steep hill near Highway 18 one August afternoon when Richard Wagner blurted out what his lawyer had told me weeks earlier: No one wanted to be his neighbor.

Wagner, 33, was seated next to his mother, Mary, who was behind the wheel of her Subaru Outback, navigating a strip of dry grass and rocks in a meadow here overlooking the Willamette Valley. Wagner’s neighbors had made it possible last year for his parents to buy 6.7 acres. But in February, when he told them he was going to grow and process marijuana, his quaint country fellows suddenly were not so chill.

He was sued. The neighbors also asked for a temporary restraining order to stop him from using a shared road to haul his products to market. When Wagner made a case for his processing facility at a county commission meeting in April, he was outnumbered by critics, 14-1. Even Mother Nature turned a cold shoulder. A storm walloped his hilltop home with a foot of snow in January, one of the worst storms since the 1940s.

Wagner, though, saved his particular ire for the winemaker who works at the bottom of the hill and who he said was his most powerful foe. “We don’t talk,” he said.

In April, the winery owner filed a report with the sheriff’s office after the tail of one his cows was severed, warning it could have been retaliation for opposing Wagner’s cannabis farm. Worse, the winemaker got threatening phone calls, one from a man who said he would torch the winery if he did not make peace with his ganja-loving neighbor.

Now, no one wants to talk to Wagner. One resident simply scowls when he drives by. “He just stares at me, like he is trying to make me disappear,” he said.

Many farmers see gold in today’s green rush, where a pound of high-grade marijuana can fetch the same price as a ton of grapes. But as pot farming has moved out of the forest and into the field, neighborly relations are withering under the harshest light.

Residents near Wenatchee, Washington, complained last year that the stink from a marijuana operation was so bad that they couldn’t barbecue outside. The county of San Luis Obispo, California, sued to stop pot growers who depleted the natural water supply, left trash and dangerous chemicals, and toppled portable toilets in their wake.

And in Colorado, a federal appeals court ruled that a horse farm could sue a pot grower whose warehouse, it said, not only emitted noxious odors but also attracted ne’er-do-wells.

Marijuana businesses are flush with cash and product: Last year thieves in Oregon made off with 240 pounds of cannabis worth about $500,000.

In Oregon, where recreational marijuana has been legal for two years, commercial growing is approved with a permit. But towns and counties — let alone people who live in rural areas and on farms — are only beginning to learn what it means to greet the pot farmer next door. Rick Olson, the former mayor of McMinnville and one of the commissioners who reviewed the Wagner case, said feuds like these are likely to multiply. Especially so in states including California and Arizona where the marijuana business is booming.

“This isn’t going away,” he said.

The Terroir of Tiny Town

In 1997, Moe Momtazi bought an abandoned wheat farm in this bucolic corner of the Willamette Valley, where he planted grapevines and took a holistic approach to farming. He brews tea from stinging nettle and sprays it on foliage to ward off disease. He eschews pesticides and embraces mystical alchemy.

On a tree outside his tasting room, a swollen deer bladder stuffed with yarrow blossoms once hung. Momtazi, 66, left it there to absorb celestial energy until it was buried on the autumnal equinox on his 532-acre estate.

The Maysara Winery is a peaceful haven for Momtazi, who fled post-revolution Tehran on the back of a motorcycle in 1982 with his wife, Flora, then eight months pregnant. They slipped over the mountains into Pakistan, he said, paying informants who threatened to report them to the police. He sometimes sits by the reservoir he built on his land, a reminder of a childhood spent at his family’s farm near the Caspian Sea.

So it was with melancholy mixed with anger that Momtazi gestured up the hill one Thursday in August and pointed at Wagner, who was tending to his plants. They hadn’t spoken in six months, Momtazi said, and when they did, the vintner said, he hung up the phone in frustration. “This is all very unfortunate,” he said, shaking his head.

Wagner has a sinewy skateboarder’s body and was dressed in a gray T-shirt and loosefitting tan shorts when we met the next day on the deck of his house overlooking Momtazi’s vineyard. For roughly two years he and his parents, Mary and Steven, sought land so he could start growing and processing marijuana. As a younger man, Richard dabbled with growing pot in the Oregon forest, he said. He studied horticulture and landscaping in junior college. And he liked to make hashish.

“I’m a good grower,” Wagner said. “But I’m a great processor.”

Last year, the Wagners acquired the 6.7-acre lot for $682,000 at the end of Dusty Drive after months of negotiations over property adjustments involving the seller and his new neighbors. The land included an 8,000-square-foot barn big enough to cure and dry marijuana buds, as well as room to process extracts, rosins and hash. Then, too, the Yamhill County planning director approved Wagner’s processing facility, contingent upon his building a 32,000-gallon water tank.

“That’s awesome, right?” said Wagner, adding, “Just doing what I love.”

It is here, perhaps, Wagner made a critical misstep. Momtazi said neither he, nor his neighbors, were told about plans for the pot farm despite months of pre-sale negotiations. Worse, Momtazi said that when he later asked one of the real estate brokers about the farm, he was told it was a hushed affair.

Wagner said the timing was irrelevant. “They would have fought it anyway,” he says now.

In late February, Wagner sent postcards to his neighbors with the name “Yamhill Naturals,” printed in white script. “I am your new neighbor at the end of the road,” he cheerily scrawled on the back of each card. He left his phone number and email address. “I also would like to discuss my plans for my new farming venture,” he wrote.

A Prolonged Silence

The first neighbors he met were Glenda and Van Keck, organic farmers who have lived on Dusty Drive since 1974. “They were worried about the cannabis growing right from the get-go,” Wagner said. “And I came over in hopes of quelling their concerns, to introduce myself and to show them my plans.”

At the time, he wanted to cultivate half an acre of organically grown marijuana, or about 1,000 pounds per year. He told the Kecks he would process in the barn using ice and water, a nonchemical method. Van Keck grumbled about his property values, Wagner said. Glenda Keck was largely silent. “She became very uncomfortable pretty quickly, and she left to go to Costco.” The Kecks did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Parvathy Mahesh said she and her husband, Harihara, were told an older couple was moving in, not a pot farmer. She worried about trucks rumbling past her front yard, close to Wagner’s gate. And the road was too steep to sustain commercial traffic, she said. “If it was on a private road, that would be one thing,” she said. “But this road is shared by all the residents.”

In early March, the Maheshes called the Kecks. Then they went to talk to Momtazi at his tasting room. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this,'” Momtazi said.

He recalled that he and Wagner had talked weeks earlier. His new neighbor mostly complimented him on his biodynamic farming practices, he said, and failed to mention marijuana. Wagner said he was hesitant to mention his farm but did address the topic.

The visit from the Maheshes sent Momtazi reeling. He wasn’t opposed to marijuana use, but a processing operation was something altogether different. His daughter, Hanna, who oversees events, scoured the internet and found Wagner’s Instagram account. On Jan. 14, he posted a photograph of the barn, a wall of storm clouds on the horizon.

“The future sight of greenhouses, and processing facility,” Wagner wrote. “Watch for the build out coming soon!”

Moe Momtazi and the Maheshes researched the marijuana industry. The more they learned, the more nervous they became. State regulations required the Wagners to install cameras near gates and fences, along with motion sensors and alarms. There was the problem of the shared steep road.

And, despite telling the Kecks he would not use chemicals, Wagner, in his initial business application, stated he wanted to use solvents, which are highly flammable. This gave his neighbors pause. Many explosions at illicit butane hash oil labs, for example, have been reported in Oregon, leading to fire and death.

When asked about it, Wagner said he did not intend to mislead his neighbors. But by then, the relationships had soured. An attempt at détente failed. Wagner said he got into a shouting match with Momtazi over the phone.

“We had very little trust,” Parvathy Mahesh said.

So, when the county commissioners agreed to hold a hearing in April regarding Wagner’s processing facility, the neighbors showed up in force.

Furious Messages

At 10:49 a.m. on April 13, Wagner and a dozen of his neighbors and their supporters met face to face in Room 32 in the county courthouse in downtown McMinnville. Wagner spoke first, outlining his organic farming and processing practices and why he believed he would have no negative impact on the environment.

A pile of grievances followed. Momtazi warned that the marijuana operation would produce “foul-smelling particles” that could change the flavor of his grapes. He worried, too, that the reservoir he built might be contaminated if Wagner used pesticides or solvents.

The Maheshes complained about the condition of the road and a lack of privacy once Wagner’s cameras went up. And the Kecks said the value of their land would plummet. Glenda Keck even mentioned that the smell of marijuana set off her migraines.

After an hour and a half, Wagner and his opponents were spent. “I thought I was going to black out, I was so mad,” he said. He ended the hearing, telling the commissioners that Yamhill County farmers were once afraid of wineries. But now they were “the lifeblood” of the Willamette Valley.

Three days after the hearing, the Maneshes and Momtazi petitioned a judge for a temporary restraining order against Wagner. The petition was denied.

On April 19, The Oregonian published an article about the feud. More than 500 people posted comments online, most in support of Wagner. Within days, Momtazi started getting threatening phone calls.

‘We are going to burn the building,” he recalled one person saying on his answering machine.

“They said that?” asked his wife, Flora, who was visiting the winery.

“Yeah, we didn’t tell you that,” he said. “It was really scary. They said, ‘We are going to kill you. We are going to burn the building.’ And that is when we called the sheriff and we found out one of the calves was mysteriously dead. The tail of one of the cows was cut in half.”

His wife stared, dumbfounded. “She kept telling us,” Momtazi said of his wife, “'You need to be careful.'”

Hanna, Momtazi’s daughter, retrieved her cellphone. “Ganja rules, man!” one caller shouted. Another left his phone number. She played the recording. “What’s wrong with you,” the man said, his message peppered with foul language. “Try to live peaceably among your neighbors.”

The man was Richard Colvin, 53, a Portland resident who said in an interview he had heard about the story from local news. When asked, though, he could not recall what the dispute was about. He blamed the media. “The way it sounded to us it was a bunch of people whining about a marijuana grower,” he said. “Maybe I was feeling bad, but I’m tired of the whole marijuana nonsense.”

He later apologized to the Momtazis. But by then, Momtazi had had enough. He filed an incident report with the sheriff’s office and told them about the threatening calls. He installed cameras around the vineyard. And Hanna stayed overnight in case an arsonist showed up. Indeed every time the tussle made headlines, like when BuzzFeed wrote about it in August, the winery was subjected to another wave of threats.

As a result, Momtazi became even more suspicious of the marijuana community. “It is a scare tactic they use,” Momtazi said of the calls. “That made me more firm.”

The Island of Love

In June, the commissioners voted to uphold the appeal in favor of Momtazi and the other neighbors. Olson said he was concerned about how much water Wagner’s processing facility might use, as well as the safety of the road shared with neighbors. “We upheld the appeal based on these issues,” Olson said. “It had nothing to do with whether we like marijuana or not.” Wagner is not out of the business altogether; he can still apply for a permit to grow marijuana commercially.

The lawsuit filed against Wagner by his neighbors is pending. Wagner said the odds of being able to process at his farm were slim to none. Instead he would like to join a farm collective or find an investor to fund his operation. “No one ever really met me,” he said in an interview last week. “It’s like they act like I should go someplace else.”

Momtazi sent an email last week with one of Wagner’s deleted Instagram posts that showed the barn against a brilliant sky at sunset. “Right now I am an island of love with an ocean of fear around me,” Wagner had written. Then, he added, “#xenophobia is #venom to the #haters and those they believe they #hate #manifestdestiny #cannabiscommunity.”

Momtazi surmised that Wagner hasn’t exactly embraced them, either. Posts like that split their farm community, he wrote, “causing more hatred toward us.”

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