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The kids on site are all right

The children of Tier 3 producer/processor JV Ranch owner Johnathan Vanella –  Natalie (10), Kaitlynn (5) and Hannah (2) – are temporarily allowed to be on site at his cannabis farm in Goldendale during COVID-19 lockdown. (Courtesy Johnathan Vanella)
The children of Tier 3 producer/processor JV Ranch owner Johnathan Vanella – Natalie (10), Kaitlynn (5) and Hannah (2) – are temporarily allowed to be on site at his cannabis farm in Goldendale during COVID-19 lockdown. (Courtesy Johnathan Vanella)
Tom Bowers EVERCANNABIS Correspondent

In the wake of COVID-19, businesses deemed essential by Washington and other lockdown states quickly altered models to adapt to the new normal.

Cannabis companies benefited from inclusion on the essential businesses list, and were allowed to stay open, but this placed family-owned businesses in a difficult situation. With schools and many childcare centers closed, there was nowhere for kids to go. Many operators were going to have to choose between their families and the sources of income that feed their families.

Working closely with a consortium of producers and processors led by Crystal Oliver, head of the Washington SunGrowers Industry Association, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board arrived at a solution: they let the kids in.

Since March, cannabis cultivators and processors have been allowed to bring their children onto the premises, on a temporary basis, with a set of restrictions in place.

“It felt like a low-risk decision to allow children to be on the premises, but they still have to follow some rules,” said Julie Graham, spokesperson for the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. For instance, she said, “children can’t handle the product.”

For Shawn Stuart, owner of Fresh Kind Farms in Vancouver, Wash., it saved his business.

Stuart balances his schedule between running his grow operations and raising his 9-year-old son, who has special needs and requires medication, making it especially difficult to find qualified childcare. 

“His mother also happens to be in the medical field,” Stuart said. “With COVID, now she’s also an essential employee. We both have full-time, essential jobs, and one of us would have to stay home with him if he wasn’t able to go to work with me.”

With the temporarily relaxed restrictions, both parents can fulfill their essential duties, and Stuart is able to care for his son while at work. 

“Now he literally comes to work with me every day,” Stuart said. “The biggest problem I have now is explaining to him why he’s not able to do anything inside the building. He would love to help, water plants, other things, but even with the relaxed restrictions, he’s not allowed to help.”

Another benefit, Stuart said, is that his son finally knows what he does for a living. Before, it was just a building he went into to go to work; Stuart was prohibited from sharing his passion for his craft with his son. 

It’s a familiar situation for many in the cannabis space.

Joshua Rutherford, who cares for his 3-year-old son while his wife works as a nurse, single-handedly runs his Tier 2 farm Darling Growers in Bellingham. 

“I literally wouldn’t be able to grow this season if they didn’t make this rule change,” Rutherford said. But with the current easement, “I’m able to work on the farm while he’s there playing with his Legos.”

For Ryan Sanderson, a third-generation farmer and owner of Golden Leaf in Benton City., the relaxed restrictions have allowed him to pass on a multi-generational family tradition of farming. 

“When I grew up, when you’re 3, 4 years old, you’re sitting on dad’s lap on a tractor, out there learning,” Sanderson said. “You’re running water lines when you’re 6. It’s been great that even though they can’t work, they can learn. I can show them, ‘These are bad weeds. These are good bugs. This is the soil. This is how we water.’”

For Sanderson, whose kids range from 2 to 18 years old and are just now seeing what their father does for a living, this is an opportunity to scrape back lost time, and pass on the legacy.

“I’m 43 years old, and my two smallest kids are 2 and 3,” he said. “I’ll be retired before they can actually participate in the farm with the current regulations. Who knows if I’ll actually last that long? How can they learn the business? That’s where it usually strikes home for me.”

While this easement has been a great benefit to the families, the fact remains that as of right now, it is only temporary. The initial lifting of the restrictions was set to expire on May 1, but thanks in large part to lobbying efforts by Oliver and the WSIA and others in the industry, the WSLCB granted a temporary-yet-indefinite extension while they continue to consider the options and the potential impact of a permanent rule change.

As with everything in the WSLCB world, most actions are driven by complaints – and according to Graham, they haven’t received any complaints or been made aware of any activities that stand out as red flags against a permanent rule change. 

Rutherford maintains optimism up on his farm in Bellingham. His main hope is that the LCB maintains a rational approach to any potential rule changes regarding his son’s presence on the property.

“From my perspective, I can’t see the problem of having him in here,” Rutherford said. “I could see them having certain rules about him not being around certain products or processes, but I’d want that to be science-driven, and not stereotype-driven.”

Tom Bowers left his life as a columnist for The Spokesman-Review in 2008 to seek his fortune. He currently consults for the cannabis, beer, and recording industries as the founder and Managing Director of Propagate Consultants.
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