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The Small Town Grappling with Big Smell from Marijuana Cultivation

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By Amy Taxin, Associated Press

(AP) — This picturesque coastal town cradled by mountains and sandy shores is a scene out of a Southern California postcard. Residents of Carpinteria say they feel lucky to live in what they consider a slice of paradise.

But change is in the air. And sometimes, they say, it stinks.

That’s because marijuana has become a new crop of choice in the farmlands surrounding this tight-knit community of 14,000, which has long helped fuel the U.S. cut flower industry.

Residents say a thick, skunk-like odor from the marijuana plants settles over the valley in the evenings and before dawn. To keep out the stench, they have tried stuffing pillows under doors, lighting incense and shutting windows, a reluctant choice since it also keeps out the cool ocean breezes that are part of the town’s allure.

“We don’t want a marijuana smell,” said Xave Saragosa, a 73-year-old retired sheriff’s deputy who was born and raised in the town and lives near a greenhouse that grows marijuana. “We want fresh air.”

Saragosa said the odor pervades his hillside home at night and keeps his wife up coughing.

Carpinteria, about 85 miles (137 kilometers) from Los Angeles, is in the southeast corner of Santa Barbara County, a tourist area famous for its beaches, wine and temperate climate. It’s also becoming known as a haven for cannabis growers.

The county amassed the largest number of marijuana cultivation licenses in California since broad legalization arrived on Jan. 1 — about 800, according to state data compiled by The Associated Press. Two-thirds of them are in Carpinteria and Lompoc, a larger agricultural city about an hour’s drive to the northwest.

Virtually all of Carpinteria’s licenses are for small, “mixed-light” facilities, which essentially means greenhouses.

The result is a large number of licenses but small total acreage. Only about 200 acres of the county’s farmland is devoted to marijuana, compared with tens of thousands sown with strawberries and vegetables, said Dennis Bozanich, who oversees the county’s marijuana planning.

The area’s greenhouses have their roots in Carpinteria’s cut flower industry, which was sapped after the U.S. government granted trade preferences to South American countries in the 1990s to encourage their farmers to grow flowers instead of coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

In an ironic twist, some California flower growers weary of import competition have started trying to grow cannabis, a plant that, like coca, is deemed illicit by the federal government. Others have sold their greenhouses to marijuana investors.

“We have literally no carnation production in the United States any longer because South America grows them so cheaply,” said Kasey Cronquist, chief executive of the California Cut Flower Commission. “Farmers had to move crops, and that is what we have seen happen over time — they’ve gone to crops that are more valuable or more difficult for Ecuador and Colombia to ship.”

Domestic cut flower growers saw their share of the U.S. market drop to 27 percent in 2015 from 58 percent in 1991. Sales of imported cut flowers grew to more than $1 billion during the same period, according to data compiled by the commission.

Greenhouses that once produced flowers are seen as ideal for marijuana. In Carpinteria’s climate, the greenhouses heat and cool easily and inexpensively, and the plants thrive. It takes only about three months to grow cannabis in pots of shredded coconut husks, so farmers can get multiple harvests each year.

Photo: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong