When Aneese Bishara and Ed Wilkinson decided to grow cannabis on the Coastside, they spent $250,000 of their own money to get started. As a result, by December 2018, they say they could barely afford food.
“It was all of our savings and we were totally broke,” Wilkinson said. “... We risked it all.”
“It’s definitely not easy,” Bishara said.
Their risk may be about to pay off as the county is in the final stages of reviewing their cultivation license. If the county approves the license, the pair can operate San Mateo County’s first cannabis farm, to be called Half Moon Grow.
Wilkinson, who also runs a farm in Humboldt County, got into the industry when California legalized recreational marijuana in 2016. Bishara was one of Wilkinson’s investors in the Humboldt farm. When San Mateo County legalized cannabis cultivation in 2017, the duo put into escrow an old orchid facility they thought was up to code on Frenchmans Creek Road.
“And then all of a sudden, we find out there’s a grading violation, there’s multiple buildings that are illegal, and everything that he’s done since 2001, which is when the grading violation occurred, has been illegal,” Wilkinson said.
With the help of $7.5 million from investors, they were able to purchase the land and prepare it for operation. Throughout the next year and a half, Wilkinson and Bishara worked with the San Mateo County Building and Planning Department to remedy existing violations and prepare the site for cannabis cultivation.
The county sets extensive requirements for those hoping to acquire a license, including requirements for video surveillance systems, a local hiring plan, waste management protocol and odor control, and ventilation plans among other stipulations.
Wilkinson said that plants without flowers don’t have a smell, and the greenhouses with flowering plants will have ozone machines, similar to the ones that hospitals use, to mask the odor. Whether such machines are effective is a matter of debate. Various government agencies have recommended against using ozone generators because, at low levels, they may be ineffective and, at higher levels, cause respiratory ailments. Bishara and Wilkinson say the smell shouldn’t be an issue in any event.
“We have onshore winds going to Ox Mountain (Sanitary Landfill),” Wilkinson said, “So, Ox Mountain is probably going to be like, ‘Thank God there’s cannabis smell up here compared to the trash smell.’”
The parcel covers 164 acres with four greenhouses, one of which will be used for a nursery and the other three for cultivation. Half Moon Grow will employ eight to 10 farmworkers, the owners say, not including seasonal employees, most of whom will live in housing on site.
The county issued a stop-work order to Bishara and Wilkinson because they began work on a water tank before a building permit was issued. Bishara characterized the problem as a miscommunication rooted in the belief that they could build the tank since their plan did not generate any negative comments.
“We’ve been working seriously hard with the county since October 2018, legalizing and fixing all the code violations that were on the property,” Bishara said.
“We haven’t done anything to make us look bad, besides, you know, stepping over one thing with the tank,” Wilkinson said in a later interview. “But, like I said, the tank is very minor in the big scheme of things.”
Left Coast Ventures, an organization that invests in cannabis and hemp-CBD companies, will be the sole owner of Half Moon Grow, with Wilkinson and Bishara serving as executives. Bishara said they expect to break even within two years.
Wilkinson, who is not related to the Ed Wilkinson who founded the nearby Coastside school, is originally from England and moved to the United States 10 years ago. Wilkinson was one of the first to receive a license after Proposition 64 passed in California. His farm in Humboldt County was operational in May 2017.
Bishara, who is from Pasadena, left the real estate business when he decided to commit to Half Moon Grow.
“Things took a turn and we’re like, ‘Let’s go head first in the big project,’” Bishara said. “Humboldt was like a stepping stone. It’s a Ma-and-Pa shop.”
Since then, Wilkinson and Bishara have lived, worked and surfed on the Coastside. But they have received some pushback from the community.
The city of Half Moon
Bay’s ballot measures
dealing with cannabis were contentious. Half Moon Grow sits outside city limits and is not bound by the city’s requirements that grow operations be limited to small “start” plants. And some nearby residents have strong feelings about Half Moon Grow specifically and the industry as a whole.
“If we were growing strawberries, everyone would be like, ‘Oh, I love these guys,’” Bishara said. “... Because it’s cannabis it’s got this negative stigma.”
Wilkinson added, “Most people come over and see what we’re doing and they can tell that there’s a lot of love and a lot of time and thought that is going into what we’re doing.”