Executives from NatureSweet and Bayacan spoke to an overflow crowd of Graham and Cochise county residents at a community meeting Thursday to discuss the future of NatureSweet’s Bonita agricultural facilities on April 22.
Whether or not NatureSweet, known for growing tomatoes and other vegetables, will be given the community of Bonita’s blessing to sell a portion of their greenhouses in Bonita to Bayacan, a company that grows marijuana, and whether or not that will be allowed by the Graham County Board of Supervisors, has been a contentious debate around Graham County.
“I don’t have a better idea than the one I’m giving you tonight,” said Bryant Ambelang, NatureSweet’s executive chairman, during the community meeting at The Venue in Safford. “Time has just caught up to us, and we have to diversify that facility, and cannabis helps.”
Ambelang said that if NatureSweet was allowed to sell greenhouses to Bayacan, they would be able to diversify its growing operation and plant bell peppers, “snacking tomatoes,” and create a research and development facility.
The new NatureSweet facilities would employ 250 to 300 people at the “lower range” of $20 an hour, generating an estimated $18 million in annual wages, he said.
Frank Van Straalen, a founding partner of Bayacan, and a former executive at EuroFresh Farms, the former owner of the NatureSweet property, added that his growing operation would employ 300 people in its “first phase,” and an additional 300 people after that.
If the sale of the site to Bayacan doesn’t happen, Ambelang and Van Straalen warned that not only would the county lose property tax revenues and jobs at the site, but that Eastern Arizona College could loose $300,000 in property tax revenue and Bonita Elementary School District could $650,000 in local property tax revenue for the K-8 school, a claim which administrators at the school deny.
Van Straalen said if the deal is allowed to go through, Bayacan would donate $120,000 to the Bonita school district annually.
After Van Straalen and Ambelang’s presentation, community members were given time to ask questions to both executives.
Most people who spoke were in support of the deal, and generally in support of economic growth and an increase in available jobs in the area. Most questions came from Cochise County residents.
In response to a resident who asked about the increase in traffic the Bayacan operation could cause, Ambelang quipped, “I understand the community has a right to keep that land quiet as it is, but I own that land, and I want to give people jobs on that land.”
At the end of the meeting Ambelang projected the names and email contacts for the three Graham County Board of Supervisors, at least two of whom were in attendance, and asked that the audience contact the supervisors to voice their support for NatureSweet and Bayacan’s deal.
After the meeting, Juan Rodriquez, who grows pistachios outside of Willcox, said he hasn’t seen an increase in traffic near the marijuana cultivation operations in Willcox.
If the Bayacan sale doesn’t go through, Rodriquez said he’s worried about the economic impact in both Cochise and Graham counties, noting that he knows too many people in the Willcox and Bonita area who live precariously from paycheck to paycheck.
‘Good paying jobs’
It’s good paying jobs,” Rodriquez said, “People need to keep working.”
Fred Borcherdt, a sculptor who lives west of Bonita, was a little less excited about Bayacan’s proposal.
“I think marijuana is the real problem. There’s already enough stimulants out there, like alcohol,” Borcherdt said, “There’s a lot of bad [expletive] about it.”
Rachel Garza, a Willcox city councilmember and school board member drove over from Willcox to hear Bayacan’s proposal.
She said she was worried specifically about workers at NatureSweet losing their jobs, and the economic impact that loss of jobs would have on both counties. “Besides, it’s legal anyways,” she said.