The fall harvest is under way in the Central Valley, and this year, a new crop is setting records. Marijuana is transforming the state's most productive farm belt.
But federal authorities are stepping in. The California Report's Central Valley Bureau chief Sasha Khokha has the story.
Sasha Khokha: The best way to get a sense of the scope of the marijuana farms is from the air. Neat rows of orange and almond orchards form geometric patterns as the Fresno Sheriffs Department helicopter climbs into the air.
Lieutenant Rick Ko points to a bright green patch in the middle of a dense citrus grove, where hundreds of marijuana plants the size of trees have replaced oranges:
Lieutenant Rick Ko: Ok, and we're coming up. You see the black plastic next to this orange grove? You can still see how big these plants are right here. They're well above that six foot fence.
Khokha: There are no doors on the helicopter, and the pungent odor of marijuana wafts up as we hover 500 feet in the air.
Lt. Ko: You can smell it from up here. Can you smell it, Sasha?
Khokha: Large plots of marijuana have cropped up all over the valley floor in the last two years. Lieutenant Ko's team used to find carefully concealed grows deep in the national forests. Now, growers emboldened by California's medical marijuana laws are planting openly on farmland.
Lt. Ko: When we fly over these valley groves, people sit and stare at us, or wave at us, they pretty much ignore us now because of the current state of California state law.
Khokha: It's been hard for Ko's team to raid these farms, because people cultivating the plants claim they're used for medical marijuana. Growers often tack recommendations from doctors on fence posts so they're visible from the air.
But marijuana of any kind is illegal under federal law, and the feds say pot grown in California is sold out of state on the black market.U.S. authorities are raiding California corn fields and vineyards here, yanking marijuana plants.
They've started sending letters to landowners, threatening to seize their farmland if they don't evict pot growers. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner announced the strategy recently.
U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner: We want landowners, potential investors, and others who are tempted by the money in the marijuana industry to understand that these businesses are illegal, and that the risk of federal prosecution and forfeiture is real.
Khokha: The feds are already trying to seize land from one family that leased farmland to marijuana growers near Fresno. Law enforcement agents destroyed 25,000 plants on one of their properties.
Attorney Don Fishbach represents the land owners. He says they are innocent.
Don Fishbach: Our clients did not grow it, they don't sell it, they do not use it. Here, they thought that medicinal marijuana was legal and people had permits; so it was ok for their tenants to grow it.
Khokha: I talked to several landowners who rent to medical marijuana growers, but they said they were afraid to be recorded. They all said they didn't make any more profits renting to marijuana growers than they did renting to vegetable farmers.
The new federal strategy is also sending a chill across the valley among medical marijuana patients -- who say not every pot grow nestled among walnut trees and strawberry fields is illegal.
Nearly two dozen brightly colored pet macaws squawk in their cages on Richard Daleman's farm in Tulare County. He's a medical marijuana patient who sub-leases the land he rents to other patients. At one point some 4,000 plants were grown on this property.
Richard Daleman: I was doing everything totally legal to California marijuana law.
Khokha: But now Daleman's landlord is planning to evict him. And the ground is pockmarked with holes where nervous sub-letters have yanked their plants; others have left some to mold and rot.
Daleman: I'm not a cartel. If they didn't badger, threaten, and hound medical marijuana patients, might be that they might get more help to catch the bad guy.
Khokha: Legal or not, pot is transforming the valley. Ryan Jacobsen is president of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, and sees the impact in the area.
Ryan Jacobsen: One of the facilities just down the street from where we're standing here is; I mean they had a huge guard tower.
At some times you could see individuals with -- whether they were shotguns or rifles, or whatever else -- there was no secret in what they were protecting.
Khokha: Jacobsen is standing in his vineyard just southwest of Fresno. He points down the road to where authorities raided a marijuana plot -- because they were able to prove some of it was sold as far away as Boston.
The county Sheriff's Department says a single plant sells out of state for about $4,000. Jacobsen says that means if pot were ranked next to almonds and grapes...
Jacobsen: You're talking about a crop that is by far, the most valuable crop grown in this area. Just a couple plants is going to outdo anything else that we grow around here locally on a per-acre basis.
Khokha: As for the U.S. Attorney's office, they're not disclosing how many letters have been sent to landowners. But they're giving them 45 days to evict pot growers -- or risk losing their land.