The wrenching legacy of illegal marijuana farms took center stage at a meeting at the Fresno County Farm Bureau where participants included a woman whose husband was shot and killed while investigating reports of a marijuana farm on private timberland.

They also heard from the leader of an organization of mostly small farming operations in California who said use of illegal pesticides and other practices on those farms threaten the future of legitimate endeavors, in part due to food safety issues.

And the patriarch of a mainstay of Fresno County tourism said an illicit marijuana operation eradicated from near his produce market, a highlight of the much publicized Blossom Trail, has his family considering whether to leave the location because of increased criminal activity that has come in its wake.

Their observations came in addition to presentations by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Attorney’s Office on steps being taken to stop the unlawful growing of marijuana within farms on the floor of the valley and in the wooded foothills and mountains surrounding it.

“It’s not about the medicine; it’s about the money,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims, who hammers that point home frequently in talks where her contention is that the grows have little to do with the change in state law that opened the door to growing some marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Mims said more than 200 illegal grows have been identified this year in Fresno County.

From the podium, Mims offered her condolences to Madeleine Melo, the widow of Jere Melo, the murdered forester and Fort Bragg Councilmember. Melo, who traveled to the Fresno forum from her home in Mendocino County, formed the Jere Melo Foundation to keep his memory alive by pointing out the dangers posed by unlawful cultivation sites, including pollution of water.

From the audience, Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League based in Fresno, said contamination caused by illegal marijuana poses “a real nightmare” for small farming operations. He said he would like to see more state and federal attention to the issue from agencies that could include the Department of Homeland Security.

He also said absentee landowners need to be held liable for unlawful growing operations.

Dennis Simonian, owner and operator of Simonian Farms, a popular tourist attraction, agreed with Cunha’s concerns over the threat to food safety and said a marijuana grow near his market “brought crime to what was a rural community” even after sheriff’s deputies removed the illegal plants.

“We have to take back our community,” he said, pointing to thefts of produce grown near his market and the stealing of copper wire. He said the odor of the marijuana was so great that doors on a new building under construction at the market had to be kept closed.

The day before the sheriff spoke, Mims held a press conference in which she warned out-of-county growers of marijuana to stay away.

Her warning came after a gun battle erupted between motorists, the wounding of one man and the discovery of marijuana growing in between rows of sour melons, squash and tomatoes. Mims said the land on which the marijuana was grown had been leased by people from Sacramento and the Bay area.