In Northern California, small farmers grapple with regulations and well-financed competitors in their decades-long mission to grow the best weed in the world
Mention the Emerald Triangle to anyone who has more than a passing knowledge of cannabis and you will invariably get a knowing look — a nod of wistful affirmation. Throughout the world, the Emerald Triangle is often acknowledged as the Camelot of Cannabis, a region imbued with an almost mythical aura that brings to mind towering redwoods, rugged roads and hardy, off-the-grid farmers who grow what is arguably the best weed in the world.
These farmers — some now second- and third-generation cannabis growers — have been doing it as long as anyone in the modern era. In the process, they have created legendary strains, preserved rare landraces, survived the helicopter flyovers of prohibition and carved out a completely unique, under-the-radar way of life.
Six decades on, their deeply rooted grow culture remains a gold standard in outdoor cannabis cultivation, still applied by the top farmers who work the steep hillsides and lush valleys synonymous with this vast region that includes Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties.
Several hours north of San Francisco, beyond paved roads in places like Mendocino’s Potter Valley, growers take advantage of an amazing number of micro-climates that make it a haven for cultivators. Blessed with wet winters to feed the local watersheds and hot, dry summers to nurture plants and difficult terrain to keep out interlopers, many consider the region a perfect cannabis ecosystem, where elevation and terroir also play critical roles. (Underscoring this facet, Mendocino is currently working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture to develop an appellation designation — similar to what exists in the wine world).
The Emerald Triangle is also home to growers making the extra effort needed to apply the principles of regenerative farming, which focuses on closed-loop systems that improve soil health rather than diminish it. They do this through practices such as sequestering CO2 in the soil and biomass, growing plants that attract pollinators, keeping farm animals and avoiding outside inputs, such as commercial fertilizers. The result is a level of “clean cannabis” that exceeds even organic standards in traditional agriculture. The industry has definitely taken notice with the prestigious cannabis competition, the Emerald Cup, now including a Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award for three years. (The past two years, all winners in the category have been from Mendocino and Humboldt counties).
Seeds of Change
But like the rest of the cannabis world, which has gone from an underground economy to Wall Street investments at a head-rush pace, change has come to even this isolated utopia. Regulations ushered in by Proposition 64 in 2018, which legalized adult-use, commercial cannabis, were the most significant disruptor.
While many growers had been operating under the parameters put in place with California’s legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 (the first state to do so), Prop 64 stipulates a rigid new set of regulations for growers, such as the track-and-trace requirement. In response, some legacy Northern California growers have called it quits, others have turned to the illicit market, while others press on and continue to navigate the regulatory gauntlet and competitive atmosphere of the licensed marketplace.
Daniel Auclair, a 2018 Emerald Cup winner, is working within the Prop 64 system and determined to keep farming in spite of the burdensome new regulations. He and his wife Blair own and run Radicle Herbs, a Mendocino-based, Demeter-certified biodynamic farm.
“There are so many requirements not related to cultivation or distribution, just to oversight,” Auclair says. “The regulations would be an added burden to any business, but if you’re super capitalized and have a team who can focus on compliance, it’s not such a big deal. But if you’re two farmers busy growing, it’s so draconian and superfluous. It’s really for regulators to say, ‘We’re regulating.’”
A couple hours away, up a twisting dirt road at 2,500 feet of elevation, is Heartrock Mountain Farms in Potter Valley.
Nestled in a pine forest, the farm is known for its deep repository of heirloom and custom strains, a point of pride for second-generation farmer Dan Morford. There’s also a sense of accomplishment in earning a Dragonfly Earth Medicine Pure certification, a peer-reviewed protocol that sets a high bar in the regenerative category. Morford gives the new regulations a mixed review. He says the METRC track-and-trace system simply doesn’t work for outdoor cultivators.
“As an example, we’re supposed to weigh the big leaves that fall on the ground and tell (the state) which plant they came from,” he says. “Come on. There has to be a better way.”
But he also takes the long view and says that along with difficulties, there are also some benefits.
“With legalization, we lost some good growers, but we also lost a lot of bad ones using destructive methods,” he says. “There were some law enforcement operations that cleaned up the Eel River watershed and the national forest. If this is a side effect, I’m for it. Our watersheds and the health of our forests are paramount.”
Show Mendo The Money
As if state and county regulations weren’t enough of a headwind, another issue that has Emerald Triangle growers buzzing with conjecture is the arrival of Big Money. While that might seem an uncontested win for places with indoor and mixed-light mega-grows like Santa Barbara County, it’s a head-spinner in a place like Mendocino where grow licenses top out at 10,000 square feet and most farms are still mom-and-pop outdoor operations. Talk to growers and it’s not long before the topic comes up — although it’s something most prefer to talk about off the record.
One company that always comes up in those conversations is Flow Kana, the largest seller of sungrown flower in California. Operating from an 80-acre former winery in Mendocino’s Redwood Valley, the company implements an integrated business model providing production, providing a network of small Emerald Triangle farms with marketing and farmer support services, as well as statewide distribution. Fueled by rapid expansion since its launch in 2015, Flow Kana attracted Wall Street investment — as well as controversy — because of the company’s size and regional dominance. But Michael Steinmetz, the company’s founder and CEO, offers a straightforward rationale why Flow Kana’s business model is a vital complement — not a threat — to Northern California’s legacy growers.
“It’s a challenging time for the industry at large, especially for smaller operators and farmers — they’re getting hurt the most,” Steinmetz said during a break from the action at his company’s expansive booth at the most recent Emerald Cup. “In California, we’re going through growing pains, figuring out the regulations, dealing with the high costs of compliance and high taxes. And we need to creatively expand retail immediately.”
Citing roadblocks like the retail bottleneck, where too few licensed dispensaries and other sales channels exist in the largest legal market in the world, Steinmetz says Flow Kana offers an important platform for their partner growers to succeed. Farmers have traditionally been afraid of the word “scale” because getting more land and growing more cannabis was typically associated with lower quality.
“You have to find ways to get scale and scale smartly,” Steinmetz said. “Today, with the tech, tools and resources we have, we can find of ways to scale by banding together.”
Unlike the Big Ag approach where scale happens on ever-larger plots of land, Steinmetz says the Flow Kana model builds on the strengths of local producers — farmers who own their grows and employ practices like regenerative agriculture and use solar electricity to keep overhead low. “So it’s the post-harvest steps that are hurting the farmer, like drying, curing and compliance, and that’s where a company like ours can step in, leverage resources and help the farmers to thrive.”
Despite the challenges legacy growers face today, Heartrock Mountain’s Morford says farmers like him aren’t going anywhere.
“We don’t really feel threatened by any of it — illicit grows, Big Cannabis, whatever,” he says. “People see what we are creating and they respond to it.”
He says farmers he knows in the region aren’t waiting for solutions from others. Instead, they are devising their own responses to market shifts, such as coming together in groups like Mendocino Generations.
Co-founded by second-generation cannabis farmers Chiah Rodriques and her husband Jamie Beatty, who own River Txai Farms, Mendocino Generations is a community hub of local small farmers who collaborate on everything from regulations workshops to helping out on each other’s farms. As an example, when the owners of Moon Gazer Farms in Mendocino were busy with their newborn twins, Morford and some of his crew went to the farm and helped out with some tasks.
Growers like Rodriques are also working with farmer-friendly manufacturers interested in the genetics and beyond-organic quality of the Emerald Triangle’s traditional growers. She says success today for farms like hers is all about diversification and building relationships with partners who appreciate the genetics and terpene and cannabinoid profiles the region’s cannabis is known for.
“Back in the (Prop) 215 days, we used shake for compost,” she says. “Now farmers need to get a leg up anyway they can, so we sell everything — shake goes to certain companies for concentrates, and our flower gets white-labeled in jars by another.”
These Northern California manufacturers are emerging as a vital conduit to market for independent growers, especially as sales of flower decline, while concentrates sales increase and new categories such as cannabis-infused beverages gain traction.
Micah Anderson, one of the partners behind LEEF Organics, which recently opened a new facility on 15 acres in the Mendocino County town of Willits, is aware of the role companies such as his play for area growers.
“LEEF works with the farms in our community in different ways,” says Anderson, a second-generation farmer himself. “We have some farms that grow specific genetics for us for our flower brand Heady and other farms that supply us with material for our extraction facility.”
He adds that in Mendocino there is a shortage of processing facilities, which makes it difficult for a lot of the farms to get their product to market.
“We are hoping to be a one-stop-shop solution for a lot of the farms in our area where they can rely on us to get their flower trimmed, packaged, tested and sold.”
A few hours south in West Oakland, Chemistry is a manufacturer making a name for itself by using a proprietary liquid extraction technique that does not use butane or CO2. Chemistry’s process is designed to retain the full flavor profile of small-farm-sourced cannabis. Working primarily with Emerald Triangle growers, Chemistry nabbed two Emerald Cup first-place trophies in 2019, one for its CBD cartridge (sourced from Lady Sativa Farm of Humboldt) and one for its CBD tincture (sourced from WildLand Cannabis of Mendocino). Jimmy Levi, the company’s director of flower, says many concentrates companies talk a lot about their products, but not about the farms where they source their cannabis. In contrast, he says, “we give recognition to all the farms, counties and appellations on our packaging and website. We believe consumers want to know the source and recognizing the farmers adds value all the way up the supply chain as well as to local communities.”
Above all, these Emerald Triangle small farmers are a self-reliant, resilient group — just as their forebears who pioneered the methods of the region — and they see their most effective tool as doing what they have always done: growing the cleanest, greenest, most in-demand cannabis in the world. As outdoor regenerative farmers, they already keep their energy and input costs to a minimum. And now they’re also employing other grow techniques such as light deprivation with hoop houses and cultivating autoflower strains, both of which allow for multiple harvest cycles per year.
Moreover, these growers maintain the belief that what they are doing can have an effect far beyond the boundaries of their farms.
“Our goal is to have the regenerative principles we practice take over the rest of the industry and the world,” says Blair Auclair of Radicle Herbs. “We think of our farms as a launchpad for these principles and a way to create a better ecosystem for everyone, instead of the extractive nightmare we have now.”
These small farmers have beat the odds for decades — and they might still be where the smart money places their bets in the future.