Somewhere between the laboratory-produced cannabis that never sees the sun and the wild cannabis growing in the hills of India lies the mom-and-pop outdoor farms of Northern California’s expansive mountain ranges.
The cannabis plants grown in many of these predominantly legacy farms are sometimes tended by second- or third-generation cannabis farmers whose approach to cannabis cultivation is similar to the grape growers of Napa Valley, California, or Bordeaux, France, in that the farmers work in conjunction with the natural environment to support the expression of the terroir in the final product.
At its essence, the term “terroir” refers to the “taste of place,” so a terroir-based model of cannabis farming seeks to ensure the biophysical and cultural environment is expressed in the flowers produced by the cannabis plant. A common feature of terroir-based cannabis farming is the use of certain genetics that have proven to express consistent terpene flavor profiles or cannabinoid profiles in that region over time. Another common feature is the use of locally sourced nutrients and inputs. The goal is a link between product and place that consumers can actually taste.
Due to its focus on regional production, terroir-based farming is often characterized as a sustainable alternative to the extraction-based model of agricultural production that currently dominates our nation’s food and commodities sourcing. Extraction-based industries exist wherever the production model extracts take the agricultural resource from a region without meaningful reinvestment of that resource’s value back into the local community, often using degenerative environmental practices. Easy examples are coal, logging and mining, but wheat, soy and contract chicken farming are other examples that fit the model.
Terroir-based farming, on the other hand, links the value of the agricultural product to the land on which the product was produced, keeping the value within the community while at the same time providing a more trustworthy, and therefore higher quality, product to the consumer. In pure economic terms, terroir-based cannabis farming is a win-win for communities and for consumers.
The reinvestment of value in the community is particularly critical in California’s Emerald Triangle and the state’s other legacy producing regions, such as Santa Cruz and the Sierra Nevadas, where decades of logging, mining and other natural resources were extracted from our hills for the benefit of some corporate board of directors. Cannabis farmers were, in many ways, left holding the bag, as the effects of climate change have become an urgent danger just as cannabis farming became Northern California’s agricultural industry du jour, so local governments often look to cannabis farmers to remedy the harms caused by careless extraction-based industries.
Many of California’s legacy cannabis farmers, however, are ready to face the climate challenge. Cannabis is, after all, a bio-accumulator which sequesters carbon from the atmosphere at higher rates than many other agricultural crops, meaning the plant sucks harmful chemicals out of the both the soil and the air, and still manages to produce a flower that has the power to change hearts and minds and heal the human body. These dynamic bioremediation and medicinal qualities ensure cannabis’ place in the broader panoply of strategies to combat climate change. As I often say, we were born for this challenge.
The plant’s value as a bioremediator is critical to terroir-based cannabis farming because, even as I write these words, the largest fire in California’s history — the August Complex Fire — is currently burning a deadly path directly through the heart of California’s Emerald Triangle, where Humboldt County, Mendocino County and Trinity County intersect in the Golden State’s northern coastal mountain range. Despite the Emerald Triangle’s fifth consecutive week of almost constant fire-related evacuations and apocalyptic smoky skies, there is hope: Many of California’s legacy farmers were drawn to the plant because of its medicinal and spiritual properties, so they’ve been preparing to change the world their entire lives. In fact, it is common to meet legacy cannabis farmers who believe that climate change can be stalled through regenerative cannabis farming and, to an increasing degree, science appears to agree with them.
The state of California recently enacted an “appellations of origin” program for cannabis cultivation within the state. Legally speaking, the marketing or branding of a product’s terroir is regulated through appellations of origin programs which dictate standards for the use of the appellation name on the product’s label. However, this program is uniquely exciting because it recognizes cannabis farming as traditional agricultural activity worthy of legal protections, and it’s also the first appellations of origin program of this caliber in our nation’s history.
Only cannabis farms who plant their cannabis plants in the ground and grow them without using artificial light will be eligible to brand their product as produced in that appellation, meaning appellation branding is not available to cannabis produced indoors, in greenhouses or even to cannabis grown in plastic pots. This strict limitation was enacted as a consumer protection — at the request of the cannabis farming industry — in an effort to ensure greater consumer trust in the origin of their product, and at the same time stands as a commitment by appellation farmers to combating climate change. The logic is simple: the plants must have access to a terroir to be influenced by it.
Perhaps this is what Bob Marley meant when he said cannabis is “the healing of the nations,” because our nations and our Earth need healing now more than ever. But one thing is sure, California’s legacy cannabis farmers, under threat of fire and other climate change calamities, will continue to produce the highest quality of cannabis on the face of the Earth at the same time they are trying to save it.
Heather L. Burke is a co-founding partner with Origin Group Law LLP, a values-based boutique law firm serving clients throughout the Emerald Triangle and Sierra Nevadas. Her practice focuses on cannabis agriculture and complex supply chain issues. Her passions include cannabis appellations, cannabis genetics and supporting California’s legacy cannabis farmers.