Long recognized for its importance as a cultural hub within the cannabis community, Humboldt County is in a state of flux as California’s marijuana regulations change and traditional industries continue to suffer.
“Logging is basically all but gone, a lot of the mills are shut down and the fishing industry is waning,” says Alex Moore, who co-owns the Humboldt-based Honeydew Farms with his wife, Miranda. “So the political leaders of the county are looking for how Humboldt County is going to thrive in the future.”
The cannabis tradition in Humboldt began with the hippies and outlaws for whom the dense surrounding forest provided cover and has evolved through medical marijuana legalization and beyond. But where exactly does the county fit into the new, billion-dollar legal market?
Traditional agriculture has been a major component of Humboldt’s economy for decades, but it pales in comparison to California’s Central Valley.
Moore and others were able to help convince county officials to get on board with the legal market, but some fear California’s highly regulated, over-taxed, ultra-competitive cannabis market may drive some legacy growers back into the shadows. Others feel the green rush mentality will flood the county with outside money and greed that could crush independent family farms.
“All these existing farmers have really paved the way for where we are now, but a lot of them were located in areas that are not ideal for agriculture,” Moore says. “And now they’ve got no sun and guess what? It’s legal, so areas that are more suitable for large-scale agriculture are all of a sudden jumping on board. And so the smaller farmers that are up in the mountains of Humboldt and Mendocino today are definitely pretty worried about their future right now.”
And despite the inherent advantages at Honeydew Farms — possibly one of the largest family-owned cannabis farms in the state without outside investors — “nothing’s set in stone for us either,” Moore says.
There’s a misperception among some outsiders that being a cannabis farmer is an easy path to riches. The mainstream media has drilled in on sweeping growth throughout the legal industry, the multimillion-dollar investments being made and the potential for billions of dollars in tax revenue.
But the truth is that farming — whether it’s alfalfa, corn or cannabis — is anything but easy.
“We have the same challenges and the same concerns that a lot of traditional farmers face, but with a lot more regulations,” Moore says.
Plus, marijuana growers are ineligible for federal farm subsidies that keep many agriculture operations alive following natural disasters, and they’re also saddled with higher tax rates, more licensing fees, fewer financial services and the persistent threat of federal prosecution.
“It’s still such a high-risk time right now to be in cannabis,” Moore says.
With 280,000 square feet approved for cultivation, Honeydew Farms certainly has the acreage to grow a massive amount of cannabis. But for the long-term success of the company, Moore finds himself trying to predict the future. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial at this stage with the industry’s tumultuous regulations and ever-changing economic factors. One week he’s focused on farming, the next he’s thinking about building a manufacturing division and debating whether or not to apply for a retail license.
And the constant cycle of change doesn’t stop there. State regulators, trade groups and individual business owners have been fighting over allowable cultivation space — a controversial battle that could continue for months following a lawsuit filed against the state by the California Growers Association. Honeydew Farms could potentially be forced to scale back its production space or lease its land to other licensees.
But Moore believes the square footage at Honeydew Farms won’t be the most important factor in the long run. Like any other business, it will come down to hard work and smart decisions.
“I know it might sound like I’m complaining a little bit, but we feel blessed and we’re really grateful,” Moore says. “Everything fell together for us because we were pretty much first out of the gate and one of the first farms in the entire state of California under the new guidelines to receive local permits.”
Another challenge most people aren’t talking about is the labor force. Including Alex and Miranda, the company had about a dozen employees last season. Harvest bumps that number up, but turnover is a hassle.
“Last year we actually advertised on Instagram and we got applications from across the country,” Moore says. “We had people that were willing to come out and apprentice with us for free. They want to learn how to do it. But locally speaking, it’s really hard to find people that want to unless they’re paid an astronomical amount of money.
“We started the season with nine guys and then only one of them survived. We ended up continually hiring during the year and then getting a couple of guys that came out of the construction industry. My two guys that we’ve got right now, we’re really happy with. They’re both from Washington and they were telling us that in Washington now trimmers get paid $11 an hour. Down here, a trimmer would scoff at that.”
Spreading the Word
For many longtime cannabis growers, farming has become second nature. But in this new world of taxed and regulated cannabis, marketing, branding and professional sales strategies might be even more important than yield and quality.
The Moores recognized this importance as they began preparing Honeydew Farms’ entrée into the adult-use market. While many growers attempt to market their brand toward consumers, hoping to generate enough demand to drive sales, Alex Moore immediately understood the value of marketing toward retailers first and foremost.
“If we’re not in shops, where’s the consumer going to get our product?” he says. “We’re still trying to penetrate retail, which has been really challenging just because it’s been completely full of gray market products.”
Honeydew Farms started its Instagram account about a year and a half ago, and Moore says the social media platform has been a huge benefit. The company now has nearly 26,000 followers.
“We’re really lucky because my wife has a background in photography and she’s amazing,” Moore says. “So now we’ve got a phenomenal in-house photographer who’s great at telling our story through her pictures.”
That story includes 25 years of experience, environmentally conscious practices and the captivating scenery of Humboldt County’s Mattole Valley.
“It’s kind of a coastal banana belt,” Moore says of the region. “We’re surrounded by mountain ranges so we don’t get that fog. But we’ve got the real hot days and cold nights, kind of similar to Napa, which we feel really affects cannabis.”
Moore has experience growing indoors and expects to open an indoor grow facility at some point in the future. But for his own enjoyment, he prefers sun-grown cannabis.
“I think what we need to do now is to educate consumers,” he says. “We feel like our product is going to be very well received as people really start to understand cannabis, understand terpenes and understand that the terpene profile from a plant that’s grown outside in soil is definitely different than a plant that’s grown inside hydroponically.”
He’s hoping consumer trends in the recreational market will put a heavier emphasis on sustainability and, similar to the organic movement with food, that people will be more conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies.
Honeydew Farms reuses all its soil, including some soil Moore has been cultivating for two decades. The company also avoids harmful pesticides, does not use any surface water and has incorporated solar power into its greenhouses and wells.
The 900-acre ranch is currently one of the largest cannabis farms in the state.
“We’re proud of the fact that we really are a single-family farm,” Moore says. “We haven’t taken on any outside investment from any hedge fund guys or any corporations. We want to do this on our own and if that means that it takes us an extra year to get completely built out, then so be it. We’re not the type of owners that are just investors. We’re actually on the ground, getting dirty on the front lines, both in the farming and marketing and branding at retail too.”