After decades of secrecy, old-school growers in Northern California are going public like never before, balancing the risks of prohibition with the need to keep up with the trends of legalization
By David Downs
Just a dozen city blocks and about 50 years away from San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury heyday, and the hippies have come home to roost.
Swami Chaitanya, the longtime Emerald Triangle cultivator, cannabis judge and certified yogi, stands among a backyard-full of international press, industry and aficionados. Dressed in white robes, with a red dot between his eyes and long, flowing white beard and hair, Chaitanya presents his third “Swami Select Tasting” event in as many months. Reporters for the BBC, Financial Times, and San Francisco Chronicle mingle with industry bookkeepers and new start-up founders.
The smell of fragrant, organic outdoor bud and old-school hash perfumes the multi-million backyard, as Chaitanya gives the crowd his schpiel. He and partner Nikki Lastreto are veteran cultivators who’ve been Emerald Cup judges for the last 12 years. They’re boldly stepping into the mainstream in 2015 with the “Swami Select” brand cannabis.
“Nikki and Swami are very much ahead of the curve,” said Rick Pfrommer, an independent industry consultant, who was the former general manager of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center.
Following Chaitanya and Lastreto’s lead, an entire flock of old-school growers who’ve spent decades hiding in the shadows are emerging to brand their farms in the public eye. They’re developing and trademarking farm names, establishing brands, winning competitions and hosting tasting events, similar to those prevalent among California’s famed wine industry.
Fears of arrest are receding as new fears of being cut out of the post-prohibition market have reached an all-time high, Pfrommer said. It’s resulting in a sea change in cultivator behavior.
According to Hezekiah Allen, a fourth-generation California farmer and director of the Emerald Grower’s Association, “The entire culture for generations has been built around keeping our heads down. It’s been a real cultural revolution to see people flip it on their heads and say, ‘I’m willing to take that risk. … Those laws are unjust anyway.’”
“Marketshare is at stake,” Pfrommer said. “I think everybody — and maybe they’re being overly paranoid — is concerned about big business coming in with improved supply chains, packaging, distribution, marketing and advertising. These are all things that traditionally cannabis farmers were not concentrating on. They’re cannabis farmers. And they certainly don’t have multiple millions of dollars to do a marketing campaign around a specific brand. You didn’t need to brand. It was green. You either wanted it, or you didn’t. Those were your two choices.”
At least a dozen farm brands and seed companies have drawn headlines — including Swami Select, HappyDay Farms and Aficionado Seeds. Dozens more are set to go public this year. Lobbyists and lawyers hold regular workshops on branding and risk management.
OLD ROOTS, NEW PRESSURES
This trend has decades-old roots. Green House Seeds’ Arjan Roskam is synonymous with Netherlands cultivator branding since the early ‘90s. Iconic figure Marc Emery moved millions of seeds out of Canada and went to prison for it.
In the modern medical cannabis era, first edibles makers, then concentrates-makers trail-blazed branding in their niches. Colorado’s Dixie Elixirs is now a national name, expanding into California in July. Concentrates brands POP Naturals and O.Pen Vape have entered multiple new states this year.
“The logical next step is flowers,” Pfrommer said.
To these veteran farmers, the threat of players from legal markets flooding California is very real. Under legalization, deep wells of capital threaten to rapidly increase cannabis supply and drown the market with cheap product, Pfrommer said.
“It’s what some California Indian tribes are trying to do with FoxBerry — come in and grow 90,000 square feet this year and sell it for $500 (per pound) wholesale. That’s where branding comes in very strongly.
“Most people will buy Two Buck Chuck,” Pfrommer said, referring to the Charles Shaw budget wine nicknamed for its thrifty price tag.
Aficionado Seeds co-founder Leo Stone said he’s reacting to impending legalization. Since 2013, Aficionado has publicly released vintage Northern California genetics and set the bar for clandestine veterans coming out of the closet and seeking the spotlight.
“Hell yeah, especially for farmers up north,” Stone said of preparing for statewide changes. “We have to protect an industry that has a multi-generational heritage.”
In June, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and an ACLU Blue Ribbon Commission held outreach meetings on marijuana legalization in 2016 and how it would affect the Emerald Triangle.
“You had legislators there, you had law enforcement, you have huge wigs from the alcohol industry that had billion-dollar operations,” Stone said. “They all want to distribute cannabis. And who was half the people in the room? Growers. Like myself and my friends. These are people putting in $2 million in infrastructure this year into a processing facility, just so they can meet demand.”
However, the potential for criminal sanctions remain very real, Allen said.
“I think that going to jail, getting the door kicked down, and losing their kids remains very much their top fears,” he said. “Those are very real fears. We’ve had members go through this sort of thing in the last few months.”
“Really, it’s all risk management,” Stone said. “You understand there’s a risk.”
Stone recognizes legalization is coming, but the pace is slow. For now, as long as he’s not the “biggest fish in the pond,” he stands a pretty good chance of avoiding prosecution, he said.
RACE TO THE LIMELIGHT
The amount of branding activity is awe-inspiring.
“It’s really exciting,” Allen said. “I have several dozen farmers that are ready to go public.”
In March, the Emerald Grower’s Association held a workshop in Laytonville, California called “Identity in the Marketplace: Your Farm, Your Story.”
“It’s about taking a community that’s always been ashamed — that grew up lying, ashamed and insecure — and embracing the identity and healing some of those traumas,” Allen said.
The 90-minute seminar addressed the process and risk of going public. Allen said about half the growers stuck around for follow-up workshops to craft their narratives. The association repeated the workshop in Nevada, Fresno, Santa Cruz, Shasta and Butte counties.
A couple farms in Nevada County and Santa Cruz went public this June, he said. So did Nomad’s Landing — a small farm in Siskiyou County. True Humboldt Co-op features several old-school high-end cultivators. Smaller marketing co-ops are starting to help small farmers enter a bigger, more competitive marketplace without sacrificing quality and small farm culture, Allen said.
Shabnam Malek, the founder of the National Cannabis Bar Association, hosted a seminar on seed-to-sale cultivation for three female-run Mendocino County farms that was well attended.
“The idea of the farms branding themselves and identifying themselves is absolutely a great idea,” Malek said. “You can protect your farm name at the federal level and you can seek some protection at the state level.”
Most farmers are developing and trademarking logos, and entering and winning regional and national cannabis contests. Leading-edge farms are particularly focused on events, such as competing in contests, exhibiting at farmers markets and hosting tasting parties. They’re also beginning to conduct ongoing social media campaigns.
Telling the farm’s story is at the core of branding. It’s a way for consumers to purchase authenticity amid endemic industry hype, experts say.
“Just like California wine, we’ve got something really exciting,” Allen said.
For Swami Select, the brand’s story is tied to its leading figures, Swami Chaitanya and Nikki Lastreto.
Chaitanya trained in India for many years to become a yogi. Lastreto has a background in media. They are icons of the NorCal growing scene due to their presence with The Emerald Cup. The once-backwoods contest took place in the Hall of Flowers at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in 2014. It featured more than 800 entries, thousands of visitors and received international media coverage.
“We’ve probably tested 3,000 examples now,” Chaitanya tells the crowd at a Swami Select Tasting. “After a while, we’ve developed an expertise and we know what to look for and at the same time, we’ve perfected our growing techniques,” he said.
“That’s one of the great things about Mendocino, that all of us are sharing all of our techniques. We share starts. We share seeds.”
Swami Select created a logo, a website and started shooting videos. Pairing up with the San Francisco start-up Flow Kana, a mobile delivery platform, led to the tasting series and international media mentions.
INFUSING THE BRANDING
Arguably the most world-class branding from once-hidden cultivators stems from Aficionado Seeds. The network of Emerald Triangle breeders and seed sellers spent the last five years emerging from the shadows of the black market to become the Johnnie Walker Blue of seed brands.
The brand’s inflection point occurred in 2013 when Aficionado entered and won The Emerald Cup.
“That really put us out in front of the broader magazines to get the exposure,” Stone said.
In developing the Aficionado brand — which aims for a regal, chic, mature persona — “we wanted to just create something that we would buy,” Stone said. “We wanted to deviate from the stereotypical stoner image of tie-dye, because most of the people that are coming to Mendo and that are buying 100 (pound) packs, they’re dressed like you or me. They’re regular people. Some of the biggest movers in Humboldt are women. They look harmless. They don’t look like gangsters and we want to sell to that demographic of people.”
Looking around the tasting party, with high-end luxury cars parked out front, Stone said, “We feel this kind of demographic of people, this is our people.”
Aficionado drew deeply from the wine, spirits and cigar industries in its imagery choices.
“The way the distribution is set up and their branding is set up — it’s all about the substance behind the item, the heritage that makes the item good. The craftsmanship,” Stone said. “It’s all about that — embracing the concepts and elements that make you stand apart from the rest of the industry.”
‘YOU’RE NOT A FED’
Casey O’Neill, of HappyDay Farms, said the group had started talking last year about doing some sort of cannabis “community-supported agriculture” program for the Bay Area.
O’Neil started to put the farm in the public spotlight and meet people. When he was approached about partnering with Flow Kana, his first thought was the start-up company was a front for a federal investigation.
“I was like, ‘This is too good to be true’” O’Neill said. “For the first two weeks I was like, ‘These guys are Feds. The Feds wrote a dossier on us.’”
HappyDay became the face of the Flow Kana launch in June, with O’Neill appearing in a mini-documentary about the farm that was released via YouTube.
“For us, this is a dream come true,” he said. “It’s our heritage, it’s our culture, it’s the love.”
Malek said HappyDay is on the right track by branding the farm, not a strain.
“There’s going to be a difference between a Kendall Jackson cabernet and a Wild Horse cabernet. These are two different brand names, two different quality indicators and yet they’re the same varietal of grape,” she said.
“That’s the direction the cannabis industry is probably going to go in — where OG Kush is not protectable, but HappyDay Farms OG Kush might be.”
The branding of veteran cultivators seems to be an especially Californian trend, owing to the state’s decades-old home-growing traditions on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world.
There’s no “3rd Gen Fam” of Denver or Seattle, Pfrommer said, referring to an award-winning brand from the Emerald Triangle.
Other states’ legalization and industries are “the opening act,” Stone said. “Everybody’s waiting for California to legalize.
“We were the first ultra-premium brand, but wait until other people in the north come out with their high-end brands, because there’s a lot of people with talent in those hills, a lot of world-class cannabis.”