Famed medical growers pivot to survive as California’s legal landscape pushes production south
For roughly 20 years the getting was good in Northern California. From the legalization of medical marijuana in 1996 to beginning the transition into adult-use sales in 2016, cannabis growers in the remote, northern forestland enjoyed an idyllic life, earning a small share of fame and fortune at the constant risk of being raided by the DEA.
Those days are over.
The surrounding communities of Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, long abandoned by the logging industry, were in many ways saved by medical marijuana, but those legacy growers now face new challenges. Legalization may have brought legitimacy to the northern guerilla growers, but the price of operating in the adult-use market has increased dramatically, forcing many longtime growers into early retirement or back into the black market.
Those who remained in the game had to get a license and struggle against deep-pocketed competition.
“It’s sad to see some of the best growers I know decide to retire and bow out to what’s happening,” says Ryan Zuccaro, the founder and co-owner of Fresh Off the Hill in Humboldt County. “I’m all about change, but some people can’t handle that change.”
Recognition for the world-famous growing region remains high, but many advantages of the Emerald Triangle have become hindrances for commercial commerce. Meanwhile, with the introduction of cannabis to the agricultural hub of central California, Emerald Triangle growers are turning to new business models, opportunities for expansion and cost-saving techniques to stay out of its monolithic shadow.
The Emerald Triangle’s small, family farms can’t compete in terms of scale with the giant commercial producers in the Salinas Valley and other agricultural hubs. But in terms of overhead and focus, farms such as Shepherd’s Meadow in Mendocino County have a distinct advantage.
“At Shepherd’s Meadow, it’s really only me and my wife,” co-owner and head cultivator Brandon Waluk says. “I get a little bit of help from friends, but basically, it’s just me.”
Waluk aims to preserve his serene family life by focusing on flower quality and economic and environmental sustainability. The majority of his farm’s operating costs are offset by solar panels, and while the farm only has approximately 7,000 square feet in production, every plant at every stage gets personal care from Waluk.
“It’s from a desire to grow the best herb possible by any means,” Waluk says. “We’re conscientious of everything.”
After growing cannabis for nearly 20 years, Waluk is always tinkering with his formulas to produce better flower. The farm utilizes indoor, outdoor and greenhouse production techniques as well as home-brewed compost teas, integrated pest management, Korean natural farming practices, reusable soil and fine-tuned nutrient regimens.
“I love being able to bang something out and try something new. I love that,” Waluk says. “But what I like about outdoor is that I get all the time to build the soil and do all the cool stuff you can do with living dirt. It comes back to sustainability. When you turn off the light as you leave the room, it’s not just saving you money, it’s also that oil isn’t burning somewhere for that power. It’s common sense.”
Growers like Waluk also have an advantage over their southern competition with the branding and legacy of the Emerald Triangle cannabis community. But maintaining a premium price for niche, hand-grown and hand-trimmed cannabis, isn’t sold on just a zip code. Waluk and his wife are constantly updating their social media feeds, giving consumers and vendors an inside look at the farm’s beautiful scenery and organic cultivation practices.
At Humboldt Highline, co-owner Josh Monschke doesn’t mince words when it comes to the company’s new focus on clone sales over flower.
“For us, it was that the price of flower has gone to s—,” he says. “The nursery was a revenue generator.”
To be fair, the colorful price Monschke is referring to is $1,100 a pound; enough to validate the farms’ hilltop property, but not reliable enough to continue building the company.
“The farms, for me, they’re really great and they’re up in the hills and really pretty,” Monschke says. “But logistically, it’s challenging.”
Humboldt Highline straddles the line between farm and nursery. For Monschke and a small group of other farms in the area, clone sales have been mostly a side business. Nearly every farm focuses on flower and little else, he says. But as competition has driven the price of flower down, the value of clones remained roughly the same. Although Humboldt Highline’s clone operation is roughly one-third the size of its flower site, it has become the company’s leading source of revenue.
Monschke says the clone nursery is not the romanticized Humboldt farm people tend to expect, which can be frustrating during a time when companies are actively seeking new partners.
“With investors, the clones aren’t exciting to them,” he says, “but you show them the numbers and they get more excited.”
Humboldt Highline’s asking price for a single clone is $8. The average order the company receives is between 1,000 and 1,500 cuttings. Clones take 14 to 18 days to be ready for sale, and the company staggers its production schedule so its next wave of inventory is always just days away. Humboldt Highline is in the process of tripling the size of its nursery from 7,000 square feet to 21,000.
“I thought there would be more people producing clones, but people seem to focus more on flower,” Monschke says. “It pays better than flower, that’s why I don’t get it.”
King of the Hill
While most Emerald Triangle growers are buckling down or transitioning to a specific niche, Ryan Zuccaro is gearing up to compete directly against commercial farms in central California. Zuccaro owns roughly 250 acres in Humboldt County, and the company he founded, Fresh Off the Hill, is adding another 363 acres and 23 greenhouses, as well as a distribution license he hopes will make his company a logistical hub for California.
“We were getting murdered on distribution,” he says. “Everyone has got their own motives and it’s not usually in my favor. When my weed gets white-labeled I know it goes straight down to San Diego and my brand recognition is not going to be there.”
Like the majority of Emerald Triangle cultivators, Fresh Off the Hill benefits from its Humboldt location and its packed Instagram account of charming hillside plots overlooking Northern California. But that’s mostly for branding. The real production happens further down the hill at its 363-acre plot where the land is flatter.
“We got test results that came in at 33% (total cannabinoids) yesterday. It was all full sun, all outdoor, seed starts,” Zucarro says. “I am going to safely say that we’re going to get our 2,000 pounds (of flower) and hopefully some more.”
Despite Fresh Off the Hill more than doubling its size over the next year, Zuccaro says the focus remains on sustainability.
“It’s been exploding right now,” Zuccaro says. “But we’re cutting our costs and putting our money into places that we see it come back to us. We’re just trying to grow the best pot we can for as cheap as possible.”
Fresh Off the Hill, Humboldt Highline and Shepherd’s Meadow are just a handful of the farmers striving to continue the Emerald Triangle’s legacy of world-famous cannabis. With the right management and business practices, Northern California’s savvy cannabis businesses can remain high enough on their hillsides to keep dry during the oncoming flood of flower.
“Things change. Manufacturers here cannot make 600% over what they put in,” Zuccaro says. “You have to be realistic and look at a good 5-10% margin and be okay with that.”