The Bloodlust of Sasquatch – Carnage on Northern California Cannabis Farms

For the Cannabis growers in Northern California, fear now comes in an eight-foot form. The evidence is as clear as it is terrifying; Sasquatch is real, hates cannabis, and has gone on a murderous rampage. Here are the latest developments. Bloodlust of Sasquatch Three bodies were torn to pieces on a dope farm, all the […]

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Still Standing: Northern California’s 2020 Harvest In Review

The harvest was glorious, mellow and abundant. It was sunny and mostly warm up until the first week of November, when forecasts of the first rain and then a hard frost mandated that we cut the final cultivar a few days early. 

Other than the unfortunate farms that burned and lost their whole crops, and some other growers in the immediate area who were smoked out, the 2020 California sungrown cannabis crop doesn’t seem to have suffered much testable damage.

Photo Nikki Lastreto

Every harvest is different, but I would be lying if I didn’t report the unique challenges the cannabis community endured this season. Repeating the litany of crises can become wearisome, and I don’t want to sound like I am complaining. However, in spite of being declared an essential industry and evidence of a growing market for cannabis as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, I am not sure anyone in the legal cannabis business is actually making a profit. 

Most businesses in the legal market are just happy to be “still standing” at this point. We clearly are in a moment of transition, or in astrological terms, we are on a cusp, about to enter another phase. How much of the predicted events will in fact transpire – no one knows.

An Extra Helping of Hurt

For the cannabis farmers of the Emerald Triangle, the challenges came thick and fast in 2020. Like everyone else, we have been affected by “the virus,” a presidential election, Black Lives Matter, social distancing and the lock down. But as 2020 started, the cannabis community received an extra helping of hurt. 

First, there was the rise in the California cannabis cultivation tax, which doesn’t make much sense since excessive taxation is the reason for a thriving illicit market. This was followed by the COVID-19 lockdown, which brought the cancellation of most public cannabis events, including the 420 national holiday. 

Initially, cannabis dispensaries were shut down as part of the shelter-in-place orders. A ray of hope came when cannabis was declared an essential business in late May, and sales picked up, especially delivery and the newly authorized curbside pick-up.

Cultivators took this as a green light to carry on with the springtime garden preparations. However, at the start of the planting season, it was realized that even including all the drought years since 2000, the previous eight months had received the least rainfall since 1979-80. Subsequently, springs and creeks began to run dry, and farmers who are dependent on trucked-in-water were freaking out as towns put a limit on withdrawals.

This was followed by the belated realization that two thirds to three quarters of all cannabis licenses in California are provisional because they had not met the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The January 1, 2022 CEQA deadline suddenly seemed awfully close as county and state officials realized there were not enough working hours, staff or money to pay them to process the approximately 7,000 provisional licenses before they expired. This meant that 90 percent of the compliant cannabis businesses in the state could be shut down due to an unrealistic deadline.

Some counties even require an additional report of threats to sensitive species posed by cannabis cultivation in the mountains. The cost for the licensee to secure these clearances was estimated to be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Suddenly, it seemed that virtually the entire cannabis economy would be reduced to the biggest and richest operations while the small pioneer legacy businesses would go under.

Apocalyptic Skies

To top it all off, the fire season started earlier than usual. As anyone living in California in the summer of 2020 knows, the sky turned a dark, apocalyptic orange while ash fell like warm snowflakes that didn’t melt. It was so dark at mid-day that cars had their headlights on, and the street lights were lit. 

Many people lost homes, farms and crops. Fires blazed throughout the Emerald Triangle, the Santa Cruz mountains, Big Sur, the foothills of the Sierras, and even up into southern Oregon. Watching the fire lines, shown on the Cal Fire maps, as they inched closer to one’s neighborhood and ranch was daunting and stressful.

The only good news was that, for the most part, the fires were in forest land, which meant the ash was not nearly so toxic as a town or city on fire. But still, everyone was afraid that the entire crop for the whole state would be ruined by the smoke and ash. The talk among the cannabis community was focused on how to remove ashes from the leaves and flowers. Most people used leaf blowers or gently shook their plants.

Pineapple Cannabis Plant
Photo Brian Parks

Building Hope

In spite of all this, the harvest turned out great. The days of August and September were hot and the nights were cool, furthering the development of THC and the terpenes. When we finally started cutting in the first week of October, there had been no significant smoke or ash for several weeks, and our feelings of hope began to rise. Even though we desperately needed the rain, everyone was glad that it held off until the end of harvest.

Once the cutting actually began, everyone shifted into high gear – literally. At Swami Select Garden, we harvest in the wee hours of the morning when it is still dark out. Because of all the smoke and ash, we added extra precautions: After each plant was brought in and weighed, we  dipped every branch in a diluted hydrogen-peroxide solution. Next, we dipped them in clean water before hanging them outside on wires strung between trees for a brief drip-dry.

Cannabis hanging to dry during harvest.
Photo Brian Parks

As the sky slowly begins to lighten, and all the plants for that day’s cutting are hanging, we take a break for breakfast, when I cook omelets or pancakes for the crew. Then, we go back to hanging everything in the official drying area.

Interestingly, the need to get up at 5 a.m. creates a bond between the team members. It is really a magical time under the moon and stars. The terpene aroma is delightful, the buds are at their peak, and there is a sense of pride seeing the giant colas come down and loaded onto the trailer. It’s hard work, but one can literally see the fruits of their labor.

Looking Ahead

All during October, the humidity was in the twenties and thirties, so the issue was preventing the flowers from getting too dry. Then, as the drying area filled up and the rain came in November, we had the dehumidifiers going full time. Drying takes between 10 days and two or three weeks depending on outside humidity and how many fans and dehumidifiers there are. 

Nikki deleafing after harvest.
Photo Zach Sokol

When sufficiently dry, the smaller twigs snap rather than bend. This signals that it’s time to take the branches down, off the drying nets, and roll them up in brown Kraft paper – like three-foot tall burritos. Now they are ready for bucking, when we remove any large fan leaves and take every bud off of its branch in preparation for the fully manicured trim at the processing center.

The farmer’s harvest work may be over, but it’s time to prepare for next year’s grow already. First, we planted a cover crop of nitrogen-fixing plants followed by spreading compost on top of the soil to discourage the turkeys from flying over the fence to eat the seeds. Finally, all the equipment and gardening gear must be put away for the winter. A good farmer is always thinking ahead to the next season.

The 2020 election has brought some positive news for the cannabis industry as 30 cities and counties in California passed cannabis legalization measures, which hopefully means we’ll see more retail outlets soon. The election wins in five states were also a boost, proving cannabis is the one thing most Americans can agree on. News like this is encouraging for us farmers who work so hard to grow the best cannabis in the world. We will not give up!

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Updates on the 2020 California Emerald Cup

In order to adapt to this pandemic, the Emerald cup had two choices, cancel the event or, come up with a creative solution. Rather than disappoint everyone, organizers decided to postpone the date to buy some time and get to work. After all, the Emerald Cup is a North California favorite, attracting farmers from all […]

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Former French Laundry Farm Chief Joins Pot Industry

In the world of investment bankers and supply chain specialists making the dive into the cannabis industry, former French Laundry farm chief Aaron Keefer is something different.

On Feb. 11, news broke that Keefer would be bringing his pedigree from the 3-Michelin star restaurant to his new job as vice president of cultivation and operations at Sonoma Hills Farm. The farm has dedicated a piece of its 40 acres to growing cannabis alongside its produce and livestock operations, which Keefer will now also lead.

For the last decade, Keefer worked as the lead culinary gardener for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which includes the famed restaurant French Laundry in California’s wine country. In addition to receiving Michelin’s highest rating every year since 1997, French Laundry has also ranked the second-best restaurant on the planet by Le Liste. During his time farming the food that would eventually end up on the plates at Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Keefer certainly played a key role in helping the restaurant hold on to its reputation of excellence in the ultra-competitive restaurant industry. 

Keefer says he got his start in the kitchen at age 17. Two years after, he grew his first pot plant.

“I started smoking when I was 15, was a part of that life for sure,” Keefer told Cannabis Now. “I went into the kitchen at 17.”

The restaurant industry is notoriously a more friendly career field for cannabis enthusiasts than most. “There is no better pairing than marijuana and food right?” Keefer quipped.

Keefer says that for his first experience growing pot, the original genetics he used were from Amsterdam.

“A friend of mine’s father was kind of the guy that would bring in the 20-pound wheel of the Panama Red and like that, he went out to Amsterdam and brought back Skunk 1# and Northern Lights 5#,” Keefer says. “There was nothing like that at the time.”

Aaron Keefer

The first time Keefer tried those Amsterdam genetics, a far cry from the mystery weed he’d been puffing before in his life, he thought he was hallucinating.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, what is this stuff?’” says Keefer. He and his buddy grew three plants that summer of 1988, and he says “one of them turned out nice.”

Keefer has fond memories of sneaking through cornfields to plant his cannabis out in the middle of nowhere and being very popular at school for four weeks before the bud was gone.

Eventually, Keefer brought his culinary experience and dormant green thumb to the West Coast, arriving in California a couple years before Prop 215 legalized medical marijuana in the state. After starting off in wine country, he headed south to San Francisco in 1996.

“When Prop 215 first started, I remember Oaksterdam, I was down there,” Keefer says. He recalled the Oaksterdam neighborhood was a far cry from what is happening today: “I remember when the Romulan came out.”

He even visited Amsterdam himself in 1999. He returned with some Great White Shark from Green House Seed Co and Sweet Tooth from Barney’s. Both of those operations regularly found themselves on the podium of the original Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam.

“That was when I first started growing out here again,” Keefer says. “I was working as a chef, but you’re working as a chef and you aren’t making as much as the waiters. You can’t even afford to eat out. So it started as a side gig little hobby and then all of a sudden, it became an industry.”

He says his efforts ended up on the top shelf at San Francisco dispensaries such as Grass Roots and the Apothecarium, among others. But in the end, he says it was always his side gig, as his focus was on being a chef.

Over his years, with the Thomas Keller Group traveling to farms around the country that he respected, Keefer was able to absorb a lot of awesome horticultural best practices that fit into his general permaculture plans for the cannabis he’ll be growing this summer just south of California’s famed Emerald Triangle.

Keefer believes there are three important parts to growing any plant. First and foremost is genetics.

“That’s where it all starts, the second is life in the soil,” Keffer says. “You are never going to grow a plant to its full potential if you don’t create, or get out of the way of nature, and give all that life in the soil. That’s what breaks down the organics.”

Keefer says all the best action happens in live soils that are breaking down organic matter to give the plant all of the nutrients it needs, helping it reach its full potential.

“That’s where you get the flavor. If it tastes better, it is better, and it’s better for us,” Keefer says.

The third leg of quality for Keefer is what happens after the plant gets chopped down, and rightfully so. Tons of cannabis is ruined in botched drying and curing efforts that can quickly turn the flame into something that’s definitely not tasty. Keefer says when folks don’t get it right, they can “turn gold into straw.”

The cultivation effort Keefer will oversee at Sonoma Hills Farm will be a total of one acre of land split between two locations on the property. The first is a 28,560 square foot outdoor dry farm, and the other is a 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art greenhouse for cannabis cultivation with an attached 5,000 square foot facility for indoor cultivation, plant propagation and strain development.

The outdoor plot will occupy the old footprint of three large chicken barns.

“Done right, cannabis cultivation is a true connoisseurship not seen in many businesses other than wine, whisky, mescal and cigars. You can taste and smell the nuances,” Keefer says. “To really succeed, hard work is what gets the results. This is what we intend to do at Sonoma Hills Farm.”

 TELL US, have you ever smoked weed you think deserved a Michelin star?

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5 Busted Myths of Today’s California Cannabis Consumer

For
decades, growers from Northern California’s Emerald Triangle — the area encompassing Mendocino,
Humboldt and Trinity counties — have been the epicenter of America’s cannabis
scene.

The Golden State had the first legal medical marijuana market with the passing of Prop 215 in 1996. Proposition 64, the Adult Use Act, legalized growing, selling and using cannabis recreationally in November 2016.

Thousands of cannabis businesses have emerged since, all trying to establish themselves in an already saturated and highly regulated market. The industry has seen unparalleled innovation and investment across categories like product development and technology, causing a so-called “Green Rush.” It has been predicted that by 2024, the California cannabis market will comprise 25% of the entire market for cannabis in the U.S.

However,
due to the immaturity of the market, little data is available to help support
the industry. In order to help shape product development and strategic
decision-making, companies need to ask fundamental questions, like who buys the
product and what do they use it for?

To
help fill these knowledge gaps, NorCal Cannabis Company undertook a first-of-its-kind
study of California’s cannabis consumers. Using an online panel, the survey
questioned 1529 people and represents of all California cannabis consumers 21
years and older.

The result is Five Myths of Today’s California Cannabis Consumer.

Jeffrey
Graham is the VP of Business Intelligence at NorCal Cannabis Company. He helps
the company make smarter business decisions using data. According to Graham,
they decided to carry out this research because “there were many fundamental
questions about the California cannabis consumer that were unanswered, so we
decided to conduct research on our own.”

According
to Graham, the most surprising thing he discovered during the research process
was that many of the preconceptions about cannabis aren’t true. So they decided
to group their findings into five myths:

Myth
1
: Recreational users
get high for fun, while medical users are focused on their health.

The
reality is, most cannabis consumers use cannabis for both recreational and
medical reasons.

Myth
2
: Women are an
emerging market segment of new cannabis consumers.

In
fact, women already use cannabis as much as men.

Myth
3
: A handful of brands
are dominating the California cannabis market.

The
truth is that no brand has achieved a significant foothold in the market.

Myth
4
: All Californians
have access to legal cannabis.

Unfortunately,
in reality, they don’t.

Myth
5
: Consumers are
migrating from dispensaries to delivery.

In reality, consumers want an omnichannel experience to maximize their experiences.

“What
concerns us is the lack of availability that exists for regulated cannabis for
so many people,” says Graham on the finding. “The research shows how cannabis
gives relief for so many people for things like pain, insomnia and depression.
California voters approved the legalization of cannabis, but people still do
not have legal access throughout most of the state.”

Graham
believes that the study is important because it shows that cannabis helps with
“a variety of fundamental and important ways” and it isn’t a simple case of
‘recreational’ and ‘medicinal’

“I
would like people to understand that many of the assumptions they have about
cannabis consumers, cannabis usage, and cannabis availability may be wrong,”
says Graham.

To read the NorCal Cannabis Company’s report in full, visit norcalcann.com.

TELL
US
, do you smoke Californian
cannabis?

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