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 […]
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.”
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?
decades, growers from Northern California’s Emerald Triangle — the area encompassing Mendocino,
Humboldt and Trinity counties — have been the epicenter of America’s cannabis
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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:
1: Recreational users
get high for fun, while medical users are focused on their health.
reality is, most cannabis consumers use cannabis for both recreational and
2: Women are an
emerging market segment of new cannabis consumers.
fact, women already use cannabis as much as men.
3: A handful of brands
are dominating the California cannabis market.
truth is that no brand has achieved a significant foothold in the market.
4: All Californians
have access to legal cannabis.
in reality, they don’t.
5: Consumers are
migrating from dispensaries to delivery.
In reality, consumers want an omnichannel experience to maximize their experiences.
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.”
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’
would like people to understand that many of the assumptions they have about
cannabis consumers, cannabis usage, and cannabis availability may be wrong,”
To read the NorCal Cannabis Company’s report in full, visit norcalcann.com.