Take the 101 north from San Francisco, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and passing through the suburbs of Marin and the vineyards of Sonoma and Mendocino. The trees along the road grow increasingly imposing as you wind your way through the rural landscape, and when you find yourself surrounded by ancient 300-foot-tall redwoods, you’ll know you’ve reached Humboldt County.
Back-to-the-land hippies have been cultivating cannabis in these forested hills since the late 1960s. Over the years, their small family farms been joined by an influx of large-scale grows that wreak environmental havoc while churning out a steady supply of subpar pot.
With a glut of cheap weed bringing down the price per pound, many farmers have compensated by growing more plants, sacrificing quality for quantity. Meanwhile, dispensaries throughout California place a premium on flowers grown in warehouses under electric lights. Flowers grown outdoors are presented as an economical alternative to top-shelf indoor.
Rather than accept a lower price for premium sungrown, some farmers pass their product off as indoor, while much of Northern California’s outdoor crop is sold on the black market in other states. Since dispensaries are unwilling to pay for Humboldt’s finest, it has gone unrecognized within the legal cannabis industry.
“Our legacy and our heritage and our culture of growing the world’s best weed was going down the drain,” says Chrystal Ortiz. Ortiz is the operations manager for True Humboldt, a brand representing organic sungrown cannabis sourced from a network of small farms.
After contending with the risks and traumas of prohibition, these farmers now face the dangers of commercialization. With legalization and new regulations on the horizon, the inevitability of corporate cannabis looms larger than ever.
“I’ve been farming for 26 years — my whole adult life,” says Stephen Dillon. “My family’s been in Humboldt for five generations. The timber’s gone, the fishing’s gone, so this is just what we do.”
Dillon helped create the Humboldt Sun Growers Guild, an agricultural cooperative of local cannabis farmers, in order to protect their livelihood. Banding together puts members in a better position to make their voices heard and restore the county’s reputation for herbal excellence.
“Corporate agriculture takes over and the first thing they do is wipe out the small farmers. That’s the history of America,” he says. Corporate agriculture means mass production, cheap labor, and heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides. “It’s sort of the antithesis of what we’re doing. But we’ve been growing pot through thick and thin for 40 or 50 years, and we’re really good at it.”
The Humboldt Sun Growers Guild helps farmers obtain necessary permits, operate in compliance with current laws, and implement responsible practices such as proper water storage. As an association of more than 200 small farms, they are able to negotiate bulk discounts on supplies and equipment. The guild also works with government officials and advocates on behalf of its members.
Guild members are invited to submit their flowers to be distributed through True Humboldt. True Humboldt secures shelf space at dispensaries and handles branding, marketing, and quality control. Each unit includes lab results and a QR code that patients can scan for information about the farm of origin.
“It’s not easy,” Ortiz says. “I get shut down from dispensaries every day that will say to me: my patients don’t like outdoor, my patients like indoor.” She and her colleagues believe that more patients would choose organic sungrown cannabis if it were clearly labeled. “We felt like the consumer wasn’t being told the truth and wasn’t given an option to support sustainable family farms.”
True Humboldt provides branded retail packaging, but many dispensaries prefer to use their own. Some have compromised by placing a True Humboldt sticker on the package or the True Humboldt logo on the menu. Almost none are willing to display a poster addressing the carbon footprint of indoor cultivation.
While dispensaries may be reluctant to promote the benefits of sungrown, cultivators are coming forward to claim credit for their craftsmanship. For some Humboldt families, growing cannabis has been a way of life for generations. The passion, dedication, and expertise they bring to their gardens result in exceptional flowers.
“All of the sudden, as the fear and the shadows of the drug war start to fall away,” Ortiz sees peers wearing t-shirts printed with the names of their farms. “Their gates are going to go from being shrouded with weeds and poison oak to tree-lined driveways.” She expects that this newfound ability to take pride in their work “is going to have profound impact on our environment and on the social fabric of our community.”