Picture-perfect and beautifully manicured, Huckleberry Hill Farms looks like a demonstration garden at a state fair with one major exception: Huckleberry stands as a quintessential plant exhibit for cannabis, one of Northern California’s most famed and feared agricultural crops. When I arrive at the farm about a month away from harvest in the late summer, the statuesque lavender-hued buds of Huckleberry’s signature Whitethorn Rose catch my eye slightly after the attention-grabbing bright pink and purple petunias that sit at the base of the plant’s 100-gallon planter boxes. Looking towards the beauty of the cannabis garden in flower it’s hard to imagine the day when 30 federal agents came up the driveway where I’m now standing with Johnny Casali in front of his family home. Humboldt County is the land of outlaw cannabis legend. Located in the world-famous cannabis cultivation area called the Emerald Triangle, it’s where weed farmers were targeted by military-style Black Hawk helicopters, and today, it’s where those legacy farmers who remain continue to fight for survival.
Casali—who stands at 6’2” and is now 56—gets emotional every time he recounts the story of his arrest and jail time for the cannabis plants he was growing as a 24-year-old. The moments when I see his eyes swell with tears are when he talks about his mother, Merlene Farrell, who passed away during his eight years in prison. Huckleberry has a rare Humboldt County cannabis tourism license and hosts many visitors annually. Why put himself through the emotions of recounting his personal story so often? Casali says it’s because what the small cannabis farmers in Humboldt County have done “has to make a difference.”
“It has to mean something, and if it doesn’t… I’ll probably die trying to educate people, but currently, what’s at stake for the small farmer? People ask me that all the time. Everything’s at stake now,” Casali says.
“This is not the story of Huckleberry Hill; it’s the story of how we built this community that we wanted to build… And now that we’re faced with something that we never thought was ever going to happen with regulation and legalization, it’s not how we envisioned it, and it’s really trying our beliefs on community, and oneness, and being there for each other.”
A Healing Memorial Garden
Casali’s mother taught him to grow cannabis with Paradise Punch, a cultivar she created with her best friend in 1978. It’s the same strain he uses with all his cannabis crosses today, including Whitethorn Rose (Paradise Punch crossed with Lemon OG). Whitethorn Rose has won plenty of awards, particularly as a concentrate, and is the cultivar growing on most of the small farm for the 2023 harvest. The buds on Whitehorn Rose and its sister strain, Mom’s Weed, are stunning and burst with the aroma of blackberries and lemon blossoms.
On each planter box at the farm is the name of a person, someone Casali and his partner, Rose Moberly, want to remember. As a part of my tour, Moberly leads the three of us—along with their Great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd mix Luca—through a short gong sound bath at the top of the property in an area dedicated to her mother who passed away, Marjorie “Margie” Zietz-Dhoore. Moberly often leads sound ceremonies for students within the Ganjier program, a cannabis sommelier certification program based in Humboldt County that brings students to tour the homestead grow.
“[Sound healing] is the oldest form of medicine in the world,” Moberly explains. “The way that it works is it tricks your brain into relaxing so that your cells can repair. Bodies have their own frequency, which we are attuned to, and disease is like dis-ease.”
Everywhere on the property there’s writing evoking the memory of others, including many who the medical benefits of cannabis have positively impacted. Around the rainwater catchment pond, there’s also an area that features quotes from other farmers who live nearby. All this makes it so the story told at Huckleberry Hill is the story of a community.
“What happened to me could have happened to any single other one of my friends,” Casali says.
Humboldt Past & Present
Now at 5,000 square feet of outdoor cultivation plus a nursery license, Huckleberry Hill started as a single-family home between the two small communities of Briceland and Whitethorn. It’s a short distance from Shelter Cove, where the King Range of mountains meets the ocean on the Lost Coast, a long stretch of wild and undeveloped California coastline.
“I fished salmon with my mom because they hatched out of Shelter Cove, went on a couple of albacore trips that were, you know, we’re out for three weeks at a time,” Casali says. “Growing up and being part of the back-to-the-land movement really took a family unit to do all the little things in order to survive. So we cut firewood as a family. And we sold it to a local merchant in town. We ran a small nursery. We were part-time loggers. We were commercial fishermen. So it was all those things. And as some of those things went away from being over-regulated, like fishing and logging, we just added more and more cannabis to really supplement that loss of that income. And sooner or later, it just became where it was all cannabis.”
Casali’s gone from doing time for growing weed, to cultivating cannabis in the medical market and now the adult-use market. Today, he joins with the farmers who remain in the area after the implementation of Proposition 64 resulted in a high tax system for both farmers and consumers coupled with dramatic price drops in the cost of cannabis.
As farms in the area continue to struggle with the changes brought on by cannabis legalization, they are also fighting a March 2024 ballot initiative, Measure A, that threatens to put a chokehold on the industry by limiting its ability to adapt. During my visit to the Emerald Triangle, Casali joined other farmers who met in a shuttered restaurant along the main street in Garberville to discuss fighting the initiative.
“I really don’t have all the answers; I don’t know the right thing to do except try to make it to next year,” Casali says. “I think we’re all in that same boat as small farmers. That’s one thing we have in common, and what hasn’t changed is that we’re all here supporting each other and uplifting each other. And for most of us, this hasn’t been about money. We’ve been able to get through all of this and keep our values intact. Making sure that we’re taking care of the environment, making sure that we’re touching every plant and really letting the plant express itself in the best possible form.”
The flowers at Huckleberry Farms are cultivated with regenerative practices, and Casali believes in the power of sungrown cannabis. Along with Tina Gordon—the cultivator at a neighboring cannabis farm on an arid mountainside at a much higher elevation, Moon Made Farms—he participated in a study conducted by researchers at Columbia University that compared the terpene profiles of cannabis grown in natural and artificial cultivation environments. The study, published in the scientific journal Molecules in January 2023, showed that outdoor cannabis grown in living soil (soil filled with microbes that break down organic matter) contains “significantly more usual cannabinoids” and a greater amount of terpenes than the indoor samples.
For Casali, the fight to save cannabis cultivation in Humboldt County is all about the power of cannabis as a medicine.
“Imagine if one of our legacy strains were to go away with Huckleberry Hill Farms because we couldn’t make it through legalization and one of these cultivars, like Whitethorn Rose or one of the strains I grew with my mom, had the ability to cure cancer, autism, it would be lost forever. That opportunity would be lost forever,” he says. “We imagined [legalization] being a celebration of a community that built a multi-billion dollar industry. [California] hasn’t felt like a state with open arms to accept us and embrace us as the Napa Valley of weed. It’s felt like we have intimidated them, and they never wanted us pre-legalization, and now, even more so post-legalization.”
Despite the odds stacked against the small farmers across the state, Casali continues sharing the message of healing he found through cultivating cannabis.
“We’re creating a mountainside of farmers that grew up here. So when journalists come here, the media comes here, they can learn about other farms and know that they’re special and unique,” he says. “We’re all kind of like a big co-op. We’re all supporting each other. We’re all uplifting each other; it’s not like we’re competing at all against each other. If you don’t like Huckleberry Hill, try some Moon Made. If you don’t like Moon Made, try some Happy Day Farms. It’s just about really finding that connection with the consumer and getting them the medicine they need to heal them.”
This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of High Times Magazine.