Putting Anderson Valley on the Map

Small farmers are growing big buds in the idyllic Mendocino sun.
Anderson Valley
Sugar Hill Garden / Photo by Nik Zvolensky

California’s Emerald Triangle is world renowned for growing some of the best cannabis anywhere, but there are many unknown valleys full of incredible flowers, and the Anderson Valley is one of them. While many know towns like Covelo, for their famed Sour Diesel, surprisingly few have smoked the big buds coming out of places like Boonville or Philo. 

What’s Great for Wine is Great For Ganja

The Anderson Valley is a long narrow valley, whose unique west/east orientation perfectly channels ocean breezes and cool fog twice a day, keeping temperatures relatively stable and mild, which has made it a popular wine growing region. Hue Freeman, the co-owner of Anderson Valley Reserve (AVR) and Sol De Mendocino (SDM), has lived in the Anderson Valley for over twenty years. “When you live in Mendocino county you do what comes naturally,” said Freeman, which for him meant starting a cannabis garden again. In 2016, Freeman met his growing partner, Ryder Wooten, who introduced him to biodynamic cultivation, right when Mendocino’s zip tie program got started and allowed them to grow legally. While Freeman didn’t move to Philo to grow cannabis, he discovered “the climate was unbelievably perfect, what is great for wine grapes is also good for great ganja.” Due to the cool coastal breezes and the blanket of fog at lower elevations, Freeman said the “general temperature range in the summer is 50-90 degrees,” but it can get over 100 in the valleys east of them, which “burns the trichomes and inhibits the terpenes.”

Anderson Valley
Hue Freeman / Photo by Mitchell Colbert

Jim Roberts lives just up the road from Freeman, where he runs the Bohemian Chemist (BC) and the Madrones. “It’s an idyllic climate” said Roberts, “We have a marine influence which is really key, we have warm days and cool nights, with morning fog.” Roberts compared it to wine, where pinot noir and sparkling wines grow well in the Anderson Valley, but Cabarnet does not. “That is why we are leaning more into sativas, because the bud structure is better if it rains,” said Roberts, adding they may “outsource things that don’t grow well here,” such as indicas, to growers he knows with similar biodynamic practices in other climates. “You need to work with the climate you have,” said Roberts, “these long flowering sativas would probably grow better in Southern California, but I am here and going to push the envelope.” Roberts lamented the old days when “almost everybody was growing” in the valley, but stressed the difficulty in adapting to the legalized market. 

The Bohemian Chemist / Photo by Nik Zvolensky

Building A Brand to Fight Corporate Cannabis

Roberts pointed to Freeman as one of his fellow cultivators with the resiliency to stick with the legal market. Freeman saw the impending challenges around legalization and had a plan. “The genesis of AVR was me talking to a neighbor about recreational legalization and I told him it would be inevitable that big corporate companies would take over the industry,” said Freeman, ”the only way to fight back would be to create our own brand.”

Freeman put the word out up and down the valley and, despite hopes of getting ten farmers together, their first event had more than two dozen cultivators talking about creating something similar to a co-op. “We’d put out our own brand under our own label so we could control what we got and continue being cannabis farmers,” said Freeman. What Freeman was eager to prevent was distributors “taking advantage” of cultivators, buying “bulk pounds that they would sell to other cannabis companies to put their labels on.” To combat that, he actively kicked distributors out of AVR’s earliest meetings to protect them. While he admits it “might have made a few enemies,” Freeman “saw no sense in letting distributors buy a premium product and put it into the hands of corporate cannabis and on dispensary shelves next to our family farm cannabis.”

Anderson Valley
Sugar Hill Garden / Photo by Nik Zvolensky

AVR launched in 2020, and Freeman says Los Angeles was their focus “for the first two years,” and he credits Jared Kiloh from the United Cannabis Business Association and Higher Path dispensary for helping them out down there. Unfortunately, AVR was not spared from the market disruptions caused by Covid 19 and other changes to California’s cannabis market, such as the plummeting price of flower. “In the past two years I have had to dip into my retirement funds,” said Freeman, “I am 66 years old and I shouldn’t be doing that but I still believe in the viability of our product, of our brand, of Anderson Valley, and the small farmer in general.” One major issue he pointed to was the license stacking loophole that allowed massive cultivations from the outset of legalization, instead of giving small farmers a seven year head start, as the regulations had first stipulated. “I get sick to my stomach when I see what is going on in places like Adelanto and Desert Hot Springs which is so not environmentally friendly,” said Freeman, “We have a climate that is to die for and I want to protect that.”

Putting Sungrown Cannabis On Main Street

Before Freeman got the idea for AVR, he already was running his own dispensary a half hour north of the Anderson Valley in Mendocino. He bought the Love In It Cooperative in 2015 and rebranded it to SDM and got a prime location on Main street, with a beautiful ocean view. Freeman said “We are sungrown from Mendocino and that is why we changed the name,” to show their local pride to protect their environment. Even in Mendocino, they faced opposition to them opening on Main street, but they overcame it. When Freeman first opened SDM the Department of Cannabis Control regulations weren’t yet in place and they were able to bring their cannabis directly from the farm in Philo.

Sugar Hill Garden / Photo by Nik Zvolensky

Legalization changed everything, and regrettably, it was not all positive changes, but thanks to Freeman’s foresight, he helped the cultivators working with AVR survive the worst of the market changes. Now, AVR’s cultivators are free to keep doing what they do best, grow incredible cannabis. “We just let mother nature do her work,” said Freeman, “and she is very good at it.”

Bringing Wine Industry Expertise to Cannabis

SDM was one of the closest dispensaries to the Anderson Valley until 2020, when the BC opened their doors. Like AVR, the BC also faced some difficulties during the pandemic, but now they are a fully functioning microbusiness and recently won a Clio award for their branding and were shortlisted in another category. “We don’t want to be a huge brand,” said Roberts, “we want to be able to get our flower in the hands of those who want it.” The BC just launched their cannabis club, with “an infused dinner and non-infused wine,” pairings put together by Jamie Evans, the Herb Somm, and attended by High Times Editor in Chief, Ellen Holland. The club has been very well-received so far but is not without new challenges, the biggest one is finding a partner to deliver cannabis the last mile.

Harvest dinner / Photo by Nik Zvolensky

Roberts is taking a play out of the book of small vineyards, who he says often talk about three silos of their business: direct to consumer sales (tasting rooms), selling through 3rd party distributors (liquor stores), and the wine club. The BC had both of the first silos well-established before launching their cannabis club this year, and now Roberts has realized the full business model he had envisioned when first taking over his mother’s cannabis farm. “I worked really hard to get the Anderson Valley on the map,” said Roberts, noting for tourists, “This is a good central spot to take day trips from.” While they don’t get hordes of people coming to town, Roberts says that May through October is the best time of the year and “the summer months leading into harvest” tend to be the busiest.

Harvest dinner / Photo by Nik Zvolensky
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