Revolutions don’t cause change; it’s the other way around. As the philosopher Eric Hoffer stated: “Change prepares the ground for revolution.”
In Humboldt County, California, Raj has seen the changes. He arrived here in 1970, a product of Santa Ana in Orange County, one of the countless clone-like suburbs of Southern California. But Raj didn’t come to Humboldt specifically to grow cannabis. He attended the College of the Redwoods in Eureka and envisioned a career as a builder—though he definitely liked pot.
Back then, if you were a pot smoker, seeds were part of the bargain. Everyone’s stash had seeds. A $20 ounce of Mexican invariably contained hundreds. They certainly weren’t prized: ’70s-era stoners usually just threw them away. But ordinary seeds like these were the progenitors of the first pot crops in now-legendary Humboldt County. When Raj set down roots here, he brought along his seeds, a personal cache of unknown Mexican genetics.
Life in Humboldt was harsh in the pre-cannabis days. The recession of the 1970s hit the region hard, and the timber industry, which the county had long depended upon, was faltering. In this rugged coastal region, other industries were almost entirely absent.
“We brought a bit of the counterculture along with us,” Raj recalls. “We were underground at first. Land was cheap. I rented a log cabin for $25 a month—with utilities! But we were outsiders. The locals didn’t like us and they didn’t like the pot scene. But it didn’t take long for people to recognize that a small piece of land could keep the banks off their backs.”
Cannabis basically united the county. A spirit of cooperation began to take hold. Growers learned together and shared their knowledge. One of the tales that’s been handed down through the decades is that of a Hawaiian grower who visited Humboldt and was aghast to find that the locals weren’t pulling the male plants from their gardens. That fundamental nugget of information spread fast, and sinsemilla production soon flourished. With the arrival of fresh genetics, which in turn were widely shared, Humboldt County pot reached near-mythic proportions.
It has now been 46 years since Raj arrived in Humboldt County. He never stopped building: His dream house stands less than 100 feet from his gardens, which boast a sizable greenhouse full of Angel Food Cake and a radiant crop of Purple Diamond just outside the greenhouse door. Raj raised his family in the rambling, rustic house and watched the cannabis scene evolve here. He’s now one of the growers who make up Safier Family Farms, one of several networks of growers intent on establishing a viable brand-name identity in the cannabis marketplace.
The area’s cool coastal climate is often cited as the key to the quality of the cannabis grown here, along with the soil itself. But all proficient growers amend their soil. Fundamentally, Humboldt became an ideal place to grow because the gardens were so hard to find.
Also, you didn’t have to grow a huge pot garden in order to supplement your income. Twenty-five years ago, an ounce of Humboldt cost $300 or more, which meant that the wholesale price of a pound ranged from $3,500 to $4,000. And no one asked what the strain was; the name “Humboldt” was all that mattered.
Today, many households in Humboldt can point to three generations of growers. Of course, the cannabis market has expanded exponentially—and so have the gardens. Consequently, the current generation of Humboldt County cultivators faces questions that its forebears in the garden hardly contemplated, including legalization and commercialization.
I’m traveling with Adam Lustig in the standard Humboldt ride—a truck-like, four-wheel-drive hunk of metal that can ably handle the rough roads that connect the county’s far-flung residences. Adam has been living here since 2007, and he definitely came to grow. “I’ve been a grower my entire adult life,” he says.
We’re driving through the Mattole River Valley. It’s only a few miles from the ocean, but you’d never know it. The road jerks through narrow valleys, hugs narrow ridges in the forests and bounces us relentlessly. It’s as wild as the state gets, an area essentially nonexistent in the minds of most Californians and not remotely a tourist destination.
Adam is the executive director of the Southern Humboldt Cannabis Collective, and his first four years in the county were spent working his legal garden. “Well, as legal as it possibly could be,” he adds with an ironic laugh. “Even though we’ve had legal medical marijuana in California for 20 years, plenty of people have gotten busted.”
As the demand for concentrates rose in the state’s dispensaries, Adam shifted his focus to their production in 2011, spending months perfecting a product that he himself would want to ingest. This past July, he launched his own brand: Higher Vision Super Oil, a solvent-free pure cannabis oil that has found instant success.
“It’s a truly remarkable product,” Adam says. “It’s dabbable, smokable, vapable, edible, and it can be used as a topical.” Higher Vision Angel Food Cake Super Oil grabbed third place for Best Vape Pen Cartridge at the 2016 High Times Medical Cannabis Country Fair Cup in Michigan.
“Here in Humboldt County,” Adam explains, “we’re all in a transition. We’re going from a model where we were required to work with a patients’ collective to a for-profit model. It’s important that we start to brand ourselves, make ourselves distinct in the industry.”
At the bottom of a steep decline, four corridor-like greenhouses are situated on a flattened expanse surrounded by thick woodland. The greenhouses are overflowing with thousands of OG Kush buds just days from harvest.
These plants belong to the co-founder of True Humboldt, a network of cannabis farmers who, like Adam, are branding their cannabis to take advantage of a fully legal marketplace.
“We’ve lived here an average of 25 years,” True Humboldt’s co-founder tells me. “We raise our families in Humboldt, and we run our businesses throughout this county. Our aim is to work together, lower the costs of production, and establish standards for superior consistency and quality control. This is becoming a competitive, branded market, and we want to preserve our heritage.”
Thankfully, the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors has been outstanding in addressing the concerns of local growers. Earlier in the year, the board passed the Commercial Medical Marijuana Land Use Ordinance, which establishes regulations for both existing and new commercial cultivation, manufacturing, and processing facilities. The ordinance allows up to 10,000 square feet of new outdoor cultivation, up to one acre of existing outdoor cultivation, up to approximately a half-acre of outdoor mixed-light grows, and up to 10,000 square feet of indoor grows, depending on the parcel zone. The ordinance also creates a program to incentivize growers to relocate their grows from what the county deems unsuitable cultivation sites to more appropriate ones, such as agricultural zones, in exchange for leaner permitting requirements.
“The board realizes that the county is completely dependent upon the marijuana economy,” Adam says. “They understand that the cannabis industry needs a safe, legitimate standing in the community. It’s key to everyone’s survival.”
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about being an outdoor grower in California is the fluctuating price of pot. Over the past decade, growers have seen a steady decline in price. In the early 2000s, getting $2,500 a pound was still possible, but right now $1,500 is the going rate.
A number of factors have affected earnings. Many growers claim that dispensaries have created a bias against outdoor bud, characterizing it as not as potent or as “clean” as indoor weed due to its exposure to the elements.
Both contentions are dubious. High Times has covered this territory before—and, to be sure, there are devout proponents on either side of the debate. But a fundamental part of the problem is that most dispensaries can’t handle a 50-pound delivery of bud—for one thing, where would they store it? And if a shop thrives on variety, overstocking isn’t part of the plan.
“Actually,” Adam tells me, “2015 was a pretty good year price-wise. Supply took a big hit—there were some big raids and fires—and we were getting $2,200. But this year, there was light law enforcement and no fires, and everybody’s growing more than ever before. So the price has dropped back down to $1,500.”
Of course, if the legal market was extended beyond California’s borders to the millions of Americans who crave great cannabis, there would be a bit more stability in the value of a crop. Those days are certainly coming. And as viewpoints change and legal cannabis becomes the norm, the industry must be poised to meet the challenge.
“Growers have to be better,” Adam says. “They have to produce great product as cheaply as possible. There’s no room for error anymore.”