Just off a rocky coastline, in the shadow of the tallest trees on earth, marijuana farmers combine age-old techniques with sustainable practices to produce some of the most potent and pristine pot on the planet.
The Triangle Offense
“Craft cannabis” is a popular term these days, but what does it truly mean? What special skills does it take to produce premium-quality pot? What can marijuana connoisseurs, patients and producers do to ensure that the buds and hash they create or consume are clean, safe and potent, with minimal if any impact on the environment? I traveled to the best place in the world to find the answers to these questions: Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, three counties—Trinity, Mendocino and Humboldt—where the closely guarded secrets of proper marijuana horticulture reside quietly among the giant redwoods.
Cannabis has been an integral part of the culture here for many decades. Growing pot for a living is a local tradition that has been practiced and handed down from generation to generation—and always with an eye to reducing the environmental impacts. Contrary to misleading news reports, the pot farmers I met here seek to protect their culture over the long term, and that means using sustainable practices and improving the soil year after year. This is a healthy environment that they wish to maintain and treat with the proper respect.
The climate also plays an important role in the area’s justly renowned reputation for weed. Hot days and cool nights throughout the summer months result in huge, healthy pot plants. The clean, moist air and fertile soil produce a regional terroir—the term used by vintners to refer to the unique qualities that a particular location can impart to its bounty. As with wine or cheese, the final product reflects its environment, and the growers of Humboldt cherish and nurture these traditions.
Humboldt’s Finest Cannabis Farms
I had the pleasure to speak with Joseph Shepp, the CEO of Humboldt’s Finest, who has accumulated decades of wisdom on strains, locations and techniques. Shepp explained to me the driving philosophy of his business: “We seek to meet the demand for high-quality, sun-grown cannabis using sustainable practices and without chemical fertilizers or toxic pesticides.”
With all this in mind, Shepp formed Humboldt’s Finest in 1996 as an alliance of local pot farmers dedicated to creating a great artisanal product while also meeting high standards for workers’ rights, safety and health. Thus far, three farms have signed on: Humboldt Hills Natural Farms, Mattole River Farms and Humboldt Green Farms, each with its own microclimate well suited for marijuana growing. Their considerable efforts to naturally nurture their crops are helping to restore the ecosystems and salmon populations in the Eel and Mattole rivers.
Shepp was born and raised in Humboldt, left to earn his MBA, and then returned with a plan to gather together the best local growers in order to protect the culture, history and wilderness of the area while also sharing it with the world. He believes that scrupulous cannabis consumers will demand a product with purity and be willing to pay a little extra to ensure that they’re consuming something that can be verified as authentic to the region and true to its history of quality in cultivation.
“One of our ultimate goals,” Shepp says, “is to achieve an official appellation—such as Champagne, for instance—that will identify our products’ geographical origin and protect our rights to our historical legacy.” With so many large corporations getting into the cultivation business these days, it sounds like a good idea to differentiate locally grown goods from mass-produced product. But what exactly is the difference?
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
One of the more advanced and under-appreciated sustainable-farming practices is the collection of rainwater in order to reduce dependency on rivers and streams during drier times. Humboldt’s Finest growers capture the rainwater during the wet winter season and store it in specially built ponds and giant tanks for use during the summer, which can get quite dry. The recent drought in California highlighted the need to ease the pressure on local aquifers caused by farming.
Instead of stressing rivers and pulling water from the ecosystem when it’s needed most, these forward-thinking cultivators collect the water when it’s most plentiful and save that bounty for future use. This protects the region’s salmon, which can be greatly impacted by the diversion of water when rivers are already low. Removing groundwater from watersheds during hot summers creates serious challenges, and the growers at Humboldt’s Finest seek ways to improve conditions for already struggling fish populations.
Let the Sun Shine
All of Humboldt’s Finest cannabis is sun-grown, meaning that it’s cultivated outdoors or in greenhouses instead of in growrooms that require strong lights and powerful air-conditioning systems. Not only is it far more sustainable and cheaper to grow under the sun, but farmers here have found that patients actually prefer the result.
Over the years, outdoor pot has earned a mixed reputation as leafy, loose and weak—mostly because it had to be hidden and grown near trees in shade. When it’s grown under the full sun, however, the full spectrum of light it receives results in a more complete bouquet of active compounds, including terpenes, flavonoids, and the all-important cannabinoids like THC and CBD. Humboldt’s Finest plants are pampered as though they’re in a spa, with the greenhouses opened during the day and closed up when wind or rain is a factor.
Growing marijuana plants indoors uses an enormous amount of energy, and some grow sites also create a ton of toxic runoff from the synthetic nutrients, pesticides or fungicides that they use. But the carbon footprint of Humboldt’s Finest is potentially negative: Their outdoor plants actually take in carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into oxygen, thereby reducing the impact of greenhouse gases.
Large plants grown outdoors or in greenhouses require large containers filled with a loose and airy soilless mix. The farmers here employ light-deprivation techniques to shorten or extend the seasons and manage to grow two full harvests per year.
Digging in the Dirt
Another hugely important aspect of ecological pot production is building better soil. The multi-generational botanists at Humboldt’s Finest dedicate themselves to improving the quality of their growing medium in several ways. Composting, cover crops, companion planting, and crop rotation are just a few of the techniques these farmers use to create and sustain a living ecosystem that enhances itself year after year.
Cover crops in the winter include clover and legumes as nitrogen fixers and to reduce the leaching of nutrients during the wet season. The addition in the spring of beneficial bacteria and fungi helps create a vibrant life in the soil. The worms thrive and end up doing much of the work, aerating the soil and leaving behind rich castings. This type of microbial activity in the medium encourages the mycorrhizal strands to help break down organic nutrients for easier uptake by roots. This symbiotic relationship nurtures the plants in ways that chemical nutrient applications simply can’t rival.
But why is this important for the consumer? Less nutrients being used results in a cleaner-burning product with better aroma and flavor. Overfeeding runs rampant in the cannabis-cultivation arena, and most of the pot available on the market today has way too many residual salts and minerals to be considered aficionado-quality. Humboldt’s Finest growers use natural pest-management techniques, including predator insects such as ladybugs, to control aphids and other intrusive bugs.
Medical patients should also be concerned about the level of metals and other additives that may be present within the cells of their nugs. Plants grown in a healthy living soil need less flushing as they near harvest because they’ve remained properly fed throughout their life cycle. Joints and bowls will stay lit and burn to a clean, white ash. The flavor of buds and concentrates will stay true to the essence of the flower, unadulterated by any contaminants.
Humboldt’s Finest Cannabis: The Final Product
The strains grown by Humboldt’s Finest include Girl Scout Cookies, Scout Master, Sunset Sherbet, XJ-13 and OG Kush. These are all stalwarts of the West Coast cannabis scene, and the versions that Humboldt’s Finest farmers grow are choice specimens. All have been bred to withstand the moist late-season conditions and handle the rigors of outdoor life. The plants grow big and branchy, requiring several levels of trellising in order to hold up their heavy, bud-laden boughs as they swell.
Each strain grown by Humboldt’s Finest boasts several unique properties, and all have stood the test of time. The OG Kush is a California classic, with the earthy scent and indica-fueled body buzz known far and wide. Their Girl Scout Cookies and Scout Master provide the electric, energetic vibes great for treating stress, migraines and pain. The hybrid Sunset Sherbet offers the best of both worlds, with complex effects for body and mind. XJ-13 is the sativa-dominant Jack Herer/G-13 cross perfect for creativity and friendly gatherings, and reportedly very effective for those coping with anxiety and depression.
Everything that Humboldt’s Finest grows is lab-tested for fungus, pests and other microbials as well as to determine the cannabinoid levels and terpene profile. At the moment, the cannabis collective produces flower in eighths as well as in pre-rolled joints. All of the packaging is childproof and environmentally sustainable as well, consisting of handmade compostable boxes instead of non-biodegradable plastic. The products receive Patient Focused Certification from Americans for Safe Access in adherence with ASA’s strict quality standards for medical cannabis products and businesses.
Overall, the famers united under the Humboldt’s Finest umbrella seek to preserve the legacy of Humboldt County’s heritage family farms. Their intention is to honor the region’s past contributions to cannabis cultivation and culture while ensuring that their way of life and earth-healthy practices continue for many years. They’re also creating a “Grown in Humboldt” seal that will list the strain, grower, lab results and origin of every product that reaches the shelves to alert the consumer to its legitimacy. Future plans include taking over an old abandoned logging mill and turning it into a cannabis-production facility, bringing the region’s reconciliation with its history and environment full circle.