For six weeks every year in the Emerald Triangle,the region of Northern California encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, six months of hard work comes to fruition with the harvesting of hundreds of thousands of pounds of prime outdoor cannabis. “Sun-grown,” as the outdoor crops are now commonly called, has been increasing in popularity in medical dispensaries across the 24 medical states, most of which also boast organic cultivation methods as well.
From seed to perfectly manicured bud, these farmers churn out probably the largest harvest of marijuana of any region in the world. And with the monumental sea change in American attitudes toward legal cannabis, the paradigm has shifted: Where once demand exceeded supply, supply is now outweighing demand across the nation.
Canadian Vietnam vets played a part in Jah Goo's origins.
My Morning of Glory
It’s a crisp, moist early morning about a month after the autumn equinox. The harvest moon came early this year, about a month before my arrival, but the clocks are no longer set to the rising and setting of the moon and stars. Up here in the Triangle, every day is long and every night cause for celebration. I awake excited with the anticipation of harvest; it is my yearly pilgrimage to my roots, to my family—my only few days of Zen each year, when I get to visit the people who remind me exactly why I dedicated my life to this plant.
At the lodge house in Camp Cool, I grab a jacket and walk outside. The trucks are already buzzing up and down the private dirt roads of the ranch. The team has already been up for two hours, and as I see the dust kick up from behind the groves of trees, I know where those trucks are headed, and I know what they are filled with.
I wander down the road having a smoke and remember that today is the day I don’t need my camera. Today, I am working. I am volunteering. I am begging for a place in the field and hoping that I don’t embarrass myself among the men and women who have become pros at this time of year. They move with an ease and swiftness I cannot match. They smile bigger and laugh more often, too.
I make it down to the first plot, a garden of towering 12-foot monsters, some already stripped clean, others falling quietly to the earth. I’m handed a cup of joe and a pair of sturdy stalk cutters.
“Which one do you want, Nico?” the boss man asks, but he already knows the answer as I move to the right and head for my favorite lady. I think they secretly saved her for me.
Good morning, gorgeous, I say to myself as I stop to admire her beauty. She’s a 10-foot Jah Goo, my favorite on the farm, and I can barely bring myself to start working on her. She’s got five or six pounds of pink and purple buds weighing her down. Some of her limbs are so top-heavy that they point straight toward the ground. I summon the strength and begin to unburden her. She’s been waiting six months for me, and in four more weeks she’ll find her way home to you.
The Jah of Goo
Jah Goo has become a legendary strain among cannabis connoisseurs, though she has not yet pervaded mainstream consciousness. Perhaps that’s one reason why her allure is so powerful. That and the fact that she is a flower not of this earth, a heavenly cross created by Master Grower Mikey from Purple Jasmine and the long-time stalwart known simply as Goo.
Goo itself is a very, very old strain that has been around as long as strain names have existed. The earliest accounts of it surfacing in North America come from Canadian Vietnam vets bringing seeds back from Southeast Asia, with the likely origin being some sort of Thai sativa. Somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, she may have been crossed with a heartier indica (perhaps an Afghani, leading to the Afghoo), producing a supremely resinous flower that eventually became known simply as Goo. However, that’s only half of the story.
The other half is the mystery of the Purple Jasmine, an entirely unknown NorCal strain, possibly originating in Mendo or Humboldt, with dark purple hues and sticky pink hairs. Some say she’s a relative of the elusive Stinky Pinky, or a cousin of some Mendo purps, but the real story remains uncertain, other than the fact that the Jah Goo is one of outdoor marijuana’s best-kept secrets. But of course, the intent of this story is not simply to dive into my romances with this strain, but more to deliver the quintessence of the California harvest season—of which the Jah Goo is a notable part for this author personally, although not nearly the entire focus. To strike that broader note, we must continue to delve deeper into our education, into the harvest and into our Jah, or praise of the plant ….
Tuum, from Thailand, is one of CampCool's expert trimmers.
A Hunter’s Moon
While the harvest moon is the full moon that falls closest to autumn equinox, the hunter’s moon is the one that directly follows it. The farm, nestled up in the foothills, is surrounded by Native American reservations, and some of my friends working alongside me—whose ancestors took a keen interest in the cycles of the moon—hail from the tribes that reside there.
As I chop the Jah Goo’s limbs from her main stem—which is the size of my calf—I wish that I could let her live forever. I wonder how the other workers, who have nurtured these plants all year long, feel when they chop them down? Judging by the speed with which they work, they seem to have got over this a long time ago.
We set the lopped-off branches delicately in large bins, all of them standing upright so as not to damage the wet trichomes covering the flowers. We fill bin after bin, lugging them back through the terraced fields to a caravan of pick-up trucks waiting along the hillside.
I offer one of the girls working in the garden a hand in taking a bin back up, but she laughs at me, grabs a second bin, flings one on either shoulder and hikes the dense branches out. While this is no doubt a labor of love, it most certainly is work, and it is work that needs to get done quickly.
The trucks transport dozens of packed bins up through the winding roads to the “barn” (or “Mendo mansion,” as some call them), a prefabricated warehouse constructed of a metal frame with sheet-metal walls and a pitched ceiling complete with air vents. The barn is absolutely massive: Inside are long tent frames with no coverings on them. Instead, bamboo rods run their lengths, wired to the roof beams for added support. On these hangers, thousands of tree branches have been suspended upside down, beginning their long, slow dry for the next seven to 10 days.
The Art of the Dry
One of the most important aspects of marijuana cultivation—perhaps the most important—is the one that is most often overlooked: the drying and curing of buds.
Depending on the volume of flowers, growers have a number of methods by which they can dry their buds. Home growers, for instance, have the option of either drying flowers on the branch or lopping off the buds and drying them on screens. Large-format or commercial growers have fewer options—let alone the luxury of time—but the art of drying buds remains just that: an art.
Timing is everything when it comes to understanding the best practices for drying cannabis flowers. The duration is key, though this depends on a host of other factors that need to be closely monitored to ensure the proper drying time and conditions. Temperature and humidity are two vital aspects to the art of a good crop dry. Warmer temperatures are ideal, somewhere in the range of 64°F to 74°F. Anything higher than this may cause the buds to dry too quickly, which is very bad for both potency and flavor.
Never rush your "dry," lest months of labor go down the drain.
As a grower, it is important to understand that live flowers possess very little THC. Instead, the flowers are high in THC-A, the acid form of THC. During drying and curing, small amounts of THC-A (which is not psychoactive) slowly convert to THC—and the more, the better! The rest of the THC-A content doesn’t convert to THC until the smoker puts heat, or a flame, to the dried and cured cannabis.
It’s for this reason that growers deem a slow drying process the best for their buds. It provides the maximum amount of time for THC-A conversion, while ensuring that the plant matter doesn’t dry out too quickly and become crumbly or shaky. Another important aspect to consider in this process are the terpenoids, the essential oils of the cannabis plant that give each strain its own unique flavor and aroma. The art of drying requires each grower to figure out how best to lock in these oils so as not to lose any of the buds’ characteristic flavors or smells. If flowers dry out too quickly, with too little humidity and too much heat, these oils can break down and evaporate from the bud, leaving only a grassy, hay-like taste and smell.
Many growers are smart enough to avoid seeing months of hard work being ruined because they rushed their dry. They use space heaters, fans, and humidifiers or dehumidifiers during harvest time to help ensure the exact environmental conditions that will help their buds realize their maximum potential.
The Craft Behind the Cure
Many new growers think of the curing process as being separate from drying, but this is not the case. In fact, curing is just an even slower drying process—one that can go on for weeks should the grower desire to achieve perfection. However, curing is not an essential part of the harvesting and drying process, though it does enhance the bouquet and flavor. Curing helps buds reach their maximum potential—however, when done incorrectly or for too long, curing can decompose cannabinoids and terpenoids. This means there’s a definite craft behind the cure.
Unfortunately, for most growers, time is of the essence. Indoor growers need to keep the process moving to make room for the next crop, while outdoor growers are usually at the mercy of Mother Nature, with weather playing a huge part in how well their drying and curing goes.
The curing process differs from drying in that this super-slow-dry process usually occurs with the buds already dried and manicured. After the buds are trimmed, they are placed in opaque containers to cure. These containers are usually opened once or twice a day to let the evaporated moisture escape and keep the buds from molding. This type of cure is known as “air curing,” and it can go on for as little as a few days or as long as a couple of weeks. Most growers dry their buds for seven to 10 days, then trim them and cure them for another week in jars. However, this process varies from farm to farm, grower to grower and season to season.
A crew of trimmers must operate efficiently to ensure bud quality.
The NorCal Harvest
Up in the Emerald Triangle, harvest time is a busy time—and time is a luxury that most do not have. This is due to a variety of reasons, the main ones being space (or, more accurately, how big their “Mendo mansion” is) and man-hours. Labor needs triple at this time of year: These operations depend on trustworthy help and a quick pace to get the trees cut, hung, dried and trimmed on an exacting schedule: If one garden comes down late, the entire process can be disrupted. With limited space and resources in terms of drying, everything needs to go according to plan to keep the production line—harvest crew, hangers, trimmers and the curing process itself—on schedule.
Efficiency is the name of the game with the old-timers. They’ve been around long enough to know that being the first out the door with their harvest isn’t as important as doing it right and getting top quality. They combine their experience with knowledge of the processes involved in harvesting to create a system that moves fast while producing high-quality ganja. At Camp Cool, the plants are hung to dry the same day they’re chopped. They hang in the massive barns for about a week, depending on the conditions. Large industrial heaters are brought in, and fans move air over the branches placed on hangers suspended from bamboo poles. Each branch is labeled with the strain, date and garden it came from. Digital thermostats and hygrometers hang all over the place, and humidifying/dehumidifying machines stand ready for the boss’s call.
Hand-trimming results in a better manicure, less waste and a prettier product.
In a week, the trim crews will move in and hold court for the next two weeks while the buds are dry-trimmed. These crews work fast and get paid by the gram. The best trimmers manicure over two pounds a day. The debate still rages as to whether hand-trimming or trimming by machine works best. The old guard prefers a trim crew, claiming a better manicure, less waste and a prettier product. It’s tough to argue with those points. On the other hand, those who favor machines argue for their efficiency and the economics of cost-cutting technology. Some of the new equipment does a much better job than the alpha models of earlier years, which often massacred buds and knocked the valuable trichomes from the flowers. But whatever arguments exist, they are put to bed as the sun goes down, and at night the farm returns to a place of family. Friends and relatives gather, the grills light up, and the whiskey comes out and sings a song.
That night I looked around me, taking in the final hours of my yearly pilgrimage. I wondered how many other farms were out there just like this one. Who knew? How long had they been out there—and how much longer would they have? Would they survive the changing times?
Then I remembered one simple fact, as I always do when I come to this holy place: This was ground zero of the War on Cannabis. This was where the first battles were won—this was our Gettysburg, our Normandy, our Mecca. How much will change when the holy grail of federal legalization is finally achieved? Will big business and corporate money affect the world of weed as we know it? The answer is obvious: Yes, they will. But will this place change? These people, this family—our family? That answer now seemed obvious as well: Never.
An upward shot from the floor provides an unorthodox view of hanging buds.
Pro Tips for Drying & Curing
- Harvest flowers when more than 75 percent of the stigmas (or “fuzzy hairs”) on the buds have shifted from white to rust/brown/orange in color.
- Harvest indoor flowers when a majority of the trichomes, or resin glands, are still white or translucent. Once the trichomes begin turning amber, it is time to cut the buds down. Outdoor flowers may have more amber glands at harvest.
- Dry the cut branches in places with moderate humidity so that the flowers don’t dry out too quickly. The optimal humidity range for drying is between 40% and 50%.
- Dry and cure buds in the dark whenever possible—light rapidly degrades THC and other cannabinoids.
- Store buds at low temperatures whenever possible—THC levels decrease dramatically at warmer temps.
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