An Inspiring Visit with the First-Mover Millennials Behind Mendocino’s Award-Winning Moongazer Farms
Agriculture is at the foundation of human civilization, but something went badly wrong along the way – with both. Is it possible that in adopting better farming practices we could re-discover principles applicable to our human inter-connections too? The spiritual founder of Biodynamics, Rudolf Steiner, of Waldorf School fame, certainly thought so when he began disseminating his ideas about the connection between land, soul, economics, and society, nearly a hundred years ago.
But social change happens in stages. In 1960s London, my mother had to buy olive oil from the skin care aisle of a chemist’s shop (pharmacy). Now, any decent supermarket on the high street has several brands on offer as well as myriad ranges of formerly “exotic” ingredients from Thailand to Morocco. After the international cuisine revolution came the fresh and local, organic and pesticide free movements; the passing of laws that banned toxic food dyes and preservatives; fair trade branding for imports; welfare campaigns for domesticated animals and sustainability watchdogs for those in the wild. Next came ideas like “slow food,” non-GMO, antibiotic-free, low-carbon footprint, safety labeling and more, which collectively resulted in widespread rejection of factory farming practices and junk food. Today’s ethical omnivores have more choices than ever before when it comes to the food they eat. It’s less expensive and more accessible, as is the information needed to make buying decisions that align with consumer’s core values.
One could reasonably assume that the majority of cannabis users would agree with the same eco-friendly, earth-centric values that have transformed the food industries, especially in the Eden that is California. So it’s startling, embarrassing even, that in 2016, 84 percent of the state’s medical cannabis tested by Berkeley’s Steep Hill Labs came up positive for potentially lethal contaminants, according to “Pesticides in Marijuana Pose a Growing Problem for Cannabis Consumers,” by Alicia Lozano, published in “LA Weekly” on October 27, 2016. It’s easy to understand how this could have happened in the outlaw days when not getting busted was a grower’s primary concern. But as we enter the era of recreational legalization, cannabis cultivators are emulating the foodies with their own farm-to-table awakening.
It’s not just about high THC percentages anymore. It’s not even about CBDs or terpenes. Nowadays, it’s systems and practices that are under scrutiny, with new certifications popping up that aim to promote cleaner practices. In 2016, the Emerald Cup team had the prescience to inaugurate the awareness-raising “Regenerative Farm Award,” which its organizers describe as being born of a desire to get the cannabis industry “excited about and influenced by permaculture, natural farming, and biodynamic principles,” theEmeraldCup.com reported. “The cost decrease, the quality increase and the potential for positive marketing that can be gained from regenerative agriculture techniques can serve as a positive guide for industry to forge a more harmonious relationship between nature and economics.”
On a recent sunny afternoon, I took a gorgeous drive up the 101 to Redwood Valley in Mendocino to meet two of the 2016 “Regenerative Farm Award” winners, Josh and Sandra Khan, and take a tour of Moongazer Farms. The farm is beautifully situated in an idyllic area of horse ranches, small homesteads, and fellow farmers.
Sandra is on her way to a local municipal meeting but takes the time to stop in to say hello and, upon seeing December’s “High Holiday” Issue of the Emerald Magazine, to chat briefly about Israel, where she and Josh met as Wwoofers at the whimsically named organic cheese farm, Goats with the Wind. Inspired by the experience, and each other, they teamed up and embarked on a period of apprenticeship at numerous organic farms around Northern California. This hands-on education culminated in a life-changing stay at Redwood Valley’s own Frey Ranch, home to the first biodynamic winery in the nation, whose proprietors became friends as well as mentors. Josh remembers being moved when the Freys purchased a redwood grove, not to make money from it, but to ensure that it wouldn’t be cut down. “They really were, are, stewards of the land,” he says, clearly still impressed by their integrity.
For those who want the in-depth nitty gritty, links are provided at the end, but in a nutshell, biodynamics is a holistic method of building a symbiotic eco-system of plants, insects, rodents, and even microbes, that’s as “closed loop” (free from outside contaminants) as possible. The through-line is to mimic what nature does best while trying to live in harmony with all the critters.
Josh is a great guy to talk to about it all. Especially if you like erudition to be delivered with a dash of the vernacular. (I do.) His encyclopedic knowledge is casually overflowing with precise terms like “living soil based cultivation,” “rainwater catchment,” “groundwater recharge,” and “carbon sequestering,” yet disarmingly peppered with contemporary slang.
As an example of how to deal with crop-munching “pests,” Josh brings up the problems of gophers in a cannabis monoculture, reasoning that if you plant a bunch of root vegetables in the same field, your flowers are safer. “No potato or Jerusalem artichoke?” he posits with an exaggerated shrug, “then yeah, a hungry gopher is probably gonna attack some cannabis root. And you know what?” He pauses to take a puff on some top-shelf Moongazer Black Dog crossed with Harle Tsu, “I don’t blame the dude!” he exhaled, “little dude’s gotta eat!”
While showing me around the grounds, Khan occasionally reaches down to pull a leaf off something and hand me a piece to chew. There are herbs, flowers, and vegetables a-plenty — even though the cannabis has been harvested — in keeping with the concept of growing complementary crops in a year-round garden. I ask him what he does about slugs and snails, the slimy nemeses of all gardeners, and he tells me about going on Night Patrol, making it sound super-fun somehow.
“They like dark hiding places. So you leave out cardboard rolls stuffed with straw, and the earwigs and snails go in. At night you just go round and pick ‘em up and….” He makes a gesture as if to say, ‘you know what happens next.’ But I don’t, so I press for more details. “And what?” With mock-macabre relish he replies, “And… you feed them to the chickens!”
“What, even the shells?” I asked.
“Absolutely! They just break that right down into calcium in their poo and it goes back into the dirt,” Josh described.
Josh’s enthusiasm for the cycle of life is catching. “In the closed-loop system, chickens are clutch,” he continues excitedly. This exultant declaration reduces me to helpless giggles. Though it could also be the Moongazer Black Dog cross I just smoked.
The natural, sun-grown cannabis philosophy means that Moongazer shuns some current trends in cultivation. Unlike a lot of dollar-oriented growers, they’re not doing light-deprivation in order to get multiple crops per year, and they don’t kill off all the male plants, nor even sequester them completely. “I like to have a male presence,” explains Josh. “I keep them about a quarter of a mile away and get the occasional seed. But it’s a good seed so it’s all good!” Josh clarifies that he doesn’t think of himself as a “grower;” rather, a farmer.
Although Moongazer has picked up a couple of other meaningful certifications (Demeter Biodynamic and Dragonfly Earth Medicine Pure), their transparency policy renders such accolades, nice as they are, a bit redundant. “Consumers need to get to know the soil where their food and medicine comes from,” says Josh, adding, that “this is where Terroir comes into play.” He credits Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP) and their hard work in advancing the recognition of specific cannabis-growing regions.
The Khans are constantly re-affirming the team nature of the biodynamic movement, and are careful to give props to the Freys, the Emerald Cup’s Tim Blake, their fellow award-winners at Green Source Gardens and Dragonfly Earth Medicine, Jesse Dodd of Biovortex, and all the other friends, teachers, colleagues, authors, and fellow-farmers they credit with having given them the technical know-how to realize their agrarian ambitions. Whether talking to them or reading the Moongazer website, this warmth of gratitude shines through; the number of people they wanted me to mention in praise rivalled that of Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1999 Oscar acceptance speech. It’s very endearing. (I’d feel bad if I didn’t pass on at least a few names not mentioned elsewhere: so, in no particular order, big ups to Masanobu Fukuoka, Joel Salatin, Alan Chadwick, Elaine Ingham, Bill Coperthwaite and Lloyd Kahn.)
Moongazer’s ethics of using everything that’s around and community cooperation can also be seen in their warm local relationships with neighboring farmers. Observing some deer running around on an adjacent property, Josh spoke of the owner being “kind enough to let us scoop up some of her cow manure for fertilizer.”
It’s a refreshing departure from the egotism that our narcissistic culture so often encourages in young visionaries. While I don’t see any virtue in false modesty, I especially like those bold explorers who thank the original map-makers.
In light of this, at one point I jokingly, (well, half-jokingly at least) complain to Khan about the injustice of his generation reaping the rewards of struggles endured by us Generation X-ers and the Baby Boomer counterculture that begat us. “I mean some of these old hippies are still trying to get their arrest records expunged and you guys get to waltz in and get weed-cooking shows on Viceland and stuff,” I exclaimed.
He laughs, but then turns sincere. “No, seriously. It is the responsibility of us Millennials, who are lucky to get to walk into this, to give props to everyone who helped bring this around,” Josh added. “That’s really important to me and I feel extremely aware of the fact that people before this time made sacrifices and now I’m here and doing this. I have a lot of gratitude.” Like I said above, it shows.
Personally I have always felt that it’s not just a silly pipe dream, left over from the “summer of love,” to think cannabis can change society for the better. With Biodynamics poised to become the new normal in cannabis farming, it’s already happening. Hooray for the new Millennials who are jumping in, ready to take it on. “I’m just really excited about the now…” Josh says quietly, almost to himself as he walks me back to my car.
There’s a cynical saying that goes “youth is wasted on the young,” implying that the wisdom to do something important only arrives long after the energy required to do it has been frittered away on trivial pursuits.
I love it when cynical sayings don’t apply.