“Plants will talk to you. Start looking at the signs. It’s like when you go to the beach. You show up, and you’re facing the sun. Before you know it, you’re looking away from the sun. Then, you’re covering yourself from the sun, and finally walking away, retreating. Plants do the same thing.” Craig Johnson’s words filter through the phone and echo in the sun. I commit them to memory. My house plants are dying, and my ears turn toward the truth.
“The top leaves will be like a solar panel, pointed at the sun,” he said. “Then, the first sign of too much or not enough water, it will slowly turn those leaves away from the sun to start shutting down the need for water. Then, a full wilt, ghosted; the plant just drops away,” his voice low, mourning the lost life of a plant.
“Look at the very top of the plant. If it’s popped up, looking right at the sun, like a solar panel tracking the sun, you’ve got plenty of moisture in that soil. That’s my biggest initial connection to help people start reading the plants,” Craig said. Start looking at the signs.
Craig and Melanie own and operate Alpenglow Farms, home to fully certified, compliant, organic, and fish-friendly cannabis (and food) cultivation. With California’s recreational laws taking full-effect in just two months, the entire cannabis community is coming out of the green closet. “The world is looking at us for our cannabis, let’s show them our farming practices,” Craig said, a humble pride taking tone.
Permaculture and polyculture. Sustainability and efficiency. These are pillars of Alpenglow Farms, whose self-sustaining farmettes spread out across Southern Humboldt hillsides. “Kind of like the mom ‘n pop model,” Craig noted, “a polyculture model for buildings and garden setups throughout the property.” Ant Flat, one of the micro-homesteads, was affectionately dubbed after their daughters’ intrigue at the insects who made homes there. “It’s important to keep the family feel,” explains Craig, describing the land as he weaves between tall weeds. Tahoe, a German Shephard, and Mendo, a little pitbull — the farm’s canine guardians — sound-off in the distance.
Alpenglow consists of Huckleberry Flat, Ant Flat, and The Homestead (which has two gardens). The Legacy Garden is right in front of the home and has been a 215 garden since Alpenglow began. Their cats, Glitterbug and Gracey, bask by dramatic dahlias blooming near Dragonfly Earth Medicine (DEM) Pure Certified cannabis.
The other garden, Big Flat, was once a logging flat and is now very fertile ground. At the edge of the cite sits a small home, where guest workers spend their summer learning and living permaculture. This summer it was Kevin and Andrea. They covered daily operations, farm and business management, and integrated technology and innovative processes to streamline the farm’s workflow.
I caught up with them by phone, transported to those mountain views. Kevin discussed Alpenglow’s notable practices: “One of the things I’ve enjoyed is taking all the plants and leaf material that has been pulled off or thrown away or died, and putting it through the chipper,” he described. “ [We] mix it with straw and it comes out like mulch. We return it to the cannabis plants, the soil beds, to keep the soil nice and moist.”
“Craig is very much about feeling the plants, connecting on a spiritual/emotional level, understanding by that what they need,” said Kevin, who added that though he and Andrea are new to this method, Craig has helped them make that connection and collectively grow as gardeners.
In turn, Andrea and Kevin helped Alpenglow become DEM Pure Certified, an incomparable status achieved only by beyond organic farms that utilize solely regenerative and biologically intelligent practices. At least five closed loop systems are required to be considered for DEM certification, such as soil building and myco remediation. Pure farmers also give back to the community through education, as leaders and teachers of beyond organics for next generation cultivators, be it of food or cannabis.
Alpenglow is equally dedicated to creating high-quality, craft cannabis as it is to enriching the land, water, and air. Corey and Rosie join the Johnsons at Alpenglow, and oversee Huckleberry Flat. The O’Neill’s are master growers and provide the build-out for Alpenglow Farm’s systems and innovations.
Under the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) cannabis program, licensed cannabis cultivators “must ensure that individual and cumulative effects of water diversion and discharge associated with cannabis cultivation do not affect the instream flows needed for fish spawning, migration, and rearing, and the flows needed to maintain natural flow variability, and to otherwise protect fish, wildlife, fish and wildlife habitat, and water quality.”
“Fish-friendly cannabis” as Craig called it. “To be part of [CDFW’s] cannabis program, you have to forebear from your surface water for six months. Even though we have several amazing springs on this property, we can’t use them for cannabis. They want all that water to go down and keep life vital in the river. And we want to be part of that as well,” he said, “we love salmon!”
Hollie Hall and Associates at Compliant Farms helped Alpenglow navigate the permitting process, engaging with CDFW and the state water board. Rainwater, captured via a system of rooftop gutters is used for 100% of the irrigation at the farm, bringing Alpenglow into compliance with the CDFW, the State Water Board, and the Regional Water Board. Hollie confirmed that the farm has been fully Complaint Farms Certified.
“The Alpenglow Farms family is passionate about cultivating a diversity of plants to enhance the nutritional and medicinal productivity of the farm, and also to draw in and support a diversity of beneficial insects that aid in protection of the cannabis from attack by detrimental pest insects,” Hall told me via email, in between a busy schedule of soil reports and permit assistance. Committed to protecting resources, the many springs, creeks and waterfalls throughout the property exist in a wild setting, untrampled by development. “By supporting healthy farm and watershed systems, the Alpenglow Farms family strives to produce high quality, artisanal cannabis that supports clean water, healthy ecosystems, and a strong community,” she wrote.
Another water conservation technique used at Alpenglow is living mulch, which is a cover crop growing at the same time and in the same bed as the cannabis plants. This is where the story gets dirty.
Sarah Schuette, co-owner of Dirty Business Soil (DBS), an agriculture testing company and consulting firm, explained that living mulch provides a path for nutrient exchange, such as nitrogen fixers, and maintains plant diversity, which can divert pests away from the cannabis. Alpenglow is also piloting DBS’ integrated pest management program, a move some farmers view as risky.
“Our main goal [at DBS] is to help increase yields or decrease losses — or both — for farmers based on optics from their soil, [in effect] asking the soil what it needs,” Schuette said. They recommend back-to-basics fertilizers, organic commodity products like fish meal, compost and manure. The recipe is to recharge and reuse the soil, which lowers overhead costs like buying new soil. DBS customizes nutrient management plans for each unique soil situation, from smart pots to greenhouses to Hugelkultur beds, like the ones at Alpenglow.
After the light dep cannabis harvest, the greenhouses of Alpenglow rotate from cannabis to nitrogen fixers like fava and bush beans to keep the living soil alive and yield a food crop. Hugelkultur is German for mound culture or hill culture. The steps are simple: 1) Dig trench. 2) Bury wood. Over time, the wood decomposes, releasing nutrients into the soil. In death, the wood also becomes spongy, able to retain a lot of water and defy drought. The water saving method was used for centuries in Germany and Eastern European, and is making a comeback thanks to permaculture influencers like Paul Wheaton, Geoff Lawton, and Alpenglow Farm’s own Craig Johnson. “We don’t want to shut down our greenhouses when the cannabis is finished. We want to keep producing and putting food back into our community.”
Even as trailblazers, Alpenglow aims for better. “We want to be more efficient; that’s why we’re doing living soils and soil building techniques. We’re in an agroforestry situation,” Craig noted during one of our calls, “and we’re not into clearing more forest on a mountainside to grow more cannabis.”
Drawn from the spirit of stewardship, Craig co-founded Humboldt High Five, a cohort of like-minded farmers bringing social and ecological standards and values to cannabis, practices, and community service. Huckleberry Hill Farm, Lady Sativa Farm, Villa Paradiso Farm, and Moon Made Farms are all members of Humboldt High Five.
Rio Anderson of Lady Sativa Farm shared some background on Humboldt High Five. “We went to Columbia to study the coffee co-ops with Flow Kana,” he relayed. There, the group discovered the solution to scaling for craft farms. “The small co-ops were able to compete with large Brazilian coffee farms because they scale as co-ops. It’s just as efficient if not more efficient than the large independent farms in Brazil,” Rio explained. “We have very talented farmers, people I’ve had a hard time locating before [legalization]. It’s exciting to have leadership and unique qualities in all our members,” he said. Humboldt High Five members support each other’s brands, functioning as a small cooperative system, and also work closely with Flow Kana Institute.
“Cannabis has the opportunity to be such a massive industry with so much breadth and reach from medicine to energy to cosmetics to recreational,” said Michael Steinmetz, Flow Kana CEO. “As we grow, we have to be sure to bring along those deep values of community and sustainable cultivation practices. When cannabis is produced in harmony with the land, it is healthier and has less impact on its surroundings.”
After years of getting caught in the weeds, the cannabis community is charging out of the green closet. Cannabis information can be shared openly in public forums and conferences, like the Living Soils Symposium, or simply with a stranger on a plane making polite conversation. “Accessibility to knowledge is gained through transparency, as it allows for multiple entities and organizations to openly discuss the possibilities of cannabis and its future,” said Melanie, adding “Coming out is about being transparent about our life; what we’ve accomplished and what we hope to accomplish in the future.”
Find Alpenglow Farms at the forefront, setting the tone for craft cannabis through better than best practices. And if you ever get the chance to sit next to Craig Johnson on a plane, definitely ask what he does for a living. As for my houseplants, they’re tracking the sun and clinging on for another day.
To learn more about Alpenglow Farms and where to find their flowers, visit:
Solful Dispensary in Sebastopol, California – a new dispensary focusing on sungrown flowers and the first dispensary partner for Alpenglow.