Hannah Whyte and her husband Riley are the hard-working farmers behind Emerald Queen Farms, an incredibly beautiful cannabis farm located just outside of the bucolic town of Willow Creek, California. This month Emerald Queen Farms (EQF) expects to be fully permitted in Humboldt County. Humboldt was the first county to accept applications for regional cannabis cultivation permits, starting in 2016. EQF has also started their interim licensing application with the state.
As 2018 kicks off an uncharted era for California’s legendary cannabis industry, many small farms are joining larger collectives in an attempt to combine the rising costs of branding, distribution and licensing. For now, Hannah and Riley are committed to farming Emerald Queen Farms independently, but often reach out to friends and neighbors to offer their support and share best practices. At last December’s Emerald Cup, EQF presented with fifteen other sun-grown cannabis farms to educate consumers about the environmental benefits of growing cannabis under the sun.
Hannah and Riley are passionate about sustainable agriculture, running a healthy family farm and bringing more recreational opportunities and economic stability to the North Coast. On a cold sunny day in December, Hannah and I chatted about farming, flowers, native soils, paperwork, raising kids and skateboarding.
Emerald Magazine: How long have you and Riley farmed cannabis?
Hannah Whyte: We’ve been cultivating cannabis, among other things, for 10 years.
Emerald: Where did you start out?
HW: We started cultivating here in California, but our love of farming was developed during our college years at Evergreen State College in Washington. We were both enrolled in sustainable agriculture programs.
Emerald: Is that where you guys met?
HW: Yep. Riley was selling produce from the Evergreen State organic farm and I was buying vegetables. […] The farm has a little farmer’s market where they’d sell produce that they grow on the 20-acre instructional farm.
Emerald: What brought you to California?
HW: In Washington, we had a farm on the Squamish River and it flooded every fall. It was so hard to control soil erosion and our neighbors were using Roundup. While visiting friends in Northern California, we fell in love with the four seasons and potential to grow food all year long.
Emerald: You and Riley have two kids?
HW: Yep. Pot farming didn’t come out [of] people not being families [laughing]. We’re transparent with our children about our work. Honesty is the best policy. We’re farmers who live a farming lifestyle and getting dirty is important.
Emerald: Would it be fair to say that the farm is a good educational opportunity for your kids to learn about hard work?
HW: Totally. It was my dream to be able to stay at home with my kids and make a living. So far, we’ve been able to have a family business and be a family living on the farm for the whole experience. Essentially, we’ve been living my dream.
Emerald: So what’s the story behind the Emerald Queen Farm name?
HW: We wanted a name that was giving to the flower. But it’s often misconstrued that I’m the queen — I’m not! The cannabis flower is the green queen.
Emerald: Let’s talk about sustainability and the permitting process, which are mutually dependent. What measures have you taken to improve sustainability at EQF?
HW: Our property has the most beautiful prime ag soils we’ve ever seen. This past season, we cultivated 85 percent of our crops in native soils, only amended with compost, peat and rice hulls. We’re trying to keep trash and commercial man-made soil out of our product and develop a regional terroir, like with grapes. By growing in the soil, we can implement cover crops between the beds and after harvest, replenishing nitrogen and organic matter.
Emerald: When you do need commercial soil, can you source it locally?
HW: We try to purchase soil made in Humboldt County to keep down shipping costs and also, to shop local. Keeping our local economy alive and thriving is super important. We’ve got to do this together.
Emerald: In any agricultural industry, when you’re farming in sync with nature, your methods are somewhat revolutionary, as we’re still living in the era of industrial agriculture. Is your knowledge of sustainable farming rooted in your education from college? Or are you adopting practices from other cannabis farmers in Humboldt?
HW: Our choice to grow in our native soil comes straight from our agricultural experience. EQF is a farm. I don’t really like the term “grower.” It’s not a hobby, this is farming, just like farming anything else. I believe we can reduce our costs and still produce a beautiful product by using sustainable methods and root agriculture. Lots of industries, like forestry and fishing, have died up here. We want to create a template for our industry to farm a high-quality product, which keeps us in business and also leads the way in regard to respectful cultivation practices.
Emerald: What about rainwater catchment?
HW: We set up a tank system to catch water in the winter and store water from our licensed stream diversions. We want to gravity feed the garden so we don’t have to deal with pumps and all that jazz. In the future, we’d like to set up greenhouses to catch water off the roofline, but it’s tricky at our high elevation. We had snow two days ago and leaving the plastic up all year round is a challenge. We’ll see what technology develops.
Emerald: Regarding permitting – have you worked with a consultant?
HW: Not on our farm, no. We charged the way ourselves, so we could get a feel for it. Realistically, it’s just paperwork or farming at the desk. It’s also good to know the information and not rely on someone else’s interpretation.
Emerald: To be your own expert on something impacts you so directly.
HW: Exactly. It’s also a huge cost savings. Doing it myself, I have answers for friends who have questions and it’s good information to bounce back within our community. Staying informed and engaged is how we’re going to protect this economy.
Emerald: What’s your vision for EQF?
HW: My vision is to have a beautiful farm [with] flowers, not just cannabis. We’re planning on putting in an orchard and planting more annual food crops. I’d love to make tincture blends from the property, offer farm tours, cooking classes and share the history of the land. There’s also so much opportunity for recreation. We want to promote an active lifestyle culture; we love skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding and want to develop our brand for people who spend their time in nature and live an active, healthy lifestyle.
HW: As much as we work hard, we need to play hard too. Having a space where we can recreate on the farm and stretch out the body is so important. Personal improvement activities are fantastic. It’s a great way for our kids to build their confidence within themselves. Everyone promotes everyone else, whether they’re learning a new trick or striving to improve. It’s such a positive community activity. We’re also trying to get a skate park here in Willow Creek and experimenting with using the farm platform to fundraise for other public community recreation activities. We want to bring more fun things to do in our sweet town – it’s growing and getting better every year.
Emerald: I agree. If we’re going to have cannabis tourism on the North Coast of California, we need more activities for people to truly experience this region, not simply breeze through. Tourism needs to be sustainable and a win for everybody.
HW: Absolutely. We love spending our off days kayaking on the Trinity River. We want to incorporate recreational activities and spending time in nature with cannabis tourism. The Trinity is such an important water[way]to protect. We do our best by not using pesticides and chemical fertilizers that could leach into water systems. Playing on the river helps create more ownership for people to advocate for clean waters. We love getting on the river.
Emerald: Let’s talk about the financial component of sustainability. How important is cannabis farming to our economy?
HW: I just looked at a map that estimates that the North Coast region produces 4.15 million pounds of cannabis. Being the largest production area in the state, we have a huge opportunity to create and develop a sustainable industry for our area. We’re grateful for Humboldt County taking the initiative to offer a solid permitting process, which promotes the cannabis industry staying on the North Coast. There are so many learning opportunities in the regulatory marketplace and we’re figuring out how to make it work best for everyone.
In 2018, keep a lookout for EQF flowers, farmed with respect to the land, the river and to the green queen, always.
Follow Emerald Queen Farms on Instagram @EmeraldQueenFarms