Back in the 1970s, a young John Casali, his mom and his stepdad, moved onto an expansive piece of land in Humboldt County, California. That land became Huckleberry Hill Farms, a multi-generation farm now in the hands of Casali and his wife. Like many in the area, Casali and his family moved there in search of a more relaxed and rural lifestyle.
“I’ve been here ever since,” says Casali.
The Casali family did it all. They survived through a combination of commercial fishing, farming produce, chopping firewood and growing a little cannabis on the side. Hard work allowed the Casalis to not only support themselves, but also “have the type of freedom and the type of lifestyle that [they] had dreamed of.”
This week, Casali treated the Emerald to not just the Huckleberry Hill Farms story but also that of the Emerald Triangle — one of love, perseverance and community.
EMERALD: What’s your cannabis origin story?
CASALI: Cannabis was just another thing that we were doing to supplement our income. From the age of 10 years old, I remember following my mother around the garden growing vegetables, helping grow the grapes, the fruit trees and the cannabis. Cannabis became something really normalized to me. It was just the same to me as a tomato plant.
Eventually it became a kind of a competition between my mother and I. We were always experimenting around — especially in the early 80s. There [were] chemical fertilizers that people would put on them, but that would make your product turn out real harsh and burn your throat. We were really more into the organic input [like] using stuff off of our land, mulching from the vegetable garden and using that compost later in the planter boxes.
There [were] all kinds of different experiments that we did. There [were] times I remember sticking rusty nails in the planter boxes or into some of the plants to see if the plant responded well to the iron. I remember giving some of them birth control pills. We used to harvest plants and pull them up by the roots and stick the roots in boiling hot water, because we thought that it would send that last little bit of energy or terpenes into the colas.
When I was 15 years old, I begged my mother to have my own plants. So she felt that I was responsible enough and that I [had] learned enough that she gave me my 10 personal plants under [the] condition that none of the money that I would get from those plants would go to anything fun. It had to go to something to benefit my future.
And so at the end of that harvest season, I put a down payment on 11 acres along the Yellow River and bought my first piece of property. I was so young that my mother had to actually cosign on the title form with me. My mother and I would then compete over who had the best product.
After a while, enforcement started to get worse. Southern Humboldt County started to get really bad, especially after [President] Ronald Reagan declared the War on Drugs. So my parents really decided that their true love was fishing in the ocean.
They left me here to take care of the farm. By then, ten plants turned into 20 plants turned into more plants, but we couldn’t grow out in the open anymore. There [were] times where there [were] five different helicopters in the air and that was back in 1990. Enforcement was so bad that we were forced to grow underneath the trees and underneath bushes.
So we changed our growing technique. Instead of growing one plant that would produce 5 pounds or 10 pounds or however big it was. We just added more plants in the same space to get the same amount of product. So there might be a hundred plants in the same space that before I could grow one plant. So out of those hundred plants, maybe they were an ounce a piece.
It was just a way of life for us. We were pretty naive. We always believed that we would just get probation because we had watched other people get busted in their outdoor cultivations. They would end up with probation. We didn’t know anything about feds and the federal rules — there’s different laws.
We quickly found out. One day at six o’clock in the morning, I had 30 federal agents show up at my door. They actually sat here all day with me. They never handcuffed me. They searched my property here and then at the end of the day, they gave me a little yellow speeding ticket and they said, “well, if we want to talk to you later, we’ll come back.”
They came back with an arrest warrant after a year and two months. I was arrested and I posted bail. My bail back then was, even for a first time, nonviolent offender for cultivation $275,000. So my mother put up the house and pretty much everything she owned to get me out of jail.
For the next three years, my best friend and I drove from here to [the] San Francisco federal courthouse building. We walked into the courthouse and against what we were being advised by our lawyers, we told the judge, “look, we’re guilty for growing cannabis. We’re two 20-year-old kids that would never hurt anybody and we just want you to know who we are as people.”
We just really believed in our hearts that if he knew that we were good people and we would never hurt anybody, that he could never send us to jail.
It was easy for the prosecutor to paint this picture that we were these big, bad Kingpins. And that just really wasn’t the truth. At the end of the day, after three years, a hundred people from Southern Humboldt got on a bus and joined us for sentencing.
We were being sentenced according to the mandatory minimums and our bracket was 10 years to life. [The judge] felt like he had no other choice but to give us the 10 year mandatory minimum. We did eight out of the 10 years.
This journey for me has been 17 years out of my life. To be a permitted Humboldt County farmer with not only the County, but with the state, it’s bumpy. It’s really just an incredible feeling.
Unfortunately, my mother passed away while I was in jail. In her honor, all the strains that we grow here at Huckleberry Hill are strains that she used to grow 45 years ago with me.
I believe everything happens for a reason. When I got back from jail, after doing 3,000 days in prison, I had 50 people from this community here waiting for me to help me get my life back in order. The reality of it is this could have happened to any one of us.
EMERALD: Did you ever imagine that the cannabis industry could ever look like it does today? How does it make you feel that not just medical but recreational cannabis is now legal in so many states?
CASALI: I feel very honored that they have deemed cannabis as an essential business. I think that really justifies the importance of what we’re doing and the importance of the medicine that we’re producing.
I never imagined that it was even possible. Now that this day has come, the ones of us that are now participating in the legal market are really finding it amazing and self-fulfilling. For the whole time I went through high school, every single person’s parents were all carpenters. I mean the whole town. That’s what we were taught to lie. Now we can finally share that with the world.
My biggest fear today really has to be that the way that “big ag” is headed this way and the fear of the true story of the Emerald Triangle and especially Southern Humboldt [getting] lost. These billions of dollars that they’re coming [in with] — we can’t compete with that. The consumer has to resonate with who we are and what we’re about and the product that we produce.
EMERALD: Tell us some more about the farm today. What does Huckleberry Hill Farm look like in 2020?
CASALI: The team consists of two of us, myself and my girlfriend. It’s only a 5,000 square foot cannabis farm. That’s 2,500 square feet of mixed light and 2,500 square feet outdoor. Every plant or box has flowers and there’s a vegetable garden and bees and owl boxes and Buddhas and rainwater catchment ponds.
This is the first farm in the state of California to be certified fish by the California Land Institute. This piece of property is bordered on both sides by co-host bonding tributaries. So it’s really important that we keep any sediment, any kind of nutrients out of the spawning tributary for their survival.
We’ve spent a lot of money lining all the ditches with rocks and really making sure that we take no water out of those creeks or springs during the summer months. And all the water that we use here on this property is collected throughout the winter time in rainwater catchment ponds. All the fans and stuff for the greenhouses and any pumps that we use are all done with solar.
We’re trying to leave as little footprint as possible. Our mantra or our hope isn’t really about making a bunch of money here at the farm. It’s really about making a difference in people’s lives and really changing people’s opinion of who we are as a community.
EMERALD: How exactly do you hope to change people’s lives with cannabis?
CASALI: I don’t even know how it happens, but it seems to be happening.
For example, Nicole Elliot, the head of the cannabis division for [Gov.] Gavin Newsom, came here [last year] because she really wanted to know how it was working for farmers.
See, every planter box on this farm has a name. Those are people that during my lifetime have made a really positive difference [and] really made it possible for me to be here. One of those people was a lady named Leslie and [she] had breast cancer at the age of 36. Leslie was experimenting around and trying to use CBD oil to reduce the size of the tumor.
Were walking up and we got this planter box, and I was telling Nicole Elliot, this story. Leslie fell in love with this farm and fell in love with the plant. She had a family that didn’t agree with cannabis at all but her husband was in the business of [it]. When Leslie passed away, her last wishes were that some of her ashes [be] spread here on my farm. He brought 10 people from her family and 10 people from his family and they each took a small bit of her ashes and they found a very special place on this farm to spread [them].
That changed those people’s lives forever. When I was telling Nicole, for whatever reason that was affecting her in a way. She broke down and started crying and she was hugging me on this cannabis farm. There was this connection.
Cannabis really is a vehicle to connect with people in all different types of ways. To this day, Nicole has her own very plant. And she’s checking in with me through her emails and wants to know how our plants are doing.
EMERALD: What types of strains do you have on the farm right now? What are some of your favorites?
CASALI: So my mother and one of my best friend’s mothers crossed a strain together and came up with this amazing strain [that] at that time they called Froot Loops. We don’t call it Froot Loops anymore because of obvious reasons, but we did rename that strain Paradise Punch.
That’s the genetic base of all the strains that we grow here. There’s a bunch of different phenotypes of this one Paradise Punch, but we found the very best one by experimentation. The whole time I was gone in prison my really good friend kept that alive in a propagation room. Then, when I came back after eight years, he gave me that plant back.
I used that same male plant to seed other different, more popular strains. Even though they’re not the exact strains that my mother used to grow, they’re variations of those strains that she used to have back then.
Two of my favorites this year [are] White Foreign Rose and then another one we named after my mother called Sweet Marlene.
The regulatory process is really the one thing I don’t like about becoming legal. It’s really changing the way we’re forced to grow. [All the strains] need to get tested [and] every test costs anywhere between $600 to a thousand dollars. So if I grow 20 strains, that’s at minimum $20,000 in testing fees. So we limit it to three of our favorites that we’re growing outside and then another three different ones in a mixed light.
EMERALD: As the farmer, what’s something the average cannabis consumer needs to know?
CASALI: There’s nothing more important for a consumer to know [than] to know your farmer. Know who your farmer believes in. Know who I am as a person. If you figure out for yourself that I’m a good person, there’s a really good chance that the product that you’re going to be putting into your body is probably pretty good.
So know who your farmer is. There’s ways — there’s social media. There’s a bunch of different ways. There’s a lot of good people. A lot of people care about the consumer up here.
After we ended our conversation, we received a message from Casali. Even though cannabis is legal in many states and decriminalization is common, thousands of people continue to be jailed for simple cannabis charges.
“The most ironic thing that still remains,” says Casali, “is that if the feds came to this property today I could get life in prison.”