Emerald’s Meet Your Farmer series aims to introduce audiences to the legacy operators in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, an area known as the Emerald Triangle. Legacy growers are those who’ve been growing cannabis since before its legalization in states throughout the nation. The series spotlights those cultivators who’ve helped grow America’s weed for generations.
Cannabis cultivators in the Emerald Triangle, a region comprising of three counties situated in Northern California, produce the most cannabis in the U.S. Farmers here have grown it for generations. Partly hidden by the canopies of redwoods, they raised their families on farms and supported their communities with the funds.
As pioneers of the cannabis industry, legacy or heritage farmers faced stigma and criminalization. In fact, the region was the target of some of the biggest anti-drug efforts in America, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP).
Legalization did not end the adversity these farmers face. Instead, it presented new challenges. Despite this, Emerald Triangle farmers have continued to cultivate cannabis – preserving what has been a way of life in the area for years.
Emerald spoke with Chiah Rodriques, co-founder of River Txai Farms — a family-run, sun-grown cannabis farm in Mendocino County, California — about the importance of community in cannabis culture, what goes into the selection and crossbreeding of different strains, and the unforeseen challenges cultivators and distributors face with recreational legalization.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emerald Media (EM): Tell us about your farm, and the cannabis community in Northern California.
Chiah Rodriques (CR): Mendocino County is a legacy cultivation region. I was born and raised here in a back to the land hippie community, and my husband’s father is also one of the original folks in this community as well, and so that’s how we met. Both of our fathers are […] guerrilla-style growers that have been dabbling for many years.
Those days we would just call it guerilla growing because you literally just did that in the jungle, in the forest, in the trees, in the blackberry bushes. The culture was very different from what it is now. Pretty much everybody I knew growing up, pretty much every single person cultivated at least a couple of plants. Nowadays it’s spottier, more sporadic, or at least people aren’t talking about it if they’re not getting licensed.
So a legacy community like this is just part of the culture. It’s part of the economy. Our economy in Mendocino County, as much as we like to think it relies on grapes or vineyards or logging or whatever; it’s just not the case. Cannabis is really what’s holding up the whole economy of all these local towns and municipalities around here because of course, we’re putting back in our communities.
How we got to where we are now is that me and my husband bought some land that’s right down the road from both of our dad’s properties when I was pregnant with my older son. This is our 21st cultivation season on River Txai Farms, and our 23rd cultivation season together as a couple.
Here at River Txai Farms, we’ve done it as legally as possible whenever that pathway was given. In 1997, Prop 215 was passed and that was our medical-legal route here in California as we could cultivate 25 plants with some medical cards. There was a program called the 9.31 program […]. That was the program that allowed you to stack multiple medical cards in order to get up to 99 plants. So we did that, which was a little weird because you had to pay the sheriff’s department $100 for a plant.
The sheriff literally came out to your farm and inspected you, gun-toting and all. It was very weird. We did that as long as that program was available. Then they stopped the program. All the records were seized by the feds. So everybody got a little nervous and kinda dropped back a little bit.
Then we started hearing rumors of Prop 64 coming down the pike. So we decided that whenever there’s a route, we’ll just take that. Partially because this is our calling; this is our destiny. This is what we’re doing, so let’s do it the right way as best as we can. But also because we both grew up with this super ingrained fear and we didn’t really want our children to have to deal with that. We didn’t really want to put anybody at risk.
EM: A lot of people discuss the need for legalization, but not many talk about the challenges that come with it, from a cultivation and distribution standpoint.
CR: Nobody really knew what [legalization] meant. It was like “oh cool, weeds gonna be recreational, it’s gonna be legal. Awesome! Who doesn’t want that?” We all voted for it, but now I feel like a jerk for voting for it because I didn’t really understand the repercussions.
It’s not just us farmers that are getting screwed. It’s all the way to the consumer. As a consumer, you walk into a dispensary, it’s super hard to make a choice anyways because there are so many different things, and nobody knows anything. These budtenders don’t really have a lot of education. If you’re new to the industry, it’s a little […] awkward to go into a dispensary and find something. But then you’re getting charged a lot. I, as a farmer, sell a bulk wholesale eighth to a distributor for $12-$15 a jar for 3.5 grams. In a dispensary what are you paying? $40-60 for that eighth. I get $12-$15 and the consumer has to pay tax on that price at the end. So everybody’s getting reamed along the way.
I understand that distributors, manufacturers [and] dispensaries need their portion too. But in the end, […] it’s a medicine. The whole point of all this was to get medicine into the hands of the people. And we’re really doing a disservice to the greater community of consumers.
Post from @rivertxai on Instagram
EM: For those outside of California, like on the East Coast, we’re in such a weird grey area. We’re sure you remember what it was like when California first made the push.
CR: I was on Bloomberg two months ago. They wanted me to compare New York to California. They [asked,]: “What advice do you have for us New Yorkers about just getting into the business?” I’m like “don’t do it! (laughs). Don’t copy California!”
California did not really do it that well. We put the cart before the horse. We just kind of tripped into this and now we’re trying to backpedal and change regulations and change the organization of things.
[…] I would say the worst part of this whole puzzle is this thing called metric, which is seed-to-sale tracking. Basically every seed has a tag that goes with that little batch. Then you plant them, and that gets a tag. Then you harvest it — that gets a batch tag. Every single time you go through the entire process you have to change tags and you have to do something in the metric system. [When a lot of people are using the system,] it’s almost impossible to get on that system and get your work done. It’s just like this spinning wheel of death. So it’s slowing down everyone’s business.
There’s duplicative steps, a lot of wasted time, and a lot of wasted money. […] Personally, if you’re gonna get this far and you’re gonna do something like that you shouldn’t be in this shit anyway, so get the fuck out (laughs). You know? We’re kind of forcing people to go in the black market and then [officials] wonder why. It’s a lot.
EM: Legalization efforts we’ve seen over the past year seem pretty disingenuous. The reasons seem more about economic recovery than the plant’s medicinal benefits.
CR: Yeah, it’s like when you go to the doctor and they’re giving you something to throw at the symptoms and they’re not really helping you with the cause, right? That happens over and over and over. The farmers are having the hardest time. Not only because of the monetary piece, but really farmers want to just farm. Farmers don’t want to sit on the computer and do metric. They don’t want to have to deal with all this stuff that they never had to deal with before.
Now there are so many other things that you can’t do on the farm. You can roll pre-rolls on your farm, you can make keef, I believe. But you cannot do any extraction or pressing or tincture making. That’s part of our culture that we’ve been doing forever. Everybody made weed butter. Everybody made keef. People did these things for years and passed that kind of medicine and that knowledge around to each other. Now it’s getting lost because you’re getting forced to either hide it or not do it anymore.
[…] I don’t mean to be so negative, but there is a lot of just hardship. That’s really what’s coming to light in a lot of recent articles and movies and all these things that are coming out that are really trying to show the struggle. Not only of the small farmer, but the equity piece. That’s a huge component that we don’t hear about a lot; trying to help people who have been incarcerated for cannabis get out of jail, and then people who are able to apply for a license, depending on what city or county they live in. But inner-city there’s a lot of people being given licenses that struggled through the system to get out of trouble with weed and now are able to do it the right way. All that’s really cool, changing the paradigms.
I appreciate the good that Prop 64 has really brought out. Legalization, in general, has really brought to light a lot of information that we would’ve never known about cannabis. I compare it to the ocean. We all know 4% of the ocean, we’ve only explored that much. That’s how much we know about cannabis. Every day you hear [about] another constituent or terpene that you’ve never heard of before. [There’s] a lot of science going on, a lot of experimentation and really cool shit is happening.
EM: How many strains of cannabis would you say you care for and what is it like to care for that many strains?
CR: A couple handfuls of different genetics that we carry through the seasons in clones, but my husband’s a breeder. My husband is really into crossing pollen with different plants and trying things out and seeing what happens […]. I feel like a broken record sometimes ‘cause I say this all the time — [….] we’re always looking for that magical unicorn really.
You never know what you’re gonna get. You can have a million children with the same two parents and never get somebody that looks the same. Same thing with cannabis.
Over the years in our community, people would just give you plants and give you seeds. […] So we’ve got some really cool genetics that we’ve had for a long time where we started with True Kush, Blue Dream, and we had some Romulan in there. […]
This year we’re actually growing some straight Blue Dream, which we’ve never actually done. We’ve just happened to get some random seeds from somebody a long time ago and crossed things. So a lot of our genetics hold that Blue Dream in there. But my husband wanted to grow some straight-up Blue Dream so that he can cross-pollinate with some of our house strains.
Otherwise, we have a strain like the Green Door, which is a strain that we actually lost. We had it for many many years. [It’s] as true a Sativa as you can find these days. We lost it in the 2017 fires that were here in Mendocino County. […] A friend of ours had a nursery and was keeping some of those alive for us. But he had to evacuate, then wasn’t able to [re-enter the area to] water so everything died.
EM: That’s a shame.
CR: Yeah. But a random other person that we happened to give a plant to kept that going, then crossed it with his Infinity. So now we have The Door to Infinity, and we’re doing all of those.
[…] We do a Lemon Fire OG, we have a strain called True Barrymore, which has the True Kush mixed [with] the Barrymore part, it’s just a play on words. The effects are super strong Indica effects, but yet motivating, bubbly and fun. You wanna go dance or go on a hike or something.
Every year we probably grow anywhere from 20 to 50 different kinds of things? But we have seed stars out there that aren’t gonna go for production of any kind. They’re just for genetic experiments. We have a few thousand plants.
EM: Wow, so what goes into deciding which [strains] to cultivate?
CR: It’s about intuition. It’s about what looks better; what survives better; and what reacts to insects, or pest problems. What reacts to disease better; what deals with drought better; what’s water-tolerant; what’s not. There [are] a million different things that my husband is looking for constantly that tells him yeah we want that one or no.
We also have a male jail. We put all of our boys over in this hoop thing way over here and then our farm is way over there. You don’t want to accidentally seed stuff, you want to do it on purpose, but accidents happen. I will always want to make a bumper sticker that says “Seeds Happen,” cause you know buyers are always like “there’s a seed in here.” And I’m like “it’s a freaking flower, what do you expect? Don’t knock my price down” (laughs).
EM: It’s like a [grow] your own, make the money you spent back!
CR: Right! When someone opens and they find that weird random seed, wouldn’t you just be so excited? Like “Oh snap! I’m gonna plant this and see what happens!”
EM: ‘Guess I’m a farmer now!‘
CR: We just like constantly playing with genetics and seeing what happens. Sometimes there’s happy accidents. Sometimes there are crappy accidents and you’re like “oops I killed that. I really wanted that.” So it’s always sort of an experiment.
It’s challenging with regulation, with having a nursery. The metric thing is an issue, but also just moving plants around. So we have our nursery license and our cultivation license. If we wanna take something from our nursery and bring it over to the cultivation, which is literally a foot away from it, I have to have a distributor involved. I have to have a distributor that comes and they move these plants one foot, on sight. I can do that. They’re not making it easy for some farmers [to] vertically integrate.
EM: Tell us a little about the upcoming documentary, Lady Buds.
CR: Lady Buds is a documentary about six women in the cannabis industry. There [are] five different narratives in the story. […] There’s this broad spectrum of people in the industry and their stories. It’s heart wrenching, it’s intriguing, there’s a lot to it, a lot of components.
Chris Russo, who is the director, has been filming us since 2015 pretty much. […] It’s been interesting. I never thought I’d do something like that, ever. Considering we were so hidden in the closet and didn’t want to come out and be in the open right now. It’s like “we’re gonna be on Netflix? Uhh… Okay.”
[The film] premiered in Canada back in April […]. It will be at a pre-premiere at Outfest, which is a queer-based film festival in L.A. in August. Then it’ll be down in Marin [County] for the premiere in October.
There [are] a lot of really unique storylines of just the trials and tribulations from putting the plants in the ground, to harvest, to manufacturing all, to taking investment, to family dramas. It tells a good tale about the hardships of people who just really want to be involved with this plant. All of us have a calling to this plant for some reason, and it’s not just like we needed a job.
EM: You mentioned that you didn’t see yourself doing something like this [movie], how exactly did you get involved?
CR: It’s my destiny. I cannot get away from this plant if I wanted to. […]
I felt nervous about talking about it before because I was maybe slightly embarrassed about it. Because pot growers, as people like to call us, have a reputation and there’s different levels of pot growers. There [are] pot princesses, rich growers’ girlfriends that drive around in fancy cars, they never touch the plant. There are so many different variations of people that are connected with this. But for me, it’s like I’m in a teaching role.
I’m […] always starting organizations, doing things for the community, organizing, doing events, and things like that. That’s because I just have that ingrained in me that community is important. Your community is where it’s at. That’s where you live so you gotta put that energy back.
I started figuring out [that] I’m supposed to be on a soapbox and talk about what we’re doing here; why we’re here; […] why it’s important to support small farmers; and why it is important to talk about more than just THC in the plant.
Very interesting article. For me, it sounds a little like the wild west. Although cannabis has been around for years, with this legalization, it’s now a lucrative business. And the concern is, who is manufacturing this and what are their credentials. ? What licenses do they need and if there is cross fertilization, what does that do to the product and the end user.?? So many unknowns.
Penny. Its not as lucrative as it used to be. Farmers are struggling to get by. Many small farms will close their doors this year. 5 years ago, a small farmer like Chiah could live comfortably by simply farming. Raising her kids at home while growing 99 plants and selling the product to dispensaries. Now with all the new requirements and costs that come with regulation as well as the entry of HUGE investor funded farms (which has flooded the market with product and driven the prices to a fraction of what it used to be), the cost for your average person to enter the legal market is in the tens-of-thousands of dollars with a ton of paperwork, licenses, reports, applications, etc. It’s too much for someone who just wants to grow a plant and sell it to a dispensary. They are staying in the black market rather than coming into the regulated market.
This summer I spent about $30,000 getting our farm’s plans/maps drawn up and building permits submitted for our drying rooms and pvc hoop-houses so that we can stay compliant. That doesn’t include the cost to purchase and install the buildings that I applied for. It’s hardly becoming economically viable for the small growers who are the one’s who fought so hard to get us here in the first place.