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 grow.and cultivate cannabis – preserving what has been a way of life in the area for years.
Emerald spoke with Monique Ramirez, co-founder of Sunbright Gardens — a small-batch, sun-grown cannabis farm in Mendocino County — about the cannabis community, farming with the phases of the moon, and the challenges of operating a small farm in today’s cannabis market.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Emerald Magazine (EM): Tell us about your farm, and the cannabis culture and community in Northern California?
Monique Ramirez (MR): […] I moved about 15 years ago to Mendocino County. I met my partner and we started cultivating medically, before Prop 64 passed. Then, once it went into effect, we decided to pursue a commercial cannabis business. We’ve been cultivating commercially since 2017, and it has been a crazy ride through legalization. We’re hoping to achieve our annual state license here pretty soon with the state.
I’d say the culture is pretty awesome. I’ve met so many amazing people through cannabis [in] the time I’ve lived here. We have a pretty tight-knit community in Covello, and a lot of out-of-the-box thinkers, homesteaders, people trying to live an off-grid lifestyle. That’s been really inspiring for us.
We live on 45 acres. We’ve been building our home from the ground up. We bought a bare piece of land about 10 years ago, and we’ve been developing it since. It’s been pretty exciting. I feel like having a great community of support [of people] that are like-minded and living the same kind of lifestyle has been really awesome. Also, to learn so much from other cultivators that have been doing this far longer than we have has been really paramount to our success as cultivators, with all the techniques and genetics that they’ve shared with us over the years. Through that culture, we’ve established a really great cannabis community, too. […] I founded an advocacy group in our community specific to cannabis.
EM: Could you tell us some more about the advocacy group?
MR: After legalization happened with Prop 64, we realized that there were a lot of problems with the way the regulations were shaping up. Unfortunately, in our district, in Mendocino County, we didn’t have a board of supervisors at the time. So, we weren’t being represented. I felt like we really needed to get involved as a community and cultivators, and start voicing our opinions and giving feedback to these supervisors who craft regulations for us. So, I started rallying community members, and we started attending board of supervisors meetings. Eventually we formed an advocacy group — the Covello Cannabis Advocacy Group [CCAG].
We’ve been writing memos to county officials; attending meetings; I even did some advocacy work in Sacramento when state regulations were still being crafted. That’s really birthed such an amazing community of cultivators. Now we’ve really been able to create a seat at the table with our county government, and have helped shape some of the regulations that we have now.
[…] It has been really great to get community engagement on all of these really important topics, from licensing requirements to advocating for equity grant programs, and things like that — and also kind of creating a support group for each other as we go through all the regulations to have a license.
EM: The Emerald Triangle seems to have a very tight-knit community around cannabis cultivation.
MR: Yeah, I agree. [When] you live in a community that’s small and rural like ours, and everybody around you is in the same profession as you, riding the same roller coaster together, it’s pretty unique. That’s been really interesting, to have that support and camaraderie between each other.
EM: Your website mentions growing using Stella Natura Calendar Rhythms. What is that — what benefits does it bring to cannabis?
MR: Stella Natura is just a biodynamic planting calendar. It’s based on the phases of the moon cycle. Every day has a different expression. […] There’s basically root, leaf, flower, and fruit that are designated for different days. On those days, it’s more beneficial to plant those kinds of crops. If it’s a root day, it’s best to plant carrots, for instance. On a flower day, that’s the best day to plant cannabis. Whether it’s for seeds, or if you’re going to transplant. We really try to mimic that, and plant with the cycles of the moon. There [has] been some interesting research that the plants are really receptive to that, and you can get better yields and maybe avoid certain weather patterns or something like that based on the cycles.
I studied under a master gardener for vegetable production at some point in my early 20s. One thing I took away from this master gardener was, he said, “always try to plant with the phases of the moon. But don’t get mooned out.” Sometimes you just have to get things in the ground; it might not always line up with the calendar. We try to keep that in mind. But we really try our best to plant with these cycles, and time it with our seeds germinating on a flower day. Same for when we’re transplanting as well.
EM: That’s a very unique type of farming.
MR: It’s definitely something we try to align ourselves with. I think it’s really important, especially being a small garden. We’re one of the smallest license types in the state. There’s only 44 specialty cottage outdoor operators, and we’re one of them. We’re able to really be in touch with our plants in a way that larger-scale producers aren’t.
We’re planting our plants ourselves; […] harvesting them; we’re even trimming them. We’re really able to be with the plant from seed to sale. I think that’s really powerful in the end result of the product that we’re able to give to consumers, which is pretty awesome. People are supporting small family farms, so that’s great.
EM: A smaller farm can give more care to each plant, resulting in a better product overall.
MR: I definitely agree. I feel like right now we’re at this pivotal point with the way the licensing structure is with the state. Pretty soon in 2023, they’re going to allow a Type Five license to exist, which will open it up to even larger scale operations. It’s going to be really interesting to see how that impacts small farms, especially with the way pricing is going right now. There’s such a flood of cannabis, it seems, on the market, that a lot of farms have struggled to find ways to get their product out there.
It’s really important to keep sharing the stories of small legacy farmers to the consumer. […] This is how we touch those people and get them to understand that when they’re purchasing flowers from small farms in rural parts of Northern California, and even across California, you’re really supporting a local community, too. We’re able to put our dollars back into our local economy.
I think that these larger corporate-model operations are set up in a different kind of way, with different intentions and goals. So it’s really important to see consumers understand what’s important for small family farms. I think that’s true in agriculture in general.
We’re seeing more small farmer’s markets being supported. People are really looking to craft-batch coffee and chocolate and stuff like that. So, if we can preserve this heritage that has existed for so long, that really helped us even have legalization and an opportunity to cultivate commercially, we’ll be in a better place, environmentally, in the long run. Economically, too.
EM: What does the term legacy farmer mean to you?
MR: It means somebody that has been cultivating for a substantial amount of time, [at] least 10 years, and really being connected to not only their land, but also their community. That really highlights, to me, what a legacy farmer is. Somebody that has been sharing in the culture, understanding the styles of growing, the practices, and the secrets of the trade, which you wouldn’t get if you just moved here in a year. It takes time to listen and tune in to your land as well, and really understand what the land is trying to offer. That all takes time, and so for me, I think at least a 10 year [timeframe] really defines what a legacy operator is.
EM: Before legalization, did you experience raids, or did War on Drugs policies impact you in any other way?
MR: Yeah, actually, I was. In 2013 we were raided at our farm. That was a pretty traumatizing experience to go through. […] Prior to having the raid happen on us, we’d hear the helicopters. But you’d kind of get used to it because it was always happening. You’d just pray that you weren’t the one that got picked, I guess you could say.
The way they treated us during that time was really not so great. We had to go to jail, and we had to pay restitution money to keep felonies from being on our record. It was really intense. I’m really grateful that the state has acknowledged the War on Drugs and created an equity program for local jurisdictions to participate in. Mendocino County applied, and they were awarded $2.1 million last year.
I actually just found out a couple of days ago that [officials awarded me] some equity grant funding to help with licensing, and just all of the costs that it takes to operate. I’m pretty excited about that. I’m still going through the process, but [officials] awarded [me] some grant money. It’s kind of nice to see that come around as a full circle.
But yeah, those days were definitely hard. Even long before my time, most people were growing under the trees and really trying to be as hidden as possible in those guerrilla-style grows back in the day. It’s so different now to drive through a town and just see cannabis hoop houses and stuff, just right there and in the open. We’ve really changed.
EM: I’m glad to hear that you got a grant.
MR: Yeah, I’m excited about it. It’s taken a while for it to come to fruition. The county actually got reinstated for another chunk of money for next year as well. So I really hope more people will be able to apply in the next year. They have some interesting thresholds right now with your income bracket and some other qualifications that you have to meet in order to qualify. Which makes sense. But they’ve set the income standards to such a small amount that it has left a lot of people out that really should be able to get into this program. We’re hoping to see some reform there at the county level for next year’s application process.
EM: What are the biggest challenges of “going legal?”
MR: Right now it’s about finding the right distribution relationships to get our products to the market. We’re so far away from most retail outlets, which are [mostly] in the L.A. area. So, having really good distribution relationships that mirror a lot of the values that we have in our cultivation practices and business model — it has been really challenging to find. A lot of farms are struggling in that way. I also think just keeping up with all of the taxes and the permitting costs. I feel like every couple of weeks we get a bill. Whether it’s for the IRS, or the county, or a weighmaster certificate that we have to renew. It’s just constantly on the table. I’ve actually created a calendar just so I can keep track of every month, a bill that might be due with one of the various state agencies.
There’s a disconnect there with the legislators and the cultivators, specifically. A lot of these regulations don’t really fit for us, especially with the metric reporting. Having to weigh all of your wet plant material, and record all of these numbers, then in a couple of days, the numbers change drastically because so much of the water weight dries and you’re left with your final product. It’s just interesting to see all the data that the state is collecting from all of us. Not all of it seems necessary. I think [officials geared the] metric model for Track and Trace towards a more indoor cultivation operation style, which isn’t really what’s predominant here in the Emerald Triangle. So we see a lot of challenges with that.
Branding is a really big challenge, too. [There’s] so many farms and so much product, how do you get yourself to be recognized in a way that will keep you relevant and on the shelf? That’s really hard, especially for small cottage operators because we only cultivate about 100 pounds of flower in a year.
I get calls all the time from manufacturers that want to buy our trim, our shake, and we’re always like “yeah, that sounds great.” Then when they say “oh, but the minimum batch size is 200 pounds,” […] That will take me about four to five years to produce, because I only have maybe 40 to 50 pounds of that in a year. We’re still sitting on some of our trim from last year because we haven’t been able to find a buyer. I guess we’ll keep saving for a few years until we meet their batch requirements.
I think that’s been really challenging for small farms, and even for the larger farms, too. Finding prices that are going to keep us in business has also been really challenging. There’s just so much cannabis. More counties are passing more ordinances to allow larger-scaled operations. How that’s going to impact small farms is going to be really telling in the coming years, and how we’re going to be able to survive that until we have more retail outlets to sell to.
Not having direct sales opportunities has also been a big challenge. Not being able to sell directly to consumers through events and farmer’s markets has also been pretty detrimental to the success and survival of small operators. I hope that we can see that change.
EM: It is hard for small operators to compete against these larger-scale, more industrial farms.
MR: Yeah. There’s definitely a difference in quality. Also one of the biggest problems in our supply chain is the taxes are so high for the consumer. [Customers] come in with only so much money to spend on cannabis products. After the taxes are added on, and the excise fees and all that, […] they really can’t afford much. It kind of forces people to have to lower their standards for what they would have wanted to purchase, and buy something that’s a little bit less quality. All the top shelf triple-A flower products that small farms are making don’t necessarily get the coverage that they should. […]
We’ve become Sun + Earth certified to help showcase that we are growing in a really regenerative and sustainable type of style. Growing sun-grown, we’re not doing indoor operations and stuff like that. Hopefully [that] can help match us to the consumer that shares the same values that we have. But all of that is really difficult. It’s not easy to do all of that.
EM: What would you say are some of the biggest rewards of “going legal?”
MR: The first is just being able to tell people, “yes, I’m a cannabis operator,” and to not feel afraid or ashamed. To feel proud that we are cultivating this awesome medicine, and getting that out to the world and to people in California. That feels really good. To legitimize this industry is [also] really important, and has been a benefit. I also think standardizing the regulations around pesticide use has been one of the best things that could have ever happened for cannabis. Hopefully it will help shift the way agriculture [across] all sectors, even with vegetable production.
Cannabis is so safe. I really admire the state for adopting regulations that mirror that for consumer safety, but also for the environment. We should not be spraying pesticides, herbicides, and things like that when there are natural remedies that we can use. That’s one of the biggest things that I feel proud of, and grateful for, with this regulation; to see that we’re trying to craft a different pathway for how cannabis should be cultivated. It’s really important to the environment, to the animals, to the watershed, everything.
EM: It’s very important, especially in a place like the Emerald Triangle, for operators to preserve the naturalness of both the crops and the area itself.
MR: I agree. I think that we could do more […] We’re working in our advocacy group to try to get a best management practices program launched that will really help: give education to cultivators around how to propagate their cannabis in a way that is beneficial to the soil and to the watershed, and [create] biodiversity in their garden, helping to save them money.
There’s so many people buying all these crazy products for different pest issues […]. [But] here’s things that you can do. You can make homemade remedies and things like that […] We really have to take responsible action towards growing in a sustainable way, or as best we can. Especially given the landscape we’re dealing with; with our climate, and the crazy drought we’re in right now, and fire season basically here. There’s just a lot to contend with. We’re hopefully going to see some shifts happening.
EM: What is it like to care for so many strains of cannabis? What goes into deciding which strains to cultivate?
MR: That part is really interesting and fascinating to me because the market trends are always changing. I don’t think it’s good to put all of your eggs in one basket or grow just one variety because what’s hot today might not be hot tomorrow. We really try to grow things acclimated to our environment; that [are] tried and true; and tested through generations of other cultivators growing it. Things have been crossed, and people are always coming up with new stuff, which is pretty exciting.
But, it is important to try to find things that acclimate [well] to your environment because it does better, ultimately. We have purchased seeds from outside of our community. It does good. But never as good as things that we’ve had in our genetic library for all these years. […]
We have tried to change a little bit of our methodology. We were growing around nine or 10 varieties before. But those were producing pretty small batches. With the [market] trends, we had to adapt to that and reduce the offerings on our menu, scale it down to about five or six varieties. That’s what we’re going to do this year so we can stay relevant and stay marketable.