WRITTEN BY ROBERT BROWN
As California’s legal cannabis market — the largest in the world — takes shape, it’s easy to lose sight of communities in the Emerald Triangle, which have built a reputation for their cannabis culture.
“In order to be successful in this industry, there is really only one strategy,” said John Garrett, a 20-year veteran grower. “Grow as much high-quality cannabis as you can, and do strains that will yield a lot of product, and will be something that people want to smoke.”
Garrett has the typical look of a grower: he’s dressed in flannel and Carhartts with boots. He’s got long brown hair, and a stubble beard. He exhales clouds of smoke from a joint as he loads up his truck and heads to the ranch.
“You coming up to the ranch?” Garrett asked. “Come on, you can ride with me.”
We hopped in the truck and headed out. We turned off the main road just outside of Willow Creek, California, and continued to drive up the mountain. We passed through two locked gates, and drove on narrow, winding gravel roads. We climbed higher and higher.
We sloshed through puddles, and ruts worn from heavy, winter rains. I spotted several cabins and barn structures along the way — some newer, some older, dilapidated and overtaken with brush and berry brambles.
“Looks like we’ve got a few spots to fix in the road this year,” Garrett said. “We have gravelled this whole road several times with layers of different size rock that are supposed to lock together to create a stronger road, we put a bunch of culverts in, [and] cut trenches along the road to divert water […].”
After meandering through tall trees, we came to a large clearing; a sprawling meadow full of 100 gallon SMART pots with grass and wildflowers peeking out from around them.
“As you can see, I have a lot of work to do,” Garrett said. “My greenhouse fell down in the snow this winter. I haven’t had a chance to fix it until now. There’s been snow on these roads up until last week.”
What is left of the greenhouse is a pile of twisted, bent metal, and ripped plastic.
“At least someone remembered to cover all of the pots at the end of last season,” Garrett said. Each pot is covered with a black weed mat, put down to deter weeds or grass from growing in the rich, fertile soil. “You wouldn’t believe how many days of extra work we save by doing things like that,” he added.
“It’s always such a nice feeling to be back out here again,” Garrett said. “Growing out here for years, I look around at all of the structures and upgrades that have been built, it all sparks memories of specific times,” he added. “I can think back on lessons I have learned — about this business, about life, about myself — and acknowledge how far I have come.”
The garden is mesmerizing. It’s easy to get lost in the countless shades of green, the mountainscapes that disappear into the distance, and the rolling hillsides scattered with blooming flora.
“On top of all of the work I have to do to get this thing up and running, I need to find some clones,” Garrett said. “I lost all my mom’s when the greenie collapsed.”
Clones are baby cannabis plants, and are one of the most critical parts of success in this extremely competitive business. Each clone is taken from one plant, appropriately called a “mom.” Some mom’s can live up to five years, producing hundreds of clones every few months.
“I got a buddy who is doing this one strain, White Tahoe Cookies,” Garrett said. “When I smoke it, I taste three different flavors. When I inhale I get OG, then Girl Scout [Cookies] comes through. When I exhale, I get a little bit of Gorilla Glue. It’s so good!”
“A lot of people are stuck on OG, but I can grow twice as much product from a different strain, and it will look better because it’s easier to grow,” Garrett said. “Sure I’ll take a little less per pound for the stuff that’s not OG, but I’ll produce more product so it will actually end up being more profitable.”
Profit is a major concern with today’s cannabis farmer. The industry is used to high retail prices, averaging $3,000 per pound of outdoor in 2010, but has steadily decreased to current prices around $800 per pound. This is causing a lot of uncertainty, motivating some farmers to throw in the towel and sell their properties.
“My overhead is ridiculous,” Garrett said. “Now because I lost all of my mom’s that were in the greenhouse, I’m going to have to spend like $10,000 on new moms.”
Some businesses that sell clones in Humboldt County include: Humboldt Patient Resource Center (HPRC) in Arcata, Wonderland Nursery in Garberville, Satori Wellness in McKinleyville, and delivery services such as: Hendrix Farms, and Mom and Pop Gardens. Each offers different strains at different prices.
I visited the HPRC in Arcata to ask about the clone situation.
The countertop is filled with buds, candies, oils, and other infused products. Shelves behind the counter are stacked with tubs full of prepackaged cannabis. One shelf has cannabis plants growing under long grow lights. I ask Naomi Atkinson which clones are available.
“We only have [about] 50 of the Key-Lime Pie right now,” Atkinson said. “We should have some Oh Sour Head next week.”
The reason for the minimal selection, said Atkinson, “We are going through a remodel and also shifting our business model,” she added. “The laws have changed, so we aren’t really sure if we are going to continue doing clones. We should know for sure in a couple of months, then maybe we will have more of a clone selection.”
“People are getting really serious this season,” said Carol Nicolas, owner of Mom and Pop Gardens. “People realize they have to treat their operation more like a regular business in order to still be in operation five years from now.”
In terms of strains, “People are going back to the classics […],” Nicolas said. “I have seen quite a few folks getting our Trainwreck and Grandaddy Purple. Northern Humboldt people won’t go near our Blue Dream, they all say it’s played out,” she added. “Southern Humboldt people don’t want OG because they think the market is too saturated with that strain, so it’s not profitable anymore.”
I asked Dr. Diane Dickinson of North Coast Medical about the best strategy for choosing a strain.
“For years everybody has talked about indicas and sativas, but that’s outdated lingo that needs to go away,” Dickinson said. “Now studies are looking at terpenes. There are over 200 terpenes for cannabis, ranging from citrus that gives you energy, to mango that makes you sleepy, so we can really be much more accurate now with choosing strains that treat certain symptoms.”
Star Cookies’ genetics are a cross between OG Kush, Durban Poison and Granddaddy Purple. According to Allbud.com, this strain has an extremely high THC level of 27 percent. Star Cookies treats chronic pain, appetite loss, depression, muscle spasms, stress and anxiety.
Hendrix Farms is one of the larger clone suppliers for the North Coast. They have created a niche for themselves by offering many of the sought after strains that are popular in cannabis culture. They are also known for having some of the brand new strains, like Star Cookies.
“We are the only ones around this area with some of these strains, and some of our strains were developed just for us from master strain developers,” Daniel Hendrix, owner of Hendrix Farms said. “We have a two-three month waiting list, so if you are looking to get clones from us for this season, it won’t be until the middle of June until we can fill your order.”
Garrett needs about 93 more clones, and more importantly, he needs to prepare the property for the season.
“We have so much work to do,” Garrett said. “If you want to weed whack, we could keep you busy for a week straight doing that. Then we need to till all of the beds.”
For bigger farmers like Garrett, it has always been hard to find laborers, mostly because it isn’t like hiring someone off of craigslist to do an odd job. Now, labor has become more competitive. There are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, and an opportunity for less scrupulous people to prey on growers.
Only one year into legalization, and the Emerald Triangle’s cannabis culture is changing. The original vibe embraced by the hippies has evolved into an entirely different frequency, attracting new groups with entirely different motivations. Stories circulate about people in Humboldt from other areas of the world, here to take advantage of what is being referred to as, “The Green Rush.”
“We have had so many things happen over the years,” Garrett said. “From people stealing, to people getting hooked on hard drugs […] It all ends up costing us thousands of dollars.”
While he speaks, he inspects equipment, taking things apart, fixing and oiling parts, and putting them back together. Somehow, he also manages to roll up a joint of one of his 50 flavorful strains.
Putting the perfectly rolled joint up to his lips with familiarity, Garrett lights it up and talks about some of the changes going on in his immediate area.
“The neighbors have had a couple of really bad years recently, the kid that was running the place last year did horribly, I felt bad for him,” Garrett said. “I think this year they are selling the property. The old lady that owns the place called me the other day, and while we were talking she asked if I ever thought about wanting to expand my property.”
This has become a more common occurrence in Humboldt County over the years. One farmer will be extremely successful and buy out others nearby, who struggle for one reason or another. Another thing that happens is farmers who have owned the neighboring properties for generations are ready to sell, allowing one grower to gradually acquire an entire mountain.
“It all depends on whether or not cannabis is going to be profitable in the next few years so we can pay off the property,” Garrett said. “All we need is a couple good seasons, then we own it free and clear.”
This recipe may have worked well in the past, but according to Garrett, the cannabis market has gone down significantly over the last few years, and there is no sign it will be going up anytime soon.
“We were making $1,200 per pound last year,” Garrett said. “This year we are lucky to get $800 per pound. If I have 500 pounds to sell, that’s a decrease of $200,000.”
With losses like that, combined with the headache and expense of licensing, the difficulty of growing a high-quality product, along with the risk of bugs, mold, or wildfires — it’s a wonder why people even want to get into this business anymore.
“You gotta love what you do,” Garrett said. “I can’t see myself doing anything else and being this happy. I like working hard, running a farm, networking with other growers. I feel so much pride when customers tell me how the cannabis I grow helps them.”