“We certify cannabis that is grown under the sun, in the soil of mother earth, without chemicals by fairly paid farmers.” – Sun+Earth
This summer, Emerald is on a mission to learn more about Sun+Earth Certified cannabis. Join us each week as we interview certified growers and manufacturers across the United States.
Over an early afternoon Zoom call, Casey O’Neil proudly sported a wide brimmed hat, a blue HappyDay Farms shirt and a cool grin. The weather on his side was reliably California, “nice and sunny and not too hot.”
Right off the bat, it was clear that O’Neill’s relationship to his farm goes deeper than mere financial ambition. After all, the HappyDay Farms land has been in the O’Neill Family since the 1970s.
This week, Emerald had the distinct pleasure of meeting with O’Neill, co-owner of HappyDay Farms and board member of Sun+Earth Certified.
Northern Mendocino County is a hotspot for ethically and sustainably grown cannabis. O’Neill gave us yet another glimpse into the realities, responsibilities and delights of being a cannabis farmer.
EMERALD: We’ll start off easy. What’s the history of HappyDay Farms? How did it get started and what are you up to right now?
O’NEILL: My folks are old school “back to the landers.” Pops bought the land in 75 and then moved up in 82. And then I was born that Fall. [So I was raised with] all of the sort of hippie values around organic gardening and such, but not so much farming. [My] folks are both school teachers. So then I came home [in] 2005 [and I] was working on cannabis farms. I got busted in 2008, did a little jail time and really started to think about being a monocrop farmer.
I started paying attention to the local food system movement, looking at the [Community-supported agriculture] CSA model and thinking about diversified production. We started [going to] farmer’s markets in 2010. I met my wife then, and we were both [working on a] farm [under the CSA model]. [I] was really fascinated with the model [and I wanted] to learn a lot from her about that process.
Now we’re in the 10th year of our CSA. When I got off probation in 2013, 2012 we were operating [a collective] under the medical regulations [and] as the regular picture evolved we sort of moved forward into that process.
We were doing farmer’s markets in 2014, 15, 16 cannabis farmer’s markets with vegetables on the table. It was this really pretty special thing. That was what really gave us the fortitude to go forward into the regulated environment. And then the state changed the rules. We’re not allowed to do direct sales anymore. And so it’s been a rugged couple of years, but we feel like [we’re] starting to get our feet under us.
EMERALD: What has your experience with local law enforcement been like since cannabis was legalized in California?
O’NEILL: It’s a mixed bag. For me it’s been political activity through the policy process and trying to figure out how to create something that works [and] that creates an open pathway for people to come into the system. [But] from a personal perspective, it’s been more one of policy work and representation. At this point, I would say I’ve got a fairly good relationship with local law enforcement.
EMERALD: How about with the local cannabis community?
O’NEILL: I think it depends. Some places have a very strong, tight-knit sense of community. Some places everybody locks the gate, nobody talks to each other. Where I’m at up on Dallas Springs, it’s all for the most part old Hippie, back-to-the-landers. We [even] have a little renegade farmer’s market.
EMERALD: So tell me a bit about your growing process and techniques.
O’NEILL: We like the term striving towards regenerative. I think regenerative is a term like perfection. It’s something you strive towards, not something you achieve.
[We] have a very, very diversified crop portfolio; maybe 40 different veggie crops interplanted with cannabis. [The] cannabis is spread out, so we don’t do a whole lot of sea of green. Mostly [we do] individual plants with like, right now, it’s salad mixes, beets, onions, shallots, scallions, and various other cooking greens interplanted with all the cannabis. And then as summer moves forward [and] the cannabis gets bigger, it’ll be more flowers, basil, we’ll do a second round of beets as we get into fall under [the cannabis]. So the cover crop [will] come up and kind of overtake as the cannabis comes out.
The idea is to always have as much root and life activity within the soil supporting the micro-organic populations and trying to make as much biodiversity as possible. Kind of the same as the veggies intercropped in between the rows, there’s a lot of wild spaces, a lot of opportunity for flowering plants for pollinators and forage crops; comfrey, alfalfa, borage. Things that we can harvest and use for making fertilizer, making fermented teas and stuff, and that we can also harvest for feeding chickens, ducks, rabbits, turkeys, etcetera.
EMERALD: How big is your team?
O’NEILL: So it’s me and my wife, my brother, my pop, and then one to two full time employees.
It’s three generations. The little guy still, he picks up the shovel and pushes the little wheel barrow around, but he’s not doing a whole lot of work yet. But it’s very much a family affair. [That’s] my brother’s son.
EMERALD: What’s the most challenging part of being a grower in the cannabis industry?
O’NEILL: The regulatory hurdles are pretty ridiculous. You compared to, you know, to legally sell vegetables, I register with the farmer’s market association. I go to the county [agriculture] office and tell them what crops I’m going to grow and approximately how much and I pay them I think it’s $10 to tell them that. And I think $15 for my scale.
For cannabis, I have annual fees for [the] state water board, $1,750, a water resource board for my pond, $750. Department of fish and wildlife was $1,100 to get in the door. But that was at one time. County has approximately $2,000 a year. State is $2,400 a year. That’s the difference between being a food producer and being a cannabis producer. [It’s] astounding in the level of complexity and the costs that are required. It’s absurd.
EMERALD: Is there any pending legislation that could affect that? Perhaps make it easier?
O’NEILL: Hard to say. The equity monies that are starting to come out of the state from the taxes have potential to be helpful for legacy operators. We’ll see how that all plays out.
It’s hard because it’s essentially one of those things where all these different government agencies got to unroll, the program that they’ve always dreamed of in terms of regulations because it’s essentially a marginalized populace with very little political power. They just got to steamroll these things onto us that no farm bureau would ever allow for regular [agriculture].
It’s frustrating. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts.
EMERALD: What’s the top HappyDay Farms strain?
O’NEILL: Great Success. That’s kind of the farm affirmation. So probably five or six years ago now we crossed the OG Strawberry from Twenty/20 Mendocino onto the Ogre-Berry from Cut Creek Farms. The phenotype that popped out is like blueberry pastries and it’s just phenomenal. And Great Successes is like I said, it’s like the farm affirmation. So we call it the “Great Success” and it is.
EMERALD: Any parting thoughts on Sun+Earth? Nuggets of cannabis advice for our readers?
O’NEILL: Definitely. I’m really pleased to just sit on the board for Sun+Earth. It does an excellent job of pushing the conversation about regenerative farming. Just like with food, know your farmer and get as close to the source as possible. The more steps that you can cut out of the supply chain, the better the quality is going to be. And the creation of that direct relationship has a lot of power and a lot of meaning. And then for us, as farmer’s market farmers, [that’s] of total importance.
So that’s the goal long term. To really get back to those farmer’s markets and then be able to start to do the wine club model. We just launched what we’re calling Farm Cut cannabis which is larger volumes, half ounce jars, big leaf, but not really trendy with the idea being that the terpenes and trichomes are still intact.
If you look at my jar at home, it’s not trimmed. [When] I want to smoke [I] take a nug out and then I take the leaves off and smoke it. The idea [is] that in [if you keep it in] its raw form until you’re ready to consume it, that’s how you’re going to get the best experience out of it. So we’re really super stoked to see that start to hit shelves. It’s headed out into the world right now. It’s on some shelves already. We’re very hopeful and excited about that.
EMERALD: So it’s like fresh versus frozen?
O’NEILL: Yeah, totally. Or like, thinking about it lately, it’s like whole grain versus [ultra-processed].