Rachel Turiel and Gerasimos Christoforatos founded the Herbanology farm around 2017. Herbanology is located in Willits, California in the heart of Mendocino County — a hotbed for sustainably grown cannabis operations. This week, Emerald sat down with Turiel, Chief Executive Officer, to discuss the struggles and joys of being a small cannabis farmer.
Turiel has owned the land (about 20 acres) since 2009. For years, it sat unused “like a second home that never really got tended a lot,” Turiel explains.
When laws and attitudes towards cannabis cultivation started to change in California, Turiel’s husband, Gerasimos, pushed for them to repurpose the land to ride the green wave.
She took a leap of faith. “I had one foot in and one foot out,” says Turiel, “but it felt like the right thing to do.”
The summer of 2017, they packed their bags and left their “really comfortable, beautiful home on a vineyard” in the Redwood Valley. Three months later, the Redwood Valley fires ripped through and burnt their house of five years down. For Turiel and Gerasimos, “that was a clear sign that we were meant to be up here.”
EMERALD: What has been your experience breaking into the cannabis industry?
TURIEL: It’s definitely been a wild roller coaster ride. A lot of of unknown.
Ironically enough, since the shelter in place has happened it’s really shifted things for us. Cannabis [being] an essential business has really just opened up a lot of doors for the whole industry.
I feel like we’re riding a good wave at the moment.
EMERALD: So why cannabis? Why not turn the land into an orchard or something?
TURIEL: Well, let’s see… how to even start with that. I can tell you that for me personally, I kind of have an interesting background.
When I moved up to Northern California, I was coming from about 15 to 17 years of snowboarding. I competed professionally in half pipe mostly along with some other things here [and] there. And then, after too many surgeries and injuries I stopped competing and I became the first female judge to work with all the men on the judging panel. And I started traveling around the country and the world, and I judged the Winter X Games and stuff like that. That was a big part of my life for many years.
Before that, I went to school in North Carolina and I worked on an organic farm. I’ve been a holistic chef. I went to a holistic nutritional cooking school. So I’ve always kind of had this background in health and cooking and gardening. And then after the whole snowboarding world thing, I really felt like I needed a change.
My friend said, “you should come out and work for me — I’m out in Covelo, [California].” [So] I decided to pack my truck up with all my stuff and my dog [around] 2005, 2004. And I was just amazed and I really fell in love with [it].
Eventually we got our land here. In the beginning, there was the whole exciting part about the money aspect of it, obviously. But beyond that, for me, it became a way of life.
When we moved up here, [my son] was almost two years old. I just loved the fact that I could work from home. I could tend to the garden and my child could be in the garden with me playing in the dirt.
Not that long after that, my stepmother became really ill. She lives with chronic pain and she’s almost off of all of her meds because [of] the cannabis that we supply for her. So that’s been a huge part in my life too, knowing that I’m helping other people feel better.
EMERALD: Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your growing techniques, what your process is like and your philosophy towards farming? What does it mean to be a Sun+Earth Certified farmer?
TURIEL: The biggest thing is really caring for the soil, building up the soil. We do a lot of mulching and crop rotation. We’re doing less and less tilling. We’re really just all about soil fertility.
We [also] work with cover crops [and] compost. We make compost teas here. We have a veggie garden, but we’ve held off on putting everything in the veggie garden because we’re really into [planting] a lot of certain vegetables with our cannabis [like] potatoes and marigolds and even some lettuce and stuff like that.
The other big part of being Sun+Earth Certified is what they call “human empowerment” and “community engagement.” [So] when we do have workers here, [we’re] really taking the time to make sure that our workers are well taken care of. We [also] educate them. It’s all about learning. All of us are learning every day.
Community engagement is just getting involved with our community in any way that we can so that we’re not just up here in the middle of nowhere. We’ve recently found a company where you can donate your cannabis. Like if you have something leftover that you’re not going to sell, there are places that you can donate your cannabis to for people who are sick and really need the medicine who can’t afford it.
EMERALD: Shifting gears a little bit, you mentioned wildfires earlier and how Redwood Valley burnt down your house. Could you elaborate on your relationship to wildfires? How do you prepare for that and what does that really look like for you being a small farm?
TURIEL: All of the fires that have happened since that Redwood Valley [fire] have been really eye opening for us. We originally had some fire protection here. We had insurance and when the company found out that we were cannabis cultivators, they dropped us. So as of now we have yet to find a way to even be insured for fire. So that’s been really really scary for us.
Every year, sometime around the fall, when things get really dry and it hasn’t rained it’s like, okay, here we go again. Here comes the fire season and we see smoke.
It frightens me to death. We have a phone chain we have in the community where we live. [So] there’s somebody who gets information and then shares it with the rest of the community.
There’s really not a lot we can do besides take the precautions that anyone else can. We have our pond, we have a fire hose and we have a lot of water tanks. Unfortunately, the biggest thing right now is trying to actually find insurance for fire [being a] cannabis cultivator.
EMERALD: That’s crazy. I had no idea. Do you think that federal legalization or at least decriminalization might help help with that?
TURIEL: I would think so. I would hope so.
[Years ago] I was trying to get life insurance. When I moved onto the land [to] start cultivating, I didn’t really think about it. I was really excited that everything was legal. I guess at some point when I went to the doctor, he’d asked me what I did for a living. I said that I was in Willits and that I was a cultivator and that I grew cannabis. And I guess the life insurance saw that in my records and decided not to give me life insurance.
I think that because we were declared an essential business, I’m hoping anyway, that [this is] a foot in the right direction in letting people understand this is for real. There’s people out there that need their medicine and we’re providing that for them. We’re paying a lot of taxes right now and we’re being responsible citizens in our community.
EMERALD: How else has COVID-19 impacted life at Herbanology?
TURIEL: So it definitely [has], if anything, boosted sales. And I think the other part of it, as much as we miss our community, it’s just forced us to be on the land more. We’re kind of getting our hands into more projects out on the land. And that was [even] the whole reason behind getting the ducks. Like, okay, well now we have more time here [so] let’s get some ducks and then we’ll have duck eggs.’ We love ducks.
We’re just starting to think of all these little projects that we can do here on the land with all the free time. When COVID[-19] hit and we realized the possibilities of food shortages or just not even being able to go out and get things. We realized we wanted to become a little more self reliant on our food sources. So we’re definitely growing a lot more here than just cannabis this year. And that feels really, really good too.
More than anything it’s given me and my husband a greater sense of gratitude for being here on the land.
EMERALD: What’s your favorite strain on the farm?
TURIEL: We have a strain here that is becoming a little bit more well known, kind of a locals only strain called Lemonhead. It’s just a number one seller all around.
When I know I have to go out into the garden for like three hours or do a big project, I love nothing more than taking a big bong hit of the Lemonhead. I just go out into that garden and I swear I become one with the plants. I start feeding them and I’m looking I’m down in the soil and I start seeing the frogs and the lady bugs and whatever. It’s like I get into this whole other world with it.
Turiel sat outside during our interview, keeping an eye on her new baby duck chicks swimming in the kiddie pool. When we wrapped up our conversation, the chicks had stepped out to dry out their feathers in the mid-afternoon sun.
“We’re enjoying what we’re doing,” says Turiel. “We’re just excited to be a part of the movement.” With that, Turiel hopped off the call and drove to meet a new prospective member of the Herbanology family: a puppy.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.