High on a hilltop in Eastern Humboldt County, CA, and far above the clouds that blanket the valleys below, lies Blake Mountain. The mountain is surrounded by Six Rivers National Forest, and the south fork of the Trinity River. Atop it—at 4,640 feet above sea level—sits Above Farms.
The licensed, family-run cannabis farm is located on a 160 acre property, known as Lucy Gulch Estate. The estate faces the Trinity Alps, and rests on the edge of two counties. Half (80 acres) the property is in Humboldt (where all cannabis cultivation takes place); and the other half, in Trinity.
Working With Raw Land
Misha Vandal purchased Lucy Gulch in 2014. The property was previously used for timber production. Though there were roads—the land was raw.
He immediately started to develop it. By 2015, he partnered with medical patients to build state sanctioned grow operations.
The farm received permits from the county; the forest service; the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW); and regional and state water boards, writes an anonymous member of Above in the Emerald in January 2016. They also hired engineers to design a septic system, and grade roads.
Battling the Elements
But, on July 30th, 2015, lightning struck the Six River Forest, and ignited hundreds of wildfires as a result. The series of fires grew into the Mad River Complex Fire.
Within a day, the flames reached the farm.
The fire burned more than 37,000 acres. It was 100% contained in mid-September.
The farm lost 75% of its crop, and a small amount of infrastructure. Overall, they suffered more than $180,000 in losses, says Carly Vandal, director of business operations at Above.
The experience was sobering, says Carly. But, fire remains very much a reality for the team, and rural communities throughout the state.
“It’s not for the faint of heart to be out there,” she asserts.
Mitigating future fire risk is a constant, major undertaking. Misha routinely clears the forest floor of debris—like tree limbs.
Like the new growth peaking through the forest floor, Above bounced back.
They began rebuilding in 2016. That winter, however, nature presented another set back when one of the newly built structures on the property collapsed under 10 feet of snow.
The team has since built a new industrial building, storage sheds, a septic system, a well, and three gardens.
“Year-by-year, we’re adding infrastructure,” says Carly.
Legalization presents a new series of obstacles for the farm.
The cost of compliance is stifling, says Carly. “Almost anyone who is going through the legalization process would agree.”
Major costs include engineering services; complying with the CDFW, which they estimate will cost approximately $100,000 over five years to complete the mandatory projects; state licensing fees, which run up upwards of $25,000 per year; the ever increasing costs of laboratory testing; and the state excise tax of $154.40 per pound of flower produced.
In order to acquire the initial state and county licensing approval, the company was required to hire an archaeologist who searched the land for historically or ecologically significant sites. The CDFW also surveyed the land for endangered plant and animal species, explains Carly. And the list of goes on,
Then, there’s the paperwork—lots and lots of it.
The most challenging moment so far, however, came after an engineering firm hired by Above abruptly closed its doors—leaving the farm’s project unfinished.
It was a huge setback, Carly says. Eventually, the company hired a new engineer to pick up all the pieces, incurring yet even more costs.
She credits sheer persistence, and organizational skills for the company’s ability to persevere.
The Rewards of Going Legal
Despite the challenges of compliance, there are plenty of rewards, says Carly.
“We’re so proud of the products we produce,” she continues. Now, “we can celebrate it openly.”
Another benefit to going legal is calling on law enforcement if, or when, they are needed, says Carly.
Legalization brings about testing standards, “which we very much appreciate,” she adds. “Back in the day, there was so much flower going out that potentially had mold, heavy metals, pesticides.”
With a focus on clean, reliable cannabis, “we’re avoiding harm to consumers,” and to the land, says Carly. “That’s really important to us.”
The major reward, however, is “showcasing what this beautiful piece of land produces.”
Above is particularly excited about the establishment of cannabis appellations. Appellations, or terroirs, certify a product’s agricultural heritage (i.e. how, and where it’s grown). Similar to Champagne from the Champagne region of France, Humboldt has developed a reputation for growing some of the best cannabis in the world. With the establishment of cannabis appellations, customers will be better equipped to identify the characteristics of cannabis from a particular appellation.
State regulators are currently working on the CalCannabis Appellations Project, which will develop and promote such terroirs—such as Above’s.
“It’s exciting to be on the forefront of the largest emerging cannabis market in the country,” says Carly.
High Elevation Cultivation
In the summertime, temperatures reach into the 90s on the mountaintop. The sun starts peaking over the ridge around 5 a.m., which means workdays start early.
Daily tasks include watering, transplanting, and staking. When the afternoon heat sets in, the staff takes extended lunch breaks at the nearby Trinity River.
The winter months bring freezing temperatures—and lots of snow.
“We’re supposed to get another 5 ft. in the next week,” says Carly of the mid-January weather.
The high elevation, and cool weather demand hearty strains. “They must be able to withstand a little bit of frost,” she explains.
Not many legal farms operate at this elevation. Though challenging, the climate allows for some distinct strains.
In 2019, 15 different strains, both indica and sativa, were grow onsite.
Sativas are thought of as warm climate strains, but they do well at this elevation too, says Carly. “It’s dryer up here.”
“In the mornings, we see the fog settled in the valley below us,” she continues. “We can see ridges, like islands, popping up through the mist.”
Because we sit above the clouds, moisture isn’t settling on our plants, she adds. “They don’t suffer from as much mold or mildew as the farms in the valley.”
An Emerald Triangle Brand
Above practices organic farming methods, and sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.
Plants are sun grown, and put directly into native soil, which is then mixed with top soil. When needed, loose nutrients and soil are bought in bulk by the truckload, reducing the need for plastic packaging.
Above’s uses plant-based packing for all its products. It’s sourced from Sana Packaging, which creates the material from hemp, and reclaimed ocean plastics.
Furthermore, “Our boxes are produced by a Chicago-based company that’s entirely powered by wind energy,” she continues. “All inks are vegetable-based, and nontoxic. So even if they aren’t recycled, no [toxic] ink will seep into the land.”
Fellow small businesses in the U.S. make all the company’s packaging, explains Carly, with the exception of rolling papers.
To Above, being a Humboldt County brands means being mindful in all they do.
“As farmers, we understand the legacy of growers that built up to legalization, and [recognize] all of the people who suffered during the War on Drugs,” she explains. “So, to represent ourselves in the best possible light is a great way to pay homage [to them].”