People on Pot — Woman on Fire — Amber O’Neill

Amber O’Neill is a lead farmer at HappyDay Farms in Mendocino County, California, just north of Laytonville. HappyDay is a diverse and beautiful farm with terraced gardens of produce, flowers and cannabis. The revolutionary ranch is built on community and eco-conscious methodologies. And O’Neill is a revolutionary personality — a woman who is taking a stand for her community of small farmers and for her homestead.

HappyDay provides cannabis to qualified medical marijuana patients and they’ve been running a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) for about six years now. “We do between 20-to-40 CSA shares a week for around 50 weeks a year,” O’Neill says. “We try to provide produce for the farmers market year-round in Laytonville and for our CSA.” It’s a lot of work.

Screenshot 2016-07-05 14.31.02O’Neill has been farming for more than 10 years. She got her start by interning, volunteering and by ‘Wwoofing,’ (Wwoof stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, according to the international volunteer help exchange program by the same name). HappyDay Farms in Northern California has been her home base for some years now. This is where she is a living life as full-time homesteader and “farmer-cooperator.”

Her other professional duties include serving as the acting treasurer and manager of Emerald Grown, a Mendocino-based marketing services cooperative for independent California cannabis farmers.

O’Neill is also an herbalist specializing in medicinal cannabis and wild-crafted remedies. Lately she’s into Pedicularis and cannabis tinctures. “My farm happens to produce the biggest patch of Pedicularis I’ve ever seen,” she says. This wild muscle relaxant is particularly good for easing sore muscles… “It definitely keeps the back feeling good.”

“Diversity is important in culture, in nature and especially in the fields.”

O’Neill talks about why it’s important to cultivate a variety of crops on the farm and about increasing efficiency through cover-cropping and water conservation practices:

“When you’re interplanting [planting with a mixture of crops or plants], you get more production out of a smaller space. And you have more forage and more habitat for [predatory] species.” So more diversity equals less pest problems and more pollination options. “It just makes sense. Common sense… Across the board, diversity is good.”

Cover-cropping — cultivating nitrogen-fixing plants to give back to the soil — is one method HappyDay uses to strengthen and capitalize on diversity. O’Neill gives a brief overview of the process: “Whenever one crop is coming out, you plant a cover crop and let it go to seed… Then you cut the crop, drop it and turn it in, or you can make compost out of it.” Benefits of cover-cropping can include increasing organic matter in the soil, conservation of moisture in the soil, weed control and reduced erosion.

They grow directly in the ground at HappyDay, and O’Neill says they line their rows with T-Tape irrigation on 9″ spacing. This way they get even water coverage, and it’s not evaporating out. “You’re conserving water,” she says. They mulch with straw wherever there isn’t plant material on the ground. And that is yet another way to conserve moisture in the soil and thereby increase efficiency.

“I used to really follow a moon calendar,” O’Neill says. And now their joke is: “The moon is in ‘can do!’ So whenever we can do it, we do it.”

O’Neill on planning and staggering crops and on the art of winging it:

The crew at HappyDay Farms rely on season extension techniques so they can farm year-round. “Mother nature bats last, but we have tricks up our sleeves to extend the season,” O’Neill quips. A lot of the work they do requires getting plants in the ground earlier. And they use mini hoop frames and a high-quality spun-bonded row cover to keep the soil warm in the winter and to keep the plants shaded in the summer.

“I could put more energy into [planning]. But a lot of it is just habit and intuition — Casey and I are kind of masters at winging things,” she says. “It all seems to work out.”

And she’s been managing a lot these days, putting down roots of her own, deepening her personal relationships, empowering her community and producing food and cannabis too. “We try to have a balance in our lives,” she says. “Casey spends a lot of time on policy work and I’m spending a lot of time on Emerald Grown [the cannabis marketing co-op]. So yeah, it’s a balance between farm labor, our lives and the political cannabis world right now… We’re all trying to jump through the hoops and stay in the game as a community.”

She’s doing a fine job.

“I’m a homesteader. And I try to produce as much as I can for my family and my community. But cannabis is the crop that pays me to grow food for my family.” In fact, she adds, “Typically vegetable farmers are not paid enough for the work that they do in this country…”

O’Neill on the quest for small farmers to be competitive and compliant in the veggie and cannabis realms, and on why it’s important to stand behind what you do:

HappyDay Farms treats cannabis like any other agricultural crop — check ’em out at a cannabis event or farmers market — they set their medicinal cannabis out on the table alongside their vegetables and other goods. Yes, you have to have a 215 to acquire weed from the HappyDay crew. But the point is — they make cannabis and quality food accessible to their community.

“We are fighting for that way of life, for small farmers to be able to be compliant and to compete… The answer to corporations are cooperatives,” she says. “Rising tides lift all boats.” Therein lies the power of something like the Emerald Grown cooperative, a way for small farms to get support with branding and compliance. And O’Neill is making it happen. “We’re in it together,” she says. “And that’s what it’s going to take — small farmers sticking together to compete in this ‘new industry’ that’s not new in California at all.”

She’s become a public figure in the past couple of years, a visible cannabis activist, speaking at events, engaging with people over the HappyDay market table and opening her farm up to visitors and influential people. “I’m definitely a private person and would prefer to be a farmer, but I have to wear all these hats to create the life we want to see.”

“I never really envisioned this, honestly, I didn’t know… I knew I wanted to continue to be a farmer and to make medicine for patients. I knew things were changing and I wanted to see prohibition end.” And all of us know — “Breaking down prohibition is a lot of work.”

“I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable, but it’s been a hard transition,” she says. “I struggle with requests for time and energy.” Yet she carries on, inspiring others with her energy, and she’s learning new skills as she goes. “As a culture we have a trust deficit, so getting people to have some faith and to stick their heads out is a big deal.”

She looks forward to a time when she can just be a farmer again, but for now (and probably forever), O’Neill and her crew are going to keep sticking their heads out there for all of us. She is committed to securing a positive and sustainable future for small cannabis and vegetable farmers. Her fire burns bright.

Written by Emily Hobelmann

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Emerald contributor since March 2012


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