Why California's Emerald Triangle Produces The Best Weed In The World
It all begins with morning fog and a bit of California sunshine.
It's no secret California produces some of the best cannabis in the world. Specifically, though, weed farmed in the northern region's Emerald Triangle––AKA where Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity Counties converge––is widely revered as being the dankest of the dank.
In the Emerald Triangle, cannabis is cultivated in abundance. Here, weed plants have been rumored to grow into actual trees, sometimes reaching more than 15 feet tall, thanks to some of the most ideal natural conditions on the planet. The area's rich soil and Mediterranean climate are to weed what the geology of the Napa Valley is to wine. The morning marine layer covers the hills in a dense, plant-nourishing fog, while the “terroir” adds a unique flavor to the finished herb.
“In terms of indoor, hydroponically grown cannabis, there may not be much difference between a plant grown in Eureka and one grown in Los Angeles,” reads a Leafly report on the particularly high quality of Humboldt County weed. “But the same isn’t true for cannabis grown outdoors. Just as wine connoisseurs sing the praises of Napa Valley or France’s Burgundy, region, some in cannabis say the Emerald Triangle’s soil itself is special.”
Cyril (right) employs painstaking attention to detail to his crop.
Toward the end of the 1960s when the counterculture movement was reaching its peak, many of the free spirits and flower children who once smoked grass in San Francisco’s Dolores Park suddenly migrated en masse to the Emerald Triangle. Soon enough, they'd learn how to grow the good stuff, starting several makeshift marijuana farms throughout the region’s dense, creek-laden hills and forests.
Today, Emerald Triangle-grown weed fetches higher prices than much of the other product currently being cultivated and sold at commercial scale. Statewide, legal medical marijuana sales reached $1.8 billion in 2016, while the industry at large, could be worth $5.7 billion by 2021, according to a report from Arcview Market Research.
This projected increase in consumer demand, and growing consumer demographic––with brands hoping to tap into the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of the general public––will mean that Emerald Triangle growers will absolutely see an uptick in production.
Still, cannabis growers in Mendocino County already generate an estimated $1 billion a year, and marijuana represents nearly two-thirds of the local economy, according to a county-commissioned study. The cannabis in Humboldt County––California’s first municipality to adopt a commercial land use ordinance for marijuana––is so renowned it's causing spikes in the price of land and real estate in the area. Cannabis prices are expected to drop, though, as legal adoption of the crop becomes more widespread, and regulations become more stringent––a shift that will likely result in consolidation of the market.
Reasonably, weed farmers in the county take considerable pride in their product––so much so Humboldt-grown weed even carries “proof of origin” labeling.
“It really is the perfect storm for amazing cannabis to be produced.”
Over the last five decades, growers have developed techniques and strains exclusive to the Emerald Triangle, subtleties that ultimately rely on the area's biodiversity. “Micro-climate-specific, and strain-specific knowledge; how to deal with pests and diseases naturally, knowing what strain to plant where, which plants are more susceptible to producing powdery mildew, and [knowing] how to use companion planting to your advantage” is crucial to cultivating cannabis says Simon Evers of Elysian Fields in Mendocino County.
The area's biodiversity allows local farms to create micro-climate-strains exlusive to the Emerald Triangle.
Evers describes the weed-growing business in Mendocino as a “lifestyle," telling KINDLAND,
“We are stewards of the land. We don’t use chemicals, or pesticides, we really don’t even use liquid fertilizers. We try to go one step further than organic farming. We’re aiming for long-term sustainability, and what we believe will allow us to achieve that, is really focusing on the soil, and cultivating living soil."
Elysian Fields sits on fifty acres of land that his family has been preserving for generations, a practice, he says, could describe many parcels of land in the Emerald Triangle. “The knowledge, and the heritage, and the culture of this area is so closely tied to the climate, and micro-climate of the region,” says Evers, adding,
“In the summertime, you have these hot, dry days that are very conducive for fast, vigorous growth. And as the plants transition into flower toward the end of summer, and the days grow shorter, cool nights allow for the flowers to ripen. At this time, the trichomes are being produced, and the cannabinoids are being concentrated, and it’s all kind of magical, but also a result of the micro and macro-climates of the region. It really is the perfect storm for amazing cannabis to be produced.”
Evers maintains that monocrops––or the practice of growing a single crop, on the same patch of land, each year––can create a very weak ecosystem. Instead, Evers says by integrating cannabis into a larger, more bio-diverse “forest” of plants, and growing marijuana alongside other plants and herbs, such as lavender, can be crucial for the quality of the end product.
Indeed, he sells his sun-grown cannabis with the help of Flow Kana, a retail marijuana brand that "partner[s] with, and give[s] scale to, premier artisan farmers in Mendocino County and Southern Humboldt who focus on small batch, boutique strains."
The brand distributes Emerald Triangle marijuana, grown by a membership of approximately 100 small farms, all throughout the Golden State.
Though even in the magical weed-growing micro-climate of the region, cultivating marijuana for medical, recreational, or any purpose is a violation of federal law. And black market growers with little regard for the environment are detrimental to pretty much all wildlife and natural resources. This unsustainable practice puts the uniqueness of the Emerald Triangle’s biodiverse ecosystem at risk.
A 2015 study that examined watershed levels and the impact of illegal marijuana grows on local creeks and water sources in southern Humboldt County, found that: “water demands for marijuana cultivation exceed streamflow during low-flow periods. . .”
And because the demand for fresh water to cultivate weed exceeds the immediately available supply, black market growers often re-route streams and creeks entirely, by building artificial dams, and other rigged means of diverting water-flow to their farms.
Another, earlier study, which used Humboldt County cannabis farms as its data source, found that:
“Abundant grow sites clustered in steep locations far from developed roads, potential for significant water consumption, and close proximity to habitat for threatened species, all point toward high risk of negative ecological consequences. . .”
But not all marijuana being grown in the Emerald Triangle wreaks havoc on the environment.
According to Evers, “We have been living this lifestyle that has been geared toward lower impact."
Artisanal techniques and methodologies are passed down among farmers, and between generations in the Emerald Triangle.
By January of next year, provisions included in California’s recreational adult-use initiative Proposition 64 will be firmly in place. This state-approved regulatory framework provides the region’s cannabis farmers with strict guidelines for how to carry on family tradition while remaining in compliance with state law. As legalization takes hold and the state’s recreational market levels the playing field, the faction of illegal weed grows will likely be policed or priced out of existence.
The green light to grow weed is something John Casali takes great pride in. For the greater portion of his life, Casali has raised and developed high-grade, organic marijuana strains at Huckleberry Hill Farms, a family business he runs in southern Humboldt County. “Some of my chores, when I was growing up, were checking water tanks, and making sure the cannabis plants were all good,” says Casali. “We never looked at [marijuana cultivation] as something weird, it has always just been normal to us.”
Striving to employ only the most environmentally friendly practices, Casali grows his family’s signature “Fruitloops” strain using rainwater captured by a system he built himself. The farmer also says one of his main goals is to show people that it is possible to cultivate cannabis outdoors, without being wholly destructive to the local wildlife.
“We want to give back to the community, we want to be a part of the community and we want to be accepted into the community”
For example, his Huckleberry Hill Farm has a groundwater recharge pond, which he says "slows the rate at which water is introduced into the local streams and creeks," and extends the time in which the creeks surrounding Casali's property retain water. Similarly, Casali credits the region’s hot days, cool nights, fresh spring water, and unique micro-climate as being ideal for growing marijuana.
"There's no sediment that leaves my property and ends up in creeks, or in spawning tributaries," Casali says. “Every bud runs through my hand,” he says.
More than that, Casali sees the region’s farmers practicing sustainable, fish-friendly methods as having an angle that will compete with Big Agriculture. Which is why he helped found the Humboldt High Five, a local farmer collective that focuses on growing weed in the most sustainable way possible.
“We want to give back to the community, we want to be a part of the community and we want to be accepted into the community,” Casali said last year to the Eureka Times Standard. At the time, the farmer had only just applied to the county for the proper cultivation licensing.
Simon and Jenn overlooking Elysian Fields in Mendocino County.
Over the phone on a Friday morning in July, a few weeks after his cultivation application was approved, Casali told KINDLAND about how growing weed on his family farm had him facing some unfavorable circumstances.
“I had never been in any kind of trouble before, but after being charged for cultivating marijuana in federal court, and because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, I did 10 years in federal prison,” says Casali.
Now, after spending a decade behind bars for a trade that California voters made legal in November of last year, Casali, along with other members of the Humboldt High Five, have partnered with the Flow Kana brand in order to legally get their cannabis into the hands of California medical marijuana patients, and legal rec consumers.
"Flow Kana has been able to market us, and provide us with an avenue of legal distribution," Casali said to KINDLAND. "They really seem to care about the small farmer, and that resonates with us."
It's the small, craft cannabis farmers of the Emerald Triangle that will carry on the region's tradition of cultivating marijuana, and bring best practices out of the environmentally destructive prohibition, and into compliance, as the newly legal market evolves to meet the demand of the recreational consumer.
Because even though hydroponic, aeroponic, vertical, or any other such indoor cultivation techniques can without doubt produce some high quality herb at commercial scale, it's the generational familiarity and craftsmanship of artisanal Emerald Triangle cultivators that makes their weed the stuff of legend.
This article was created in partnership with Flow Kana.