The Grand Tour

On the road with Humboldt Cannabis Tours

By Sam Leishman

Photographs by Amy Kumler

HUMBOLDT COUNTY is one of the most beautiful regions in the country, with a rich history, though exploring its cannabis culture can take legwork and locals haven’t always been excited to show it off. But the Adult Use of Marijuana Act has opened up a side of Humboldt that is ripe for exploration through visitor-friendly tours that highlight the best the area has to offer.

Matt Kurth’s Humboldt Cannabis Tours is taking full advantage and offering something that isn’t available anywhere else. Indeed, there are cannabis tours offered in the Bay Area and Southern California — a few even travel to Humboldt — but their scope is necessarily limited in a couple ways. “When you look at what most cannabis tours are — you go to a dispensary, maybe you go to an indoor grow and look through a wall, and then you smoke a bunch of weed in a van,” Kurth says. “So visiting the farms is what sets me apart, and also just being in Humboldt and having that authentic story.”

Kurth is no stranger to the tour industry. Along with his degree in Recreation Administration from Chico State, Kurth has amassed a decade of experience in guided river tours. “Backpacking, rafting, kayaking, climbing … I added it up once and it was more than a whole year of my life spent on the back of a boat.” One evening in 2015, after a particularly strenuous day of rapids and falls, an idea struck him: “I had this education and experience in tourism. I knew about weed, I’d been in the industry for real. So for me it made sense — weed tours.” For the next few weeks, the thought wouldn’t leave him. “I didn’t know it, but this is what I’d been building to my whole life.” He penciled out the numbers and it all seemed financially viable.

It would be three long years of assembling the necessary legal components to make his business a reality, a process that was inherently more difficult by virtue of being the first established cannabis tour in Humboldt. While frustrating for him at the time, in retrospect he’s proud to have been the jumpstarter. “Someone had to go through it,” he says.

Matt Kurth takes a group around Plant Humboldt.

Kurth ran 60 tours last year and plans to far outpace that this year. Most grow operations run on limited schedules so he’s created dispensary-only tours in the winter and is always adding to his roster of greenhouses, nurseries and dispensaries. “They give me great service and I bring people in,” he says.

The trips typically start around 9 a.m., with participants convening in a spacious, 12-seat van. First stop is a local greenhouse. On a recent tour, we visited a grow just south of Eureka, a project called Hygrow at Riverbar Farms. There, Kurth and Bryan Robinson, one of the farm managers, describe Hygrow’s infrastructure, which is designed for harvest all year round — six turns a year. Entering the farm you see peaked-roof greenhouses that cover 30,000 square feet (just a fraction of the 10-acre property) and are designed specifically for cannabis. The layout allows farmers to separate plants in different states of maturation.

The entire operation inside is streamlined to include a number of modern technical innovations. The clones — about 55 plants representing 20 strains from Wedding Cake to Magic Melons to Purple Squirts — are all lined in bottomless beds so they grow into the native soil. A light deprivation curtain can be moved and customized for the needs of specific strains and the “wet walls” act as a massive swamp cooler that harnesses evaporating water and recirculates it with fans or the natural outdoor breeze. Robinson demonstrates for us how he can control each component from a panel, as well as via smartphone or tablet. Everything serves to provide the most energy-efficient process possible, down to the food-grade plastic, mostly natural lighting, organically based nutrients and complete absence of pesticides. (Though getting the capital “O” organic stamp on any grow will have to wait for federal legalization.)

After the greenhouse, we head south toward Garberville. Early on, Kurth tries to gauge the group’s overall cannabis expertise. “Most people aren’t weed nerds,” he says. “Most people on my tours don’t know that there’s male and female plants. Most people don’t know about the light cycle. Almost nobody knows about terpenes.” Once he gets an idea of how cannabis savvy everyone is, he can tailor individual tours to suit each group.

There are plenty of relevant landmarks to point out just off the highway — a number of farms, companies that make extraction equipment, concentrate manufacturers, a “bud and breakfast” — but the majority of Kurth’s interpretive narration surrounds Humboldt’s history and fame/notoriety. Again, depending on the group’s knowledge, he’ll chronicle the eras ranging from the back-to-the-landers all the way to present-day legalization. “I want people to know why Humboldt’s Humboldt … because [it]’s hard to see it for what it is.”

Halfway to Garberville, we dip onto the Avenue of the Giants. A good portion of people who attend his Humboldt Cannabis Tours have never seen the redwoods — to only see them from a car window would be quite the missed opportunity. So he pulls off at Williams Grove and supplies the group with an al fresco lunch of sandwiches from the North Coast Co-op and a spread of local fruits and veggies, and Humboldt Chocolate to be enjoyed in the shade of the ancient conifers. Kurth takes the opportunity to weave a short history of the trees themselves into his larger narrative about the area.

The next stop is Plant Humboldt in Briceland. A former bamboo nursery, farmers here now plant almost entirely sun-grown cannabis seeds and sell to licensed growers 1,000 plants at a time. Mikal Jakubal, one-fifth of Plant Humboldt’s five-man operation, is on hand to provide details. The tracking of the plants is impressive in its detail. “Each tag has the strain name, where the seed came from, name of the nursery and a barcode,” explains Kurth. “In theory, you can connect a jar of weed all the way back to [the original] plant.”

The common refrain at Plant Humboldt is “trial-and-error.” Positive results can come from an ultra-concerted effort and hyper-specific analysis, but, mutations in a plant could just as easily come from a random occurrence — perhaps a neighbor’s pollen that happened to blow over. And they’re just as likely to use a seed that was placed by accident, let it grow and see what happens. More systematic are the farming practices to which the nursery adheres, including an irrigation system that pulls from a pond on the property and drains back into Redwood Creek, or its prescription for local custom-blend soil.

Checking out the goods at Hygrow.

We cap things off at a dispensary, a logical endpoint. Proper Wellness is Kurth’s current go-to but he’ll curate a tour based on special requests. “Some people will be like, ‘I wanna buy the cheapest weed,’” he says. “‘All right, well, this is the spot.’ Other people will say, ‘I wanna talk to someone about my elbow pain.’ All right, well, we’re going to the HPRC.’” If someone’s itching to get to a dispensary earlier in the day, he’ll even swing over to One Log House, the popular photo-op cabin made out of a single redwood log and the adjacent dispensary.

Once a budtender is available, Kurth works with them to give everyone a thorough idea of the selection available these days. “I’ll usually ask, ‘What’s your favorite? Show me your most expensive weed, show me your cheapest weed, show me some indoor, show me some mixed-light, show me some outdoor,’” he says. “I like people to see, what does the top shelf look like next to the bottom shelf? What does indoor next to outdoor look like?” He also likes to give a sense of the variety of products out there, especially for those who’ve never heard of wax, shatter or THC powder.

In more ways than one, Kurth’s tours resemble something you might seek out in Napa or Sonoma, especially once you get to smelling (and most likely sampling shortly thereafter). And while Kurth presents as a tour guide, he could just as soon pass for an unpretentious ambassador to an area sometimes reluctant to step into the spotlight. “You’ll never be able to grow Whitethorn weed anywhere else but Whitethorn, he says, adding that he looks forward to Humboldt establishing official appellation, like the Champagne region of France. “I think that’s going to allow us to really show what we do best, and what we do best is growing the best weed in the whole world.”

Sam Leishman is a filmmaker, writer and factotum for the North Coast Journal.