Meet the Farmers

Food, wine and cannabis producers gather at Garberville’s Benbow Inn

By Stella Girkins
Photographs by Sam Armanino

Driving up U.S. Highway 101, the towering redwood trees of Richardson Grove State Park act as a portal into southern Humboldt County, representing the larger than life reputation that the area holds: a history of counter culture and cannabis cultivation. Emerging on the other side of the canopy, the lighted sign of the Benbow Historic Inn poised over the highway for decades represented contrasting sides of Humboldt’s culture and economy. However, with legalization, local cannabis growers and inn management have built a surprising bridge with a new dinner series called Meet the Farmers and host an open discussion about the history and future of farming in Humboldt County.

At the end of September, the Benbow Inn collaborated with the Southern Humboldt Business & Visitor’s Bureau (SHBVB) to host its second Meet the Farmers event, featuring a dozen resident cannabis cultivators, along with two vintners. The affair also acted as a reception for Feast of Fields Humboldt, characterized by the SHBVB as a delicious event with local farmer samplings, artistic creations and bubbling libations, all with a farmer’s flair.

Meet the Farmers took place on a cool autumn evening on the back lawn of the Benbow Inn. Hosts, speakers and guests mingled on the lawn, sipping Briceland Vineyards’ wine and Gyppo Ale Mill brews, and nibbling on hors d’oeuvres provided by the inn. Then, SHBVB Director Laura Lasseter called the first round of speakers to the front tables framed in the background by the stone arch of Benbow Bridge while the rest took a seat on the white lawn chairs. 

While there are no rules as to what speakers discuss in their allotted time, many farmers spoke in anticipation of Feast of Fields and, in particular, International Cannabis Farmers Association’s Taste of Terroir Education. The International Cannabis Farmers Association (ICFA) describes itself as a group of cannabis farmers, scientists, and other thoughtful stakeholders working together to promote the unique quality and ecological benefits of sun-grown cannabis products. ICFA member Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms described her involvement: “I joined up with ICFA because I fell in love with this plant being grown outside and the sun-grown expression of this plant. I feel compelled in a very deep way to see this process going forward.”

Laura Lassater of SHBVB addresses the guests.

One of the core beliefs of the ICFA is preserving the heritage of traditional farming communities. This means growing outdoors where natural factors, such as light, soil, topography and climate, affect the buds. “(ICFA) is a sun-grown specific organization,” said Chrystal Ortiz of High Water Farms. “We will always be a sun-grown specific organization because we feel it is really important that there be advocacy that is directly related to sun-grown farmers and the issues that we face.”

The criminalization of marijuana farming pushed the practice indoors, where these factors had little effect on the outcome of the product. Furthermore, growing indoors put a major burden on the environment in an area where people are typically environmentally conscious.

After being busted for marijuana cultivation, Robert Steffano of Villa Paradiso passed time in jail by thinking about the environmental impact of his indoor grow operation. “I started doing the math on how much fuel and diesel I was running those years and it’s just disgusting,” he said. “It’s enough to drive to the moon and back two and a half times.”  

However, with legalization, farms are investing more time and money into how the environment can enhance a bud’s profile and how farming practices can improve the land. They want farming and the environment to have a mutually beneficial relationship. “Cannabis as a cash crop has allowed us to take risks with our farming and experiment with just how beneficial, how regenerative for the land we can make the things that we do and risk it,” said Daniel Stein of Briceland Forest Farm. “If we were betting the farm on a crop of carrots, I wouldn’t be able to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do no till this year and see how that goes.’”

Rio Anderson and Andelain Roy with the mic.

With the return to outdoor farming along with the influx of competitive cannabis markets, there’s a heightened discussion about what makes Humboldt grown marijuana so special and a lot of that comes down to terroir. Terroir, in the most basic of terms, is the environmental factors that affect a crop and is most commonly associated with grapes and the wine-making process. This includes factors such as soil, topography and climate. Vintners have been studying these properties for decades. However, cannabis growers are now adopting the term in order to define buds. 

“It takes a long time to understand how the soil affects (a crop) — how the weather affects it, the wind and things as simple as a change in the curvature of the land,” said Andrew Morris of Briceland Vineyards. “It takes a long time to develop that and it’s interesting to see the parallels between what happens with wine and cannabis farming.” However, Morris, whose vineyard has operated for over 30 years, believes that terroir is not just about the land, but its history and the people that live on it. “We normally think of terroir as being the land and the weather, but really it’s local influences, which include the people and the cultural tendencies and all the things that make a place what it is,” he explained.

However, speakers agreed that what truly makes crops grown in Humboldt County unique is not just the environmental climate but the cultural climate, as well. “We have something very special here beyond just the cannabis. We have this really strong community that comes together over everything — fire protection, land conservation, cannabis cultivation,” said Galen Doherty of Whitethorn Valley Farms. “It’s what really unites us and makes us different than much of around California.”

Stein also echoed this sentiment, saying, “A lot of this comes down to place and the magic that happens with the right people and the right connection to place. That’s what we’re talking about when it comes to terroir and the magic that comes out of this plant in this place.”

Many of the speakers also noted another difference between Humboldt cannabis cultivation culture compared to the rest of the world: female representation. In fact, women made up almost half of the speakers at the inn that evening. Wendy Kornberg of Sunnabis explained how she travels frequently for her job and speaks at a lot of cannabis events. “What you see going to events is a lot of guys,” she said. “What I see up here is a lot of women being represented in our economy and the equality that we have here is something super special.”

Despite the air of celebration, farmers also spoke of the hardships that came with cannabis cultivation from losing their livelihoods to the difficulties of going through the permitting process. “We’ve all been through the guerilla growing era where the helicopters hovered over us and pushed us underground, to the days of diesel dope, to reemerge under greenhouses and into the green rush and now, finally, legalization,” said Nik Erikson of Full Moon Farms. “What I’ve definitely seen here tonight, looking at all of you, is that we’ve come out of this stronger and wiser and more attached to the plant that binds us all.”

Listening to all the speakers at the second Meet the Farmers event, it’s clear that “Humboldt grown” is about more than just cannabis. It’s the food that is grown here and the wine that is produced. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s the people and community here that make all these crops taste so sweet. As Sunshine Johnston of Sunboldt Grown put it, “When you combine the juice of those grapes from the land with the food that’s grown here and finish it with good herb, it’s good for your soul.” 


Stella Girkins is a freelance writer based in Southern Humboldt.