The resilience of Humboldt’s farm communities
By Nora Mounce
Beyond the county line, the story of Humboldt is often sung as a one-note tune. The opening chords recall the collapse of the timber industry, peppered with narratives about displaced loggers and utopian hippies growing marijuana in the hills. Lyrics about off-the-grid millionaires and helicopters buzzing overhead bookend a chorus that waxes poetic about the timeless beauty of the redwoods. Promising to protect this wild and exotic place, the closing notes remind us a new era has arrived.
Like an overplayed classic, however, the song has gotten a bit trite. Humboldt County encompasses 4,052 square miles and contains a multitude of diverse microclimates and disparate small towns. Across this rugged terrain, cannabis is grown along backcountry roads and in your neighbor’s spare bedroom. A byproduct and pillar of the region’s cultural identity, cannabis is inseparable from our story. To understand the anecdotal charm of life in America’s cannabis capital, get to know the bedrock communities that have made Humboldt cannabis a legacy.
The Mattole Valley
West of shadowy redwood groves of southern Humboldt, the Mattole Valley opens up toward the Pacific, a rolling expanse of sunshine, green grass and blue skies. On the coast lies the Bohemian outpost of Petrolia. Honeydew and Ettersburg, historically sheep ranching towns, sit inland. The most western landmass on the Pacific Coast, the valley sits within the Lost Coast, famous among backpackers and surfers for its rugged and dangerous beauty. Given the unprotected geography, the Lost Coast regularly takes a beating and the country roads are predictably rough.
“Half the people who end up in Honeydew never meant to go there,” says Bob Shinn, whose family first settled in the Mattole Valley in the 1850s. Today, Shinn runs the Honeydew Store, where the community has come together since 1927. Located a two-hour drive from Costco or Safeway in Eureka, Shinn claims the Honeydew Store sells “everything you need to survive for the next 60 years.” While filling bellies and propane tanks is what keeps the store open, Shinn explains that it’s a gathering place and community center. “We have funerals there. We have memorials there,” adds Shinn. “For me, it’s home.”
When she was a child, Honeydew resident Jade Woodrose recalls, the community revolved around the Honeydew Store. “Right before it closed in the afternoon, people would come down the hill to visit,” Woodrose says. “Before anyone had a cellphone, you could get a message there. You got your mail there,” she adds.
Woodrose also wistfully remembers “the code of honor and community spirit” that oversaw old ways of doing business before the green rush impacted the Mattole. Today valley farmers are collaborating to influence legislation that will directly impact the cannabis industry. Humboldt became the first county in California to adopt a land use ordinance to regulate commercial cannabis in 2016. In Honeydew, policy meetings were held at the Mattole Grange, where Woodrose graduated from both 8th grade and high school. As the Mattole’s industry shifts into the era of legalization, environmentally responsible cannabis farmers are finally being recognized for their earth-first values in the form of cultivation permits.
Though historically dependent on the resource-extractive industries of mining and timber, followed by cannabis farming today, the Mattole Valley has always maintained a reputation for safeguarding its hidden paradise. In Petrolia, the Mattole Valley Community Center sits in a renovated schoolhouse on the only corner in town. Famous for its Sunday morning farmers markets and Cabaret fundraisers, the Mattole Restoration Council holds meetings upstairs. One of the country’s oldest watershed restoration organizations, the nonprofit’s mission is to restore the Mattole River ecosystem and see the return of healthy salmon flows. In the era of legalization, many hope that the tightly regulated legal cannabis industry will uphold the region’s legacy of environmental conservation and premium, sun-grown cannabis.
“The Mattole Valley is a land of extremes, with extraordinary beauty on one side and fickle natural forces on the other,” writes Laura Cooskey of the Mattole Valley Historical Society. A 30-year resident of Petrolia, Cooskey curated a show last winter, documenting the hardship and joys of life in the region “Our fortunes here seem to drift from one state to the other, often quite indifferent to our intentions,” writes Cooskey. “But if we stay here long enough, we strike a balance.”
An hour south from Humboldt County’s courthouse, Garberville sits in the center of rural southern Humboldt, known colloquially as SoHum. A generous collection of thrift stores, peeling paint and flower-power nostalgia contribute to Garberville’s vintage vibes. While passersby might think the town hasn’t changed since the ’70s, locals have watched their community transform from a sleepy town to a military state and back again. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush launched “Operation Green Sweep,” a federally funded military campaign to eradicate marijuana farms. Many residents participated in New Orleans-style parades in protest and “U.S. Out of Humboldt” stickers appeared on trucks. When a 17-year-old girl walking in the redwoods came face to face with a bushel of National Guard M-16 rifles, the feds were publicly shamed; they packed their bags and flew home. Both liberals and conservatives were rightfully outraged and the community was forever marked with a healthy cynicism toward government. Today, the community remains tightly bonded in the shared struggle to survive in Humboldt County’s definitive Wild West.
“This area is pretty resilient,” says Garth Epling, the board president of the Mateel Community Center, a world-class music venue located in the rural town of Redway near Garberville. “There are people here to stay no matter what,” says Epling. The prototypical child of back-to-the-land parents, Epling grew up without electricity or technology. When he was 13 years old, he tried to hook up a homemade computer to a solar panel. Today, Epling owns Emerald Tech, a computer store in Garberville.
“My first memory of the Mateel was my mom setting me in a pile of jackets so they could go dance.” Often referred to as “the hall that marijuana built,” the Mateel’s effort to preserve culture, music and community in SoHum has always been supported by generous donations from cannabis farmers. Despite recent financial hardships, the Mateel persists as a hub of international culture in rural Humboldt.
Drawn by the allure of the region, Dan Pomerantz moved to SoHum nine years ago to pursue his dream of “growing the best cannabis in the world.” His farm, Rebel Grown, sits at the geographical center of the Emerald Triangle, 45 minutes east of Garberville. Pomerantz believes the balance of inland heat and coastal moisture are an ideal microclimate for growing cannabis. “This area is so remote that people could go a little crazier and bigger,” explains Pomerantz. He attributes the scale of SoHum cannabis farms to the region’s “badass reputation.”
Though outsiders often get the hint that meandering beyond downtown Garberville without invitation isn’t wise, every local tells a story of a neighbor coming to their rescue. With emergency services often hours away, families have always depended on volunteer fire departments and neighbors to respond to emergencies. “Many roads are not officially named, driveways are not marked, gates are locked and many locations are only known by their historical names,” explains Mikal Jakubal, formerly of the Briceland Volunteer Fire Department.
The community radio station KMUD has always played a critical role in covering fire, weather and law enforcement news; many farms still lack internet and cell phone service. Living in such rural isolation has made farm stores, like Dazey’s Supply in Redway, a cornerstone of the community. “It’s where you see all your neighbors and catch-up,” says Honeydew resident Jade Woodrose.
Until legalization, seclusion and risk were the tenets of a cannabis farmer’s life, intensifying the need to look out for each other. Beyond SoHum’s rough-and-tumble reputation, the real legacy of the region is the resilience of its community.
Heading due east from the hippie vibes and coastal temps of Arcata, you quickly climb the steep mountain passes of State Route 299. In the winter months, cresting Berry Summit at nearly 3,000 feet, a dusting of snow crystallizes the scenic vista before dropping into Willow Creek. Perched above the sparkling Trinity River, most of Willow Creek’s commercial businesses straddle the highway. A few storefronts sit perpetually empty, magnifying the low thrum of the town. Like anywhere in Humboldt, farming cannabis is a way of life for many in “the Creek,” but on a different scale and with different challenges than Southern Humboldt. Farming in the mountains means steeply graded properties, keeping snowpack off greenhouses in the winter and scorching triple-digit temperatures each summer. Without the multi-generational legacy of SoHum, many farmers have found the Creek a welcoming community for new farmers.
“The cannabis industry is helping bring a lot of life to Willow Creek,” says Sara Roberts, who moved inland from the coast five years ago. As a 37-year-old female farmer, Roberts chose Willow Creek for the safety and accessibility of being close to town. “I wanted electricity. I wanted to be close to a main highway,” explains Roberts. At her property, Enchanted Springs Farm, Roberts is gearing up for the era of legalization and excited for the positive impacts it will have on Willow Creek. “It’s becoming more and more populated because of all the legit stuff happening,” she explains.
For Roberts, ending a day of hard work in the sunshine with a swim in the river is what makes life in Willow Creek so sweet. Flowing northwest into the Klamath River, the Trinity is beloved by kayakers, rafters, fishermen and locals across Humboldt. Controlled by the Trinity Dam, the water flows rapidly all year, but by mid-summer, it slows enough for families to swim at Camp Kimtu and Big Rock. Farther upriver, rafting companies operate recreational river trips on the Trinity, inviting tourists and families to enjoy the wild beauty of the Emerald Triangle.
Just down the road, Hannah Whyte and her husband Riley are the owners of Emerald Queen Farms. Also young farmers, the couple was first drawn to Willow Creek after falling in the love with the beauty and potential to grow food year round. Today, Emerald Queen Farms is earning widespread recognition as a role model for small, family-owned farms that will compete to survive in the legal industry. In addition to sharing their knowledge of regenerative farming practices with their neighbors, Whyte and her husband are excited about helping foster healthy community in Willow Creek.
“There’s also so much opportunity for recreation here,” says Whyte. “We want to promote an active lifestyle culture. We love skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding, and want to develop our brand for people who spend their time in nature.” Whyte is also excited about changes coming to her “sweet town.” In 2017, the North Coast Grower’s Association started operating the Willow Creek Farmer’s Market every Thursday night with fresh local produce and live music. Other community hubs include two farm supply stores that are both safe havens for farmers to socialize and network.
As Willow Creek continues to change and grow, local farmers hope to integrate the area’s outdoor recreational opportunities with cannabis tourism, bringing a much needed stable economy to the region. “There are so many learning opportunities in the regulatory marketplace and we’re figuring out how to make it work best for everyone,” adds Whyte. “We’ve got to do this together.”
State Route 36
In the hinterlands of State Route 36, Lanie Parker and her partner Bob Morris have taken on the area’s most important job as owners of the Dinsmore Store. Established in the early 1900s, the store still is the one-stop shop for the outlying ranch towns of Carlotta, Bridgeville, Dinsmore and Mad River.
“The community depends on it greatly,” says Parker. Located 45 miles east of Eureka, the Dinsmore Store is the only place to get food, gas, propane, lumber and garden supplies until you reach Red Bluff — another 90 miles away. The long distances between outposts are a testament to the challenge of living in such a far-flung community. According to Parker, people like it this way.
“It doesn’t matter how you cut the pie, they’re a bunch of freaking rebels,” says Parker, referring to both farmers and ranchers. Growing up in Korbel and Honeydew, Parker has seen Humboldt’s communities change dramatically over the years. Though many newcomers now populate the small ranching towns along State Route 36 thanks to cannabis, Parker still sees an intense loyalty among the community. Since buying the Dinsmore Store, she’s been amazed at how quick her customers are to help out if anyone’s stirring up trouble. While fearing that new government regulations will cripple the economy, Parker still hopes that the legal cannabis industry will bring positive change to her community.
In Carlotta, 35 miles west of Dinsmore, Blessed Coast Farms has become a statewide leader for sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurship in the legal cannabis industry. Owned and operated by Siobhan Danger Darwish and her sister Sloan, Blessed Coast was proudly bestowed the honor of being Humboldt County’s first permitted farm in 2016. The sisters also share farming practices and marketing tips on their popular YouTube channel, the Grow Sisters.
“We try to make our approach simple, yet strong. Our goal is to produce a wonderful product, like Mother Nature intended,” explains Darwish. “This is new territory for us all but if we apply strategy that aligns with the state regulatory agencies, we should be able to navigate this new industry while reducing our overall carbon footprint,” she adds.
From the tiny hub of Carlotta, Blessed Coast Farms is setting a high standard for small-scale, sustainable agriculture. By expertly leveraging social media and sharing stories about environmentally conscious cannabis farmers, Blessed Coast Farms is promoting a new image for Humboldt County. “If Humboldt can keep from being saturated by big business, we should retain the green economy we hold so dear to our hearts,” says Darwish.
For America’s “cannaisseurs”, nothing compares to the legacy of Humboldt cannabis. Across Humboldt County, farmers, consultants, environmentalists, officials and entrepreneurs are working to ensure that our reputation goes untarnished. But the diversity of the region invites exploration to truly understand our flora and our home. In 2018, Humboldt County is open for adventures.