Tina Gordon sets standards at her farm
By Gabrielle Gopinath
Photographs by Amy Kumler
During the first year Tina Gordon lived in Southern Humboldt and cultivated cannabis, she found herself “falling in love with cannabis — as a growing plant.” In the 10 years since, she says, “I’ve learned that cannabis is the most powerful plant on the planet; that cannabis is a dioecious plant that expresses in the female form. The power of the plant comes from its female expression.”
Gordon owns and operates Moon Made Farms — a place she describes as being “2,100 feet in elevation and 33 miles from the ocean, in an oak grove,” where female energy has been finding expression for decades. Gordon’s previous lives as an independent filmmaker and a drummer in Los Angeles-area punk bands brought her into contact with the land’s previous owner: trailblazing Joani Hannan, a jazz drummer, band leader, gay club owner and “independent queer business person” who played with bands up and down the California coast from the 1940s through the ’50s. Gordon made a documentary about her life and Hannan became a mentor. Ultimately, Gordon took up stewardship and bought the Southern Humboldt property that had been Hannan’s homestead near the historic Bell Springs Road.
An enthusiastic advocate for sun-grown cannabis, Gordon makes a compelling case that growing outdoors is not only what’s best for the environment but what’s best for the plant. She cultivates full-season plants outdoors from seed. Her farm name reflects her belief in natural farming methods that work with instead of against natural processes. “It’s about the place, it’s about the land, it’s about the terroir,” she explains. “I like to call what I do regenerating farming, as opposed to regenerative farming, because [farming] is an ongoing process. One of our sayings is: ‘Have eyes on each plant every day.’”
She stresses the importance of “integrating the native soil with inputs from the land” and farming creatively, adapting techniques to site as needed. “We mulch with wood chips from the native tanoaks, in addition to other inputs. We use a lot of decomposing forest leaf matter and we make compost tea from native plants.” During the rainy winters, a natural pond catches and stores the water that will irrigate plants in summertime, when afternoon temperatures can top 100 degrees.
The importance Gordon places on regional terroir has led her to adapt permaculture techniques, allowing local soils to find expression. Some cannabis plants at Moon Made Farms are grown in a hugelkultur, a type of compost bed in which large amounts of organic matter and soil amendments are added to a base of native soil, creating a deep bank of nutrient-dense humus that needs several years to reach fruition. The German term “translates, I believe, into ‘above-ground bed,’” Gordon says, but she customized the practice for her farm. “What I actually did was dig down into the earth, making not raised beds but beds that were sunk into the ground, which helped them retain moisture. The wood chips and the straw and the organic material and whatever else is inside this hugelkultur breaks down slowly over time, and that decomposition helps encourage the living soil, so it’s feeding itself — amazing!”
Gordon is a board member of the International Cannabis Farmers’ Alliance, a group of scientists, stakeholders and supporters that lobbies to promote sun-grown cannabis and to educate farmers and the public about best agricultural practices. The group is currently working to research and develop sun-grown industry standards, defining best practices to reduce ecological impact. “One important way of doing this involves working to develop appellations of origin,” she says.
When the state legalized recreational use of cannabis in 2018, new regulations included a mandate for the California Department of Food and Agriculture “to establish a process by which licensed cultivators may establish appellations for standards, practices, and varietals applicable to cannabis grown in a certain geographic area in California by January, 2021.” Many Americans become familiar with the concept of appellation through exposure to the nationalized French system of appellations d’origine controllée (AOC), used in marketing and packaging to indicate agricultural products produced in a discrete geographic area with a distinct character and/or regionally distinctive approach to cultivation. California’s appellation system for cannabis is likely to be modeled after that approach. Gordon is currently involved in developing those standards for sun-grown cannabis from her region Palo Verde — a sun-drenched inland tranche of the Emerald Triangle located some 26 miles east from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies and more than twice that to drive, due to the rugged terrain.
Cannabis legalization has posed Humboldt cultivators with challenges, notably the emergence of a competitive market that is not only statewide but national and even international, in the case of CBD-dominant strains. In this climate, Gordon cites “the need to set the Emerald Triangle apart from massive industrial grows in other parts of the state and country and world.” She anticipates the emergence of “a global cannabis market larger than any that’s been seen before,” at the same time acknowledging that the era of “Big Cannabis” is set about with risks. When the plant is cultivated on millions of acres in California’s Central Valley in years to come, clones selected for speedy growth and ease of processing are likely to be cultivated in preference to those exhibiting uncommon genetics, exotic scents or unique terpene profiles.
Many Humboldt cultivators were like independent artisans, Gordon muses; if they were to be driven out of business, we might lose “the thing that’s so unique and precious and special about the cannabis that comes from this area.” And “there is a lot of gorgeous flower that is unique to this place — flowers that have been naturalized to this place,” by virtue of having been grown here for generations. Gordon believes it is vitally important to preserve “the craft experience — the way that small producers raise plants and grow plants, and cure flower, and take the time.”
There is an irony implicit in Humboldt’s history with cannabis cultivation to date: The county’s most celebrated export has often been grown indoors using practices that minimize the crop’s connection to place, even as they maximize its carbon footprint. While many people will tell you that the O.G. in the name of the famed indica strain O.G. Kush, a regional classic, stands for “Ocean Grown,” whatever unique properties the California sun or the ocean fog may have to impart have been lost on the millions of indoor-grown plants from that strain and others, which have never been exposed to these factors. Until recently, most consumers have not had access to information that would allow them to distinguish between a flower that has been ocean grown in a meaningful sense versus one that has never seen the outside of a dank apartment.
Indoor cultivation was an inadvertent creation of the black market. While sustaining cannabis plants indoors with full-spectrum lights and fans is one of the most energyintensive, environmentally unsustainable methods of growing imaginable, the cannabis plant’s longtime illegal status made it difficult for many wouldbe cultivators, especially those in urban or suburban locations, to grow naturally. With the advent of legalization, that state of affairs is beginning to change. Gordon and other cultivators are betting that once discerning consumers understand what ‘sun grown’ means and how cannabis produced this way is different from other options, both in terms of flavor profile and environmental impact, the case in favor of sun-grown will make itself.
Brokers specializing in sun-grown cannabis like Flow Kana and Willie’s Reserve have emerged as farmers’ crucial allies in this new landscape, changing the game by providing consumers with information about where the bud they are about to smoke was sourced and how it was grown. “Before very recently, when somebody bought a bag of grass they had no idea what they were smoking. Now, you walk into a dispensary and you can ask for sun-grown,” says Gordon.
“You need to know your farmer,” Gordon says. “Where was the cannabis grown? How was it grown? It’s so important to be able to answer these questions. Not only is it a substance that’s going into our bodies but we’re also ingesting something that alters consciousness. Unlike a tomato or a head of lettuce, cannabis is something we’re inviting into our bodies and our minds and our spirits.”
Another thing that makes Gordon’s approach distinctive is her focus on cultivating CBD-intensive and CBD-balanced cannabis strains. Since CBD has no psychoactive properties, it has a different legal status from THC-intensive cannabis. In December, the United States Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized CBD nationwide; if cannabis contains less than 0.3 percent THC, and therefore doesn’t get you high, it is legal to cultivate it, sell it and ship it across state lines. Gordon is one of a minority of Humboldt cultivators specializing in CBD-balanced and CBD-intensive strains. “We’re doing a lot of high-CBD and balanced CBD cultivars,” she says.“We’re doing a Harley Sue/Black Dog cross called A Dog Named Sue (a genetic by Biovortex). … We’re doing Lunar Bouquet, a Moon Made Farms-developed cultivar that’s 2 to 1 CBD/THC. We also have one called Cosmic, that’s a Harley Sue crossed with a Jack Herer.”
It’s safe to say that most Humboldt growers have been focused on working with THC-intensive strains to date. Judges of major cannabis competitions fixate, predictably if perhaps myopically, on the THC high, rewarding strains with jacked terpenes and correspondingly colorful psychoactive effects. That being said, the balanced strains Gordon favors might well resonate with cannabis users whose preferences have been underrepresented to date. (Just check out any dispensary to witness the titter-inducing spectacle presented by white-collar professionals and elderly medical patients shopping strains with names like Hippie Crippler and AK-47 that were obviously named by and for the males-under-25 demographic.)
“There’s been this emphasis on high THC percentages that doesn’t resonate with me personally,” Gordon said. “I wasn’t seeing either the balanced cultivars or the lower-THC cultivars in the marketplace. I prefer consuming high-CBD and balanced-CBD cultivars, whether by smoking, vaping or tincture — that’s what works for me.
“I have met so many women, in particular, who have experienced anxiety issues with usage of high-THC strains, and especially with indoor- grown high-THC strains. So I think providing balanced cultivars could do a lot for a lot of people.”
How is cultivating for high CBD yields different for cultivating for high THC? I asked. “There are some different growing practices involved,” Gordon said, “but most importantly, there’s a different intention. The intention is to provide a flower that has a balanced and uplifting effect, that is life enhancing. We’re really interested in helping to improve people’s quality of life.”