Full Cup Farmstead isn’t exactly what one pictures a farm to look like. Nestled in the mountains of northern California’s Humboldt County, it is the sort of place one would imagine going to hike or camp, not to experience regenerative farming (click here to read more on regenerative farming). Blue skies, green trees, snow on distant peaks from a recent storm, it is idyllic. So, too, Tim and Shannon aren’t what one imagines farmers to be. Highly educated (Tim has a bachelors and Shannon a masters), these are two of the most eloquent, passionate, and energetic farmers I’ve ever met, in a region chock full of educated, energetic, and passionate farmers. Time spent talking to them flies.
And yet, only seven years ago, Tim and Shannon would have been considered criminals. For here at Full Cup, they grow Humboldt’s most famous crop: cannabis.
This article is not going to re-litigate California’s 2016 legalization of recreational cannabis. Regardless of what you think, it happened and cannabis is legal here. I understand that for some people, it will always be considered a “drug,” dangerous and used only by those in the shadows of society. I won’t change those people’s opinions. But let’s get a few facts out there. First, cannabis has scientifically-proven benefits both from physician-prescribed therapeutics and from casual usage (similar to the established benefits found in red wine, for instance). Second, cannabis is used by everyone from the stereotypical long-haired hippie to Fortune 500 CEOs; just ask any dispensary about their clientele. Finally, studies have shown that cannabis is no more a “gateway drug” to harder substances than alcohol is, and cannabis-related crime is virtually non-existent compared to those done under the influence of alcohol.
Tim and Shannon are definitely not drug dealers. Everything here is permitted and licensed. They farm in a way that will leave their soil even more fertile than it was when they started. They employ rainwater capture so as not to have any negative effect on the local water table during California’s mega-drought. They sell their product, painstakingly either grown from seed or from clones (more clones currently due to the fall in cannabis prices as a result of lower-quality product hitting California from Oklahoma, of all places), to distributors, as it isn’t legal for them to sell it directly to consumers yet. And they endure hardship for the simple fact that their crop is still illegal at the federal level, having to pay $500 per month to have a bank account, and to conduct much of their business in cash. But they are driven to grow the most sustainable, high quality cannabis despite these hurdles. And they do. I even eat a leaf directly from a plant (there is no THC in the leaves), and find that the minty peppery flavor would make a dynamite pesto.
A few miles down the highway, just outside the town of Willow Creek, sits Neukom Farms. Best known for their peaches, Jacques and Amy Neukom farm their 18 acres as diversely as possible. While Tim and Shannon grow only cannabis, Jacques and Amy see cannabis as just one piece of their farming puzzle, though one that requires more hoops to jump through, like setting it up as a separate LLC. Jacques is definitely not the stereotypical pothead. In fact, as the local assistant fire chief, he isn’t even able to partake in his own cannabis anymore.
Jacques and Amy see cannabis as it should be seen, as another crop, one that grows well in the Northern California mountains, thereby lessening the need for outside water or other environmental manipulations. And while their popular farmers’ market stall in Arcata cannot yet sell cannabis due to legal limitations on selling directly to consumers, one day it will. Peaches, nopales, pomegranates, and cannabis. (And no, Jacques assures me that sadly the peach trees do not infuse his cannabis with additional flavor.)
(As a side note, if you’re interested in elaborate composting projects and bio-charcoal, come visit here. Neukom has perhaps the most robust such program I’ve ever seen, and Jacques and Amy are truly passionate about this aspect of regenerative farming.)
It is impossible to meet farmers like Tim, Shannon, Jacques, and Amy without developing both an appreciation for what they do, and a greater understanding of both the positives of cannabis from a usage standpoint as well as a regenerative farming one. Even for someone like me, whose personal marijuana story until now read “that one time I tried smoking in college,” it is a meaningful experience. And it will be for you, too, no matter your prior experience – or lack of – with cannabis.
Since 2016, a couple things have happened. With legalization, cannabis has been more widely studied, and we know significantly more about the effects. Things like the human endocannabinoid system, terpenes, and receptors are more widely understood (I am not going to try to explain them all here, but you can look them up if you’re interested; I didn’t understand these words at all before researching this piece) and spoken about, and might one day be taught in school alongside the other body systems. These studies have, in turn, led to better regulations on the industry. Whereas in the days before legalization one didn’t know what one’s cannabis might be “laced” with, now that it is regulated, and strains of the plant are widely known, so you know what you’re buying at a dispensary. (Legalization and purchasing through licensed dispensaries also means tax dollars for the state.) And finally, appreciation for those higher quality strains means small farms with the right micro-climates are in demand, similarly to small vineyards in some of the best wine regions.
And that is the goal up here in Humboldt County: the creation of the “Napa Valley of cannabis.” After all, the region is known all over the US for having the best cannabis. So is it really a big leap to see it as such a destination? It turns out that the transformation is already underway.
Humboldt County is full of amazing dispensaries, and I visit a few. The Ganjery is owned partially by Ken Hamik, my local guide and cannabis guru. Ken is a futurist, meaning he exists to connect people and ideas for a far-reaching goal. (In addition to cannabis, he is also involved in a project to bring hempcrete (a material made of hemp) construction to the area.) Kiskanu, another dispensary, has products that look like they belong in Nordstrom. Papa & Barkley is part dispensary and part consumption lounge. These dispensaries show the diversity of the cannabis industry, providing different products and experiences, similar to specialized wine shops.
Papa & Barkley is, in my mind, part of the evolution of cannabis tourism. Here at the Papa & Barkely Social Club, one can purchase products, and then go outside to use them. (There is no alcohol on the premises due to legal regulations, but there is a gourmet food truck.) Fire pits, bar games… this is a destination much like a great cocktail lounge or brewery. And inside, the Social Spa. Owned by licensed massage therapist Nicole Fryer, Social Spas offer THC-infused massages. I am assured they are the greatest thing ever, and invited back to try one on my next visit.
Nicole explains to me that the region’s cannabis tourism industry is at an inflection point right now. She offers all-inclusive four day cannabis tours called Humboldt Holiday, featuring local products, farm visits, and stays at the Scotia Lodge, the region’s first cannabis-friendly hotel. Another company offers day tours to farms and dispensaries. But there is so much room for growth.
Ken sees a future of cannabis chateaux on some of the local farms, tasting rooms to accentuate the views. He sees “experience pairing,” with different strains of cannabis being paired with things like hikes, ocean views, concerts, and more, each one meant to perfectly compliment the feeling one is trying to achieve with that activity. Tim and Shannon are working to pair cannabis and camping, while brands like Kiskanu and Social Nature are partnering with branding experts to create the high-class experiences necessary to reach that end of the clientele spectrum. And I still hope for a cannabis pesto by a dynamite local chef.
Over the next five to ten years, as the country embraces cannabis usage as similar to alcohol, caffeine, or sugar (all great in moderation), I am confident we will see this evolution continue. For now, any visitor to Humboldt County has an opportunity to experience cannabis both from an intellectual side and an experiential one. I purchase products from a couple dispensaries, am given a few to try, and Tim and Shannon send me home with a treat directly from their plants. I felt I couldn’t write this story without participating in the experiential side of cannabis, and I now have. Is it something I’ll use regularly? Probably not. But I had a couple enjoyable evenings feeling a similar buzz to a couple glasses of wine. That’s a positive in my book.
Cannabis is a complicated thing. It evokes some strong feelings, largely from those who don’t understand it, and can be a divisive issue. But a visit here to Humboldt County, to the heart of what is said to be the best cannabis in the country, offers the chance to learn, to experience, and to come to terms with what cannabis is, and what it can be. For me, the “normal” non-user, it was eye-opening, meaningful, and pleasant. I’m sure it will be for you, too.
I can’t express enough thanks for those who patiently answered all of my questions, trying to explain the industry, the legal issues, and the science to someone who had no clue going in. To Tim and Shannon of Full Cup Farmstead, Jacques and Amy of Neukom Farms, Nicole and Social Spas, and especially to Ken Hamik, you have my gratitude. I hope I did remote justice to the incredible work you are all doing. And thank you, as always, to Visit Redwoods for arranging my experience.
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