By Lester Black
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There’s something unusual in the air at Northern California’s cannabis farms: optimism.
For years, California’s legal pot farms have been devastated by the one-two punch of crashing wholesale prices and extremely expensive regulatory requirements. That’s caused hundreds of farms to go out of business, but this year’s fall harvest has brought a new sense of hopefulness.
Farms in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle, which was once home to a thriving cannabis farming economy, have sold out of pot this fall after years of struggling to sell their weed. The wholesale price of cannabis, which largely determines if farms can live or die, appears to have stabilized in California. And small farms are finding new, creative ways to stay in business.
“I feel the tide is turning in our favor at long last,” said Judi Nelson, the owner of Sol Spirit Farm in Trinity County. Nelson told SFGATE that for the first time since 2019, she recently completely sold out of her inventory.
To be clear, pot farmers aren’t expecting to go back to the booming days of a decade ago, when California’s medical marijuana market allowed farmers to easily turn a profit growing pot on even the smallest homesteads. The Emerald Triangle, a three-county region that includes Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, is still a shadow of its former self.
But the pot farmers who remain say there are real signs the cannabis growing economy is rebounding for the first time in years.
Johnny Casali, the owner of Huckleberry Hill Farms in Humboldt County, said he’s already sold 90% of the crop he harvested last month. He grows what are known as “regenerative” cannabis crops, a signature of Northern California that involves the plants being grown outdoors as opposed to inside under artificial lights. He thinks that retailers and shoppers are finally seeking out this kind of cannabis after years of it being rejected by legal weed stores, giving him hope that his farm can survive.
“People are starting to resonate with regenerative farming, growing cannabis organically, and resonating with small farmers and our stories,” Casali told SFGATE.
Locals are also seeing a slow return of farmworkers to the region, according to Kristen Stanek-Klawitter, the director of operations for Humboldt Canna Co. in Willow Creek. After legalization in 2017, many folks cleared out of the region as the cannabis business declined, she said.
“It’s crazy how much quieter our mountain road has gotten over the years, but this year we’ve seen more traffic (which means more workers on farms) on the hill than we have since 2017, which I’m taking as a good sign,” Stanek-Klawitter wrote to SFGATE in an email.
There are still fewer pot farms across the Emerald Triangle than there were five years ago, but the farmers who have stuck around are increasingly finding creative ways to keep their businesses open, according to Daniel Stein, who owns Briceland Forest Farm with his wife in the small community of Briceland.
To sustain their pot farm, Stein and his family formed a cooperative company called Farm Cut with five other Northern California farms to share the costs of packaging and distribution. His farm also grows and sells produce and runs a weekly farmers market.
“It’s muted conditions from where it once was, for sure, but the economy is settling out hopefully,” Stein told SFGATE. “It has narrowed the community, but the people who are here want to be here, and there’s a real beauty in that.”
Growing a diverse set of crops has long been a foundational principle for Northern California’s cannabis farms, which have their roots in hippie homesteads that grew all of their own food. Pot farms are increasingly finding that this plant diversification can be one way to survive the cutthroat legal cannabis economy.
Ruby Rose, who owns the Whitethorn Valley cannabis farm in Humboldt County with her husband, said she has started a commercial flower business to help keep the family’s farm afloat after cannabis prices dropped. She said the flower business is doing well, making her hopeful that they can continue to raise their two kids on their homestead.
“We’re optimistic, but we’re also all in. This is not a business for us. This is our lifestyle,” Rose told SFGATE. “It’s really important that we make it work because this is where we want to live for the rest of our life.”