Agriculture has long been considered a male-dominated field. But as the light of legalization shines, women are stepping up to lead the cannabis industry.

Femme Farmers

Story Melissa Hutsell

Research shows that women have shouldered the agriculture load—quite literally—throughout history, according to a study conducted at the University of Cambridge. 

In the study, which was published in Science Advances in 2017, scientists found that existing research on agriculture and tools in prehistoric societies had only focused on male skeletons. So, they set out to study the bones of Neolithic, Bronze Age, and Iron Age women. Their bones showed evidence that their lifestyles were largely defined by intense manual labor, suggesting that females farmed, while males hunted.

Prehistoric women, it seems, were instrumental in the development of agriculture, from tilling soil to grinding grain to harvesting crops. 

Despite science and history, society views modern farming as male dominated. Today, the cannabis industry is changing the conversation.

As a true champion of counterculture, the cannabis industry is embracing its femininity—becoming one of the first billion-dollar markets to do so. 

In celebration, we spoke to the badass lady farmers of the Emerald Triangle about life on the farm, and the challenges and opportunities of being a woman in the cannabis industry. 

Ebb and Flow

Chiah Rodriques was born and raised on a “back-to-the-land hippy commune” in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, where she still lives today. Rodriques is the cofounder of Mendocino Generations, a collective of compliant small farms—23 percent of which are owned and operated by women—and the marketplace director at Payne’s Distribution in Willits.

In addition to her full-time job, Rodriques and her husband own and operate River Txai Farm, and Arcanna Flowers, a collective of organic, sun-grown cannabis farmers. Their farm is home to their family, a 10,000-square-foot cultivation facility, and a 12,000-square-foot nursery, which provides two harvests per year. Typical days on the farm consist of watering, monitoring, and pest control, says Rodriques. They use a rainwater catchment system, so pumping and cleaning the farm’s pond is a constant chore.

In addition to cannabis, Rodriques and her husband grow companion plants throughout their property. “There’s a constant ebb and flow of what needs to be planted and what needs to be harvested,” she says. 

Cost of Compliance

The daily farm chores only scratch the surface of the physicality and grit required to run a cannabis farm—especially in the era of compliance.

River Txai Farms is transitioning into the state’s track and trace system. Though the team previously used a similar system, there’s lots to learn—and increased overhead costs. “We have to hire somebody who does all of our track and trace, and accounting data entry,” explains Rodriques. “This is new. Farms used to never, ever write anything down. We were trained to hide our notebooks.”

Nowadays, cultivators must keep track of everything, including how much nutrients and water are used. “There are so many details a farmer has [to mind just] to keep their head above water,” she says. “We spend so much time with paperwork and computers that it’s hard to get out in the garden.”

Time management is also a big challenge for Brooklynn Willett, co-owner of Lagniappe Family Farms (pronounced Lan-yap), a 6,800-square-foot cannabis farm in Humboldt. Along with her partner and a friend, Willett grows organic vegetables, hops, and fruit trees alongside cannabis. “It’s old school Humboldt, where you get the family environment mixed in with the cannabis production,” says Willett.

Like Rodriques, Willett misses working with the plants. “I’ve taken on more of a CEO position, which means that I’m responsible for compliance,” she explains. “[With Proposition 64], paperwork, compliance, branding, marketing, and chasing down distribution for sales is a full-time job.” Still, it’s one she wouldn’t trade for anything: “No white picket fence for me!” says Willett. 

Shifting Paradigms

For decades, cultivation (known colloquially as “growing”) was thought of as a male role, while women were relegated to trimming and leafing. As the founder of Emerald Employment, a staffing agency that connects workers with jobs at compliant cannabis facilities, Willett is noticing a paradigm shift.

“We’re finding that more females are getting into basic cultivation from start-to-finish,” she explains. “It’s opening up a lot more job opportunities to the people who were locked into the old way of doing things.” 

Misogyny is a reality on the hill, and off it. It’s not uncommon to hear of women being strong-armed out of sales or partnerships, or cat-called by neighbors or farm hands.

Siobhan Danger Darwish is the co-owner of Blessed Coast Farms, the first licensed farm in Humboldt County. She explains that the issues affecting women in cannabis are the same nuances in every other industry.

“The difference is cannabis has the opportunity to raise the standards across the board,” says Darwish, who cofounded Grow Sisters with her sister, Sloan Reed, a collective of women in the cannabis industry. “With the attention and financial momentum emerging in our industry, now is the time to draw attention to these inequalities,” she explains. 

Darwish also created the Sister, Grow Your Own and Know Your Farmer educational video series to empower plant and people—and spotlight inequities in the industry.

Building Safer Spaces

Shannon Byers, cofounder of Sisu Extracts, says the light of legality offers protection from some of the dangers and isolation of the black market. “It opens things up more, not only for women, but to everyone,” says Byers. 

Byers speaks from personal experience. Prior to Sisu, she cofounded a 215 compliant brand. After 18 months building the business, she found herself forced out—and on the receiving end of threats. Rather than risk her freedom, Byers chose to wash her hands of the situation but suffered harassment and online trolling for two years.

“It was really pursuing real licensure and legitimacy at a state level after Prop 64 that enabled me to have a legal foot to stand on,” Byers explains. 

Byers moved to Humboldt from Ohio in 2013 to study holistic medicine at the renowned Dandelion Herbal Center. There, she established strong relationships with women herbalists who were also cannabis cultivators. “Being able to go to facilities that were run or managed by these women made it safe for me to [visit alone],” Byers explains. “I was able to obfuscate a lot of dangers that I’ve heard other women encounter by being completely off the grid.”

Byers was inspired by how other female farmers operated. “They propagated a culture of respect for the plant, respect for the earth, and respect for their employees,” she says. 

Byers strives to do the same at Sisu, bringing women into the fold and “treating our community of employees as close to family as possible by giving them a real stake in the game,” via employee ownership plans. Sisu’s supply chain is run entirely by women who help coordinate pick-up and production schedules, run machines, and distribute manufactured goods. 

“I respect the hell out of everyone fighting the good fight of legalization,” says Byers. “But I really feel impassioned when I get to collaborate alongside other women in the industry.”

A Strong Intuition for Things That Grow

“Cannabis is a female plant,” says Willett. “Women have a strong intuition for things that grow. They have a gentle hand and a nurturing spirit. There’s nothing more beautiful than watching women working with this female plant that heals.”

Rodriques believes women bring unparalleled creativity, resilience, and beauty to the cannabis industry, whether it’s in the garden or with their brands. Plus, she adds, “Women get shit done!” 

Growing up in the industry, Rodriques and Darwish recognize the intrinsic role of women in its past, present, and future. “Women were the cultivators, the product makers, the kitchen witches, and the ones to sell the products. That was the cannabis movement,” says Darwish. Now more than ever, women have the opportunity to lead the industry, she adds. “Where a man’s focus might be to get the job done, a woman is more likely to get to the heart of the job,” says Darwish. “We’re more likely to put the delicate touches into the products by giving love and time to the plant or the job.” 

Like the women who came before, the females of cannabis are pioneers, nurturing human wellness—and their own inherent skill sets—along the way. 

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