A local legacy of compassion and preservation keeps California’s growing practices green.

Humboldt County’s cannabis companies put community before profit.

Story Nicole Riggs

Rumor has it that Bigfoot first appeared in Humboldt County in the 1950s. Locals continue to report sightings in some of the most remote corners of the region, but last March, Bigfoot strolled right onto the Eureka waterfront. Surrounded by children and a group of giant banana slugs, Bigfoot looked out across the Humboldt Bay before plunging into the icy waters. The kids squealed with delight.

Community, sustainability, and a resilient mindset run as deep as the rivers in the Emerald Triangle. They are the offspring of an independent culture that grew from tribes living in tune with nature, crusty gold prospectors, tough lumberjacks, self-reliant ranchers, and free-thinking hippies who call this region their home.

“It’s about community,” says Jon O’Connor, chief compliance officer at Papa & Barkley, a cannabis wellness company based in Eureka. O’Connor and his team donned the banana slug costumes and sponsored the Bigfoot sighting as part of the Discovery Museum’s “Perilous Plunge,” an annual fundraiser for the Redwood Discovery Museum. A beloved local event, participating teams are required to raise money for the museum by jumping into the icy Humboldt Bay. In 2019, the Papa & Barkley team raised $2,780.

For O’Connor, Papa & Barkley’s commitment to the area is a source of pride. In 2019, the company donated more than $25,000 to local Humboldt County nonprofit organizations like the Kinetic Grand Championship, Sequoia Park Zoo, and the Ink People Center for the Arts.

Since Papa & Barkley planted its roots in Humboldt in 2017, the company has created more than 100 jobs in the region and offers starting wages of $15 per hour, full health-care benefits, and a 401K plan. The company heavily promotes internal recruitment and more than a third of its workforce is on management track. In its procurement practices, the company prioritizes sourcing premium cannabis from local farmers first.

Sustainability and Simplicity

Humboldt County has always had a spirit of solidarity. In today’s world of intensifying global problems, finding new ways to live together is imperative more than ever. In this landscape, the legalization of cannabis comes with a set of challenges for the small independent farmers in the Emerald Triangle. In spite of a (growing) heavy tax burden and a litany of regulations to follow, licensed businesses and cultivators have the chance to set new standards for sustainability in agriculture and industry.

Karen Hessler and her husband moved to southern Humboldt’s Mattole Valley in 1971. “We wanted to be self-sufficient and lead a life of simplicity. We did subsistence farming; it was not about making a lot of money,” Karen says. Today, the couple runs Amaranth Farms, which took third place at the 2019 Emerald Cup for its CBD flower. Hessler feels confident that Amaranth, as a small family farm with a focus on genetic research, is doing the right thing to help people.

“There’s a legacy to draw on in the Emerald Triangle,” says Dominic Corva, co-director at the Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research (HiiMR) at Humboldt State University. “Many farmers here come from back-to-the-lander families. Children internalize those values.”

One such farmer is Sunshine Johnston, the owner of Sunboldt Grown in Holmes Flat. “There’s a right way and a wrong way,” says Johnston, who uses dry-farming techniques at Sunboldt. “The right way is about the long term.” She hopes that home-grower culture continues to thrive and that the Emerald Triangle’s community of medicine makers are recognized in the new legal marketplace.

The back-to-the-landers who started growing cannabis in the Emerald Triangle in the 1960s were striving to create another way of living together—a utopia. Because cannabis was illegal, growers had to create value outside of mainstream society to sustain themselves. They built schools and community centers and fire stations. They held potlucks and music festivals. They got to know the land and the seasons and explored ecology and sustainability long before it became a hot topic. Because cannabis could be a psychoactive substance, it nourished people’s ability to imagine another world.

“Cannabis is a powerful spirit,” says Lorelie Sandomeno whose farm, Sunrise Mountain Farms, is located in northeast Humboldt County. “It gives the gift of presence. It creates feelings of deeper connection.”

Today, forward-thinking cannabis farmers focus on the plant and its ecosystem. Wendy Kornberg is the owner at Sunnabis Farm in Southern Humboldt, where her family grows cannabis organically and with minimal water use. “I imagine myself as a weed plant,” says Kornberg. “I hear birds, nature, the sounds of children. This is where I want to be.”

Over the years, environmental degradation by growers abusing the land and the system became rampant. But today, legalization has ushered in the highest standards of farm management practices. To succeed in the competitive marketplace, Emerald Triangle cannabis operators draw on the values of sustainability and community that legacy farmers established generations before them.

Energizing the Mission

Dance and music have been taking place at the Mateel Community Center in Redway for more than 40 years. Built in 1988, the community center has garnered international recognition for its multicultural lineup of musicians and legendary Reggae festival. With its economic health tied to the cannabis industry, the Mateel has struggled in recent years to keep operations afloat due to the economic downturn begotten by legalization.
In Humboldt County’s barn-raising spirit, the cannabis manufacturing company Bear Extraction House launched Project Humboldt Thrive, naming the Mateel as one of the recipients. When farmers who work with Bear donate to Project Humboldt Thrive, Bear Extraction matches every donation.

“It’s important to put our energy into our missions and values. It’s not just about profit,” says Bear’s Stacia Eliason.

In addition to the Mateel, Project Humboldt Thrive supports the Eel River Recovery Project, which works to improve the health of Chinook salmon runs in the mighty Eel River. As the largest Pacific salmon species, Chinook salmon grow to be three feet long and some even reach more than five feet and more than 100 pounds. Years of industrial mining, logging, and illegal cultivation have led to the Chinook’s status as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. For cannabis farmers in the Emerald Triangle today, the health of our rivers is symbolic of the health of the community.

Kyle Preciado grew up in the Emerald Triangle’s cannabis culture and today is a founding member of Humboldt Homegrown, a network of cannabis growers united under one collective brand. Preciado points out that on average, 90 percent of legal cannabis markets are controlled by less than 10 companies nationwide. Preciado wants to do things differently.

“We believe that if we model our business from the laws of nature, maintain the values set by the plant and agreed upon by the group, we can build an ecosystem sustainable for all involved,” Preciado says. “We want to uphold our regional reputation as the best cannabis producers in the world.”

Giving back to the community and the environment through social innovation were values born and upheld long before legalization. Today, the Emerald Triangle cannabis industry continues to carry the torch.

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