Regenerative farming honors the natural cycle of weed. For growers situated in the lush landscape of Mendocino County, California, it’s a way of life. These farms utilize eco-conscious methods like living soil, sunlight, well water, and notably don’t rely on chemical interventions like pesticides. This nature-first production has been shown to offer benefits to the flower. A team of scientists from Columbia University found higher terpene levels in sun-grown weed in a March 2023 study published by Molecules.
Northern California’s Emerald Triangle region is a haven for outdoor cannabis. However, the region’s award-winning craft farms have faced massive challenges in the last few years since adult-use legalization. Forces outside of Mother Nature’s control are putting many sun-grown farmers in Mendocino at risk yet again.
A ballot measure called the Humboldt Cannabis Reform Initiative appears on its surface to seek to preserve local nature and businesses, but weed farmers say its 38 pages of restrictions will greatly harm the struggling craft industry. The measure would require all licensed weed farms to build Category 4 roads, restrict the addition of new on-farm structures, prohibit additional permits for activities, lock down the ability to further amend cannabis laws, and prevent larger grows in the future.
“Many were tricked into signing an initiative that acted like it would save the small farms of Humboldt County,” Jason Gellman says on Instagram, founder of Ridgeline Farms and second-generation weed farmer. “But truly, if this passes, it would not only take down so many family farms and destroy what we have worked so hard to create for the last 8 years, but it would be a devastating blow to our economy.” He urges residents to stand with the cannabis industry in voting down the measure.
The Mendocino Cannabis Alliance (MCA) is asking Humboldt residents to vote NO on the measure when it reaches the ballot on March 5, 2024. “We are strongly opposed to Measure A, both in the manner in which the initiative was developed and misleadingly presented to voters as something that would ‘help small farmers,’ and how it sidesteps the process of public engagement to favor the desires of a very small group of well-capitalized individuals,” says Michael Katz, Executive Director of the MCA.
Katz offers up resources for people to get involved in saving the Mendocino cannabis farmers from a potential extinction event. “We recommend that anyone who wants to help save Humboldt County’s cannabis legacy visit NoHCRI to learn more and donate what they can to help the cause,” says the Executive Director. “This initiative may be happening only in Humboldt, but if it passes, it could have reverberating negative effects throughout the industry.”
In June, the MCA, which represents 125 cannabis farmers, sent an opposition letter to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors in coalition with its partners at Origins Council and the Trinity County Agriculture Alliance. Its authors say the measure contains several “poison pill provisions” that would greatly harm the industry.
“We agree with the readings of the initiative that have been put forth by the Humboldt County Planning Department and Humboldt Cannabis Growers Alliance which make clear that its passage would unquestionably harm licensed cannabis farmers,” says Katz. “The prohibitionist restrictions it includes would create an environment of confusion and inflexibility which would significantly compound the market access, licensing, and over-taxation challenges already plaguing this community.”
In Mendocino and Trinity counties, the local law limits weed farms to 10,000 square feet or less. The region’s cultivators are almost exclusively small farmers. “When Measure A comes on the ballot in March, we want to make sure that every voting citizen in Humboldt knows that voting NO is the best way to help support their local cannabis community,” says Katz.
One regenerative farm growing in the region is Swami Select. Its founders Swami Chaitanya and Nikki Lastreto are pioneers in the craft weed industry and lifelong advocates. Swami is an East Coast academic-turned Emerald Triangle homesteader who moved to Northern California in 1967 where he met his partner, an original “flower child” of San Francisco, Lastreto.
The duo chose to live way out on “the edge of nowhere,” as Swami likes to call it. “We could be outlaws growing weed without prying eyes, hopefully,” says Lastreto. They founded Swami Select in 2015. In addition to cultivation and collaborating with legendary hash makers, Swami also educates other cannabis industry aficionados at the Ganjier courses.
“Everything is at stake for sun-grown, regenerative farmers in California,” says Lastreto. “The way we grow, if it were employed by mass farming of all kinds of crops, could literally change the world. If we are ignored and left to shrivel up, the entire planet will lose something precious. This land is sacred. We honor the land and want to work with it. No chemicals allowed.”
Lastreto is also the founder of the Mendocino Craft Farmer’s Auction. The goal of the Mendocino Craft Farmer’s Auction is to raise money for local deserving charities including the Mendocino Land Trust and the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County. Its other goal is to increase cannabis tourism to Mendocino. “It’s all about raising the image of who we are. To smoke our fabulous flowers and taste for themselves the benefits of regeneratively grown cannabis from the Emerald Triangle, while enjoying an elegant evening with wonderful people,” says Lastreto. “Not only are we some of the best farmers on the planet, but we do it with style.” Lastreto’s mother produced one of the very first charity auctions in the state of California back in 1968, in San Francisco. “It’s in my genetics,” the cannabis grower and advocate says.
The auction is an invite-only, private event held through a 501c3 permit. It’s the first cannabis event the Visit Mendocino tourist board has fully supported. “People write to me and I send them an invitation,” she says. “Then Farmers donate an item for either the Silent or Live Auction—these things range from hand-knitted shawls to farm tours at harvest.”
Additional items donated for the auction include hotel stays, fine art, meals, vacation destinations both distant and on the Mendocino coast, and more. Many items are matched by the farmers who donate up to an ounce of cannabis for each item auctioned from their “Private Reserve.” This means guests do go home with some great regeneratively-grown cannabis at the end of the evening. “The farmers do not make a cent,” says Lastreto. “It is our way of saying thank you.”
Lastreto says that energy transfer in cannabis is real, and people should be educated on where weed comes from so they can be conscious consumers. “Cannabis is such a psychic plant that it picks up on the vibes for sure,” she says. “That’s why we place our seeds on the lap of the goddess of cannabis, Ganja Ma, for a full moon cycle before we sprout them. It’s why we put drops of sacred water from the Ganges River on the tiny starts. It’s why we grow our garden in the shape of the ancient sacred geometry, the Sri Yantra.”
In the regenerative ideology, every single item on the farm is as locally sourced as possible. “We not only grow the plants, but we grow the soil too,” says Lastreto. “The difference comes through the smoke, no doubt about it. It is pure, it won’t make you cough, and always takes you to a good place. Every step must be intentional.”
Swami’s plants grow roots directly into the earth, i.e. living soil, which gets richer every year. The growers add amendments, nutrients, and closed-loop ingredients from their land, such as wood chips and downed branches, dried leaves, natural organic compost, worm castings, and even alpaca waste from their neighbors up the road.
The founder believes that government regulators may prefer working with larger corporate MSOs. In her eyes, regulators don’t want to deal with small, “renegade” farmers. “They are trying to weed us out via regulations that are virtually impossible to follow and certainly prohibit making any sort of profit,” she says. “We have always believed that a small percentage of the craft farmers would survive—but that percentage looks smaller all the time. Yet I also believe that in years to come, when the only thing available in shops is mass-produced corporate cannabis, there will be a resurgence. It’s what we saw happen with wine in Napa.”
“The government can help by making it legal to send it through the mail and cutting back taxes,” says Lastreto. “I can always dream and pray. Ah, capitalism—I pray it does not wipe us all out. We feel like pioneers on the trail, who wonder if there’s anything at all around the next bend… or are we crazy and will go off a cliff?”
Lastreto advises consumers and other cannabis business owners on how they can help regenerative farmers and their mission. “It is up to us to educate them about the difference, to their bodies, their minds and the planet,” she says. “I imagine that most have no idea of the massive carbon footprint of indoor-grown cannabis.” Hosting educational events, where consumers can sample the delicious flavor and unique terpenes from regeneratively grown cannabis, is one solution.
Beyond farm life, Swami Select’s team travels often teaching about the benefits of pure regenerative farming and informing as many consumers as possible. “We need to be able to show this to consumers,” says Lastreto. “They have been blindsided by the fancy bling on indoor and the high THC and even higher prices. That’s the American brain, right? It costs more, must be better. So again, it’s all about changing the image to appeal to people in a way they’ll understand.” Swami Select has raised its prices to compete on par with indoor-grown strains on the dispensary shelf. “We know it is well worth it,” she says.
The Mendocino Craft Farmer’s Auction just announced its 3rd annual date, Saturday, July 27th, 2024. The next event will take place on the picturesque hotel and event property The Madrones, located in Philo, Mendocino County, California. Founded by Jim Roberts and Brian Adkinson, The Madrones and its sister property The Brambles offer a unique hotel experience with gardens, wine tastings, and an on-site restaurant, alongside a cannabis dispensary, consumption lounge, and vintage apothecary called The Bohemian Chemist.