Local Appellation Exploration: Whitethorn Valley Farm
The Emerald Triangle — Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties — covers an area of more than 11,000 square miles. Between the three counties, there’s coastline, mountains, river systems, forests, marshlands, meadowlands and lots of rugged terrain.
It’s a diverse place, both in terms of culture and ecosystems, but The Emerald Triangle is often referred to in one fell swoop as California’s cannabis hot spot, without regard for or mention of the manifold conditions rural farmers work in. This fall, I visited five cannabis farms in distinct local regions to experience this range of conditions firsthand, to write about local cannabis farms in terms of terroir.
Historically the word terroir has been used to describe the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate, or the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment.
Modern cannabis cultivators have taken to applying the concept of terroir to their products, particularly full sun outdoor products grown in some percentage of native soil. All of this terroir talk goes hand-in-hand with cannabis appellations, a hot topic since our new state regs include a provision for the California Department of Food an Agriculture (CDFA) to “establish a process by which licensed cultivators may establish appellations for standards, practices, and varietals applicable to cannabis grown in a certain geographic area in California.” (Link to the CDFA Appellations Fact Sheet, Courtesy of the CDFA CalCannabis Appellations Project.)
Appellation designations will go beyond county-of-origin standards already at play, standards that apply to all cannabis products, regardless of cultivation methods. In contrast, “appellations allow licensed cultivators to recognize cannabis growing areas within and beyond county boundaries, and to create specific requirements for how cannabis is grown in those appellations.” (Link to the CalCannabis Appellations Project FAQ, Courtesy of the CDFA CalCannabis Appellations Project.)
Cannabis goods produced with any given appellation designation will have a level of exclusivity and rarity, and thereby an increased value, presumably. The CDFA has until January 2021 to establish the process to establish appellations. Once the process is in place, establishing appellations will take some licensed farmer teamwork.
The CDFA’s CalCannabis Appellations Project team is creating this process, a team comprised of five state environmental scientists with varying scientific backgrounds. They held a series of public workshops this past September in Mendocino, Humboldt, Sacramento, Riverside, Santa Barbara and Monterey counties to solicit public input.
According to CalCannabis Cultivation Licensing Communications Manager Rebecca Forée, right now the team is busy reviewing comments received thus far. They will compile a summary of this input before pursuing research into more specific issues, such as varietals. The last day to submit public comments for consideration this year was October 31; however, there will be more opportunities for the public to share comments with in 2019.
There is some local organization around cannabis appellations. Notably, the Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP) has a number of recommendations for the CalCannabis Appellations Project to consider, including developing a list of protected terms and a cannabis cultivar library. Read the full text of their recommendations at their ipetitions site. You can follow MAP on Facebook and Instagram to keep up with their ongoing advocacy.
When I caught up with her on November 2nd, Humboldt County Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell expressed enthusiasm about cannabis appellations, saying, “I think that this is exactly the kind of direction we need to be going in in Humboldt County. We talk all the time about the brand. Appellation is another part of it… a great opportunity for this fledgling industry.”
Back to the farms… The farms I visited are spread across the three Emerald Triangle counties and are owned and operated by people that are enthusiastic about the coming framework for establishing cannabis appellations. The environment of each farm is dramatically different, but each farm had full sun plants in the ground in some percentage of native soil.
The interviews covered the soil, topography and climate of each farm, plus the farm’s standards, practices and noteworthy varietals. It was opportunity for licensed farmers to talk about how the place and their culture affect their products.
My questions were partly inspired by Chrystal Ortiz’s “Appellation Designation” article on page 60 of the Spring 2018 issue of the Humboldt Cannabis Magazine. I was also guided to some extent by conversations with International Cannabis Farmers Association Chair Kristin Nevedal, Humboldt County Growers Alliance Executive Director Terra Carver and Mendocino Appellations Project Executive Director Genine Coleman.
Commodity appellations have a long history, and if you want to dig in, there are endless resources and articles online — historical perspectives, cannabis perspectives and modern day realities. Richard Mendelson’s book Appellation Napa Valley was highly recommended; I hope to read it soon. Wired Magazine has a great feature from last month, The Quest to Make California’s Weed the Champagne of Cannabis; Forbes covered this topic in August: California Cannabis Goes Luxury, Plans Appellations Just Like Wine.
And while cannabis appellation development is of broad and current interest in the Emerald Triangle, I have yet to see a full-blown treatment of local terroir. So let’s get to it.
This week, we’ll learn about Whitethorn Valley Farm on the west side of Southern Humboldt County. Stay tuned over the coming weeks for terroir coverage of Sunboldt Grown in Holmes, NorthCountry Farms near Hayfork in Trinity County, Sun Roots Farm near Covelo, Mendocino County, and Moon Made Farms on the east side of Southern Humboldt.
The “Thorn Junction” community is in a sweet spot on the west side of Southern Humboldt County. It sits on the Mattole River side of Ettersburg Junction, far enough to the west to escape the influence of the South Fork Eel River valley fog, and far enough inland to escape the dense Pacific coastal fog. It’s on the sunny side of Paradise Ridge and the King Range, about 10 minutes from the Lost Coast trailhead.
It’s the beginning of October and just after the first rain of the season when I meet Whitethorn Valley Farm Owner-Operator Galen Doherty at the post office across from the Whitethorn Construction complex, a landmark on SoHum’s well-traveled Shelter Cove Road. There was some thick Eel River fog that morning along the 101 corridor, but it was all blue skies on the west side, a clear, crisp morning out Whitethorn way.
The farm isn’t far from the construction complex and Flow Kana’s soon-to-be-opened Southern Humboldt Processing Center. The surrounding landscape is rich, dominated by a mixed hardwood forest, replete with fir, hazelnut and tanoak.
It’s a chilly morning, so we catch up over hot tea in the home of Doherty and his partner Ruby Rose, co-owner and operator of Whitethorn Valley Farm, before heading out to see their light deprivation and full sun outdoor gardens.
Doherty and Rose are new to this parcel, and they are endeavoring to do things right from the get-go by practicing regenerative and permaculture farming methods suited to this unique ecosystem.
“We learned a lot from Briceland Forest Farm, Taylor and Daniel over there,” Doherty says. “Most of what we do with our full term cannabis is based on what they’ve developed over the last 15 years.” Briceland Forest Farm is a local producer of both vegetables and cannabis and is also a 2017 Emerald Cup Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award winner.
The Whitethorn Valley Farm’s 10,000 square foot permitted cultivation space is split in two — half devoted to light deprivation and the other half to full sun seed plants. This scheme was chosen to suit the existing features of the parcel, which is cut by Buck Creek. The dep is on top of an old horse arena on the near (east) side of the creek, and the bulk of the full sun garden is on the far side, in an area they refer to as the “West Meadow.”
The full term garden is technically “new cultivation” under county standards, meaning the West Meadow has prime agricultural soil. In particular, the soil qualifies as “soil of statewide importance,” mapped where there’s been deposits of alluvium from historic floodplain channels. It’s in what’s called the “Gershwin Complex,” and Doherty describes it as a little sandy, a little loamy, without too much clay.
In preparation for their first season in the West Meadow, they tilled and cover cropped the area last November, then mowed and tilled again in the spring. After a soil test with Dirty Business Soil, they added just a sprinkling of amendments. This fall, the plants look amazing, Rose says. “They were just so happy over there. I was blown away.”
“So it’s interesting in that it’s a brand new area,” Doherty says. They haven’t been working the land that long, but they know that a good place to start is healthy living soil and varieties that will thrive at their locale. This season, they went big on Cherry Chem seed plants (Cherry Pie X Chem Dawg), an earlier varietal demonstrating four phenotypic expressions in their full-term garden.
Ideal plants for their valley location are fast maturing and not super huge, Rose explains, with compact plant formations and higher bud-to-plant ratio. The season is on the short side here, with hot days and cold nights as the norm. There is a slight amount of high Mattole River fog during the summer and a fair amount of dew on the plants in the mornings, a daily wetness that usually dries off before too long. All in all, Doherty says, they have mostly clear days at Whitethorn Valley Farm, “the perfect growing conditions.”
They’re at about 1,000 feet in elevation, and the average rainfall is around 100 inches per year. They placed the cultivation rows on contour with the land, so that when it does rain, surface water is captured, as opposed to running off.” The goal is to “slow it, spread it and sink it,” thereby increasing groundwater in the soil.
“The longer we can keep the water up here into the dry season, the more likely there is to be water in the rivers when the fish really need it,” Doherty says. They’re all about being a model fish-friendly farm, which means they’re figuring out all the ways they can reduce water use and store all the water they need. They are endeavoring to do the things that mean you can have cannabis and salmon together.
“It’s not necessarily a conflict,” he continues. In fact, it can be a benefit if farming cannabis is able to keep people on the land, managing the ecosystem instead of having to take a job in town. To recover forest health and climate resiliency and salmon, we have to have people stewarding their land, Doherty says, clearing to reduce fire hazards and to promote fewer and bigger trees. “This landscape has evolved to the touch of humans.”
Indeed, the Thorn Junction ecosystem was stewarded by native peoples for thousands of years. Local historian Ray Raphael writes of burning as part of the seasonal maintenance done by Native Americans in his book An Everyday History of Somewhere, 1974. “A good harvest depended on proper preparation by prior burning, so the Indians were in essence farming the forest.” Burning underbrush every fall made for abundant acorns and for healthy willow and hazel shoots, used in basket making.
The Whitethorn Valley Farm water source for cultivation is a spring, and they find that since full term garden is planted directly in native ground, it doesn’t dry out as fast as the light dep beds. This year they did straw mulch over the beds, and this fall they will cover crop the West Meadow garden again. Next year, they’ll cultivate in what was this year’s paths, alternating back-and-forth to avoid hammering the same spot over and over.
When asked about ideal standards for establishing cannabis appellations, Doherty and Rose say they are proponents of full sun, full season, in-the-ground (with some percentage of native soil) as a starting point, coupled with geographic indicators and uniform grading standards (such as those established by the International Cannabis Farmers Association).
People want to tout traditional farming practices as a valuable factor in appellation development, but the fact is, “Not very many people have had the opportunity to grow row crop cannabis in full sun before,” Doherty says. “This is pretty new in the scheme of things.”
“The old timers… they were guerrilla growing, out in the hills, in like marginal, recently cut over timberland,” he muses. The really old school growers were growing in pots in trees or in pots on the side of a hill with camo netting. “They weren’t really farming. They were doing what they had to do because it was so illegal.”
At this point in time, legal farmers can settle in and really focus on developing operating philosophies and practices suited to their land. Doherty and Rose advocate for conserving pristine areas, preventing excess subdivision of working lands and helping private landowners be the best possible stewards of their land.
It’s still crisp when we head outside. With the recent rainfall, they are selectively harvesting full term plants. We make a brief stop at the light deprivation garden, and then pivot toward their exuberant vegetable garden and a small patch of full term plants in the ground. We are still on the east side of Buck Creek.
To reach the West Meadow garden, Doherty leads me over Buck Creek via a small footbridge. A short climb up a steep embankment follows, and then a nice flat walk to the weed. Once inside the fenced area, Doherty points out the different Cherry Chem phenotypes, which range from 6′-10′ in height and from lime green to deep purple in color.
Marigolds, amaranth and Mexican sunflowers accompany the cannabis plants and are still vibrantly in bloom. Squash meanders amongst the rows — the garden is animated and full of life. As we walk and as I marvel at the plants, Doherty tells me more about the surrounding landscape, how the trees are mostly about 25 years old — young, dense and thirsty.
This year’s season has been a success for Whitethorn Valley Farm, their ecologically sound approach to farming this land is paying off. Since their farm is so new, they have yet to define the characteristic taste and flavor of their products. But the fact that they are direct planting locally sourced seed plants in the ground, with minimal amendments, ensures they have captured the Whitethorn Valley terroir.