Local Appellation Exploration: Sunboldt Grown in Holmes
This fall, I visited five cannabis farms in distinct regions of the Emerald Triangle to experience the range of conditions local farmers are working in, and to learn about each farm in terms of its terroir — the complete natural environment in which the cannabis is produced.
I interviewed the farmers about the environmental factors of each place, like the soil, topography, and climate, and also about the farm’s standards, practices and noteworthy varietals. It was an opportunity for farmers to articulate the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to their cannabis by its environment, and we’re talking about full sun, full term cannabis planted in some percentage of native soil.
Putting terroir in words goes hand-in-hand with the topic of cannabis appellations, especially since California’s new cannabis regulations contain a directive for the California Department of Food an Agriculture (CDFA) to establish a process for licensed cultivators to establish appellations for standards, practices, and varietals applicable to cannabis grown in a certain geographic area by January, 2021.
Click back to the first installment of this series, Local Appellation Exploration: Whitethorn Valley Farm, for more information about the CDFA’s CalCannabis Appellations Project and an in-depth treatment of Whitethorn terroir.
This week, we turn inland and north to Sunboldt Grown in Holmes. Stay tuned over the coming weeks to experience NorthCountry Farms near Hayfork in Trinity County, Sun Roots Farm near Covelo in Mendocino County, and Moon Made Farms on the east side of Southern Humboldt.
Holmes is a flat and open riverside community off of the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt County, a point bar that was long ago cleared of its dense redwood forest, stumps and all. (A point bar is an alluvial deposit formed by accretion on the inner side of an expanding loop of a river; in this case, the Eel River.)
After the timber industry had its way with Holmes, it became an agricultural hot spot, and during the 1900s, the community gained an esteemed reputation for its apples, pears, cherries, vegetables and flowers. (Hat tip to local historian Jerry Rohde for the background on Holmes.)
These days, Holmes and its surrounding communities are still home to fruit and vegetable producers, but now there are licensed cannabis farms in the mix. Sunboldt Grown is one such farm with 10,000 square feet of outdoor cultivation, and, like other agricultural producers in the area, Owner-Operator Sunshine Johnston is dry farming her crops.
Dry farming means that once the plants come out of the nursery and go into the ground, they do not receive any water at all. “In fact,” Johnston says, “watering is not good.” Last year was her first time dry farming, and she felt like she was taking on a pretty good risk.
To be cautious, she dry farmed half of her crop and watered the rest, eventually finding that the plants that received water, such as her Wanderlust, did not do as well as the dry farmed plants. “I had very low yield for the Wanderlust,” she says. “And the Wanderlust is my producer.”
This year, Johnston is dry farming her entire crop, and she expects big Wanderlust buds and a healthy crop in general, as opposed to the smaller buds that came off of last year’s watered plants. This may seem counterintuitive, but dry farming works because on hot days water comes up to meet root systems via capillary action, the upward movement of moisture in the soil.
“There’s plenty of water,” Johnston says of her locale, and cites her “insanely juicy” melons that grow on the outskirts of the cannabis cultivation area as proof.
This is not a new or unconventional farming method for this community. In his forthcoming book Southern Humboldt Hinterlands (MountainHome Books, Eureka), Jerry Rohde presents the following passage regarding the years immediately following the intensive logging era at Holmes:
“John Hoffman was ‘the first rancher to improve property at… [Holmes] and make a home there. Taking advantage of the rich riverside soil that had formerly produced mammoth redwoods, Hoffman annually harvested five crops of alfalfa — without having to irrigate…'”
The Sunboldt Grown cultivation area is set in a level meadow bordered on one side by a blackberry bramble. The redwoods are not far off, just beyond an adjacent meadow. Vultures hover at the edge of the tree line serving as an audience to Johnston as she walks the rows, checking Ringo’s Gift flowers for ripeness. Cosmos, marigolds, basil and Eel River melon vines are scattered about the cultivation area. Colorful flowers and basketball-sized melons bask in the afternoon light. A large apple tree stands nearby, a ring of fallen fruit at its feet.
When we sit down and get to talking, Johnston tells me about first time she saw the former horse pasture that is now the cultivation space, how she thought, “It just looked so perfect… I didn’t want to mess it up.”
To prep the field for planting, she brought in a ripper to fracture the ground, to break it into big chunks. Winter came and went; then spring brought an amazing field of tall grass. She mowed the field, disked it then plowed, essentially flipping the grass in to fertilize. When she started digging holes about five weeks later, the grass was completely assimilated.
After a soil test to check for organic matter and any deficiencies, she amended with a minimal amount of bio char, some powdered basalt, “a handful of the neighbors compost” and some worm castings. Fertilizing beyond her initial adjuncts would be an unnecessary expense, so she doesn’t do it. “I don’t want to taste fertilizer anyway,” she says. The idea is that by adding no water and no fertilizer, Johnston is truly capturing the terroir.
When Johnston puts words to the Holmes terroir, she says, “It’s the proximity to the coast and the periodic river fog in the mornings and coastal fog in the evenings… It’s the redwood trees and the microorganisms that live in the soil. It’s the cows in the nearby pasture, the blackberry bramble and all of the apple and pear trees that grow in Holmes Flat.”
“And it’s not just that these things are affecting the cannabis grow,” she continues. “The cannabis grow is affecting everything else around it.” She punctuates her train of thought with a caveat here, saying that to define any given terroir is subjective, and it’s not easy — it’s the entire environment and how everything in it interrelates.
“It’s one of those things where you just have to do a lot of tasting.”
The ripening hormones in the air at harvest time also play a role. “The blackberry is ripening and putting off hormones. The flowers, the apples, the pears, the melons — they’re putting off ethylene gas.” All of this contributes to the vintage of the cannabis as well, given that each full term harvest is unique to that particular year.
Turning back to more quantifiable considerations, the elevation of Holmes is low, on the order of 150 feet. In terms of climate, Holmes is more moderate than Garberville-Redway — a bit cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Johnston says the rainfall is more moderate too. “It’s like there’s this circle and the rain will be falling all around, but it won’t be landing here.”
Still, all of the water in the Eel River drainage passes through here, given that Holmes is below the confluence of the Main Stem and the South Fork of the Eel River. It does get windy, Johnston says, but it’s not too bad. She uses a lightweight row crop cover to protect her Loopy Fruit though, since it has a big delicate bud. The wind can still pass through, but it lessens the intensity of the sun, wind and fall squall rains.
The sun is sinking and shadows grow long as we start to talk about drying, curing and processing. “You actually craft the product when you harvest it,” Johnston says, and adds that processing is all about sorting. Sunboldt Grown buds are shucked for hash, and usually both branches and whole plants are hang-dried. For drying infrastructure, Johnston uses temporary tents covered with waterproof, breathable black tarps, plus desiccant dehumidifiers and a baseboard heater, if needed. She does a 24-hour long quick dry, then 7-12 days of curing.
This year the Sunboldt Grown cannabis garden includes Wanderlust and Chronic Freedom, both original crosses, plus Loopy Fruit (Blackberry Kush X Willy’s Wonder) and Rebel Moon, formerly known as NorCal Diesel, a fuel strain with “wonderful complexity,” Johnston says. The aforementioned Ringo’s Gift is a CBD-dominant strain, the former Lawrence Ringo’s namesake from the SoHum Seed Company. The harvest will go to both flower and hash production, with a small portion designated for hash-and-flower prerolls.
Johnston is pragmatic and frank yet quick to expound on the enchanting environment of Holmes and its relationship with her crops. It’s heartening to hear that she is consciously crafting products that capture the essence of the land, all the while navigating California’s new legal market.
I’ve come to think of Johnston as a benevolent alchemist… When I first interviewed her in 2015 for the Pot Talk column in Emerald Magazine, she told me about her fresh cannabis infusions with coconut oil and honey and fresh extracts into homemade hempseed milk. She told me about her green drink called “Amrita, the Drink From the Sea of Green” with freshly juiced raw bud, hempseed and pineapple juice. She shared some of her wild-fermented nettle drink. And she told me how she was using 100% cotton breathable fabric for her deps.
It’s this kind of creativity and reverence for the natural world that makes Johnston an interesting farmer to learn about, definitely the kind of mind you want behind a boutique cannabis farm. She pilots Sunboldt Grown with a reverence for the land, land that was once home to towering redwood trees, land with a historic reputation for producing epic Humboldt crops.