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.

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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.

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44 comments

  • Very good read Emily, thank you.

  • Great series! Thank you for doing it!

  • I remember when this family moved up in the early 80’s after Agnes’s career as a popular activist DJ in Los Angeles. Most of The husbands use to play cards together. This property could have been won or lost in one of those card games.

    • Jorge you must be having a few “senior”moments. I first came up here in the late 60’s but when I left LA in 1970 I ended up staying in San Luis Obispo Co for 10 years forming and starting anti nuke groups to stop Diablo Cyn Nuclear Power plant from going on line. I also had successful stained glass and photography businesses while working for the post office. It all came to an end when working for the PO I had a terrible horrible car accident that took 8-9 operations to put me back together. When I was healed enough I moved up here in 1980. I never had any husbands or boyfriends who played cards! Maybe you are thinking about people who owned the property before my daughter and her husband bought it over 6 years ago.

  • I like stars too!

    Impressed by the idea that pot can be grown without irrigation, and in native soil. Next, I would like to see weed grown without plastics used for ANY purpose, without any diesel fuel consumed for any reason, and within 100 miles of the consumer!

    Good luck!

    • Do you lead a plastic free life yourself?

      • Groba dude trustafarian osnt

        Of course! Plastic should be illegal.
        Amazing how money wins out over health and ecology, every time.

        And, really, everyone should stop pretending that pot is essential, beneficial and valuable. You grow drugs, for humans that want to get fucked-up. For money. The end…

        • Plastic was made out of hemp long before “fossil fuel” oil. Pun intended.

          Disposing of solar panels is more of a problem imho. Plus, with the sun blocked, i wouldn’t be putting much weight on solar panels -and then there’s the birds flying over catching their wings on fire.

          Tesla’s genius was over a hundred years ago. Phukk solar panels along with the fed credit that puts them in place. Ditto “wind farms”.

        • Since the dawn of humankind, our brains have developed cannabinoid receptors. Without it, we suffer cannabinoid deprivation. The remedy to so many health epidemics like cancer, seizures, and various maladies, is cannabis. It’s not a drug, it’s plant medicine, and it’s obvious you are lacking..

          • Finally, not a dumb ass prohibitionist. THANK YOU!

          • Groba dude trustafarian osnt

            Jilly, dear,

            Your statement is misguided and incorrect!

            Endogenous cannabinoid receptors have to do with appetite and have no ability to affect disease.

            Using cannabis mostly overwhelms the endogenous receptors and the high you experience is toxicity only!

            • groba dude trustafarian osnt

              Toxicity, and effects from the 200 other chemicals contained in cannabis smoke!

              Cannabis withdrawal may feel like sickness, but the discomfort will subside in a few weeks, and no disease from having “empty receptors” will result…

              Smoking cannabis gets you stupid, but it’s all merely overdose!

              A scholarly paper re: endogenous cannabiniods:

              https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4789136/

              Also, continuous cannabis use can degrade and cause mutation of the endogenous cannabinoid system, specifically the receptors, and cause derangement of normal function, which is implicated in behavioral disorders such as overeating, schizophrenia, and other mental health disorders.

          • Our brains also have opioid receptors

    • They use bio diesel out there

    • I’ll second that!
      I do type this from a plastic computer with no sense of irony. I use the computer to communicate, not to farm a product i will be ingesting into my increasingly, unwillingly polluted body.

    • Eel River Organics also dry farms!
      Kudos to the farmers taking the chance to try it and awesome to hear the dry farmed turned out the best!

  • Is this a “specialty cottage” sized operation?

    • I doubt it as those small permits were just made available in last few months.
      The county regs seriously are go big ir go home. I know numerous folks who had to add 8000sqft to their garden just to get a permit, which they hated to do but didnt want to be abated.

      In case folks arent getting it, the huge farms you see ARE the permitted ones. Farmers can also buy permits from other farmers for 250,000 that the county brokers, how many fruends of the supes do you think applued for permit with intention to sell it. Quite a scam

      So the farmer purchasing permit can legally increase by new permit amount. Only you cant get in to see the planner so many are being forced to operate without the right permit because they can’t wait to harvest based on an appt with planner. People i know have gone to office, been told can’t make appt with your planner, sent 12 emails in 6 weeks with no reply. This is with all paperwork done just need them to sign off.
      So then if they harvest without the paperwork theyneed its officially illegal&they could be fined for something theyve done everything right on but the cunty is lagging. If the county wont respond what can they do?
      Just food for thought, its really dumb program on so many levels.

      I wish some of these growers would open a patient only dispensary with low costs, the patients have completely been forgotten. What if your 19 with a legal medical card? Your only choice right now is black market as have to be 21 to go in dispensary.
      I havta buy from undeground market, cant afford dispensary prices. 15% off is nothing.

  • This is beautiful.

  • This dry farming is still water that is being drawn out of the Eel River. Don’t fool yourself with flowery prose. the Eel is a damaged river struggling for survival. I think the State Water Board should require storage and stop allowing withdrawals from the river, especially for non-essential crops like recreational weed so people can get high and goofy. It’s not a good trade-off.

  • Canna corps just bought 290 acres in Covelo and are getting ready to grow GMO even though it is banned in the county. Canada stocks helping fund this operation in our state. Something seems off here.

      • Native American nations, though tiny, were very wealthy. They were so rich in resources that European invaders fell all over themselves, and killed anyone in their way, to see who could grab those resources first. And they are still doing it!
        It’s true that they did not enjoy the advantages of this modern world and all its tools and toys. But the world then was full of food, and the tribal life offered mental health advantages that we’re more and more in need of. By standards of contentment with life, from all i’ve read about first encounters with aboriginal peoples anywhere on the planet, “collectivist” societies were rich in things that mattered.

        • Ah, but that was then ‘rich in the things that mattered’ –and it wasn’t policies– it was common sense.

          Common sense is so uncommon today. It’s the ol scarcity horse-pucky and toilet paper media-blanketing, to create fear. Remember the”peak oil” hype on automatic replay? Today that false slogan has been transferred to “peak water.” This is what i am referring to when i say collectivist policies.

          • groba dude trustafarian osnt

            Now name a nation that became wealthy and successful while all the citizens were stoned!

            Obviously, our country will go down the tubes, while populated by stupid and loaded persons!

            • name a nation that became wealthy and successful while all the citizens were stoned!

              Uh, the U.S.? Cannabis patent remedies were legal and plentiful, and the founding fathers used it, grew it, smoked it. Where do you think they got those crazy ideas about freedom? Geez, know your history, dude.

      • Yeah yeah yeah, but unrestrained greed leads to wealth disparity, environmental disaster and collapse. We are the richest empire ever. Why be so cheap?

      • Getting rich, while destroying the planet’s ability to sustain life seems pretty silly to me. Getting rich should really not be the end game.

      • You keep linking to fake news sites. This particular link goes to Activist Post. A fake news propaganda site. The site was shut down by you tube for violating its community communications guidelines. What is really interesting is that after it was dumped the Russian govt. news site RT came to its defense. How cozy.

        • You, Dave Kirby, keep posting your comments in the wrong spot for a reply. YouTube, Amazon and Googoo teamed together to halt free speech. How cozy.

          The Russians came to America’s aid during the revolution. The Russians burned their homes before Germany Stormtrooping thru in WWII. Otherwise the outcome of WWII would have been much different. So, if the Russians came to the defense of Activist Post, bully for them.

    • this is exactly what we opened ourselves to when we voted in this wonderful “legalization”. I tried warning people and informing them to read through the actual text of the proposition but…everybody wanted to remain in a cult of positivity riding pink unicorns and believe that they would be “free” and “safe” – just like the billionaire author of the proposition intended. Suckers…. Soon you’ll all be safe and free alright!

  • I dry farmed once…..Once!

  • Fabulous article. Thank you, kindly!

  • I can only say that I am generally negative on legal farmers but I like what these guys are doing. All good in my book and I wish there were more farmers like this. I have grown for many years and can’t imagine dry farming a cannabis crop but it is possible in certain areas clearly… not sure about the drying set up it sounds a little hokey, and I think a lot of the final product quality is in the dry and cure process. But hey if it’s working for them all good. I’d be curious to see this dry farmed and shed dried for 24 hour bud:)

  • Really impressive! Well done. #craftcannabis

  • Great story. Back when I was dabbling in the world of legal cannabis it was nice to see Sunshine at events and meetings.

    That farm is about as sustainable, organic, and local as possible and I just really wish Sunboldt Farms the best of luck with everything.

  • Generationfarmshumboldt

    That’s my neighbor. And it’s “wonderbud”. Not “wonderlust”.

  • Great read and beautiful scenes,, all the best to you. Doing us justice. Love to talk about the trip thru the permitting process sometime..

  • Thanks for sharing your knowledge, especially in a clear and engaging way. Beautiful pictures, too. Funny, when I think Humboldt County, sun does not come to mind. Always good to be enlightened.

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