Local Appellation Exploration: NorthCountry Farms, Hayfork
This is the third installment in a five-part series exploring the diverse range of environments for local cannabis farms in the Emerald Triangle. We are heading east to NorthCountry Farms near Hayfork in Trinity County, the Triangle’s most remote and sparsely populated component.
Click back to the first installment: Local Appellation Exploration: Whitethorn Valley Farm, for an in-depth treatment of Whitethorn terroir and more information on the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s CalCannabis Appellations Project, the agency tasked with establishing a process for licensed cultivators to establish cannabis appellations by January, 2021.
In the second installment: Local Appellation Exploration: Sunboldt Grown in Holmes, cultivator Sunshine Johnston tells us about dry farming cannabis in a well-known agricultural community near the Main Stem of the Eel River.
The legal framework for establishing appellations is still in the works, and it is important to remember this series was undertaken in the spirit of future appellation development. Each installment focuses on the varying environmental factors of local farms, plus standards, practices and noteworthy varietals.
I invited farmers to put words to their terroir – both the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to their cannabis by its environment and the complete natural environment in which their cannabis is produced. And we’re talking full sun, full term cannabis planted in some percentage of native soil.
Stay tuned over the coming weeks for the final two installments in the series – Sun Roots Farm near Covelo in Mendocino County and Moon Made Farms on the east side of Southern Humboldt.
It’s a bit of a trip to get out to Hayfork from the Humboldt Coast, especially with the ongoing daily closure of Highway 36. My travel companions and I leave before dawn and as we approach the federal construction zone, the sky lightened with sunrise, KEKA Thunder Country setting the vibe. Once we’re in Trinity County, we take Highway 3 north, past Salt Creek, 13 Dips Road and a bunch of weed farms in plain view.
Destination: NorthCountry Farms, a permitted cannabis cultivation site in Barker Valley, slightly northeast of downtown Hayfork. Owner-Operator Adrien Keys and his partner Angelina Wright cultivate full term outdoor cannabis, and they have invited me out to experience some Trinity terroir.
While Trinity is by and large a rugged place, dominated by steep and forested terrain, the small town of Hayfork is more pastoral, set in a sprawling golden valley with an abundance of oaks and much agricultural history, as I later learn.
For one thing, settlers in the mid-1850s dubbed their village “Hayfork” because of the massive amount of hay production in the area. Furthermore, Hayfork settlers “supplied most of the grain and produce to the northern county mines.” (Trinity Pictorial: A Photo Essay of Trinity County, NCP Publications, Weaverville, 1975.)
The Susie Baker Fountain Papers housed at the Eureka branch of the Humboldt County Library contain a vast collection of clippings and materials on local people, activities, and history from 1850-1966. An entry dated August 30, 1856, references Hayfork, calling it a “fine range for animals.” The passage then refers to the “excellent soil” and fine produce at a ranch in the area, saying, “We found their crops of corn, potatoes, melons and all sorts of garden vegetables in a flourishing state; and their barley, which was harvested appeared to be an excellent growth.”
The NorthCountry Farms parcel is a beautiful and undulating landscape covered with pale perished grass, punctuated by graceful white oaks and scores of fallen acorns. It is indeed zoned for agriculture and hosted cattle for decades, but when Keys and Wright took ownership about three years ago, they inherited a grow mess from their immediate predecessor, including about 150 randomly scattered smart pots.
Keys and Wright don’t cultivate that way – their plants are growing directly in the ground within a consolidated 10,000 square foot plot. This is cultivation with a long view; their healthy soil and appropriate water use will translate into high quality and sustainable crops for years to come.
A patch of sunflowers is stationed just inside the entrance to the cultivation area, with throngs of attendant bees crowding the flowers. The garden has a certain peace to it; the exposed ground is a deep ochre color, indicating richness and brawn. The cannabis plants are cheerful and lively, filled out but more on the compact side. It’s like, they were at my level, as opposed to being monstrous and hyper-fertilized.
This location comes in at about 2,500 feet in elevation. Average rainfall is close to 40″ per year, but high elevation snow is what counts here, serving to recharge groundwater for a solid water supply in the summer.
Topographically, Barker Valley is one in a series of southerly-trending valleys running perpendicular to Highway 3, leading toward a ridge of hills to the north. Hayfork Bally is also due north and measures 6,000+ feet, perceptibly influencing the environment. South Fork Mountain to the west is one of the longest continuous ridgelines in North America, a significant geographical split serving to block wet weather from the coast.
The temperature swings here tend toward the extreme, with end of summer temps ranging from the low 30s in the morning to the mid-90s by late afternoon. Keys and Wright find these extremes to be a positive form of stress, helping to minimize pest and disease problems. The extreme summertime aridity minimizes botrytis and powdery mildew, as well. The extremes also stunt the plants to some degree, hence their more compact size.
Wright calls their garden “super clean,” with their main pest management strategy pleasantly limited to the deployment of beneficial bugs this season. Thrips were a factor this season, but since they’re not very strong and they don’t travel well, “we just blasted them off the plant with well water,” Keys says. No big deal with the arid climate. Plus, the plants were totally into it.
The native soil is decidedly clay, and to prep for their first season, they turned it out with a skid steer. They mixed in some amendments and a large amount of compost and found their seemingly dismal clay soil has a raging appetite for organic material. It’s actually quite lively, chewing up compost with a fierceness and boasting the borderline idiosyncratic ability to both retain water and drain well.
This past year they mulched heavily at the start the season with straw and “chopped-and-dropped” cover crops. Over the winter they plan to cover crop with more legumes, with Wright saying, “We really need to generate a lot of biomass here because the soil can take it.”
Their garden includes Lemon Sugar Kush, Mother’s Milk, Blueberry, Key Lime and Pineapple varieties. Their CBD-rich Ringo’s Gift plants are earmarked for a North Bay manufacturer named Cosmic View, whose product line includes topicals and tinctures infused with wild-crafted or organic herbs in Northern California extra virgin olive oil.
Wright and Keys have a line of Durban Poison crosses they’ve been working on for years, a line selected for this environment. One such stabilized cross is dubbed Ikanbe, a 1:1 strain named for the Zulu word for remedy or cure – an homage to the native people of South Africa.
Their Durban Poison and Pineapple will be made into rosin, which Keys describes as one of the cleanest and most natural expressions of cannabis “coming straight from the flower and into the pens,” a true expression of terroir.
Their garden also includes a Purple Mango heirloom strain from Hyampom, more of a rarity since Trinity heirlooms are not as freely circulated as they are in Humboldt or Mendocino counties. People have been growing here for a long time, Wright says, but they were more like loggers back in the day, not so much back-to-the-land hippie types. “They have a different style.”
And that cultural divide exists to this day. The remoteness of Trinity contributes to this gulf, of course. So does its sparse population – there are more people in Arcata than in Trinity County. “The people in Denny don’t know what’s happening in Hettenshaw, or care,” Keys says.
Another big difference between Trinity and its Emerald Triangle counterparts is its lack of cannabis infrastructure. Trinity doesn’t have a cohesive business advocacy group akin to the Humboldt County Growers Alliance, and it doesn’t have distribution companies, manufacturing facilities or testing labs.
Trinity County did pass a manufacturing ordinance in August, and Planning Department Administrative Coordinator Rachel Wood tells me via email that manufacturing applications are open through the Conditional Use Permit Process. However, as of November 28, she is not yet aware of any applications, but one distribution applicant was set to go before the Planning Commission on the 29th.
All of this means that Wright and Keys have to work harder to get their product out. They have to find people who appreciate and understand boutique production (like Cosmic View), and that’s not necessarily what’s happening with out-of-area buyers.
“We get solicited endlessly for trim, but we can’t just grow just trim. It’s maybe a third of our total harvest,” says Keys. When a distributor or retailer says they only want to work with the small craft farms, but they need 2,000 pounds… That doesn’t make sense. Small farms are actually small farms; boutique is actually boutique.
While they are finding that some business entities need a reality check, the prospect of a formal process for appellation development offers a promising opportunity for community connection. Cultivators are going to have to work together; this will be way to rekindle relationships that have come and gone over the years, to put them into a format that’s going to have more legs.
Wright says there is a high concentration of permitted farms in their area – “Hopefully we can come together.” And so they are actively engaging licensed cultivators close to home and in the broader community, starting a needed discourse about what local appellations could look like.
Keys and Wright are finding that some people are worn out from being mired in the permitting process for years, but on the whole, people are excited about the prospect of being able to focus on more agricultural elements of cultivation, to do research that’s specific to their properties and methodologies.
A process for appellation development is on the horizon, and cultivators like Wright and Keys are giving some serious thought to their systems and varieties, to what exactly makes their farms and cannabis products unique. Cannabis cultivators with small farms are in this business because they love growing herb, because they are committed to crafting memorable products.
Keys puts it succinctly when he says their cannabis can be characterized by their high, dry and mineral-rich environment. The expression of their Barker Valley terroir is only compounded by the leanness of their operation – their moderate water usage and organic, unprocessed inputs.
“It’s completely different herb.”