Local Appellation Exploration: Sun Roots Farm, Covelo
Co-Owners Forrest Gauder and Patricia Vargas are holistic farmers growing cannabis in the ground amongst a myriad of other herbs, fruits, vegetables and farm critters. They are cultivating strains with Jah Goo genetics, a localized family heirloom that started with Gauder’s brother Mike about 10 years ago.
Gauder and Vargas welcomed me to their farm in mid-October to talk about their land and their standards, practices and varietals for the fourth-installment my five-part series about cannabis farms in diverse Emerald Triangle locales.
The series was undertaken in the spirit of future cannabis appellation development, and with the goal of putting words to terrior – both the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to cannabis by its environment and the complete natural environment in which cannabis is produced.
The first installment of the series features Whitethorn Valley Farm and background 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.
The second installment is all about Sunboldt Grown in Holmes, where cultivator Sunshine Johnston dry farms cannabis in a well-known agricultural community on the Main Stem of the Eel River.
The third installment takes us to NorthCountry Farm near Hayfork to meet Adrien Keys and Angelina Wright, cultivators working with surprisingly dynamic clay soil on old cattle grazing land.
This is not a scientific series. It is a chance for readers to step into a handful of cannabis farms in diverse yet local places through images and words. The fifth and final installment will feature Moon Made Farms on the east side of Southern Humboldt. Stay tuned!
Walking into the Sun Roots Farm cannabis gardens felt more like entering an apple orchard. At the time of my visit in mid-October, their mature cannabis plants were 12-15 feet in height (some taller) with canopies of equatorial-esque circumference, giant buds and substantial trunks.
Sun Roots Farm Co-Owners Forrest Gauder and Patricia Vargas practice biodynamic farming, which Vargas describes in uncomplicated terms as Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of creating living soil. They view the systems on their farm as an interconnected whole, not only influenced by what is happening on the earthly plane, but also by what is happening in the cosmos.
They are all about closing the loop on their farm, which means sourcing what they need from the land and not bringing in outside materials, if at all possible. Gauder and Vargas have a ritualistic approach, taking lunar phases and planetary cycles into account when planting, feeding and tending their gardens.
They grow from seed and cut clones from their own seed plants. All of their cultivars have Jah Goo genetics (Purple Jasmine X Af Goo); as such, they are descended from phenotypes that showed traits suited to this particular environment. For example, their cultivars demonstrate a looser bud structure, as opposed to dense, compact nugs. This is more ideal for resistance to mold. This season’s varieties include Silver Goo, Strawberry Goo, Candy Goo (Candy Land X Jah Goo), Velvet Purps and Magic Bus.
Throughout the growing season, they provide their plants with specifically formulated preparations, which can include yarrow, valerian, chamomile, stinging nettle and horsetail plant. Each ingredient has different purposes and properties, and everything is sourced on their land. For example, Vargas describes valerian as warming, so “it brings a warmth and a light to your plants.”
They even stir the preparations in a specific way while making them, creating “vortex and chaos” in the water. All of this is done with intention and in harmony with the cosmos and as a complement to compost and mulching practices. Their system inputs include hemp stalks, green material that they scythe from the property, third cuttings of alpaca fleece (yes, they have alpacas), leaf mold and leaves from various trees on the property.
In keeping with the character of Round Valley their land is flat, but the diversity of plant life contained therein is anything but. Established trees include corkscrew willow, ash, birch, walnut, valley oaks and fruitless mulberries. Cultivated herbs include ashwagandha, chamomile, mallow, mullein, Echinacea, zinnia, comfrey and white sage. They have grapes, apple trees and vegetable gardens.
Their soil is obviously quite fertile; Gauder calls it “real nice chocolate topsoil [with] lots of worms and life.” Gauder and Vargas have been planting in the same holes for years, “building them up,” and they don’t till, using Meadow Creature broadforks instead to gently loosen the soil up in advance of planting.
Through the UC Davis California Soil Resource Lab’s SoilWeb Apps, I learned that the soil at this location belongs to the Mollisols order which the University of Idaho Department of Soil and Water Systems “Twelve Soil Orders” site describes as,
…the soils of grassland ecosystems. They are characterized by a thick, dark surface horizon. This fertile surface horizon… results from the long-term addition of organic materials derived from plant roots. Mollisols are among some of the most important and productive agricultural soils in the world and are extensively used for this purpose.
(Hat tip to Redheaded Blackbelt commenter “Matthew Meyer” for pointing me in the direction of this portal to incredibly detailed information about soils all over the United States.)
People didn’t need modern science to arrive at such a strong conclusion. The History of Mendocino County, California text originally published in 1880 describes the soil of Round Valley as “a very rich, black loam, a great deal of it being reclaimed marsh land, which is by far the most productive in the state.” (Original imprint: Alley, Bowen & Co., San Francisco; quoted from the Mendocino County Historical Society’s 1967 reprint.)
More on their environment: The landscape beyond the gardens is a grassy savannah leading to a ring of mountains at the valley’s edge. Elevation here is about 1,400 feet. Summers are hot; temperatures can top 100 degrees. Winters are cold; temperatures bottom out in the teens. The mountains get snow, and sometimes it snows in the valley, maybe a couple times a year. Average rainfall is 42 inches.
Harvest season is milder, averaging between 70-80 degrees during the day, and, in keeping with summer, harvest time temperature swings on the order of 30-40 degrees. Gauder and Vargas find that Round Valley gets its own weather, especially in the wintertime when there is a “sit down” of moisture coming off the mountains, creating a dense fog on the valley floor.
Round Valley is surrounded on all sides by wilderness; it’s an island in an upland sea. The Mendocino National Forest lies to the north and east; the Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness is contained therein. Anthony Peak is east; Poon Kinney is west; Bluenose Ridge is north; and the Sanhedrin Wilderness and its Big Signal Peak access are south. The Middle Fork Eel skirts the south end of the valley; the confluence with its tributary Black Butte River is east.
There is much to see when you look out from Sun Roots Farm. Now let’s turn back in to hear how polyculture is the backbone of their pest control strategy. Plant and soil health is achieved through fostering a complex web of life, including beneficial insects like the hover fly, mycorrhizal fungi and trap plants. Gauder and Vargas minimize bad actors by nurturing life that is advantageous to their gardens.
Bugs will always be a factor, Vargas says, but they never spray with harsh chemicals, since whatever they spray will cycle right back into their well water supply, which Gauder describes as clean and delicious right out of the spigot. They want to keep it that way.
So when aphids popped up this season – a first for Sun Roots Farm, Gauder and Vargas sprayed with things like lactobacillus, milk and vinegar to reduce the population. They also used high-pressured water to knock the aphids down. They experiment and adapt, trying different companion plants or natural materials that uplift their garden in the face of disease.
It is harvest season at the time of my visit, and we talk about what goes into deciding to start taking a plant down. First and foremost, Vargas says, the plants will just tell you when they’re ready. But you have to listen and know what to look for. Rain in the forecast, trichome color, broken branches or the presence of mold also come into play. Ultimately, they view the farm as her own entity; so they follow her flow.
After drying, they buck the plant material down into airtight food safe bins, then cure for at least 6 weeks in a temperature-controlled room. They flip the plant material maybe once during this time, but not more. “The less we touch it the better,” Vargas says. And cleanliness is paramount – “We don’t touch anything without our biodegradable gloves.”
And thus the product goes out to be trimmed and sold, marking the final part of the season in which the strands of their garden’s unique storyline are drawn together. The nature of the farm plus all of the efforts and decisions made over the year will be expressed in the final product, which is primarily wholesale flower.
Vargas says they are “fortunate” that their flowers are typically rated AAA, but these consistent top-notch ratings are not due to chance. The vigor of their plants and quality of their flowers is a testament to the effectiveness of their biodynamic methodologies and the fact that they put in a lot of time — each plant receives attention on a daily basis, and it shows.
I think people can relate to their commitment to minimizing outside inputs and closing the loop on their land when Vargas puts it this way: “If you really want to tune in, preserve your land and help the environment, it’s important to get down on a local level and appreciate the things that are [there] already.”
The Sun Roots Farm is an abundant place; there is a lot to appreciate. And via legally distributed Sun Roots Farm branded cannabis products, consumers from out of the area can connect with this place, with their soil, fresh air and diverse garden, with their distinctly Northern Mendocino terroir.