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Emerald Triangle cannabis farmer on glamping, law, and the ever-evolving challenges of the legal weed industry

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John Casali strolled up the curving gravel path lined with large wooden planters on each side. Each planter had a different name painted on its square base.  

“Marlene was my mom,” he said, pointing at the first one, then pausing. The handsome, muscular farmer often takes a moment when referring to his mother — and he talks about her regularly; she passed away in 1997. Huckleberry Hills Farm —  40 acres in the tightly wooded rolling landscape of southern Humboldt County — was once run by her and Casali’s stepfather. The family came here in 1976 when Casali was 8, and has owned and worked the land ever since. Now it belongs to Casali.

“There wasn’t really one thing that you could do in the country, because all the seasons are so short that you had to do multiple different things to survive and make a living,” Casali said. In the winter they cut firewood and sold it in the nearby town of Garberville, like most other local families. In the summers they fished out of Shelter Cove, just 10 miles to the west on the fabled Lost Coast, bringing in salmon, albacore and crabs.

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The family also started growing cannabis, as nearly everyone else around them did. The cannabis gardens now take up about 5,000 square feet in a couple different spaces of the property. The area is, after all, the Emerald Triangle, the heart of a world-renowned cannabis-growing region. A neighbor gave them their first plants. “We got to interact with a lot of the local growers and learn a lot of the different techniques they were doing,” Casali said. “It felt like one big family here.” 

Those bonds are often formed by blood but also through shared tribal rites of passage. In this case, the bond is forged by people living off of the land, creating illegal income as if they are outlaws. Their generations-spanning loyalties have been stress-tested by outside factors over decades. 

But the farmers’ and the region’s resilience may have finally reached a breaking point. Because of federal guideline intransigence, interstate sales have yet to materialize. Additionally, state and county taxes have crippled smaller growers trying to comply legally. In 2022 taxes on cannabis flowers are $10.08 an ounce, the tax on cannabis leaves is $3, and the tax on cannabis plant material is $1.41. The levies don’t stop there. The state also imposes a 7.25% sales tax and a 15% excise tax.  The tax burdens are compounded by inconsistency in local ordinances which have created a dearth of legal cannabis retailers in California — only two per 100,000 population — squeezing growers’ market options. In contrast in cannabis legal states such as Oregon, Washington and Colorado the ratio is about 18 retailers per 100,000.

Finally, growers must pay for third-party testing to certify their cannabis has the THC and CBD levels they claim without pesticide residues or the heavy metal traces nobody wants in products they will put in their bodies. 

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The costs add up, but nonetheless, there was a glut of cannabis on the market in 2021. Wholesale prices fell from $1,000 – $1,200 to $400 – $500 per pound. Specialized growers like Casali, who produce unique strains developed over generations, are being nudged out of the supply chain. Several prominent independent growers left the legal market after last year, with numerous others saying privately that this year will be their last if conditions don’t change. Current laws favor larger heavily capitalized agri-business producers who want to homogenize the market into similarly profiled high THC flowers. Think about what happened to Chardonnay once the buttery, over-oaked versions started selling. 

This specificity of plants in the terroir (the composition of the dirt, exposure to sun and wind), unique strains and their crosses passed down among generations are major components of the small farmer contributions that could be lost if large corporations took over growing to create crops with uniform characteristics. 

At an anti-taxation rally on the steps of the state Capitol on Jan. 13, 2022, Casali carried a small cannabis plant with him to media interviews. It worked like a magnet for the television reporters who kept telling him to lift it higher into the shot. The gaggle of independent farmers and distributors from across the state cheered Casali loudly when he approached the microphone as a featured speaker. Casali knows whereof he speaks, and his voice means something to these people.

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Smaller growers feel like the squeeze they’re in is intentional. Casali puts his head down and pushes through the interference. He has been negotiating with local Humboldt officials, having ZOOM meetings with the state (he received a text from Nicole Elliott, California Director of Cannabis Control as we talked at his kitchen counter)  while also doing all the work and business of running a small farm with just his girlfriend and business partner, Rose Moberly, who lives with him.

“His dedication and devotion to this plant and to his community is unparalleled,” Tina Gordon told me. Gordon runs the neighboring Moon Made Farm and has followed a similarly challenging path to organic fully compliant legal cannabis farming. Casali is the first person she calls on the tough days. “Talk about a generous spirit, incredibly generous human being,” Gordon said.

HHF features organic connoisseur-grade sun-grown and (some) mixed-light cannabis from a farm which is “Sun + Earth” certified (holistically, responsibly, and regeneratively grown), “Fish Friendly” (a comprehensive approach to environmentally friendly land management certified by the Department of Fish and Game). Willie Nelson even chose a strain of Casali’s flower for his own eponymous brand of reserve cannabis. 

Casali pointed out geographical growing differences across the state, noting Southern California has flat property much different from the hills and valleys of coastal Northern California. There’s a larger workforce that can farm with more automation — tractors and ground tilling machines, which can’t be used here. In Salinas (Monterey County), there are greenhouse factories turning over up to four seasons of crops per year using artificial lighting systems and synthetic fertilizers.

“Up here, in the Emerald Triangle, we’re a little bit different,” Casali said. “We have a different type of product, and we believe that it really requires us to be hands-on.” It really is craft cannabis unique to the individual farm, more time intensive and expensive to cultivate and bring to market. 

This type of farming involves the kind of nurturing Casali learned as a kid and eventually put into practice as a teenager when he was finally allowed to grow his own plants in a Humboldt rite of passage.

“It requires you to touch every single leaf and every single plant, and really develop a relationship with those plants to really, truly understand their needs,” Casali said. “I know that sounds a little funky, but you can learn what each and every different strain that you’re growing needs, or wants, or is lacking.”

The operation is completely legal — compliant with the byzantine laws and regulations imposed by federal, state and local regulatory agencies. It wasn’t always this way.

In 1992, the 25-year-old Casali was arrested, along with best friend and growing partner Todd Wick, on his family’s farm. 30-gun toting federal agents showed up at his doorstep and put him in handcuffs for growing weed. “We just understood, having grown up here in Humboldt County, that everybody we knew grew pot, and nobody I knew ever went to jail for growing pot,” Casali said. “Maybe you would get busted and you would get probation. If the consequences were just probation, the possibility of having a free lifestyle by having that ability to grow illegally was there, we thought the risk was worth the reward.” 

A protracted legal case followed in which Casali and Wick spent countless days driving to San Francisco for court appearances before they were finally incarcerated. Due to “War On Drugs” mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, they were sentenced to  10 years, which was eventually reduced to eight. Before the conviction, Casali was told he could serve no time if he cooperated with the authorities telling them where other illegal gardens were located. He declined the offer. Casali was jailed for seven years at Lompoc and then spent a year in a halfway house. After more than 3,000 days of incarceration, Casali was freed and returned home to Humboldt in 2000.

Though his farm was in need of attention it was still there and still his. Friends had kept the particular Huckleberry Hills strains alive for him should he want to get back into growing. Though Casali and Wick started a landscaping business when they returned to Humboldt they eventually returned to cannabis, their love and vocation. 

In organized forums, media interviews and at legislative hearings, Casali has become an impassioned force for cannabis normalization, the idea that cannabis consumption need not be demonized. It’s a wildly ironic turnaround for someone who grew up hiding his business from the general public. He’s done his time and feels he has nothing to lose.

Casali’s mother, Marlene, is acknowledged as the first cultivator of the influential Fruitloopz strain. Strains are often crossed to merge effects, and Fruitloopz soon yielded Paradise Punch, which after 45 years is still the basis for whatever Casali features during a particular growing season. 

“The genetics that he creates there and what’s been passed on from his mom, his family and neighbors — it’s a very strong community link,” Gordon said. “There’s a heritage piece there. There’s a legacy piece there. This is life’s work.” 

Casali and Gordon both believe small farmers must emphasize the uniqueness of their cultivations with small-batch reserve brands in the same way wineries do with reserve offerings of special wines made from their best grapes.

As we hiked up the sloping path toward the farm’s partially protected grow house, Casali mentioned that the gravel and bark were put down because of Humboldt County hospitality regulations. The farm has been recently licensed for commercial tourism, and Casali has made numerous improvements making the farm more visitor-friendly. He points out the four enormous water tanks above the greenhouse that feed the farm its water. The tanks store water harvested from Casali’s rainwater catchment system, which includes two ponds (with trout) near the bottom of the property. Solar-powered pumps then push the water up the hill, and gravity allows it to be directed back to where Casali needs it. 

Despite what often feels more like deliberate obstruction than prudent regulation, along with the time and money spent to meet codes designed for other businesses, not the specifics of cannabis cultivation or retailing, Casali holds no animosity.

“I feel the only way we survive is if we educate regulators, and we interact and build bridges with fish and wildlife, and all these different agencies,” Casali said. “I really truly believe it can’t be about them and us, like it’s always been, and it has to be about all of us.” 

And he absolutely means “all.” He doesn’t resent the illegal growers, many of whom are his neighbors as well. To him, they are all still part of the same close-knit Humboldt cannabis family.

“Most of them are not willing, able or feel capable of sharing their stories,” Casali said. There is still a sense they could be jeopardizing their families.  “They still don’t feel comfortable enough, for whatever reason, to share too much with anybody.”

It is precisely because of what happened to him that Casali puts himself out in the spotlight.

“I feel obligated to represent or be that voice that shares my story, which can be interpreted as being all of our story,” Casali said. “What happened to me could happen to any one of us. I feel obligated to help make change in a positive direction that can enable us to survive.”

 

Marcus Crowder is a Northern California-based writer.