Many of us hardly stop to think about where our weed comes from. Beyond the standard plastic bag exchange, marijuana’s origins generally remain a mystery. So, when I connected with a handful of cannabis farmers to better understand their lives I hardly knew what to expect. My mind flashed between media headlines — ‘marijuana grow disguised as furniture store,’ or ‘cannabis farm fronts as cherry factory.’ Yet, I stumbled onto an entirely different culture — one comprised of spiritual folks and avid farmers working with everything from indoor rooms to acres of sun-kissed land.
So, here’s a chance to get to know five different cannabis farmers, some of which may have grown the greens you last toked.
Nikki and Swami, Laytonville
Photo courtesy of Genaro Molina
For some marijuana farmers, cultivating medicine goes well beyond the physical realm. Nikki, in her 60s, and Swami, 72, epitomize that kind of spiritual connectivity. Their 190-acre Laytonville ranch is far more a cannabis farm — it’s a sanctuary. The entrance to the property hosts divine statues from all religious traditions, ranging from Ganesh and Shiva to Jesus and Buddha.
“We feel that’s our insurance — having all these goddesses around here,” Nikki jokes.
While they’ve been growing cannabis in Laytonville for the past 11 years, the pair has strong ties to San Francisco. Nikki, a fourth-generation San Franciscan spent much of her early life in the city, working at The San Francisco Chronicle. Swami, an original hippie of the Summer of Love, moved to San Francisco from the east coast after college. He grew his first cannabis crop on Telegraph Hill, a scene bookended by views of Coit Tower and the Bank of America building.
The couple later lived near the Himalayan region of India, where Swami notes many popular marijuana strains originate from. Twelve years ago the couple settled in Mendocino County and began cultivating cannabis after working with Tim Blake founder of Area 101. For the last 11 years, the pair has grown outdoor cannabis and also serve as judges for the marijuana industry’s annual Emerald Cup.
Known for their brand, Swami Select, the couple organically grows twenty-five plants and up to twelve different strains. Proponents of sun-grown cannabis cultivation, Nikki and Swami feel that growing alongside nature expands the plants’ capacity.
“We grow in respect, harmony and balance with the environment…so the plant realizes its own divine nature, and so that divinity in the plant can actually fill up and inspire the people using it,” says Swami.
The full-time farmers grow for Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, their own cannabis collective, and also work with Flow Kana, a new farm-to-table cannabis delivery app for San Francisco and Oakland residents. Harvesting a range of plants, some strains come with high cannabidiol (CBD) levels, evoking a more intellectual, spiritual, high. Other strains, like Royal Purple, offer equal parts THC and CBD, which are more common in medicinal use. Although, for Nikki and Swami it’s not just about the numbers — it’s about the whole experience.
“We want to teach the mindfulness of smoking, so you’re very aware what it looks like, what it smells like, what it tastes like — making it an experiential thing, which focuses you in on the beneficial aspects of the cannabis,” says Swami.
Despite their vibrant personalities, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine for these eccentric growers. Like any other farmers, Nikki and Swami deal with destructive mildew and insects, as well as ground squirrels that chew on the plants’ stalks for water amidst the drought. Yet, one of their biggest problems comes from outside their homestead’s ecosystem.
“Any problem you have as a farmer you’re going to have in cannabis, but in cannabis at the moment you have a whole other legal problem of people dropping out of the sky in helicopters and chopping down plants,” says Swami. “We have the legal right to grow this. People need this medicine. They want this medicine… It’s the original medicine.”
Casey O’Neill, Laytonville
Photo courtesy of Flow Kana
Over the last forty years, cannabis growers have been taught to keep their heads down — to avoid attracting attention. Casey O’Neill, owner of HappyDay Farms, isn’t one those of people. Vocal about the rights and legitimacy of his local cannabis community, the thirty-two year-old has become an informal representative for small-scale marijuana farmers.
“This year [our farm] became public about growing cannabis, and it was the first year I could walk around my plants and not be afraid. The difference in that energy was noticeable in the medicine,” says Casey. “It’s a highly emotional thing for me, to finally, for the first time in my life, be able to emerge from this culture of fear.”
Native to Laytonville, Casey is a second-generation cannabis farmer who grew up on the same 20-acre homestead where he currently lives and grows his crops. While he enjoyed his upbringing on the farm, he remembers the raids of the late 1980s. Military helicopters once landed on his property, chopped 30 marijuana plants, and stormed through his home — a scene relatively common for Mendocino County cannabis farmers.
Casey, his partner, Amber, and his parents share the same land parcel. They cultivate approximately 25 cannabis plants and 30–40 different fruit and vegetable crops across two acres. Their range of edibles fuels a year-round farmers market stand, as well as an organic CSA. Casey started growing cannabis outdoors in 2005 after finishing college at Pacific University. In 2011 he and Amber expanded their growing practice by launching the CSA. This sparked a consciousness shift that he wasn’t just a ‘grower,’ but a farmer. Up until last year Casey worked on the farm part-time, supplementing income as a carpenter. Last year the couple took the jump, fully devoting themselves to the homestead.
Casey and Amber operate their own cannabis collective and were the first farmers to partner with Flow Kana’s delivery platform. Casey’s time-intensive process consists of harvesting each plant as an individual. He labels each string with the name of the plant, its strain, where it was located, and the date of harvest. Using computer analytics, he tests the medical efficacy of the 27 varieties he currently grows. He looks forward to spreading the positive energy as his plants make their way through San Francisco neighborhoods.
“It’s a source of energetics…we put good energy into [our cannabis] before putting it out into the world, because it’s a ripple effect. It’s going to make your day better, and you’re going to put that energy into the world.”
Jude, Mendocino County
Meet Jude — an herbalist and first generation cannabis farmer. She and her partner live off the grid on a 100-acre permaculture farm. Striving to create a closed loop system, they run their own electricity, catch their water, and have a humanure system — impressive to say the least.
“It’s like being on a ship. You’re in charge of all the systems and you got to keep it going. You got to keep sailing,” says Jude. “It’s cool, because you don’t take anything for granted. You see where everything comes from and where everything goes.”
Along with running the farm’s infrastructure, Jude and her partner grow 25 organic marijuana plants, 100 different fruit and nut trees, and a vast spectrum of medicinal herbs. She’s been a cannabis farmer and herbalist for over twenty years. While she dabbled in landscaping and vegetable gardening before growing, her cannabis journey didn’t begin until 1993 when she sustained injuries in a serious car accident. After being turned down for disability, she connected with a former client who needed help tending her indoor marijuana farm.
Twenty-two years later, Jude grows a wide range of cannabis strains including Northern Lights and Berry White, a hybrid of Blueberry and White Widow. Although she’s quite involved with breeding CBD rich strains with high THC-dominant strains (resulting in productive, powdery mildew-resistant plants), her core passion sits with the seeds.
“I go pretty crazy about seeds in general — especially the cannabis seeds, because [it’s] such an amazing, combined, inspiring, healing, sacred plant…The cannabis has just been more of the divine force of nature that’s led us here,” says Jude. “We’re partners with [it] to spread this amazing, healing energy around the world.”
Jude’s marijuana ends up in various parts of California — some in San Francisco, some in SoCal, while others are transformed into extracts and concentrates for cancer patients in her local community. Regardless of where it lands, Jude believes in its powerful, healing abilities.
Like other cannabis farmers in her county, the ongoing threat of looming helicopters is quite nerve wracking. Jude and other community members are currently attempting to pass an initiative to change the status of cannabis to an agriculture crop in the eyes of the California government. This would pave a path for business licenses and regulations that help family farms stay in the market, while adhering to specific standards. Until then, she’s says they’re just sitting ducks, but continues to have faith. In the meantime, she focuses on her family farm, a place where her grandchildren, nieces, and nephews visit and learn to grow food and medicine, while visualizing their own ideal livelihoods.
James, San Mateo County
While outdoor growers make up a portion of the cannabis industry, there’s also an abundance of small-scale, urban cultivators like James. This 29-year-old has been growing marijuana for the past 15 years. His interest in cultivating began as a high school student when he decided to grow his own pot instead of buying from others.
“The person who I was buying [cannabis] from didn’t want me to have seeds, so I was up at my uncles’ and was telling him about it. He was like, ‘here you go,’ and handed me some White Widow seeds,” says James.
In his early days, he started out with about 12 plants, some of which were initially grown on his outdoor balcony. As years passed, he moved the cannabis indoors to an enclosed room, adding air circulation and grow lights.
These days, he cultivates anywhere from 20 to 22 plants, which have been sold to Divinity Tree, Green Cross, and The Green Door. His plants include local strains like Cookies, Mad Science, and Mango Trainwreck. Between the trimming, rotating, insect checks, and curing, James spends about 20 to 30 hours a week tending to his greens.
An avid edible gardener, he also grows zucchini, tomatoes, kale, spinach, and corn in a backyard plot. When he’s not managing his plants, he works as a waiter and lends a hand in community gardens. While his cannabis crop is currently indoors, James hopes to take it to the next level in the future.
“My dream garden would be 100% waste free, 100% green with solar and wind turbines, and, lastly, 100% legal,” says James.
By Kimberly Gomes of The Bold Italic. (Article originally appeared here.)
*Some names have been changed to protect the sources’ identity.