Head up a windy dusty road and you’ll eventually be greeted by a horse, some pigs, and a herd of alpacas. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with the father and son duo, Kevin and Will, from Rusty Shovel Ranch. Kevin, a sailor, and his son Will have been operating the lands at Rusty Shovel Ranch for a little under a decade now. What was once an overgrazed junkyard has now been brought to life as one of the most interesting cannabis farms I’ve ever experienced.
I’d like to start with a little history . How long has Rusty Shovel Ranch been operating as a cannabis farm?
Kevin: This is our fifth year on Rusty Shovel Ranch. It’s our seventh year farming in this community. My family – my father and grandfather – came from an agricultural background in Pennsylvania. My grandma lived and died amongst the Amish. Grandma actually grew cannabis, just one or two big huge plants, according to family legend, back in the ’70s. Then my dad, of course, when we moved to California grew a beard, pierced his ear, and we had the backyard crop of horrible water leaf. Now we know better, of course. So we have a generational background in that. We took a 30-year break and went to sea, and sailed wooden boats around the tropics for a while. It was a lot of fun.
Will: My first year in college was 2010. It was that summer that Dad was like, “Hey, come up and work up here and meet some of my friends.” I did, and it kind of just steamrolled. I got excited about farming by coming up here to work, and then I would go back to school and take more farming classes, and come up here and talk to Dad and work in the garden, and then work for other farmers. We’ve changed how we produce cannabis drastically in six years. We went from wet trim, throw your water leaves and trim out the window, to all dry trim, everything is sold to extractors, everything is treated as a food-grade product. We’ve been able to see how the market used to be and how the market is going to be in our short little window.
What’s it like being a father-son team?
Kevin: We’ve been a team forever. When we were up at sea, your crew is your family, your family’s your crew, and then I carried it on with my kids. We started at a very young age. When I was still skipping tall ships, at 13 years old Will was one of my crew in a tall ship race, climbing a rig on a 120 foot sailing vessel in the middle of the night to furl sails and stuff. To be able to trust that you can send your kid aloft in the middle of the night to furl sails in the storm, you’ve got to know that your kid can do those things. This is actually easier. I don’t worry about him falling off, like, “Let me tell you about a kid we used to have.” I’ve always been a dreamer, but haven’t always had the ability to kind of manifest those dreams. Will brings actual intelligence to the table, and the education. “I’ve got this great idea. Wow, let’s get this ranch, and we’re going to do this organic culture, and we’ll spin our own blankets out of the wool we’re going to grow, and we’ll have all kind of cool people come around and do art things.” And he makes it actually happen. “Great idea, Dad. You go over there, and I’ll make this work.”
Will: The way I see this is, I trust my father. His principles, and his ethics, and his morals are all in line with mine. So he can start projects that I can finish and complete in my lifetime, so it gives us a larger impact over time.
Kevin: That’s one thing that we have worked on together is, we don’t just look at this year. We have a one-year, a three-year, a seven-year, a twenty-year plan for the property. This is what we want it to be like in twenty years. Restore the ecology in certain areas, and we agree on that. Things that we’re putting in motion now, I won’t probably live to see, but his kids will. It’s neat to think generationally like that, in a place like this.
I’ve noticed a lot of tasty looking veggies growing right under your cannabis plants. Why the vegetables?
Kevin: We do no-till style farm practices. Our dirt that our cannabis grows in is in fairly large, 400 to 600 gallon pots. Instead of adding nutrients every year and rototilling it in, we grow cover crops on them. So we’ll grow winter vegetables. We’ll grow clover, things that put high nitrogen in the soil. Harvest that a couple of times, and more or less just kind of let it lay on top. Then when the cannabis goes in, which is usually first of June, more or less, we also plant vegetables in there. Squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, things like that. There are two reasons for that. A lot of people have problems with their cannabis plants being attacked by rodents, rats and ground squirrels and things. What those critters are looking for, they’re looking for moisture, they’re looking for water. If you give them a squash, or a zucchini, or a watermelon right there, they’re going to go for that first. They’ll leave your cannabis plants alone. There’s also, with some of the squashes and stuff, the leaves will wilt on those before they do on the cannabis plants, so it’s a good indicator of the moisture content that’s going on in the pot. Also, we get food. One of our philosophies is that, we were growing food with our medicine. If you’re afraid to grow your food with your medicine, you’re growing your medicine wrong.
I know that Rusty Shovel Ranch plays a big role in Emerald Grown, the co-op that was recently built here in Mendocino. What has it been like getting that off the ground?
Will: This year, I’ve been part of one of the inspection teams that has gone around inspecting the Emerald Grown farms. Myself, I’ve seen twelve farms, which is about a quarter of the co-ops of members. Blown away, by not only of the diversity of where they’re growing in, but I get to see the different techniques and methods, and systems. You see one garden where it reminds me of my college garden. Everything is itemized, and there’s a clipboard on the gate, and everybody who goes in writes down what they did, and when they leave they write down what they accomplished. But then you see other gardens that the folks have been growing in the woods under tree for years, and their plants are built so that they get as much sun as possible under the canopy. I guess I’ve seen every kind of cannabis farm, thanks to Emerald Grown. They’re all organic, they’re all sun-grown, so it’s this big umbrella that fits all of my friends, which is why I love the Emerald Grown cooperative. There’s room for everybody.
Kevin: That’s one of the things that I’ve always said, is that Emerald Grown isn’t a location, even though we’re in the Emerald Triangle. It’s a philosophy. To be Emerald Grown is a higher quality in everything, I think. I think it’s the best.
Will: This year we had and Emerald Grown plant sale, where folks came, brought their extra starts, moved them around. People brought home strains they had never seen before, and now our garden is full of strains from other coop members. I can take a picture of my plant, my OG, and send it to Nancy, and go, “Hey Nancy, look at your girl, she’s beautiful.” Or my neighbor Johnny comes down and sees his plants and he’s like, “You guys are blowing it up, great job.” Everyone’s invested in everyone else’s gardens.
What has your experience been so far working with Flow Kana?
Will: Flow Kana is the first entity we’ve worked with that has attached our name to our cannabis at the point of sale. We’re proud of what we do. We grow a quality product sustainably, and the people that work with us, they earn a fair, honest market wage. Money that they can put in their pocket and buy things with, or travel and do things. I want my name on my cannabis. I want people to know that when they medicate with Rusty Shovel Ranch product, that it was grown with love, love and respect for the land, for the people that are doing it. Flow Kana is the first group that was willing to put our name on our product. That’s a big deal. For me, I’m a farmer. I’m not a salesman. Now, through a group like Flow Kana, our product can get out there to more people who need what we do. Like I said, it takes that whole salesmanship aspect off the table for me, and I can just focus on the ranch. I mean, I hate driving to the city.
Kevin: (laughing) Driving on pavement is scary. Everybody goes so fast, and they’re mean.
Will: I’ll also say… Flow Kana has the happiest employees I’ve ever seen. I wish I worked for them. I’ve got a pretty good gig going and I’m like, Flow Kana’s people are pretty happy.
Kevin: Yeah, and they’re fair to us. Because you come from a pirate background … I say “pirate” because I’m a sailor … the people that we had to deal with, it was always a question. Are they going to turn us in? Are they going to rip us off? With Flow Kana, I feel safe, really safe dealing with Flow Kana. Very, very happy to have them in the mix.
Will: It’s the California Way.