Some California cannabis farmers are looking to borrow the wine industry's practice of verifying products by origin.
In the United States and internationally, wine that's grown only within certain legally and geographically defined regions, called an appellation of origin or a viticultural area, can earn the right to claim heritage from that area. Now cannabis growers in Northern California's Emerald Triangle, regarded as the top cannabis farming area in the U.S., are looking for the same kind of protection.
Located north of California's famous wine country, encompassing Napa and Sonoma counties, the Emerald Triangle comprises Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties. Growers there hope that by creating their own state-approved appellations of origin designations that they can protect and promote the region's unique growing conditions, strain varieties, and eco-friendly styles of cultivation.
What makes Humboldt weed special?
“We are talking about a living plant. And a living plant that is cultivated within a living system. So we are looking at where is the natural habitat where it will best perform, and perform to its full expression,” said Tina Gordon, owner of Humboldt County's Moon Made Farms.
“It's the full-spectrum sunlight. It's the night sky. It's the temperature shifting. It's the fresh air, it's the rain caught water, it's the proximity to the ocean, it's the wind,” Gordon said. “So if you think about it like a grow room, we have the greatest grow room on earth.”
'It's the full-spectrum sunlight. It's the night sky. It's the temperature shifting. So if you think about it like a grow room, we have the greatest grow room on earth.
Moon Made Farms employs organic, sun-grown techniques that tap into the native soil as well as ancient natural practices such as lunar cycle farming, Moon Made Farms is one of a handful of old-school independent cannabis farms located in the Palo Verde area of southern Humboldt County working on giving their watershed and community a world-recognized wine-style appellation of origin designation, which the French call an appellation d'origine contrôleé (AOC). Italy uses the designation denominazione di origine controllata (DOC). The Palo Verde appellation would be just one of many established throughout the Emerald Triangle, most in areas that have been cultivating cannabis for decades.
“We are pushing for an AOC model that many people are familiar with in Europe,” said Kristin Nevedal, the executive director of the International Cannabis Farmer's Alliance (ICFA). In countries such as France and Switzerland, appellation designations are used to ensure strict adherence to certain growing conditions and cultivation within a specific micro-region, known as terroir.
“In the most traditional and classic sense of the matter, appellation designations are regulatory programs. In order to wear that designation, you have to meet some high standards in most cases. In the case of Champagne, you are limited to three different varietals you can grow. But these also have nutrient restrictions, water restrictions, etc. So they really are focused on cultivating in a way and manner that those grapes express the natural environment of that region,” Nevedal explained.
If and when regulators allow licensed cultivators to establish cannabis appellations, growers in the Palo Verde watershed and community are ready to label cannabis grown there with a tentative appellation seal, designed by Robert Steffano of Villa Paradiso Farms in southern Humboldt County, California. (Courtesy of Robert Steffano)
When Californians in 2016 passed Proposition 64, which legalized adult-use cannabis, the state legislature directed the California Department of Food and Agriculture, through the CalCannabis Office, to establish a process for designating appellations for standards, practices, and varietals in cannabis growing regions.
However, the actual creation of the AOC is left up to the cultivators themselves. The ICFA, which was formed to advocate for small cannabis farmers, is actively applying for a grant through the Headwaters Fund in Humboldt County to help establish appellations such as Palo Verde. The organization also is helping Mendocino County develop nearly a dozen different AOCs, which the county identified on a map in 2015.
A poster shows the proposed Palo Verde appellation for cannabis grown in Humboldt, Mendocino, or Trinity counties in California's Emerald Triangle. (Courtesy of Robert Steffano)
“That map has been powerful in spurring the conversation in terms of what appellations might look like and some of those components will be very important to us as we move forward with developing the California Appellation Program,” Nevedal said. “What we expect is that the California Department of Food and Agriculture, through CalCannabis, will issue a draft regulation around appellation of origin by late 2019, and we will have the program in place by 2021 as a statute.”
Nevedal emphasized that unlike the county of origin designation, which labels California cannabis by the county it is produced in an inclusive way, the appellation of origin designation is highly exclusive by nature. It is hoped that by designating select Emerald Triangle marijuana farms with AOC certifications, growers can develop a reputation and prestige that cannot be matched by large commercial grows. The label also intends to give consumers a connection to the farms and communities themselves.
Tina Gordon owns Moon Made Farms in Humboldt County, California, in the Palo Verde region, where growers are seeking recognition for a designated growing area similar to wine appellations. (Photo courtesy of Moon Made Farms)
“Palo Verde, it is a heritage community,” Gordon said, explaining that the region was founded by back-to-the-landers who came to raise families in southern Humboldt County in the '70s and '80s, making the area part of the country's original cannabis cultivation region.
“I would love to see [the Palo Verde AOC] connect people to source and to place,” she continued. “So I want them to be transported to the full sun, full night sky, open-air landscape with pristine, fresh inputs and nature's full influence.”
For Gordon, the appeal to consumers is akin to what has driven explosive growth in the organic food movement, which broke $100 billion in global sales for the first time in 2018. Gordon said that organic, sun-grown cannabis is not only is better for the environment, but also is a cleaner product that is healthier for the consumer, adding that cultivators believe that full-spectrum sunlight produces a better cannabinoid and terpene profile than indoor-grown weed.
While the cannabinoids THC and CBD get lots of limelight, experts have long claimed that the interaction between different compounds, known as the entourage effect, is responsible for many of the plant's medicinal properties, as well as the differences in experience between various strains and qualities of cannabis. Recognizing this, the federal government recently called for new studies into the properties of lesser-known cannabinoids and terpenes, the latter responsible for the strong aroma and flavors of cannabis.
The craft cannabis cultivated in the Emerald Triangle's designated appellations of origin would showcase the strains developed in the area over the decades. The label also would verify that the farms' growing conditions are certified by the state as meeting exacting cultivation standards. In addition, the cannabis, like wine, could claim to express the flavors and characteristics of a specific terroir, or micro-region, just like AOC designations do in France.
The result, supporters claim, is a product that, like fine wine, stands head and shoulders above mass-produced marijuana.
Featured Image: Tina Gordon, founder of Moon Made Farms, is among the Emerald Triangle cannabis growers advocating for state-approved designations that could protect and promote the region's unique growing conditions, strain varieties, and eco-friendly styles of cultivation. (Photo courtesy of Moon Made Farms)
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