My name is Brett McFarland and I'm writing about Sun Valley's proposed cannabis project. I've been farming in Humboldt county for almost two decades and am proud to call this place my home. Currently, my wife, Julia, and I own and operate Crazy River Ranch, a local organic farm raising grass-fed beef and a variety of fresh produce for the Arcata Farmers Market, along with our 8-month-old daughter, Amelia. Over the years, we've planted and tended to thousands of heritage fruit trees and specialty berry bushes hoping to fill happy bellies with nectar from the land.
We don't grow cannabis commercially and have no plans to do so in the future. However, prior to the sweeping legalization efforts in California and elsewhere, I was sentenced to serve five years in federal prison with four additional years of probation for growing marijuana and refusing to tell on others. When my case started in 2012, not a single state in the nation had legalized recreational cannabis, despite California voters having had the opportunity to liberate the plant and the people and lead the nation back in 2010.
Sadly, and quite ironically, Humboldt County largely voted against Proposition 19, which lost in the state by just a few percentage points. Fear and scarcity caused many growers to oppose the measure in a clear effort to protect the profits of a market based on the criminalization of marijuana. As a result, people continued to be arrested and incarcerated for weed, especially in more racially diverse urban areas and communities of color.
During the course of my ordeal, Colorado and Washington became the first states in the nation to legalize recreational cannabis, and many states, including California, eventually followed suit. I watched with bittersweet enthusiasm from federal prison as states began to break down the walls of prohibition and, in some cases, expunge the records of people convicted of marijuana offenses.
When I came back to Humboldt as a not-so-free man to start my four additional years of supervised probation in 2017, I was surprised to find the county celebrating a massive legalization party and green rush unlike anything I'd ever seen. Trucks weighed down with precious potting soil and billowing-to-the-brim with water tanks for the burgeoning industry crowded U.S. Highway 101 as I made the weekly 14-hour round trip to Oakland and back to pee in a cup per the conditions of my release.
As I struggled to make ends meet farming food under the restraints of probation, I was angry to have been incarcerated for doing something that was becoming increasingly normal, legal and still wildly profitable compared with almost any other kind of farming. I couldn't help but feel left out as I saw the scale at which these new growers were permitted to operate. However, knowing that the war on weed was slowly coming to end and future generations would not suffer the way my family had gave me some comfort.
As I made my way to the Arcata Farmers Market with my modest boxes of apples and grass-fed beef, I chose to admire the transformation of the old trucking yard on West End Road into a massive cannabis campus (Bear Extracts). I decided to celebrate as old, dying retail centers were repurposed for cannabis cosmetics (Papa and Barkley) and abandoned mill sites were cleaned up and converted into cannabis operations like those in the Rio Dell Business Park. Just as encouraging was the community collaboration facilitated by the Humboldt County Grower's Alliance, which united hundreds of local farmers working tirelessly to keep Humboldt relevant. All these developments have immensely helped our local economy, which so many families and businesses depend on, and I'm happy just knowing we're well on the path to righting the wrongs of cannabis criminalization. However, not every development is worthy of praise, which brings me to the proposed Sun Valley cannabis farm.
From 2005 through 2007, I operated a three-acre organic vegetable CSA and market garden adjacent to Sun Valley's existing cut-flower mega grow. It was obvious it was a corporate monstrosity working in complete opposition to me. I cringed to see so much precious land defiled by plastic greenhouses, and to hear of toxic chemicals poisoning waterways around the facility. Sun Valley was the epitome of everything I was against.
I was small; it was BIG. I was producing organic local food; it was producing conventionally grown cut flowers for export. I fed people; it fed America's quest for transient beauty. I valued our community; it clearly didn't. The hedgerows around the facility may have concealed its operation mostly from view, but I saw more than enough of the horticultural giant — some bulbs donated to the Humboldt Seed, Plant & Scion Exchange, flowers piled high at some community charity event or lilies taunting me in the grocery store. No matter how much I wished the company into nonexistence, there it was.
Then one day I needed some wooden pallet bins and heard that Sun Valley had a bunch it was no longer using and a fellow organic farmer suggested I try reaching out. Not exactly the answer I was hoping for, but I was in a pinch, so I gave Sun Valley a call. The person who answered was super polite and offered to give me all the bins I wanted — free of charge. I just hate it when the bad guys are nice. But that's what you get for consorting with the enemy.
As if that wasn't bad enough, I ran into the owner, Mr. Lane Devires, himself, and he wanted to talk about farming. WTF?! I thought this was supposed to be a huge faceless corporation!! It's easy to hate a corporation, but now I had to face the capitalist pig who was responsible for the whole planet-killing monstrosity. Much to my disappointment, Lane, like the person I'd spoken with about the bins, was pretending to be kindhearted and happy to help. He offered to give me a tour of the facility, which I decided to take him up on — more out of morbid curiosity than anything else.
When we started wandering around, I sincerely wondered what kind of human rights and environmental violations I might bear witness to. But as Lane showed me the different crops, it became clear he was more than the sum of my judgments. I saw a farmer who loved growing things, was passionate about his work and cared for his company. Some of our values might not line up 100 percent, but it was clear to me that he's open to new ideas and wants to find the best way forward for the business he worked his way up to own. Although I never took him up on it, Lane offered to help our farm in any way he could, and I believe his offer to help was sincere. Now, years later, I get to weigh in on Sun Valley again.
They say that, if it's approved, their proposed cannabis grow would be the biggest in the county. Some people seem to be scared by that idea, but I think Humboldt could be proud of it. We could celebrate the repurposing of one of the county's old abandoned mill sites and the transition of a conventional farm toward organic production.
But, most importantly, allowing the project to go forward would mean another step toward full legalization. The extensive regulation and restraints that all legal cannabis farms have to contend with are just another layer of prohibition. So even if I don't agree with Lane Devries and Sun Valley on every issue, I do believe in fully ending prohibition. Allowing cannabis farms to operate at scale like every other legal crop is what freeing the weed looks like. After nearly a century of oppression, incarceration and racist drug laws, I welcome the full legalization of cannabis. I say let it grow, Humboldt!
Brett McFarland (he/him) is an American farmer, builder, and adventurer. He lives, works and plays along the banks of the mad river with his wife Julia and their baby girl Amelia.