In the '70s, when it was still called marijuana, my buddy and I grew a crop near Briceland. Last week, we returned to the scene of our then crime. To minimize security concerns for our research, we booked safe passage to a couple grows via Humboldt Cannabis Tours.
We expected to be impressed by technology because four decades ago "'high tech" consisted of CB radios to spread the word when we heard law enforcement helicopters in the distance. While there were some rudimentary solar installations for the most basic needs, many of us used propane refrigerators and stinky kerosene lamps.
Preparing for the tour, we imagined apps and gadgets that not only enable an easier and more profitable way of life, but also facilitate high-volume, precise flowers at a lower environmental impact. And if technology increases workers' pay and safety, too, it gets our old school gold star.
That expectation came true. Even my friend, a man who abhors smart phones, was impressed by algorithms that can control nearly every nuance of a grow. That's a big leap from our '70s grow management: dumb luck.
Let me send you through Mr. Peabody's SoHum WayBack Machine for a 1970s minute, just before the "green rush" when environmental impacts from huge grows became common. Whoosh!
We loved growing marijuana in SoHum for the scrubby freedom. We could work half-naked in the sun with only the occasional disruption from a law enforcement helicopter toting Vietnam War-era weapons. We endured the outdoor privy in bad weather, sweaty daily hikes with bags of chicken manure on our shoulders out to rocky plant sites and a general lack of funds.
In our analog day, environmental threats — like illegal water diversions — were blunted by the distributed nature of growing.
We scattered plants near tiny, infrequent springs because diverting a water source would be a crappy thing to do. For those who may have given it a flicker of consideration at the time, diversion was still rejected for fear it would call attention to the grow and they'd end up in jail with the other big category of 1970s miscreants: draft dodgers. No one was poisoning wildlife en masse, although many deer repelling plans resulted in utter failure. Some growers staked out unfortunate dogs howling in the wild to fend off wildlife. There wasn't much to be done about rip-offs, unless we stayed in our patches all night long.
Let's climb back in the Wayback Machine and fast forward to our air-conditioned tour bus as it heads toward Fortuna.
At the tech-heavy end of the tour, Bryan Robinson of Riverbar Pharms, who is also the president and CEO of Hygro, shows us a Dutch-made computer — the HortiMax-Go! from Growspan — that operates in the Cloud and controls 70,000 square feet of greenhouses in an indoor mixed-use grow. It allows him to regulate humidity, air flow, low-watt lights and irrigation. He manages his clone cuttings while he's on the sofa with his smart phone. He adds, though, that he still puts his hands in the soil to see if the plants need water.
We discovered that technology allows for cannabis that's high-volume and meets exacting requirements for medical and recreational consumption. Technology enables a plant that is, most importantly, predictable.
The impetus behind the technology is investors. Riverbar's investors pulled their money out of the stock market to finance the farm, according to Robinson. With those investors to consider, and regular employees, not transient ones, to pay, he wants low-risk and predictability. He finds it in technology. "I like to control the environment," he says. And the technology allows him to grow three times as much, he adds.
Using technology reduces the environmental impacts in his new scene compared to his old grow, he says. The county helped Riverbar come out of the black market at his grow in Whitethorn to the white market, he says, and the old grow was decommissioned, with past water and grading impacts made healthy again. Technology also helps blunt environmental impacts from electricity use. He's experimenting with very low-watt lights — just 6 watts per square foot. He also uses biodegradable plastics and other greener models for production.
Still, there's electricity, plastic, pumps and water consumption. But his investors hang onto that "three times the volume" capacity, assured they'll receive lower risk rates of return.
While the financial angle was unintentional on the tour's behalf, we couldn't help noticing that after the blizzard of technology controlling Riverbar's indoor farm, the tour plopped us down at nearly the exact opposite: a "no-investor" example of family farming.
Mikal Jakubal's self-financed Plant Humboldt nursery is just beyond the old Country Store near Briceland, a site where I used to drive miles of dirt road to use the pay phone to file news stories with the L.A. Times' state editor. The articles, primarily about the horrors the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting was inflicting on SoHum residents, were hammered out on a manual typewriter and transcribed over the pay phone. The now-shuttered store currently displays a rusting sign for "High-Speed Internet Access."
At the Plant Humboldt nursery, we were gobsmacked by how healthy Jakubal's 30,000 seed-grown plants were turning out this spring. The difference between the squat outdoor crop and the spindly-but-accurately-grown indoor scene was abrupt. We didn't want to marvel at them like we did the tech-driven plants in the greenhouse. We wanted to take them home and smoke 'em.
Jakubal says he can grow these outdoor beauties because he doesn't have to promise investor returns. He says he bootstrapped a small scene with 2,000 to 4,000 seedlings in 2016 into his operation now. "No consultants, no big investors," he says. "It was the American Dream." He adds that growers who start up now have other expectations and require millions in capital.
Jakubal and his crew water the seedlings by hand. The extent of technology is in his inventory, which he processes with bar code scanners. His energy costs are, well, the cost of sunshine. His water comes from rain storage. There's some plastic in piping and containers.
Without relying on technology to guarantee sensimilla using clones/cuttings, Jakubal's seed-grown plants have the problem of male infiltration.
And that sends me and my buddy again into the Wayback Machine. In the '70s, sensimilla was a goal, not a prosaic reality. We planted the seeds that fell out of our baggies and hoped they grew. We hovered over our plants every day to see signs of male pollen sacs dropping so we could frantically sequester the pubescent plants until their in-vitro services were needed to produce seed for the next crop.
The seed-grown scene is not so much different now. Yeah, Jakubal buys seed in bulk instead of rifling through baggies but he still has to root out males using a jeweler's loupe to discover nascent pollinators.
We were unable to check out a trim scene so I don't get to relate how I found myself more than once in mid-winter at a grower's kitchen table with a few others, clipping away, with a pile of cocaine over by the woodstove for enthusiasm and bottles of cognac for cleaning our hands between plants. It was OSHA's worst nightmare. I can only assume that technology has obviated that part of the process and OSHA bureaucrats are not hyperventilating.
We thought this story would be about two back-to-the-landers looking at how legalization has brought about shiny and scientifically elegant technology to make for better quality flower. We expected that technology is helping grows to be less environmentally damaging and produce physically less-demanding crops since our labor of love in the '70s.
While that turned out to be true, we also learned how financial risk aversion is turning plants into a commodity by pushing techno-grows. Yet, technology also blunts some of the hard edges of our environmental concerns and allows for the type of grows that satisfy consumer demand and investors' need for returns.
In the '70s, long-term rates of return for me and my growing buddy were about as important as Manhattan hotel real estate. What we were after were those 10-foot tall, sun drenched plants with "donkey dick" buds. It wasn't much of a business plan. We did grow a few but after the harvest, we were still driving beaters and looking for an easier gig. We could've used a lot more technology but it didn't exist and, hey, it wouldn't have made for good stories.
After a multi-decade hiatus from Humboldt in an urban area where she still had to avoid police helicopters, J.A. (Honest) Savage now resides near Trinidad, where the helicopters are mostly U.S. Coast Guard.