For all its terrible injustices, and total failures, cannabis prohibition did succeed in turning a generation of back-to-the-land, off-the-grid Emerald Triangle cannabis growers into the most resource-efficient commercial farmers in the country. From the moment they began arriving in Northern California in the late 1960s, those hippies and seekers and herbal evangelists all faced the daunting challenge of not just cultivating cannabis sufficiently to support themselves, but doing so in secret.

At a time when the rest of American agriculture rapidly corporatized, outlaw growers managed to stay viable by keeping a low profile.

At a time when the rest of American agriculture rapidly corporatized, consolidated, and became chemically-dependent, these small, independent, outlaw organic growers managed to stay viable by keeping a low profile and flying under the radar—while producing the one cash-crop Big Ag couldn’t get their hands on. A strategy with obvious risks, of course, not to mention one that meant the fewer outside inputs and trips to town the better.

For these growers, that meant learning to mix your own soil, fertilizers, and pest repellants. Installing rain catchments, solar power, and hand-dug outhouses. Growing your own food. Building what’s needed and fixing it yourself when it breaks.

Life up in the hills also used to mean no paperwork, since you needn’t apply for any licenses or pay any taxes on an illicit crop. Any type of physical documentation of the process could only prove incriminating anyway. Even during the “grey market” in medical cannabis—which started with the passage of Prop 215 in 1996, and ended this January with the state’s implementation of “seed-to-sale” tracking of all commercial cultivation and distribution—the regulatory burden for small growers often involved little more than having the phone number of a good lawyer handy, just in case.

But now, everything’s different.

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Caught in the middle as cannabis and capitalism converge, the OG growers of Northern California must somehow start paying hefty new taxes and fees and jumping through a million regulatory hoops imposed by a government that not so long ago tracked them like dangerous criminals, while simultaneously competing against a flood of venture-capital backed “Big Marijuana” plays vying to drive down the price.

Everything bad that’s happened to small farms and Mom & Pop businesses in America over the last fifty years is happening to cannabis all at once. Steve DeAngelo, head of Harborside Health Center, the nation’s largest cannabis retailer, has described the next two years as “an extinction event for 75 percent of the existing cannabis industry in California.”

A Wild West themed party at the Flow Kana facility. (Courtesy of Flow Kana)

Beyond the tens-of-thousands of traditional Mom & Pop growers directly involved, entire communities have become reliant on these family farms as the backbone of the local economy. Michael Steinmetz, founder and CEO of Flow Kana, sees them as a fragile, vital eco-system that “will be far easier to preserve than rebuild.”

If Flow Kana can’t help California’s artisan cannabis farmers save their farms, it’s hard to imagine who or what else will.

Steinmetz is speaking to a “curated” crowd of cannabis advocates and entrepreneurs, local growers, tech industry innovators, journalists, politicians, hip capitalists, and a who’s who of the sustainability wing of the cannabis movement.

We’ve been invited to come celebrate the ribbon-cutting of the Flow Kana Institute in the heart of Mendocino County, and take a tour of a still-under-construction multi-million-dollar facility that aims “to partner with, and give scale to, premier artisan farmers in Mendocino County and Southern Humboldt who focus on small batch, boutique strains.”

As the tour will soon reveal, however, that’s a bit of an understatement.

If Flow Kana succeeds, their heady mix of DIY agriculture and bleeding-edge technology will revolutionize the way cannabis is grown, processed and distributed in California (and perhaps around the world). If they fail and can’t help Northern California’s artisan cannabis farmers save their farms, it’s getting really hard to imagine who or what else will.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Nestled onto 80-acres of prime vineyard land that once housed the illustrious Fetzer Family Winery, the Flow Kana Institute remains to date a work-in-progress, but the plan is to create a state-of-the-art, technology-driven processing and distribution center that can efficiently take in the unprocessed harvest of hundreds of outdoor, organic small farmers and turn it into graded “biomass” (more on that later), extracts, edibles, topicals and other value-added products, including having the material lab tested, packaged, labeled, and tracked for compliance.

The Institute will also function as “the world’s first education and wellness-focused cannabis campus…and a one-of-a-kind bed & breakfast and retreat experience,” with classes and seminars, special events, parties, tastings, conferences, and pairing diners all in the works.

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A partnership of longtime social justice activists, tech sector innovators, and cannabis industry progressives, Flow Kana represents an audacious attempt to garner a serious slice of market share in California’s legal cannabis industry. But it’s a far cry from the typical tale of Big Marijuana crashing the party and throwing its capital around. In fact, the team behind Flow Kana sees the rise of corporate cannabis as an existential threat to the very Mom & Pop cannabis farmers they’ve spent the past few years actively recruiting and organizing into a kind of 21st Century co-op.

Amanda Reiman, Vice President of Community Relations for Flow Kana, spent decades working in the non-profit drug law reform movement before sliding into the private sector, including as a leading voice in the 2016 campaign to pass Prop 64—California’s legalization law. She sees her new job as a clear extension of those previous efforts.

Prohibition was immensely harmful to a wide variety of communities,” Reiman says. “Keeping cannabis illegal has resulted in decades of community dollars going towards enforcement and an inability of cannabis farmers to fully participate in addressing the needs of their communities. Flow Kana hopes to open up these pathways, as we firmly believe that integration of cannabis businesses into communities under a public health and wellness model brings nothing but benefits to all involved.”

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Basically, if the world-famous cannabis growers of the Emerald Triangle can go back to simply focusing on cultivating heirloom varieties to their peak of potency, aroma and flavor, while letting Flow Kana take them through every step between there and the end-user, the playing field can be leveled. So Willie Nelson won’t have to start holding Farm Aid events to support his favorite kind of small farmer.

Instead, the iconic country music star is planning to support them more directly, by having his Willie’s Reserve cannabis brand source its products in California from Flow Kana’s roster of growers.

A company rep announced the strategic partnership at stop three on the tour, just before “Also Sprach Zarathustra” started playing and a massive automatic door opened on Flow Kana’s Processing Center. We then followed a red carpet through the middle of the 4,050 square-foot building, while on both sides of us happy workers demonstrated various high-end machines used to sort and package cannabis flowers.

Everyone took out their phones to snap photos of the Inflorescence Sorter (designed and assembled by GreenBroz) and the Pneumatic micro-batcher (designed and assembled by Green Vault Systems). It was by far the highlight of the tour, which also visited the future home of an on-site, third party testing laboratory and the future site of Flow Kana’s edibles and topicals manufacturing.

But what I personally found most fascinating was a presentation that took place in Flow Kana’s cavernous storage facility. First, Casey O’Neill of Happy Day Farms talked about how tough it’s been for a “son of Mendocino County” to stay true to his roots as a micro-diverse craft grower who cultivates organic veggies and heirloom cannabis strains with equal pride.

“The question I get asked most by people in this industry is, ‘How quickly can you scale up?’” O’Neill says, with an inaudible sigh. “They don’t even understand when I say I don’t want to scale up.”

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John Casali, another Flow Kana small farmer, added that the company will give him the “freedom to farm” by taking care of everything from trimming and curing to packaging, branding, marketing, lab testing, regulatory compliance, distribution fulfillment, and accounting. Casali marveled that after going to prison for cannabis cultivation, he’s now had the honor of seeing his family’s 40-year old heirloom strain (Huckleberries) make headlines as the first-ever cannabis product included in the official Oscar’s gift-bag.

Casali’s story was genuinely moving, but it was also the kind of thing I expected going in.

What came next, however, was an explanation of how Flow Kana will apply “machine-learned demand forecasting” to processing, storing, and shipping “cannabis biomass” that so thoroughly blew my mind, I almost leapt out of my seat. For once, all that algorithmic power is going to be wielded to help the little guy (while earning a tidy return for Flow Kana’s investors). At least if all goes according to plan.

And what a plan!

(Courtesy of Flow Kana)

While most companies want to hold onto as little inventory as possible to keep down overhead, one of Flow Kana’s primary operational advantages will be having on-hand and accessible, at all times, sufficient inventory to supply any dispensary’s specific need, in any product category, immediately and at any profitable price point.

“We're positioning ourselves as service providers by creating a platform where brands and companies can come and plug directly into our network of small, organic craft farmers.”
Jaime Alberto, Flow Kana

“We’re positioning ourselves as service providers by creating a platform where brands and companies can come and plug directly into our network of small, organic craft farmers,” Jaime Alberto, Flow Kana’s Head of Upstream Operations, explains—stressing that the quality and diversity of the region’s cannabis will be a key selling point. “The conditions that make this region so prized for wine—the wet winters and dry summers—are equally beneficial for cannabis. And on top of that you have this incredible community of farmers who for years and years have developed these heirloom strains that are unique and specific to their microclimates, which just harnesses a whole new level of quality.”

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Flow Kana is all set up to “white label,” as in the Willie’s Reserve deal, for anyone seeking a turnkey solution to putting out a branded line of cannabis products, or creating an in-house line for their existing retail operation. And then there’s the efficiency and economy of scale at play, allowing Flow Kana to “scale up craft,” according to the presentation.

Noticeably absent on the tour was any actual cannabis (to smoke), but not because Flow Kana’s founders are ambiguous about the plant’s benefits. Amanda Reiman, for one, expressed her hope that beyond the economics involved, the Flow Kana Institute “would become a place where peace, wellness, meditation, fun, philosophy, agriculture, and cannabis” can all come together to create something magical.

Something Magical

Immediately after the last stop on the tour let out, an actor in gold-rush period garb approached and asked us to imagine what life might have been like if the prospectors and cowboys of that bygone era had all smoked weed instead of drank whisky. And with that heady thought-experiment in mind, we left the world of “multichannel e-commerce” behind and moseyed over to the Big Dog Saloon, a Wild West themed private event space built by the Fetzer’s as a place to host tastings and parties at their estate.

Visitors enjoy cannabis samples from Flow Kana’s network of small, craft cultivators. (Courtesy of Flow Kana)

Even with food, wine, stilts walkers, and live music all happening outside, everyone quickly crowded into the actual saloon, where along the seemingly endless redwood bar, twelve different strains of Flow Kana cannabis were laid out to sample. I started with a joint of Huckleberries, from Huckleberry Hill Farms, a sativa-dominant heirloom strain that tested at 25.49% THC, tasted like berries, and left me feeling clear-headed and euphoric (like I just won an Academy Award).

I’m not a true connoisseur, but after fifteen years as a cannabis journalist, I’d venture I’ve smoked more weed than most, and far more different varieties than all but a very rarified few—and I’d put the quality of that joint against any pre-roll I’ve ever had. So I do think educated consumers will pay a premium for this product under the right circumstances.

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But enough about marketing strategy—it’s a party.

Fortunately, the group of people assembled to mark this auspicious occasion instinctively understood that as soon as cannabis comes out at a party, the time to talk business is over. Instead we danced, passed joints, ate everything from vegan cuisine to locally raised beef BBQ, went back for seconds at the make-your-own sundae bar, and overall did an admiral job of hearkening back to an almost forgotten time when growing and selling cannabis used to be fun.

If this is the idea they must sell to consumers, that an authentic way of life pioneered by the Emerald Triangle’s original off-the-grid growers is worth preserving, I’d say Flow Kana is off to a pretty good start.

Flood images courtesy of Flow Kana