This three-part series by wine and cannabis writer Tina Caputo explores the past, present, and future of the Emerald Triangle, looking specifically at factors that have made the area a venerable growing region; current efforts to divide the region into cannabis appellations; and questions of whether the region can maintain its preeminence as adult-use legalization hits California in 2018.

California’s Emerald Triangle is in for big changes over the next few years. On January 1, 2018, cannabis will officially become legal for adult use in California, and a mature industry forced to hide in the shadows for decades will finally be able to step into the open.

“County of origin” labeling rules will also kick in on the first of the year, ensuring that cannabis labeled with the name of a particular county was actually grown in that area. By 2021, the California Department of Food and Agriculture will have a process in place for drawing deeper distinctions between regions. Taking a page from the wine industry’s book, the establishment of appellations will divide the state into distinct growing areas based on terroir, commonly grown strains, growing standards, and cultivation practices. Just as wine producers can’t label their Central Valley wine as “Sonoma Red,” cannabis growers in Stockton won’t be able to brand their pot as “Mendocino’s Finest.”

Being able to talk about what makes their regions distinct will be a huge step forward for Emerald Triangle growers after decades of prohibition.

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Potential Impacts of an Open Dialogue

“For a long time we had a lot of cultural identity issues up here,” explains Terra Carver, executive director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance. “You couldn’t talk about what you did and you were always looking over your shoulder. One of the greatest things about having regulations is that we’ll be able to have a conversation with the consumer for the first time.”

We’ve been waiting our whole lives for a regulatory environment that would allow us to differentiate our methods from the lower-functioning aspects of the grow community.
Scott Davies, owner, Winterbourne Farms

It’s already starting to happen. Nearly 600 Humboldt County cannabis farms are now using Instagram to share photos and information with cannabis enthusiasts. Such openness would have been unimaginable to growers five years ago.

Just ask Scott Davies of Winterbourne Farms. He’s spent the last 30 years growing cannabis in Humboldt County, but very little of that time talking about it. While most everyone has heard of the Emerald Triangle, he says, fewer are aware of what distinguishes its counties from one another, or what defines the sub-regions within those counties.

“We’ve already got a lot of name recognition in Humboldt County, so appellations are going to be a pathway for us to differentiate what we’re doing here from what they’re doing in some of the other counties around the state,” says Davies, who co-founded a branding company called Humboldt Legends to help get the word out. Davies also believes that the appellations program will help change some of the negative perceptions people have about the region’s cannabis growers.

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“Unfortunately, the face of growers has largely been defined by the splashiest click-bait headlines, which tend to be about environmental destruction, crime, and guns,” he says. “Prohibition didn’t allow for a more nuanced message that there are people who have been focused on cannabis production because we’re passionately in love with the property we live on, and we want to build a business we can leave to our children. We’ve been waiting our whole lives for a regulatory environment that would allow us to differentiate our methods from the lower-functioning aspects of the grow community that have largely monopolized the headlines.”

Agri-Tourism and Premium Price Points

Marijuana Appellation Growing Regions in the Emerald Triangle | Leafly
(Courtesy of Scott Buttfield/Humboldt Legends)

Those behind state and regional appellation efforts, including the Mendocino Appellations Project (MAP) and Humboldt County Growers Association, predict that raising awareness about the Emerald Triangle’s regions and farmers will drive agri-tourism to the area, which could be a boon for small growers with a story to tell, as many in the Emerald Triangle do.

“We see this working really well for the wine industry and I think a lot of people are curious because cannabis has been hidden behind the veil,” says MAP executive director Genine Coleman. “People really want to come up and meet the growers, see the farms, and buy directly from the producers.” For instance, in a legal market, small growers looking to diversify their operations could potentially add a “bud and breakfast” or farm tour to help make them more viable, Coleman says. “Only so much cannabis can be consumed within the state, so you need other revenue sources to survive.”

Terra Carver of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) is betting that the Emerald Triangle’s outdoor attractions will make it a magnet for visitors—once potential tourists learn about the region.

There’s a lot here that’s been largely untapped, because we haven't regionally expressed ourselves yet.
Terra Carver, executive director, Humboldt County Growers Alliance

“Humboldt County has so much more going on than just cannabis,” Carver says. “We have such a diverse environment for eco-tourism and we produce some of California’s best beef and cheeses. There’s a lot here that’s been largely untapped, because we haven’t regionally expressed ourselves yet.”

While the benefits of tourism appear obvious, attracting visitors to the far reaches of the Emerald Triangle will require more than a good marketing campaign. It will take infrastructure. So far, there’s been little pushback from the community about adding new lodging options and other visitor amenities, but that could change if outsiders begin flooding into a community that’s largely kept to itself for the last 40 years.

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“The community knows what it wants and what it’s comfortable with in terms of building tourism and creating that interface with the public,” Coleman says. “Having those conversations on a community-by-community basis is something that our appellations map has really facilitated.”

Growers in recognized appellations may even be able to raise their prices, an important advantage as new players get into the game and drive down cannabis prices overall. “People counting on getting $1,500 a pound will be in for a rude surprise,” predicts Martin A. Lee, director of Project CBD and author of the book Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana. “It will probably be more like $500 a pound, and that will be a real jolt to the economic sustainability of mom-and-pop growers.”

Humboldt County’s inaugural track and trace program allowed the consumer to scan a proof of origin sticker and have a host of information at their fingertips.

For participants in Humboldt County’s inaugural track and trace program, geographic name recognition has already proven to be a valuable asset. “[The program] allowed the consumer to scan a ‘proof of origin’ sticker on Humboldt cannabis products and have a host of information at their fingertips, including the farm’s web page,” says Carver. Growers in the program reported greater brand awareness, and were able to command higher prices. The program’s first year ended in August 2017 and has been approved to continue for a second year.

The Emerald Triangle Versus ‘Big Cannabis’

It’s uncertain whether appellations will help Emerald Triangle growers to stand up to so-called ‘Big Cannabis’ in other regions, but Davies says he isn’t particularly worried about the competition.

“I regularly hear concerns from my peers about Philip Morris and Monsanto row-cropping cannabis in the Central Valley,” he says, “and my instinctive reaction is ‘Fine. They don’t have the appellation.’ They don’t have the weather, the infrastructure, or the expertise that it would take to grow the flowers that I can grow.” Ultimately, Davies believes that success will depend on what the Emerald Triangle’s cannabis growers do now to position themselves for the future.

I regularly hear concerns about Philip Morris and Monsanto, but they don’t have the expertise to grow the flowers that I can grow.
Scott Davies

“We’re about to see a seismic shift in the cannabis industry, not only in regards to who gets to grow it, but where you get to do it and who gets to win,” he says. “This transition is only going to happen once, as it did with alcohol in the early 30s. The players who adopt the regulations quickest and most successfully win.

“Oftentimes in the arc of history, it’s difficult to see that you’re in a moment until you look back with the benefit of hindsight,” Davies adds. “This is one of those times when we can tell while we’re living it, in real time. It’s a fascinating and exciting time to be in the cannabis industry.”