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Petaluma cannabis farm celebrates first harvest

A once-controversial 37-acre ranch on the outskirts of Petaluma has kicked off 2021 on a high note.

The ranch, named Sonoma Hills Farm, recently celebrated its first official harvest of locally grown cannabis, herb that some say could establish the baseline for Sonoma County-specific weed identified by terroir like wine.

The buds are now available in several different strains at dispensaries across the Bay Area.

While cannabis is without question the farm’s most high-profile crop, Sonoma Hills has other ranching operations, too, including cattle and vegetables. Since the spring of 2020, the farm has spread good will by donating produce to local restaurateurs struggling to keep their eateries open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aaron Keefer, vice president of cultivation and production, said his goal at the farm is to grow high-quality products, whatever they might be.

“The way I look at it, cannabis is just another plant,” said Keefer. “Whether it’s cannabis or vegetables, I approach growing everything the same way: good genetics, great soil, no chemicals for fertilization or pest control, lots of sunshine. It’s a challenge to stick with these goals, but in the end you can taste the difference.”

Long time coming

There’s no question cannabis is the star of the Sonoma Hills show. CEO Michael Harden and others at parent company Big Rock Partners see the first harvest as the latest milestone in a three-year plan.

The first part of that plan was buying the land. That happened back in 2017, when Big Rock purchased an old chicken farm in the Petaluma Gap winegrowing region and began converting it for more diversified use.

The next step was getting the green light from the county to grow weed — a decision that came in October 2019. This development was met with staunch opposition from neighbors on rural Purvine Road, who put up handmade signs declaring that a cannabis farm wasn’t welcome in their neighborhood.

Despite objections from neighbors about the odor and potential crime, the farm received the go-ahead from Sonoma County supervisors to cultivate cannabis on 1 acre, the first such permit granted in the area.

Keefer joined the team in February 2020, and he came with a great pedigree, having run the culinary garden at The French Laundry in Yountville for 10 years. When Keefer arrived, he said his objective was to “source the best genetics and consistently create the best cannabis.”

Working with local cannabis growers and a local laboratory, he achieved this goal by last spring.

Throughout the summer, about a half-acre of cannabis grew on the 1-acre plot, set off from the rest of the farm with fencing and other plantings.

Weed operation

In all, Sonoma Hills grows seven different strains of cannabis. Some are indica. Some are sativa. Some have high-THC content and dynamic cannabinoid profiles, while others have flavorful terpenes and deliver more of a gustatory sensation.

One strain, dubbed Tropicana Punch, has flavorful notes of lemongrass and grapes. Another, dubbed Cherry Cheesecake, boasts more than 35% THC and gives a long-lasting and mind-bending high with no aftereffects. The fruity Pink Jesus strain, which delivers a full-body high, is among the most popular.

Eli Melrod, CEO and co-owner at Solful, a dispensary in Sebastopol, said in an email that Sonoma Hills herb is “beautiful, aromatic, and perfectly potent.” Melrod added that customers appreciate the weed is local, and like it because it is sun-grown instead of grown under heat lamps in a greenhouse.

“Cannabis achieves its full potential in the sun, and you can taste the difference,” he said, noting that outdoor grows are more sustainable and eschew the use of additives and chemicals. “It's similar to the differences we experience with heirloom tomatoes versus hothouse tomatoes — the heirlooms are distinct in look, feel, size and taste.”

Erin Gore, CEO of Garden Society, a cannabis company in Cloverdale, agrees.

Gore’s company buys flower from Sonoma Hills and uses the herb in some of the Garden Society pre-rolled joints. In a recent interview, she said Sonoma Hills brings “quality and refinement” to cannabis unmatched by other local producers.

Other projects

In addition to the cannabis, Sonoma Hills cultivates roughly 3 acres of produce— produce that Keefer and his staff of farmers have doled out to chefs in Napa and Sonoma counties since the summer.

Originally the plan was to sell this produce to local chefs — this part of the farm is called Chefs’ Ranch.

When the pandemic began in March, however, Keefer realized that chefs couldn’t afford to spend the extra cash, and started giving away potatoes, squash, corn, kohlrabi, beets, and other veggies for free.

“In times like this we have to come together as a community,” Keefer said at the time. “We’ve got the food. They’ve got the need. If we can provide a boost to local restaurants by giving them our produce, all of us win.”

By early July, the “quarantine garden” started producing in abundance. The farm began packing boxes for a select group of chef friends. Keefer himself engineered most of these deliveries, driving his personal pickup truck to restaurants all over the region. As the program became more formalized, Sonoma Hills invested in specific stickers for the boxes. These decals, a modern take on the victory garden posters of WWI and WWII, depict lady liberty as a female farmer, wearing a face covering.

Katina Connaughton, co-owner of Single Thread restaurant in Healdsburg, said she has incorporated some of the lettuces and tomatoes into dishes the restaurant is donating to Sonoma Family Meal, a local nonprofit that prepares and distributes free meals to residents in need. The organization was founded by by Press Democrat Dining Editor Heather Irwin.

Earlier this year, Connaughton said Single Thread was donating between 200 and 400 meals a day.

“We’ve created this wonderful outlet for surplus in our community and they have a surplus, so we are delighted to be able to incorporate the beautiful produce they’ve been giving us,” she said. “Having them be part of the community is a valuable addition.”

What’s next

Sonoma Hills Farm has big plans for 2021.

First, the team plans to expand the farm’s hemp grow to more than 1,200 plants from about 300 plants — many will go to partners that remove the oils and use them in CBD products.

Keefer also hopes to cure cannabis on-site; the farm received building permits too late in the year to erect a processing facility on the property in time for the first harvest, but Keefer said he expects to have that structure ready in time for the 2021 crop.

From a regulatory perspective, the ranch is aiming to be one of the first certified farms under the new California guidelines for organic-like certified cannabis (this is known as OCAL) and are in the process of getting certified by Sun + Earth, an organization of outdoor growers who adhere to standards for chemical-free cultivation.

Finally, Sonoma Hills farm will continue its push to create an infrastructure that eventually can welcome visitors.

Currently there is no legal way for outsiders to come and spend time at the farm, but Keefer and Harden are confident that at some point county regulations will change. When cannabis tourism does open in full, the team wants to be among the first to receive guests.

“Someday we see the cannabis industry working like wine where you can have a space where people can come and see where the product is grown and understand the process and have some sort of interactive relationship with plant,” said Keefer. “We know we’re not there yet, but when the state decides it’s time, we’ll be ready.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the location of Solful dispensary.

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