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Flow Kana buys Hopland Solar Living Center for visitor center, cannabis museum

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HOPLAND - The Real Goods Solar Living Center in Hopland, a lush 12-acre pitstop along Highway 101 showcasing sustainable and off-the-grid living, was sold to Flow Kana cannabis company.

Flow Kana acquired the 12-acre property from John Schaeffer, Solar Living Center founder and a pioneer in the solar energy movement, for an undisclosed price. The property in Mendocino County’s southernmost town has lured about 200,000 visitors a year into its solar demonstration sites and gardens since its opening in 1996.

Michael Steinmetz, Flow Kana co-founder and CEO, said he plans to revamp the property and eventually add a visitors center and cannabis museum while keeping the original mission to teach people about sustainable living.

“We want this site to hold dear and true the values of (Mendocino) county and showcase that and share those,” Steinmetz said. “We’d love this to be the first stop for cannabis tourism at large where people can find out about hotels, hikes, rivers, trails. The idea is for them to be able to experience and learn what they can do in the region.”

For more than 50 years, cannabis and the back-to-the land movement have been defining features of Mendocino County and its neighboring Emerald Triangle counties of Humboldt and Trinity.

Flow Kana buys cannabis from about 200 small organic farms in northern California to sell under the company’s banner, showcasing the farmers and signature products such as Willie’s Reserve, a line of prerolled joints and cannabis flower for Willie Nelson.

The property sale doesn’t include three tenants on the site: Real Goods solar products retailer, Schaeffer’s educational nonprofit Solar Living Institute and the Emerald Pharms cannabis dispensary run by Santa Rosa-based CannaCraft. Steinmetz said those tenants will continue operating and Schaeffer will stay on in an advisory role for about two years. Steinmetz said he doesn’t expect to make major changes to the Hopland property this year.

Schaeffer said he’s been looking for the right person or organization to buy the property from him for years, but he was waiting for a buyer with a similar mission and a commitment to preserving the property’s public education programs. He said he’s been keeping an eye on Flow Kana since 2017, when the company bought a ranch formerly owned by the Fetzer family in Redwood Valley, establishing its headquarters there. He’s convinced the company’s stated mission to promote regenerative farming and sustainable practices is a genuine one.

“I came to the conclusion they had the vision closest to mine, they believe in regenerative agriculture, biodynamics, natural building,” Schaeffer said. “They offered a lot of resources.”

He and Flow Kana officials began serious talks about a transaction in December and closed the deal Thursday.

Flow Kana has opened aggregation hubs in Laytonville and Whitethorn in Humboldt County, where marijuana growers sell their harvests, which are brought to the company’s main production and manufacturing center on the former Fetzer ranch in Redwood Valley.

The company has raised $175 million since 2014 to create a statewide supply chain for cannabis grown on small farms. Steinmetz said his company plans to expand its network of farmers and launch new partnerships with local cooperatives with collection sites.

The company recently launched a community-supported agriculture program to encourage cannabis farmers to diversify their crops and support other local farmers, Steinmetz said. The produce goes to Flow Kana’s 250 employees and staff at participating dispensaries.

Flow Kana also just announced a partnership with soapmaker and environmental activist David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s products. Bronner is launching a nonprofit cannabis company called Brother David to create cannabis products from flower grown by Flow Kana farmers.

After graduating from UC Berkeley in 1971, Schaeffer joined an Anderson Valley commune where he learned how to live without creature comforts and discovered the possibility of generating power from photovoltaic panels. He opened the first Real Goods store in 1978 in Willits.

A cannabis grower was his first customer, making the first retail purchase of a photovoltaic panel in the country, Schaeffer said. At that time, solar energy technology was primarily used in space but it would quickly expand to home use.

In 1993, Schaeffer bought the Hopland property, a dumping ground for Caltrans highway rubble with only one tree, for $120,000. He convened a team of designers and architects to create a landscape based on permaculture and biodynamic principles. The 5,000-square-foot building that houses the Real Goods store, an emporium for off-the-grid and homestead living, as well as people interested in living more sustainably, was made from straw bales.

Schaeffer founded The Solar Living Institute on the grounds in 1998 to teach solar and sustainable living skills, such as permaculture and straw bale building.

The next year, he sold the property and his Real Goods to Gaiam, a yoga and media company based in Colorado and stayed on as president. But Schaeffer said the property, and his mission, languished under corporate control. He and his wife Nantzy Hensely bought the land and store back for $1 million in 2014.

Today, the site includes food gardens, a sculpture garden, cob playhouse, a Tiny House equipped with a rainwater catchment system, aquaponics display showing how to grow produce in water by using fish and a lavender labyrinth. Visitors can generate energy and turn on the lights by pedaling on a bicycle.

Schaeffer wants the center’s education programs to sharpen the focus on “waking people up about climate change.”

“Now that I have five grandchildren it makes me wonder what the world is going to be like when they’re 40 years old,” Schaeffer said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Flow Kana purchased the former Fetzer family winery in Redwood Valley. It did not purchase Fetzer Vineyards, which is owned by Chilean wine producer Viña Concha y Toro. This story has been updated to clarify the description of the property.

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