From inside a souped-up golf cart, Michael Steinmetz, the founder and CEO of cannabis cooperative Flow Kana (888-850-2999, flowkana.com), shows me around his soon-to-open 80-acre site that’s practically a Disneyland for weed. Next spring, Steinmetz, 30, will launch Flow Cannabis Institute, a marijuana processing and distribution plant in the industrial warehouses in Mendocino County that used to house Fetzer Wines. With recreational activities that go far beyond lighting a blunt (think ganja yoga, weed-and-wine-pairing dinners and cannabis massages), the institute plans to take pot to the next level.
And this is just the beginning of the buzz building in Northern California: Steinmetz and other young entrepreneurs are cashing in on the state’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana (set to go into effect January 1) not only to harvest copious amounts of pot but also to bring cannabis into mainstream culture. Aided by fertile soil and a temperate climate—the same land and weather combo that helps grapevines thrive—new cannabis companies are springing up all over Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. The influx of highly educated business-savvy stoners looking to hit gold is akin to the forty-niners who made their way to California in the 19th century. This contemporary edition has been dubbed “the green rush.”
While people in Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties (collectively known as the Emerald Triangle) have been growing medicinal marijuana for decades, Steinmetz saw an opportunity to form a new cooperative. Flow Kana is comprised of farmers who grow small-batch varietals (right alongside their veggies) and distribute them (complete with hip design-forward packaging) throughout the Golden State. You might recognize the brand name from the huge pro-cannabis billboards that popped up around the Bay Area earlier this year.
“I really want Flow Kana to be about fixing the food-supply system on our planet,” says Steinmetz, who, after a stint as a NASA engineer, started a food-distribution company. Working closely with the land, Steinmetz saw the ways that mono-cropping—which typically requires chemical fertilizers to encourage plant growth—can weaken the soil and encourage pests.
More than 50 local farmers were drawn to his idea and have joined the co-op, including second-generation farmer Casey O’Neill and his wife, Amber. The couple, who have been part of Flow Kana since its inception in 2014, grows broccoli, garlic, squash, tomatoes and peppers for their HappyDay Farms CSA vegetable subscription service. They also grow indica-dominant cannabis hybrids such as OG Strawberry and Lemon Ogre. Indica is known for producing a physical “body high” that is great for relaxation and meditation and is often used to treat anxiety, chronic pain and sleep disorders. Joining the Flow Kana cooperation gave the O’Neills the chance to focus solely on cultivating highly medicinal craft marijuana in the ground, under the sun and without the use of pesticides.
“Every year, growing cannabis gets more fun—and we get better at it,” says Casey. “It’s pretty magical.”
The institute, which is today just a cluster of dark, echoey buildings with dirt floors, will come alive with important tasks such as licensing, processing, testing and distributing, along with educational classes and events under one (rather large) roof.
“Cannabis has had a bad rep for so long,” says Steinmetz. “The idea here is that people are engaged in safe consumption in a fun environment while they learn about the plant.” He envisions visitors enjoying yoga classes, live bands and cold-brew coffee or cannabis-laced wood-fired pizza served by staff in Prohibition-era garb.
Meanwhile, two hours away in Sonoma, Sam Edwards shares the dream of mainstreaming the marijuana lifestyle. The 30-year-old former civil engineer and Santa Rosa native is the cofounder of the Sonoma Cannabis Company (sonomacannabisco.com), which operates six small cultivation sites in the county. His goals are quite similar to Steinmetz’s: Creating Wine Country–style experiences for the cannabis crowd with art-filled designer tasting rooms, Michelin-star–quality food and wineries that offer vineyard hikes, yoga classes and gourmet picnics. A longtime scholar of the plant, Edwards has been cultivating since he was 23 and even devised a method to harvest a 98-percent pure THCA (a highly potent concentration of cannabis in crystal form), a feat honored at the 2013 High Times Cannabis Cup. Still, the stoner scientist doesn’t apply his achievements to his current work.
The company’s flagship brand, Aya, is a line of “luxury convenience-oriented products” (CO2-extracted vape pens and machine-made pre-rolls, for example) with moderate levels of THC for those who “want to enjoy themselves and actually be social rather than get super high.” Edwards is bewildered when he encounters cannabis purchasers who are seeking the highest amount of THC—a request he likens to ordering Everclear at a cocktail bar. “I’d rather hear them ask about the terpene profile [the aroma of cannabis] or the pesticide-testing results. Or about how much to consume for a desired effect. But going straight for the highest THC? I don’t get it,” says Edwards, who favors the first-glass-of-wine euphoria that comes from a half-joint of grapefruity Romulan. “My business partner [Josh Malgieri] and I don’t embody the typical stoner—and neither do our products. We want to bring integrity to the cannabis industry and change its reputation.”
The company’s less formal family-style meals are held at a local winery whose location and identity is withheld until payment is confirmed—$50 per person. Sensory stations allow you to smell the products, and vaporizing stations let guests take in the flavor of the greenery without getting high. (The low heat of the machine ensures that the cannabinoids—the active compounds—stay intact.)
The fancier prix-fixe meals include jars of cannabis flowers to smell paired with wine for each course. Erin Meyer, Edwards’s fiancée and a local sommelier, helps with the matchups: Citrusy Kosher Sour Tangie goes well with dry sparkling blanc du blanc, for instance, while Cherry AK and a young, tannic pinot noir both have a bitter, jammy palate. (If you missed the July 20 dinner, a harvest party is scheduled for mid-November. Email email@example.com to get on the event’s list.) Edwards says all kinds of “curious people” attend the sold-out affairs. “Our motto is ‘All are welcome here,’ and we think it’s our duty to welcome new consumers to cannabis.”
But cannabis didn’t always have such a hip following. For many established members of the community, who farmed under the decades-long prohibition, the change in attitudes toward marijuana and its use is a godsend. Johnny Casali of Humboldt County’s Huckleberry Hill Farms, also part of the Flow Kana cooperative, knows the devastating effects of the century-long ban. When he was 20 years old, Casali was arrested for cultivating cannabis next to federal land, and he served six and a half years at the federal Lompoc Prison Camp in Santa Barbara County and then two and a half years at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada,where he participated in a drug-rehab program.
“While this was a big, awful thing, especially for my family, it gave me a new, positive perspective on life,” says Casali. Now in his sixties, he operates on the right side of the law having received a permit to farm 5,000 acres of fruit trees, vegetables, flowers, honey and FruitLoopz, a high-terpene strain that gives you a giddy, enjoyable high. “I’m just happy that I finally have the opportunity to really share with people what I truly believe in and what I love doing” he adds.
But Casali’s farm is just a small part of a larger machine that is booming in rural Northern California and across the country, as more states vote to legalize the plant. Adds Steinmetz, “At the end of the day, we’re developing a sustainable agricultural model around the small farmer that can be replicated around the world.”