In a world where the definition of artisanal cannabis seems a bit blurry, the agricultural know-how ex-French laundry chef Aaron Keefer brings to Sonoma Hills Farm's new cannabis endeavors can only be described as artisanal .
For years, Keefer helped literally maintain and look after French Laundry's three Michelin stars. That is, on top of all of the other awards that give Yountville restaurant a seat at the table when it comes to the world's best gourmet experiences. But Keefer grew a pot long before he first stepped into a kitchen at the age of 17. While he was working to keep the French laundry on the cutting edge of the culinary world, he was in the moonlight as a cannabis supplier for some of the OG pharmacies in San Francisco. Keefer also previously worked with Jeremy Fox and the Bouchon Beverly Hills.
When the opportunity arose for Keefer to merge his passions with Sonoma Hills Farm, he jumped in. He has been working on the western edge of the wine country since 2018 in the hope of creating an ecosystem to grow the best pot possible, matching the quality of the vegetables he grows, which cost a few hundred dollars per plate. These days, Keefer is officially the vice president of cannabis cultivation and operations at Sonoma Hills Farm.
The story in itself is wild and understandably took off a lot of steam in February when the farm went to a little extra effort to publicize Keefer's departure from the famous Thomas Keller Restaurant Group to run their cannabis operation. But that much can only be told orally. So we went north this week to see the farm with our own eyes. We wanted to experience it beyond the hype, to let the terpenes speak for themselves. And they did it loudly.
As we drove up 101 North, the smoke from the ongoing forest fires was thick in places with a little sting in the eyes, but it wouldn't stay that bad for long. Shortly after we left the highway in Petaluma, things cleared up a bit on the west side of town as we approached the farm in the unincorporated part of the county.
The farm's co-founder and CEO Mike Harden met us at the gate, and farm supervisor Jake Daigle joined us not long after. When we popped by to find a parking space, it looked more like a destination for hay drives or pumpkin picking than a state-legal cannabis cultivation.
We started our chat while examining some flowers they recently viewed from a pheno hunt with compound genetics. After taking part in a GMO x Starfighter, the conversation moved on to the most obvious concern of the moment for the farm – the thick smoky haze in the sky. While the smoke was thinner in their forest neck, they were still losing a lot of solar energy from the haze they created when the plants came to their home before harvest.
"I just consider this the fire season," said Keefer L. A. Weekly how extreme the forest fires have become in recent years. "Every year we'll have fires. It wasn't bad. And we crowd around grills and we crowd around fires all the time, so a little smoke in the air isn't going to kill anyone."
We asked if he had any concerns about how the plants would react.
“The plants are doing well. There was a bit of ash falling, we weren't close enough to anything serious and honestly it's not like the Paradise Fire where all you smell was plastic, ”Keefer said. "This is all wood and grass and we're not really concerned."
As mentioned in our recent fire coverage, farmers are much more concerned about the ash created by structural fires than they are about the ash created by vegetation. Vegetation fires are believed to be survivable since you still have a chance to pass the tests, but the ashes from structural fires is a different story and is believed to be contaminating crops.
Keefer stated that the lack of lumens is the biggest problem of all. "We want all the power of light to flow into the leaves now, so we're a little hurt," he said. "We hope it doesn't affect the yield too much, but the facility itself looks so good that I think we'll be fine."
Keefer, who has been a farmer in Sonoma for a decade, seems ready for anything as he watches how worsening forest fires affect agriculture in the area. “In all honesty, it's just something you have to plan,” he said. “You have to protect your crew. You have to protect everyone you know. But other than that, it's really like a hot day, everyone is going home. A day that is very, very cold and rainy, everyone goes home. Anyone working in this environment would obviously go home when the going gets dangerous. "
Before we got to the weeds, we went to lunch. We passed rows of fresh parsley, chives, and a host of other Keefers vegetables that the chefs were killing to get their hands on when he explained that the property was one of the first farmland areas, shortly after the Sonoma gold rush began County were settled in the 1850s. Harden, driving us on a garden tour, pointed out a house in the distance as one of the oldest in the county.
At one point Daigle turned a log over and pointed to the fungus growth on the ground. He cited the white residue as an example of native microorganisms the farm could collect on its way to work with the land.
"We collected a bucket of water, inoculated, cultivated and fermented for 12 days," said Daigle. "It's a Korean natural method of growing that you know you're working with nature. You're using what's in the land. You grow these bacteria anaerobically, so you can unlock nutrients. You can also put in green leaves and nitrogen." pull out of these. "
"It's really just inoculating the soil with some life and then they multiply in that soil as soon as you put it in the ground. It's not really like a feeding program," added Keefer.
The farm is currently growing three types of corn that they had to plant at different times to avoid pollinating each other. As he was collecting them, Keefer stated that they had just received permission to sort the soil for their new greenhouse.
"It'll only be 15,000 square feet," he told us, which sounded small and adorable in the age of super greenhouses. "Yes, it's cute, but it's going to be a Venlo. How great, super high end."
Regardless of the greenhouse, there is a lot going on in the country and this has led Keefer to believe that drywalling of the property is also possible. However, you still need to pull the trigger. "Obviously we want to do a lot of drywall on the satellite flight," he said. “This is great soil for the dry farm. We're sandy loam out here. "
After dropping off the vegetables, we headed towards the section of the garden for which we had made the excursion. As Keefer passed the gate, he pointed to a towering orange acai. It's one of the 27 strains they'll run this year in total. Main offerings include names like Wedding Crasher, GG # 4, Animal Mints, Bananenkusch, Pink Jesus, Cherry Cheesecake, Spyrock OG, and a Sherbert who loves the environment. "I know they are starting to push," Keefer said of the facility. "We're probably at least three or four weeks away from that. So they should end pretty nicely."
Although the company is a few years old, the physical property the cannabis garden is located on was only recently laid out for the task. They started growing there in February of this year so it's only really been a few months. “Nothing was here, not the fence, no preparation was done. It looked like fields over there, ”Keefer showed us. "It's been a lot this year, but we're good next year. We'll have sunflower fences."
Since the plants at Sonoma Hills Farm are right in the ground and not in pots, we asked how much time it would take the team to build the soil on the new site so the weeds would get the best possible shot.
"We're really lucky because we've had regenerative grazing for 30 years. All the cows are grazing and pooping," Keefer replied. "So we've been fortunate to have almost eighteen inches of beautiful topsoil with great microbial properties."
From there they added about two and a half miles of irrigation pipe. As we walked through the rows of plants, Keefer noticed that the Wedding Crasher was from a tissue culture at Node Labs in San Francisco. Tissue culture cuttings are made from the freshest materials from the plant's meristem, the region of the plant from which it physically grows. The plant problem is so new in most cases that pests and diseases that affect the mother plant are not carried over to the fresh pruning. The tissue culture cuttings were found to be the most uniform of the harvest.
Keefer next showed the pink Jesus. As one of the jewels of the harvest, it's a combination of a starfighter and cherry cheesecake. When the plants are in this part of the growth cycle, you can rub the buds with your fingertips and then smell them to get an idea of what the scent of the final product will be. When we tested it, it exploded in our nostrils like a smoothie full of exotic fruits.
In the future, a lot of preparation will be put into making the soil pump out heat and a cover crop will be grown in the off-season that will go straight back into the soil for the next year. However, it will take approximately four years to achieve the full biodiversity profile for the soil. "And it's a really healthy soil that creates a great immune system for the plants," added Keefer. "So you can resist more pests, mold or bacterial problems."
Before we left Sonoma Hills, we asked the renowned chef and cannabis farmer about his goals and visions. What has he taken from his transition to the heights he has already reached in his career?
"I want people to understand that what they smoke is not the process or how it is cured. What they smoke is the life of the plant," he replied Let light grow inside, or would you like them to grow outside in one of the most beautiful temperate parts of the country without a single pesticide, just farmland and sea air? "
Expect to see the Sonoma Hills Farm flowers hit the shelves of the LA pharmacy later this fall. We'll be sure to tell you where to get them once the croptober harvest arrives.