Many of the articles about cannabis that appear in the AVA are so chock full of bad news that they would depress even Julie Andrews, who plays Maria von Trapp, an eternal optimist, in the sickly sweet musical drama, The Sound of Music. But all news is not bad news in the cannabis fields of Mendo. Believe you me. I know. I’ve been writing about cannabis in Mendo even since Tom Jondhal was sheriff. On one occasion, Jondhal complained to me that cops in New York called to say that they had just confiscated a few hundred pounds of pot labeled “Grown in Mendocino California.” Jondhal didn’t want to go out and bust growers, but he had to show New York, along with DEA agents in D.C., that he wasn’t soft on weed. So he made a few arrests and told me, “I only confiscate about 10% of the crop.”
That was long before Byron Koehler— known as “Big B”—and Marty Clein—known as “Martyjuana”—began to grow cannabis legally, organically and in direct sunlight. They're still growing it near the geographical heart of the Emerald Triangle, where more weed is grown than in any other in the U.S. Koehler and Clein (who own the trademark on "Martyjuana”) have a permit from the County of Mendocino. They also have state licenses from Calcannabis, a division of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), headquartered in Sacramento headquarters of the Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) which aims to end the black market and collect taxes on licensed businesses. So far, the BCC effort has not been a success. All over California, the black market is thriving and tax revenue from the legal cannabis sector, a multi-billion-dollar-a-year-industry, has not met expectations.
This fall, I visited “Big B’s Martyjuana Farm” in the hills about 20 minutes by car from the town of Covelo, still the wild west, populated, as many AVA readers know, by cowboys and Indians, and where shootings, killings and kidnappings routinely take place, some of them connected to cannabis. For years, the police have conducted raids and have made arrests, but the cycle of growing, harvesting and making money—a kind of addiction—along with crime, goes on. In 2020, police raids netted thousands of plants from cartel operations in and around Covelo. Confiscated weed was buried in the ground. Cops also seized meth and money.
Big B’s Martyjuana Farm is less visible and less accessible than the Indian reservation in Round Valley where the land is flat. The quarter acre of primo weed which Clein and Koehler grow according to biodynamic principles, is really only visible from above and certainly not from the Valley below. I’ve seen dozens of farms from a small plane five-hundred feet or so above ground level. Tom Allman also saw them. He told me once that he flew over the county and saw exactly where pot was grown. “I know which growers are Republicans, which ones are Democrats and which ones are libertarians,” he told me.
County and state applications describe geographical coordinates so enforcers can differentiate a legal from an illegal operation. Today, from Clein’s and Koehler’s farm above Covelo, I can see in the distance a beautiful plume of smoke from a forest fire that has raged for months. According to Clein, pot cultivated in his neck of the woods has not been contaminated by smoke. Still, in the Emerald Triangle some growers and industry analysts are concerned that heavy metals and carcinogenic elements might show up in weed that makes its way to the marketplace. So far, based on lab testing, there is little or no evidence that the 2020 cannabis crop presents a threat to public health. That’s good news.
It’s bad news that cannabis farms burned to the ground during this year’s wildfires, crops literally going up in smoke.
Over the past 40 or so years, I’ve heard the sound of money—ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching. I’ve watched growers vault from rags to riches, and become land barons. I’ve watched guys turn to speed and coke, go off the deep end and land in jail. (I was always amazed that coke from Peru made its way to Potter Valley, Covelo and deep into forests.) Over the decades, I’ve met lawyers, judges, cops and the owners of cannabis dispensaries. I’ve learned that the industry is a world unto itself, though it connects to nearly every other part of California culture and the economy. Californians buy (mostly on the black market) and consume a shit load of weed. They smoke it, eat it and use it as an oil or a tincture. Delivery now comes in all kinds of ways that weren’t available in 1980 when I first roamed the Mendo hills.
The farm I’m visiting is one of a small number that has come out of the shadows with the aim of playing by the rules, which continually change. For every legal grow there are probably ten times that many illegal grows. Clein and Koehler have ploughed profits into the farm’s infrastructure: solar power, culverts and buildings for processing.
They don't drive Porches and vacation in Bali. I saw some of that behavior in the 1980s, when I lived in Mendo, blended in with the locals, watched the cannabis culture evolve, and took part in its rituals. The best one for my money took place at Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival, when growers built a big bonfire and tossed ounces into the flames. The idea wasn’t to get stoned, but to practice non-attachment to weed, let it go up in smoke and watch it rise to the heavens. Around campfires I listened to tall and true stories, shared meals and found a lover from the Deep South, who was a grower and liked to smoke weed. Police helicopters upped her paranoia level. Hippie and New Age consciousness abounded, along with the get-rich-quick trip. Both have continued along parallel tracks to this day.
On a Friday morning, Clein met me in the parking lot of Covelo’s only big grocery market. Half-a-dozen guys were hanging out. One of them introduced himself as an Italian from Naples and told me in excellent English that he was looking for work in the cannabis industry. “Why are you here?” he asked. “I’m waiting for my friend, Martyjuana,” I replied.
What I said must have gotten lost in translation. He replied, “I’m waiting for him, too.” A few minutes later, Clein pulled up in a van with two pups, Cama and Maya (named after the Mayacamas Mountains). I climbed aboard and held on as we went along a paved road where farmers were growing weed in greenhouses. They seemed like the proverbial sitting ducks, but maybe there was safety in numbers.
Clein slowed down on unpaved road, the tires kicking up waves of dust that blanketed the vehicle and that required use of the windshield wipers. Clein told me: “I plant and harvest by the cycles of the sun and moon and add beneficial insects like ladybugs by the moon. I grow a crop once a year in direct sunlight, though sun-grown cannabis is the step child in the industry. If you want to maximize profits, grow indoors. If you want complex terpenes which add to the enjoyment, grow outdoors.” Clein paused and took a hairpin curve. “The climate here is near perfect for cannabis,” he added. “It’s hot and dry and rarely rains from May to October. Mites can be a problem, mold less so. Our water comes from an artesian well.”
Big B’s Martyjuana Farm boasts three separate gardens on about 10,000 square feet. During harvest, which lasts from September to November, when it can turn cold and rainy, Byron and Marty work sixteen to eighteen hours a day with essential help from wives and family. The day I visited, the harvest had been in progress for weeks. Weed was drying and curing in barns and sheds, which were equipped with fans and dehumidifiers. Byron’s wife sautéed organic vegetables, from Joe Munson’s Sonoma County garden, in an outdoor kitchen. Some kind of music played on loudspeakers, but I was so busy watching what was going on that I didn’t recognize it.
Byron took me aside and told me, “I’ve been growing in Mendo and Humboldt since 1981. I graduated from Humboldt State.” He said that if his and Marty’s farm went belly up he might find work as a fisherman or a sea urchin diver, both of which he did for years. Marty, who comes from Florida, lived for a decade in Sonoma which is where I first met him.
He worked in the wine industry as a cellar rat at Benziger Family Winery and as a tasting room manager at Mayo Family Winery. Marty says he might go back to wine if he can’t make it in cannabis. The future for growers like him will be more competitive in the years ahead, since big companies with heaps of money have jumped into the industry, and have begun to seize and squeeze the market for themselves.
Clein points an accusing finger at Gavin Newsom. When Newsom was lieutenant governor, he visited the Emerald Triangle, promised the “mom and pop” growers that the State of California would protect them against the big guys. He won their support. The promise has since largely faded away. “I think that the idea now is to eliminate small growers in the hills,” Clein says. “I see a concerted effort by large scale distributors—who are vertically integrated with retailers and farms in the Central Valley—to wipe us out.” Indeed, the market will do what the cops couldn’t do.
Meanwhile Clein and Koehler are pleased that several of their strains, including “Strawberry Space Zkittles,” “Covelo Kush,” and “Carmel Apple Gelato,” can be found in select dispensaries as pre-rolled and in jars that contain flowers. “We believe in what we’re doing,” Clein said. “Cannabis can be good medicine.” I’ve tried it and have found that it can help me sleep, take away pains and boost by libido.
On the drive way down the mountain and back to Covelo, I followed a caravan carrying weed, not wood, apples or grapes. The odor was unmistakable. There were no roadblocks, as there sometimes can be. No cops stopped vehicles, conducted searches, confiscated crops and made arrests. Just as well. I didn’t need the added excitement. Nor did I hear any of the soundtrack from The Sound of Music. If I had, I’m sure that I would have been hallucinating. Julie Andrews, you should have quit Switzerland, come to Mendo and taught hippie, redneck, and hipneck kids to sing songs like “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Rei-Me” and “Something Good,” which might be interpreted as songs about weed.