I started a bamboo nursery here 20+ years ago (I’ve still got some left!) and started the cannabis nursery in the backyard on the down-low in 2011. It was a small operation, typically around 500 ft/sq, but it is where I could experiment with everything from timing of seed planting and optimal pot sizes to pricing and natural pest control.
Once the state finally allowed licensed cannabis businesses in 2016 I was able to move “out front” near the road and expand the nursery into a regular business. It has continued to grow and improve every year since then.
We certainly didn’t set out to be unique in California and the U.S. by specializing in large, seed grown, sun grown plants and allowing customers to come in and choose their own plants. That’s just how it was always done!
As indoor cultivation in Humboldt ramped up in response to severe law enforcement pressure on outdoor cannabis cultivation in the CAMP era (Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, a joint state/federal eradication program) after 1982, clones — better for indoor cultivation — became an increasingly large part of the mix. But seed grown plants always provided the majority of the finished cannabis that was, at that time, shipped from California throughout the country.
During the first four experimental years in the backyard “on the down low”, most of the plants I grew were from seed, but I did have a small cloning operation on the back porch: four EZ Cloner aeroponic clone machines and a few used T5 lights I got off of Craigslist.
Once the opportunity to operate as a normal, legal nursery became available in 2016, I quickly moved the bamboo aside, had some big sales to make room and started 4,000 cannabis seeds. I built two of the three cold frames that we still use. That year was also the first time we had formal employees. We grew some of our own clones as well as bought them from other cultivators. We didn’t sell them as rooted cuttings, though. We potted them and grew them to a larger size, acclimated to outdoor conditions as a form of value-adding. In 2016, we were sold out of plants by July 15th.
The next year, 2017, we planted about 10,000 seeds and continued with clones as well, now purchasing more from other cultivators. I built the third cold frame, hired more people and expanded the nursery area.
It turns out that people want traditional, seed grown plants and we built up a steady and loyal customer base. These days, many of the old-time pioneers of the Humboldt cannabis culture come to the nursery to buy their plants from us, which we’re honored to provide to them.
We are also unique in that people can come here and pick their own plants. Unlike tiny clones in grow-cubes, each plant is unique. We have licensed farmers show up and hand pick hundreds or sometimes thousands of plants and anyone 21+ can also pick their favorite six for their backyard garden. In that way, visiting the nursery is part of a larger experience, one we try to improve on every year.
As regulations crystalized around making it easy for large, indoor clone factories and impossible for any other business model, we had to come up with some creative solutions and workarounds to continue providing our signature outdoor, seed grown plants and to allow customers to pick their own. This is part of the reason no one else bothers to try this: it takes an absurd level of loophole-finding and problem solving to make this work.
Running this business now, for me as owner, is less about growing plants and more about filling out forms and reading hundreds of pages of regulations. Luckily, I’ve got an awesome and knowledgeable crew who takes care of the plants and customers while I fill out forms and shake my head at the bureaucratic nightmare California’s cannabis industry has become.
In the first years, —2016 and 2017 in particular — cannabis was a de facto free-for-all, with regulations in flux and no real enforcement. I took this as an opportunity to develop the business as much as possible, knowing that once everything solidified, small businesses would have regulatory cement shoes and big money would be able to buy the regulators. This is exactly what happened.
Since Plant Humboldt is on a main county road and has been very visible from the start, many old time and new time outlaw growers stopped in and asked my opinion about whether they should try to go legal. At that time, my advice was to build as much as they could as quickly as possible. Establish a market niche, a brand, a unique product. Develop your business skills for a regulated environment that will require bookkeeping and cost accounting. Figure out how to be efficient to prepare for massive price drops. There was a very small window for small owner-operators and no time to waste.
At this point, that door for new small businesses that can bootstrap themselves up slowly has more or less closed. Big, investor-subsidized weed corporations are flooding the market with below-cost product and the regulatory environment has become oppressive for anyone without big investor money. Getting through local approval can take years and cost your life savings before you even get to apply for the state licenses. Then you’re competing in a saturated market.
Starting Plant Humboldt from scratch today would be impossible. It would take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. It is likely that a dynamite manufacturing facility could be permitted more quickly than a cannabis farm in many jurisdictions. Most of the cannabis pioneers in Humboldt took one look at the mountain of paperwork and massive expenses necessary to go legal — that no other agricultural sector is subject to — and didn’t even bother trying.
Despite all the dysfunction with California’s failed experiment in legalization, we’re still here and thriving. We’ve just expanded delivery to personal use growers in other parts of the state and we keep improving the nursery grounds. We even have swag now: shirts, hoodies and stickers, as well as this website. We’re on Mastodon and on Instagram.
We’re very much looking forward to being here for a while, improving all the time. We’re still experimenting and learning how to improve our home plant delivery program, so the 2024 season should see wider service for those who can’t make the trip to the nursery themselves.
Starting in 2024, look for some new seed lines we’re really excited about, not just for the plants, but for the stories that come with them. In the meantime, we’ll have plants through July 2023 and will likely be closed and sold out by the first week in August if not sooner. Come on in and experience a piece of Humboldt history.
By Mikal, nursery founder and owner. July 1, 2023