Before Jessi Rockenbach was a cannabis farmer, she was working as a graphic designer during the week and a waitress on the weekends. She dreamed of living in the country, working in nature, and making art. As fate would have it, she was hired to work in Humboldt in the Mattole Valley over a decade ago. It was during this time that Jessi fell in love with the area's beauty and culture of freedom. For the first time, it felt like home. Today Jessi and her partner Kris Schuster run Terravida Farms. Relying on regenerative methods and living soil, Terravida uses zero synthetic inputs or pesticides. In fact, her mission is to make the land they work better off than they found it. Producing sungrown flower, Jessi is dedicated to sustainable farming practices. Terravida is an expression of love for their land, fresh water, and pure sunlight. From the number on mistake, she sees cannabis cultivators making to sustainable farming techniques, this is Jessi's journey.
Tell us about your journey in developing Terravida Farms
Before I was a farmer, I was working as a graphic designer during the week and a waitress on weekends. I dreamt of living in the country, working in nature, and painting and taking photographs. After a very fateful whirlwind weekend near the Lost Coast, I was hired to work in Humboldt in the Mattole Valley over a decade ago and fell in love with its devastating beauty and culture of freedom. I knew immediately that I wanted to live here and farm and make time to create art. I wanted to live the American Dream.
Five years ago, I teamed up with my partner, Kris Schuster, who I met working that very first job in the hills. We dreamed, and still dream, of creating a homestead together. Until this year, we have been tenant farmers without a permanent home. We are very happy to finally say that we have moved our farm for the last time (we have moved farms five times in five years), as we closed on our dream land this last June. This will be the last time we have to start fresh.
The silver lining for us is that we have had a ton of on-site experience setting up different farms in different microclimates, and we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't. We are thrilled to start developing our piece of raw land with permaculture ideas at the heart of what we are building. Our land is the greatest canvas we could ever ask for. Our land is called, "New Jerusalem", after the name the pioneers originally gave this special part of the Mattole Valley.
Building the brand of Terravida has been part of the journey for the last two years. Back then, we still hadn't found the perfect land to call our own, but we did have a set of ethics and a working farm. Farmers traditionally were not safe enough to brand themselves in California's grey medical laws, but we saw an opportunity arise as regulations around medical cannabis started evolving with the MCRSA. We jumped at the opportunity to express ourselves and the nature of our cannabis to our patients through branding. Terravida was a result of us finally feeling safe enough to proudly call our flower our own, despite not owning our land yet.
Terravida stands for a set of principals that my partner and I live and farm by. We use regenerative methods and use living native soil. We don't use any synthetic inputs and use only beneficial teas, never pesticides. Our aim is always to make the land we work better off than how we found it. We believe in growing with nature, because nature knows best.
Our brand is an expression of our love for our land, fresh water, pure sunlight, and our gratitude for all that it gives us. Our brand is our promise that we work to protect these things, and we hope you can taste it in our flowers.
What does a day in the life of Jessi consist of?
My day can change pretty radically day to day, season to season. Compliance has demanded that we farmers wear a lot more hats than we traditionally did!
This winter, I have focused on packaging design (I would not recommend attempting this at home, but it was my background), web design, writing, editing photography, compliance paperwork, and political action. For the farm, we've been soaking seeds and cloning from last year's genetic stock experiments that did best in our microclimate. We're also getting flower into pre rolls and new packaging that arrives soon and traveling for trade shows and farmers markets down south.
During the upcoming spring, as soon as it's sunny and the ground has firmed up enough, I'll be outside all day, every day, six days a week with my hands in the dirt or working power tools. We'll be building all sorts of new garden infrastructure for veggies, flowers, and cannabis, and some for ourselves and livestock as well. Those six days are pure magic. The seventh day becomes town/errand/professional meetings day. Since town is an hour and a half away down a road that's falling apart, we make it count. Living way out here, we have to get a week's worth of errands and meetings done in a day, including our supply missions for building and gardening projects. Those days are hectic, and probably my least favorite.
In the heat of summer, my day will consist of working with plants all day, every day, and into every evening. From before sunrise to after sunset, I will work on tending to watering, pruning, trellising, watching for signs of trouble, tending to broken branches, helping the plants. This is the time of year when we really need help because we don't have time anymore for normal life. The cannabis plant is a diva, and growing her outside in nature involves staying on your toes. This time of year our biggest threats are gophers (they can eat an entire plant's root system in a blink) and wild turkeys (the young ones like to roost up in the plants unless you cage them out, which can break every branch if they are clumsy, which they always are). We keep a large tribe of barn cats and a cattle dog mutt on staff to help us out with these! We hardly ever take days off, and never do this time of year, so if the heat and the pressure get to be too much, we go down to the river and cool off for an hour or two.
By autumn, when the river gets low and harvest creeps in, we kick it into a whole new gear and really burn the candle at both ends for a while. Harvest is a very busy time on a farm. Each morning before sunrise, I get up to check the dry shed for humidity levels, temperature, mess with fans, heaters and dehumidifier, and check the branches drying on the lines. Throughout the day, we check plants that are still in the ground for signs of finishing or signs of trouble. We rotate flowers that are finishing their curing in totes, having already come off the lines. I have a very particular curing process that requires a lot of observation and maintenance for weeks. Then of course, we keep harvesting! Every evening is filled with tending to trimming (I quality check every bud myself) and trimmed flower and all that entails, which now includes getting it into individual pre-rolls and 1/8th oz packages. By winter, we're ready for holidays and rest.
Any tips for maintaining a work/life balance?
This is something we are consciously shifting focus to this year, because last year and the year before we failed at it. We are admittedly workaholics. Farming was always really busy hard work, but everything that goes into a compliant farm has made it much more complicated than it used to be, and it's easy to get lost in the busyness and the noise of it all. We have to slow ourselves down and enjoy the ride, or it isn't really worth it. We chose farming for a way of life, and we need to preserve that.
This year, we're going to achieve this balance by scheduling one day off per week (exceptions for farm emergencies only, which happen and can't be ignored), and we're telling ourselves to get to the river for at least one dip a day. Our lives are so busy that we have to work in leisure in small breaks where we can fit it. Farming will take all of your time if you let it! Luckily, we love what we do, so even those times feel rewarding despite the stress and fatigue.
Name 3 ways the cannabis community can support sustainable farming practices.
1.) Install rainwater catchment systems and store water from the wet season for use on your crop during the dry season. Help the health of out watersheds, rivers and salmon and start saving water when it counts today. (We sure have plenty this winter!)
2.) Stop buying potting soils! You can re-use your soils or use native soils and build them up to be better every year using material from your own farm collected with your own hands. Not only is this better for the environment, it's way nicer on your wallet.
Start sourcing inputs from your own farm. Creating closed loops on your farm reduces your carbon footprint drastically, and breaks your reliance on a wasteful system.
3.) Cannabis has a chance to be a new model for modern agriculture. We will set the new bar for sustainable practices. Scientists predict that if we continue using modern commercial agricultural techniques, we will run out of topsoil by 2050. Cannabis needs to lead the regenerative movement.
What are some of the biggest advantages to sun-grown flower?
Environmentally, sun grown flowers are inherently a more sustainable choice than indoor in more ways than one, far beyond the fuel used to power the lights. You can't farm indoors like we do in nature. Right in our backyard, we have an infinite supply of every material we need to build soil and native micro-organisms assist the plants in their digestion of the nutrients held there. We believe micro-life is more important than nutrients. Indoor growers (not all of them, but most) often use lifeless dirt (like Coco Fiber, etc.) with synthetic nutrients from bottles, which they have to "flush out" at the end of the plant's flowering cycle for two weeks or more.
This discharge is bad for our water supply and doesn't taste good when it's not flushed out long enough. Synthetic nutrients also weaken plant's immune systems because they are more taxing on the plant to "digest" (without micro life to aid them, just like our own gut flora), so often this means that growers resort to pesticide use. Aside from these quality factors, real sun spectrum UV rays produce a wider range of cannabinoids and express more robust terpene profiles than artificial lights do. I've always thought that organically sun grown flowers taste best and hit smoothest. I never smoke anything else.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The very best part is working outside with plants. There is absolutely nothing as grounding as getting my fingers and toes in the dirt and nurturing these graceful flowers. I get to help this plant fulfill her destiny, which is to flourish in her natural environment and provide help in many forms to patients. It is extremely rewarding.
Name the number one mistake you see cannabis cultivators making
In the garden, I think it's paying (insanely high) retail prices for bottled nutrients that you don't really need. In the past, this worked for people because, frankly, margins allowed for it.
In today's market, we need to use living soils to feed our plants with locally available inputs from sustainable sources, and organic amendment if necessary (test your soil first to see if it really is). We are going to be facing price drops and whole new sets of taxes that will cut into already thin current margins, and this is a huge shift that can help a small farm survive.
What is your favorite cannabis strain and why?
I personally love sativas that inspire me to be productive and creative, and I also love citrus leaning palettes. Recently, this for me has been the Sour Tangie from DNA Genetics. It has all of the best uplifting qualities I look for (from the Sour Diesel and Tangie parents), as well as mouthwatering notes of pungent tangerines.
What is the biggest challenge you've faced operating in the cannabis industry?
The first and foremost challenge is the amount of time it physically requires to run a farm and the sacrifices that takes from your life over time.
The other has been the fear that comes along with helicopters, the convoy alerts over the radio, and living in a culture that still has very lasting impressions of a long drug war that isn't quite over yet. Living in fear for your freedom comes at a cost, and it makes me eternally grateful to feel that could come to an end soon.
If you could offer an aspiring cannabis entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Ask questions and really listen. There's a lot of hard lessons in this business, don't learn them the hard way!