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Silence. Birds chirping. The wind in the grass. Dawn at Charley Custer's fifty-acre farm in Humboldt. The peacefulness feels like a window into heaven.
Custer tells guests to feel free to take a leak in the field, but to go number two in the outhouse. He marches through the fields in a bathrobe and sandals to rotate his solar panels. He's a Chicago native and former reporter for the Chicago Reader who tired of the city life and headed off the grid.
After first visiting in the mid-Eighties, he settled in the area to help with forest protection. He purchased this huge piece of property miles up several dirt roads with his wife Liz. The Drug Enforcement Administration had raided the prior owner because of a giant diesel-fueled pot grow in the property's barn. Custer got the land at a discount.
Today, he grows vegetables and about thirty lawful pot plants near the ruins of the old industrial dope scene. That sixty-light grow had been powered by hundreds of gallons of diesel, and a hazmat team from Chico had to be called in to dispose of five fifty-gallon drums of used motor oil, Custer recalls.
Sealed up tight, the barn roof had a triple-layer of insulation to hide the grow's immense heat from the police department's thermal imagers. The dank growop's Sheetrock walls became covered with black mold.
Custer helped found the Humboldt Medical Marijuana Advisory Council, is its secretary, and knows many people in the close-knit community. In a Humboldt version of a barn raising, dozens of neighbors helped him and Liz remove tons of dirt from inside the old industrial grow house. Today, it's a study with a library and a wall-size map of the Emerald Triangle's fiercely rugged and unconquerable terrain.
Sitting at his dinner table, looking out over the valley, he says that most of the Tea House Collective members knew each other before its founding. They were like-minded environmentalists and growers who realized that what they had started was escaping from them. "We're just recognizing that things are changing down there and we aren't affecting how they're changing, and if they continue to change that way, they'll evolve away from us," he explains.
The Tea House Collective, known among its members as THC, which is also an abbreviation for a psychoactive-ingredient in cannabis, formally started in spring 2010, before planting. The nascent group made sure that all of its gardeners were abiding by the collective's self-enforced rules, which include growing small-scale (around thirty plants) and outdoors only, without any artificial fertilizers or chemical sprays.
Kim amends the local "tectonic toothpaste" soil with potting soil, green sand, Calphos, bat guano, kelp, peat moss, glacial sand, and green manure like bean stalks.
THC grower Marsha's personal recipe includes chicken shit, fish emulsion, oyster shell, perlite, and microbial root amendments. "People are doing thousands of plants; I have 29," she said. "I can enjoy them. I'm in personal touch with every single plant."
The diet of plants grown by the collective's farmers differs sharply from indoor growers, who buy plastic tanks of chemical nutrients named "Wet Betty" and "Big Bud" from the hydro stores. They all contain a mix of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, but the chemical binders and supposedly "inert" unlisted ingredients give purists pause. "I don't know anything about chemicals," Marsha said. "I only grow organically."
THC growers must also grow "sustainably," which loosely means diverting only a small fraction of water from watersheds and avoiding fertilization techniques that affect ground and stream water. The idea has been challenging to implement. "We call it 'herding hippies,' and theoretically it's impossible," Custer said. "But, in fact, because we were magnetized by common values, the people that came into Tea House came of their own accord.
"We didn't do any sort of sales job," he continued. "People had confidence in the values and they knew who Liz and I and my friends like Karen down in the city were. They could trust us. We were all taking a gamble together."
After last fall's harvest, THC's founding growers each donated a pound of their best stuff to the collective. The group came up with a logo, a web site, and marketing materials. They originally hoped to set up shop with their own dispensary in Berkeley, but after learning that it could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, they settled on a home delivery model, with offices in Berkeley. "Initially we planned on getting the word out virally," Custer said. But it's proven harder than they thought.
The group currently does home sales visits similar to Tupperware parties, catering to well-off, privacy-minded Bay Area weed aficionados who prefer to buy organic. The collective also recently bought a booth at the Deep Green eco-fest in Richmond on April 23. It netted them plenty of interest and a couple dozen new members. "There are people in their thirties that have never seen an outdoor plant," Custer said. "They go, 'Wow, this is really a plant. They're really beautiful!'"
Top-notch, organically grown pot also smells, tastes, and feels better, purists say. It's much like the difference between an industrially farmed tomato from Safeway and an organic tomato from the farmers' market, Kemp said. "Everybody knows a tomato from a farmers' market — it tastes so wonderful. That's the difference that I see happening with medical marijuana. Of course there's good indoor, but as a whole you get healthier plants that are better for your body with outdoor. God, it's just beautiful."