The Hardscrabble Origins of California's Fabled "Emerald Triangle"
How a generation discovered a grower's paradise in the Northern California wildnerness.
Published on August 14, 2017

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The hippie revolution in the San Francisco Bay Area was a time of great change. It was the mid-'70’s, and the Haight Ashbury was scuzzy––hard drugs had hit the streets, and even pot sales could be shady. Conspicuous dealers in open-collared shirts with lots of gold, silver, and turquoise jewelry were holding court in every fern bar, and smokers had graduated to the speedy high and yummy chocolate flavor of Thai Sticks, with their little buds wrapped around tiny bamboo sticks. Made you want to visit Thailand.

The horrid war in Vietnam was wrapping up and Southeast Asia had become a popular stop on the hippie trail. Young travelers hit the hills of Thailand to visit opium-producing tribes and sample their wares, then taking the mandatory elephant ride. The area of Laos, Thailand, and Burma became known as The Golden Triangle due to the prolific poppy fields across the region. Along with the opium, tasty Thai sticks were discovered and soon ship loads of finely crafted Thai buds were headed to the Western world.

By the late ‘70s, the Asian connection was breaking down. Too many boats were busted en route to the States, and dealers across the water were going down. The supply train was basically stopped, but stoners still wanted to get high. As they say, "Find a need and fill it." So green-thumbed hippies began to move north from the Bay Area to the mountains three or four hours away, where they felt hidden enough to grow weed. “Homegrown” they called it and when it began to hit the market people knew right away that this was special, not your average Mexican or Colombian weed that was still available.

It took a certain kind of pioneer spirit to come north to the rough un-populated counties of Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity, but they proved to have the perfect conditions to become the premier cannabis growing region in California. It took courage and foresight to create farms out of barren hillsides and build a community that hung together, both in and out of the shadows. As the cannabis from this new growing region became more and more popular, a name was given to the area, no doubt stemming from the sister area in Asia. This slice of cannabis heaven became known as “The Emerald Triangle.”

While we may romanticize the pot scene of the '70s and '80s, life was not easy. Growers hid out in the mountains, living in tents, eating rice and beans, not unlike those lured to the California hills in the gold rush of 1849. In order not to wear an obvious path to a forest grow site, growers crawled under the manzanita bushes, a bag of soil on their shoulder, then dug a hole to plant in. On the way back out, they would cover their retreating footsteps with brush. Irrigation lines had to be hidden from heat-detecting cameras in overhead planes. The green manzanita leaves offered scant camouflage for the six to eight ounce plants at their base.

Most farmers made their own soil from forest duff, chicken manure, enriching its nitrogen levels with their own urine, which they’d save in gallon-sized apple cider jugs. One could not risk being seen loading up a pick up truck or trailer with bags of soil or fertilizer. The Sheriff or DEA was often on stakeout near local nurseries. Or they could be spotted late at night lurking in the shadows in town near the gas station and the pay phone.

Co-author Swami Chaitany tends to his plants at Ganja Ma Gardens farm in Northern California's Emerald Triangle (via)

Come harvest time in October, the level of paranoia would increase exponentially. The approaching sound of helicopters was a constant threat. Nothing was more sickening than looking up to see large cargo nets full of freshly cut pot plants––the result of a raid by CAMP (Campaign against Marijuana Production) or the DEA. There were marijuana rustlers as well, and many grow camps were armed and loaded, with booby traps rigged. It was a New Age Wild West.

Things worked perfectly well for decades before it became “legal”––the only issue was that occasionally, someone would go to jail, and everybody who needed their medicine wouldn’t be able to get it for a while. Everything was on a need-to-know basis; no one talked about weed or growing in public. Deals were done on trust, sealed by eye contact and a handshake. The community dealt with those who broke that trust on its own, without government intervention. Buyers from back east or dealers from San Francisco and Berkeley would show up with suitcases full of cash, smoke one or two joints and take 10 or 20 pounds, or maybe the whole crop. Just before 1996, when Prop 215 passed legalizing medical marijuana, the price reached as high as $5000 a pound for "the kind" from the Emerald Triangle.

Of the three counties, Trinity produces excellent cannabis, but is not as well-known as her larger sisters, Humboldt and Mendocino. Just mention either one of these remote California counties to anyone who knows something about cannabis, and they’ll nod their heads with a knowing look that implies, “Oh yeah, that’s the best.”

What is it about these mountains and valleys? It’s not just about the ideal altitude and geographical conditions that make the Triangle so sweet for cultivation. Nor is it only about having some of the cleanest water in the country or freshest air. It’s also about the people and the cannabis culture which has developed over the past four decades, the knowledge gained and shared. There’s now third generation farmers growing in these hills and valleys, and if the new laws allow them to continue, their children will carry on after them.

Nikki and Swami
Known as "The Cannabis Couple," Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya have been proudly promoting cannabis use for decades. As cannabis cultivators in Mendocino County, the heart of the legendary "Emerald Triangle" region, Nikki and Swami are behind the brand Swami Select, producing taste and pure flowers grown in full sun with organic methods, plus that extra little Swami touch.
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