On a recent Monday morning, Aaron Keefer was trying to get the cows to come home. An unlatched gate allowed some to trample vegetable plants at Sonoma Hills Farm where Keefer is the top gardener-farmer-cannabis cultivator.
Sonoma Hills Farm, located about 30 miles north of San Francisco, is both a craft cannabis grow site, culinary garden, fruit orchard, and working farm with livestock. Using regenerative agriculture, the cannabis is sun grown and raised organically for the best expression of the plant.
Officially, Keefer is the farm's vice president of cultivation and production, a post he assumed in February 2020. Previously, he gained renown as the head culinary farmer for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, which includes nearby Yountville's The French Laundry, famed for tasting menus featuring his exquisite produce.
Now, Keefer is applying his farming know-how to craft cannabis by growing about an acre of it in rich farmland known as the Petaluma Gap. The area, designated an American Viticultural Area in 2017, is legendary for producing premium wine grapes under the tempering fog and energizing breeze, nine miles from the ocean. The terroir also produces a stronger flavor expression in cannabis, said Keefer, an advocate for creating a similar cannabis appellation system.
“We are trying to grow the cannabis we want to smoke. And if we do that, we are pretty sure everyone else will, too,” he explained to Weedmaps during a recent trip to Los Angeles. The farm's ultra-sustainable practices result in a stronger plant, a tastier smoke, and a purer high while leaving the farmland richer and cleaner.
With the first cannabis harvest in 2020, and Sonoma Hills Farm products landing in dispensaries this year, Keefer demonstrated that farmers could cultivate connoisseur-quality weed there without an energy-intensive indoor growing operation. It's a holistic, agricultural model he'd like to see adopted to keep other small farms alive.
“Farmers have always grown what makes money. Cannabis is a great example of an income-producer for a diversified farm. Wine grapes have been a great cash crop over the past 20 years as usage of wine has gone up. Now it's a monoculture of grapevines,” he said. Yet copying his grow model may not be easy, given the morass of bureaucratic licensing and the steady drip of fear left over from the War on Drugs.
Keefer expressed that the Sonoma Hills Farm model helps destigmatize weed “by connecting it with something very safe,” notably their luscious, organic food used in fine restaurants. During the pandemic, the farm planted 4.5 acres of vegetables. “We gave everything away to our restaurant partners--thousands of pounds of vegetables,” he recalled.
A former chef, Keefer would like to see cannabis used “as a third leg of hospitality” in addition to food and drink. Infusions in food aren't his preference, though: “I have a hard time with that as a chef because I like the flavors to be clean. Cannabis has such a strong flavor.” Instead, he prefers a puff of the farm's GG4 after dinner “to settle you in” or to sample the sativa-style Orange Açai as an aperitif.
As he waits for Mother Nature to work her magic on the latest crop, Keefer and crew are working to create a farm-to-table cannabis lifestyle. To that end, he envisions the farm as a “mari-winery,” a place where guests can see the plant, tour the farm, sample the wares, and even meet the cows that come to visit.
Keefer, a cannabis cultivator since his teens, shared the five weed products he can't live without.
Sonoma Hills Farms Pink Jesus
“Of course, I'm going to have to talk about the Pink Jesus that is our proprietary strain. She comes down around October 1, which is early for a full-season product. I call her the Beaujolais Nouveau of cannabis because she comes down early. It's a wonderful beginning to the harvest season. I think that she has a rich and fruity flavor.
The nose is kind of like raspberries and there's a little pink tinge to her. And the high is a wonderful, soaring high that settles into a full-body buzz and doesn't really ever have a downturn at the end. You don't have that shaky, confused feeling at the end. It's a very comfortable high with a lot of up notes.”
Raw Natural Rolling Papers
Keefer is a joint smoker, and when he's rolling one up, he reaches for RAW.
“First and foremost are the RAW Rolling Papers … I don't use the big massive ones. If you have good weed you don't need huge papers.”
“Also in my must-have arsenal are straight Mason jars. I think storage of cannabis is incredibly important. Just like wine, it has to be in a controlled environment to maintain its nose and flavor. I keep mine in the jars in a cool, dark place, without high humidity.”
“For extracts … my preferred product is Kalya Extracts. Anything they do is the highest quality. They don't have their own grow, but they work with all the different growers. They are pretty darn picky about what they do extract. I think the name means perfection in Sanskrit. That is their pursuit. I think that they really do bring the product to a peak expression.”
“For edibles, I really, really like Rose Delights. I think they are doing some of the best edibles. They make a Turkish delight. They are low strength, about 5 milligrams [THC] each, so you can pick and choose how much you want. The approach to it is like a Michelin-starred restaurant. They curate cannabis and the fruit for it and come up with some cool flavors.
They also will work with chefs and come up with a recipe and source the ingredients like a chef would. They have worked with us and with world-renowned chefs, like Enrique Olvera [on the Poached Pear in Chile Ancho Sativa Rosin Gummies]. Even their packaging is super nice.”
Featured image courtesy of Sonoma Hills Farms. Graphic by David Lozada/Weedmaps