Updated: Mar 3
Is terroir soil, or is it a human construct? The French INAO which regulates appellations in France argues that it is both, that terroir is the interaction between place, plant and people over time. It is a transmission. If one aspect is missing, it is not terroir. I talked with Frenchy Cannoli, cannabis lecturer and educator, and for him there is no doubt: “Terroir is about osmosis between the farmer and the environment.”
Cannabis—like wine, coffee, cheese and other foods/drinks—can convey a sense of time and place. Blessed by a moderate climate and intense rainfall, Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino and Trinity counties are uniquely suited to growing cannabis. “The soil gives life, the climate shapes life,” says Cannoli. The same cannabis strain grown in Salmon Creek or in the Mattole Valley will taste different because the soil microbiome, climate and geography of each region gives cannabis unique characteristics. It transmits specifity of place.
Daniel Hendricks, CEO of HendRx Farm, notes that “with over 1000 cultivation licenses, and over fifty years of cultivation history, Humboldt County has a mass of genetic lineage.” Every cannabis cultivar produces its own effects and flavor profile, and reveals certain consistent sensory properties while at the same time expressing the terroir in which it was grown. Terra Carver, cannabis farmer and Executive Director of the Humboldt County Growers Alliance (HCGA) says that given unfavorable IP Law and Patent Law when it comes to open-ended genetic preservation, the key is “to keep our small farms strong, viable and healthy. The more small farms, the more repository for genetics.” Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, an independent expert on UN drug policy, sees potential in the UN Declaration of the Rights of Peasants which includes the right to land and the right to seeds. Genetic transmission is core to terroir.
The social nature of craft knowledge is also intrinsic to terroir. Going to a business school or a cannabis institute may provide a new farmer or extractor with valuable training, but what of the other senses that are crucial for quality crafting? To identify and replicate certain characteristics in the aroma and flavor profiles of the cannabis itself, to be instinctively attuned to the changes in the weather, to know by heart and not just by intellect how to cure cannabis--these skills develop through intergenerational discussion and cumulative knowledge in the space of production.
“Culture is massively important,” says Cannoli. Generations have farmed cannabis in Humboldt, Mendocino and Trinity counties, shared their genetics and their practices, helped (and sometimes hindered) their neighbors, and tasted each other’s flower. They’ve also taught each other’s kids, built community centers and health clinics, played music and held potlucks together in the hills and by the rivers of the Emerald Triangle. The French historian Pierre Nora calls this “lieux de memoire” (real environments of memory). All the senses are implicated in this transmission. You cannot speak of terroir where there is no shared past.
“I want to acknowledge time,” says Carver. The co-evolution of organisms on the planet takes time. Working with nature, not against it, takes time. The preservation of genetics and the transmission of knowledge take time. And the development of cannabis appellations in the Emerald Triangle will take time. For those looking to establish cannabis appellations, work is needed to “develop organizational strength, and to determine practices, cultivars and regions,” notes Carver. “It is generations’ worth of work.”
That work is itself transmission.
Nicole Riggs is the founder of Manifesto Synergies, an agency providing communication services to the cannabis industry in Humboldt.