This California cannabis brand is putting sustainability at the forefront for a better environment but also a better smoking experience.
In Upper Lake, Lake County California lies Aster Farms, a sustainable and Clean Green Certified cannabis farm owned by Sam Campodonico-Ludwig and Julia Jacobson. While the couple didn’t always intend to literally put down roots in California, they sprung at the chance when the opportunity arose for them to move out of New York years ago.
Aster Farms was founded in 2016 with Julia focusing on all things business and Sam focusing on operations, marketing, and creative. In 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire burned through almost all of their land. They had 600 plants that year and only 13 survived. Now, after rebuilding and creating the farm of their dreams, Julia, Sam, and their Director of Cultivation, Noah Cornell, grow an acre of outdoor cannabis and over 5,000 square feet of greenhouse-grown cannabis and have plans to expand.
I got the chance to speak with Julia and Sam about their sustainable farm, the silver linings found in devastation, and how they’re letting their focus on sustainability and responsible farming lead Aster Farms’ vision.
Sam, your family has some experience with cannabis cultivation. Could you expand on that?
Sam: My dad’s family moved to Mendocino, California, in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s right when Mendocino was becoming world-renowned for its quality of cannabis. The began cultivating shortly after and the farm is still in the family—my uncle lives there on this off-the-grid farm that’s totally self-sustained. They grow all their own food and raise their own cattle. I grew up going up there—unbeknownst to me that there was all sorts of cannabis cultivation going on—but as I got older my folks were more transparent about what was going on up there. We’d visit the farm and they would trim and help out with the plants. I guess there are photos floating around of me in a little basket next to my mom and dad trimming.
How did this experience influence your current sustainable style of cultivation?
Julia: We were really inspired by the off-the-grid sustainable way Sam’s family approached agriculture and living on the Mendocino farm. On Sam’s other side of the family, his uncle has an organic olive farm in Lake County about 20 minutes from our property. So, really on both sides of Sam’s family, there is a lot of history and importance on sustainability, organic practices, and going back to the land. So we took all that we were inspired by with Sam’s family and put that ethos into the brand we’re building at Aster Farms.
Did you call upon Sam’s family for advice when you started your own farm?
Julia: Sam’s family has definitely been involved. We lean on each other in various ways. We help out with labor during the olive harvest every November and exchange local knowledge about cannabis, olives, grants, agriculture in general. We didn't come from Ag, so we are very fortunate to have the support. Sam's uncle gave us a lot of advice on our ag pond.
Sam: We focus on hiring and working with people from within the industry, partially in respect to those who founded this industry, and partially because they are experts. Decades of experience is not something you can pick up reading, no matter how smart or hard-working you are.
We ended up connecting with an old family friend, Noah Cornell, who is now our Director of Cultivation. We went to school for sustainable agriculture, grew organic vegetables (among other things) on the East Coast before heading to Lake Country about 15 years ago. I think it’s very important o work with people you trust and Noah's experience aligns perfectly with our vision.
Ag pond? Can you tell me more about that?
Julia: With cannabis you’re not allowed to pull from your spring or water sources during the high season so we have to use ag ponds. The PH of stagnant water spikes and can become harmful to the plant at a certain point, so we built a wetland in our ag pond to create a sustainable ecosystem. We had some challenges and Sam’s family gave us some very helpful advice on how to address it for this next year. So, we definitely do lean into some of their expertise when it comes to sustaining our organic agriculture.
You’ve spoken a bit about sustainability, and I saw someone refer to Aster Farms as a “heritage farm.” Is that term really used? And if so, what does that mean exactly?
“We’re trying to bring craft cannabis to scale, and I think that’s really important.”
Julia: It’s not really a term that we use. We are responsible and considerate in all the decisions we make on the farm, and in comparison to the massive greenhouse operations on the central coast and desert, we may be viewed as “heritage”. We do try to stick with landrace strains and while it’s difficult to find genetics, we try our hardest to stick as close to those pure strains as possible. Our Maui OG is one of our best sellers and it’s derived from Maui Wowie. Most people who smoked cannabis in the ‘70s remember what Maui Wowie is, so that’s one aspect of heritage that we really tap into.
Sam: But, I do think that the term heritage is being used as a blanket across all outdoor farms. We’re trying to bring craft cannabis to scale, and I think that’s really important. We do not associate ourselves with the idea of being heritage. We are craft, absolutely, but we’re craft-at-scale.
Why do you choose to strictly grow sun-grown cannabis?
Julia: We chose sun-grown cannabis because we really believe that is the best way to grow cannabis. The full-spectrum sunlight builds the complexity of the terpenes and cannabinoids in the plant that cannot be replicated elsewhere. You need the ends of the spectrum, those deep blues and reds for the plant to fully express. Sun-grown also allows us to grow in-ground. This gives the plant's roots room to go deep and wide and really connect with the ecosystem that has been created in the live soil on our farm. We believe the best cannabis is sun-grown, in-ground. Not indoors in pots.
Sam: We got into this to make sure we’re growing the highest quality product that we can. An easy analogy is tomatoes. What’s better, a hot house tomato or an heirloom tomato that’s grown outside? You’ll always choose the heirloom because of the complexity of flavor and quality of the product is obvious. There’s a very noticeable difference and that’s the same with cannabis.