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.
Let’s talk about your soil. In July of 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire burned hundreds of thousands of acres of land and completely destroyed your farm. You have since rebuilt and have received some help from your community. Amongst other help, a big donation came from TerraVesco in Sonoma who offered you compost and fertilizer. How has this benefited your soil and how did the fire affect your soil?
Julia: Our community came to help us and to support us. We accepted clones from a nursery in Salinas, which was an incredible donation they made that allowed us to get replanted and at least get something out of our season. In addition, we did accept amendments from TerraVesco. They really specialize in amendments made by worms, so it’s not soil. We’re not bringing in non–native soils but amendments that are mixed in with our fertilizer. We use something called a tea bath, so our fertilizer goes through our drip irrigation system into our fields. It’s basically like providing juice. We love TerraVesco since they believe in the same things we do in terms of all-organic input and sustainable practices. So, they definitely helped us improve our soil, but we’re still working with the native soil that we have on that property. Every year we work to amend it and improve it.
But, you know, fire is a part of the cycle of agriculture. As a farm that uses only organic inputs and no pesticides, we really rely on that entire ecosystem of bugs and insects. We need the predatory insects to keep pests away like ladybugs, praying mantis, and all the little microorganisms live in that top layer of soil. Those are the little creatures that are breaking down food for our plants, so when the fire burns through our property it’s burning that top layer of insects and that’s a piece of the puzzle we are also building back.
Although the fire was devastating, you’ve acknowledged that the fire is part of the land cycle, something that’s been going on for thousands of years. What silver linings have you found since the fire took place?
Julia: One of the things that was a silver lining was being able to build our ideal farm. You know, when the fire ravaged our property, we got to start over again. We were able to really identify where we wanted to expand our footprint and we have the ability to do that without damaging oak trees and wildlife habitats that needed to be preserved. It was all destroyed, so anything that we are bringing back on the property has helped the entire habitat come back to life. Another silver lining? Her name is Flash. We had a feral Yorkie that was living on the property and when the fire happened she actually allowed us to save her. Since then she’s become a farm dog who loves people.
Before the fire, did you save backup seeds for any of your strains? Are you now saving some seeds in the off chance of this happening again? What does that process of rebuilding and planning for the future look like?
“We try to grow stuff that we like and we feel will grow well in our environment.”
Julia: One of the most important things to do as a cannabis cultivator, if you care about your genetics, is to have a seed bank at all times. We continue to expand our assortment of strains - this year we will be growing approximately 10 different strains, 4 of which are core, 6 of which will be new this year. We prefer to grow from seed so our bank is vital.
Sam: With strains, we try not to chase the trends. We grow cultivars that grow well in our environment. It’s important that we continue to cultivate and breed our core genetics and not introduce all new genetics every year. The trends come out of the nurseries and legacy breeders, and while trends are important to the continued evolution of the industry, we prefer to offer a unique portfolio to the market.
In regards to your products, you have pre-rolls and flower. Do you have any plans to begin creating edibles or any other type of ingestible product? Or are you really just enjoying sticking to the traditional flower and pre-roll?
Sam: We enjoy keeping traditional with flower and pre-rolls. That’s sort of where it all starts. “It all starts with flower,” is what we like to say. Regardless of how it’s extracted or however it’s processed, it all starts with the flower. There’s value in creating other products as well. Our next product will most likely be a tincture—one for sleep and one that’s for being productive and active. Not everyone likes to smoke, so we know there is potential and opportunity for us to offer a solution for those who don’t like to smoke but know cannabis is a great part of their routine.
Julia: Since we grow our own product, we have a lot of biomass and trim at the end of the season. There’s a natural extension for us to be able to start utilizing that trim and creating additional products in the extraction space. The most important thing, though, is making sure we’re doing it in a sustainable way that resonates with our brand ethos. We definitely are careful about how we’re choosing to expand our product assortments. You will see some new products from us in 2020.
Now for more of a personal question. You’re a couple but you’re also business partners. How do you find balance? Do you have any traditions or rules that help you balance your work-life relationship?
Sam: There are no strict guidelines to finding our balance. We try to do a “no talking about work after 9 or before 9,” but sometimes that just doesn’t work. We’re always thinking about our business and we’re pouring our life into this. We’re incredibly passionate, so when good ideas come up, or if something needs to be addressed, we have to address or share as soon as we can. The industry is moving so quickly now. I think that being with your partner 24 hours a day is actually an advantage because we don’t have to wait until the next day to make a decision. We also work in different departments, more or less. I’m handling mostly operations, marketing, and creative.
Julia: And I’m handling more of the business side in terms of fundraising, financials, and accounting.
So, there is just a natural balance where you pull upon your expertise?
What does Noah Cornell, your Director of Cultivation, do?
Julia: Noah is in charge of managing all the operations at the farm. He works with me, Sam, and our sales team in choosing our genetics each year. He puts together the plans for how we’re going to expand our footprint, what amendments we need, our timeline for the year, and he manages the team that actually plants, cultivates, and harvests.
What does the rest of your team look like? How many people are there and what are their jobs?
Julia: So, we have the Farm Team that’s based on our farm in Lake County, and our Sales and Admin team is based in Oakland. We have a Director of Sales and a team of Brand Educators and we have somebody who handles our Operations. That’s really it right now.
Sam: During harvest season and process season, there are four or five more people who are added to the team.
So you two live in Oakland and Noah lives on the farm?
Julia: Yes. Noah and his family live on the farm, he’s the owner of the property and he’s been there for 9 years. Our company leases the farm.
My last question is something I ask every brand. Does Aster Farms have any social justice initiative plans to address the reality of cannabis regulations disproportionately hurting communities of color?
Julia: So, Aster Farms approaches that in a couple of different ways. The first way is that we really focus on hiring a diverse set of employees who have had some aspect of social injustice having to do with the cannabis industry. I’m not going to name employees specifically, but we have someone who had a cannabis felony employed at our company. We have a veteran employed at our company, and the majority of the team is run by women. So, we’re definitely very focused on having a diverse employee group and focusing on giving opportunities to those who may not have any opportunities because of what cannabis has done to them.
Additionally, we try to partner with organizations that are at the forefront of that. So, we work with Success Centers in San Francisco, who are really focused on helping people get jobs who have cannabis convictions on their record. Or who are interested in cannabis and need a leg up in skillset and need that networking.
Sam: Yeah, Success Centers is a really fantastic organization. We’ve done mentoring there and taught a class around a number of different topics in the industry.
This article was produced in partnership with Aster Farms.