Ever since I was a young teenager, I’ve been unusually intrigued by cannabis. From the first joint I smoked in the alleyway behind the old neighborhood hardware store, it has created a distinct enthusiasm and new purpose for my
life. Since that moment, I immediately wanted to learn everything I could about this mystical plant and its culture. So, I sought out and read every book about growing pot I could get my hands on. My first insight to organic ganja growing was Primo Plants by Mountain Girl, followed by the usual Mel Frank and Ed Rosenthal guides. I religiously studied each issue of all the weed magazines, riding the train into the city where I would shoulder tap strangers to go into the alternative bookshops to buy a copy of the latest High Times for me.
I heard about Cannabis Cups in far-away, European lands, where people who loved and cared about cannabis as much as I did were uniting to find, compare, and judge the best and most beautiful buds. Growing up, I dreamed of one day attending an event where I could be surrounded by others like me—those who embraced the feelings of community and togetherness that the cannabis plant creates and inspires. But, growing up in New England, my passion and belief in the plant clearly did not fit into mainstream society. I was an outcast. Experiencing a true cannabis gathering would have been the ultimate experience for me.
Years later, I had followed a journey of destiny. I overcame insurmountable obstacles, manifested dreams that were once only dreams, worked my ass off, hustled like a mofo, and became a rebel ganja farmer in Humboldt County, California, in the heart of the Emerald Triangle. Pretty crazy! You see, for those like me who’ve put their life into this plant and industry from a very young age, and came from a place and time of persecution and secrecy, my experience in the Emerald Triangle is surreal each and every day. Even after all these years, I will never take for granted the opportunity and freedom to grow (a lot of) cannabis. And I will always be grateful for this plant and how it does so much good for the universe.
2011 was a memorable fall harvest and grow season. I had been blessed to earn opportunities designing, building, and running cultivation and operations for several large collectives. I fondly remember every plant I grew that year—thirty-six strains in total for production and more than fifty for testing and research and development. It was the third year of my breeding projects and the year
I stepped up my focus on seed production and breeding, also marking my first time growing the majority of the crop from my own seed creations. I’ll always remember the herb we grew that year as vivid paintings in my happiest thoughts. The combination of genetics, microclimate, weather, and my diverse organic approach gifted us some of the most impressively frosty buds I’ve ever seen.
I had heard about the Emerald Cup, but thought it was an invite-only deal. That was until I met an acquaintance who had overheard me talking about my strains and gardens. She introduced herself, began to pick my brain, and we talked cannabis. She explained that she grew up outside of Laytonville, out Spyrock and Island Mountain, and had lived in Mendo and Humboldt almost her entire life. She told me that she didn’t often hear people talk quite like me about growing cannabis. I showed her a jar of my flowers. Her eyes opened wide as she shared with me that she volunteered for the Emerald Cup and the folks at Area 101 and said she had some people that I needed to meet.
By this time, I was pretty familiar with the lifestyle and cannabis culture of Southern Humboldt. It had become my home. But, I had never met anyone from the cannabis scene in the Laytonville area. I was excited to see how the largest production regions in Humboldt and Mendocino compared, and I’d always passed Area 101 with intrigue as I travelled up and down the 101 from So Hum to the Bay Area. A few days later, I rounded up some jars from my head stash and headed down the south side of the mountain to meet her and visit Area 101 and Healing Harvest Farms.
When I arrived, there were more cars in the parking lot than I expected. I walked inside the building where I could see people gathered. My friend greeted me, saw my jars and said, “Good! You brought some entries! Let me introduce you to some of my friends.” As she introduced me to a few folks who were volunteering or working on production for the cup, the vibe felt comfortable. I was mingling, showing some people my weed, and thinking about rolling a joint when, all of a sudden, she grabbed me by the arm, whisked me across the room, and said, “I want to introduce you to my boss Tim Blake.”
“Tim, this is Dan. He’s a talented grower and breeder in Humboldt out Island Mountain and he came to drop off some entries,” she told him. Just meeting Tim, I could see that he was busy—the phones were ringing non-stop, people were coming and going; there was a lot going on. During this time, Mendocino County was dealing with the impact of the sheriff’s office’s county-wide plant tagging system. In 2010, the Mendocino sheriffs tested a program (county code 9.31) where legal medical cannabis growers could register their plants with the county and pay a per plant tax on up to 99 plants and receive a zip tie from the sheriff’s office for each legal, registered plant.
It was the first time Mendo growers had ever worked in partnership with county law enforcement and government. It was a gamble for sure, but many cautious, yet optimistic farmers participated. Some were outspoken in press conferences with the sheriffs, real-world media, and public radio platforms like PBS news and several other broadcast television programs. The reaction to the media storm and emboldened growers came in the form of locally-assisted federal raids on some of the more prominent growers and numerous other farmers enrolled in the supposedly legal program. Bunch of bullshit! There was a sense of uncertainty in the air at the increasingly popular Emerald Cup headquarters, as the aftermath of the zip tie program and the raids was still unfolding politically and legally in Mendocino County.
Tim explained to me a little of his predicament. Originally, the Cup’s lawyers had recommended not holding the event due to the legal risk. But, toward the end of the summer at the last possible minute, the lawyers reconsidered and advised that the Cup could continue, but only without allowing any concentrates. With wary growers and not much time to promote, Tim was worried there wouldn’t be enough entries in the cup. He thanked me for being willing to contribute, gave me a hug, and went on his way. I wanted to enter my best herb into the competition, not the random head stash jars I had brought to smoke and share, so I headed back up the hill. That night, I picked out of few of the best things we grew that vintage year on the farm. I jarred up a few ounces of each of my favorites and the next day I headed back down to Area 101 to drop off my entries for The Cup.
The event was a few weeks later. I got several extra passes and brought a few good friends with me. I had dreamed of attending something like this for close to half of my life. When we arrived, we immediately felt an amazing energy. People were smiling, friends new and old were laughing, and everyone was smoking lots of herb. It was a special night. I met friends that night who I still see regularly to this day. It was my first time smoking cannabis publicly and was the first time I had ever openly discussed growing cannabis with strangers. The people who were there were not just fans, they were the cannabis industry—the most passionate activists, soil experts, growers, and others. They were the true roots of Northern California cannabis culture.
At one point during the event, people seemed to be headed into the main building. I overheard that the top
finalists flowers were in the center of a display case with all 108 flower entries for people to admire. The results of the lab tests for potency were being released. I stood with a friend behind the interested and stoned crowd of people until he and I could make our way to the front. As I recognized my entries in the middle of the display with the finalists, my buddy pointed out that one of my entries had the most THC out of everything entered in the cup!
At the awards ceremony a while later, I stood with my good friends in a smoke-filled, weed-scented room with old wood floors and dim lighting, packed shoulder-to-shoulder with cannabis legends. As the MC spoke, I began to feel a real sense of community. Despite the anticipation, there was a calm, relaxing, and warm feeling in that overcrowded room. As I stood, I leaned my head back, enjoyed the moment, and took a mental photo—perfectly stoned from the many joints shared throughout the evening.
The first award announced was fourteenth place, which went to my 5G’s Yellow. I heard them call the grower to the stage to accept the award and say a few words. It was almost too much for me to handle. The intensity of what this meant to me was felt deep in my spirit. I looked around suspiciously and even though I wish I could have gone up there to express my gratitude, I couldn’t take the risk of that type of exposure given the legal climate. I had already seen a few awkward guys standing around looking out of place as if they were feds gaining intel. I stood in my place, looked at my buddies, smiled, and took a deep breath.
I took tenth place, as well, for an OG Sour seed plant from a line I’ve been working on even to this day. The top three competitors took to the stage and spoke proudly of the honor they felt to have won. There was an emotional story of a mentor who was taken by cancer. His protégé won with the strain that he had helped to preserve. What a cannabis legacy to leave behind! From that amazing night, I realized that my organic ganja was able to stand up to some of the best growers in the world. The event left an impact on my view of the future of cannabis and my career as a grower. I will never forget it.
The next year, due to an increase in interest and space constraints, the event was forced to move to Southern Humboldt at the Mateel community center—my home court. The event was packed and the vibe was irie. I was able to catch a memorable panel of breeders with the late and legendary Ringo of Southern Humboldt Seeds, Subcool from TGA, and a long-time but low-key local breeder once featured in the documentary One Good Year. Afterward, I was invited by the panel’s moderator to speak to the crowd about my genetics. It was my first time speaking publicly, and although I was rushed and nervous, the experience was awesome. When I finished speaking, I was approached by a few older gentlemen in their 60s. They both told me I had said exactly what they had hoped to hear from the panel. I made sure to hook them up with some seeds. I was honored that year to win sixteenth place with my OG Chemdog flowers, which turned out to also have the highest THC in the cup—two years in a row. What an unforgettable day!
The event was such a success that the organizers realized they needed a much larger venue to keep up with growth. They tried to bring it to Arcata and Eureka, but the Humboldt County government wasn’t having it. Eventually, they made the tough decision to move the event out of the Emerald Triangle. Although I was sad to see the cup leave its home, I’m grateful that I was able to experience the vibe in the last two years that it was there.
Since its move to Santa Rosa, The Cup has become an unbelievable event with tens of thousands of people gathering for the opportunity to teach, learn, share, and be together. It may not be in the Emerald Triangle anymore, but the vibe is right. Now, I sponsor the event and have the privilege of vending products from my own farm. I get to hook people up with weed from our farm, meet growers, and make friends. People who purchased our seeds in the past often bring samples from their crops to share what they have grown. I get really, really high. And, every year, I still get to enter the competition in hopes of making one of the top finalist spots.
The event has grown quickly. While that has created many challenges, I know the Blakes and their Emerald Cup team put in an immense amount of work and effort year- round to make this sacred event possible for our community. I’ve attended enough times to know that everything is done from a place of love. It’s a conduit to meet new friends and gather and reminisce with old ones. It’s an opportunity to sample Northern California’s best (which many would agree is the best in the world).
The Emerald Cup is my favorite holiday. It brings out the best of the canna-community—the ones who grew up like me with a life-long passion and connection to our sacred plant. It tells an important story of the roots and history of the industry and means so much to so many people. I hope to see you there this year and every year after that.