Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Cannabis as a farm product: an interview with Autumn Shelton of Autumn Brands

Autumn Shelton in the Autumn Brands greenhouse
Cannabis is quickly becoming big business, but it gets further every day from farming. The trendiest cannabis products are all heavily processed so that they're more like day-glo Cheetos than green leafy weeds.

That might be the future of much of the business, but in these early days of legal cannabis farming in California, there are still people making a living selling their product more-or-less as is. Autumn Shelton, co-founder of Autumn Brands in Santa Barbara County, is one such farmer.

Autumn Brands currently sells almost exclusively flower -- the dried cannabis itself, for smoking. No lozenges, chocolates or other concoctions. The company prides itself on the quality of its strains. I had a chance to sample three of the strains before interviewing Shelton and I'm a big proponent of its classic Sour Diesel, and a fan of its Chocolate Hashberry as well.

A few days before my phone interview with Shelton, the Los Angeles Times published a story about residents in Carpinteria, where Autumn Brands is located, complaining about the smell from cannabis farms. That was on both of our minds when we chatted. Here is an edited version of our conversation (which was not done after sampling the product, at least on my end; you can tell by the absence of "uh ....")

The Gray Report: How much resistance do you get to the idea of farming cannabis?

Autumn Shelton: The odor has been an issue for a number of years. About 12 of us have got this very good odor control system, and another two have a different one. The problem is there's still 10 to 20 farms that don't have odor control. Some people in the community are frustrated and that's understandable. What's unfortunate is that this group seems to be going after the compliant ones that have the odor control.

Gray: Where are the main cannabis areas of Santa Barbara County, compared to the main wine growing areas?

Shelton: The wine industry is up in the northern part of the county. They have their own issues with cannabis because odor control is not required up there. But it is affecting the wine industry because the odor can be in the air for miles.

Gray: I've been reading that the cannabis growing industry has expanded so much that there's a risk of a glut of weed with not enough buyers. Are you seeing that?

Shelton: There's always a risk of too many cultivators and not enough market for it. Cannabis is just like any other market. It shifts. In cannabis, the outdoor market peaks in October. They have one harvest, all year. And the product floods into the market and prices just plummet at that time. Then in the spring, the outdoor product starts to go away and the prices start to go up again and the market starts to go up again. We've seen this before. Right now we're in spring/summer. Prices just keep going up up up. We get calls all day (from buyers).

Gray: Is there still a lot of competition from unlicensed growers?

Shelton: Demand keeps growing and the black market still keeps thriving. You have a mentality of people who will never change. They will never go into the regulated market. As it is, the market isn't saturated. It's still just figuring itself out. We have more dispensaries licensed every single day. Baby boomers, the excitement is growing. The demand is going to continue to grow. There's also a difference in how some of the cultivators process. You may think, you can only consume so much flower. A lot of the product for these huge outdoor farms, they're just turning it into oil. The demand for that is still going to be worked out.

Gray: How is concentrating on flower working out for Autumn Brands?

Shelton: Growing anything agriculturally has its own challenges. As vape cartridges and lozenges become more popular, flower is not as desired. But flower is full-spectrum. It's the full plant. There's all this excitement about CBD, but it's just one cannabinoid out of hundreds in the plant. And THC is partly what makes CBD effective. CBD by itself is OK, but together they're just a masterpiece. And the terpenes are important. The terpenes also give us certain feelings. These oils are all isolated (in industrial cannabis products). You're not getting the full effects. I'm still a believer in the full spectrum. I think that's where you're going to get the full benefits.

Gray: You're proud of your strains. Where do you source them?

Shelton: A lot of strains have come from clones from nurseries that we trust. Some of our strains are unique and some are just tried and true oldtime strains like Sour Diesel. It's important to have strains that people know and can trust. Cannabis 10 years ago, someone just had a joint and you smoked it. You didn't know if it was indica, sativa, what terpenes it had. You just knew it was going to get you high. Today, you can know how it's going to make you feel, based on those elements. I have a couple strains that are just perfect for you to take a couple hits when you're at a wedding or a party, and you can be very social.

Gray: Are some strains more difficult to grow than others?

Shelton: There are some that can only grow at some times of year. Some strains in summertime are prone to bud rot. People like big buds but if they get too big, that's a strain for the plant.

Gray: Is dealing with problems like bud rot more difficult because of the strict rules California imposed on agricultural chemicals in cannabis?

Shelton: One of the big regulations (for cannabis) is the pesticide allowment, which is lower than any agricultural product. We went pesticide-free before that got in place. We started with organic pesticides. Then my partner said, let's just go with beneficial insects and no pesticides. I said OK ... then I walked into that greenhouse and it felt like a sea of spider mites and aphids. It felt like trash. But after about eight months, he was right. We have this incredible environment of bad bugs and good bugs. Hundreds of ladybugs have come in and made their nests because we have this environment. We have this 100% pesticide free product. It's beyond organic.

Gray: What are the trends in the flower market?

Shelton: In the last few years, in Northern California the demand for sativa was really high. In Southern California, they only wanted indica. Now the demand for sativa is everywhere in this state. I think people realized that cannabis is something that allows you to do things. You don't just have to sit on the couch. I treat (cannabis) like a glass of wine. I love wine. I can have a glass of wine or take a couple hits off a joint. It doesn't have to be these 5-foot bong rips.

Gray: Speaking of that, when cannabis was first legalized it seemed like most products (and most of the writing about them) were aimed at teenage boys. How has the marketing changed?

The Autumn Brands team. Note that it's mostly women.
Shelton: Women are understanding more and more and feeling comfortable with using cannabis. I don't think they understood that you could use it in smaller doses. It's becoming more of a women-oriented industry as we're focused more on health and wellness. You're finding more women involved in executive roles. There are so many industries where women can't get involved. The women in the household are typically the ones that make the choices about what products are for the health and wellness of their families.

Gray: A lot of my readers may not be longtime legal cannabis buyers. How would you recommend they get started?

Shelton: They should go to a dispensary and walk up to a budtender and let them know what they are looking for. Are they a writer and they want to feel creative? Do they want to feel more active during the day when they're cleaning the house? Or do they just want to have a good night's sleep? Budtenders, most of them can help you pick out the right product. If it's a medical condition, they should talk to a medical doctor who can help them pick out the right product.

Gray: Which strains do you enjoy most?

Shelton: My favorite one is Chemdawg. It's a great one to go to a concert, or go to a wedding, and just socialize and laugh and have a nice little high. I'm on a computer all day long so I get neck pain and I get leg cramps. I like a 1-to-1 THC-CBD cream for that.

Gray: Do you pair cannabis with wine?

Shelton: I prefer one or the other. I feel like if you do combine them, it does put you over the edge. I like the true feeling of what cannabis can provide for me or the true feeling of what wine can provide for me. When you combine them it gets a little fuzzy. I see a wonderful opportunity in the future for wineries to have cannabis consumption lounges right next to them. You don't have a lot of (cannabis) lounges where you can consume. It's going to take time to get that up and running. We can give a tour of our farm but no one can ever smoke on the farm or partake. We need more lounges where people can consume. That will take a few years to get that up and running but when we do it's going to be great for tourism in California.


I sampled three strains of Autumn Brands products for this post. Here are my tasting notes.

Chocolate Hashberry
17.0% THC 0 CBD
Unsmoked, it smells slightly of red berries with pepper and sage notes.
One bowl didn't hit me immediately. It was a steady build, a heightening yet loosening of focus. There was some quickening of the pulse, but it is generally more calming than not.
That said, after one bowl of this I went out to pick up a salad at a restaurant a half block from my home, where I go often, and somehow found myself a block past it, focused on making some sort of list about movies. So it hit my powers of reasoning harder than I thought. I wasn't sleepy, so this is a good strain for when you want to be off-kilter -- even way off-kilter -- but still alert.

Banana Dawg
18.8% THC 0 CBD
Packed as 3.5 g of pre-roll, which I unrolled. Unsmoked, I smell mango with woodsy notes and some sandalwood, seaweed and sea salt. In fact, the unsmoked aroma is the best thing about this strain.
I don't love the effect, though. I seemed stunned more than anything at first. Having to focus on ordering food, I concentrated and completed the task, but when I was done I was stunned again. It's not euphoric; it's more of a ringing haze. It's lightly stress-relieving, and that's probably its best virtue.

Sour Diesel Sativa
16.3% THC O CBD. Packed as a pre-roll, which I unrolled. Unsmoked the aroma is weedy and vegetal.
After two hits I found myself compulsively looking up restaurants, even though I didn't need to go out to dinner. It's not euphoric, but I wasn't out of control and the wonky concentration's not bad. I did lose track of time a bit at one point, but generally I felt mentally acute and physically quite fine. This is quite a good strain for when you still want to get something done. I can also see this as a very social strain.

At this point I would love to give you a link to order it online, but the cannabis market doesn't work like that. Here's Autumn Brands' website. Ask your local budtender what they stock.

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