Hezekiah Allen, a Southern Humboldt native who used his rural roots to fuel a career of cannabis advocacy in Sacramento, will step down from his position as executive director of the California Growers Association to play a more hands-on role in pushing small cannabis farms past the dozens of legal barriers standing in their way.

Allen will join the Emerald Grown farming cooperative, an organization centered around aggregating smaller farms to lend them more staying power in the industry. That means more organizational work and less big-picture advocacy for Allen, although he will retain a seat on the Growers Association board of directors.

The move, he said, will create an opportunity for new leadership at the helm of the association following his four-year tenure.

Hezekiah Allen will step down from his position with the California Growers Association. (Ukiah Daily Journal file)

“I knew four years ago that the most useful thing to do with my time is to work on legislation,” he told the Eureka Times-Standard. “I know with the same level of certainty now that my best purpose is to make the market work. I’ve just got to follow my heart.”

Cooperative approach

At his next destination, Emerald Grown, Allen will be working directly with small farmers to forge a concrete pathway for them in the industry, he said. The cooperative aggregates small farms, bundling their work together so they can share market strategies and product.

Since small farms cannot produce cannabis in the same bulk format as multi-million dollar facilities, they face higher costs, Allen said. They also can’t afford employees on site to carry out work, like trimming the plants.

There are also legal barriers in the way — many counties outright banned cannabis cultivation. Regulations in Sonoma County, he noted, have shut out close to 3,000 farmers in rural residential zones.

Most critically, small cannabis farms find it difficult to stay above the water in an industry predicated on the big money movers. A small cannabis business might want a startup investment or a loan from the bank for a few one-time costs, but banks and investors are interested in rapid growth. Many small farms don’t fit the bill.

“Some folks here grow cannabis because they want to live outside the grid and the system,” Allen said. “They grew up in a world without paperwork. All they know is cannabis; they don’t speak the language of regulation.”

Growers who primarily speak a language other than English are seeing major socioeconomic challenges, he noted.

Cooperatives like Emerald Grown aim to bundle small operations together. With the strength of a co-op, small farms can reduce costs, share product and file papers with the state as a joint business entity.

“With co-ops, these guys will have the support they need,” said Jennifer Burke of Emerald Grown. “Otherwise, they’re thinking, ‘How will I compete with someone who’s coming in with millions of dollars?’”

Allen’s focus with these growers will be on everything that happens “between farm and market,” he said.

“I want to help farms work together to learn efficiency and scale,” he said. “I’ve got 130 agreements that need to be signed in the next week; retailers that want to work with us to showcase product; producers who are thrilled to be working the market. We’re going to sort out these pieces to find an efficient way to get cannabis flower into jars and into consumers’ hands.”

Finding a purpose

For the past four years, Allen has worked for cannabis growers on a statewide level. His work has mostly been on the legislative side — advocating for growers in a fledgling industry stuffed with regulatory costs and rules.

Working among legislators in the state capital was a different scene for the Southern Humboldt local, who said he grew up in Honeydew without electricity or running water. Allen recalls depending on the radio for information about the outside world. The rest of his childhood was in the rural campground community, built mostly around cattle ranching and farming.

He moved to Eureka for high school, graduating from St. Bernard’s Academy. Suddenly, the kid from Honeydew found himself at Pacific University studying politics and government — all while harboring a feeling of “emptiness,” he said.

“The more I talked to people, the more I realized Americans are searching for purpose and meaning,” he said.

His own purpose became rooted in supporting the agricultural workers he grew up around. He landed as executive director of the CGA in 2014 and began advocating for small farms across the state.

When Californians voted to decriminalize recreational marijuana in November 2016, Allen’s purpose shifted to making sure small-scale cannabis farms would retain a stake in the big industry, he said.

While “craft cannabis” isn’t a bad thing, he said, highly controlled facilities can produce way more product. The big players can also afford regulatory costs that drive local farmers away.

Allen advocated creating different licenses for small or mid-sized growers. He worked toward building an “appellations” process for cannabis, or a way of making sure cannabis from a certain region could label itself by its origin.

With appellations, cannabis from Humboldt County could brand itself as “Humboldt cannabis,” building a soft power with consumers in the way wine enthusiasts associate champagne with France.

Allen will continue to work on these projects through the end of 2018, before he joins the efforts on the ground with Emerald Grown. His journey has brought him back to farming — a field he said has been plagued by “social hardships” and “economic collapse.”

“Cannabis farmers can transform agriculture,” he said. “Our purpose is to make this world better, so that’s what I’ve made myself about.”