Whether the weed in your joint was grown in a sprawling field, massive greenhouse or state-of-the-art indoor facility, cultivators oversee the preparation and nurturing of the crops, making them the backbone of the cannabis industry. But what does being a cannabis cultivator entail? To find out I spoke with Freeman Young, a Bay Area-based cannabis breeder and grower who has been at it for over 40 years.
Back in the Day
Freeman was a junior high kid when he started smoking cannabis in the summer of 1976. “The weed we got in those days was Colombian, Mexican or Hawaiian. It sat on a boat for 3 months and that was the curing process,” he explains. “It was smashed into a brick, baled like hay and would break off in big flakes.”
These bales of weed were also full of seeds, which became part of the fun. “I got really good at cleaning the seeds,” Freeman says. “I was throwing them out of a second story window and they were rolling down the roof and going into a gutter full of dirt from decayed leaves.” Tossing out the seeds all summer long would lead to a big surprise a few months later. “When the first rains came in September, I looked out the window and there were thousands of little sprouts all in the gutter,” he recalls. “That was it, from that point forward I’ve always been growing cannabis.”
But Freeman learned quickly that making the decision to grow cannabis was the easy part. “I was just a kid, so my first experiences cultivating were not very successful because I didn’t really understand it,” he explains. “I tried growing it anywhere and it didn’t really do very well.” After a few years and several failed attempts, Freeman tunneled through poison oak to discover the perfect environment for his guerilla grow: a marshy area hidden by a dense round thicket of berries. “In the middle of that natural barrier (my plants) grew big as trees,” he says. “And they grew all by themselves because the water table was shallow, so they’d tap root down into the mud. I didn’t have to do any maintenance at all, I was really surprised.” The grow was so successful that Freeman used the site again the next year in 1980, right as the War on Drugs was revving up. “When I came back at the end of the year my field was cut down,” he says. “It had a little sign at one end that said, ‘See you next year ’”. The note had been left by the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), a law-enforcement task force whose sole purpose was to eradicate illegal cannabis cultivation and trafficking. But instead of quitting, Freeman just went deeper underground.
“I grew in every kind of guerilla grow operation that you could possibly think of and tried to do everything to evade the cops – just to get a little weed at the end of the year,” he says. “I grew for maybe 10 years as a hobbyist, then in the early 90s decided ok, I’m going to do this for money now.” When medical cannabis was legalized in California in 1996, Freeman had reservations. “It was like 2001 before I got my card”, he admits. But then he was given a tour of the Cannabis Buyers Club by its founder, cannabis activist and advocate Dennis Peron. “There’s all these guys hanging around smoking,” he describes, “and at one end there’s a bar with weed for sale and everything like you see now, but you could smoke and dispense all in the same place. This is how I imagined it to be in Amsterdam or places where it’s legal in the world, and here I am in San Francisco!” Freeman had found his calling. “It was one of those moments that was like, “This is my life, this is my future.”
The Challenging, Rewarding World of Cultivation
For the next 25 years Freeman honed his craft cultivating cannabis in indoor and outdoor operations, tapping into old school methods for guidance and inspiration. “Little old ladies from Humboldt…hippies, Vietnam vets, those are all my teachers,” he explains. “They taught me all about biodynamics, genetics, all the things that the bottle nutrient industry and big agriculture ignores.” Freeman worked on small breeding projects on his own, became hooked, and started collecting cannabis seeds from all over the world. “It was around 2012 when we started to really figure out ordinances, how to do this at scale, how to be consistent, how to make this both an agricultural and artisanal endeavor,” he says.
After years of working both underground and in compliance, what would Freeman consider to be the most challenging aspects of cannabis cultivation? “Finding a place to do it that meets the criteria,” he says. “It’s so needle-in-the-haystack to find a place that has everything that you need: the water rights, the right kind of zoning, all the things that are required in an application now to be a legitimate legal agricultural operator. It’s almost impossible.” There are also the high upfront costs and taxes that accompany legalization. “It’s just so pay-to-play,” Freeman says. “That’s the biggest barrier.”
But even with the challenges, it’s worth it. “Most rewarding for me is creating a new flower that delights in every way,” he says. “It’s an art – you don’t really know what you’re going to get.” If cultivation is an art, Freeman’s home is the canvas. “There’s plant sex happening in all the different rooms of my house,” he says. “I’m trying to produce seeds that give certain kinds of qualities, so for me that’s really what it’s always been about because I do it at a micro scale, but I’m working with some crazy good genetics.” With decades of breeding experience under his belt it’s no surprise that Freeman has his own collection of proprietary flowers – Electric Mayhem, Miss Mayhem, Electric Cookies and Electric Dream – whose roots stem from crossbreeding classic strains like OG, White Widow, Grandaddy Purple, and Green Crack.
Advice for Budding Cultivators
I asked what advice Freeman would give to anyone considering their own future as a cannabis cultivator. “People ask me that all the time,” he says. “Nobody comes out of the gate and hits it out of the park. It takes 10 to 15 years of being a constant problem solver to actually become a master grower… (a title) which to me means you’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of mistakes, and now you’re not doing that anymore.” And he’s quick to point out that getting into this side of the industry is as much a labor of love as it is a career opportunity. “You really have to love what you’re doing in order to stay with it because it’s not easy. It’s going suck, and it’s never going to be in a groove where it’s mindless – that will never happen.”
But to hear Freeman tell it, this calling is much bigger than he. “When I have a connection to the plant it’s always to ‘her’, the Cannabis Goddess. She’s in charge, and I feel like all this time she’s sort of been guiding, protecting and blessing me with rare genetics and freaky things that would happen that were completely synchronistic,” he explains. “It’s a spiritual connection.”