As I drove up Highway 101 on a recent Friday twisting and turning through the giant redwoods that have made Humboldt County so famous, my thoughts turned to another famous member of the local flora: cannabis. I’m on my way to meet with former indoor cannabis cultivator turned “sun-grown” pot farmer, Tomas Balogh, co-founder and CEO of kamatree. Kamatree is an eco-friendly weed brand based in Oakland that he operates with COO Brandon Lee. All of kamatree’s weed is grown in full sunlight that, as I was about to learn, has a huge impact on the quality and taste of the final product and is much more environmentally friendly than indoor gardens. Word in Emerald Triangle growing circles is that Balogh is the real deal when it comes to high quality, sustainably grown pot.
Balogh, an Oakland native and UC Berkeley grad, has been in the weed business for seventeen years, and became a hard-core pot activist in 2011. The best selling book Too High to Fail featured his Mendocino County farm, documenting one growing season during which he organized fellow growers into a trade association called the Emerald Growers Association (now California Growers Association). Meanwhile, he was forced to deal with the threat of military-style DEA raids while scaring off rippers (pot thieves) with an occasional shotgun blast from his back porch.
He likes to boast that he paid his tuition at Cal with wrinkly twenty-dollar bills, which attests to a time in California when cannabis farmers, under threat from prohibition, were paid in cash due to the criminal nature of their crop. Now that prohibition has been lifted, Balogh says he’s “taking pot to the next level.” I was here to find out exactly what that meant.
I pulled off the highway and drove slowly down a bumpy dirt road for about four miles. At the end of the road was an open metal gate with a hand made cardboard sign reading, “Welcome Duke.” I drove through the gate and pulled up to a ranch house settled next to a row of green houses. Tomas was sitting on the front porch smiling and waving at me. The first thing I noticed about Balogh was his baby face, tempered with a long scar running across his left cheek.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” says Balogh, laughing. “Welcome to paradise.”
I told him I had to be in the city later that evening for an anniversary dinner and that I wanted to get down to business. He was happy to oblige.
Duke: “So why sun-grown? Doesn’t indoor weed fetch higher prices?”
Tomas: “That’s because weed grown under electric lights is much more expensive to produce. Electric weed also fetches a higher carbon footprint.”
Duke: “Electric weed?”
Tomas: “That’s what I call it: electric weed. The amount of energy it takes to grow weed indoors is staggering. You need a massive air conditioner, dehumidifiers, and power hungry high-pressure sodium light bulbs — hundreds, sometimes thousands of them. I know a guy up in Washington State who had to choose the location of his indoor grow facility based on the size of the power company’s nearest substation because he used so much power.”
Tomas: “Yeah. And it’s totally unnecessary. Weed production moved indoors to avoid aerial detection from the DEA during the War on Drugs of the Reagan era. You know, “Just say no.” Over the years, a myth began circulating that indoor weed was somehow superior to pot grown under full sun. That’s nonsense. At best, grow lights mimic the full spectrum of natural light, but they fall short compared to what the sun provides for free. Now that pot is legal, it only makes sense that we put it back under the sun. Especially given the rising threat of climate change and global warming. It’s a no brainer.”
Duke: “So you’re trying to change how people think about outdoor weed?”
Tomas: “I prefer the term “sun-grown.” The term outdoor has gotten a negative connotation. I think it plays into the current dichotomy in a bad way.”
Duke: “Okay. Sun-grown it is.”
Tomas: “It comes down to education. I have this sun-grown brand but it doesn’t mean much if the customer doesn’t understand the difference between sun-grown and indoor. My sun-grown weed is better for the environment. I see it as part of my job to shine a light on this issue and spread the word. You wouldn’t want your apples and oranges grown in an industrial warehouse in West Oakland. It doesn’t make sense. The same should be true for the pot we smoke.”
Duke: “That makes a lot of sense to me. Can you tell me a bit about the economics of sun-grown versus indoor weed?”
Tomas: “Sure. The production cost of sun-grown is significantly less than indoor, largely because you don’t have to pay sky-high rents for grow space in places like Oakland or San Francisco. And the power bill for all those electric lights is enormous. People assume that because something costs more it must be better in some way, but of course that’s not always true. In reality, when you buy indoor weed you’re paying for the grower’s increased overhead while supporting a model that significantly drains our natural resources and increases carbon pollution.”
Duke: “Do you have any environmental standards that you hold yourselves to?”
Tomas: “Well, we only sell sun-grown flowers, period. Solicitation emails from indoor growers go straight into the trash. And when it comes to the product on the shelf, we are working toward 100 percent tree- and plastic-free packaging. Right now, kamatree comes in a glass jar with a compostable outer box, and in the coming months we’ll be swapping out our plastic lids with lids made from hemp plastic, so they’ll be 100 percent biodegradable. We’ve contracted with a company that will have them to us in the next couple of months. We’re totally committed to being good environmental citizens.”
It was time for me to head back to the city. I thanked Balogh for his time and, saying goodbye to paradise, headed back to the city for my anniversary dinner. My partner asked me how my interview at the outdoor farm went.
“Sun-grown farm,” I said.
— R. Duke
kamatree’s website is kamatree.com. You can order delivery to Oakland and Piedmont through their online store at MyTreeHopper.com