I first met Johnny Casali at the event known as Hall of Flowers in Santa Rosa California. I was immediately taken by his warmth and kindness. He had the strong hands of a farmer who got his results from working the soil with wooden handled tools. I felt very small next to him for the events that he has experienced. Johnny has endured much in his years due to his love of cannabis. I hope that the injustices of the past help push your successes of the present into greater acceptance of our plant. Thank you Johnny.
Warren Bobrow=WB: Why Cannabis? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Johnny Casali= JC: Like many other kids, my childhood dream was to be a firefighter! Ironically, it took me going to federal prison for that dream to come true. During the second year of my eight year sentence, I was given the opportunity to become the fire captain of Lompoc prison fire crew. We were able to go out into the public and fight wildland fires. Life works in strange ways! While in prison, I was also in charge of the prison’s fruits and vegetable garden… a role for which I was perfect. I grew up in Humboldt County, and if there’s one thing the Emerald Triangle is known for, it’s cannabis farming. My family moved to the region in 1978, and some of my earliest childhood memories consist of me following my mom around like a puppy dog as she watered tomato plants, strawberries , cucumbers and cannabis. Growing cannabis on the farm was one of many ways my parents supplemented their income. They were small farmers as well as fisherman who also sold firewood in the winter and even worked in the logging industry for several years.
Cannabis was something that helped us survive, and as the child of cannabis farmers, learning about cultivation was as normal for me as being a part of 4-H.
WB: Tell me about your soil? Outdoor or indoor? Who taught you to grow cannabis as precisely as you do? (I Love your flowers)
JC: My mom was an incredible teacher. Her cultivation techniques gained her the reputation of being one of the best growers in Southern Humboldt. She taught me that TLC is just as important to cannabis as water and sunlight, and that TLC begins with harvesting living soil. I can still remember her saying that, “Just as you eat your vegetables in order to grow strong and tall, a plant needs nutrient-rich soil to reach its full potential.” So a big part of my childhood was spent digging mulch underneath our farm’s huckleberry bushes (rich in antioxidants) to add to the soil, which helped keep it healthy and rich. At Huckleberry Hill Farms, I grow five thousand square feet of sun-grown cannabis. Every morning, I wake up at 5am and start to water the plants using water from our rain catchments (if you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by. You can fish for trout in them!). I get to watch the sunrise as I water each plant that’s growing in the same soil and on the same land my mother used. Throughout the farm, we have tons of companion plants like huckleberries, lettuce, squash and strawberries that help feed and nourish the soil.
All of our cannabis is grown outdoors, which is better for the environment as well as the plant and end consumer. The sun’s natural spectrum is powerful. It gives us vitamin D, and it gives cannabis its terpene profile. Terpenes aren’t just there for flavor and aroma; they’re cannabinoids that work together with THC to create specific effects. Growers and consumers cannot underestimate the importance of sunlight. At the end of the day, cannabis is an agricultural product. The best apples and oranges are grown organically outdoors, and the same holds true with cannabis.
WB: What does the next six months look like for your company? Twelve months? What obstacles do you face? How do you foresee removing those obstacles?
JC: For the last 45 years, I’ve wanted nothing more than to be able to legally share this amazing plant with consumers near and far. I’m so blessed to be able to do that now through my partnership with Flow Kana and Willie’s Reserve, but boy are there challenges. I’m not just a farmer. I’m a businessman, and I’m an activist who spends quite a lot of time educating regulators and legislators. It’s critical to build bridges between our community of small legacy farmers and agencies that for decades have been working to eradicate our existence. I truly believe that the first step towards change is getting those who are in positions of power to personally care.
In 1992, I was busted for cultivating 1500 plants. After four years of dealing with the courts, I was finally sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 120 months (sidenote, I still keep in touch with the judge, the guards and the prison warden! What can I say, I’m a people person!). While serving my time, my parents passed. I wasn’t just heartbroken; I was devastated. Then when I emerged from prison, the community that welcomed me back as family, with open arms, and that helped me put my life back together was the farmer community in which I was raised. I am forever grateful to them. Every day that I spend in Sacramento speaking with legislators is inspired by the need for legislators to see these farmers as I do - as a phenomenal group of hardworking, family farmers who worship the land, who are die-hard environmentalists, and who were taught by their parents and grandparents how to grow the best cannabis in the world with little to no carbon footprint.
California’s farmers are really struggling right now, so there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in the next six months. The most urgent is tax reform. Governor Newsom (if you’re reading this), California is a nation of small farmers, and we will be squeezed into extinction if we keep getting taxed as if we’re corporations.
I have no idea where Huckleberry Hill Farms will be in twelve months. We’ll have just harvested. One dream I have is to help tell the stories of this community and region in a really impactful way that celebrates who we are. You can’t make up the lives that we’ve lived. How does that saying go? Truth is stranger (and more interesting) than fiction.
WB: Do you cook? If so, who taught you? What is your favorite restaurant? Where? What kind of food?
JC: From a very early age, my mother and grandmother taught me how to cook many different Italian recipes (Casali is Italian!). Some of my chores involved helping my mother in the kitchen. Just as she passed down the art of cultivating cannabis to me, she also passed down the importance of a well-balanced Italian meal. Some of my favorite foods are wild-caught king salmon, abalone, and all kinds of vegetables grown in the garden. Especially asparagus!
WB: What is your passion?
JC: Since I was 10 years old, I’ve really enjoyed breeding different cannabis strains. I love the science behind it. I love how each decision along the way impacts generations upon generations of that strain. My best friend growing up is still my best friend today, and our mothers were best friends. They crossbred their favorite strains to create Paradise Punch, and today every strain I grow at Huckleberry Hill Farms is bred with this 45 year old strain, a tribute to a beautiful woman who taught me everything I know.