He was jailed for illegally growing pot in Calif. Now his cannabis farm has a tourism license.

As I drive into the redwoods, my Mini Cooper feels even tinier than usual, like a go-kart weaving between earthly giants. I remove my sunglasses — as the light only permeates the canopy in speckled puddles — and fight the urge to spark a joint. My destination, Huckleberry Hill cannabis farm, is only just down the road.

I’ve made this drive from Southern California a lot over the years, and I know I’m getting to where I need to be as soon as I hit the redwoods. The excitement that comes from greeting an old friend grips my body, holding and calming me, almost like a blanket. Though familiar, this corner of California feels like a precious secret that not everyone is in on.

Cannabis farmer Johnny Casali of Huckleberry Hill Farms knows this feeling well. He lives just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County, which along with Mendocino and Trinity counties, is known as the Emerald Triangle: the historic home of cannabis cultivation not just in California, but the entire United States.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Courtest of Huckleberry Hill Farms

For the past 40 years, Casali has lived and grown cannabis among the redwoods. In the past, Casali — like many in the region during the decades-long war on drugs — used the trees as cover over his then-illicit gardens.

Now, Huckleberry Hill is among the first cannabis farms in the state to be granted a tourism license, allowing Casali to host tours and overnight guests. After years of working to keep his cannabis operation out of sight, he and other local growers are hoping to peel back the “Redwood Curtain” — and that not only southern Humboldt towering trees, but the plant growing beneath them, will entice visitors (and their tourism dollars) to the area.

Huckleberry Hill Farms will soon offer glamping stays during the growing season.

Huckleberry Hill Farms will soon offer glamping stays during the growing season.

Courtest of Huckleberry Hill Farms

Casali explains his vision as we tour his property, starting with a loud greeting by his two goats, Willie and Nelson. (Casali provided some of the buds for Willie Nelson’s “Willie’s Reserve” brand of cannabis flower.) Planting for the 2021 season begins soon, and once Huckleberry’s plants have grown to towering buds, sometime this spring, he expects to welcome the farm’s first tour guests, followed soon after, if all goes as planned, by overnight guests.

At the front of the property, closest to the road and where the goats live, is a hillside with pot plants named for Casali’s friends and family. On the hill is a hoop house, a greenhouse that sits on a hill and towers over the rest of the property. When planted, the view inside is a bruised sea of various shades of green, purple and even almost black; the air pungent with a familiar skunky smell.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Courtest of Huckleberry Hill Farms

Below is Casali’s home, a bright green ranch house with a sprawling redwood deck that he shares with his girlfriend, Rose. And downhill from that are two ponds and several gardens. One of the ponds has a shaded table beside it and is stocked with trout, which guests are welcome to fish. Nestled in between will soon sit two yurts, decommissioned during the winter, but available for glamping stays during the growing season. Towering above it all are the trees, which ring the property and break in critical places, allowing sunlight to reach the cannabis gardens below. The property, unlike many cannabis grows, is immaculate.

Huckleberry Hill is clearly expecting visitors. It’s a significant departure from Casali’s previous work here, when his goal was to keep people, and especially authorities, out.


Casali followed a rocky path to becoming one of the first licensed cannabis tourism operations in the state. In 1992, when marijuana cultivation was still illegal in California, Casali was arrested after federal agents discovered his cannabis gardens. A four-year court case followed, and due to mandatory minimum guidelines, Casali — a first-time nonviolent offender — was sentenced to 10 years to life in prison in Lompoc. He served eight. When he was released in 2000, he returned to his home in the Emerald Triangle.

“There’s no other place in the world that was subjected to more eradication than southern Humboldt County,” says Casali while we smoke individual joints of his property-grown bud. “It is known as the ‘bull’s eye of the dartboard.’”

Eventually, Proposition 64 legalized adult-use cannabis cultivation and sales in the state and, despite a steep learning curve, Casali was able to become fully licensed. Legal cannabis, however, has not been the boon that legacy farmers hoped. Many feel that excessive permitting fees, taxes, and regulations favor large corporations, which have both the money and manpower to navigate the legal landscape. For small-scale farmers like Casali, merely selling cannabis isn’t enough.

But even as southern Humboldt’s weed is difficult to move on the legal market, its Emerald Triangle pedigree remains. During cannabis prohibition, the region’s largest cash crop industry has largely been closed to outsiders. Casali and other farmers see this history, a combination of novelty and heritage, as what will drive tourism to the region, saving the local economy and transforming the area into a destination, much like Napa and Sonoma are for wine-lovers from around the country and the world.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Huckleberry Hill Farms is located just beyond Garberville in southern Humboldt County.

Courtest of Huckleberry Hill Farms

Along with the area’s rich history as the epicenter of the country’s pot trade, spectacular natural scenery and a stunning coastline, southern Humboldt continues to produce killer weed. “Our cannabis is world-renowned,” Casali says. And Huckleberry Hill Farms, in particular, grows a number of award-winning cultivars. Many were developed by Casali’s mother, Marlene, a grower who taught young Casali everything she knew. Marlene passed away while Casali was in prison, but her legacy lives on in the farm’s proprietary strains, like the anthocyanin-heavy “Whitethorn Rose,” which has bright purple buds and a buzzy head high, and the affectionately named “Mom’s Weed” and “Sweet Marlene.”

But while these cultivars and others are grown on Casali’s property, visitors won’t be able to try them there just yet. His tourism license allows for people to visit and stay on the property, but county regulations don’t yet allow for consumption and sales. For that, tourists have to go to the Country Club in nearby Redway, which offers the farm’s buds, as well as seeds and cannabis products from other local growers. (Huckleberry Hill continues to lobby the county to expand what is allowed under the tourism permit.)

Casali says his focus for a post-vaccination world will be on drawing visitors to the farm when the growing season ramps up in the early summer. Huckleberry Hill, the Country Club and other local farmers, as well as Humboldt-based tour groups, have banded together to create a dedicated cannabis trail that will end with a visit to the shop, where tourists can buy from the farms they visited.

While nervous for the future, Casali feels confident that now is the time to finally bring outsiders into this closed-off world. And it’s clear, in listening to him talk, how genuinely he wants to see his community’s work, and struggle, both validated and vindicated. “Having visitors here, showing them what we do and where we do it,” says Casali, “will go a long way to showing people what we’re about.” By opening their homes and farms, he and others in the community hope that public opinion about cannabis and the people who grow it will continue to change.

“The history of where this multibillion-dollar industry started,” Casali says, “should be known to the world because of the sacrifice we made.”

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