California State Fair’s cannabis competition rightly showcases long-ostracized farmers

Native Humboldt Farms founder Lindsey Renner is admittedly “super plant nerdy” when it comes to the indigenous techniques she uses to grow cannabis. It’s a source of pride, really, for the farmer and ambassador for the California State Fair’s inaugural cannabis competition. Renner, who is Native American, has spent the past 15 years growing marijuana, berries and other native crops on two properties that were her ancestors’ village, recreational space and cook site some 150 years ago. She creates “living soil” by breeding microbes, extracting nutrients from fruits and introducing fungi that diminish the need for human intervention, allowing plants to “control the situation,” she said. The result of this regenerative farming is well-rounded, sun-grown cannabis that can contend with the best indoor products. “I just wanted to approach things that way, where I’m not trying to conquer nature,” said Renner. “I can’t do it better than nature. Nature’s pretty perfect.”

Many don’t see it that way, though. They’re still bothered by efforts to normalize one of the state’s biggest cash crops since voters legalized it in 2016. The response to this year’s competition has even included inflammatory headlines using reefer-madness rhetoric to criticize the contest. As many studies have shown, consuming high-powered cannabis does have risks, especially for young people — albeit not to the extent of prescription drugs or alcohol, which remain the most widely misused. But the reflex to shun cannabis takes up energy that could be better used to deepen our public understanding of it, overshadowing the craftsmanship and work of farmers. This is what makes the California State Fair’s cannabis-science-based competition worth appreciating. No one is getting “stoned” inside Cal Expo. More than 300 submissions were judged and analyzed in a lab, and the results were reported. That was it. The award winners have already been decided and will be showcased in a 7,500-square-foot museum-style exhibit at this year’s fair.



Cultivar Brands co-founder James Leitz, who helped spearhead the competition, said it’s being marketed responsibly and safely. Organizers are taking care to ensure that the product packaging and promotion each winner receives has a “sophisticated, mainstream” voice similar to those in other agriculture categories. “We’re trying to stay neutral, and we’re trying to educate,” Leitz said. “We’re trying to change the stigma. We’ve been given this amazing platform by the state of California to talk about cannabis in a really smart way.” Notably, cannabinoids, the compounds that cause marijuana’s high, took a backseat in the competition to terpenes, which create a plant’s distinctive aroma, flavors and effects. They are the subject of the majority of the competition’s 10 categories across three divisions. As opposed to the famed Emerald Cup competition, where cannabis smoke is as abundant as oxygen, Renner said the State Fair is subtly attempting to reach a demographic that may be uncomfortable with casual smoking and more inclined to try topicals and tinctures. For craft growers, that’s a big deal. It helps level the playing field in a nascent industry that so far favors corporations and generated a record $5.2 billion in sales last year. As lawmakers struggle to help smaller cultivators and encourage others to leave the illicit market, the State Fair is a huge step for communities that have long been ostracized for something so inherently Californian. “It’s having a place and being recognized,” Renner said.


Cannabis plants are seen at a Native Humboldt Farms property in the Humboldt County, California, area. Justin Bowers Cookies Enterprises