We sat down recently for a chat with Kevin Bush of Bush Family Farms, an award winning small farm based in Mendocino County with roots in Bakersfield and LA.
What brought you into this industry, and how long ago was that?
Allegedly, 40 years ago I used to come up to Humboldt and Mendocino as a member of a traditional distribution/marketing team servicing inner cities in Central and Southern California. As legalization moves forward, I believe that the contributions of this segment of the industry will be celebrated as a significant historical cornerstone.
I served four years as a hospital corpsman in the US Navy, and was discharged in 1981. From 1986 thru 2003 I worked as a primary care medical administrator and one of my responsibilities was to meet with representatives of pharmaceutical companies who would visit and leave samples of the newly FDA approved greatest and latest drugs. Even then my internal spidey alarm would go off whenever one of these very attractive Hollywood actress-type reps would appear in the clinics dealing her drugs. Even though the FDA would go through their 5 years of clinical trials, many of the medications would have poor outcomes and deleterious side effects for our patients. I had always been impressed with the results that many of our pain management patients were having with marijuana as they were less dependent on pain meds.
Due to the marijuana treatment success I witnessed at the clinics and the prospects of economic gain, in 2006 we started a collective in Bakersfield under the Compassionate Use Act, Prop 215 to provide medical marijuana to members of our Compassionate Care Center. I served as a director on the Kern County Aids Advisory Board, Bakersfield United Sports Association and the Black Chamber of Commerce at the time, and was getting increasingly more concerned by conversations I was having with colleagues, family and friends about the legality of marijuana and the impending actions of the County and City administrations. We decided flight over fight, and closed down our collective. We moved up to Mendocino County's “Weed Heaven”, and started growing at the property we’re presently on and subsequently under the Sheriff department’s 99 plant program. We still have the location in Bakersfield, and if they ever open up to legal dispensaries there, we intend on reopening.
When I got into the legal grow side of the business my kids were like “No way you’re growing weed!” since I used to give them a hard time for smoking. When I was in the early stages of developing the farm, my son Ryan who had recently graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills-and now partner and head grower, kept correcting me whenever I misspoke on the technical aspects of the plants. After a while I was like- “How the hell do you know so much about this?” Turns out I learned that he had taken a botany course in college and his life's passion was to grow cannabis.
Ryan tending to a happy plant on the farm
From that medical background, what do you think about the industry currently?
The light at the end of the tunnel for me is that we’ve seen a ton more research since legalization so it’s only a matter of time before some really definitive research comes out. Thankfully, the University of Mississippi’s tenure of growing low quality weed and being the only institution for cannabis research is over and others are ushering in new studies. In 2022 researchers published over 4,300 scientific papers on the subject. The military is moving in the same direction. I think researchers need to better involve those farmers who know the plant well in their studies and I think that is coming.
If you could bring back one element of the industry from when you started, what would it be?
The direct contact with the consumer, I mean that in a nutshell is what it’s always been about interacting with your patients is it. Under Compassionate Care, it was more of a healthcare industry, so we had to know everyone coming in. The new distribution model disconnects everyone, and I think that's horrible. It’s very difficult to navigate. I have a lot of admin background so I can usually get through this kind of thing, but I still struggle, I can't imagine how difficult it would be for someone without that experience.
The tired drive home after a long day on the farm
What do you think is more important- genetics or growing skills?
They’re really close, but I would add: it depends on the growing environment. Good genetics alone can take you far, but you can also fall short of a successful grow with subpar skills and less than ideal growing conditions. Great growing skills are less important in ideal microclimates like in The Triangle ’s banana belt. It doesn’t really matter what the strain is, almost anything you grow in this climate and rich soil environment will be successful. Battling the elements elsewhere can make it difficult to bring about a successful quality crop. For example my family's hometown of Bakersfield has heat conditions (hot days and hot nights) that are detrimental to farming superior cannabis, however a skillful grower with sturdy genetics can pull off a good crop.
Do you have a signature strain variety and if so, what’s the story behind it?
We took 2nd place on our Mac 1 for Alpha Pinene at the Inaugural CA State Fair. I appreciate their scientific approach breaking it down by terpene profiles, not just by names. My personal favorite is our Mimosa, which is calming with less intense THC. We plan to introduce new strains in the future but we don't think a simple known strain crossbreed like Mimosa-Mac is a true new strain, you need to bring in new genetics from elsewhere to diversify, and develop its unique qualities over time- we’re working on that.
Kevin and son Ryan showing off their State Fair Medal
The legal market was advertised as safer for growers- have you found that to be true?
When you announce that it is illegal for a farm to have weapons and then make their location public, then No. If you are fortunate enough to have a trustworthy relationship with a Distro who picks up your crop or product and pays you what has been agreed upon then Yes. If you are fortunate enough to be able to transport under a Distro Self-Transport license to a Distro or Manufacturer who then pays you for what has been agreed upon then Yes. There is a lot of room for improvement. Direct to consumer is the answer, whether it be ecommerce with postal delivery, farmers markets or grower events. I do see a light at the end of the tunnel, some things are getting better, the state intervening in Mendocino County’s broken system is a big step forward. We still need to get direct to consumer sales established, and get the middlemen out of the way.
What’s the most brag-worthy thing about your farm?
When I first read that question, my mind went to the state award we won, but that wasn't us, that was the seed, we were just the caretakers of those genes. There’s a lot of guys out there who’ve been doing it for generations who we can’t hold a candle to. I think for us it’s our ability to walk the line between admin and farming. We formed a nonprofit called SEEDS- Social Equity Economic Development Solutions. As state money trickles down to equity groups, all the middlemen along the way take their cut, and it gets where it's needed late and there’s barely anything left. We’re trying to fix that, to help distribute it and make sure it moves more efficiently. That's our brag. We’re helping to steady the boat at the grass roots level.
What's the number one advice you’d give to a struggling farm at the moment?
Seek out someone to help you get to market like we did with Higher Origins, find someone to help you traverse that minefield of paperwork like we did with Attorney Hannah Nelson. You’re not gonna be able to just relax and grow and not deal with it, unless you’ve got a lot of cash, it’s tight and you’ve gotta have help. Stay the course- it’s gonna level out and folks are always gonna want weed from the Triangle. If a dispensary wants something, even if it's not what you want to grow- blue dream or cake or whatever popular strain, just grow the damn blue dream- sometimes, you have to decide on what sells instead of interesting exotic strains. There’s a lot of different Facebook pages and groups you can join, anything that helps you talk to other farmers. Before, people were isolated on their own little mountain islands, now everyone's gotta help each other as much as they can.
Also, support industry and legislative support groups like MCA, Origins Council, CCIA etc. Support politicians like Sen. Mike Mcguire, Assembly member Jim Wood and others who are interested in supporting farms with efforts like the SHIP act.
Remember: Consumers throughout the United States and beyond want California weed and California Weed is Emerald Triangle Weed. Stay the course.
What makes the environment of your farm special?
Aside from the ideal growing aspect, it’s just the property itself, the air, the animals, the lack of sounds of technology- it’s peaceful and it grounds me. I just sit out on my deck and look at the trees and I'm aware that I'm alive . Whenever I leave there on the drive South and hit the Central Valley, a funk comes over me, the air is harder to breathe and everything feels off in comparison. I grew up in Johnstown Pennsylvania- you might know it from the famous historical floods of 1889 and 1977, it had a very small town feel, +so Laytonville and rural living is familiar to me.
Bush Family Farms, nestled in the forests of Mendocino County
What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve seen in your time as a grower?
The approach of the middlemen “distro”. I think it is a ridiculous mindset to come into an industry with the thought that you could have long term success by using deception to befriend a grower and promise development support ie. branding. I get disgusted when I visit dispensaries and see Distro or Retail owned brands that got their start in the industry with fellow growers' products obtained by unkept promises and/or deceptive practices.
What’s a collaboration you’ve had that worked out, and what can other people in the industry learn from that experience?
I’ve been really involved with following the politics. I had a partnership with the groups in LA that introduced the ordinance for Measure M, and we partnered for an indoor grow in California City. We had to go on a wait list of 3 years to get utilities connected so we had to shelve the license, however this relationship remains and I am able to keep my finger on the pulse of LA activity. The market is tired of the boof weed from the coast and when they get it from up on the hill they can immediately tell there’s a difference. Collaborating with folks in Central and Southern Cal keeps you moving in the right direction when planning your strain selection.
We are going direct through partnered distros who see the future and want to be relevant when the pendulum swings back in favor of the farmer. It’s still a shitshow but not as much as it was a few years ago. I think LA is going to be the first to figure it out and make it really stable, since that’s the biggest market in the world with the most opportunity. I like the model of retail chains like Catalyst with multiple locations who aren't trying to push their own brand. This is in comparison to branded retailers who are basically competing with their vendors. I think branding and direct to consumer is the best for farmers, dispensaries that take on brands are better than those that run their own brand. Realistically, every small producer must have a brand. You can make market deals with brands and distros for promotion/wholesale, and use those deals to bring the farmer to market. That's what we are doing with SEEDS.
Kevin sitting in on government proceedings, always staying up to date with what's happening
Have you ever met someone who has bought your product from a dispensary? How did that go?
We’re just now venturing out into branding with our first retailer being a delivery service in Los Angeles. They have tested the market and know their customers. This is extremely helpful to us as we plan our strain selections. Traditionally we R&D our flower with the host of stoners in our family and friends category.
What are your thoughts on the effectiveness of the existing Social Equity programs based on your personal experience?
Just like the solution for distribution is farmer to consumer, the same is true for social equity. The solution is for the State to distribute funds and other help directly to the injured person. The program is rife with redundancies and ineffective policies. That’s why we built SEEDS as a nonprofit, to go directly to the state, we believe we can make a difference in how this program is implemented.
Kevin enjoying some classic NorCal weather on the farm
We would like to thank Kevin for joining us, and encourage everyone to check out Bush Family Farms, as well as keep your eyes open for future efforts from his nonprofit SEEDS!
Here's hoping your crop is going strong!
Note: The mention of any political figures in this article is not to be considered an endorsement by Higher Origins or our employees- do your own research, follow the money, count your fingers.