Sonoma Hills Farm Is Disrupting the Cannabis Industry

Young hemp plants (photo courtesy of Sonoma Hills Farm)

Sonoma Hills Farm is not a cannabis farm. It’s a farm that grows cannabis — and there’s a difference. Take it from Aaron Keefer, vice president of cannabis cultivation and production: “I just look at it as one more plant.” One more plant grown on a plot not far from the romaine lettuce that chef Tyler Florence comes to pick for the Caesar salads that are made tableside at his new San Francisco Chase Center spot, Miller & Lux. One more plant grown on soil not far from where humanely raised pigs, cows and sheep roam.

Still, when you go to the farm’s website for the first time, you’re met with a singular question: Are you 21+? Answer correctly, and you can pass Go.

The age verification isn’t there to protect prying eyes from a description of the farm’s Chefs’ Ranch and the support it provides to local, pandemic-stricken restaurants. Nor is it there to block underage kids from reading about Keefer’s impressive background. It’s a mandated safeguard for the tab that reads “Craft Cannabis” and lists cheeky strain names, like Pink Jesus and RBG OG.

Even as laws legalizing the growth, possession or purchase of various amount of cannabis continue to be passed around the country, the topic remains somewhat taboo. “It’s interesting because you still have these echoes of Prohibition,” Keefer contends. “People still say it’s a crime, it ruins our children, it changes your DNA. All kinds of crazy stuff left over from our war on drugs.” But any naysayers he’s run into are industry outsiders, not the farmers down the road. “They look at us like we’re farming, which is what we’re doing, right?” he laughs.

After all, this is Sonoma County, the hipper (and hippier) area just west of the more buttoned-up Napa, and Keefer has become one of the region’s most widely respected farmers and chefs. Most recently, he oversaw the culinary garden at Thomas Keller’s Michelin-starred The French Laundry. Cannabis? It was — yep — just one more plant he’d been growing on the side, first as a teen recreationally and then for medicinal dispensaries as an adult. 

Aaron Keefer
Aaron Keefer (photo courtesy of Sonoma Hills Farm)

Keefer’s grandparents were farmers, so a love of working the land was instilled in him from an early age. When he talks about growing plants, it’s with a deep reverence for the soil and the sun and the skies. Sonoma Hills Farm sits on storied soil first settled in the mid-1800s by a cattle rancher. The land has since been home to a chicken farm with a booming egg business and has seen the growth of pumpkins crowned the country’s largest. 

“The soil is called Steinbeck loam, and it’s really high in almost everything you need,” Keefer says. And those conditions matter, whether you’re cultivating herbs or, you know, herbs.

“Just like food, beer and wine, it’s something you’re putting in your body,” Keefer says of cannabis. “You want to know how it was grown, where it was grown and how it was taken care of. Personally, I want organic grown out in the sun and the soil. I don’t want my cannabis to be grown under lights next to a freeway in L.A.”

Technically, cannabis can’t be certified organic since it’s still illegal under federal law, and the USDA’s National Organic Program is federally run. But under Keefer’s tutelage, Sonoma Hills Farm recently became one of the first two farms in the country to earn an unprecedented certification: “comparable-to-organic,” as recognized by the OCal Program under the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

It’s a step in the right direction, a direction Keefer hopes will see cannabis being treated more like the region’s fine wines: strain lists at restaurants, growers with clubs dedicated to the herb, consumption licenses. To him, cannabis is the third leg of hospitality, next to food and drink, and it’s just at the beginning.

Down the road, Keefer dreams of opening the farm up to the public — like a “marijuanary,” he says. Right now, you can purchase Sonoma Hills Farm’s strains through Marin’s cannabis delivery services Ona and Farmhouse Artisan Market. “You could see how it’s grown and enjoy the space. It’s going to be a completely different thing than a couple of hippies smoking a joint behind a school.”