Jesse is a little nervous.
"I don't take people up here," he tells me. "And I was having second thoughts bringing you up. But then I wondered if you were worried I might try and kill you out in the middle of nowhere."
I wouldn't say I was worried, but it had crossed my mind.
Jesse, in his late 30s and wiry, is accustomed to working hard. His hair is a fuzzy brown uniform buzz. In previous meetings, Jesse has been easy-going and relaxed, but I could also sense a meticulous mind and a passion for craft.
I wonder if his anxiety is less about security and more about having his refuge invaded by the media—about this being an initial step in the long journey toward legitimacy for commercial growers. Jesse knows changes are coming, and he's preparing. So he nods solemnly and welcomes me inside my first growhouse.
When I started exploring Oregon's cannabis scene, what I really wanted to know was the location of the good shit. And if you ask around Portland and the people who answer sound like they know what they're saying, one name comes up again and again: Eco Firma Farms. Sometimes it's the only name you'll get.
Eco Firma's stuff is the good shit. There are many small artisan growers out there, but for scale, quality and consistency, it's hard to match Jesse's operation. I ask Jesse about a minor psychoactive variance I experienced in a recent batch of Super Silver Haze. Jesse knows exactly what I'm talking about—it was due to a difference in harvest dates. He wants to know which I preferred.
He's considering stamping his product, the way winemakers stamp on vintages. This sounds like a very good idea, especially in Portland.
Jesse is Eco Firma Farms. There are assistants, but it's his operation. Jesse's last name is off the record so he can keep his other two jobs, both rugged vocations in which mind-altering substances are frowned upon.
Jesse has been working with weed a long time. He got his start dealing as a sophomore, one of the few apartment dwellers at an upper-class suburban high school. A girl he knew handed him an eighth of shake, assuming he'd know what to do. His first toke didn't happen until a year later, a stolen bud from his dad's stash. Dealing was the next logical step.
"I figured, 'If I buy half an ounce and then sell an eighth to three of my friends, my part's free,'" he says. "And that was easy to do. So then I thought, 'Well, why not double it up?' It built out from there, and then I figured, 'Why not grow my own?'"
That part was more about trial and error, but mostly error.
"Some younger kids had this plant put in a field to grow, so we decided to steal it," he says. "We moved it about a hundred yards and replanted it, but we left yellow caution tape around it, like maybe the police knew it was there. We wound up pulling leaves off and smoking them. We would throw three different strains together in our dimebags. There was no Internet to consult."
Twenty years later, his operation is certainly upgraded. The secluded indoor farm features five spacious rooms connected by a hall dense with water barrels, chemicals and an array of digital displays. Each room depicts a unique seasonal climate in the rushed growing cycle. The first rooms are spare, with low plants. The latter rooms are packed with explosions of green. An assistant is on hand, rushing about like an Oompa Loompa in a chocolate factory.
I tell Jesse it feels good inside the rooms, and I can see why he likes working here, ducking around under the thick canopies, trimming away vampiring buds.
"They like it, too," he says, and I tell him about something I read on cannabis being uniquely connected to humanity. Could there be some sort of symbiotic or metaphysical connection? "I wouldn't say I believe in anything like that," he says, "but I know they grow better when I'm taking care of them and when I've got music playing."
Eco Firma supporters also appreciate Jesse's straightforward approach. He does what he says and pays on time. This isn't exactly common, particularly on the commercial and retail fronts.
Jesse believes there's a battle right now for the soul of Oregon cannabis. It is, at heart, the same battle that has always been fought over agriculture, a battle between quality and quantity, greed and ethics, craft and mass production.
There are reasons to be hopeful, he explains. America's cannabis breadbasket essentially lies between the Columbia River and Mendocino County in Northern California, between the coast and the mountains, a region that puts heavy emphasis on responsible agriculture and high-quality production. There are also reasons to be nervous, like the fact Oregon's growing community has been pushed to the fringes for the last 80 years. One dispensary operator estimated the industry as "70 percent shady." Jesse puts the number closer to 90. Even legitimate growers fall prey to production demands. Little oversight, a product still partly serving the black market, and the finicky nature of certain strains lead to dangerous growing practices and, potentially, a tainted final product—but even test results can be unreliable. The only lab in town Jesse trusts is Sunrise Analytical in Wilsonville (see here).
The dispensary owners, Jesse explains, are also part of the problem: "Almost everything's on consignment at the dispensaries, and some growers don't even get paid," he says. "They grow a nice crop and they take it to these shops and turn it over and come back later and the shop owner doesn't have the crop or the money. And these guys have no idea what to do. They're just small-time growers. They're completely legal, but you don't go to the cops on stuff like that."
Eco Firma is located in a county that's relatively unfriendly to medicinal marijuana. One of Jesse's fellow growers, in fact, was raided by law enforcement a week before our meeting.
"I served. I know how those things go," he says. "But the guy's there with his family. Just knock on the door first, at least."
Jesse isn't worried about raids.
"They can come," he says. "We only grow what we're allowed to, and everything we send to dispensaries is 100 percent legal. There's nothing to hide. Just, you know, ring the bell before you send in the entry team."