Hans Brand has always told his family to be at the forefront.
With that sage advice, it should come as no surprise that Autumn Brands has become one of the premier cannabis farms in the South Coast.
For the 53-year-old who got his start in Holland before moving to the states in the 1980s, being able to share the company with his family has made it all worth it. Mr. Brand and his wife, Esther, own 25 percent of the company. Autumn Shelton owns 25 percent, as do Mr. Brand’s children, 23-year-old Hanna and 26-year-old Johnny.
“I think for us it’s a great opportunity,” Mr. Brand said. “For me, just to do it and for my kids to come into the business — it’s a dream. In the flower business, it would have probably been less likely that both of them would have joined me. There’s an opportunity for farmers. The hoops you’ve got to jump through are becoming more by the week, but we knew that was going to happen and we’re OK with it.”
For Mr. Brand, the decision to transition to cannabis was not an easy one. Admitting he is not a smoker or proponent of drug use, Mr. Brand said he was convinced by hearing the stories from others — whether it was a child who was finding respite dealing with epilepsy or people with cancer who use marijuana to help get through chemotherapy.
Perhaps the story that left the greatest impression on Mr. Brand came from an Army veteran who lost his leg and suffered serious mental and physical injuries in combat. The veteran found out what Mr. Brand did for a living and thanked him for helping save his life.
During a recent site tour of the Foothill Road farm, Johnny, the head grower, and Hanna, who operates sales, gave the News-Press a behind-the-scenes look at the growing process. Within the plastic walls of the farm’s greenhouses is where thousands of plants are grown, dried and hand-trimmed before being processed for sales.
Autumn Brands was formed in 2015 and initially exclusively grew medical marijuana. The farm has since expanded its operation, and now grows nearly 10,000 plants per week for medicinal and recreational use.
“We don’t grow from seeds here,” Johnny said as he walked through the grow house. “The only time I grow from seeds is to get new varieties.
“That’s a good way to get new varieties because when you buy from a nursery. … you get a type of generic or variety, but a lot of times they’ll grow a lot and will sell it to a bunch of farms. You might have this new variety, but so do a bunch of other farms, so then you’ve kind of lost that special variety.”
All of the plants at the farm are females – which produce the flowers. Male plants are known to produce pollen, which is not necessarily the aim for large-scale grows, the Brand siblings explained.
The farm uses cuttings from its mature plants, which take about 10 days to produce a root.
“This is the beginning,” Johnny said. “They’ll sit here in the summer — when the sun is a lot stronger — for about four weeks. Winter it’s about six weeks that they’ll stay here until they’re ready to go in the greenhouse where they flower and mature.”
Some plants can flower in as little as 12 weeks. Depending on the season and strain, some plants may remain in the greenhouse a bit longer. While many large-scale growers use the same variety of cannabis, the small, sixth-generation family farm relies on quality over quantity.
“We need to differentiate ourselves,” Johnny said. “The no-spray is a big differentiating factor. From consumers, we hear that it creates a very smooth smoke — and you know that there’s nothing in there.”
While there are approved organic pesticides and herbicides for cannabis, Mr. Brand and his team are skeptical about the long-term impacts.
Since spraying his plants is not an option, Johnny relies on bugs to help keep his plants thriving. The farm has become a sought-after spot for ladybugs — and the majority of ladybugs that are born on the farm don’t have spots.
“Not 100 percent sure why, but the ones that are born without spots,” he said. “It might have something to do with their diet, but in the greenhouse, lady bug larva is prevalent.
“The climate stays at a consistent level so they don’t have to leave or migrate,” he added. “When there’s no food (in the greenhouse), there are avocados next door they can go eat.”
The decision to become a no-spray farm was not an easy one, Johnny explained.
“I was in a roller coaster,” he said. “I would buy bugs and I would put them out and I would cure a problem here and then over there would be a huge infestation because the bad bugs moved.”
The farm has switched to bugs that can fly so they can move about the greenhouse better to prevent any issues.
“You essentially are buying bugs that don’t feed on your cannabis plants, but feed on the other pests that are in here,” Johnny said.
Prior to growing cannabis, the farm specialized in roses, tulips and Gerbera daisies.
Autumn Brands was the first farm in Santa Barbara County to chart 100 percent of its inventory through METRC, which the state’s track and trace software for cannabis growers. They were also the first farm in the state to use METRC with multiple cultivation licenses, of which Autumn Brands has three – a medium license (22,000 square feet of canopy), and two small licenses (each for 10,000 square feet of canopy).
Autumn Brands sells four products: one-eighth glass jars of cannabis; packs of seven half-gram pre-rolled joints; one-gram joints; and a vape line from the farm’s trim.
Each batch produced by the farm needs to be tested for compliance. Anywhere from 1 to 50 pounds can be tested, with the samples selected randomly. The testing process can take up to five days, and once the batch passes the test it can be sold.
Many of the workers at the farm have been there for a number of years. Some have been around longer than the 26-year-old head grower, while others came aboard after years of working on crop or berry fields. Johnny said he has recently seen an increase in younger people applying for jobs at the farm.
With so much false information circulating about how to harvest and grow cannabis, Johnny and his team rely on advice from many different circles. Whether its flower growers in Holland, farmers in Canada, or other large-scale produce farms, Autumn Brands seeks information from growers who are pushing the limits on what their plants can do.
“We’ve just always transitioned with agriculture of the time, and now it’s cannabis,” Hanna said.
The farm’s former company, B and H Flowers, began growing in the U.S. in 1986 in Nipomo. The company quickly grew and relocated to Carpinteria in 1987. One of the farm’s greenhouses was built in 1992 to grow roses. The growing then shifted to Gerbera’s, which were supplied to Las Vegas casinos, displayed at the White House and spread throughout Safeway grocery stores throughout the country.
“A big thing behind the scenes that no one really knows is how much cleaner this property is (now) compared to 10 years ago,” Johnny said. “We won the green award for our flower growing because we used so little pesticides and such soft chemicals … all that stuff is gone now, so the greenhouses inside are much cleaner.”
When he was growing flowers, Mr. Brand said, 10 to 15 semi trucks would visit the farm each day.
“Right now, it’s two or three transit vans a week, maybe four,” he said. “They talk about VOCs and that we’re adding to it with cannabis, or that’s what some of the people who are against us are saying, but the VOCs here aren’t a limiting factor; it’s carbon monoxide. I took 20 trucks off the road so I’m lowering pollution, but no one is giving me credit for that part.”
Some of the regulating agencies for cannabis growers, such as Fish and Wildlife or the state Water Board, now have access to the farm, which has also sparked some change.
“We think it’s great because it’s something that we never thought of and it’s something that is good for the environment. We have the opportunity to fix it, it’s just a lot of added work … just because we’ve changed a plant we all have all these other agencies looking in,” Johnny said. “We just one day hope that everything is on the same playing field. We’ve always been early adapters. We’re very pro regulation because we find it not only a barrier to entry, but the people that don’t care won’t go through it. Most of it is just work,. It’s not money.”
Officials estimate there are more than 3,000 illegal dispensaries and only 800 legal ones in the state, Johnny and Hanna said.
Products sold by Autumn Brands can be found in dispensaries from Redding to San Diego, including local dispensaries. While some of the competition can be fierce the farther north you go, Johnny and his team feel as if they are finding their groove.
“I feel like we’re breaking the mold a little bit,” he said. “People are kind of realizing that ‘Hey, those guys in Santa Barbara can actually grow good weed.’ We’re proud of that. We’re proud to complete with the guys who have been growing in the mountains for 50 years and we’ve been doing it for a couple of years — me only two years since I graduated college. I feel like I’m making an impact, but I do like to stay behind the scenes.”
Autumn Brands hopes to expand to another greenhouse in the next year or so, but the lengthy permitting and licensing process may delay that.
“Santa Barbara is one of the hardest counties in the state to grow in,” Johnny said. “It is way more difficult to grow here because of the permits and the amount of appeals, the notoriety, and the opposition groups that are making unfounded claims and all kinds of stuff. The added rules are just tacking on. With every person that goes in for an appeal, they just add a few more rules onto his and then they’re going to add to everyone else. They just keep adding rules.”
No matter what gets in their way, Autumn Brands will continue to strive for greatness.
“I’ve told these guys to always been at the forefront,” he added. “We were one of the first brands in the marketplace that could test and was in the market, so in the beginning sales exploded because no one else was ready. It’s a lot of fun and with what we’re doing.
“We’re in it for the long run.”