The origins of the Emerald Triangle region stem back to the mid-1960s—the same time as the summer of love. People in the San Francisco Bay Area looking to unplug from the societal woes of modern times packed up and headed north into the hills. Off the grid, they could remain self-sustainable and carve out a more natural life. More often than not they would grow their own food gardens and within those gardens there usually tended to be a cannabis plant or two.

The Emerald Triangle area a makes for the perfect place to grow your own. Covering more than 10,000 square miles, the region is sparsely populated, has a long growing season and has a moderate temperature. Over the years, as growers continued perfecting their craft, the quality of the product increased and with it so did the demand. Cannabis quickly began a lucrative crop to grow. As the profits grew larger, so did the size of the gardens. With the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996, California became the first state in the nation to legalize medical cannabis. Since then the cannabis industry in the Emerald Triangle has grown by leaps and bounds to keep up with the skyrocketing demand.

Today’s Emerald Triangle

Today the Emerald Triangle cannabis industry brings in more than 1 billion dollars of revenue annually that fuels the local economies. In this region, growing cannabis is not just considered a way of life but also as source of funding, through taxes, for projects like building schools or fixing roads. It is commonly believed that the majority of Emerald Triangle residents benefit either directly from the industry or indirectly by providing other services. Since there are few other industries in the region most local economies rely heavily on revenue from cannabis cultivation—removing it from the equation would be a big blow.

The success Emerald Triangle growers have achieved is in no way unwarranted. The growers and breeders of the area consistently produce some of the highest-quality medicinal cannabis available. It is not uncommon for the strains they develop to gain international acclaim for their quality and potency. By carefully breeding plants and targeting specific traits, Emerald Triangle growers provide what is quite possibly the best outdoor cannabis the world has ever seen. For most growers it isn’t just a job, it is a lifestyle, and the culture of the area truly reflects this. I remember my first visit to the region. I stopped at a gas station and while looking around came across a bumper sticker that said, “Welcome to the Emerald Triangle. No, you didn’t run over a skunk.” To me this really sums up how prevalent and entrenched the cannabis industry is in the local culture.

The Highly Coveted Emerald Cup

Every year the best of the best Emerald Triangle growers convene in one spot for a chance to show off their highest-quality product. This friendly competition is aptly named the Emerald Cup. Hundreds of different high-quality strains of medicinal cannabis are put to the test to see who will go home with the much-respected cup.

This event began as a small, almost secretive get-together for the area’s best growers to show off and compare the fruits of their labor. It has now grown into a giant celebration of the local cannabis culture. In 2015 the Emerald Cup brought more than 21,000 people to the Sonoma County fairgrounds for the two-day event. This was triple the amount of 2013’s crowd of 7,000 people, and I believe the event’s popularity shows no signs of waning.

While working on this article I was lucky to get in touch with a lifelong Emerald Triangle resident and 2015 Emerald Cup recipient. Blaze, an alias he uses to protect his anonymity, has been growing/breeding cannabis in the region for more than 10 years and earned his first Emerald Cup working with a collective named Blazing Oaks.

Blaze is a third generation grower that began cultivating as a teenager and his family has been involved in the cannabis industry since his grandparents moved to Humboldt County in the 1960s. His story helps illustrate how entrenched the cannabis industry is in the area.

We discussed the incredible success growers in the Emerald Triangle have had and what possible factors may have contributed to it. He was quick to point out that there is no one single factor but rather several key components that coalesced to create what the Emerald Triangle has become.

“It began with the rough and rugged terrain that allowed early growers to hide in the hills and pursue their craft,” says Blaze. This, combined with ideal climates, including several micro climates, has resulted in an area where a huge range of cannabis strains can be grown to their full potential, he adds.

The Emerald Triangle counties are also host to a rather favorable political climate. Blaze explained that over the years, cannabis growers have become the “real engine of our local economy” and this has led “many elected officials, business owners and others in the community to tolerate and even embrace the industry.”

Blaze and I also talked about the overwhelming quality of the Emerald Triangle cannabis and what he thinks may have led to the area consistently producing such a high-quality product. Again, he pointed out there is not just one factor responsible, but he agrees wholeheartedly that the quality has increased exponentially. This is a fact he sees as undeniable, stating that in his opinion the Emerald Triangle has advanced more in the last 10 years than in the previous 30 years combined.

Today’s growers have been able to learn from and build upon what previous growers have done and can more easily communicate and collaborate with other growers. Growers have worked hard to develop sure-fire techniques for everything from growing to drying and curing the crop to perfection.

Blaze said he believes the genetics produced by highly talented breeders have certainly played a big role in the overall narrative, with the focus being placed not just on potency, but on overall quality.

The strain Watermelon Rancher, which earned Blaze’s collective an Emerald Cup, was not only high in THC but also in overall terpene content. Terpenes are what give cannabis strains their unique smells and flavors. They also have a wide range of medicinal effects. If growers continue to focus on breeding plants with their overall ultimate potential in mind, their qualities will only continue to rise.

The Future of Emerald Triangle

This coming November, the chance for California to legalize cannabis for recreational use will once more be on the ballot. The last time it appeared on the ballot it did not pass due in part to a lack of support from growers who feared commercialization of the industry may result in smaller independent growers being cut out of the system. This of course would have a devastating effect on the areas local economies.

I believe that if these growers are given a proper voice in the formation of the legislation surrounding legalization, then the Emerald Triangle has the possibility of becoming a true tourist attraction.

The Emerald Triangle and all of its natural beauty could easily become the go-to destination for those of us that have a love for high-quality, locally grown cannabis, much like the Napa Valley is a prime destination for those who enjoy great wine. If recreational cannabis use is legalized, the industry would continue to grow and the local economies will flourish, providing a better life for all of the residents.