Off of Bodega Road’s golden grass scenery, a treasure trove of farming can be found with a patch of gold all its own.
Sonoma Hills Farm is a premium growing facility that farms high-end restaurant produce as well as cannabis. On its 40 acres, you’ll find lush gardens, farm animals, dogs, 150-year-old structures and a fenced-in-field of cannabis plants.
Aaron Keefer is the man who oversees it all.
“Basically, I’m the caretaker for all the forms of life on this property,” said Keefer, who serves as vice president of cultivation.
And before you wonder, yes, Keefer is his real last name. He grew his first cannabis plant when he was just 15, and with its buds also sprouted a passion for growing. He wanted to pursue a career that would never bore him. With Mother Nature “throwing a monkey wrench in everything every year,” Keefer knew farming was a path that would never be boring.
He attended the Culinary Institute of America before bringing his talents to the Bay Area. He eventually landed at The French Laundry, which is consistently named one of the best restaurants in the world. In his time there, he fell back in love with farming, inspired by the legendary owner Thomas Keller and his emphatic focus on fresh ingredients. Keefer not only rekindled his relationship with plants, but also built a strong reputation as a culinary gardener.
But he knew he was capable of more.
He started at Sonoma Hills Farm in February, building it from the ground up. When COVID shut down the county, production carried on as usual at the farm, seemingly unaffected by the pandemic.
“We’re essential in two ways: farming is essential and cannabis has become essential now,” said Keefer. “What a 180 (degrees) from what we were before – illegal to essential.”
He remains committed to supporting the local culinary scene, providing fresh produce for free to restaurants struggling to survive. Aaron Keefer’s understanding of the restaurant business is one of the reasons he is in the right place at the right time.
The right place, you ask? Sonoma County. The right time? Definitely now.
Cannabis has taken agriculture by storm in recent years, especially in California. Yes, there are still a lot of limits around who can grow what, where and how much, but it’s a growing industry, both literally and figuratively.
“As I grow vegetables like that, you can taste the difference – most people can taste the difference – with well grown vegetables versus vegetables that are grown conventionally, and we’re looking to grow that quality of cannabis, too,” said Keefer.
It’s a market with a ridiculous amount of potential, but in order to fully reach it, you have to cut through a lot of red tape. The cost of growing includes permits, taxes, equipment and taxes again. The added cost makes it hard for legal growers to compete with the longstanding illegal market.
“You can’t get rid of the black market until you fix the tax problem – we’re taxing it too much and we can’t compete with the black market price-wise. If we can’t compete price-wise, it’s never going to go away,” said Keefer. “The black market is beating the pants off of legal cannabis at the ratio of eight to two, 80% of the market is illegal, 20% is legal. It’s because you can’t compete price-wise with what’s going on in the cannabis industry.”
Though price is a big factor in cannabis consumer choices, Keefer says customers should consider all the pieces of the puzzle before they decide where to spend their cash.
Sustainability is key to future success. While this type of farming has taken some hold in the Bay Area, it’s still nowhere close to being the dominant trend. But, at Sonoma Hills, it’s about purpose over popularity.
“If your values are organic farming, which Aaron and I both have as our background and that’s what we’re passionate about, you’re going to look at the soil health, you’re going to look at practices that are actually healing the land, that are sequestering carbon, that are building the microbiology which is actually creating to fertility that you want,” said Jake Daigle, another Sonoma Hills farmer. “There’s huge potential for that, on a massive scale. Will we get there – I hope so, I really do.”
With its unique blend of cannabis and gourmet produce, Sonoma Hills has set itself apart from other farms in our area, and they’re not done yet.
There’s plans for a state-of-the-art greenhouse to grow cannabis along with a members lounge. They’re on the way to becoming a holistic enclave for tourists to visit, transforming the model into a full-on brand. While they hope people will want to come to them, they also want to be able to reach the people themselves.
“Sonoma and California in general produce 65% of all the fruits and vegetables for the entire country, we’d like to do for cannabis too – we'd like to provide that number for the rest of the country,” said Keefer. “We’d like to be a player on the national stage – that’s definitely our future.”