While soaking in the wide array of legal options available at cannabis dispensaries or online today, it’s easy to forget that the vast amount of cannabis- and hemp-derived products all start with some seeds, land and a number of helping hands.
Santa Barbara County’s
Stephen Walden sits beside William Terry and Jared Micheli as co-founder of Farming First, also acting as the chief operating officer and head of product development.
Walden is still fairly new to
“I think what sets Farming First apart is our focus. We look at everything from the ground up. Farming First is trying to bring some consistency to the supply side of the industry,” Walden said. “The general ethos and respect we have is for the land, for the agricultural component of growing and doing that to the best of our ability without cutting any corners, anywhere.”
From Entrepreneur to Cannabis Cultivator
It was in the midst of a breakup and a bout of depression. After giving his roommate $100 for a trip to the dispensary (which his roommate quickly let him know was far too much for someone’s weed smoking debut), Walden tried cannabis for
“I don’t know if it was just being with a lifelong friend, talking through a time in my life that was tough or the fact that we were smoking together,” Walden said. “And he had always said, ‘The first time you
Back in his college days at Loyola Marymount University, Walden was on track to become a religion professor, switching gears during his senior year after creating a new concept for an ergonomic shovel for a class. His design won a class competition, then another competition through the university’s College of Business.
Walden decided to embrace entrepreneurship full force, moving forward with his invention and into a one-year master’s program. As a culmination between his final undergrad class and his master’s program, he launched a Kickstarter campaign for his shovel design and ended up raising a substantial amount of money.
“By putting my idea on the internet and pre-selling it to people, I actually had to go make it,” Walden said. “And figuring that out meant I had to start a manufacturing facility. I had to understand supply-chain economics beyond the classroom, and it was pretty much the perfect combination.”
He carried on to start Boss Tools, an ergonomic shovel manufacturing business, set up an overseas facility for manufacturing and licensed the technology to a number of manufacturers who make name brand tools, like Home Depot and Costco.
After about seven years working closely with his invention and licensing the idea to others, it was time for a change. This was right as legal, adult-use cannabis was making its way to Arizona, so Walden began looking for
A New Challenge: Farming First is Born
As an entrepreneur coming out of an industry with hundreds of years behind it, Walden quickly saw the potential within the emerging cannabis space.
The idea for Farming First came after Walden’s first professional cannabis endeavor in 2019, when he helped to launch a cannabis lifestyle brand in Los Angeles. Walden took care of the more business-oriented tasks, eventually helping the brand to score a microbusiness license before they decided to abandon the project.
The actual birth of Farming First was, in part, because of a debate between Walden and another collaborator… about bell pepper genetics. This colleague was dead-set on the idea that every color of bell pepper had its own genetic makeup, while Walden recalled his old college classmate — Farming First Co-founder William Terry — once told him that all bell peppers start out green and change color as they age.
So, Walden called up Terry to get his expert opinion and win the argument. After the score was settled, the pair continued chatting and catching up.
“This time, he had told me he was growing hemp for Canopy Growth,” Walden said. “I had told him I just helped launch a cannabis brand. And for the first time in our adult lives, we were doing something other than what we had known each other to be doing for the last eight years.”
Walden was in a position to collaborate, so he linked up with Terry at Venterra Farms, which was solely a hemp cultivation company at the time. The duo worked to launch branded finished goods through Venterra, making
Ultimately, they realized they had an aptitude for creating quality brands and growing large-scale
“We realized we could bring this same economics to the cannabis industry, with all the passion and respect for farming on his side and with all the passion and respect for building a brand and starting a business on my side,” Walden said.
Farming First truly came together during the initial days of the pandemic, at a meeting in an empty bar, “which was never the place you expect to have business meetings except the year the world ended,” Walden said. During that meeting with the fellow co-founders, they decided the core of this business idea was farming and pinned down the name Farming First.
Farming First’s Focus on Sustainability, Conservation
As Farming First’s primary product liaison, among a relatively small founding team, Walden admits that his day-to-day work is ever-changing.
“I’ll do anything that business needs because that’s the nature of a startup. Whether Will’s out there with the crew on the farm flushing irrigation pipes, or I’m up at the trim facility helping the flow of traffic of the finished goods, every day is different. But the end goal is growing a quality crop and getting it into the hands of either brands or consumers as fast and as quality-driven as possible.” Courtesy of Farming First
Walden said that Farming First’s focus is what sets them apart from other farms, looking at everything from the ground up and bringing consistency to the supply side of the industry.
“It’s a really fractured space, on that procurement side, for brands for distributors,” Walden said. “… With all due respect for growing the crops and a piece of land — Central California — that’s responsible for the vast majority of all fresh produce in the country, we believe we have the fortune of growing this crop for people in probably the best place in the country to grow weed.”
In order to get around common logistical challenges, Farming First has rolling
Farming First also maintains a
“The reason why we enjoy it so much is because when you go out to see our farm, you’re really off the grid, somewhat literally. Cell phone service doesn’t even make it to the farm,” Walden explained.
They’ve labeled the various trees and grasses with signs for visitors to learn more about the natural environment, while also enforcing protections for these areas, which they do not allow farming or even a walkthrough of.
“At the same time, we have a reservoir on site, so we have control of our own water supply,” Walden said. “The beauty of cannabis coming from the agricultural industry is it’s a huge water saving crop.”
As part of their effort to reduce water use, Farming First captures all of its own runoff, with every little bit of water recycled wherever it’s needed. The farm also utilizes solar energy to power the blackout tarps at its facility.
“So we get to tell that story, organically,” Walden said. “It’s just the nature of our project. It’s almost like all of those animals, grasses and trees were there before we got there and being able to not bother them, not disrupt them and actually protect them while we’re out there. Farming makes you feel that much closer to the environment when you’re out there because you’re just one of the many animals using that property.”
Walden said the team’s authentic enjoyment of the work and the principles that come with make it that much easier to share the Farming First story. With 10% or less being used for weed, he said, “We get to show people the land. And then there also happens to be a weed farm tucked in.”
A Brand-Focused Path Forward
Farming First is currently bringing two brands to market as a way to express two of its primary focuses as a company, Walden said.
“When you look at the farm — zoom out all the way, you see the farm and you see Venterra Farms as a brand. You zoom in on a trichrome of a plant, you zoom in on a bud, you’re seeing minor
“We’d be silly to think we could create a brand that needs 134 acres of weed all for itself,” Walden said, adding that the vast majority of Farming First’s supply goes to brands, which are able to market it, promote it and sell it in the way that speaks to their customer best.
“And then we use a little bit of the product as well in our own brands to tell our story of Farming First, by way of our love for the farm through Venterra or our love for the plant through High Fidelity.”
Looking forward, Walden said that Farming First aims to simply farm quality cannabis every day while avoiding “being all things to all people.”
“This industry has such great creators, whether it be formulators of a unique
And while Walden understands the consistent fluctuations within the industry, those periods that leave cannabis professionals feeling disheartened or without hope, he said he simply wanted this industry to “be able to smile.”
Hearkening back to his original goal in this space, being an entrepreneur and charting a path for himself, he looks at the amount of other professionals with unique talents and abilities making a name for themselves in cannabis, only to be met with market fluctuations that in turn create “giant mood swings,” by nature of price and access to the product.
“My goal for the industry is to find some level of balance, to find some level of consistency, wherever that lands from a regulatory perspective, from a supply side perspective,” Walden said. “My goal is for everyone who’s in this space, who’s enjoying it and in it for their passion, to be able to continue doing that.”