As cannabis becomes more and more commonplace, it’s sometimes easy to forget that meticulous
Growing high-quality, flavorful cannabis that keeps consumers coming back involves not only a detail-oriented growing approach, but also a finger on the pulse regarding water conservation, growing methods, limiting the use of harsh chemicals and an eye on the innovative measures needed to stay on top in a competitive industry.
For many growers, like Thomas Martin, the co-founder and CEO of Raw Garden, farming is in his DNA.
“Especially in today’s highly regulated and competitive cannabis environment, a certain level of toughness is required,” Martin said. “Farming makes you tough and forces an industrious nature. It comes with certain freedoms, but more than anything it comes with tremendous amounts of stress.”
However, it’s worth it today, looking back and seeing what he’s built, despite plentiful roadblocks.
Growing into a Cannabis Farmer
Martin shared that his family did not always want him to farm. His dad wanted him to be an entrepreneur, and the rest of his family similarly cautioned him against a career in agriculture.
“We were small farmers, and if you had not scaled your operations to thousands of acres by the late-20th century, it meant a menial subsistence that was lifestyle based,” Martin said. “Life was good, but that existence came with huge risks and not much monetary freedom, where you were only as good as your last crop and your next crop may be your last.”
He learned early on that growing grapes and drying them into raisins was a risky gig. There are all kinds of variables: an early spring or late frost could hinder the timing of the first buds; surviving the bloom is great, but you’d better gear up for a hot summer full of pests; after summer, hopefully you’ve kept your bunches healthy, disease free and full of sugar. Martin called the drying process “likely the most risky post-harvest SOP in agriculture.”
“Growing up with these threats, and attempting to deliver perfect crops nonetheless, built in a level of tenacity that translates well in today’s cannabis market,” Martin said. “Nothing comes easy in farming. And most certainly not for a startup company in an overregulated, overtaxed market. With this combination, pain and stress is maximized.”
When he was a college junior in 2002, his family sold their pest management and farming business. While he had the farming background and the itch for exploring cannabis, he finished school with an accounting degree and entrepreneurship in mind, along with “a lot of student debt and stubbornness.”
Martin started his finance career working with cars. Everything was moving smoothly until the 2007 financial crisis hit. Banking programs dried up, inventory climbed, and most of the financing staff, including Martin, were facing bankruptcy.
“On a whim, the dealership’s longstanding car, and weed and other drug, salesman said to me, ‘Hey, bubba, I see you struggling. You’re a farmer, why don’t you grow some weed? I’ll sell it.’ ‘You sure you can sell it?’ I asked. ‘Yeah, bubba, you know me!’ I had a basement in my house. Two HID lights quickly turned to four, then 16, to 40, and so on. And just like that, I was back in farming.”
Martin was fired about six months into his first crop, admitting it was likely because of his happy, newfound commitment to cannabis by that time. His dad, “a genius Macgyver-type farmer,” worked as his right-hand man, and the pair were able to battle through a steep learning curve while also landing some quality relationships with medical cannabis stores in the Bay Area.
“Since 2008, I have been a cannabis producer and have fought like hell to never look back,” Martin said.
The Birth, Growth and Perseverance of Raw Garden
When asked about the launch of Raw Garden, Martin said that everything surrounding the business exists because of serendipitous relationships and timing, great team members, a meticulous approach to farming, quality goals, consumer trust and respect and some good fortune.
Today, Raw Garden is known for its wide array of concentrate options: live sauce, live resin, cartridges, infused joints, live resin diamonds —
Raw Garden began to explore this element of the industry as a bit of an aside, at least initially. At the outset, and to this day, Martin’s brother-in-law Khalid Al-Naser managed sales. Al-Naser already had a longstanding fascination with hashish after spending a month in India during his late teens, and he always ensured some portion of each crop was concentrated.
“This was beneficial because we learned a lot about the post harvest handling of the plant and extraction, starting with ice-and-water and eventually the use of solvents,” Martin said.
Around this time, about 2013, Martin recalled that the Central Valley areas of Fresno and Madera Counties were in the midst of a steady, year-long political push that
Martin and the team had just finished building a small extraction laboratory, which became dependent on a one-acre greenhouse. Due to Fresno County’s new ordinance, the greenhouse decided to shutter. With enough of Raw Garden’s concentrate production dependent on this farm, Martin set out on a mission to find another municipality that would allow them to return to acreage sales.
“Luckily, I stumbled across Santa Barbara County via an introduction to
The operation eventually shifted to some of Cadwell’s and other farmers’ Santa Barbara properties. The move also pushed Raw Garden to begin growing outdoors, in the “infamous and transverse mountain regions” of the county.
The climate, Martin said, matches the needs of vintners. The first season, they planted a number of varieties that they had otherwise only cultivated indoors. He said the richness of the crop immediately stood out, and he and his team were immediately “addicted” to the opportunity the Santa Ynez Valley could provide. They were also well aware of the region’s solid agricultural resources that were ready to support Raw Garden’s scale.
Though, Martin cautioned that the fight wasn’t over: “One big question still remained: What would the politicians have to say?”
Martin said that county leaders already liked the Raw Garden story and believed cannabis was an important crop for the future. Following its first harvest in 2015, the Raw Garden team was not standing in front of the Montecito Planning Commission, essentially requesting the commission not copy municipalities like Fresno as Santa Barbara County staff that were rushed to get ahead of new state laws that would regulate cannabis.
At the time, Raw Garden existed as a small boutique and indoor concentrate brand at a few Bay Area stores, though Martin and the team still saw the opportunity to scale in this new region that allowed for an abundant amount of high-quality, freshly frozen flowers, a “dab farmer’s dream,” he said.
This was also a time that live resin was not accessibly priced, Martin explained. High-quality concentrates made from fresh-frozen flower retailed for $80-100 a gram, and the Raw Garden team members knew they could make this treasured substance more accessible if given the chance.
“Normalizing live resin became our mantra,” Martin said.
Perseverance paid off, and Raw Garden set forward, putting its products on shelves throughout the entire state, earning recognition and a slew of great customers in the process.
A few years later in 2018, Raw Garden introduced a vape oil flavored “wholly by the cannabis plant,” as opposed to pairing distillate with outsourced flavorings, which some industry leaders still do.
“These two approaches — normalizing high-grade dabs and creating vapes flavored by cannabis — set us in motion to take shelf space and win the respect of the heavy cannabis consumer in California.”
Moving Forward With a ‘Farming First’ Approach
As someone who grew up intimately familiar with the ins and outs of farming, Martin said that the quality and integrity of the farming process, from
“I can remember very vividly samples being taken from the bins on the truck and my dad’s pleasure in receiving a high grade for the crop. I can also remember the terror of delivering crops that were passable, but not to our standard,” Martin said. “The farmer develops a close relationship to each crop cycle. The best farmers want to touch and see the daily results. The process is addictive to those who are in it. Luckily, we have some pretty addictive farmers on the team!”
Raw Garden is also committed to being the single source for cannabis consumers, meaning that the cannabis you consume is from them, grown, extracted and refined by them. Martin said that most of the team are heavy cannabis consumers, and it’s important to them that they share products that are something they themselves are proud of and enjoy.
“Our grading standards are strong, whether it be aroma and taste, or the color of the dab or vape oil,” Martin said. “We are kind of snooty when it comes to what a perfect raisin or dab should look like. Last I checked, my dad still has a few ziplocks in the freezer of his favorite crops from over 20 years ago — raisins store well, especially when frozen. And so do dabs. I’ve hoarded samples from my favorite batches dating back almost a decade now.”
Aromas are also a primary focus in Raw Garden crops; Martin said they are “what set varieties and experiences apart.”
While Raw Garden’s breeding program is focused on traits to make the farmer’s life easier, like flowering time, flower structure and disease resistance, he said, “The variety of aromas and how those affect experience — to which little is truly understood — are what make the cannabis plant such a joy to work with. Walking the fields ahead of harvest is possibly some of the most invigorating aromatherapy you can experience.”
Through it all, he said accessibility and normalization are most important looking ahead in the industry, as both depend on free markets between states without limited licensing.
Competition is limited by the government, so the consumer pays the price, generally a higher one, usually at a lower quality. Accessibility, Martin said, comes down to the best farmers and manufacturers being allowed to scale, without being limited by untenable tax situations or constraints of local government.
“Once unfettered, the best producer will compete for quality, the consumer will win, and the ignorant attitude that cannabis is a harmful gateway drug will die,” Martin said. “Unfortunately, the only way to keep your hopes up for this is if you think in decades… we will get there, it is just going to take time.”
In terms of his company, Martin said Raw Garden intends to stay focused on continuing to innovate and enhance its current products around the desires and needs of consumers. With a team who is “infatuated” with the product just as much as their customers, Martin is eager for the day that he can spread Raw Garden across the country straight from the Golden State.
“Maybe California leads in this way, maybe it does not. Either way, we are going to fight for it!” Martin said. “We are California farmers doing what California does best: feeding the country specialty crops!”