California’s millions of dabbers, vapers, and cannabis flavor-chasers can relax about one thing this holiday season. Raw Garden, the state’s leading extract brand, is concluding a banging 2020 harvest destined for our hands.
Raw Garden has hand-harvested and fresh-frozen over 600 cultivars across 85 acres—literal fields of flavor that stretch to the horizon in Santa Barbara County, CA.
Over 200,000 plants sit frozen for extraction into “live resin”, meaning plenty of sauce for dabs, as well as refined oil for vape pen cartridges found at virtually every one of the state’s 600 stores. When we visited in late October, about half the farm sat in the freezer.
“We’re on pace,” said Casey Birthisel, vice president of cultivation.
What is Raw Garden?
Just off Highway 101, the four-year-old farm with 100 employees is pulling further ahead at the science of breeding, growing, harvesting, and processing cannabis extracts at scale.
Each plant starts in spring with a feminized seed (not a clone) that shoots a vigorous taproot into the soil. A single seed can grow to a seven-foot-tall bush by October. Their chilled seed library has hit 15,000 distinct crosses of new strains and 25 million seeds.
The company balances farming economics—called “agronomics”—and the costly, never-ending flavor chase. Consumers bore quickly, and the speed of strain development is accelerating nationwide.
“We’ve re-prioritized aromatics. I care about farmability—but I care about terps.” — Khalid Al-Naser
Co-founder Thomas Martin comes from a farming family, and worked with my tour guide, Head of Product Khalid Al-Naser, who comes from making extracts in Sacramento and the pre-legalization medical marijuana industry.
He quickly let me know the word of the day is “terps” or terpenes—the aromas of cannabis that modulate the high.
Then, it was time to enter another world.
Welcome to paradise
The size of Raw Garden collapses your sense of scale.
Walking ‘just over there’ ends up being a quarter of a mile. You need a truck to get around. So far, Raw Garden has released over 500 cannabis cultivars, and the goal is to release five new cultivars, per product each week. Like Pokemon, you gotta catch ‘em all.
Raw Garden’s 1-gram Sweet Leeroy Live Resin (which runs about $40) is probably the top-selling product in the world, according to wholesale marketplace Leaflink.
If you rock a Raw Garden lanyard out in the world, your average young retail sales guy will shout it out: ’Hey, man—nice. Love those guys.’
When adult-use legalization’s testing and taxes hit consumers in 2018 and 2019, Raw Garden became legends by lowering their prices 20%. Everyone else raised theirs.
“The appreciation was crazy. The level of gratitude was so immense,” said Khalid.
“Weed is life to people. They can’t afford it, and the pricing sensitivity is very real.” — Al-Naser
And while it’s affordable, Raw Garden is also medical-grade. No artificial terpenes or blending are allowed.
They’ve also trademarked the phrase “Your Single Source.” Each hoop house row is dedicated to a specific cultivar. Rows are harvested by strain, and extracted by strain, meaning each batch of oil is strain-specific.
Everything is bred, grown, harvested, extracted, and packaged in-house. That’s unlike many brands that slap their name on someone else’s cartridge, filled with some else’s oil, extracted from yet someone else’s flowers. Vertical integration means quality control, as well as cost control.
This winter, Raw Garden has new all-in-one disposables aimed at $20 retail.
“Weed is life to people. They’re can’t afford it and the pricing sensitivity is very real,” said Al-Naser. “I just don’t think cannabis pricing has normalized. We’re still pricing out a lot of people.”
Their price-consciousness doesn’t stop them from meeting people at the other end of the affordability spectrum. They also have pricier products. Their 1-gram carts of strains like WiFi Walker contain refined live resin.
Refined Live Resin carts use the same extract found in the jars—just optimized to flow in a vape pen. The refinement means the oil is less likely to chunk up, and taste bad.
From the first puff, they hit clean, flavorful, and strong—perfect for low-profile management of whatever vexes you. Everything? Great. They’ve got holiday flavors to soften the blows including:
- Tropic Sunset Hybrid (Cindy Punch x Beary White x Sour Crack)
- Guava Haze Sativa Hybrid (Chem Haze x Guava Lemonade)
- Twisted Citrus Sativa Hybrid (Limeberry x Lemon Walker x Cloud Chaser)
- Cosmic Cookies Indica Hybrid (Do Si Dos x Sour Crack x Chemdawg)
- Lime Blossom Sativa Hybrid (Slymer x Lilikoi Blossom)
- Mendo Clouds Indica Hybrid (Skywalker x Mendo Punch)
- Galactic Punch Indica Hybrid (Galactic Punch – Dosi Punch x Skywalker)
Walking the flavor fields
It’s terp Valhalla—a heady, disorienting, extreme form of forest therapy. You’re giddy from the contact high and sheer visuals of all the flowering plants.
Cultivars in the 2020 fields include:
- Super Lemon SMAC
- Rain Drop
- Magic Melon
- Memory Loss
- Star Jah
On and on the rows go.
“We have a really good Slurricane,” said Khalid.
So, how does Raw Garden come up with all its names?
Usually, it’s a nod to parentage and flavor.
Whereas Lime OG never smelled like limes, “the modern consumer has been exposed to flavoring, they’re expecting it to taste like limes,” Al-Naser said.
“If we’re calling it raspberry this and guava that, it doesn’t have to slap you in the face. But, bare minimum, you have to be able to sit back with your palette and your eyes closed and think back to the time you had guava and go, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Banana Slurm #8, for example, is Cherry Slurm and Banana OG.
2019’s best-selling Funk N Fire is Gorilla Glue and Leeroy OG—but they made a lot of different versions of that winning combo. Their Glueroy clearly leaned more toward the Glue.
By contrast, “Funk N Fire became the perfect marriage of the two,” said Al-Naser.
The plants reek in the best way possible. Raw Garden holds onto the fresh smell by freezing their entire crop and extracting it using light hydrocarbons.
So-called “fresh frozen live resin” captures the exact aromas of the harvest—the monoterpenes—that are long gone in conventionally dried cannabis. Some 80% of terpenes can get lost in the drying process, but fresh frozen preserves them all.
Clean Green-certified to OMRI (organic) standards, the farm sprays organic foliar feeds and recruits beneficial insects like ladybugs and bees to hunt pests. Pest #1?
“Lepidoptera,” said Birthisel, the VP of cultivation, with no hesitation.
Moths lay eggs that hatch into grubs, eat, and poop in the center of the thickest buds, triggering rot. All West Coast growers battle them, and the Raw Garden farm had a 50-cent bounty on each caterpillar at one point.
Why does Raw Garden grow in hoop houses?
The light diffusion is gentler on the plants than direct rays and burns fewer terps. “The hoops just shelter everything in a nice way. It warms up, so you get kind of the greenhouse effect, but you get a lot of open air and the bugs move in and out freely, so it stays a lot healthier.”
It’s the farm’s second harvest of the year because the whole farm never comes down all at once. Plantings are staggered and varied by type.
This year, the farm ran a lot of Slymer, now in 6th and 7th generation crosses. We couldn’t photograph it, but up in their seed library, drawers of seeds in paper separated by cardboard sit refrigerated in the dark.
It’s a Noah’s Ark of dank and I hope it’s backed up somewhere off-site.
The harvesting process
Raw Garden grows right in the Buellton soil like any other crop. Farming it combines elements of raspberry farming and tomato farming—the hoop houses of raspberries; the nitrogen usage of tomatoes.
The tall skinny rows are spaced to fit the treads of a special type of tractor that drives over the rows during planting, as well as during organic foliar spraying. And unlike most weed gardens, these plants must stand on their own.
“We really try and do as little trellising as possible, even the amount we’re doing to some degree is pretty annoying,” said Al-Naser. Last year’s crops got so uniform, Al-Naser got nervous.
“We were dialed into the agronomics and then I hit them with, ‘I need more terps! We have got way too many parent plants that are similar, I want to see broader diversity.’”
Out came seventh-generation lines (“f6s and f7s”), and in came fresh ones (“f2s and f3s”). New crosses are less consistent—or “stable—than more mature breeds.
Despite the scale, almost every leaf on a Raw Garden cannabis plant gets plucked by hand. It’s still medieval. There’s just no robots that can do the delicate work.
The ripe buds are:
- Denuded of large leaves on the branch by hand
- Chopped and boxed by hand
- Taken by truck to the freezer bay
- Moved by forklift to a conveyor belt
- Manicured and flash-frozen
- Bagged and sealed by hand
- Boxed and palleted by hand
- And delivered via forklift to storage freezers
Cameras aren’t allowed in the freezer bay where ranchero music blares and a beeping forklift backs up pallets of waxed vegetable boxes bursting with leafy buds. The terps seem to waft off in visible waves. It’s hard to focus, it smells so good. You feel giddy.
The boxes get weighed and go onto a trimming line where shifts of farmworkers rapidly clip away waste leaves from bud.
The conveyor belt of buds rumbles into a car-sized flash-freezer. Guys in thick mitts catch the icy buds off the belt, rapidly pack them in heavy-duty plastic, flush with nitrogen, and vacuum-seal for cold storage until extraction at their manufacturing facility. Every day, an Airgas tanker truck loaded with liquid nitrogen tops off their supply.
Raw Garden’s core product—the oils—are a creature of necessity, Khalid reveals. Farmers have dried cannabis for thousands of years. But drying weed requires 25% of the space of growing it, he said. It’s legally cumbersome to build drying rooms and logistically challenging to dry. And it can take a month to dry and cure a harvest.
“At one point the company said, ‘We can’t dry all this weed.’”
Instead, agronomics called for cutting out the drying step entirely, freezing cannabis, and extracting and selling the oil at a higher volume for a lower margin.
Co-founder and COO of the brand, Thomas Martin, had a family history in farming and a Bachelor of Science in accounting from Santa Clara University. Co-founder and CEO John Del Friel left a UC San Diego bioengineering program for the opportunity.
A look at Raw Garden’s breeding program
In conventional farming, you’ll see rows of consistent crops. Cannabis is still years away from stabilized seeds, so Raw Garden’s breeding program is on the hunt for terped-out, commercially farmable cultivars.
When their breeding team sees something special in the fields, they cut it, clone it, test it, and breed it for seeds. The subsequent generations reveal desirable traits, like faster flowering, as well as undesirable ones—like attracting pests.
This year, Raw Garden has a huge Bubba Kush testing section, with a hunch that the classics will come back in style, but most of the lines end up getting cut for one reason or another – only making 1-2% progress.
A more rapacious company would plant every square inch with the flavors of the season. Instead, Raw Garden runs huge R&D fields. They are breeding in a wild type of cannabis called “ruderalis,” which lends heartiness and quicker flowering to high-THC strains.
“We wanted to own that understanding better,” said Al-Naser.
Tech at Raw Garden track 35 data points on tester plants. In terms of breeding, outdoor cultivating at scale, processing, and extraction science, legal sales, and distribution—it’s their race to lose.
“We’ve really been chasing stability for a long time now,” he said.
Raw Garden also has an Aroma Training Grounds where they teach breeding team members what stoners mean when they say “gas,” as in the limonene-pinene of OG Kush.
The way Pantone quantifies colors, Raw Garden wants to quantify smells.
“What are we talking about when we say something smells ‘dank’?” asks Khalid. “We’re working to create a vernacular around how we talk about aromas.”
The training grounds provide benchmark cannabis cultivar smells for Blue Dream and OG Kush, recalibrating noses so new staff can go out and identify fresh analogs in the field.
Wrapping up 2020
Under a brilliant blue sky, a tractor preps the soil for winter cover cropping and the year’s next two cycles. Winter cover crops grow over and get tilled under, adding nitrogen back along with other beneficial micronutrients.
The founders picked Buellton, CA in Santa Barbara County for its compatible land, hot sun, cool nights, and moderating east-west ocean breezes through the coastal valleys. Even more important: a compatible local government.
Today, county cannabis industry taxes rival that of vineyards, all on a minuscule fraction of the acreage: just 2,500 acres.
And if you didn’t already think they were an incredible operation, in November, Raw Garden provided 1,300 meals to children in need via the county’s Food Bank.
Raw Garden FAQs
What strain is Raw Garden?
Raw Garden has released over 500 strains, including 80 this harvest year.
Are Raw Garden carts good?
They pass California’s strictest in the world category 3 testing standard for purity and label accuracy. They are consistently among the best-selling brands in their class since 2018.
How can you tell if a Raw Garden cart is real?
Raw Garden counterfeiting is rampant in the illicit market, and the package will fool most people. Get one from a legit source. Buy only from a licensed California dispensary. You can check licensing here https://rawgarden.farm/stores/
Leafly only lists licensed dispensaries. Do not buy from a friend or family member who ‘knows a guy who bought them in a dispensary’, or online. You don’t know what’s in the cart, and there are plenty of vape contaminants that have caused permanent injury.
What company owns Raw Garden?
Raw Garden is incorporated as Central Coast Agriculture Farming, LLC.