Spotlight Series: Julia Jacobson at Aster Farms
Aster Farms in California produces sun grown, hand harvested cannabis in a sustainable and socially responsible way. After the Mendocino Complex fire destroyed more than 500,000 acres in Lake and Mendocino Counties, Julia Jacobson and the rest of the Aster Farms team decided to do something to support local communities that have been affected by fire. They developed Harry’s Harvest, a line of products that gives back $2 from each sale. With every purchase of Harry’s Harvest Give-Back Pre-Roll Pack, $2 will be donated to the local volunteer fire departments of Lakeport, Lake County and Hopland, Mendocino County, in support of their courageous efforts helping the community now and in the future. As a former volunteer firefighter myself, I was immediately drawn to Julia’s idea. Up and down the west coast of North America, fire is one of the most destructive things we deal with and it seems as though it gets worse every year. If you want to donate but can’t purchase Harry’s Harvest, you can contribute directly to the Aster Farms GoFundMe CrowdRise fund where 100% of proceeds will go back to California local volunteer firefighters.
How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
My husband’s family has been cultivating cannabis for over 50 years in CA, so it was something we understood. We’re both repeat entrepreneurs and had been using cannabis medicinally, as well as noticing people from all parts of our life getting interested in trying it out. We didn’t see a brand that spoke to our demographic, a conscious consumer willing to pay a little more for a clean, sustainable product. We launched Aster Farms to bring organic cannabis to the mainstream.
Tell us a little bit about your product or service
Aster Farms is a sustainable cannabis brand from CA. We grow the cleanest, meanest and greenest flower around. We value good genetics, clean cultivation and the power of nature, providing our customers with safe, clean and responsibly grown cannabis.
What time does your day typically start and what does a normal day look like to you?
On business operation days, my day starts at 7am with a quick news brief and hearty breakfast. On days when we’re up at the farm, my day starts at 5:30am and ends when the sun goes down. It’s great to be able to split my time between getting my hands dirty on the farm and crunching numbers in Excel. In any given week, we spend one to two days at the farm, visit our distributor at least twice to check on inventory, packaging and sales, do at least three press interviews and talk to at least one of our six lawyers. The rest is a crazy mixed bag of everything from financial modeling to researching terpenes. What I didn’t expect going into this was how much driving there would be.
What is your vision for your company going forward?
Our mission is to bring organic cannabis to the people, and inherent in that is education. Whether it’s participating in round table discussions or posting information on social media, Aster Farms is dedicated to educating consumers. We strive to be a hyper local brand that cares about and engages with our communities regularly. Last year, we launched a give-back product, Harry’s Harvest, with $2 of every sale going back to the volunteer firefighters in our counties. We plan to continue Harry’s Harvest by donating to other causes and organizations as well— from the opioid crisis to social justice in cannabis. We care about our consumers and community and have built this company for them.
What would an ideal post prohibition society look like to you?
An ideal post prohibition society, from my perspective, would be one in which farmers and people of color are sitting at the same table with the decision makers, where big ag only takes over the commoditized sectors of cannabis (biomass for extraction and hemp), and where medical research and consultation is accessible to people of all ages, colors and kinds.
What was your first experience with cannabis like?
Apparently, I took way too much. I was opposed to smoking weed in high-school while many of my friends were experimenting with it. Senior year, my best friends convinced me to try edibles instead of smoking and I felt comfortable with that. Unfortunately, they had no idea how to make weed brownies and advised I “eat a couple” an hour before a massive all school party. I remember the moment it hit and spending the rest of the night splashing water at my face, trying to get most of it in my mouth.
Tell us about some of the challenges you face working in the cannabis industry
Packaging and banking are our biggest challenges. Most people are aware of the banking challenges and everyday we get closer to legislative solutions. The SAFE Banking Act passed committee and is now going to vote on the House floor and we see similar progress on the state level. Packaging challenges however, have no end in sight. Cannabis companies are beholden to the few cannabis specific packaging providers due to the extensive and unique requirements. Additionally, the combination of packaging regulations changing so frequently and the long lead time for producing packaging, results in thousands of unusable materials and a lot of last minute scrambling. If you inspect products on the shelves of legal dispensaries in CA, you’ll see a lot of labels pasted on top of other labels due to this problem. On top of this, there continues to be a world-wide shortage of products like pre-roll cones and 3oz glass jars. The cannabis packaging world did not anticipate the flood of demand.
What are some solutions you've found?
We haven’t actually solved our packaging challenges. The good news is the regulations seem to be set at least for the next few months so we can settle into a few packaging models and designs. However, the few cannabis packaging companies operating are over capacity, resulting in delayed orders, mistakes and even broken palettes of jars. So far, we’ve pivoted our jar template design three times now and are about to try a fourth option. Hopefully, by 2020, we’ll have our core packaging products down.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about cannabis?
That cannabis is really complex— from the biology and medicinal effects, to its history of social injustice. In some circles, cannabis is being touted as the cure-all and in others it’s being carefully scrutinized for potential psychological and addictive properties. On one side, normalization of cannabis includes using the scientific word “cannabis” instead of weed, marijuana, or the various other terms. On the other side, the normalization is complicit in covering up the torrid history and tough conversations we need to have. Whether you use cannabis recreationally or medicinally, you think it’s a cure-all or potentially dangerous substance, or you are knowledgeable about terpenes and the other cannabinoids or not, there is so much we all have to learn and it’s our responsibility, being leaders in the industry, to make sure these conversations are happening.
What is one thing you wish everyone knew about your product or service?
Sungrown, outdoor flower is not only just as good as indoor...it’s better. With only organic inputs, the sun and the soil, we are still able to produce potency above 20% THC. Our flower is just as dense and is covered with crystals just like an indoor bud. In fact, getting full spectrum sunlight and growing in live soil further develops the cannabinoid profile and we’re able to get terpenes levels over 2-3%. Terroir is a real thing for outdoor cannabis. Lastly, indoor grow operations are responsible for 1% of the nation’s energy consumption and the process of flushing water and soil with every harvest is wasteful. Hands down, if you’re a good grower, the product you’ll produce outdoors far surpasses the quality and sustainability of indoor.
If you could go back in time and do it all over again, what (if anything) would you do differently?
Create more fire defensibility on the farm. On July 27th 2018, our farm was hit by the Mendocino Complex Fire. Our neighbor’s house, which was barricaded with 100 foot bulldozed space, survived — ours did not. At the same time, nature is not something you can control. It is what it is and in California you will be touched by the fires in someway or somehow. Just try to be prepared the best you can.
What is your favorite way to consume cannabis?
My ideal consumption method is joints, but I’m concerned about inhaling smoke, so I primarily vaporize flower with a Pax 2 vaporizer. I also consume indica gummies at night to help me fall asleep.
Concentrate or flower? Why?
Flower only. I’m a purist in that sense and also concerned about the lack of research on the health effects of current extraction methods — especially with butane. I want my weed to be clean, sustainable, local and organic. Flower seems to fit that bill the best for me.
Do you think cannabis legalization will change the world for the better? Why?
Absolutely. Ending the war on drugs will change the world we live in and legalization is the first step. It’s not the end-all fix, but it’s the foundation to beginning to right the wrongs of the past. Additionally, cannabis has changed many people's lives for the better, mine included. Whether it’s replacing pharmaceuticals with a natural product or taking medically prescribed doses of CBD and THC for serious illnesses, cannabis’ healing properties are real.
What advice would you offer to another woman who is looking to get into the industry?
Follow your strengths. This is an entire industry starting from ground zero — we need marketers, lawyers, accountants, manufacturing workers, you name it. Don’t try and reinvent yourself, bring the strengths and skills you have to this new industry. Also, have a sense of humor. The roller coaster roll out of the industry can make you crazy and knock you down if you don’t.