The Coolest Cannabis Farm in Oregon: The Secret to Growing Really Good Weed is a Lot of R.E.M.
In a dank, disheveled office on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon, Richard Vinal is marveling at the handpan steel drum he has just unboxed, shipped here to Hillsboro from Asheville, North Carolina. "I know the guy who makes these," he crows. "I got a sweet deal." He strums it lightly around the edges, sending a Caribbean-tinged sound from one side of the room to the other before wedging the drum back into its box and ending his unscheduled break.
A few feet away lies the sticky product of the work to which he'll return: freshly cropped cannabis plants, lining crystal-dusted Tupperware containers stacked multiple feet up, a few grams of sorted and trimmed bud in each. In the next room, in the basement of a 75-year-old barn that once kept dairy cows sheltered from Oregon downpours, there are a few dozen leafy green plants of all shapes and sizes, glistening beneath glowing tubes of the finest LED lights money can buy. The difficult task at hand: deciding which of the 80 different varieties now stretching to size should actually make the cut and go into production. The music break will help.
The difficult task at hand: deciding which of the 80 different varieties now stretching to size should actually make the cut.
As pot farms go, Hifi Farms' operation is a minuscule one, especially when you zoom out and consider the vastness of the 50-acre farm Vinal helped co-found in 2015 upon which these few small plants have taken up residence. But it's the unused space that's significant here; shortly after the new year Hifi—of which Vinal is director of operations—earned final approval for an Oregon license to grow cannabis for recreational use, freeing them to sink up to $2 million in investor capital into growing monthly output from 15 pounds to more than 100. Hifi's pretty plants will expand from their diminutive footprint in the basement to hundreds of towering flora housed in a set of greenhouses the company has erected over the past 10 months
As the product of effort from a few guys who once grew weed only to fund their dreams of being music producers, these expansion plans are impressive, especially in a billion-dollar industry weighed down with ever-morphing regulations and the looming threat of an anti-pot attorney general in Jeff Sessions. It's no small feat to coax $4.2 million out of investors to grow a product that's still illegal at the federal level—and that still requires navigating the byzantine laws of the three separate state agencies that have a hand in governing Oregon cannabis companies. And when a dozen different farmers are all selling (what they claim is) Sour Diesel, convincing dispensary owners to hawk your particular brand of that, or Blue Dream, or Grape Ape, feels a bit like selling tea and spices in a bustling Istanbul market: To much of the buying public, this cannabis sure looks and smells a lot like that cannabis. Hifi has gobbled up market share to emerge near the top of a dauntingly long list of Oregon farmers who grow very good weed, which gives hundreds of competitors hoping to siphon their share of the "green rush" in the nine states where cannabis is (quasi-)legal something to look at.
What's Hifi's secret? It has everything to do with Vinal's shiny new steel drum.
Before Hifi was any kind of cannabis farm, it was the scattershot operation of a few guys in Athens, Georgia, who grew weed to pay the bills the music industry couldn't. Lee Henderson and C.K. Koch dreamed not of running a pot farm but a recording studio, and they risked incarceration during those days of outright prohibition in the hope that one day they'd make it big in the music industry, not in cannabis.
Instead, the reverse happened. After moving to San Francisco in 2005, Henderson did set up a recording studio, and they did sign promising artists like Lera Lynn of Nashville. But they also kept growing weed, and when Measure 91 passed in November 2014 and created a haven of state legalization in Oregon, Koch and Henderson decided to set their musical ambitions aside and head north, joining a legion of other formerly black market pot growers eager to legally ply their trade.
In October 2015, Henderson invited his pal Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers to bring his guitar over to his house, a stunning mansion nestled into a quiet southeast Portland neighborhood. Then he invited 100 people to watch Patterson play, serving pre-rolled Hifi joints on the wraparound porch outside. It was a fun way to spend an evening; it also connected the company's love of cannabis and music, leaving an indelible impression upon those in attendance.
"Their company loves music. My company loves weed," Hood says. "It makes sense."
Henderson's abode, the Harry McCormick House, has since hosted Justin Townes Earle (Steve Earle's son), Stephen Malkmus of the band Pavement, China Forbes of Pink Martini, and Henderson's old friend Lynn.
"You'd never have gotten Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band without cannabis, or Rubber Soul, or Revolver, or Highway 61 Revisited, Birth of the Cool," Henderson says, who describes himself as "pretty much a sober person," dabbling only occasionally in smoking weed himself. "I don't think you have to be high to write a good song. But Bob Dylan was definitely high when he wrote 'Like a Rolling Stone,' and John Lennon and Paul McCartney were definitely high when they wrote 'A Day in the Life.' Music and cannabis go together."
By summertime, Hifi hopes to figure out a way to thread Oregon's tricky regulations about public consumption of cannabis and host a music festival on its farm, sort of like the Coachella of weed. Henderson is also developing a partnership with the local nonprofit CASH Music and a sister publication called Watt, which provide online tools for artists to get their music heard outside of streaming juggernaut Spotify. The house concerts will continue as well, all part of an effort to continue a strong link between the company and the art.
"Bob Dylan was definitely high when he wrote 'Like a Rolling Stone,' and John Lennon and Paul McCartney were definitely high when they wrote 'A Day in the Life.'"
"I've yet to see more than three or four companies tapping into the cannabis market in a way that normalizes it, and allows people to feel comfortable associating with it," says Sam Chapman, one of the owners of Portland-based New Economy Consulting, which advises new cannabis companies on an array of topics from amassing capital to connecting to consumers. "Surfers, musicians, hikers—these are craft demographics that exist across the country. Hifi has built its brand around these identities. That's a massively important thing to understand. If you're going to connect with your constituency, you have to associate with people's lifestyles."
Marrying music and weed was the easy part. Making money is harder. So Hifi's founders made a critical decision before they got started, one that helped set them apart from the vast majority of newly minted "ganjapreneuers" clamoring at what must have seemed like piles of easy money on a product with a delicious markup. They brought in a ringer, Sara Batterby, who joined Henderson as the CEO of Hifi Farms seven years after meeting him at a party. Batterby didn't know much about cannabis, but she did have six years of experience selling real estate and a decade of finance experience in Silicon Valley.
"I was like, 'I don't know, let's take a look at the business plan,'" Batterby says. "In the end, it was just another startup, except it was three guys in a basement growing weed."
She built the brand like she would any other company, but because it was cannabis—already rebellious by design—she decided to break some new corporate ground. She gave all of Hifi's employees stock in the company, making Hifi a role model in an era where corporations-as-evil dominates the conventional wisdom.
"People are in this position where they're trading their labor for cash, which makes it a depreciating asset," Batterby says. "If we don't find some ways to vest the workers in the success of what's going to be the largest wealth-creating industry in America in the last several decades, we're really missing a huge opportunity. Cannabis can afford to pay people well."
Hifi jokes on its website that its organic strains contain ".0057 percent R.E.M.," but Henderson isn't kidding when he says he wants the company to think like the Austin-based rock band that hails from his hometown of Athens. "R.E.M. is incredibly successful and principled. They're involved in nonprofits, politics. They're able to put their money with their mouths are."
As Batterby works to make the brand more corporate (in a good way), her partners continue to make the brand more craft. Music is still key as the cannabis industry evolves from one dominated by "stoner" loyalists who would risk jail time to grow, sell, and smoke weed to a refined craft industry enjoyed by law-abiding baby boomers who haven't draped a Bob Marley poster from their walls since the '60s. "Music helped establish us as something we always wanted to be," Henderson says, "which is a sophisticated but cool cannabis brand."
"In the end, it was just another startup, except it was three guys in a basement growing weed."
Even the coolest weed farmer can't expect to survive with competition as fierce as it is without giving consumers a reason to seek his weed out. Sam Heywood, co-owner of Farma, one of Portland's best cannabis dispensaries, buys product from just two dozen of Oregon's commercial growers, which means "90 percent of the people who approach us don't get past the first meeting." Hifi made the cut, and not just because they understand how to grow pot.
"The other piece of selling cannabis is narrative," Heywood says. "It's the same story you tell if you're a winemaker, a craft brewer, a leather maker. You have to help people understand the who and where, the little morality plays. [Hifi is] the model modern cannabis producer, which is sophisticated and organized, but not faceless and corporate. It's a fine line to walk."
It seems Hifi Farms is walking it. "We can't grow enough weed," Batterby says. "The minute it's ready, it's gone."