Ex-French Laundry Gardener Starts Pot Farm

The future is ripe for Aaron Keefer, who has a lot of good things growing at Sonoma Hills.

In Sonoma Valley’s Petaluma Gap appellation — one of the nation’s premier wine terroirs — Aaron Keefer is growing something a bit different.

Upon arriving at Sonoma Hills Farm, it’s the lush green of living plants that first catches the eye. Located in the midst of a so-called “dairy desert,” the shaggy steers locking horns in one part of the 40-acre property are vastly outnumbered by the squash alone. Then there are the potatoes, the pet pig, and the flat-bed truck that doubles as a makeshift stargazing station.

In short: this place is alive.

Sonoma Hills Farm is also quite busy, which makes sense, given it’s the apex of harvest season and they’re currently growing both produce and pot.

For legal reasons, the property is separated into two distinct tracts, with a regulation fence keeping the farm’s cannabis crops securely enclosed. The hope, however, is that eventually such barriers will no longer be necessary.

“That’s why we planted this hemp here,” farmer Jake Daigle notes, pointing to several rows of the fully-legal crop growing just across the way from Sonoma Hills’ cannabis plants. “You see this growing here, and then you look over there, and it’s like, why does it have to be this way? It doesn’t.”

Symbiosis is a major part of the ethos behind Sonoma Hills, where a rich respect for the land is factored into every decision. It’s also what Aaron Keefer, vice president of cannabis cultivation and operations, hopes to capture in the cannabis he’s cultivating.

“We want to bring what we have in the field to the jar,” he explains.

Given his resume, Keefer is arguably as qualified as anyone to deliver on such a lofty goal. Prior to leading the charge at Sonoma Hills, Keefer spent a decade serving as the head culinary farmer for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, where his duties included overseeing the garden for Keller’s 3-Michelin Star restaurant, The French Laundry.  

In collaborating with Keller, Keefer says he learned to be “relentless” when it came to sourcing the best ingredients — a skillset he’s now applying to the world of cannabis cultivation.

For Keefer, that ethos also includes knowing his property and the history of its soil.

In this case, the land that would one day include Sonoma Hills Farm was originally purchased by cattle rancher Arthur Prine in 1852. Following a sale in 1922, the property spent much of the past century as a chicken farm run by Walter Collings. During that period, the Collings farm notably took top honors in both 1975 and 1981 for growing the nation’s largest pumpkin.

Sold to its current owners in 2017, Keefer makes no secret of his immense affinity for the land. And, if he has his way, he won’t have to keep it to himself for much longer.

While laws currently prohibit such a venture, Keefer says his dream is to one day use a house on the property to host visitors for tours and overnight experiences. Beyond wanting to give (paying) members of the public a chance to spend time on the land, Keefer believes such opportunities could serve an educational purpose as well.

“Not everyone can go to Mendocino or the Emerald Triangle,” he explains, “and you don’t want to go to Salinas to see tomatoes.”

Instead, Keefer envisions small parties coming to see cannabis growing outdoors, in the sun, just as one might book a wine weekend in Napa.

Pending a change in law, however, such plans will have to wait for now.

In the interim, Keefer and his staff are staying plenty busy wrapping up Sonoma Hills’ first harvest. To aid restaurants struggling to endure pandemic hardships, Keefer has pledged to donate all of Sonoma Hills’ produce for the year.

Even as Keefer’s path has diverged from his restaurant roots, his comradery for the local culinary community remains fiercely strong. When Napa’s own 3-Michelin-Star Restaurant at Meadowood tragically burned to the ground in late September as part of the Glass Fire, Keefer invited some of the displaced workers to aid on the farm.

“We’ve been busy and I definitely needed the help,” he adds, “but these are people I know and we wanted to take care of them.”

On the cannabis front, potential highlights from the farm’s 2020 strain catalog include Animal Mints, Orange Acai, and the aptly-named Pink Jesus, with North Bay retailers Sava and Solful set to start carrying Sonoma Hills Farm next month.

Standing close to a pair of tussling dogs — one a puppy, the other decidedly not — Keefer summarized what it is he hopes people find when they finally get to open a jar of Sonoma Hills Farm cannabis.

“It’s the ocean being nine miles away,” he says, “and the wind pressure we get here in the Gap. It’s all these different things that are unique to right here being expressed through the plant in a way that allows you to truly taste it.”

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