13 Charley Custer

Audio

  • Charley Custer. Humboldt County.

  • "You know that old line, to live as an outlaw you must be rigorously honest? Well, there’s a lot of truth in that."

    Charley Custer would like to restore integrity to pot farming. As he explains it, California’s now-massive cannabis industry all began with back-to-the-landers on the North Coast, for whom pot was just another garden plant. Selling it was a way to fund their great social experiment, the modest returns enough to enable a lifestyle centered around alternative values like self-reliance and environmentalism.  

    Originally a journalist, Charley came from Chicago to Humboldt because of the unique community the growers had created. The legal tax base in this former logging region was meager, but for decades there was a sort of code among pot growers to support public services. They founded and funded schools, fire departments, community centers. They sponsored entertainment and media on a scale unknown in other rural areas. They began building governments based on their alternative values.

    Then, as marijuana was decriminalized and became a sophisticated industry, it was extracted from the greater social experiment—became, as Charley puts it, just another agribusiness, “indifferent to values we once thought were universal.” In response, Charley and a couple dozen other small-scale, family pot farmers founded Tea House Collective, a medical marijuana marketing cooperative whose work he likens to the sustainable agriculture movement. In contrast to industrial pot growing’s heavy petroleum use, carbon emissions, and harm to wildlife, these farmers employ low-impact, earth-friendly methods. They seek to restore the community values sidelined by the pot boom.

    But that Tea House was created expressly to sell this “better way” is an uncomfortable irony for Charley. By becoming marketers—no matter how well-intentioned—it feels like they have left behind the “informal, straightforward, stick-it-in-the-ground, smoke-it-with-your-friends, have-a-nice-life social ecology,” and instead joined the very industry they abhor.

    “It's a great undertaking in the abstract,” Charley says, “but when I'm donning my naughty-nurse fishnet stockings and going out to hustle the world, I'm not proud of myself. I would much rather just be the writer that I looked forward to being when I moved to the country. I guess I’ll get there, in time.”

  • Marijuana, variety "Cannatonic." Humboldt County.

  • Simple greenhouse. Humboldt County.