On the verge of his biggest event, Tim Blake, the founder of the Emerald Cup speaks about its seminal role in helping outdoor organic cannabis farmers literally emerge from the shadows into the light.
Why do some middle-aged members of the cannabis community, steeped in the practice of transcendental meditation, decline to move through life at the deliberate pace of a yogi? Instead, they travel at warp speed, seemingly daring you to catch them in mid-burn. So it is with Tim Blake, the peripatetic 58-year-old founder of the epic Emerald Cup, which this year celebrates not only its twelfth annual event, but also its largest to date. Twenty thousand people are expected to turn out December 12-13 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa, California, for two exhilarating days of authentic Mendocino cannabis culture and competition.
We’d been playing phone tag for weeks, but finally I connected with Blake for a conversation that began with the Cup and quickly expanded to issues that encompass what felt like the entirety of the cannabis industry, with a special emphasis on outdoor farmers whose culture and livelihood are inseparable from the organic flowers they cultivate and sell.
He’s told the story many times, but Blake, who speaks quickly and with purpose, does not seem to mind recounting the origins of the Cup. “I grew up going to the county fairs where they would celebrate the sights and smells of the fall harvest, and I just wanted to be able to do that with all my friends in the mountains, and have a friendly competition like they do with the fruits and vegetables and animals, and just enjoy the community,” he said. “So we just decided that we were going to go ahead and do it. Thinking back, it’s pretty radical what we did compared with where it is now; it’s so out in the open. Back then we had a lot of fear around it. People were afraid to show up and would sometimes come in masks. It seems like a lifetime ago at this point. Where’s the time gone?”
“12 years doesn’t seem like that long ago,” I commented.
“True,” he said, “but you couldn’t even sell seeds back then. If anyone got arrested, they were going to jail for sure. They were putting people into federal prison left and right. [Canadian cannabis activist] Marc Emory went to prison. It was a rough world. It is a relatively short time-frame and we’ve come a long way, but I’ve been doing this for almost fifty years. Of course, we thought it would have changed a long time ago, but if you look at where it was twelve years ago, you might have thought it would never change.”
Even in the early days, when the Cup took place in Mendocino at Area 101, Blake’s farm, he mostly managed to avoid serious problems with the cops. “It was a small event,” he recalled, “a couple hundred people at most. We had twenty-three entries to start and were just happy to be able to pull it off and not have any trouble with local law enforcement. Recently, we went back and tried to find some of the old posters we’d put up, and realized we hadn’t put any up. We didn’t do it because it was all word of mouth; it wasn’t something you advertised back then.”
It took three years for law enforcement to pay any attention at all. “We had too many cars on the highway, and this CHP guy came and was trying to get them off the highway. I was right there because it was my place, but inside you could hear them naming off the awards. So this cop was sitting there going, ‘You got cars in the middle of the road, and the smell in these cars driving by me…’ And just then, my guy on the stage announces ‘And number three is Purple Kush.’ And the cop goes, ‘I don’t know what’s going on in there. I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. I just want this to stop. I want all these cars gone and all this to be cleaned up!’” I was like, ‘Yes, sir.’”
That was about the worst of the trouble, but to head off any future problems Blake visited California Highway Patrol headquarters. “I told them, ‘Look, I throw a peaceful event. You won’t give me a permit, you won’t let me put up signs to get the cars off the highway, and it isn’t fair. You’re going to cause a wreck by what you’re doing.’ So they realized that they were being a little arbitrary, and that was the fourth year. After that, they didn’t know what to do with the event. I did another six years there before moving it up to Humboldt and then to the Santa Rosa Fairgrounds.”
The Humboldt stop was in 2012 at the Mateel Center in Redway, for the Cup’s ninth year, but the event outgrew the venue in one show and Blake had to move again. There were problems. “I couldn’t get a date at any of the Humboldt fairgrounds, and I got rejected by the Mendocino County Fairgrounds twice,” said Blake, who was forced to do what he had never wanted to do: move south. “I took a flyer out in Sonoma—a very forward-thinking county, number one in tourism for bicycle racing and vineyards, and they also have all the best microbreweries—and their attitude was, ‘Look, if you can do this with cannabis, we’ll take you in.’”
The Mendocino growers were not pleased. “All the Santa Rosa people thought I was a traitor for moving the show away. I told them I wasn’t trying to leave the Triangle.”
It turns out the move was not only necessary but also life-changing for the Cup and the outdoor cannabis community as a whole. Blake explained, “Once we went to Sonoma, the whole thing opened up and suddenly everyone was talking about outdoor bud. It changed the game. Where before we had been isolated in Northern California, having a party with our own folks, now we were bringing our products to the whole world.”
In short order, what had been a regional contest became a force with international cred. “Rolling Stone called us the preeminent awards ceremony in the industry,” Blake recounted. “We’ve been written up everywhere in the world, and we’ve grown to become the largest outdoor organic cannabis competition, with people coming from everywhere to join us. Leo [from Aficionado Seed] won first place with his Chemdawg Special Reserve three years ago, and the following year he was selling $50 seeds when regular seeds were going for from three to ten bucks.”
The way Blake explains it, the smartest thing he did was to stick to the original concept for the event—which, paradoxically, made him no money. “The purpose was to do a real organic contest and competition and show people how to grow the right way,” he said. “You have to also remember that twelve years ago, indoor grows were predominant. Cannabis that was grown outdoors was grown in the shade because people were hiding from the cops, so the quality wasn’t that good. So there was this perception that outdoor wasn’t really that good. I started the Cup not only to do a contest and a friendly gathering, but because I came from back in the indoors days, too. If it wasn’t for this breached birth [i.e. law enforcement], no one would be growing indoors. Nobody grows tomatoes or corn inside or in a garage. That only happened because we had to hide, but when you get into full sun, cannabis is incredible, and we were going to show how incredible it was. Being able to drive that into people’s minds and change the perception of common people over the years has been a gift. When you take a sun-grown bud and compare it to an indoor bud, it holds up. That’s why I think the Emerald Cup has been so important to the outdoor farmers who want to get their products to market and be able to sell things. It really changed the game.”
Staying true to a philosophy of sustainable, organic farming also extended to other products, including extracts. “That first year, we wouldn’t let Butane Honey Oil [BHO] in and everybody said we were going to lose our whole thing because it was big and people were going to dabs, oil, and rigs,” he said. “But I said we were going to hold the standard and hold it up high, and challenge people to make something to compete with BHO. Well, now Diesel Extracts and others make solvent-less extracts that work in the dab pipes, and it’s the best in the world. Now the BHO guys line up and buy it all day long, because they know it’s the best in the world.”
As important as the Cup was to the development of the outdoor growers’ economic viability, it was equally essential in terms of helping maintain the historic integrity of their culture and supporting what the community was all about. “My place at Area 101 is a big, comfortable place. We bring a lot of couches in and serve a lot of organic food, and it’s very much a cultural event. We were worried as we moved south whether we could keep that vibe, which we had done at the Mateel Center in Humboldt. When we moved to Santa Rosa, were we going to be able to hold that energy so that when people come to the show they’d feel like they’d come to hang out with the growers from Northern California and the rest of the state, and really feel like they were part of that family? A lot of the growers were afraid and would tell me, ‘Man, you’re going to go down there, and it’s going to be like a High Times show or a HempCon.’”
To ensure that was not the case, Tim and his small staff sprang into action. “We went out and bought a hundred couches from the Salvation Army and brought ten pounds of bud down to give away to people. My girlfriend made all these organic decorations—fifteen-foot prayer flags, all made of hemp—and we just dialed that place in and made it a giant Northern California event that felt like an Emerald Cup at our place. It worked. Regular people would come up to me and say, ‘I’m just standing there and talking with some amazing growers and they’re just treating me like I’m cool.’ And the growers are going, ‘You know what, these people are okay. I’m able to come out of the mountains from my reclusive life and see that all these people are great, and they just want to talk to us.’ Some people from out of state actually came up and thanked me. They thought they would come down and be ostracized or marginalized, but nobody made them feel like that at all. It really was like one big, happy family.”
The same vibe is promised for 2015’s mega-show, which Blake takes pains to differentiate from other events. “This is a growers’ event, a farmers’ event,” he said with evident pride. “We have a stage with the best leaders and teachers of sustainable organic growing in the world. We spend $50,000 in hotel rooms and bring all the activists and speakers in, and we give them a ticket for the weekend. I’ve spoken at a lot of events [where] you don’t get any food, you don’t get anything. We give our speakers meal tickets and places to stay for the whole weekend. All the people who are not invited to speak but are leaders in the industry, we give them all VIP tickets so they feel they are welcome to come to the show and are a part of the family. I mean, we give away so much that they all come and do feel a part of the community. We also have all organic food so nobody is getting sick from potato chips and bad hot dogs. I mean, we go out of our way. I’ve never made any money from the Cup. We put it all back in; it’s not my livelihood. I’m here to show that we care about people and love the community and culture, and we’re going to show outdoor growing and outdoor growers in the best light possible. And people can feel it; they feel that love. We’re getting three trams this time so that people who are older or worn out can jump on a tram and go back and forth.”
Blake’s innate sense of responsibility extends naturally to political activism. He’s been a local Mendocino activist for many years, organizing debates at Area 101 that helped elect the county sheriff and serving on various boards and commissions to protect the rights of the traditional growers. “When I grew up, they were all outlaws fighting for our rights. As it’s gone on I’ve gotten into traditional activism, and I’m really proud of that. This is all about the small farmers. When you go to a farmers’ market, you get unbelievable food from these small farmers, and it’s the same thing with cannabis. When you start getting on to a large agricultural scale, even if it’s clean organic, it’s simply not the same quality.”
As pleased as he is with the industry’s progress, he remains concerned about the future. “The last forty years, this industry has survived because of all these small cannabis farmers. Now, [Silicon Valley billionaire] Sean Parker and these guys are talking about putting an initiative on the ballot that would allow mega-grows throughout California. That’s going to purge the 100,000 that have supported this industry their whole lives, and their kids, and their kids. They’re third-generation growers. We have to protect them so that people can get quality medicine at a decent price, and so we don’t hurt the people that support the industry. So yeah, I’m pretty hardcore about that.”
Still, with little in the way of influence at the state level, Blake is trying to take smart action at the local level. “In Mendocino, we’re talking about enacting an ordinance where we don’t allow anything over an acre grow, so we can hold the appellation here for smaller grows over the next five years, like in Napa. Then, as all these mega-farms start up, at least in the Emerald Triangle we’ll keep it down to reasonable levels so that these small farmers have a chance to get their brands out to the people and keep their market share.”
On a more personal level, after years of making next to nothing on a Cup that this year will cost over $1 million to produce—where even his daughter, Taylor, a co-producer of the event, makes a salary too low to publish—a more lucrative future finally beckons. “The one thing that has happened is that many of the past winners, including the best breeders, geneticists, and concentrate makers, have asked themselves, ‘What brand could we sell that actually has the integrity and credibility we’re looking for?’ and it’s the Emerald Cup. So now we’ve formed an Emerald Cup concentrates company, Emerald Cup genetics, and Emerald Cup flowers with the best people in the world. We have like four companies. And I think we will make money with those companies, selling clean, organic, integrity-based products representing the farmers, and I think I’ll do really well over the next fifteen years with that.”
It’s an ironic lesson not lost on him. “When I became a hardcore activist eight years ago, I couldn’t grow big crops because I was a public figure. I had to maintain small crops and do it all very legally. Because of that and because of the Cup, I didn’t get to make all this money or make $100,000 at a single show. So now people are saying to me, ‘You deserve it, so let us help you make it.’” Of course, as a bone fide workaholic, he’ll still be running the Cup as well as working Area 101 and his 130-acre collective in Laytonville, Healing Harvest Farms.
He’s also writing a book, partially titled The Cannabis Crusader, which—much like Steve DeAngelos’s recently published The Cannabis Manifesto—covers the evolution of the cannabis industry and ethos. In part, he said, “It’s about survival and how we made it through, and all these warriors and people who fought and struggled, and how the people owe them a debt of gratitude and service. All the people who had their lives ruined and had to live with fear and terror, being hunted their whole lives. And what they’re living with now, which is under the shadow of that. So it’s a story of those times and what that world was like.”
That sense of loss intermingled with hope for the future is very much alive in Tim Blake, a boomer whose youthful rebelliousness belies his age and informs his perceptions. Having lived through the worst of the past, he refuses to accede to the future. “When they look back thirty or forty years from now, they’re going to realize that they took out the middle class took out the manufacturing in this country, and brought it to its knees in one generation, which in a natural form would have taken a few hundred years. And part of that was that they thought they had wiped out cannabis, but we just went to the mountains, we went indoors, we went everywhere. We fought subtly, and nobody ever gave up. And it’s true that the plant’s medicinal benefits have provided the final impetus to push it over, but it was also all these relentless outlaws and activists who wouldn’t accept being black sheep and ostracized by media campaigns to make us look like something we weren’t, and it didn’t work and it won’t work.
“Now mainstream America is realizing that this is a good product, and that they were just told that it was bad by the people who control the media. They’re going to find out that cannabis was the thing that saved us and will lead the way back to us having a free society, because we are going to win. We are going to come back and democratize this country again and have freedom of speech and freedom of will so that we can create the lives for our kids that they deserve.”
Right the fuck on.