Driving north along California’s Highway 12 to visit a cannabis farm, the scenery gives way to rows of established old vine wine grapes cast against a backdrop of low undulating golden hills. When I pull off the highway and arrive near my destination, Esensia Gardens, a Cooper’s hawk flies into a patch of oak woodlands moments before Marley Lovell cruises up on a Subaru UTV. His dad is also a bird watcher, he says with a wide welcoming smile, as he directs me to follow him along a short dirt road past a small herd of spotted brown and white cows huddled together in the shade. Esensia naturally blends in with many of the working farms in the heart of the Sonoma Valley, but it’s growing a unique crop for the area. And behind the rows of juvenile cannabis plants stretching their branches into the full sun lies a story of friendship, perseverance, and cutting-edge scientific agricultural techniques.
“One thing led to another with farming, and I think with cannabis specifically, it’s humbling in the sense that there’s always something new to learn,” Lovell says as we sit down with his business partner and high school friend Ben Blake. “That has really fueled us. It’s been hard, obviously, for a lot of people, particularly in the last couple years. But this site has a renewed sense [of purpose].”
Located in Glen Ellen, California, the plant canopy sits at 1 acre, roughly the size of a football field. It’s Esensia’s third grow and most significant iteration yet. With 600 plants, the farm is small in comparison to the size of mega cannabis growers located further south in Santa Barbara County. Still, the core two-person team behind Esensia shows its might by winning awards. In 2023, Esensia won a Best of California trophy at the science-based California State Fair competition for its Maracuya, a terpinolene-rich Lavender x Jah Goo cross with aromas of pineapple and sour citrus that tested at 30% THC.
“It’s like our sour beer,” Lovell says. “It’s the weirdest thing that we grow.”
Esensia’s Lime Juice—which also contains the citrus-spiked aroma of terpinolene-dominant cultivars of days of yore like Jack Herer and Durban Poison—placed within the top 10 of sungrown flowers at the 2023 Emerald Cup.
“We got validation for four or five years of work into that [Maracuya] strain this year,” Blake says. “It’s a strain that most people probably wouldn’t grow, but we just thought it was so awesome and unique because there’s nothing like it. That kind of defines our breeding, especially now, given how homogenized a lot of genetics are getting in the industry with a lot of beta-caryophyllene. We’re trying to swim up current and do something different.”
The Essence of Esensia
Like wine grapes, cannabis has defined the reputation of California across the world. Glen Ellen is a small town in Sonoma County primarily known for its wine production and its ties to some literary greats. Hunter S. Thompson spent time there early in his writing career, living in an “Okie shack, paying a savage rent,” and spending most of his days “in a deep, ugly funk, plotting vengeance.” And esteemed food writer M.F.K. Fisher lived in Glen Ellen from 1971 until her death in 1992. The one specter of the past that will haunt you all over the small town is Jack London; his home and ranch on the eastern slope of Sonoma Mountain is now a state park.
Lovell and Blake both grew up in decidedly more urban Oakland, California, and found their way into the life of farmers through family ties. Their story begins at a 2005 meetup at Reggae on the River—a festival formerly held in California’s Emerald Triangle that was as much about roots music as it was about cannabis and the natural environment along the Eel River where it took place. Inspired by that first festival together—a peek into the world of cannabis cultivation in Northern California—they started growing cannabis as a side hustle, with Lovell eventually giving up a job at an early music streaming service and Blake leaving a job in media production at a San Francisco television station.
The logo for their company is a sun mandala that looks like a cannabis bud from the top. Their name is a riff off of esencia, which means essence in Spanish, but they flipped the “c” to an “s” to have the brand include a slang term for cannabis, sensi.
Lovell’s dad is from Bermuda and, while Lovell was growing up, always had a few cannabis plants growing in the backyard.
“I’ve always appreciated that he’s brought a more spiritual connection to the plant and to our operation,” Blake says of his business partner.
Blake’s mother is a horticulturist, and his father is a DNA scientist who worked with a team to develop a process known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which had major importance in both medical research and forensic science and went on to win a 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the man who discovered it.
“I grew up in a household where science was hammered into me,” Blake says. “So when Marley and I started doing this, we created this interesting combo of a deep cultural understanding of the plant and its spiritual properties that came a lot from Marley… and I had this really scientific eye that I learned from my dad. That combined into what it essentially became, which was loving being in the outdoors and really honoring the plant and its history and its potential, but also applying a pretty rigorous detail-oriented approach to our breeding and cultivation style.”
Esensia’s flowers are grown with organic farming methods, and one of their secrets to success is compost tea, which Lovell and Blake explain helps their plants’ ability to uptake nutrients.
Their first outdoor grow was on a property with a river in California’s Anderson Valley owned by Lovell’s uncle. While growing medical cannabis under Prop. 215, their farm there was raided by law enforcement in the fall of 2015. But, seeing the promise of California’s cannabis legalization on the horizon, they started over in 2016 with a cannabis farm at a 3,000-foot elevation within a dry Mendocino County microclimate. Glen Ellen is the third location where they are growing together, and when I visit on a midweek summer afternoon, is only a few months old.
Next, the three of us jump on the UTV to tour the grow, where I see 3-week-old plants in straight vineyard-like rows. The cannabis at the farm is growing straight in the ground and is covered by hay to keep the soil beds cool and assist with water retention in an area that can see summer temperatures reach the 100s.
The first plants on the day’s tour are a Blueberry Jam, Esensia’s cross of Blueberry and an F4 Cheese that is already showing a blue tint in its leaves. While looking at them, Blake jumps on his phone to demonstrate how he can control watering the rows of plants via an app.
Their Lime Juice strain is a phenotype of Subcool’s Chernobyl and has been a longtime staple of the farm, which won awards at the 2016 and 2021 Emerald Cup. The lime scent in the finished buds is an intensely intoxicating aroma that transfers into its tart taste.
While the farm does feature some experimental patches of other people’s genetics, all the Esensia-selected cultivars at the Glen Ellen grow originate from tissue culture. In early 2019 they noticed that their plants were declining in their vigor and production and, to their dismay, found their cannabis—like much of the genetics in California—had been infected by a pathogen called hop-latent viroid (HLVd). To combat this and save the genetic library they’d spent years building, they worked with a tissue culture lab (and, in a full circle moment for Blake, performed some PCR tests on the plants), eventually developing an extensive selection process to get genetic material that was free of HLVd.
“We were about to lose our whole library, and we ended up saving it,” Blake says. “All these things that we almost lost are now saved, they’re viroid-free, they’re in archive… tissue culture is the way to preserve clonal genetics.”
Blake explains that when they find a winner among the new types of cannabis they create, “putting it into tissue culture allows us to produce the highest quality version of that cultivar every time we grow it.”
A contributing factor of the quality of their flowers, Lovell adds, is working with the same genetics over a long period of time.
“We know what the plant likes, you learn, and that allows us to really be able to coax out the best versions of those genetics,” he says.
Looking Toward the Harvest
The site of the new grow was previously a cannabis farm owned by SPARC, a dispensary chain that first opened in San Francisco in 2001. Because of this, the property includes a 10,000-square foot multi-million dollar drying facility built especially for cannabis that Esensia will use for the first time with the 2023 harvest.
At the farm, the future for Esensia, while plagued with the volatile nature of the cannabis industry and farming in general, looks as bright as the sunshine behind the brim of my bucket hat.
“All the things we’ve learned from our last experiences have led into this,” Lovell says. “We’re really excited to see this evolution.”
This article was originally published in the October 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.