Chemistry Visits: Esensia Farms, Where Oakland Roots Run Deep.
Whenever you have a conversation with a cannabis grower, inevitably the topic of region comes up. That’s usually because the characteristics of a particular area – the amount of sun exposure it gets, the plants and flowers that thrive in its surroundings – ultimately impact how well the plants grow.
It’s easy to forget that the same is true for people. Childhood friends Marley Lovell and Ben Blake credit their upbringings for setting them on the path towards their present lives as Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of Esensia Gardens…even if they didn’t realize it until much later.
“I definitely grew up in the community,” said Marley. “My dad is from Bermuda [and] has been growing really forever. I’m a second-generation grower.”
In recalling the ways his father had to be creative about hiding clandestine cannabis grows on the tiny island, Marley is grateful for having grown up in a place with decidedly more liberal views on the plant.
“In California, we have so many places to hide things in terms of the legacy community – that’s why it ended up in the hills,” he explained. And as Marley is quick to admit, underground growers weren’t the only ones who reaped the benefits. “There’s always been a legal way for me to be able to consume, and Oakland and the Bay Area is just notorious for open consumption, which I really love," he said.
Meanwhile, just a hot and a skip away from Marley’s Diamond District neighborhood, Ben grew up in Oakland’s Redwood Heights under an altogether different, but equally powerful parental influence.
“My dad was a geneticist and criminologist, and he was basically the first person in the US – really, anywhere in the world – to use DNA technology in crime scene analysis,” he explained. While learning from his dad’s casework helped spark a scientific curiosity in Ben, his mother’s passion for ornamental and vegetable propagation pretty much sealed the deal. “I grew up around a lot of plants being grown and cultivated from my mom’s side, and also around this genetics and science influence from my dad’s side,” he said.
Their two paths finally crossed in high school. “My sister was actually his carpool driver a long time ago, that’s how we first met,” Marley said of his friendship with Ben, which took root during the daily 45-minute commute to their San Rafael high school. Life eventually led them in different directions until a chance reunion at the Reggae on the River music festival in 2007 would prove fateful.
“That’s when we really started to dive deeply into some of the cultivation together, and then it’s been another rabbit hole from there to here,” Ben said.
A friend of Marley’s dad bought property in Mendocino, giving the two budding cultivators an entry point into what initially began as a hobby, but quickly evolved into something much bigger.
“Our first big breakthrough was trying to save genetics,” Marley revealed, explaining how this was no easy feat since cannabis is an annual plant predestined to sprout, produce seeds, grow, then die. But the challenge was part of the draw. “We really started to dive into that, to stockpile genetics before we knew really what we were doing,” he said. “So then legalization started and then we were selling at dispensaries.”
Ben reflects on those early days in what he refers to as the “golden era” of California’s medical cannabis market. “We’d grow in Mendo but because we were from the Bay and had a lot of connections here, we’d always come back after harvest with the crop and try to sell it in dispensaries,” he said.
And as it turned out, cutting their teeth in the years prior to adult-use legalization had its benefits. “When Prop 64 was really first starting, we already had 8 or 9 years of R&D work under our belt,” Ben said. “We had already developed 30 or 40 unique strains.
Esensia Gardens was born.
The farm is situated in the southeast corner of Mendocino, near Clear Lake. “It’s about 3000 feet elevation,” Ben said, emphasizing that the location is very much by design. “We’ve generally seen over the years that cannabis grown in high elevations tends to be just really special.”
“There’s so much sun exposure up here, and it’s also just basically really high and dry – there’s great air flow, and we don’t really have a lot of powdery mildew or mold issues up here,” Marley added.
It’s all part of a grow philosophy which Ben refers to as “The 3 Pillars”: 1) having really good genetics; 2) farming in a microclimate with natural characteristics that are conducive to good plant growth; and 3) cultivation methods that lead to the highest quality end product. For Esensia, that means prioritizing the use of compost teas, beneficial insect releases, and other organic practices.
“With the organics, you’re getting all those things – especially the terps – to really come out in more expressive levels, and when you layer that with the full-spectrum of the sun, the UV is bringing out a lot of those too,” Ben explained. “You can definitely feel it when you smoke it: it’s longer lasting, it just feels different. That’s the combination of all these chemicals in the plant being super expressed and diverse, that’s a big goal of what we’re trying to create.”
That’s why when it was time to source flower for Chemistry’s newest vape, we headed straight for Esensia Gardens. The result is our Hibiscus cartridge, made from a proprietary strain that Ben calls their “truest hybrid”. And anyone who’s enjoyed the traditional Jamaican drink sorrel or a glass of Agua de Jamaica at their local taqueria will be pleased by the similarities, according to Marley. “Hibiscus is probably more forward on the sour, and then there’s floral second, and then sweet is probably last.”
Esensia Gardens is clearly a farm guided by passion, and there’s no question as to whom Ben and Marley consider to be their greatest inspirations.
“Our operation is a good mix of appreciation of nature and spirituality, but also we’re very scientific in our approach,” Ben said. "I think we’re both really influenced by our parents in different ways and they played a big role in us being here.”
Written by: Kaisha-Dyan McMillan