Right now, cannabis is the modern-day gold rush revolutionising the world’s economy and turning age-old stigmas of what it means to be a ‘stoner’ upside down. And Skye Gordon-Forbes is at the vanguard of the uprising.
Photography by Micky Wiswedel
Together with her Israeli-born husband, Yon Saul, this energetic and focussed South African spent the past two years learning everything there is to know about growing cannabis, from root to shoot, as workers, then managers, of a medical cannabis farm on the infamous Murder Mountain in Northern California’s Humboldt County (the largest cannabis-producing region in the States).
“I fell in love with living so connected to nature and learning the art of growing this healing herb,” says Skye, adding that the hard lessons dished out to them in California – where the industry is decades old and therefore leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the world - now perfectly positions them to add value to the budding local market.
“The international experience we’ve gained means we can bring a lot to the local table,” agrees Yon, who is doing just that as Head Cultivator at a medical cannabis operation in Lesotho, where he and Skye are currently setting up production to cultivate large quantities of high-grade medical cannabis for a variety of different export-grade products.
But that’s just the start, say this yin and yang couple, who believe that their complementary skill sets and personalities are what make them so effective. “Yon is the strategic brain while I’m the practical brain”, laughs Skye, adding that both ways of thinking are critical to the long-term success of premium cannabis cultivation.
Their long-term goals include moving into cannabis strain development and, says Skye, countless other opportunities that are there for the taking. “There are lots of gaps in the manufacturing market for products like fertilisers, pesticides and high-end extraction systems – most of which are currently still being imported.”
The road ahead is, however, long and convoluted. The world-over, cannabis cultivation, and consumption have been subjected to all manner of purposefully misleading and damaging legislation.
The task at hand, says Skye, is more than just being allowed to grow the stuff, it’s about creating reliable networks, accessible resources and critically, it’s about creating transparency across the board, especially with regard to licencing, which even at application stage, is prohibitively expensive in this country.
Equally concerning, she adds, is the amount of fake news and faddish hysteria adding to consumer confusion about what cannabis is really all about.
That said, she and Yon believe passionately in South Africa’s future as a global leader in the cannabis cultivation industry. “If planned and managed correctly, we could see significant job creation and new long- term investments into this country.”
But it was pure chance, rather than raw passion, that got Skye into the cannabis industry in the first place. “We’d been travelling for 10 years, working odd jobs and always moving, and then this happened. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else”, Skye says, describing how Yon took a job on a farm as a trimmer (cutting, weighing, labelling and packaging marijuana buds) before being promoted to manager of the entire cultivation operation. That’s when Skye joined him and they’ve been on an upward trajectory ever since.
“Growing cannabis on a commercial scale is not like most other crops”, Skye explains. “If you plan on producing a highly potent product, each plant needs to be individually cared for and nurtured throughout its cycle, until it reaches its full weight and potential.”
So don’t for a second imagine a laid-back lifestyle with casual hours, leisurely commitments or multiple chill sessions. The couple lived in a caravan, rose at dawn, and worked for 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, for eight months at a time, with no break. “It was two of the hardest, but best, years of my life so far”, Skye says.
Interestingly, during her time in Humboldt County, Skye learned that many cannabis farms prefer to hire female trimmers and growers, for their neat work and professionalism. Skye believes there’s significance in this: “Many moons ago when women were gatherers and herbalists, they shared their knowledge of plants and their medicinal qualities with their daughters; so it makes sense to me that on a deeper level we would be drawn to, and excel at, growing and nurturing such a powerful plant.”
That said, all the farms are different, and some are notorious for wild parties and conduct that flirts with chaos and criminality. In fact, the whole area has a shady reputation, dating back to when Vietnam army veterans would disappear to hide out in the hills, secretly treating their PTSD with cannabis. As this outcast community grew into a determined but illegal group of growers, they increasingly clashed with the law and one another. And interestingly, as legislation softens, so Murder Mountain must also change, albeit reluctantly; with the lawless suddenly legal, and fighting to adapt to the new, government-endorsed ways of operating.
So are all the grizzly rumours about Murder Mountain (watch the Netflix series by the same name for the full scoop) true? Maybe, shrugs Skye, but she was so focused on her work, she says, it never affected her directly. Back home, her work commitments keep her equally busy and she admits she’s rarely able to kick back and enjoy the tangible (smokable!) efforts of her labour; but when she does, a vape pen and only the finest Sativa-dominant strain of Lesotho cannabis, low in THC and high in CBD, will do… Just in case you were canna-curious.
For more information on the project Skye and Yon are working on in Lesotho, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Production by Bielle Bellingham