A premiere NorCal culinary oasis, Sonoma Hills Farm, can trace its roots back to the 1800s with the arrival of Russian farmers in the north country. But, after being acquired by renowned cannabis agriculturalists Sam Magruder and co-proprietor Gian-Paolo Veronese in 2017, the quaint Petaluma farmstead is gung-ho on cultivating a more modern mainstream green — weed. A former horticulturist of the three Michelin Star-darling The French Laundry is also now officially on board to lend a hand.
As reported by Forbes, former French Laundry nurseryman Aaron Keefer was just named Sonoma Hills Farm’s VP of cultivation and production. Though Keefer had previously worked with the Magruder and his cannabis-savvy clan in 2018, it was on an at-need consulting and advising basis.
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At Sonoma Hills Farm we are honored to welcome Aaron Keefer as our new Vice President of Cannabis Cultivation and Operations. Aaron has been an advisor and friend of the farm since the early days; he has seen firsthand the potential of the land and experienced the extensive opportunity that lies ahead with respect to the plant. He joins at the perfect time as we ready to build our cultivation facility and work toward our first harvest. Just as a highly-tended garden produces the best crops, and a well-managed vineyard is crucial to crafting a fine wine, the best cannabis is reliant upon the people that nurture it from seed to shelf. There’s no better person to cultivate and produce this cannabis than Aaron. While some in the cannabis industry may not be familiar with his name, Keefer has spent the last decade managing the extensive gardening operations of Thomas Keller’s Restaurant Group (TKRG), which includes famed, 3-Michelin Star restaurant, The French Laundry, in Napa, California. A lifelong cannabis advocate and connoisseur, Aaron developed a love for farming early in life where he parlayed his extensive agricultural knowledge into elite culinary positions before transitioning to a career-defining role as one of the most respected gardeners in the restaurant industry. In transitioning from an environment that demands absolute perfection from its produce, we welcome Aaron’s extensive botanical knowledge and are fortunate to have the opportunity to provide him a foundation in his path to cultivate his favorite flora: cannabis. Welcome aboard, Aaron!
“Aaron has been a valued adviser and joins at the perfect time as we ready to build our cultivation facility and work toward our first harvest,” says Magruder in a statement published by the business magazine.
Both Keefer’s grandfathers were farmers. One grew commercial monocrops — corn, wheat, soy — and the other produced various types of berries, specifically strawberries and raspberries, and he regularly helped each with their land as a kid.
Suffice to say his green thumb has had ample time to mature.
“Just as a highly tended garden produces the best crops, and a well-managed vineyard is crucial to crafting fine wine, the best cannabis is reliant upon the people that nurture it from seed to shelf,” Magruder continues.
Keefer — who was the head culinary gardener for Thomas Keller’s Restaurant Group (TKRG), which oversees the likes of the French Laundry and four other NorCal bakeries and restaurants — is now potted at the Petaluma farmstead, full time: “There’s no better person to cultivate and produce this cannabis than Aaron.”
Keefer graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of American (CIA) at seventeen and worked for years in a bevy of kitchens, starting in high school. Keefer also honed his culinary skills under notable Bay Area chefs — James Beard Award-Winner Julian Serrano of the now-closed Masa’s and Celebrity Chef Michael Chiarello of Coqueta — before eventually becoming the executive chef at the Marin Country Club, where he’d later rise to the club’s food and beverage director.
During his gig at The French Laundry, Keefer helmed the land responsible for providing the eatery — in addition to TKRG’s other properties, like Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc + Addendum, La Calendar — with its farm-to-table fare, including their ten-course Tasting of Vegetables meal.
During his stint at the Yountville staple, Keefer made a name for himself producing the most extraordinary, high-quality vegetables that, arguably, were above anything else produced in the region. Specifically, his microgreens — radish, sunflower, broccoli, etc. — and an assortment of both large and small squash have garnered the CIA-grad national and in-industry praise.
While employed at TKRG, Keefer collaborated every day with each of Chef Keller’s culinary teams across the country to ensure that they receive only the very best products possible from the garden he tended — which included beehives, chicken coops, and even an “escargot grove” of wild burgundy snails. His approach to consuming vegetables, too, is fairly straightforward — akin to how’d you prepare fresh seafood.
“I believe vegetables are like fish,” Keefer says in a Williams Sonoma spotlight published during his start at French Laundry. “You have to eat them soon after catching them.”
But growing and harvesting those edible plants is a bit more mixed. “I think that flavor starts even before you source the seeds,” he remarks. “The composition of the soil, the seed genetics, the environment where the product is grown — these all come together to bring you the flavor of that vegetable.”
This, unsurprisingly, is the exact approach the praised seedsman plans to take while developing Sonoma Hills Farm’s cannabis program. Oh and, according to Forbes, he grew his first cannabis plant at just fifteen — so his new career shift is something of a full-circle moment.
“We have an incredible opportunity here to showcase how cannabis can be incorporated into a traditional farm, so it’s equally important to create synergies,” Keefer explains to Forbes’ Katie Shapiro via an email on how he plans to tackle his “dream job” growing craft cannabis.
"[Sonoma Hills Farm’s] goal is to show the cannabis community, farm community, and culinary community — as well as the broader public — how this all can and should come together.”
And he plans to make that intersection as eco-friendly as possible: “[We want] to cultivate the most sustainable, artisanal cannabis in California.” (Despite its verdure, producing cannabis is a far more fossil fuel-laden practice than you’d think.)
Keefer’s environmentally friendly cannabis production will span over an acre, divided between a 28,560 square-foot outdoor cannabis plot and a 10,000 square-foot closed environment agriculture hothouse that’s meant to help maintain optimal growing conditions, all while cutting down on water waste and excessive soil use. A 5,000 square-foot indoor facility will side-saddle the property and exist as an on-ground laboratory of sorts where Keefer and his team can focus on developing unique methods of plant propagation and seed artisanal strains of cannabis — like, say, one that might pair exceptionally well with pizza.
“The elephant in the room, of course, is that cannabis has been part of the restaurant industry for a long time,” as anyone who has tried marijuana and pizza together can attest, Keefer said in an interview with Restaurant Hospitality.
“We’ve paired wine with food for a long time, and cigars are a wonderful digestif, and you can enjoy a cigar selection in restaurants,” he adds. “Why not cannabis?”
Between the dedicated indoor and outdoor facilities for Sonoma Farm Hill’s cannabis production, Keefer and his team hope to craft a product on par with the highest quality whiskeys and wines found anywhere in the world.
“Done right, cannabis cultivation is a true connoisseurship not seen in many businesses other than wine, whiskey, mescal, and cigars,” he says to Forbes. “You can taste and smell the nuances, and to really succeed, hard work is what gets the results.”
Alas, we're eagerly waiting to see those results come to fruition.
Sonoma Hills Farm will continue to cultivate its lofty list of organic fruits and vegetables on its 40-acres of land, in addition to still caring for the farm’s litany of livestock. Keefer’s first cannabis harvest is slated for late 2020 with hopes of shelved products hitting California dispensaries in 2021.
Related: SF Now Has An Office Of Cannabis