The blindfold tied over my eyes keeps me in total darkness, but I can tell the truck has stopped. I hear the driver’s voice from the front seat. “They’re opening the garage,” he tells me.
A few moments later the blindfold is off. But as I crawl out of the backseat, my sight is compromised again by a flood of harsh electric light. As my eyes finally start to adjust, a tall man with short, brown hair, a foot-long beard and a slight air of authority comes into focus. He takes my hand, giving it a firm but welcoming shake and smiles.
“Welcome to Utopia,” he says.
No, I haven’t been abducted by a messianic cult and whisked away to their hidden compound. I’m standing just outside the cultivation and production facility of Utopia Farms, custodians of one of the most potent strains of cannabis in California — perhaps in the world.
Northern California is a buffet of sugary, dessert-like strains at the moment. The average San Francisco or Oakland dispensary is so full of cookies, sherberts and pies that their flower and concentrate menus are practically indistinguishable from their edibles menus.
But just down the Pacific coastline, high in the misty Santa Cruz mountains, Utopia Farms grows a tasty strain with a ferocious potency of 30 to 33 percent THC and a more natural namesake — albeit one with some corporate trademark baggage — Chiquita Banana.
Up close and personal with Chiquita Banana
William Shakespeare famously asked, “What’s in a name?” And while there’s some archaeological evidence to suggest the bard may have smoked cannabis, there’s none indicating he grew or sold it or that 16th Century London ever experienced a kush or cookies craze.
If it had, Bill would know better. Because when it comes to the market appeal of marijuana, a strain’s name has a pronounced impact on the average person’s decision to try it or not.
Kaiya D., 25, one of the co-founders of Utopia, says the farm’s flagship strain was no exception.
“We originally went to market calling the strain ‘Banana O.G.’ and it barely moved from the dispensary shelves,” he said. “Then we named it Chiquita Banana and the stuff started flying out the doors. And we were like, ‘This is the same stuff we brought you guys two weeks ago with a different name.'”
I discovered Chiquita Banana while on assignment for a cannabis publication at a high-profile cannabis competition.
Utopia’s no-frills booth was practically invisible compared to the flashy, elaborate spectacle put on by some vendors. A simple, square sign beckoned to me — a bunch of bananas over a white backdrop and “CHIQUITA BANANA – 33% THC” printed in big, black block letters.
Heather K., 31, a mellow but energetic young woman wearing an infectious grin and a Utopia Farms T-shirt, showed me an ornate mason jar containing a translucent lump of what looked like damp, golden sugar. The jar reeked of sweet fruit and floral kush funk, with subtle hints of pine and citrus. She explained that their sign was referring to the potency of the flower itself, and that the concentrate in the jar was actually 88.6 percent THC.
She didn’t ask if I wanted a hit — she didn’t have to. I took a steady inward breath through the mouthpiece of a waterpipe as Heather artfully wrangled an unruly chunk of sugar wax into the groove of a hot, domeless titanium nail, guiding the melt with a metal dentistry tool. Soon the top of the nail was a moat of bubbling amber goo and my lungs were almost half full with delicious, terpene-rich vapor.
Then she put the tamper on the nail, flooding the pipe’s chamber and my lungs with dense, milky fog. My spine shuddered as the jolt of THC fired through my skull and out into the cosmos, dragging tattered ribbons of consciousness behind it like the burning tail of a comet.
I exhaled a billowing cumulus cloud of mouthwatering, kushy vapor and felt the ground wobble as the inside of my skull was slowly flooded with warm, intoxicating goo — like the ending of “Terminator 2,” with my brain standing in for Arnold Schwarzenegger and an enormous vat of liquefied THC taking the place of molten metal.
My Due Diligence
Back at the farm, business has all but stopped. Apart from Heather diligently sculpting medicated vanilla macaroons in the kitchen, the entire core leadership has taken time out of their schedule to check out the media interloper.
Kaiya, who’s been handling press relations, has already introduced me to one of the other co-founders, Jesse M., 33, the man with the messianic facial hair from the garage. They lead me upstairs to a small office room, where I meet Utopia partner Sean P., 30, who sports a short barber cut and long beard, like Jesse. If it weren’t for Kaiya’s clean-shaven face, I would think it was a Utopia uniform requirement.
Co-founder Emily F., 26, bubbles with restrained intensity as she introduces herself. She hops up to grab me a cup of water before settling back into her chair and eyeing me with the same amused curiosity as everybody else. They say they expected somebody older — perhaps one of the dour-faced, septuagenarian photojournalists they saw stalking the Cannabis Cup in safari vests riddled with clips and straps, lugging small arsenals of DSLR lenses.
Kaiya, Emily and Jesse founded the collective in 2014. Jesse tells me the whole crew hails from Ithaca, New York.
“There’s a huge cannabis culture up in Ithaca and a long history of people from there moving down to Santa Cruz to cultivate,” Jesse says. “Actually, the cultivator who started Chiquita Banana originally came here from upstate.”
In a cruel but amusing twist of irony, both Kaiya and Emily are horribly allergic to marijuana pollen. For Emily, it’s especially severe.
“I have to use latex gloves for all of the product handling,” she says, adding with a rueful chuckle, “and trimming is impossible, I just can’t do it. The pollen would probably kill me.”
Kaiya gives a grim nod of recognition and I privately pledge to never complain about my seasonal allergies ever again.
They ask me if I want to sample some Chiquita Banana before touring the facility. I explain that my professional ethics do not allow me to shirk my due diligence and that writing a story about possibly the most potent strain of cannabis on planet Earth without smoking some myself would be grossly negligent and wholly unethical. This seems to please Jesse, who produces a jar for my inspection, which passes with top marks.
The bud structure is dense, but not overly so. The large, somewhat asymmetrical flowers have a pleasant, natural look about them. The trichome frosting is more or less complete, lending a pale golden tint to the emerald buds and nearly obscuring the generous collection of red hairs peeking out from within.
I pass the jar of righteous funk to Kaiya, who rolls a few joints, which are passed around as I ask questions. The smoke is smooth and intensely flavorful, with all the fruit, kush and pine flavors of the concentrate. You can taste how strong it is.
I instantly feel the effects, which are dazzling. The onset is quick and clean, like drifting up into the sky on a parasail in the wake of a speeding race boat. I feel relaxed but alert. There’s a kushy undercurrent tempering the speedy, almost Trainwreck-like stimulant effects, but I feel as energized as I do euphoric. I ask Jesse about all the awards Utopia has won in the past couple years, including big wins at major cannabis competitions. He kind of shrugs.
He has the air of a man familiar with winning and unfazed by the trappings of victory. A small cache of trophies and medals crowded on a tiny table beside the office refrigerator seems more like an unresolved storage issue than a deliberate display. Perhaps his adrenaline-soaked past as a professional BMX rider has inoculated him to the simple county fair thrill of winning the biggest pumpkin.
Maybe he’s just really blazed. Because if hitting a bowl or a joint of Chiquita Banana is like soaring behind a speedboat, hitting the concentrate is like being strapped to the hood and feeling the pounding cylinders rumble against your chest as you barrel across the waves.
Each of the small grow rooms at Utopia is named for one of the “Finger Lakes” of upstate New York. They’re all fully sealed to prevent contamination, but the crew is eager to show off the fruits of their labor and allow me a peek at just about everything.
Sean hands me a pair of specialized sunglasses and Kaiya cracks open the door of the “Canandaigua” room, treating me to a glimpse of dozens of Gorilla Glue #4 plants in full bloom. The sight and smell of the small, indoor field is breathtaking and I soak it in for as long as I can.
Utopia’s water recycling system reclaims 50-70 percent of all water used, including the water from dehumidifiers and air conditioners. Greywater gets used for cleaning and wastewater is filtered and sent to a treatment facility.
“The goal is to get that up to 100 percent water reclamation,” Jesse says, adding that Utopia is officially carbon neutral through participation in reforestation projects.
The Fog of Prohibition
I set out to pin down the genetic origins of Chiquita Banana’s remarkable potency and, in most respects, I failed. I can tell you what Kaiya told me — she’s a 60/40 indica-dominant hybrid with West Coast origins and genetic ancestry that roughly equals O.G. Kush x Banana.
The original cultivator is unknown — perhaps some other East Coast transplant who moved to Santa Cruz. The real story of Chiquita Banana’s genesis is lost to time and the unkind fog of prohibition.
But as I walk past the grow rooms back out to the garage, I can already see the wheels of Utopia starting to turn again, now unfettered by the distraction of my visit. Sean is climbing into a white clean suit to enter one of the grow rooms with a contended diligence that borders on reverence.
And in that moment I realize that Chiquita Banana is a remarkable strain, largely because Utopia is a remarkable farm. The expression of a cannabis strain’s full potential lies squarely in the hands of those with the crazy passion to cultivate it.
On my way back to the East Bay, I stop at a local dispensary to buy some cuttings. Out of curiosity, I look to see what Utopia products are available.
“I’ve got the macaroons in both flavors and I’ve got concentrates in three varieties, including Chiquita Banana,” says the manager working the counter. “But I’m fresh out of the Chiquita flowers — we can barely keep those on the shelf.”
TELL US, have you ever smoked Chiquita Banana?