The Sisters of the Valley farm is a one-acre plot wedged in California’s sprawling, agriculture-rich Central Valley, about 10 miles outside of the city of Merced’s limits. On first glance it looks a lot like the other farms in the area, those that grow almonds, carrots, blueberries, and other wholesome crops. A narrow, worn-out asphalt road sandwiched between two enormous almond groves leads to an idyllic plot; there’s a garage-turned-greenhouse and two light blue ranch houses: one where the farmers live and eat, and one known as “the abbey” that serves as the base of business operations.
But this farm isn’t in the business of nutritious fruits and vegetables: it’s in the business of weed. That garage greenhouse is actually a brightly lit grow room housing young cannabis plants, and the abbey is where workers process those plants into “medicine.” Every room on the farm is imbued with the sweet, earthy smell of marijuana.
Also unlike the other farms around here, Sisters of The Valley is staffed by a coven of habit-wearing women, the leader of whom is Sister Kate, the charismatic owner, operator, and spiritual guide who dresses as a nun and describes her operation as a holy trinity of non-denominational spirituality, servitude, and activism.
“The spirituality is for us, and the servitude and activism are for the people,” she says. “The servitude is our medicine making, and our activism is to change the laws to make them more equitable for everyone.” Sister Kate may sound more like a religious figure than a businesswoman, but make no mistake: Business is booming. Sisters of the Valley did $60,000 in sales in 2015, their first year; now they sell that much each month online. Their products ship across the world. If this were any other farm, Sisters of the Valley would be a resounding success story. But given the high costs of securing an enterprise that is still technically illegal, Sisters of The Valley is not yet profitable. And given the Trump Administration’s promise of a federal crackdown on the drug, full legalization isn’t too soon coming.
Complicating matters is that Merced County, where the farm is based, is not known for it’s 420 friendliness. Although Californians have a pretty liberal reputation when it comes to enforcement of marijuana laws, most of the state's illegal weed has been grown up north in three storied counties — Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity. These communities are known for off-the-grid “hipnecks” (a portmanteau of redneck and hippie) whose livelihoods depend almost completely on black market cannabis.
The Central Valley, where Sister Kate operates, is a far cry from this “Emerald Triangle,” as it is known. Bordered by the Sierra Nevada to the east and the Coast Ranges and San Francisco Bay to the west, the Central Valley makes up 18,000 square miles in the middle of the state. It’s dotted by urban centers, like Sacramento and Fresno, that are webbed together by endless acres of farmland: a mosaic of nut trees, citrus, strawberries, tomatoes, and other crops. This is where America’s food grows. Like a lot of rural areas, it leans conservative — many of the famously blue state’s few Republican officials come from the Central Valley. And like many other rural counties in America, it has also come up on hard economic times, opioid addiction, and high crime.
A healthy pot industry is something that Sister Kate sees as a salve for a lot of these problems. But first she needs to convince her neighbors. Some people in the county and surrounding towns find her dress sacrilegious, in addition to being suspect of marijuana itself. The conservative nature of the area means she is under constant watch herself by the local authorities. “They’re watching us. And I know that if we would give them a reason, they would shut us down,” she says. Because of the black market value of her crop, she is also at risk of being robbed by “roving bandits.” All of this together has necessitated constant vigilance.
“Our profit has been eaten up by security,” Sister Kate explains. There is always an armed guard on premises, and she’s building a fence for a newly trained security dog. “Our plan is to have 'round the clock security until we all feel safe: guns, gates, fences — but none of that thrills me,” she says.
Sister Kate, who was born Christine Meeusen and originally hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to California in 2009 to start a medicinal marijuana collective with her brother Joe, called Caregrowers. Back then, California was one of a few states to have legalized medicinal use, with medical doctors often referring terminally ill patients directly to collectives like Caregrowers.
“The majority of the patients sent to us by doctors were very sick or very close to death,” she says. “It made me crazy that I had to teach these people how to smoke — so fearful, I was, that someone would torch themselves in bed.”
In an effort to solve this problem, Sister Kate worked with other women in the Caregrowers collective to develop recipes for non-smokable forms. For years, they tinkered with different strains of the plant and different methods for distilling the plant's powers into oils and other byproducts. The cannabis tinctures and teas they began offering soon became 15% of the collective’s sales. Meanwhile, Meeusen also got involved around this time with the Occupy Movement, often showing up to protests wearing a black robe and white habit — a leftover Halloween costume. People started calling her Sister Occupy, which re-ignited her lifelong fascination with nuns. Eventually, after reclaiming her Catholic confirmation name, Christine started going by Sister Kate. She closed down Caregrowers in 2013, and by 2014, she had fused the two — her new cannabis endeavor and her new identity — when she launched Sisters of the Valley and the finally perfected cannabidiol product line in 2014.
Sister Kate is quick to remind anyone who asks that she is not a Catholic, and her order is not a group of “real nuns.” Rather, the organization is based on the Beguines, which were groups of women in the Middle Ages that lived together, worked together, and prayed together — without the input of men or the domination of the Catholic Church. Each of the women workers go by “Sister.”
The “weed nuns,” as they’ve come to be known, now grow only a type of non-psychoactive cannabis bred to be super duper low in tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical in weed that gets you high. Instead their plants are rich in cannabidiol, or CBD, a chemical compound that, according to ongoing research, may have a number of medicinal benefits, from pain relief to treating chronic seizures and epilepsy. Currently, Sister Kate has 11 full-time employees, 10 of whom are Merced natives. Her primary objective is to “create honorable jobs for women” in “alternative medicine-making,” customer service, accounting, and business administration. The nuns use the cannabis to make salves, tinctures, and “pure plant oil,” designed to sooth pain, sleeplessness, and even acne.
During my visit, the Sisters of the Valley kitchen held an arsenal of eight crock pots, all brewing around the clock a thick mixture of coconut oil, essential oils and cannabis that would become the best-selling Sisters of the Valley CBD salve. A woman known as Sister Freya, whom Sister Kate hired for her hand hewn apothecary experience after knowing her for years, tended to these pots carefully with a plastic ladle and latex-gloved hands. Three men, including Sister Kate’s son, Alex, handle the manual labor of the business. Other independent contractors are hired for tech services and web design. Sister Kate currently pays employees $11 to $15 per hour, but she is “trying to get everyone to a $15 minimum wage.”
Another day while I was there, Sister Kate began the workday by teaching the team how to trim a harvest’s worth of bud to dispensary quality, so they can sell it for $1,500 per pound (another lucrative revenue stream). We were in the Abbey, and she lit up a sage bundle and wafted the smoke around a kitchen table covered in dried cannabis and surrounded by five women: Sister Kassidy, Sister Ann, Sister Freya, Sister Preslee, and Miss Lori. The women plant, harvest and process cannabis plants according to monthly moon cycles — a key part of making their products with “healing intent,” as they advertise.
Once it was time to trim, Sister Kate went through a long list of rules that are both practical and spiritual in nature: “If it needs more trimming, the price drops,” she says. “If there’s too much sticks in there, the price drops.” The sacredness of the plant must be honored. “Talking is okay, but only if it is important. The plant does not like idle gossip and chatter,” she says. “Music is okay, but only if it is spiritual in nature.”
The spiritual aspect of Sister Kate’s operation, which developed slowly over her years of working with “the plant,” can seem like a disrespectful gimmick to some (or at least, nothing more than a brilliant PR move), but Carlos Rodriguez, a local journalist who also grew up in the Central Valley, says he can see the connection between spiritual fellowship and marijuana enterprise. “A lot of epileptics I’ve talked to describe the marijuana plant as one of God’s creations with a specific intended use,” he says. In fact, some of the best evidence for CBD-rich marijuana’s medicinal use outside of pain relief is research showing it can help stop chronic seizures.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to see why many of the locals (outside of the town authorities) are polite and even reverent of the Sisters: They’re hurting no one and they’re creating jobs. During a downtown errand to shop at the thrift store with Sister Kass and Sister Freya, Sister Kate gets pulled aside and high-fived by a young man on the sidewalk. The cashier at the thrift store makes a point to thank Sister Kate for her work. Once they leave, the owner of a nearby boutique chases the group down the street to ask about becoming a wholesale client.
Likewise, on the farm, Sister Kate is especially revered. “Sister Kate is the most fascinating human being I have ever met in my entire life,” says Jeremy Huesler, another of her security guards who was born and raised in Merced. “She is such a kind hearted person, but kind of a gangster a little bit, and I love it. I admire her a great deal.”
The spirituality is for us, and the servitude and activism are for the people. The servitude is our medicine making, and our activism is to change the laws to make them more equitable for everyone.
Huesler, who says that he is "not a follower of the [marijuana legalization] movement per se," supports Sister Kate and her business simply because he supports civil liberties. “I believe they should be able to live whatever life they choose to live,” he says. “And that’s why I feel so good about being out here.”
Not everyone sees it that way. The Sisters of The Valley have been the object of smug admonishment from practicing Catholics and more than a few actual Catholic nuns, who find their dress offensive. Tony Dossetti, a retired city councilman and former Merced police chief who grew up on a dairy farm in Merced County, isn’t a fan. “As a Catholic, it does bother me,” he says.
It would be too easy to characterize the culture clash between the Sisters and Central Valley’s longtime residents as liberal versus conservative — or Christian versus pagan — conflict. It seems instead that many people in Merced are just not sure what to make of the whole thing.
Dossetti adds that though he believes marijuana is not as harmful as other drugs, its acceleration into mainstream culture — especially in California — has complicated local politics in the Central Valley. “How do you handle that? How do you handle that change?” he asks. City Council meetings in the past year alone tell a story of the struggle local governing bodies face in reacting to the large changes in the law on the state level.
In December of 2015, for example, Merced City Council’s Planning Commission attempted to pass a total ban on cannabis sale, delivery, and cultivation entirely within its city limits. In the end, it failed amidst public outcry, in part led by Sister Kate. Then, not six months later, City Council pivoted and agreed to pave the way for a max of four medical marijuana dispensaries — yet there is still ongoing quibbling about who is allowed to grow marijuana and how many plants they are allowed, outside of the six plants allowed by state law for individual patients with a medical license. In February of this year, the city hired a consulting firm that will help the city pick the individual businesses that deserve licenses. Sisters of the Valley isn't even going to apply, Sister Kate says. Instead, she is working on getting her business fully legal through what's called a "conditional use permit." Her lawyers say it should come through this summer.
But wait, didn’t California voters just vote to legalize recreational use? Yep. Last November, California was one of three states to do so, via a ballot measure known as Prop 64. You’d think this would be good news for Sister Kate, but just like what happened after medicinal use was legalized in 1996, what this means for the immediate future is that the state, as well as local municipal governments, have a ton of kinks to work out. The state government will not be accepting applications and providing permits until January 2018.
And then, of course, there’s always the Federal Government to worry about. In mid-December, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency added a notice to the Federal Register announcing that it had established a “new drug code for marihuana extract” — essentially treating all cannabis derivatives, including CBD, as Schedule 1 drugs, such as heroin and cocaine.
Sister Kate says that her attorneys and consultants have advised her “not to worry, to carry on, business as usual,” but nonetheless the news spurred her to look into business plans in Canada, just in case. “If the DEA decides to interfere with us, we will then have a secondary means of getting our products out,” she says.
It’s hard to imagine that actually happening, though, because Sister Kate seems to have thought of everything. She regularly accommodates visits from journalists, film crews, and curious visitors. She doesn’t say it, but it’s hard to believe that the weed nuns' captive international audience wasn’t cultivated as purposefully as the cannabis. Can you imagine the outcry, and the horrible optics, if the DEA actually stormed the peaceful compounds of the Sisters of the Valley farm? Like everything else, it’s all for the cause.
The Sisters of the Valley general email account receives messages daily from women all over the world who ask, “How can I join?” While Sister Kate’s small business isn’t big enough (not yet, anyway) to accommodate such a large superfluity — the actual word for a group of nuns — she has some advice for these eager future cannabis evangelists.
“I say get to the activists who are changing the laws, get to the lawyers, get to the growers, get some CBD seeds — we tell ‘em how to get ‘em — and just start doing it,” Sister Kate says. There’s no reason to come to California; form your own Sisters of The Valley where you stand. If everyone starts growing, the law will just have to catch up, she says. “We’re sort of asking the whole world — all the women — to participate in just growing the non-psychoactive cannabis and daring the law to shut us down.”