Wildwood Flower Farm’s Sustainable High

Approximately four hours and twenty minutes northeast of Seattle in Washington’s Okanogan County, Melissa Beseda reflects on the successful conclusion of another cannabis cultivation season. After months of hard work as the plants grew and matured, she and Isaac Ekholm, her partner in life and business, have completed the harvest on the Wildwood Flower Farm and are now preparing for the impending arrival of their first child.

Ekholm began growing cannabis for his father who uses it medically to treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis. His labor of love quickly became a passion for cultivating top-quality cannabis. After the passage of Washington’s recreational cannabis legislation in 2012, Ekholm applied for a license as a cannabis producer and processor and founded Wildwood Flower Farm in 2016.

After witnessing how cannabis could positively impact people’s lives, Beseda joined him on the farm the following year. Together, they’ve been sustainably growing cannabis on a 30,000-square-foot plot of land ever since, with a crew of lovable and loyal animals to share in the work.

Wildwood’s Melissa Beseda and Isaac Ekholm tend to their outdoor garden.

But since the coronavirus pandemic, the couple brought in two cannabis harvests without outside help, sharing the propagating, tending and harvesting duties throughout the season. Beseda says that she and Ekholm work well together and their interests and abilities complement each other nicely, all to the benefit of the operation. “His vision for the farm and ability to foresee opportunities and threats to the business have given this bootstrapped farm a competitive advantage,” she says. “His ability to focus on the overall strategy of the growing season while managing the intricacies and demands of the day-to-day operations is what has made us successful. He’s what keeps us on the rails.”

Beseda serves as the nurturer and sometimes taskmaster, working hard to care for everyone on the farm (including the animals), “while at the same time whipping them all into shape and ensuring it all runs smoothly,” she says.

The furry and feathered members of the family have their own duties on the farm. A flock of chickens and turkeys keeps the perimeter of the growing area free of bugs and weeds, and the ornery tom turkey keeps a watchful eye behind the garden, serving as the designated security guard. The farm’s two cats, Peggy and Squeakers, are pest management masters, protecting the cannabis plants from attack by voles and gophers.

“Since we had them, we haven’t lost one plant to rodents,” Beseda says, adding that even the herd of eight goats plays an important role on the sustainable farm when they’re moved to the growing area after harvest time to help prepare the land for the next season. “Goats are great for soil regeneration. Their hoofs aerate the soil, their foraging keeps the weeds under control and their manure goes into our compost, which will enrich the soil for years to come.”

Goats are part of the Wildwood Flower Farm family and help with soil regeneration and maintenance.

Working together, the team of humans and animals keeps busy through the growing season, tending the plants and nurturing them to harvest. In 2021, the couple cultivated several strains of cannabis including Jungle Cake, Sunshine Queen, Magenta Hash Plant and a South African landrace sativa that’s also serving as parent stock for breeding experiments on the farm. After harvest, they trim and bag the best cannabis flower to be sold under the Wildwood Flower Farm label, with the rest of the crop going to wholesalers and manufacturers to be packaged as flower or processed into oil.

Ekholm and Beseda say they have embraced sustainable and regenerative farming values, using only OMRI-rated pesticides that are gentle on the environment. They’re also enthusiastic for integrated pest management practices including the use of beneficial insects and predatory mites and are careful to enrich their farmland with compost and other natural amendments.

“We invest in the long-term health of the soil and our environment,” Beseda says. “We try to close the loop as much as we can with our inputs: All of our plant waste is composted and will amend the soil for the next crop. Every year the soil seems to get better and better.”

Taken together, these sustainable practices give the cannabis plants at Wildwood Flower Farm a nurturing home to grow and ripen. The extreme northern latitude—only about 50 miles from the Canadian border—means the growing season is compacted compared to other cannabis growing regions, but the long days during the growing season provide ideal conditions to fuel vegetative growth.

Strains from left: Sunshine #4, Sunshine #4, Magenta Hash Plant

“While we tend to have a short season up here in North Central Washington, our long summer days are hot, dry, and clear—the perfect environment for growing cannabis outdoors and in greenhouses,” he says. Ekholm and Beseda say they use these methods in concert with light deprivation techniques to ensure long-flowering cultivars finish in time. It’s difficult and time-consuming work, but it’s all part of the farm’s mission to “grow and share high quality, sustainably-grown flower with a commitment to our community, our future employees and the environment,” Beseda says.

Although cannabis is the primary commercial driver for the operation, Wildwood Flower Farm also grows other crops including alfalfa, elderberries, peppers and a few stone fruits. While growing these plants is largely in the experimental phase and the results are generally used for the farm or in their on-site home, Beseda says that they’re exploring ways to tap into a distribution chain that will allow them to make their other crops profitable, too.

“We love growing most types of plants and raising most types of animals,” Beseda says. “Seeing how things all come together on a small farm like ours has been very rewarding and always interesting. There’s a constant desire to see what inputs we can provide on our own and to find varieties of plants that thrive in the environment we live in.”

That environment, it seems, is also perfect for nurturing the family that serves as stewards of the land. Looking back at the past year, Beseda says her pregnancy and her baby developed in concert with the crops on the farm.

Melissa Beseda pregnant in cannabis field
Melissa Beseda, expecting her first born, works on the cannabis farm every day.

“My first trimester lined up with the bulk of our planning and prepping for the season,” she says. “The baby’s rapid growth in the second trimester coincided with the plants’ most rapid growth during the height of the summer, and the return of my energy helped us power through the light deprivation part of our season. The plants began slowing down and ripening up, just as I began slowing down during the third trimester and the baby began ripening up.”

This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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Growing Soil for Cannabis, the Regenerative Way

Soil preparation for the garden begins in the fall at harvest time, and the process is completed in the spring. Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to run out and buy bags of different powdered nutrients, premixed fertilizers or a bottle off the shelf that has all of these nutrients in their proper proportion—and maybe even says organic on the label—but where is the fun in that?

Here at Swami Select, in California’s Emerald Triangle, we source materials as close to home as possible. We’re trying to save the planet by moving agriculture away from petrochemical ingredients and revitalizing the soil through natural inputs and regenerative practices.

Benefits of Cover Crop

Cover crop at the home of Swami Select, in Northern California’s Emerald Triangle.

The basis of fertile earth starts with planting a cover crop of legumes and grasses just before or right after harvest in October and November, or in the early spring. Cover crop seeds are available in different formulas of premixed bags, often called Organic Soil Builder or OSB. Alternatively, some nurseries let you combine your own selection of seeds. Sweet pea, vetch, fava beans, alfalfa and ryegrass are some of the most common “green manure” crops.

The advantages of planting a cover crop in the fall are many: The soil is protected from erosion during the winter rains; beneficial plants prevent unwelcome weeds, malevolent fungi, bacteria or other pathogens from growing. Best of all, the bacteria around the roots of the cover crop legumes gather nitrogen in a form that can be easily utilized by the cannabis plant after the cover crop is harvested in the springtime. This is called “nitrogen-fixing.”

The cut plant material is then used as mulch or green manure. Alternatively, the cover crop can be turned over so the roots of the plants are up. But, it is better to just cut down the above-ground part and let it lie where cut to form a mulch.

It’s also beneficial to leave the stalks and roots in the bed after harvest so as not to disturb the microbiology in the soil that has developed during the growth cycle. The stalks are then pulled out in the spring when the cover crop is harvested, but by now, the finer ends of the roots have been composted into the soil, adding organic material. In addition, fungal hyphae have developed about the root ball. Cannabis prefers a predominantly fungal environment in the soil—like the trees in the forest—rather than a bacterial environment such as the meadow grasses.

The Theory of No-Till Farming

In the practice of Regenerative Agriculture, there is either “no till,” or tilling is kept to an absolute minimum, only mixing in the amendments in the topmost layer. The theory of no-till farming rests on the fact that different microorganisms thrive at different depths in the soil.

Bacterial life is most abundant below one-and-a-half feet, and if it is turned over and brought to the surface, the bacteria will binge eat all the available nutrients near the surface. Once all of the nutrients are gone, they die from exposure. This actually depletes the soil. If every different microbial life form in living soil remains in its optimum depth environment, the soil food web is not disturbed and fertility increases.

Disposing of soil after each harvest is a bad idea. With the right regenerative practices, each year you can improve the soil and its fertility, substantially reducing the costs and benefiting the environment by doing so.

Testing the Soil

Swami testing the soil.

Early spring is the time to take a soil sample. There are basically two kinds of tests: a mineral/chemical test or a biological/microbial test. The first assays the amounts of NPK and other elements the plant needs to thrive, such as calcium, magnesium, boron, iron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, sulfur, chlorine, manganese and nickel.

The biological test surveys the microbial life, identifying beneficial and detrimental bacteria, fungi, nematodes, ciliates, flagellates, amoebas and more. This test is three to four times more expensive, but it should be done when starting a new garden site, or if there are fertility or pathogen problems. Healthy living soil is more resistant to pests or pathogens.

Contact a local testing lab and they will send you information and instructions for gathering a soil sample to mail in. It is relatively cheap and definitely worth the price—without any soil tests, you are literally operating in the dark. The test should be done annually in different parts of the garden, which will give a baseline and guidelines for how to increase fertility over time.

Reduce Costs, Preserve the Planet With Living Soil

Making wood chips for cannabis soil
Swami making his own wood chips for their garden’s living soil.

How we create living soil is by using compost, worm castings, wood chips, manure, straw and alfalfa mulch, rice hulls and coir as soil amendments or top dressings. This year, we are using homemade biochar in the mix to help reduce our water usage. During the growing season, we make compost teas to energize and augment microbial life, and we also grow companion plants or trap plants as part of integrative pest management.

Bags of compost, worm castings, manure and other items can all be purchased at a nursery or from a local farmer. There are many different kinds of manure, but you want to be sure the animals haven’t been treated with antibiotics or other medications. Compost bins and worm bins can be made at home, but for a large cannabis garden, you will probably need to purchase these items, unless you have a large farm and can produce your own animal manure and straw mulch.

Once you have the soil tests with their recommendations, you can choose what amendments to add. If you are hoping to jump-start the garden, then you can use certain mined mineral products such as gypsum, glacial rock dust, greensand, oyster shell, Azomite (which is crushed volcanic rock and contains many necessary trace elements) and insect frass. I prefer not to use bone meal, blood meal or feather meal, primarily because they attract bears, but also because I am a vegetarian and wonder about the treatment of the animals in the slaughterhouses.

I have also moved away from using bat guano, sea bird guano and perlite. Although they are all effective in the soil, each of these has environmental issues. When bat guano and sea bird guano are collected, it disturbs the hibernating or nesting areas of the animals, threatening their survival. Additionally, imagine the working conditions for those who do the collecting: shoveling bat shit or bird shit all day.

Perlite isn’t approved because when soil with perlite is disposed of (a common practice for indoor and greenhouse farms), the perlite gets in the water supply and then into the stomachs of fish and other wildlife.

After a year or two, if you are adding the right organic ingredients, you won’t have to resort to these granulated additives. If you want to go hard-core regenerative, you can skip the mined mineral additives altogether and rely on wood chips, manure and compost teas. It will just take a bit longer. Wood chips are best made from your own trees. Leaves are gathered in the fall so they have the winter rains to stimulate the microbial growth in the piles.

After the cover crop has been harvested in the spring, it is time to mix all the aforementioned gathered ingredients into a big pile. Once all the amendments are thoroughly mixed—either in a wheelbarrow, cement mixer or tractor with a bucket—each plant bed should get an equal portion of the pile.

Water it in, then top it all off with organic straw mulch. You can start with the routine of a compost tea soil drench every ten days or two weeks. When you repeat this process every year, you end up making a layered lasagna of organic ingredients. After three or four years, the beds will become truly fertile with a living soil food web. Your plants and the Earth will thank you.

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Embrace Sustainability, Regeneration, and Cannabis at 420PPM

There are plenty of 4/20 events going down this week and throughout the rest of April, but not many are addressing the cannabis industry holiday and ongoing the climate crisis like 420PPM.

On April 20, the 420PPM event will be held in Venice, California. PPM stands for parts per million, and during the month of April, the Earth’s atmospheric carbon concentration ppm will reach 420 for the first time ever. In 2021, atmospheric carbon peaked at 419 ppm, and 10 years ago, it was recorded at 395.06, according to event’s Instagram. Overall, the carbon dioxide concentration increases annually by about 2.5 ppm.

According to event organizer, Pete Deneen, 420PPM wants to bring attention and awareness of these facts. “The 420 numeral holds a high place in cannabis culture. Breaching the 420 ppm milestone creates this one-time convergence of climate and cannabis where we can activate a space for people to channel the positive energy of the cannabis community into climate action, particularly with regard to the increasingly overwhelming choices facing cannabis consumers.”

Described as a “420 panel-and-workshop-by-day and party-by-night,” there is much to experience. According to a press release, it is “an event centered around the convergence of the climate crisis and cannabis holiday seeks to channel the pro-environmental values of cannabis consumers into direct action, inviting party-goers to an inspiring afternoon-to-evening of conversation of climate solutions and intentional cannabis consumption.”

Courtesy of 420PPM

420PPM is inviting numerous speakers to attend, such as “climate scientists, regenerative cannabis farmers, intersectional environmentalists, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and futurists,” and will be hosted at the Hopper Compound, which is the former home of the late actor Dennis Hopper.

To kick things off, panelists will discuss the climate crisis, and how regenerative cannabis plays an important role in preserving our planet’s future. This includes Tina Gordon (founder of Moon Made Farms), Stephen Smith (found of Onda Wellness), Heather Dunbar (director of marketing and communications for Sun+Earth), Aura Vasquez (community organizer), Chelsea Sutula (founder of Sespe Creek Collective), Mary Carreon (drug + culture journalist), Daniel Stein (owner of Briceland Forest Farm), and Lynne Lyman (former director of California State Drug Policy Alliance).

After this, attendees are invited to join a Highlites yoga session and meditation (it’s BYOM—bring your own mat).

Beside the wealth of panelist knowledge and experience to learn from, the event will also show a preview screening of a documentary called Tending the Garden. Created by filmmakers La Osa (Claire Weissbluth) & Jesse Dodd, creator of Biovortex, the film explores the lives of three family cannabis farms—Green Source Gardens, Briceland Forest Farm, and Radicle Herbs—and the overall goal to promote a future that is both profitable, embraces regenerative farming, and puts a spotlight on the farmers of the community.

Further panel discussions will resume, with “a conversation on the future of cannabis and its climate impact.”

The “party-by-night” portion of the event begins after the conclusion of the panel discussion, with live performances by Leah Free and Oliwa.

Regenerative farming is an agricultural technique that uses specific plants to improve soil health. Cover crops, residue mulching, composting, and crop rotation are just a few ways that this is accomplished. This type of farming ultimately can help reduce climate change, but in relation to cannabis, is said to improve flavor and bud structure as well. 

Countless cannabis farms have embraced this approach to growing. Most recently, a limited-time Airbnb listing for a rentable residence on a cannabis farm hopes to help guests see and enjoy “regenerative recreation.” Airbnb is making a donation to the Regeneration International organization in partnership with the rental home.

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The Environmental Impact of Cannabis Cultivation

As conscious consumerism enters the cannabis world, purchasing decisions may be based more on fair trade and regenerative farming than on orange hairs and THC percentage. With legalization taking hold, the industry has shifted from trying to protect people from the police to trying to protect small businesses from the behemoths that are inevitably entering the cannabis space. But while a lot of support for small cannabis businesses comes out of a concern for the people involved, there’s another party to be considered: the planet.

Large-scale industrial agriculture has historically been no friend to the environment. But where does the environmental impact of cannabis production really lie? It’s not necessarily size that determines how sustainable a cannabis grow is. A small, indoor operation wastes an incredible amount of electricity, while large-scale outdoor regenerative farming is possible with foresight and planning.

Of course, the cannabis industry right now isn’t set up to reward sustainable practices. California, one of the agricultural centers of the world, has so far allowed cannabis to be cultivated outdoors in only 13 counties, and as of now the products found on the shelves in dispensaries are more likely to come from indoor producers.

When considering the environmental impacts of cannabis cultivation, it’s more relevant to examine the different methods used for cultivation and to remember that, unlike traditional agriculture, cannabis cultivation has another complicated dimension — one created by the remnants of reefer madness.

Elysian Fields, an off-grid homestead in Mendocino County, is run by Jennifer Gray and Simon Evers.

An Energy-Efficient Means of Production 

While greenhouse and indoor operations can take steps to reduce their carbon footprint like collecting and re-using water, soil and other natural resources, growing cannabis outside is the most energy efficient method of production.

The International Cannabis Farmers Association, a California-based organization formed to encourage policies supporting local farmers and sungrown cultivation, conducted a study of the various energy consumption levels for different types of production. Their data showed half an acre of indoor production (22,000 square feet) produces the same energy needs per year as 298 average households. Four season greenhouses account for 82 households’ worth of energy, while greenhouses that use the sun’s light for flowering emit the same as 15 houses. Hoop houses that take in mostly sunlight with some supplemental lighting are using the same as 0.5 houses annually, and of course, cannabis grown under the sun uses no additional lighting energy.

So, if the sungrown method is in line with the sustainability goal of decreased energy consumption, why is it allowed only in certain areas and why are the shelves dominated by indoor product? The answer to both questions stems from an artificial idea of “quality” that dominates the market, along with fears around cannabis being “too free.”

Under prohibition, pop culture and the media decided the characteristics that defined “quality” were primarily THC percentage and bud appearance. This would be like deciding the quality of a wine based on the alcohol percentage and color. This, along with the fears in the public overseeing cannabis growing out in the open, led to policies that support indoor cultivation in large, highly secure facilities.

However, growing cannabis on small farms in the sun — in harmony with the environment and without the use of chemicals — creates an objectively high-quality end product. This is because the full spectrum of the sun’s rays maximizes cannabinoid and terpenoid development and because healthy, nutrient-rich soil translates into cleaner cannabis.

Johnny Casali from Huckleberry Hill Farms in Humboldt County says growing with an extra attention to preserving the natural landscape has an impact on the plants that results in cannabis with a true terroir. Terroir, a French term often applied to wine, refers to the unique impact that environmental factors have on a plant phenotype.

“The ability to grow my cannabis in natural sunlight, on a property unique to any other, allows me to create strains that thrive in this area of Humboldt County,” Casali said. “The sun dictates my special creations by rising in the early mornings and setting just behind the madrone trees at 6 p.m.”

61 Alpenglow, a 80-acre farm in Southern Humboldt, grows cannabis outdoors alongside solar panels. The farm is in the “banana belt” of its region, meaning the property is warmer and more dry than the valley below it.

The Regulations for Growing Under the Sun

Sungrown production is currently allowed in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Growing outdoor herb provides for 1-2 crops per year, compared to the six harvests indoor operations can produce. However, under these states’ laws, cannabis cultivators are taxed based upon the final weight of the cannabis they’re selling, rather than based upon how many production cycles they have. For sungrown cannabis cultivators to compete in this marketplace, they’d need help from more production-based tax incentives.

However, there are a few methods that outdoor growers can incorporate to supplement the natural sunlight and squeeze more harvests in a year. Mixed light operations can range from hoop houses, where farmers pull tarps to create light deprivation, to four season greenhouses that use supplemental lighting to grow cannabis off-season. In addition to supplemental lighting, these facilities may require some seasonal ventilation, heating and cooling. And, like sungrown, this method is only allowed only in some states.

When considering the energy efficiency of different lighting systems, the two types of lights that should be considered are antiquated High-Pressure Sodium (HPS) lights and Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting. While LEDs are more energy efficient, this method is also more expensive. This means that HPS lights are more common, though LEDs are steadily gaining popularity.

Of course, some cannabis farmers don’t use electric lights at all — for their plants or for themselves — because their farmers believe in a lifestyle free of dependence on artificial energy. One such farmer is Simon Evers of Elysian Fields, a second-generation farm in Mendocino County.

“I choose to live off the grid, in the country,” Evers said. “I believe in homesteading and community a lot. And in that dynamic, [cultivating] sungrown [cannabis] just makes sense.”

Beyond growing under the sun, another way to improve a cannabis farm’s footprint is to adopt regenerative farming practices, which improve the quality of the land even as it is used for cultivation. These regenerative practices include the use of living soils, companion plants, beneficial insects, closed loop compost systems and water recycling.

HappyDay Farms is a small, diversified family farm located in the hills of Northern Mendocino County, California. The farm also grows produce and flowers for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and local farmers’ markets.

Cyril Guthridge, who runs Waterdog Herb Farm in Mendocino County, believes other natural elements beyond the sun influence the expression of his outdoor harvest.

“It’s about the benefits of the sun, the moon and the air,” Guthridge said.

Guthridge said that his use of companion plants improves the terpene expression of his cannabis, as does the stress of the natural environment.

The trend of cannabis farmers growing other crops on their farm is actually an impact of prohibition, as small craft cannabis farmers needed to create systems that would minimize their trips to town to decrease the likelihood of detection. This, along with a culture of land stewardship, has created a swath of earth-friendly, agri-creative cannabis gardens that are perfect examples of 21st-century farming. As Guthridge says, he’s a cannabis farmer “using nature to make nature better.”

Despite the benefits these farmers see from cultivating with regenerative practices, artisan operators are in danger because of many new cannabis regulations. Because of unique policy and licensing hurdles, cannabis farmers are not eligible for tax incentives based on energy conservation, unlike traditional crop farmers. In addition, there are also more environmental hurdles for sungrown farmers to getting licensed in a legalized environment, including more complicated water access permits and inspection processes.

Sungrown cannabis plants at Elysian Fields.

Shifting Perceptions & Blaming Prohibition

In order for sustainable cannabis practices to be feasible in a regulated market, two shifts in perception must occur.

The first perception that needs to change is that “quality” cannabis is defined by THC percentage and bright orange hairs. Instead, the cannabis consuming public must adapt to a new definition that includes the method by which the plant was farmed, the ethics of the companies that will benefit from that purchase and how that product has impacted the land.

The second perception that must be abolished is the opinion held by many local governments that cannabis grown outdoors is somehow a bigger safety and crime risk than cannabis grown indoors. We must start licensing sungrown cannabis, and encouraging new regulations that provide incentives to grow outdoors, as a part of the larger push for responsible environmental policy.

Ultimately, the only party to blame here is prohibition. Prohibition took a crop and forced it indoors under artificial light — and reefer madness is keeping it there. 

Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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