Tending the Garden

Directed by Claire Weissbluth, aka La Osa, and Jesse Dodd, Tending the Garden follows the lives of the people behind three regenerative farms—Briceland Forest Farm, Green Source Gardens, and Radicle Herbs—up close and personal. The film revolves around regenerative farming practices in cannabis, food, and beyond.

Regenerative farming goes beyond organic and sustainable gardening; even when a farmer uses organic products and nutrients, it isn’t necessarily good for the environment. Regenerative agriculture utilizes natural cycles with processes like remediation that work in tandem with the surrounding environment. This might include sequestering carbon for soil, using closed-loop systems, preserving beneficial native habitats, and other ways of farming that don’t drain natural resources.

The core goal behind the film is to dispel myths and show that regenerative farming is relatively easy to do; it doesn’t necessarily mean more expenses—making it a logical choice for both farmers and the environment.

“We filmed it in 2021 in the spring and then followed the farms over the course of the whole year,” Weissbluth says. “And then we’ve been editing it this year. But the idea for the project started when I began working with my co-director, Jesse [Dodd], in 2018, when he started the Regenerative Cannabis Farm Award at the Emerald Cup.”

Green Source Gardens won the Emerald Cup Regenerative Farm Award in 2016, Briceland Forest Farm won the award in 2017, and Radicle Herbs won in 2018. Other similar awards also make these farms shining examples of regenerative farming: Green Source Gardens, for instance, received the 2018 Regenerative Farming Award at the Cultivation Classic.

High Times Magazine, November 2022

Weissbluth and Dodd share the same ideals when it comes to documenting these unique farms.

“It’s been an honor to work with such a talented and professional filmmaker as Claire to bring these ideas in beautiful farms to the light of the big screen,” Dodd says.

Dodd is also the creator of Biovortex, a living conceptual art piece designed to stir conversations about the future of regenerative farming. The art piece is portrayed via photography, writing, social media, conversions, and in-depth presentations and provides information on gardening, soil building, and breeding.

Weissbluth started making short videos about regenerative cannabis farms and then focused Tending the Garden on three that she believed were positive examples of regenerative cannabis farming practices. She decided to follow each of them for a whole year.

“[Regenerative farming is] the concept of giving back to the earth,” she says. “And industrial agriculture really has only the industrial model, which only focuses on extracting resources from the Earth, which is really harming the planet. Industrial agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change. And, you know, tilling is releasing a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. And so regenerative farming is thinking about: How do you sequester the carbon back into the soil? How do you use practices that leave the Earth better than you found it every year?”

To truly understand a farm, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a farmer.

Claire Weissbluth at Sun Roots Farm / Courtesy Tending the Garden

Becoming One With the Farms

When working with cannabis farmers, they often end up becoming almost like family, Weissbluth explains, and that happens the longer you stay around them.

“The [people on the] farms are what I would consider good friends of ours at this point. They really, you know, let us stay at their house and cook amazing meals for us and like to hang out with their kids,” Weissbluth says. “I think that is a unique part of this film is that we really went. We were part of the whole thing. And even Radicle Herbs, which is in Covelo, they have sort of extreme temperatures. So yeah, we were waking up at 6 a.m., when there’s still frost on the ground, to go and film, you know, get close-ups of frozen plants and stuff. And then in the summer. It was around this time last year. I remember it was 108 degrees, which was really intense.”

Part of this process involved first-hand exposure to the daily labor that these farmers undergo every day.

“You get a window into what these guys do and how hard they work,” Weissbluth says.

Weissbluth was surprised at exactly how much work goes into farming, work that expanded beyond growing cannabis. Two farms featured in the film also participate in community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes growing farm-fresh vegetables.

“I got insight into how much labor it actually takes to harvest vegetables and make a CSA box and take it to town,” Weissbluth says. “Two of the farms are also at a farmers market—vegetable farmers—and they’re just working so hard all the time. And we wanted to tell that story, but also make it fun and entertaining. And yeah, just capture the beauty of farming this way.”

By following the growth of cannabis from popping seeds in the spring to the harvest—showing the plant in all of its glory—the film became a joyful celebration of a year-long process of creating healthy cannabis while also healing the Earth.

“It’s about caring for land beyond the farm,” Weissbluth says. “There’s a scene in the film with Daniel [Stein] from Briceland Forest Farm. He has experience as a local volunteer firefighter, and also he did some training with the indigenous people in our area, and they’re trying to do intentional prescribed fire and actually burning in a specific way at a specific time of year, but using fire as a tool, like indigenous people have always done for thousands of years.”

In one scene, viewers see Stein using his chainsaw, cutting tree limbs down, taking dead trees out of the forest and burning them. Weissbluth explained that while that might seem a little alarming—not something that would seem “regenerative” at first glance, it is part of the practice.

“We do want to talk about how the concept of regenerative farming is really just kind of a new word for ancient practices,” she says. “The people in the film, none of them are indigenous, but they are very, you know, tuned into these ways of living with the cycles, the seasons. And giving back was kind of always part of the way that people survived on this planet before we switched. Before colonization and before the industrial [era]. Like seeing the Earth and seeing everything as a resource that we can just take and take.”

Radicle Herbs / Courtesy Tending the Garden

Educational & Inspirational

Regenerative agriculture can be inexpensive if you know how to recycle materials and take advantage of abundant natural resources. In one scene, Stein of Briceland Forest Farm chops down huge cannabis stocks, grinds them up and makes them into a pile. Then the chips go back into the compost pile and become part of the fertilizer providing nutrition for next year. The farm also uses goat manure from their herd of goats. On each of the farms featured in the film raising animals and growing vegetables becomes a sort of interconnected activity.

“We’re just trying to sort of show that there are ways to do this without buying stuff from the store, even if it’s organic fertilizer or organic soil, that there are ways that you can really produce it yourself,” Weissbluth says. “And for lower costs, lower impact on the environment, not using as much plastic. And that it is possible. We’re trying to make it educational and also inspirational for people to use some of these tools themselves.”

Dodd hopes that, similarly to the wine industry, the film will help people start to care more about the art, the terroir, the places, and the practices that go into growing cannabis. Once people know that they want to connect with those things, he says, then cannabis becomes more valuable.

“The practices themselves are closed-loop systems where you’re actually utilizing the environment, the resources that you have around you to create more thriving, and fertile abundance in your soil and your farm as a whole,” he says. “So the more people learn from native wisdom, the more they learn permaculture practices, the lower their cost of production becomes, and the higher quality their flowers become.”

Utilizing the surrounding environment is practically the opposite of what large grow operations do.

“All of that cost reduction leads to a higher-quality product that, I believe, is just so much more valuable than something grown in a more industrial-type model,” Dodd says, noting there are benefits in the quality of regeneratively-grown cannabis and its effects. “The much more robust, biochemical development with the living soil grown outdoor flower is huge.”

Part of being profitable also involves fighting overbearing tax burdens. Over 300 cannabis farmers and allies gathered at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Jan. 18 ,2022, to rally and support their request to the Board of Supervisors asking them to Suspend Measure S, the county’s cannabis cultivation tax. Humboldt County Growers Alliance hired Weissbluth to document the rally in a separate project.

Weissbluth explains how it’s been disappointing to see how the regulations in the adult-use marketplace have not made it easy for the small farmers and the supply chain. She hopes the Jan. 18 rally in Humboldt County will create lasting change.

She also acknowledges steps to help farmers, such as California’s cultivation tax, which was eliminated in July, and local efforts.

“Those are, I think, steps in the right direction, but the supply chain is still a really big problem for the small farmers who are trying to get their freshly harvested cured product,” she says. “They want to get it to consumers, in the best form possible, the best quality, and because they have to send it to a distributor because they have to send it somewhere else, the quality degrades by the time it gets to people a lot of the time. We want to use the film to talk about that too.”

Briceland Forest Farm / Courtesy Tending the Garden

Female Representation

One thing that sets Weissbluth’s film apart from other cannabis films is that it supports the message of why the small farmers are important, but there is also a conscious representation of female cultivators and the roles they play.

“Liz [Mahmood] from Green Source Gardens, she’s an amazing artist,” Weissbluth says. “And she actually drew the triangle logo that we’re using. She created that and she does all kinds of art for their farm, Green Source. Blair [AuClair] from Radicle Herbs is just like an amazing cook. And just like multitasking all the time… they’re all moms, they’re all raising animals, they’re all like, managing a million things at once.”

For Weissbluth, the contributions of women in the cannabis industry haven’t always been highlighted. So to her, it was important to give them equal representation.

“In the trailer, actually, it’s even more female voices. We didn’t set out to do that intentionally. But somehow, yeah, it just happened. Having that perspective on caring for the Earth and creating medicine for people is important.”

For Weissbluth and Dodd, the problems they saw in the cannabis industry gave them the courage to tackle regenerative farming and spread the message.

“I do a lot of genetic work with cannabis and breed seeds for lots of different outcomes, whether it’s for good hash or certain terpene profiles or certain cannabinoid profiles, certain resistance or strength, all of that,” Dodd says. “And so I ended up going to a lot of events around the world and I just saw this like, the way marketing was happening, and all this crap that’s not really good for the plants or the Earth that people are being sold on. And I just kind of wanted to figure out a way to flip that and make environmentally thoughtful and community-minded mutualistic ideas cool.”

A 20-minute screening of the film was unveiled at the National Cannabis Festival in Washington, D.C., on April 23 [2022], with another screening at Ecology Center in Los Angeles in August [2022]. Private screenings are set to be announced soon.


This story was originally published in the November 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.

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Hawaii Royal Hemp: CBD Handcrafted in Paradise

Often referred to as The Big Island, the Island of Hawaii is renowned for its spectacular natural wonders and biodiversity. Active volcanoes have sculpted the dramatic terrain and created rich, fertile soil that’s perfect for growing hemp. On its organically certified farm, the team at Hawaii Royal Hemp handcraft full-spectrum CBD products from their own premium hemp. But that’s not all: They are also on a mission to create a bright future for Hawaii’s burgeoning hemp industry.

Hawaii Royal Hemp was founded by the husband-and-wife team of Clarence (Cab) Baber and Gail Byrne Baber. Pioneers in agriculture, the duo uses sustainable and regenerative practices, and they’ve been farming both hemp and food in Hawaii for over 40 years, working to preserve the island’s precious ecosystem.

Co-founders, Clarence Baber and Gail Byrne Baber, next to hemp and food field.

“Our foundation is our healthy living soil and regenerative farming practices that restore and rebuild the environment, creating pollinator habitat, conserving water and sequestering carbon,” Gail explains. “We strive to do good, and our motivations for growing hemp and making CBD are to raise the consciousness on the planet.”

Uniquely, Hawaii Royal Hemp is the only farm in Hawaii that crops hemp and food together. They do this for two important reasons. First, it creates diverse structures for microorganisms. A diverse, healthy soil microbiome is the key to healthy hemp plants and deeply nutritious food.  Secondly, over the course of his cultivation journey, Cab has learned which herbs, flowers and food crops complement hemp and enhance terpene profiles.

CBD Products Made With Passion

Thanks to an unbeatable combination of a passion for the plant and incredible growing experience, Hawaii Royal Hemp produces some of the highest quality CBD products on the market. The climate of the Aloha state allows for year-round growing, meaning three or four hemp harvests per annum. Subsequently, all Hawaii Royal Hemp products are made from only the freshest hemp flower.

“The unique terroir of many of Hawaii’s regions has been well known in the cannabis world for decades,” Gail said. “Hemp plants have their feet in the rich volcanic soils and exposure to some of the purest rainfall and cleanest air on the planet. Our CBD products embody the frequency of Hawaii.”

All Hawaii Royal Hemp products are handcrafted on their certified organic family farm in North Kohala, so you can be certain that these premium products benefit both you and the planet. Additionally, they are all backed by third-party lab analysis.

The company’s product offering includes an organic full-spectrum 500 mg CBD oil that contains no added artificial colors, sweeteners or flavorings; a salve that contains 550 mg of full-spectrum CBD, organic coconut oil and local beeswax; and a CBD honey that contains 250 mg of full-spectrum CBD oil.

Advocating for Local Industry

One of many archeological and cultural sites that the Babers were instrumental in helping preserve on the Kohala coast by raising $12M for coastal protection.

Cab and Gail are active hemp advocates and are on a mission to improve the lives of hemp farmers and future generations in Hawaii. For decades, they have worked to pass legislation that would allow hemp to be grown as a crop for fiber and food.

A former big wave surfer, Cab has been a champion of the plant since the 1970s. He launched the Hawaii Herb Association in the early 1980s and soon found an ally in Jack Herer. On a phone call, the two men discovered their mutual belief that hemp would soon be legalized. Cab would go on to distribute Herer’s “The Emperor Wears No Clothes” book throughout Hawaii. 

In 1990, Cab co-founded the Hawaii Organic Farmers Association to help Hawaii transition to organic farming practices. Two years later, he co-founded the Hawaii Hemp Council to advocate for a sustainable crop to replace sugar cane with the last two plantations closing on the island. As a testament to his pioneering work, Cab was the only farmer invited to the University of Hawaii’s hemp research project in 2015.  

Between 2013 and 2016, Cab worked closely with local farmers and industry representatives to legalize hemp products and establish Hawaii’s hemp pilot program. In 2018, Cab was granted the First Hawaii State and USDA hemp licenses in the state in 2020. Gail worked with farmers and local industry representatives to legalize hemp products during the 2019-2022 Hawaii Legislative sessions. 

“We jumped at the opportunity to secure Hawaii’s first license to grow hemp when the Hawaii hemp pilot program finally opened up,” Gail said.

As you might expect, Cab’s expertise is in hot demand. He regularly consults with farmers on how to optimize their hemp operations and transition to organic and regenerative farming. Gail currently serves on the Statewide Board of Directors for the Hawaii Hemp Farmers Association and the Hawaii Farmers Union United Foundation.

A Vision for the Future

Hemp polycropped with sorrel, herbs and bananas.

Hawaii’s hemp market is valued at up to $54 million and currently, the majority of that number comes from CBD that’s imported into the Aloha state. The Hawaii Royal Hemp founders believe that an established local CBD market would help to keep that money circulating in the local economy and help create more jobs. To that end, they have advocated for a Kona Coffee model to be adopted by hemp and CBD farms in Hawaii. 

“For decades, small family farms in Kona have been growing some of the highest quality coffees in the world, consistently securing top dollar for our local farms with their small batch artesian coffee,” Gail explained. “The growing environments in Kona are part of what makes coffee so unique and loved.” 

Cab and Gail believe that following this Kona model—with an emphasis on the unique terroir, high-quality, hand-crafted products—will allow bigger margins for local hemp farmers. Adding regenerative and organic farming to that model will add to Hawaii’s CBD products being in high demand in the global market.

“By owning or accessing at-cost processing infrastructure, Hawaiian farmers participate fully in the value chain,” Gail said. “This will optimize farmer margins, which will help to offset the cost of food production, moving Hawaii towards greater financial stability for Hawaii’s farming families and greater opportunities for young farmers.”

Interested in seeing the difference in Hawaii Royal Hemp premium products for yourself? Use promo code HAWAII to receive 20% off CBD products.

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Face of the Farmer: Sol Spirit Farm & Retreats

Trinity County sits at the top of the state of California. It’s one of three counties making up the Emerald Triangle, along with Mendocino and Humboldt. Trinity is the more rustic and rural of the counties, with a population of a little less than 13,000 with a sizeable number of craft cannabis farmers up in the hills. Walter Wood and Judi Nelson of Sol Spirit Farm consider themselves Trinity homesteaders. For more than two decades, they’ve been farming off the grid on the same spot on the south fork of the Trinity River, located in the northern part of the Emerald Triangle.

“Homesteading off the grid means doing everything yourself,” Walter says. “It means when the power goes out or the water stops flowing—we deal with it. We aren’t connected to the city water, like some of the larger growers. We make everything happen ourselves by our own hands. That’s really the crux of being a craft cannabis farmer: how hands-on you are in every step of the process.”

Their home is a product of their local environment. The straw bales that comprise the main house were sourced from 120 miles away, the earthen floor was made from the ground beneath and the trees were felled from the property. Homesteading, he said, also means living a righteous and sustainable life, keeping the footprint as small as possible, being mindful of the earth as a precious commodity to be cared for. 

He says his personal inspiration for working on the land began when he was very young, growing up in Los Angeles.

“My grandparents gardened one acre in Los Angeles,” he says. “My grandfather was a horticulturist and an etymology hobbyist, with a large bug collection under glass. When they were getting older, I cared for their fruit trees, which included avocados and oranges. It gave me a strong connection to the earth.”

Farming for Health

Walter’s foray into cannabis began in 1992, when he was 20 years old and working for Los Angeles Water & Power. Diagnosed with a permanent back injury, he was initially prescribed, what he refers to as, “heavy duty painkillers.” That’s when he discovered cannabis to be a better choice.

“Just by smoking cannabis it greatly reduced the spasms and pain much better than the pills,” he says. “Without the plant, the pain becomes unmanageable. I never found pharmaceuticals could help me nearly as much as the natural, healthy product I can grow myself.”

His cannabis prescription has been updated for more than two decades under California’s Medical Cannabis program that began in 1996, making the Golden State the first to legalize cannabis for medicine in the country.

The Grateful Dead, Weed & Romance

Co-founders Judi Nelson and Walter Wood. PHOTO Rowan Nelson-Wood

In 1995, shortly after Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead passed, Judi and Walter met at his memorial in LA. After the event Judi wanted to attend a Rainbow gathering down in Mexico and someone asked Walter if he could work on a bus for the group of nine to travel there together.

“We never found the gathering,” Walter says, laughing, “but we had a great time together and smoked a kilo of bud in no time, as we trekked down to Michoacan and back. The entire trip took three and a half months—long enough to get to know each other on a bus in close quarters.”

During the trip, Judi and Walter became a couple and eventually ended up in Baton Rouge where Judi was working as a temporary traveling physical therapist. They immediately noticed a serious lack of cannabis in Louisiana, with Walter educating himself by reading Ed Rosenthal’s 1990 version of the Marijuana Grower’s Handbook.

“There were no grow shops or specific equipment for growing available at that time, so I went to the hardware store and bought two porch lights, one 250 watts, the other 150 watts, then made a homemade hood and I immediately became addicted to growing cannabis.”

After a stint in Arkansas looking for land and another relocation with Judi’s work, they were pulled over with guns drawn and arrested for a dirty pipe, clean glass pipes and glass blowing paraphernalia Walter had been working with—misdemeanors, all. With no scent of cannabis in their 1972 Westfalia hippie van and only the scent of incense burned, with Walter’s dreadlocks down to his waist, the two felt they were definitely profiled in the ultra-conservative state. 

Walter pleaded guilty so Judi wouldn’t lose her physical therapist license. In court, the newly graduated officer admitted that he learned incense is used to cover up the smell of cannabis, and he had no evidence as cause for pulling them over in the first place. Consequently, the couple was released with $2,500 in bail and no time served, but Walter did lose his driver’s license for six years.

The experience scared them off the road and helped them make the decision to relocate to the more progressive state of California. They landed initially in Humboldt County in the City of Arcata—otherwise known as ’60s by the Sea—and began growing in a residential neighborhood in an attic space of a 500-square-foot house.

But growing indoors wasn’t sustainable, and soon the Woods would be called into the woods.

Life on the Farm

They hadn’t even looked at the farm they now call home due to rumors of meth use from its tenants and a lack of water on the property.

“We’d been looking for a couple of years and this place had been for sale the entire time,” Walter said. “Without a source of water, we didn’t feel it’d work for us, but after a 200-to-300-foot hike up the hill, we found the end of a pipe, we were hopeful. It wasn’t at a spring, but then we found a hand-dug trench in two or three inches of water. Hand digging trenches on the side of a mountain just isn’t done any more.” 

This find told them that back in the 1930s, when it was common to hand dig to a spring, water was there, with the pipes long abandoned. After they purchased the property they received a deed to water rights to the stream that had been dug out long ago.

“Water’s everything,” he said. “We also practice rain water catchment, but we’d have never bought this place without access to a spring.”

Sol Spirit is an organic, sustainable and regenerative farm producing award-winning, sungrown craft cannabis.

“Our intent has always been to source as much of our calories from the farm, living off the land as much as we can,” he says. “Practicing regenerative farming techniques makes all the difference to the quality of flower we produce—and the food we grow for ourselves and our guests.”

According to greenamerica.org, regenerative agricultural practices include using cover crops, reducing tiling, rotating crops, spreading compost and moving away from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and factory farming.”

“We also practice what’s called Intensive Rotational Grazing, with our chickens and pigs, conditioning the soil as they graze,” Walter says.

Sol Spirit craft cannabis
Smelling the flower. PHOTO Walter Wood

The farm has won many awards, including from The Emerald Cup, The Grow Off and WeedCon. Important to note, The Emerald Cup has never been awarded to a cannabis farmer for a high THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), but rather for the overall profile of the plant—meaning the complex bouquet, derived from the sun and the rich, loamy soil to the North.

“Earth Conscious Cannabis” is the farm’s slogan, with Walter saying that most of the regulations under the legal market seem out of step with the farming of, and the harmless nature of the plant.

Growing in native soil, Walter says, allows the plant to fully express the terroir that’s made the region famous and the flowers fragrant. Cultivars such as Sol Cookies, Sol Shine, Mother’s Milk and the classic Sour Diesel don’t disappoint.

“Our hope is that the small, craft sungrown farmers’ products are realized for their quality sooner than later, so that we can survive corporatization and commodification of this sacred plant,” he continued. “We can’t compete with big agriculture on prices, and they can’t compete with us on handcrafted quality—that’s a fact.”

In keeping with its environmentally conscious mission, Sol Spirit Farm’s products are all hand packaged using recycled glass containers, with ocean recycled plastic lids and compostable labels, with them winning First Place for the 2022 Emerald Cup for Eco-conscience Packaging.

Glamping to Sustain

Sol Spirit Retreats’ glamping tents. PHOTO Sharon Letts

Subsidizing the family cannabis farm looks a little different than the average American farmer’s subsidy from the federal government. With no Farm Aid for cannabis farmers, many are getting creative in the way they use their space and the farm.

In an effort to open up to the community at large, while providing a much-needed additional income, the couple started another branch of the business: Sol Spirit Retreats. Judi turned a flat meadow into glamping grounds, offering up overnight stays in well-outfitted bell tents, with real beds and linens. As a plus, each tent has its own private bath nearby with hot running water and fluffy towels.

“All our meals are farm to table,” Judi says. “We use organic eggs, produce and livestock from the farm, and locally sourced goods from other farmers in the area.”

Zucchini noodles, marinara sauce, pesto and salads all come from the garden. Nearby are the iconic Willow Creek peach farmers; Jacque and Amy Neukom’s dry-farmed peaches along the Trinity River are used in cobbler.

“Our favorite is cannabis-infused peach ice cream,” Judi says. “I use our Blueberry Muffin flower (Humboldt Seed Co’s genetics) for the infusion. We don’t grow carrots on the farm, because up the road Willow Creek Farms grows the best carrots you’ll ever taste.”

Preparing fresh food from the land. PHOTO Sharon Letts

Breakfast might include locally sourced fruits, bacon from their own sustainably raised (and loved) pigs, and eggs from their own free-range, organically fed chickens. Stays include guided tours of the farm by Walter, a master cultivator, with guests enjoying seeing how the farm clones, plants, grows, harvests and manicures their flowers for market. 

Guests can also take advantage of river rafting on the nearby Trinity River, or attending a Zumba, Yoga, or Pilates class for an additional fee. Judi has more than 25 years’ experience as a physical therapist and is an expert practitioner of myofascial release techniques, plus a Pilates and Zumba instructor, offering classes at Trinity Herbals & Wellness Center.

Last July, Sol Spirits Retreats organized the Emerald Triangle Revealed Tour, which is a three-county, five-day retreat including stays in Southern Humboldt, on the coast of Mendocino. They worked with vintners and other farmers to organize 420-friendly stays, bringing people up to see the Emerald Triangle and experience the lifestyle that’s been hidden for decades due to the failed War on Drugs.

”The plant is sacred medicine, and it’s a huge part of our lives,” Walter says. “Our mission is to take cannabis out of the closet and grow some of the best medicine in a regenerative way, as part of a dynamic, multifaceted, small family farm. In opening up the farm to overnight stays, we hope that our guests will come away excited and inspired to join a regenerative future—or at least finally understand what our lives are all about up here.”

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Cannabis Consciousness

The co-founders of the cannabis brand Swami Select, Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya, have spent many years on a spiritual path that includes residing in India, frequently visiting temples, and conversing with holy men. When their journey brought them back to California, they created a sanctuary with a unique, spiritual approach to growing cannabis. With Swami Select, they pride themselves in embracing regenerative farming and praise cannabis as a way to heighten the senses and connect with others, as well as the world around them. Lastreto and Chaitanya took time to chat with High Times about the events that led to the origin of their brand, their unique approach to cannabis cultivation, and how the herb brings people together.

Swami Select’s Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya / Photo by Chris Vicari

The Many Lifetimes Of Nikki And Swami

Lastreto and Chaitanya are world travelers whose spiritual experiences have shaped their cannabis venture. Lastreto describes herself as a flower child who grew up in San Francisco. She first met Chaitanya, a “27-year-old hippie artist,” when she was 14. They connected again later at a party in San Francisco and married in 1985. Lastreto worked for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years in the 1980s and Chaitanya was an artist and photographer. Together they traveled to various countries, including China and Thailand, and for a time, they lived in South India in a house overlooking the Arabian Sea.

Eventually, Lastreto, and Chaitanya would divorce. Citing a desire to embark on a new purpose and path, Lastreto moved back to the United States and embraced her love for hosting parties and creating giant altars that featured statues from different religious traditions. At the time, she worked with Tim Blake, founder of the Emerald Cup, to develop and coordinate various events. During this time, Lastreto explains, “Swami became Swami,” while he remained in India and took a religious initiation at the Kumbh Mela, a major pilgrimage and festival in Hinduism, in 1998. Chaitanya lived in the Himalayas for a few years and continued to travel around the region to visit temples. During this time, he and Lastreto remained good friends and Lastreto would travel back to India to meet with him and visit one of their spiritual teachers. When Lastreto expressed a desire to build a temple to the Hindu goddess Sri Mookambika in the U.S., their spiritual teacher suggested Chaitanya should help, leading them on a journey to Mendocino County.

Honoring The Land

The idea behind Swami Select’s location came from a vision Chaitanya had at a Rainbow Gathering in the 1970s.

“I had a vision of a beautiful piece of property with a mountain in the distance and some trees in the middle and an open field and some trees behind me, and the message that I would spend the end of my life there,” he said.

Thirty years later, he and Lastreto purchased a property in Mendocino County that resembled Chaitanya’s vision. When they bought the land, they decided to get married again—this time, intending to save money in taxes. In 2017, with the arrival of the 50th anniversary of 1967’s Summer of Love in San Francisco, Lastreto and Chaitanya married for a third time in a more private, spiritual celebration on their land.

Photo by Steve Zmak

Sacred Space

In the beginning, the homestead had no electricity or running water—it was just an old two-room cabin. It has taken many years to develop the property into the thriving, spiritual landscape that it is today. In addition to cannabis, the farm features a thoughtful layout and many religious statues. For example, upon entering their property, there’s a sizable 1,500-pound stone statue of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god, to greet visitors.

Even before Lastreto and Chaitanya chose to grow cannabis, they wanted to ensure that they treated the property with respect.

“We’ve tried to [develop] in a really conscious way that, you know, honors the land because we really see ourselves as the stewards of this amazing piece of land,” Lastreto said. “We don’t own it, just like the natives didn’t own it, but it’s our duty in this lifetime to take care of it.”

This mindset has led to embracing regenerative agriculture on their farm to maintain harmony with nature. Regenerative agriculture describes farming practices that reduce the effects of climate change by using techniques that revitalize the soil and the environment. Swami Select believes the regenerative approach to cannabis cultivation produces some of the best quality flower.

“Folks, if you want to smoke something that is going to feed your body, feed your mind, feed your spirit, [regeneratively grown cannabis] is where you want to go,” Lastreto said. “I know that sounds like a marketing kind of ploy, but it’s true. It’s coming from my heart.”

Photo by Steve Zmak

Growing With Spiritual Intention

With Swami Select, Lastreto takes care of the business side of things, while Chaitanya focuses on growing and farming. Together, they frequently visit dispensaries in the San Francisco Bay Area that carry their product to train budtenders and meet customers face-to-face.

Their approach to how their cannabis is grown is unique. The garden at Swami Select is designed in the shape of a sacred geometry pattern called Sri Yantra. The idea is that having the garden created in this shape supercharges the cannabis plants that grow within it. The grow also incorporates other rituals.

“When we decide what seeds we’re gonna grow each year, we have a statue of the goddess Ganja Ma, who’s the goddess of cannabis, who was revealed to us from our spiritual teachers,” Chaitanya said. “In her lap, we put these seeds, and then we say a special mantra for the seed.”

Beyond conjuring the goodwill of Ganja Ma, Chaitanya also adds a few drops of water from India’s sacred Ganges River to each seedling.

“The seeds sit in front of the goddess of cannabis for about a month before we plant them,” Chaitanya said. “That charges them up in a very special way. After they’ve cracked and start to sprout, we put them in a little plant container with some soil and then we put another drop of the sacred Ganges water on them. All of this is to create a spiritual basis for the healing and inspiration that the cannabis plant provides for the people who use it, or celebrate its use.”

They have a few statues of Ganja Ma on the property. One in the house (where the seeds sit), another that is placed outdoors during the growing season, and an additional statue that they take with them when visiting various dispensaries for in-store demonstrations.

“We always set her up and explain to people who she is. So you know, this is really infusing the cannabis with this consciousness,” Lastreto said.

Swami Select believes cannabis can help consumers tap into their spirituality.

“[With cannabis], it’s not just your heart that’s open, it’s your mind that’s open,” Chaitanya said. “One of the things that cannabis does is it takes away a lot of your filters, which block out so much of sensory input… All of your different sense organs are heightened and more refined. So that’s why when you smoke cannabis, your food tastes better, you listen to music better, and your creative talents are more liberated and free.

“Cannabis takes away so much of the restriction and limitation and blinders that society puts upon you. When you open up to that, then all of a sudden, you get not just the five senses, but your sixth sense starts to get opened up and your intuition and those sensory feelings about what the magic in the world is and how you relate to it and how energy flows.”

Photo by Chris Vicari

The Sense Of Community

While Lastreto and Chaitanya have been developing their homestead, they’ve also spent years founding local organizations such as the Mendocino Cannabis Industry Association and connecting with other growers in the industry. Chaitanya is a founder and board member of the Origins Council, a statewide organization for cannabis cultivators that aims to preserve historic cannabis regions in California. Lastreto is working on bringing back cannabis farmer’s markets to the area. Together they contribute to the tight-knit community working to preserve the growing history and dedication to craft cannabis in the Emerald Triangle, the cannabis growing hotspot of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties.

“This is such a passion for all of us and a lifestyle,” Lastreto said. “We know we’re really helping other people by doing this. And it’s just created, like I keep saying, this amazing community.”

Lastreto and Chaitanya have been judges at the Emerald Cup for 18 years (you might have seen them at the recent Emerald Cup awards in Hollywood, California on May 14). Their work with the Emerald Cup has also been the source of a community-driven passion for cannabis.

“When we come together at the Emerald Cup, there’s this great celebration and respect for everyone’s differences,” Chaitanya said. “That’s one of the great things about cannabis. You appreciate and honor the differences between people because we also honor the differences between the different cultivars of cannabis and the different ways of smoking and the different ways you can use it for tinctures and salves. And it’s all about this diversity. And there’s no one way to do it. No one way, no one group.”

Marijuana is an incredibly diverse plant that can assist people in many ways. Swami Select believes cannabis can be a powerful tool for cultivating wellness.


This article appears in the June 2022 issue of High Times. Subscribe here.

The post Cannabis Consciousness appeared first on High Times.

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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