CULTURE
Why Regenerative Farming Is the Future of Ethical, Eco-Friendly Cannabis Growing
Regenerative agriculture reaches beyond the usual understanding of “organic" or "sustainable"; it has the power to save the planet, and the cannabis farming community is embracing the practice head-on.
Published on February 6, 2020

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Over the weekend of February 1st, rather than spend Nikki’s birthday with her, she sent me off to the third annual Regenerative Agriculture Conference. It was held just up the road in Humboldt County, in the redwoods near the entrance to Richardson Grove State Park. Now, I have been to a cannabis conference or two, but this one was different. I mean, really different. For one thing, as might be expected, it was nearly all farmers. There were so many familiar faces and gentle hugs that it was truly a homecoming, a reconnecting with members of the community.

People came from far and wide: Canada; Alaska; New Jersey; Maine; Massachusetts; Illinois; Washington State, and Washington, DC; Florida; Oregon; Nevada; Southern California; and Arizona. Wait! Isn’t that most of the legal recreational states? The word about regenerative agriculture is getting out.

Set and setting are so important, so when the invitation stated openly that this would be a cannabis consumption event, I knew this one would be special. I’ve lost track of how many times I have been told by security personnel that smoking is not allowed at a cannabis conference, and each time, they threatened to throw me out. But this one was put on by cannabis lovers for cannabis farmers — plus, it was literally in the heart of the Emerald Triangle — so attendees were encouraged to bring product and seeds to share. Thus, joints and bongs abounded while people gleefully showed off their best flowers and exchanged tiny packets of seeds.  

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Accommodations were somewhat rustic, but the large meeting hall was bright and warm. We enjoyed sunny days in the open grassy areas in the midst of a live oak grove, not far from the Eel River, and just across Highway 101 from Kevin Jodrey’s One Log Cannabis Dispensary.

I arrived on Thursday afternoon, right when Josh Sarvis and Kelly Dunn, co-producers of the event and founders of DEM Pure Certification piled out of their car fresh in from Eugene, Oregon. We were there a day early to meet with other members of the DEM Pure collective to explore better ways to organize and further the goals of the organization.

I got to know Josh first, a few years ago when we served on a panel at The Emerald Cup on cultivation techniques. It was the next year that they inaugurated the Regenerative Agriculture Award at the Cup, and I finally met Kelly. They are a power couple who share a devotion to bringing the message of living soil, regenerative agriculture, and closed-loop practices to both the cannabis community and the agricultural world at large.

The concept of closed loop is a tool to evaluate and rectify a farmer’s impact on the environment, as well as a methodology. The challenge is to source the materials for your crops from your own land or from the nearest environs, not from off the shelf at your local nursery. Closed loops are things like growing your own vegetables, composting them, and using the compost for the garden. Similarly, composting cannabis waste, shredding the stems and stalks, and then putting this on the garden, forms a closed loop. 

Using worm bins, raked leaves and wood chips, animal manure from one’s chickens, homegrown kitchen and medicinal herbs, Hugelkultur beds, apiaries, swales, companion planting, cover cropping, green manure, moon-cycle planting, biochar, indigenous microorganisms, crop rotation, and chicken or wild turkey “tractors” are all examples of closed loops. Other closed loop practices include harvesting firewood from fallen trees on one’s land and using the ashes and charcoal as soil amendments, which cleans up the forest of downed trees and helps prevent forest fires. Other trees are allowed to decay and rot and eventually turn into soil themselves. 

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Another key concept for regenerative agriculture is understanding microbiology to establish a dynamic balance among the microbial life in the soil. In this way, regenerative agriculture reaches beyond the usual understanding of “organic.”

Based on the work of microbiologist Elaine Ingham and others, we are beginning to understand the difference between soil and dirt. Soil is alive with microorganisms, and it is these bacteria, fungi, amoebas, flagellates, nematodes, arthropods, etc. which actually transform the nutrients in the soil to make them available for plant roots to absorb. The idea is to feed these beneficial organisms, which in turn feed the plant, while at the same time the beneficials prevent malevolent, harmful organisms from proliferating.

It is precisely these beneficial life forms that are destroyed by conventional liquid and powder fertilizers, which are often derived from petroleum and come in the form of salts. Continued use of these synthetic fertilizer salts leave behind residues after evaporation which eventually make the soil infertile, throwing off nature’s balance by killing all the abundant life in the formerly living soil. This is a worldwide crisis for agriculture, as more and more formerly productive agricultural land is rendered useless by petrochemical agriculture and life-destroying pesticides — or is taken over for housing and industry.

Regenerative agriculture aims to reverse this trend by returning living organisms to the soil through the use of fungi, bacteria, and nutrient-rich compost and compost teas. Worm bins, compost piles, green manure and mulching, mushroom planting, companion planting, cover cropping, leaves, and wood chips can all be sourced from one’s own farm, reducing the overall carbon footprint.

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The Regenerative Agriculture Conference got under way on Saturday with a long, intense day of instruction. Leighton Morrison, one of the event organizers, spoke at length about the soil food web. He went into detail outlining the differences between the living soil approach and the Korean natural farming (KNF) methodology. 

It seems there are some differences of opinion regarding these two schools of thought. Leighton asserted that there are so many similarities that the only real difference between the two is that KNF makes nutrients, and the living soil approach does not. Both use compost, mulching, cover cropping, etc., but KNF uses indigenous microorganisms (IMOs), cultured from local mycelium, to inoculate garden beds and brews of fermented juices from local plants — particularly from weeds — to make foliar sprays. 

Weeds are crucial because these plants evolved to thrive specifically in their environments. They have established defense mechanisms against pests and predators. The theory is that brewing fermented plant juices from the blossoms and top leaves of the weeds will protect one’s non-weedy crops from the same threats.  

We also heard from Chip Osborne of Osbourne Organics talk about soil chemistry. His lecture went beyond the usual NPK methods to discuss all the mineral nutrients a plant requires and how to source them organically. His company consults for golf courses, soccer fields, football fields, and city parks. All these entities spend thousands of dollars every year on fertilizers and pesticides, and he shows them how to switch from petrochemicals to natural products with huge savings. 

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After lunch, I attended a workshop hosted by Chris Trump of Natural Farming Company on how to cultivate IMOs. IMO-1 is made by boiling rice and letting it dry, then putting it in a small wooden box with holes in its sides and bottom, then covering this with a paper towel and a screen. After scraping away the upper layer of the floor in a nearby forest to find some white, lacy mycelium underneath, the box is put under a tree in contact with the fungal layer. After ten days to two weeks, weather permitting, the rice will have a layer of misty, white, fluffy fungal growth throughout. This myco-rice is then put in a container and an equal amount of raw sugar is added. The reaction is instant as the fungi gorge on the sugar, and it turns brown, and the spores go dormant. 

This dormant preparation, called IMO-2, can be stored on a shelf for over a year and used as needed to add to compost teas. It only takes a few tablespoons to inoculate the brew with the local fungal spores. Chris also demonstrated how to make IMO-3, using on-site gathered wood chips and leaves. He then showed us how to make IMO-4 by adding native soil to IMO-3. The point of this is to inoculate one’s soil with the fungal life that currently thrives on one’s land, which makes the cannabis plants adapt to and harmonize with one’s indigenous environment. Since cannabis prefers fungal-dominant soil to bacterial-dominant soil, the plants thrive with minimal inputs from outside the farm.

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On Saturday, Suzanne Wainwright-Evans, the Bug Lady, gave a detailed, colorfully illustrated lecture on integrated pest management, a topic of particular concern to cannabis cultivators. She showed amazing videos of aphids and other pests emerging from their cocoons, and predator insects chowing down on cannabis pests. It is a brutal bug-eat-bug world out there...

The first step of integrated pest management is “Scouting.” Constant, vigilant inspection of the crop will catch infestations in their early stage, when saving the crop is still possible. The second step is correctly identifying the pest. Third is determining and obtaining the proper predator insect to attack the pest or determining which treatment to spray on. California regulators do not allow any pesticides to be used on cannabis, but there are some OMRI certified soaps and natural oils which are state-approved. 

Suzanne discussed the efficacy of various alternative treatments for a myriad of pest problems, recommending some and dismissing others. Her primary point was that farmers should take preventative action early so they don’t have to resort to sprays later on. To this end, constant vigilance through scouting is the best method of pest management. If you have to spray, it is already too late!

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By Saturday afternoon, it was like the home team came up to bat. Although Kelly and Josh of DEM Pure have a farm up in British Columbia and originally hail from Eugene, Oregon, they are so connected with Northern California’s farmers that they are true homies. Josh and Kelly are truly amazing for their commitment to the movement. They showed many photos of their amazingly beautiful farm in BC, with a detailed sequence illustrating the installation of a new Hugelkultur bed. They showed that one can transform even infertile soil into a fecund raised bed producing abundant crops within one year, without bringing in truckloads of new soil or adding expensive store-bought amendments.

They were both very inspirational in their talk by pointing out how regenerative agriculture has the power to save the planet. It starts right here with the cannabis farming community and will spread throughout the whole world.

That evening, the one and only Frenchy Cannoli graced us with a lecture about making hashish.  Aside from specifics, Frenchy extolled the quality of cannabis flowers from The Emerald Triangle. Having visited most of the cannabis-producing regions of the globe, he said when he first got to California, he was totally blown away by the unique terpene profiles he had never previously experienced. Making the best hash requires the best flower as the source, and the best flower, in his opinion, comes from The Emerald Triangle. Frenchy declared that the Triangle’s reputation is worldwide and would be the basis of an appellation of origin for cannabis. But he warned that we need to join together to protect this legacy, or it could be lost. (We’ll dive deeper into the future of cannabis appellations in an upcoming column, so stay tuned.)

And finally, on Sunday, Kevin Jodrey of One Log Cannabis Dispensary laid down some wisdom for all of us to practice. Kev concurred with Frenchy, as he recounted his travels to many places (especially Colombia) to consult and advise cannabis cultivators — and, of course, to smoke their product — but maintained that The Emerald Triangle still produces the world’s best flower. His positive message is that despite the many difficulties thrust upon us during the changeover to a legal market, our plants themselves are not suffering. And the farmers, too, are not suffering — at least in comparison to people who are truly impoverished, living in destitute conditions with no income. Sometimes it’s important to take a break from complaining, celebrate what we have, and get back to work. Kevin is a great coach.

Above all, we need to unite. We need to bring everyone together in the cannabis world and overcome the petty differences between living soil and KNF; among sungrown, mixed light, and indoor cultivation methods; between the small businesses and the big players. Presenting a unified front will give us the clout we need. Sticking together will enable us to create a community of cannabis lovers and cannabis businesses that don’t just survive — and “survival” is undoubtedly the watchword of the moment — but actually thrive

For an impromptu closing ceremony, I spoke about the spiritual essence of the cannabis, from which its healing and inspiring powers emanate. Hold true to that and unite behind it, and the rest will follow. We then chanted three AUMs in unison. The final part of the program included several breeders’s panels to discuss genetics before the great seed exchange got underway.

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For me, in the middle of the hard work of completing a successful harvest, coming into compliance, and getting the product into stores, this was a very welcome infusion of energy and love from the cannabis community that is dedicated not just to our favorite flower, but to the regeneration of the soil on the planet, as well.

What impressed me most and filled my heart with hope was the high number of young men and women, between the ages of 20 and 40, who were listening intently and taking notes during long, two-hour classes (ones full of highly detailed and technical information). It was a brain stretch. I feel like we were all inoculated with the spirit of regeneration, and we’ll take this inspiration back to our friends, communities, and gardens.

For more on Swami Select, visit their website here and follow them on Instagram

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Known as "The Cannabis Couple," Nikki Lastreto and Swami Chaitanya have been proudly promoting cannabis use for decades. As cannabis cultivators in Mendocino County, the heart of the legendary "Emerald Triangle" region, Nikki and Swami are behind the brand Swami Select, producing taste and pure flowers grown in full sun with organic methods, plus that extra little Swami touch.
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