Why Regenerative Farming is the Future of Cannabis Cultivation

The sweet scent of Pineapple Punch — Elysian Fields’ signature strain — fills your nostrils the moment you set foot on the 50-acre off-grid cannabis farm in Mendocino County. It makes you want to take really deep breaths. The three farmers who run the place are all under 40 and at least one of them grew up in these hills learning to cultivate cannabis outdoors.

As licensed growers working with Flow Kana, a syndicate of craft cannabis cultivators, Elysian’s farmers produce about 500 pounds of commercial cannabis each year alongside cut flowers and vegetables like peppers, tomatoes, and squash. Regenerative farming techniques are in use here: Cover crops protect the soil and companion planting enriches it; non-toxic pest management techniques safeguard the wellbeing of pollinators and wildlife; the abundance of open space ensures that farming has low impact on the land; and working animals like sheep and chickens control weeds, fertilize, and aerate the soil. A giant German shepherd/wolf mix helps keep the farm running smoothly, too. 

Elysian Fields and its neighboring farms have history here. In the 1970s, those following the back-to-the-land impulses of the hippie movement came to Mendocino’s hills to homestead. They found cannabis a natural cash crop because the region is well suited to growing outdoors and was, for a time, remote enough to dodge law enforcement. 

Because of its elevation and hilly terrain, agricultural mega-corporations (“Big Ag”) never made it to the region. But cannabis thrives; today, an estimated 80 percent of the cannabis consumed in the U.S., as well as a staggering amount of biodiversity within the plant’s genetics, comes from Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties — a.k.a. the Emerald Triangle. Well before adult use took effect in California, it was one of the hubs of the cannabis industry. But while the estimated 53,000 small pot farms in the region may have good product, they often lack the means to efficiently test, process, package, and label that product. They also lack a statewide distribution system. 

That’s where Flow Kana comes in. Founded by a husband and wife team, Michael “Mikey” Steinmetz and Flavia Cassani, Flow Kana is a relatively new venture that’s partnering with small, licensed farmers all over the region by offering them a pipeline to market. At a recent Flow Kana event called Cannabis as a Catalyst for Change, situated on the sprawling campus of the former Fetzer winery estate in Redwood Valley, Steinmetz pointed out that small farmers alone don’t have much of a chance in the new market. But he and his team are seeking to prove that cannabis doesn’t have to go the way of Big Ag, and that decentralized models can work. “Craft and scale aren’t mutually exclusive,” Steinmetz told the crowd of cultivators, retailers, manufacturers, investors, journalists, and other industry folks. 

For now, it seems to be true. According to BDS Analytics, Flow Kana, offering numerous strains of sungrown cannabis produced by a network of about 200 small farmers, is the best-selling flower brand in the state. The vision is to do good for the earth and the farmers while purveying good quality weed. 

Environmental Critiques of the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis is a plant, of course, and according to Mendocino farmers and the folks at Flow Kana, that means it’s supposed to be grown outdoors. But prohibition drove the industry toward indoor cultivation, which involves massive inputs of fossil fuels for controlling light and temperature, the use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers, as well as large water needs. And while outdoor growers — particularly those still selling on the illicit market — can also mismanage water resources and use toxic chemicals, those partnering with Flow Kana are all licensed by the state and vetted for their earth-friendly chops.

Indoor cannabis cultivation focuses on one thing — cannabis as a monoculture. That stands in opposition to more traditional, outdoor farming techniques that seek to preserve diversity in plant and animal species. What’s more, indoor cultivation is hard on the growers themselves. Spending long hours in crowded rows under harsh lights is a far cry from days spent with sun, living soil, and fresh air. 

In other words, it’s hard to grow indoor cannabis in an environmentally sustainable way that also promotes the wellbeing of cultivators. However, indoor plants do have certain advantages that consumers like. For instance, THC percentages from indoor plants tend to be higher, and the flowers’ appearance and scent may seem more attractive. And while many consumers still seek out the highly prized indoor strains, Flow Kana is trying to change the narrative of what constitutes good quality weed. 

How Cannabis Can Do Good for the Environment

Farmers in Flow Kana’s network are using the regenerative farming techniques detailed above; they consider companion planting, the use of rainwater catchment systems, and diversified crop portfolios, among other practices, to be “beyond organic,” where improving the land is the bottom line — the primary purpose of cultivating cannabis. Big Ag, along with the fossil fuels industry, is hugely responsible for the current climate crisis, and small-scale farming has much less impact on the land. Further, outdoor growers tend to cite cannabis’ ability to sequester carbon and thereby help reduce the total CO2 percentage in the atmosphere.

Changing the Narrative of Quality Cannabis

Even beyond its more positive environmental impact, farmers at the event argued that their cannabis, grown in living soil, is actually tastier and more appealing — if you know what to look for. Though the market seems to chase higher concentrations of THC like those found in indoor grows, elevated THC content doesn’t necessarily translate to a better consumer experience. Craft cannabis — like certain craft beers — may have lower THC concentrations on average, but many consumers are finding that the rich taste and diverse profile of cannabinoids and terpenes yields an equally or even exceedingly pleasurable experience.

Another factor driving the market is terroir, a term often used in the wine industry to indicate the nuances of a wine’s flavor based on its geographical origins. In cannabis, too, the notion of terroir is starting to catch on. "It's made of the place," says Tina Gordon, owner and operator of Flow Kana partner Moon Made Farms, of the cannabis she cultivates. “Like the rain that’s sitting in the pond — that pond may have been there for hundreds of thousands of years. And the microbiome — the indigenous microorganisms — they’re all going to influence the tone, the scent, the frequency, and the vibration of the flower.”

Gordon’s 9,600 square foot outdoor canopy spanning 40 acres has achieved Sun + Earth certification, a third party vetting process that ensures growers are living up to regenerative farming standards and treating workers fairly. She’s now in the process of attaining a second designation, DEM Pure, a peer-to-peer certification with similar requirements.  

“I think people are starting to ask the question, ‘where did my cannabis come from?’” Gordon told Civilized. “Where and when was this flower cultivated? Who cultivated it? What was the intention behind this flower? Because there are options — and for different people, different things are going to matter.” For her part, she hopes that consumers will vote with their wallets and their pipes for sungrown cannabis from Northern California. 

Price may also help drive consumer’s choices, as sungrown cannabis is more affordable at the dispensary because it’s cheaper to produce. It’s a rare scenario where the less expensive product is also the more earth-friendly and farmer-friendly choice. 

Hemp Has a Role

For some in the industry, it’s about much more than what we smoke or consume. Winona LaDuke, the 1996 and 2000 Green Party vice presidential candidate on Ralph Nader’s ticket, is an indigenous rights activist and hemp farmer who wants to talk about the clothing industry. At the conference, LaDuke made the case for a renaissance of hemp farming and processing in her home state of Minnesota, where hemp mills once flourished. Cotton, she says, uses massive water and pesticide inputs while synthetic textile alternatives are often derived from petroleum. “We’re addicted to fossil fuels,” she told conference attendees. “We’re even wearing them.” 

On the White Earth Indian Reservation where LaDuke farms, environmental stewardship is integral. “Our land is our garden,” she said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘what is our relationship to the land we live on?’” And replacing cotton and synthetic fabrics with regeneratively grown hemp is an actionable step toward a better relationship to our land and the earth as a whole.

For many small, outdoor cultivators in the hills of Mendocino, growing cannabis is a legacy and a livelihood — but also a passion. As Tina Gordon of Moon Made Farms put it, “I completely fell in love with this plant, and it changed my life.”

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