Ecological agriculture comes to commercial marijuana
By Richard Freeman
In the rapidly evolving marijuana industry, resilience and adaptability are emerging as key traits for business survival. Successful investors, farmers and managers are able to sense trends while quickly adapting to unexpected developments. The industry was born in change, emerging from prohibition-era economics to mainstream agriculture, where cannabis farmers are no longer dominated by the need for stealth and can focus directly on cultivation.
At this newly expanded scale, production costs and environmental impacts that seemed inconsequential at a small scale become serious concerns. While the price of labor for watering might have seemed insignificant when growing in a basement, it’s daunting at a commercial scale. And while the environmental cost of dumping chemical-laden water from conventional marijuana farming into waste treatment systems might seem trivial at small scale, its impact is far greater for commercial cultivators. In response, new growing systems are emerging as state agencies tighten standards, consumers refine their tastes and innovative producers shape their own evolution.
In these times of change and evolution, it’s only fitting that marijuana farmers, production managers and investors turn to resilience and adaptability in their agricultural practices. Ecological agriculture is a rational and profitable path toward that goal. It offers the sustained ability to produce and sell a valuable crop, while building ecological health and land value, and it is an excellent framework for producing high-quality cannabis with a full entourage of active compounds.
Ecological farming uses biological pathways for nutrient cycling and pest management, thereby offering a full palette of resources for the plants. It lowers the risk of value loss from pests or pesticide residues, reduces labor costs and builds ecological equity into the farm.
Value for cannabis
Ecological cultivation of cannabis raises some important questions. Production clearly requires more land area than conventional approaches, which imposes an obvious cost. Furthermore, some growers argue that quality suffers with outdoor marijuana because sunlight won’t produce the tight flowers formed under artificial lighting and THC levels are lower. What’s more, market studies indicate that cannabis is a fungible commodity — while individual retailers might offer flexibility in their buying policies, generally marijuana sells for a uniform price, regardless of perceived or measured quality.
Do these production concerns and the fungibility overshadow the business benefits of growing marijuana with ecological agriculture? Aside from the environmental benefits, why would a marijuana farmer bother? The rapidly evolving industry and market answer these questions. As with food, segmented markets are emerging, driven by demand and consumer savvy, and engaged by innovative ecological producers.
Many entrepreneurs in the marijuana industry are aware of this change. The independent certification enterprises that are emerging point to this awareness, as does the emergence of high-quality commercial testing labs using transparent, verifiable techniques to assess product quality. The next step is to develop reliable brands built on verifiable standards alongside effective marketing and education. If people are aware that reliable, certifiable organic options exist at a slightly higher price, will a demand emerge for those connoisseur products? It certainly has in the food world.
Ecological agriculture is a farming system that meets objectives of nutrient cycling and pest management by managing ecological pathways. It involves two related and interwoven strategies. The first strategy minimizes pest damage by attracting and providing resources for pest predators and parasitoids. Farmers can increase the number of these arthropods by increasing biological diversity above-ground, thus providing them with shelter, alternative food and water. In turn, these organisms suppress pest populations.
The second strategy, increasing soil fertility and soil biology, increases the diversity of nutritional pathways and pathogen suppression functions. The two strategies are tightly bound, because the soil ecology — the soil food web — is highly dependent on plant root exudates. Healthy plants require healthy soil.
There are several common management patterns farmers can use for building biodiversity and soil fertility into the farm landscape.
- Interplanting the target species with cover crops — a diverse mix of species, each of which provides one or more beneficial functions. For example, a mix might include a grass species or two for building humus and providing refuge to predatory beetles. In addition to the grass, the mix could include a legume, which in partnership with nitrifying bacteria, fixes available nitrogen, and a radish cultivar for building soil organic matter. A diverse mix adds vertical heterogeneity, providing cover for beneficial pest enemies as well as providing soil-building functions. A cover crop mix can include biennial, annual and/or perennial species.
- Interplanting with perennial polyculture systems, using carefully chosen plant species to shelter and feed beneficial parasitoids and parasites as they graze on pests. These systems will give long-term biological support to the cannabis plant growing space, above and below ground, as perennial root exudates feed a thriving soil food web.
- Planting surrounding strips and blocks of natural vegetation or perennial polyculture dedicated to providing resources to parasites and predators (including birds). These polycultures should include native species.
- Planting bio-corridors — or strips of perennial polycultures connecting traveling predators and parasitoids to the native or engineered polyculture zones surrounding fields.
- Creating vertical earthen and soil features and water features. Modified hugelkulture beds increase soil heterogeneity and improve water-holding capacity (if built correctly), and water features support pest predators and parasitoids. These features in combination with polycultures can increase vertical heterogeneity, as well as providing habitat for beneficial fungi.
Benefits for cannabis
There are four primary benefits of combining ecological agriculture with marijuana farming.
- Ecological agriculture can grow high-quality produce. Because consumers smoke and eat cannabis products for health and recreation, growing healthy, vigorous plants free of biotic and chemical residues is an important and valuable goal.
Ecological agriculture meets the standard of growing high-quality plants by providing the resources they need to express their full genetic potential. Plants that reach their full potential produce the full complement of terpenes and cannabinoids.
Likewise, ecological agriculture can end the use of synthetic chemicals that reduce the quality and value of the produce. An integrated pest management (IPM) program can suppress pest damage below economic thresholds, largely by preventing problems in the first place. As cannabis farmers know, any infestation guarantees a production setback, even when the outbreak is thwarted. Prevention and early detection are key to containing costs and maintaining the value of the harvest.
A smart IPM plan will optimize labor productivity by leveling and codifying procedures. Time is spent up front preventing, monitoring and assessing pest status, thereby replacing crisis and emergency techniques with rational, economic tactics. Further, the farmer reduces unwanted residues from chemical applications, mold, bacteria, viruses and arthropods and their products (eggs, webbing and honeydew).
- Ecological agriculture produces resilient, stable and robust agricultural systems. Emphasizing ecological function and biological diversity promotes heterogeneity in soil structures and diverse plant communities, creating a system of natural checks and buffers. These plant communities provide various forms of support for the target plant in the form of nutrient cycling and protection from pest infestation. Diverse species composition and function in the soil food web are the only tangible checks to long-term root-rot infection in field soils.
A corollary to this benefit is that ecological agriculture improves the farm’s long-term fertility, health and economic value. A resilient, stable and robust farm is a healthy, fertile farm; a healthy, fertile farm is a valuable farm, especially if it is organized to optimize labor and equipment use.
- Ecological agriculture requires fewer resources and produces less waste than conventional farming. Living soils — full of life and organic matter — hold and recycle water and nutrients and delay their loss. In living soils, biological complexes are responsible for weathering parent-rock and mineralizing organically-tied nutrients, making them available to plant roots in exchange for root exudates. Many macro- and micro-nutrients are common in field soils in which the soil food web has been activated. They often require minimal or no supplement — as long as the soil life is vigorous.
In addition to fertilizer savings, ecological agriculture can offer savings on pesticide materials and labor, given that farmers monitor their crops for pests and follow a solid IPM. Farmers can save materials and labor by minimizing treatment area and intensity, even when an infestation does occur.
- Finally, compared to conventional farming techniques, ecological agriculture creates fewer wastes, significantly reducing waste disposal and removal. Excess nutrients are conserved within the soil food web, ready for exchange upon demand, but they are not as free to leach into the water-tables below. Pesticide run-off and drift pose no risks, and chemical storage and disposal is minimized. For systems that must use containers, used soil-mix disposal becomes a composting input and thus a resource, instead of posing a waste problem. Further, ecological agriculture eliminates the problem of wasting water and polluting water tables and surface water by minimizing water needs and optimizing water distribution.
Scale and benefits
An optimized ecological farm has a large core of area surrounded by a buffer against pest infestation, chemical contamination, pollen contamination and other problems.
The benefits of ecological farming increase dramatically for larger land areas, because as the land area grows, the protected inner core increases compared to the buffering land area. For example, a 100-foot square field with a 20-foot buffer will have a core area of only 36% of the total land area. A 1,000-foot square with a 20-foot buffer will have a core area of 92%. Likewise, a square area will have a larger core than the same area laid out as a rectangle. The ideal scenario includes many farms under cultivation using ecological agriculture, creating a large, diverse landscape mosaic.
Designing an ecological farm
The design process can be formal or informal. Likewise, designers can use tools ranging from high-tech computer technology to simply the designer’s imagination. Whatever the approach, the planner needs to follow a few basic steps.
- Assessment and mapping: Design begins with a candid assessment and characterization of the farm ecology, including soil types, conditions, energy and material flows (wind, water, sun, dust, chemical), physical characteristics and vegetative profile. The assessment maps the farm parcel into discrete contiguous areas based on potential productivity and rates them in terms of their suitability for growing cannabis. Some zones will be more conducive to marijuana cultivation, while some zones will not be suitable for any cultivation.
For an effective assessment, creating a map is crucial. The map should represent differences in land based on the assessment — with each different area represented by a zone.
- Compiling pest management information: This step depends upon the ecological functions the planner desires to engineer into the system. It requires compiling three sets of information:
- A list of anticipated or characteristic pests, with information regarding the growth, development and reproduction of each pest, as well as information on feeding and shelter.
- A list of organisms that kill or disable these pests and their characteristics regarding growth, development, reproduction, feeding and shelter.
- A list of all plants upon which these beneficial organisms rely for shelter, nectar, pollen and alternative prey.
- Defining patterns for management zones: The next step is designating the appropriate management pattern for each zone, based on the assessment. At this stage, the planner decides which biodiversity management pattern or patterns (annual cover crop, perennial polyculture, etc.) are optimal for each zone based on the zones’ suitability for marijuana cultivation.
- Creating the zone designs: The farm planner can design and map each zone according to its designated management pattern. This step involves choosing what plants will be planted where. The designer must pay careful attention to these concerns:
– Equipment access, including room to commute, turn, and work.
– Labor work flow, accounting for on-site travel distances and work space needs.
– Watering needs and irrigation features, including any supplemental irrigation system.
– External flows (winds, water, sun, pest exposure, cold-air flow, dust, etc.).
– Soil variations — even variations within a field are common.
– Spatial constraints such as size and shape.
– Geographical and physical features, such as hills, abutments, gullies, etc.
– Seasonal changes in conditions.
– Budget constraints.
For a large-scale operation, geographical information systems (GIS) can greatly improve planning and management efficiencies. A GIS is a relational database with mapping capabilities, enabling the planner to create a record for every plant, zone or other feature included in the design.
For example, each plant on a map might have a record with data on precise location, periodic growth and development, and feeding preferences. The ability to compile individual records on thousands of plants — for purchasing, management and cultural treatment, and research and development — will bestow obvious benefits. At this level of detail, the farm planner can model costs and benefits, facilitating financial planning and budgeting. Using standard database queries, the manager can identify hidden problem spots that appear at a larger scale. Using GIS with a flexible template, a production template can easily be scaled up and extended into new areas.
Critical paths and planning
Following design, the next step is to define all the critical paths necessary for on-the-ground installment. A critical path is a sequence of tasks that must occur in a certain order (foundation, walls and roofing, for example).
Defining a critical path requires breaking down each objective into labor tasks and necessary equipment — information that is key for creating a project schedule and budget.
At this stage, the planner has the necessary information to create production projections and generate a reliable budget and cost-benefit analysis.
And finally, it’s time to sharpen the shovels.
Richard Freeman designs, maps and plans ecological cannabis agriculture systems, including soil-building, integrated pest management and waste-reduction/reuse. His prior experience includes research and development of residential permaculture food and composting systems and ecological forest planning and management. He has a Ph.D. in forest management, a master’s degree in environmental studies and certifications in permaculture and food forest design. More information about his company, Eco Paradigm, can be found at growecology.com.