Growing Massive

In Southern Oregon, where cannabis is a way of life, the Butsch brothers have embraced old-school organic farming techniques to create superior seeds and flowers

Butsch of Massive Seeds and Roganja, believes organic farming helps produce a top-shelf crop, but he admits that the microclimate in Southern Oregon really allows the plants to thrive. Photos by Pete Alport. 

Peter Butsch and his brother, Paul, have been growing cannabis in Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley for as long as they can remember. They originally learned the secrets of organic-style cannabis farming from their father, who had grown marijuana on the property since the 1970s, and they’ve been carefully refining those techniques for years to create a sustainable, top-shelf product.

“I know every farmer thinks they grow the best weed — and I do too,” Peter Butsch says, laughing at his own boldness.

But no one can blame Butsch for his obvious bias. After all, he knows the time and energy required to grow his delectable crop and he understands the minute details that went into the cultivation process at Roganja, a state-licensed producer in the heart of Oregon’s cannabis country.

Roganja uses green manure that includes daikon radishes and fava beans to prepare the soil.

Green Manure

Healthy soil is the lifeblood of any organic farming operation.

But truly organic, living soil can’t be created overnight. It often takes years of properly developing the soil to create the right microbial balance. At Roganja, this ongoing process ramps up in early March when Butsch plants a cover crop of legumes, beans, peas and radishes. The daikon radishes and fava beans are particularly important at this stage, he says.

The daikon radish roots act like “thousands of drills in the soil” and provide necessary aeration. The fava bean roots extend six feet deep into the soil, helping translocate deeply buried nutrients closer to the surface.

The nitrogen-fixing cover crop was planted March 1, then chopped down about three months later. While some farmers prefer to harvest their cover crops and leave the plant material on top of the soil, Butsch cuts down the plants and reincorporates the “green manure” into the soil. He tills the field and integrates the decomposing cover crop into the native dirt. The process adds biomass and helps the beneficial bacteria and fungi thrive. It also produces naturally occurring fulvic acid, a common element in organic farming that helps with nutrient uptake.

“The plants just love that fulvic acid,” Butsch says.

Roganja is allowed up to 40,000 square feet of canopy.

Growing from Seed

While the cover crop grows outdoors, Roganja raises cannabis seedlings in a nursery greenhouse that doesn’t use artificial light. About 90% of the company’s plants are started from seed rather than clones.

This year, seeds were planted March 7 and transplanted into Southern Oregon’s great outdoors in May and June. A small amount of potting soil mixed with the native soil helps ease the transition, Butsch says.

Throughout the season, a wide array of organic nutrients are used to bolster the plants as needed, including crab, fish and kelp amendments, as well as llama and chicken manure. Butsch believes diversity is key in organic farming.

“The more diversity you bring in, the more nutrients are available to the plants,” he says.

The company has had some lab tests done on soil in the past, but most of the amendments are based on intuition, Butsch says. It’s a skill that’s been honed over the years of learning the microclimate and the region’s soil.

The result is an “indoor-quality” flower produced in a sustainable, low-impact manner and currently carried by about 30 Oregon retail shops. Meanwhile, the Butsch brothers also run Massive Seeds, a separate brand focused on genetics.

Because all adults in Oregon are allowed to grow up to four cannabis plants for personal use, 10-packs of Massive Seeds are available at about 15 retail outlets and the company also sells some seeds to other commercial farmers.

Look to La Luna

Using the cycle of the moon could be a pathway to more productive plants, but scientists tend to be skeptical

By Garrett Rudolph

How do most outdoor growers determine when to plant their cannabis crops?

Like many elements of the marijuana industry, the answer varies widely from one cultivator to the next. While some stick to a set date at the beginning of the season, others rely heavily on intuition or they’ll follow an agricultural calendar of projected “frost-free days.”

And some growers abide by a higher power: the waxing and waning of the moon, a technique as old as farming itself and one with just as many fervent followers as it has science-based skeptics.

The concept is that the moon’s gravitational pull impacts moisture in plants, the soil and water table, so planting at the optimal phase helps produce healthier crops and larger yields.

Adding another layer to the complexity of the subject is that while most lunar planting calendars list favorable planting dates for a wide range of flowers and vegetables, cannabis is, not surprisingly, absent from most lists. That means growers who want to plant based on the cycle of the moon would have to find a comparable plant to use as a guideline or refine their own schedule through years of experience.

According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, annual flowers and above-ground vegetables should be planted during the waxing of the moon (from the day it is new to the day it is full). The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s lunar calendar divides North America into four regions. Southern California and Florida are Area 1; Northern California and the majority of Washington and Oregon are classified as Area 2; Colorado, New England and Southern Canada are Area 3; Northern Canada is Area 4.

So for example, the “moon favorable” planting dates for tomatoes in Area 2 are March 27 to April 11, while spring wheat in the same region would be April 26 to May 7.

Flowering bulbs, biennial and perennial flowers and below-ground vegetables should be planted during the moon’s dark cycles (waning).

However, in a 1991 New York Times article, Cynthia Rosenzweig, an agronomist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, called the benefits of lunar planting schedules “mythology”.

“There has to be a physical reason why the moon’s different phases would affect soil properties, soil temperature, moisture content, precipitation, which are the actual physical factors that make seeds germinate,” she told The Times. “And that isn’t documentable.”

Frank Abramopoulos, an astrophysicist interviewed in the same Times article, echoed Rosenzweig’s outlook on the subject.

“The tidal force — the gravitational pull of the moon — would be there, but at a level smaller than would affect any biochemical processes,” he said.

1 – Marc Cathey, the former director of the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., was also interviewed for the Times article and said lunar planting connects modern farmers with their forebears who had to rely substantially more on weather patterns — but today’s technology and genetic improvements have lessened Mother Nature’s stranglehold over successful crop production.

“These things like planting by the zodiac and the phases of the moon were based on close observations of periods of chill and clouds and exposure to light and the ups and downs of barometric pressure,” he said. “But they were damped out by sprinklers and fertilizer and peat moss and tomato seeds that germinate so well, every dadgum one comes up.”

Yet, thousands of gardeners — both of the hobbyist and commercial variety — swear by the lunar calendar.

It’s more about the fact that planting by the moon does work — for one reason or another — not about how it works.

“While science may not fully understand why planting by the moon works, anecdotal evidence suggests that it does,” Richard Telford wrote for the Permaculture Research Institute in a 2015 article on the organization’s website.

Planting by the cycle of the moon is one of the oldest techniques in farming.

Lunar-Powered

Roganja embraces another technique that separates it from other cannabis producers: using the cycles of the moon to determine its planting schedule.

It means the growers have to pay close attention to the waxing and waning of the moon, and you’re more likely to find a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac being used around the Jackson County farm than you are one of the dozens of marijuana growing guides published by self-proclaimed experts.

At first blush, it might sound like hippie pot grower folk lore, but farmers have been using agricultural astrology for thousands of years.

Butsch says the difference can be seen in the “overall vigor” of the plants.

“The weather patterns seem to follow the moon cycles,” he adds. “It always seems that a nice rain will fall right after planting.”

The METRC system has been “kind of a nightmare” for farms that use a multi-harvest strategy, Butsch says.

Operations

Roganja and Massive Seeds have transitioned from Oregon’s medical program into the state’s emerging recreational market. As a Tier II outdoor grow, the company is allowed up to 40,000 square feet of canopy.

While many growers have struggled with Oregon’s strict pesticide regulations, Butsch says he likes that the state implemented such a rigorous set of guidelines.

Roganja and Massive Seeds have received the Certified Kind stamp of approval, meaning they do not use chemical pesticides and follow standards that closely mirror the USDA’s National Organic Program.

However, Oregon’s seed-to-sale tracking requirements have been a different story. Using Franwell’s METRC system has been “kind of a nightmare,” Butsch says.

While the program itself works fine, Butsch says it wasn’t really built for farms like Roganja, which uses a multi-harvest strategy, cutting down the top colas early and letting the rest of the plant continue to develop. The company may harvest a single plant multiple times, making it extremely costly and time consuming to track every gram from every plant with METRC during a process that may take a month or more.

“I think there’s a better way to still have oversight, but put a little more trust in people,” Butsch says.

Legendary Microclimate

While the Butsch brothers deserve their share of credit for Roganja’s quality crops, they acknowledge Mother Nature’s role in creating some of the country’s finest cannabis.

The Roganja and Massive Seeds gardens are located in a five-acre irrigated pasture on a 30-acre plot of land in Jackson County. It’s situated in one of the hottest parts of the Rogue Valley, and the Butsch brothers have been breeding strains specifically acclimated to the hot, dry, Upper Rogue microclimate that generally works well for sativas. Strains like Rogue Valley Wreck, Lemon Pineapple and Pineapple Pomegranate have thrived in the area.

Roganja has helped Portland State University with a study of Oregon’s cannabis terroirs and how genetic traits are adapted to geographical regions. Early research indicates six or seven different unique terroirs in Southern Oregon.

Butsch believes quality of the final product is the combination of well-suited genetics, the Rogue Valley’s legendary microclimate and use of organic farming practices.

“It’s really the land that produces the best herb,” Butsch says.

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