Playing the Field

Eastern Washington farm goes green on a commercial scale

 

Walden Cannabis weaves protective layers of cover crops and insectary beds through the farm and around its perimeter to mitigate pests and replenish the soils.

According to Anders Taylor, the CEO of Walden Cannabis, the requirements for growing cannabis in Washington already set the bar high enough for nearly every outdoor grower to be certified as an organic operation — should the federal government ever allow such a thing.

But with four acres, a supportive community and an experienced horticulture director, Taylor has still found a number of ways to “take a more holistic approach that is closer to the national organic protocol” than other growers.

(* The following article was originally published in the October issue of Marijuana Venture, available now. )

Agroecology

Although Washington’s Tier 3 license holders are limited to 30,000 square feet of cannabis canopy, they are not limited in the ways they use it. Walden Cannabis takes advantage of its massive property by reserving thousands of square feet for insectary beds and cover crops.

The farm’s size also allows Walden to utilize a system of crop rotation — somewhat of a rarity in the cannabis space. After each harvest, the company rotates its grow site to a new section of the property in order to maintain healthy soil. Walden, a Certified Kind farm, has yet to reuse the same plot of land since it first planted seeds in 2014.

While the majority of Walden’s cover crops play a role in sustaining the farm’s pesticide-free mission, Taylor uses one plant specifically for post-harvest help. After each cannabis harvest, Walden plants a crop of sunn hemp in its stead. Sunn hemp is a colloquial name for Crotalaria juncea, a cover crop that produces about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre in eight to 12 weeks. The crop is best suited for warmer climates and thrives in sandy, drained soil, only requiring a little moisture to germinate and minimal watering afterward. The crop increases nitrogen, limits soil erosion, prevents root-knot nematodes and enriches the soil.

And despite the analogous name, sunn hemp bears little resemblance to marijuana’s country cousin, industrial hemp, and there’s no danger of it cross-pollinating the neighboring cannabis plants. It would be like “trying to breed a rabbit with a fox,” Taylor says.

Sunn hemp has been a staple in Southern agricultural practices for decades and Walden horticultural director Jeffrey McConnaughey studied organic techniques while living in the South. McConnaughey’s winding path to the cannabis industry included working for a vegetable garden in Massachusetts, an experimental tea farm in Georgia and an anarchist commune in Virginia.

After learning the basics of organic farming, he returned to school to get a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, followed by a master’s degree in horticulture.

“Then I found out that there were legit jobs in the cannabis industry and I hopped right on in,” McConnaughey says. “It’s honestly one of the other reasons I got into the horticulture industry. I knew that one day it was going to legalize. I couldn’t wait to grow (cannabis) commercially.”

Natural predators such as the praying mantis thrive inside the farm due its healthy ecosystem.

McConnaughey’s influences from both commercial and not-so-commercial farming have resulted in an amalgamation of the two styles. His unique blend of techniques has pushed the farm to be an outlier in the world of commercial cannabis production. During his wide-ranging career, he’s observed two schools of thought in organic horticulture. The first is what he describes as “industrialized horticulture,” in which massive operations replace conventional pesticides and fertilizers with organic alternatives. The other philosophy, agroecology, employs insectary beds, cover crops, hives and other natural solutions to fertilization and pest protection that don’t involve bottled ingredients.

“A lot of the stuff I’ve drawn from is from organic vegetable production, as well as flower production,” McConnaughey says. “So, I looked for new ways of constructing those as well as sustainability practices and methods like using raised beds and soil prep.”

“I think the industry is so young that things are still just being invented,” Taylor says. “People basically modified how they did it on a small scale and they aren’t using the same concepts that are used in bigger operations.”

Walden’s water wheel preps the field with small, water-filled holes, allowing rear-seated farmhands to easily plant this year’s crops.

Prepping the Field

Walden Cannabis starts clones and seedlings in a typical fashion, protected in a greenhouse until they mature, and then transporting them into the field. But during their stay in the greenhouse, the young plants experience conditioning treatments that borrow from commercial agricultural practices utilized in desert climates.

The farm uses yucca root extract to help strengthen young plants against heat, drought, UV and salt stresses. The extract is added to the plant’s water supply, foliar sprays and fertigation schedule. Taylor says it makes a good replacement for early-veg practices that rely on manmade supplements and also helps plants acclimate to the summer sun.

Walden has tried numerous ways to prep the field for new crops over the past few years. One year the farm stapled weed barrier fabrics across the soil bed with long metal staples, a common practice of both cannabis and non-cannabis farms. Taylor says it minimizes dust and debris, but leaves too much contamination in its wake.

This year, the farm put its tractor to work with a four-stage plan to set up the soil beds. First the tractor uses a bed-shaper attachment to raise wide, flat-top mounds of dirt across the field. Then it uses another attachment that covers the mounds with a plastic layer and tucks the edges of the plastic underneath the soil — completely eliminating the need for metal staples. The plastic layer is recycled after harvest.

After that, another pass is made with the tractor pushing a water wheel to punch holes in the plastic. The water wheel, which looks similar to a steamroller, spaces the holes 18 inches apart and fills them with water to form perfectly aligned rows across the farm. Finally, farmhands attach seats to the back of the tractor — à la Mad Max — to ride along the field and plant the new season’s crop by hand.

“We basically set the tractor on cruise control and drive it at 0.3 mph and we got two people behind it, filling the holes as they’re being punched and watered,” Taylor says.

 

Cover Crops and Insectary Beds

Throughout the year, Walden plants a variety of cover crops. In the winter, Taylor says, the farm uses a “hardy mix of legumes and grain” — such as Austrian winter pea, hairy vetch and annual rye — to produce biomass and keep a fixed level of nitrogen in the soil.

Come summertime, the company plants rows of buckwheat, a fast-growing, smothering crop that accumulates phosphorus and “mines the element from the subsoil,” Taylor says. In addition to its soil-enriching properties, Taylor says buckwheat also attracts bees and other beneficial insects.

The buckwheat field is planted in the summer to attract pollinating insects and accumulate phosphorus from deep within the soil.

Taylor keeps a separate stock of insectary beds to carry the brunt of his pest-control needs. One out of every four rows of crops at Walden Cannabis is an insectary bed that attracts predators to deter pests from the company’s money crop. At any given time, Walden uses 5,000 to 6,000 square feet for insectary beds and cover crops.

To attract ladybugs, lacewings, hoverflies and predatory wasps, the farm uses chervil, coriander, parsley, clovers, calendula, alyssum, perilla, sunflowers, French marigolds, bee balm and yarrow (which also acts as an aphid trap). The farm also grows vegetables such as carrots, garlic, chives, basil and lima beans to the same effect, as well as eggplant as a trap crop for white flies.

“A lot of that ends up going to employees,” Taylor says of Walden’s edible bounty. “We can’t eat it all.”

Taylor originally planned for Walden to be based in Wenatchee, but when a local moratorium derailed his intentions, he moved the farm north to the banks of the Okanogan River in Brewster.

But what started out as a major setback turned out to be a blessing.

“We were lucky in some ways that it didn’t work out (in Wenatchee),” Taylor says. “It’s beautiful here.”

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