Looking up at the early October sky, Rob Trotter knew he had less than 10 days to harvest his 2018 crop. Although he has lost about 85% of his vision over the years, living high in the Rocky Mountains for nearly three decades has taught him enough about recognizing weather patterns to spot an impending snowstorm.
Trotter, his wife Linda and their team of seasonal workers needed to bring in roughly 500 plants a day to finish this year’s harvest before the first snowfall at Pot Zero, the Trotters’ state-licensed cannabis farm located 8,200 feet above sea level in Eagle County, Colorado.
“We know our property. We know our exposure,” Trotter says. “If you have a bomb coming, you’ve got to get out of the way.”
The Trotters and their hired hands rushed to chop down thousands of plants and move them to safety near a pellet boiler where they can dry for 24 to 48 hours. On a good day, Mother Nature let them move 700 plants; other days they felt lucky to move 200.
In total, the Trotters harvested 3,800 cannabis plants before snow began falling Oct. 10, blanketing the farm in more than a foot of powder before the day was done.
“If we were any later than that, we would have gotten caught in the snowstorm,” Trotter says.
Growing at Elevation
Trotter knows of other outdoor growers in Colorado, but he’s willing to bet he’s the craziest.
Considering he and his wife are the only two full-time employees at Pot Zero, which operates completely off the grid and at 8,200 feet above sea level — likely the highest outdoor commercial cannabis farm in North America — Trotter might win that bet.
“It’s worth it,” he says. “It’s a cool agricultural challenge.”
Trotter started Pot Zero on his family ranch, located 11 miles south of Gypsum, in May 2015. He decided right away that the endeavor would be a strictly outdoor, from-seed farm with a zero-carbon footprint. He had already scouted the property for the perfect plot of land for the grow, a sunny patch just above the Gypsum Valley where the plants would be safe from the downslope airflows that can produce frost on the creek even in July.
All he needed for the plot was to find the right genetics. Because the area’s elevation and latitude are similar to that of Afghanistan, he had a pretty good idea of where to start. Trotter worked with Jay Price, a geneticist at The Bank Cannabis Genetics in Denver, to select the right seeds. A firm believer in all-natural horticulture, Trotter didn’t want to use any clones. He insists that natural selection is the best method for the farm.
“A clone is a diminished replica and it’s not healthy for a variety of reasons, even for up here,” he says. “We customize strains for the location and we’re getting better and better at knowing when a plant is showing the right attributes and breeding it.”
Trotter says it has been a learning experience to find the right genetics. During Pot Zero’s second year, he planted a cultivar that “was in a vegetative trance and never wanted to flower,” he says. By the time it did, the short growing season was over.
In March or April, depending on the genetics, Trotter nourishes the seedlings indoor under lights powered by an onsite hydro-electric turbine. Toward the end of May, the plants are transported outside where they sleep under hoop houses and can acclimate to the sun. Trotter keeps the plants potted until the summer solstice, just in case the occasional spring snowstorm forces him and Linda to run all the plants back indoors. Once the plants are in the mountain soil, they have roughly 100 days until harvest.
“We’re getting fantastic results,” Trotter says. “On top of having really clean pot that’s being grown as sustainably as can be, we get very high levels of rare cannabinoids.”
A Unique Recipe
There’s something unusual about the cannabis grown at Pot Zero. Whether it’s from the elevation, soil, intense ultraviolet light or a combination thereof, Trotter says every strain harvested has had unusual amounts of cannabigerol (CBG) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV). Normally, Trotter says, cannabis plants produce CBG in small amounts and then convert it into other cannabinoids. He says the THC and CBD levels in Pot Zero’s flower are still competitive in Colorado’s market, but tests show his flowers have 2-4% CBG, whereas most producers typically test at less than 1%.
“Somehow the plant is reacting to the combination of sunlight and the stresses in the environment and the right soil, nutrients and all of that to overproduce this stuff,” he says. “Of course, we can’t talk about medical benefits that haven’t been proven, but it’s very interesting when you look at the Israeli science on CBG.”
Israeli research shows a range of potential medical benefits from CBG, from fighting cancer to killing MRSA bacteria. It’s still too early in the research phase to make any definitive claims, but Trotter believes medical users have been looking for a concentrate of the cannabinoid. Pot Zero plans to start selling a distillate containing 15% CBG to Colorado retailers in December.
“We’re calling it Comfortably Numb,” Trotter says. “It’s pretty much right on the money with that.”
Pot Zero is also working on a THCV distillate called Time, which it plans on launching later in 2019.
Off the Grid
When Trotter founded Pot Zero he wanted to build the farm on what he calls the “three E’s.”
“Energy sustainability will get you economic sustainability and that will get you ecological sustainability,” Trotter says. “We really are an energy farm up here.”
Pot Zero is powered solely by a hydro-electric turbine. The melting snow from a peak above the farm creates a creek that runs through the property, generating power from the turbine and fresh water for the plants. Trotter calls it, “From snow to grow.”
Pest mitigation also starts with the fresh water as Trotter adds microbes to the water system to inoculate against infestations of larva that can get deposited on plants. During the 100-day outdoor growing season, the farm releases swarms of ladybugs to kill aphids and white flies. In the winter, Trotter takes his Scottish Highlander cattle to the plot to graze. The highly acidic, mineral-laden manure and urine are composted for the soil.
“We’re really as organic and biodynamic as you can possibly be,” Trotter says.
Following a short growing season, the farm uses a 250,000-BTU boiler to help dry the harvested plant material. The boiler, which runs on beetle-kill pellets reclaimed from the area’s pine tree population, is connected to a heat exchanger that spreads the warm air outward.
Everything else is left up to the sun and Mother Nature.
With another harvest behind them, the Trotters turn their attention to preparing for the additional five to six feet of snow the ranch will receive before the end of winter. The ever-present threat of snow makes each harvest in the fall a major challenge, but the unique climate and conditions are also what allow Pot Zero to deliver a finished product that is one-of-a-kind in Colorado’s legal cannabis market.
“Mother Nature is pretty good in between her wrath,” he says.