Local cannabis farmers received some expert advice Aug. 15 from Samantha Miller, president and chief chemist of Pure Analytics testing laboratory in Santa Rosa, and Casey O’Neill, chair of the board of the Emerald Growers Association and co-owner of Happy Day Farm
Miller told the group that to survive in the exploding cannabis marketplace farmers should create a marketing plan, keep up with cannabis news and legislation, and “differentiate” and “diversify” their farms and products.
O’Neill spoke after lunch Saturday on the many state regulations with which cannabis growers will need to comply.
Addressing about 70 members of the Emerald Growers Association at the Long Valley Garden Club in Laytonville, both speakers were optimistic about the potential for Mom-and-Pop cultivators in Mendocino County to compete with large corporations and venture capitalists already ready descending on the state to enter the cannabis marketplace.
Miller said the days of cannabis farmers being treated like “stray dogs” by dispensaries and other brokers are over.
“You don’t have to take what they give you,” Miller said. “You need to be strong and have your brand in place and an understanding of the value of what you have to offer. You are subject-matter experts. You guys are the future consultants of this industry.”
Following her opening pep talk, Miller offered scientific information on the genetics and evolution of the cannabis plant as well as practical advice on growing and marketing cannabis products.
Noting that the Sativa species of cannabis originated in the high mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Miller said the plant is not a “water hog,” as many claim, because it thrives on desert conditions.
“If there’s one thing that kills cannabinoid potency, it’s overwatering,” she said. “If they don’t experience xeric or desert environment stress, they don’t produce.”
Miller said desert conditions encourage the manufacture of the THC-containing trichome crystals in cannabis flowers, probably because they are a kind of “sunscreen” that protects the plant from water loss. She said broad-leaf Sativa plants have a higher ratio of CBD to THC than narrow-leafed Sativa and many Indica varieties.
Cannabis has evolved genetically through a complex interaction with the physical environment and human uses of the plan, according to Miller.
She said the THC-rich flowers of the Indica species, for example, native to the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, were commonly used in religious ceremonies and celebrations. Thus, farmers in those regions bred for high-THC flowers that create an intense high.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan potent flowers or buds were not as important because residents there used hashish, which is made from the leaf of plants, not flowers.
“We have always bred by intuition, by the smell, the look the familiarity,” O’Neill said. “Now [with a greater knowledge of plant genetics] there are more tools in the farmer’s toolbox.”
Both speakers said they favor growing cannabis from seeds rather than clones, which do not have a tap root, can carry diseases from the mother plant the farmer and cannot be bred.
Breeding allows farmers to differentiate themselves by creating new strains.
“Who knows? You could conceivably develop the next big cultivar strain.”Miller said.
Both Miller and O’Neill described a couple of problems they have seen in plants this summer. O’Neill reported seeing more “hermies,” his term for hermaphrodites— plants that appear to be females early on and turn into males with seeds as they mature. He speculated that the extreme weather fluctuations of hot and cold earlier in the summer might have caused that problem.
Fusarium, a toxin-producing, soil-dwelling fungus that can devastate a plant’s root system, ihas been another common problem this year in outdoor grows.
Signs of Fusarium damage can include wilting in the top outer leaves, leaves turning upward and dry rot in the root. Fusarium mold spreads through water movement, gardening tools, farm equipment and the air. One of the biggest offenders, Miller said, can be molds from nearby vegetable or flower gardens. She urged farmers to remove any damaged plants or parts of plants from the garden, sterilize pots and tools that contain Fusarium, and add microrhysomes to the soil.
Miller and O’Neill agreed that testing plants for potency; ratio of CBD to THC, and toxins, mold and mildew is an important way to way to improve quality and demonstrate to perspective buyers the potency and health of their plants.
Dispensaries are not currently mandated to test their products, but that is changing Miller said. And more and more cultivators are testing, too.
“You don’t want to deliver contaminated products to a dispensary,” Miller said. “There is a lot of competition. One contaminated pound and you’re out.”
Miller warned that not all labs are honest. Since there is no state regulation of cannabis testing, some labs, hoping to retain customers, manipulate their results to make a grower’s products appear more potent than they are.
“When potency equals value there is a desire to manipulate results,” Miller said. “We’re in a war. Venture capitalists versus privately funded companies like mine. The temptation is about money. You can have a principled business and an ethical business, and you can make money and you can do well. Not as quickly but as a sustainable business over time.”
After lunch, O’Neill reviewed some of the permits cultivators will need to comply with new or existing state codes.
Last week the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted California’s first regional water-quality regulatory order designed to protect the environment from waste associated with cannabis cultivation.
Starting Feb. 15, 2016, growers with cannabis cultivation areas of 2,000 square feet or more must enroll in one of three tiers, depending on site conditions and threat to water quality. Tier 1 is a low-threat tier based on compliance with defined standard conditions and site characteristics. Tier 2 is a management tier, which requires the development and implementation of a water resource protection plan to meet standard conditions. Tier 3 is a cleanup tier, which requires the development and implementation of a cleanup and restoration plan.
O’Neill listed some of the permits farmers will need to comply with state law:
—Writ of diversion stating how much water a farm uses from wells, creeks and other sources
—Board of Equalization sellers permit
—Waste-water discharge permit
—Department of Fish and Wildlife1602 “stream-alteration permit"
He encouraged farmers who plan to compete in the emerging cannabis marketplace to do what all retail businesses do: brand their products; develop a business structure and plan; keep bookkeeping records; track sales and expenses for tax-reporting purposes, and comply with environmental regulations.
He said California Assembly Bill 266, on track to be signed into law this year, assigns regulation of cannabis farms to the Department of Food and Agriculture— something the EGA has been lobbying for.
“Regulatory compliance can be costly and challenging,” O’Neill concluded. “It will involve on-site inspections. Despite the challenges, compliance with existing environmental regulations is a promising pathway for continued success as a farmer.”
(Jane Futcher is host of “The Cannabis Hour” on KZYX radio.)