The Emerald Triangle has a reputation for high quality cannabis, and the natural soil is certainly fertile — Is it an accident of nature that gives Humboldt an edge? The quality of the Triangle’s best chronic is no accident. Top tier farmers give back more than they take from their soil.
World-renowned cultivation expert and nursery owner Kevin Jodrey helped lay out in the last issue of Weed World how you can pick genetics like Humboldt farmers pick top genetics. After your cultivars are selected, you become the steward of that plant to help it grow the biggest, dankest flowers genetically possible. That starts with placing it in healthy soil with the nutrients and microbial life it needs to flourish. Kevin and I collaborated to speak with the farmers and innovators of Northern California and lay out the craft farmer’s mindset on building soil.
Fallow to Fertile in NorCal
When two enterprising farmers first moved to Siskiyou County in Northern California, they knew the region had a large farming community that grew alfalfa, wheat, strawberries, and underground cannabis. Spencer Damon and Dia Damon moved to this rural spot located in the midst of California’s dense, diverse forest, and the agricultural landscape was not what they expected.
“We thought it would be lush and beautiful land everywhere,” Spencer Damon said. “But when we got there, it looked like the moon.”
It was clear farmers of all crops across the region had depleted the native soil of nutrients over time on the farm lands. Even naturally fertile soil is sapped if consecutive harvests are reaped without adding anything back, they noted.
The Damons had their work cut out for them, and they were ready for it. Dia Damon is a master gardener who specializes in low-impact natural artisan farming, and Spencer Damon is a second-generation micro-farmer. They named their new homestead Nomad’s Landing (their last name backwards) and began from that plot to build their first farm’s soil and their award-winning reputation in the cannabis industry, primarily using inputs from within 100 feet of the garden.
“We use a whole farm approach that creates an intricate web of micro-biodiversity,” Dia said. “Ecosystems must be in balance on the farm. One of the main reasons we build our soil is we don’t till our soil. We are continually growing it.”
The sun-grown cannabis flowers behind the Nomad’s Landing brand developed a reputation for craft quality. Now, the Damons have transitioned that brand to their new Mendocino County location to create natural farming inputs. They plan to help cannabis farmers across the industry grow better flowers year after year while continuously building the soil’s microbial life.
Fostering Native Microbe Growth
The Damons consider it vital for outdoor farmers to incorporate native soil into their beds. “You want to capture the terroir,” Spencer Damon said, for what he called “known flavor enhancers.” Terroir can be described as the unique environmental characteristics that bring subtleties (and increased marketability) to crops like wine, coffee, chili peppers and cannabis. While many farmers are introducing imported soils onto their farms, “we encourage people to bring natural soils from their own area to incorporate in,” he said. “When you get bud from Humboldt, you want to be sure you have that Humboldt flavor. Kushy flavor overlaid everything from Siskiyou.”
Important to terroir, it’s the native microbial life in soil that helps develop its unique qualities. “For those who don’t till, they’re finding that they have to start over from ground zero again,” Dia Damon said. “When you build initial beds, it takes one to two years to get high quality production. You need to build that microbial life again. When you buy the microbes, you have to put it back in the soil every couple weeks because they’re not indigenous to the area they’re farming in — the microbes aren’t accustomed to living there.” That is one reason Nomad’s Landing made use of inputs from so close to their farm and saw such success.
In the nearby county of Del Norte, Patrick Smith of Grean Bicycles agreed that native soil and microbial life are important factors, and he has a simple rule for understanding inputs: “If you’re using things that used to be alive and that’s what you feed back into the soil, that’s really all you need to get the trace elements back in it.” Humans aren’t so different — most everything healthy we eat was once alive.
Smith has been a soil-minded farmer for over a decade, winning the first Cannabis Cup in the United States in 2010. After the win, he started an organic garden center called Grean Bicycles that later focused solely on dry tea mix and dry nutrient mix.
“Alfalfa has everything you need,” he said. “Anything that used to be alive has all the trace elements. I make my products from a wide spectrum of things that used to be alive,” including crab, fish, kelp, and bone meal.
“I look at it kind of like a meal. Most of the things on a good plate, you’re going to have a wide array. You need seasoning,” Smith said. “Some natural salts act as kind of a seasoning to make it more available to the plant. Epsom salt is a natural magnesium salt, potassium salt in fine amounts, like you would season food.”
Adding amendments and nutrients can build healthy plants, but Smith said it’s incorrect to think you can “boost THC” by adding a certain nutrient. “The soil makes the plant a healthy factory. You need magnesium for chlorophyll. You need phosphorous for the ATP. You do need nutrition for the biomolecules and the enzymes in the plant. That factory in turn starts with carbon dioxide and water and sunlight to create sugar. Basically, that sugar comes from the air.”
“Most of the drugs we get from plants — caffeine, nicotine, morphine, THC — they’re all just different carbons,” Smith said. A lot of people want to put things in the ground that put in more THC, but you just want to make a real healthy factory.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. As an inspector for Clean Green Certification, Smith has toured cannabis farms across Humboldt County and other production areas. Smith said, “There’s a lot of big grows in Southern Humboldt and Northern Humboldt. They don’t buy bottles of liquid.”
What Does Your Soil Need?
What is your soil lacking? Does it already have too much of one nutrient that could overwhelm your plants? Before you start amending soil, you need to know what you’re starting with. The team at Soilscape Solutions in Northern Humboldt is rushing orders through for this season to get farmers the data and amendment mixes they need after a long, wet winter.
Director of Operations Natalie Faris said Soilscape Solutions works with experienced laboratories to test the nutrients and pH of farmers’ soil samples, and they can also detect about 150 common pesticides. One week after a sample is dropped off, the test results come back and their team crafts an amendment recipe to perfectly complement the soil, unless one of their pre-mixed bags will fit the bill. “We formulate the soil amendment plan based on the results of the test and the farmer’s budget,” Faris said.
Winter is ideal for testing soil so you can efficiently prepare your garden beds, though heavy rains and washed out roads make testing difficult, Faris said. What you find might surprise you — farmers and extractors are more and more finding trace amounts of pesticides in their products as the state’s scrutiny increases. Even if the farmer didn’t use any pesticides this season, their soil could be contaminated from previous farm activity, she said.
Your compost could also be killing your cannabis’s test results. Fungicide myclobutanil is legally allowed in the wine industry, but not the cannabis industry, Faris said. Compost companies that source material from vineyards are bringing this chemical along for the ride, too. Since it’s a legal chemical in some agricultural industries, compost producers aren’t required to disclose the possible presence of myclobutanil to customers, Faris said. “If you have to get outside sources, it might as well be the best, including high quality compost,” so be sure you know what you’re getting and its origin.
Over at Nomad’s Landing, the Damons encourage fellow farmers to stick with high quality inputs in order to survive the waves of regulation California is developing. “People compromise the organic value, and that’s really going to affect people’s gardens as testing becomes more prolific,” Dia Damon said. “Folks who aren’t using organic amendments are going to run into problems in the next few years, especially for extracts.”
Applying Nutrients: Best Practices
Inside their 12,000 sq. ft. warehouse in Arcata, the Soilscape Solutions team creates large, custom amendment mixes for their clients. Owner Samuel Deyton said it’s critical not to mix worm castings or compost in unless the farmer is going to apply it immediately. The carbon, nitrogen and moisture content begin reacting and decomposing — the nitrogen will become volatile and those white bags of good soil supplement start leaking ammonia. Dry mixes without those “hot” elements can sit for months when properly covered until the farmer needs it, Deyton said.
Soilscape Solutions carefully selects their inputs when helping farmers, and recommends appropriate companion plants and other helpful elements. There are many acceptable organic options for getting the right balance of nutrients. Smith from Grean Bicycles said the goal is a healthy and microbial “meal” in the soil — there’s not “one way” to get there. “Just like you can get very nice meals in countries all over the world, there are a lot of answers to the puzzle. I think it’s obvious that a lot of things work.”
Smith’s method of applying nutrients: take a scoop of powders of fish meal, bone meal and crab, aerate them in water and incubate for a short period, and then apply it to the soil. The anaerobic bacteria encourages the carbon cycle, making an incubator for the kind of bacteria needed to break down big food for the plant.
Bone meal is typically where you’re going to get your phosphorous — phosphorous is easy to overdo, but it’s also slow to break down so it’s not a disaster if you overdo it, Smith said. Most other nutrients, however, do cause problems when they’re over-applied.
“Real typical, I will have someone come in and say ‘My plant is yellow. I need to add something.’ In a plant with regular soil, it won’t turn yellow. Typically, you’ve added too much and there’s an imbalance,” Smith said. “The answer is usually not to add anything. Usually, people overdo stuff. ‘A little is good, a lot is better’ seems right but it doesn’t actually work that way.”
The Damons also described their approach to Nomad’s Landing and upcoming projects like Port Royale with Kevin Jodrey in Humboldt: “In a prime world, we wouldn’t be using peat moss as initial building. We’d use composted wheat, but that takes years,” Dia Damon said. “There are ways to compost that down faster, but the quality is not as high. Peat moss, humus, compost, worm castings, part of the native soil, then we add amendments to that. In natural farming, they’d probably start there and add ferment, but we still use a lot of the dry amendments.”
They have stopped using certain amendments over the years. Crab had been common in their amendment mix, but they stopped last year due to the detection of radiation from Fukushima, where a Japanese nuclear power plant in 2011 caused a nuclear accident after being damaged during a major earthquake and tsunami. They’ve also stayed away from azomite, due to the potential consequences on the brain from this dynamic accumulator.
The Damons also make good use of the plant waste by fermenting it to feed future generations. They also ferment other crops separately to apply that provide specific nutrients, like corn and nettle. Fermented leaves are used to feed during the vegetative state, and then fermented flowers are used during the flowering state. They’ll also apply compost tea. “We base our program on top dressing, tea and ferment,” Dia Damon said. “We try to work in harmony to produce a high quality crop, whether it’s vegetables, cannabis or crops for compost.”
“Being a natural farmer means needing to be proactive versus reactive,” Dia Damon said.
Building a strong, organic foundation in the soil is clearly one of the secrets of how top tier cannabis is grown in the Emerald Triangle. There isn’t just one way to build your soil, but the underlying principles behind the best craft cannabis are similar from farm to farm. Patience, practice, organic inputs, and talking with your neighborhood experts are all part of what make those resin-dripping flowers from Humboldt possible.