A new frontier

We feasted on lots of yummy strawberries this week!

Casey and I are driving down to Corvallis on Friday for an important (and perhaps surprising) meeting. We will be talking with someone at Oregon State University (OSU — Oregon’s land grant ag school) about their existing policy to not engage with Oregon cannabis growers or offer any cannabis-growing materials through their many farming and extension programs.

We see this as problematic on multiple levels. First of all, because of decades of prohibition, cannabis growers are — quite literally — coming out of a closet right now. Prohibition forced many persistent (and illegal) growers inside, again literally into spaces like closets (I actually witnessed a closet grow in our neighbor’s bedroom during our college days!). Now, if you know anything about growing plants, you probably know that closets (or closet-like spaces) aren’t the best place to grow them. Usually there’s no soil or sunlight to be had — which are much needed for growing healthy plants of any kind!

In the absence of free access to bountiful sun and healthy soil, marijuana growing during prohibition established a lot of other kinds of practices for growing indoors: containers with potting mix, grow lights, very controlled conditions, chemical fertilizers, hydroponics, to name a few. Even though marijuana can now be grown legally outside in Oregon, many people still associate its production with those kinds of indoor methods. Rightfully so, since many growers are still using these methods, being most familiar with a system that would be unlikely to exist at all were it not for decades of prohibition.

However, as marijuana production scales up to meet the growing demand in Oregon, some of those methods sometimes can be (or seem to be) unhealthy, let alone no longer as necessary. We’ve heard from our vegetable growing friends in Southern Oregon about how marijuana farmers (or their investors) are buying up class-one farmland and paving it in order to grow marijuana in pots filled with soil mix. I join my friends in weeping for this permanent loss of beautiful soil, and I shake my head at the shortsightedness of the marijuana growers as well — to not even realize the asset they are losing in the process of continuing to grow in the old, prohibition-inspired methods. Rarely before have marijuana growers had access to class-one Oregon farm soils, and clearly some of them don’t realize that it can grow all kinds of crops! Quite well!

And, this is why we’re going to OSU, because we feel like this new burgeoning sector of Oregon agriculture needs to be brought into the fold. In the farming circles Casey and I run in, we hear a lot of farmers speaking of marijuana growers in ways that suggest that they are “outside” the group — “they” are “others” and not farmers, like “us.” For so long, the two groups were quite separate, since one group was kept mostly in the dark (those literal closets!) or in small medical grows. There wasn’t much need or opportunity for the mainstream farming community to interact with the marijuana growing community. But as marijuana production increases, different kinds of folks are starting to bump up against each other, and it’s become clear that there are many prejudices in place — some of which are based on those old methods and old prohibitions rather than on the actual quickly-evolving nature of Oregon marijuana production today. Many mainstream farmers have a lot of fear and skepticism about their new marijuana growing neighbors, who they don’t always readily see as being fellow farmers. Prejudices rarely represent truth, and they are almost always harmful.

And this is why we’re going to OSU on Friday. When cannabis was legalized in Oregon for recreational use, OSU established a policy of not participating in disseminating or coordinating information. Casey and I were told that it was because OSU feared losing its federal funding because marijuana is still federally illegal. We’d like to discuss this decision further with them, because we think it’s a stance that has far-reaching negative consequences for Oregon farmers (marijuana growers especially):

By not including Oregon’s cannabis growers in the “fold” of farmers OSU serves and reaches out to, they effectively “other” marijuana growers and perpetuate the long-standing stigma against marijuana growth and its use. When I attended an OSU Small Farms conference this last February, cannabis production came up, but in a way that assumed no one in the room would conceive of growing it and with the implication that its production primarily had negative consequences for farmers (a category that didn’t include cannabis growers). These not-so-subtle messages perpetuate prejudice among Oregon farmers, which can create unnecessarily hostile relationships between neighbors who might otherwise be cooperating.

The other big problem is that OSU has effectively cut off marijuana growers from very important information that this new industry needs — that is, a wealth of information about how to grow healthy crops in Oregon, using the sun and the soil. I have heard people disparage marijuana grows as being inherently polluting or resource-heavy (because of the grow lights), but again — these are not actually practices that are inherent to growing marijuana. They are cultural practices that grew from prohibition. (Not to mention that many indoor growers are quite conscious of using organic inputs, not polluting and using energy-efficient methods whenever possible.)

Casey and I believe that if OSU were willing to take a risk to work with marijuana growers (alongside so many other agencies in the state such as the ODA and the Oregon Farm Bureau), they could make a huge and powerful statement. They would effectively confirm what is actually true already: Oregon marijuana growers are Oregon farmers. They would acknowledge that marijuana is a crop, worthy of consideration by the experts that can help farmers find healthy, cost-effective solutions and help connect information to the farmers who need it. OSU could help bridge the gaps that exist between the historical marijuana growing community and other Oregon farmers. Historically segregated from each other, they both have different bodies of knowledge about growing that could be shared — the useful information wouldn’t necessarily run just in one direction. Marijuana growers have become experts on certain plant diseases, molds especially, and their solutions could be highly relevant to vegetable and fruit growers.

(OSU would also recognize that it too could potentially benefit financial from the tax revenue from recreational marijuana sales, which has amounted to $75 million since 2016!)

And, when Casey and I sit down to have this conversation, we will be doing so as farmers who have bridged those gaps already, on our own farm — putting us in a unique position of having a foot in both camps. For as long as we’ve farmed, Casey has always “joked” (or so I thought) that when marijuana became legal, he’d grow it — out of curiosity and celebration of legalization as much as anything. So, when Oregon launched its recreational marijuana program through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) last year, he started doing research into this new crop, and eventually (after a lot of analysis and consideration), we got licensed and grew a fall crop of marijuana.

It was a crazy experience to launch a small part of our farm into what is effectively a very new frontier within agriculture (which I think was a big part of its appeal for Casey, forever the “mountain climber” at heart!). Everything was being figured out by the OLCC and growers in motion, and we had no idea what to expect from our first year — whether we’d be able to grow it at all as a starters! Interesting fact at this point: there is (perhaps naturally!) some prejudice within the marijuana community about other kinds of farmers as well! Some long-time marijuana growers really doubted that we’d be able to grow it successfully our first year, even though we’d been successfully growing a wide range of other crops for a decade. Others were supportive and incredibly helpful in offering cuttings and lots of information and counsel. We’ve formed some really wonderful on-going relationships with other marijuana growers, and we have tried our best to offer information that is useful to them based on our farming experiences too.

In the end, we grew our first crop of cannabis well enough to have a decent harvest. We certainly learned many things along the way, since marijuana is an entirely different plant than any we’d grown before. We definitely learned about mold! And we also learned from other growers a lot of cool, organic-approved methods of preventing it, which we now also apply to our vegetables and fruits (especially in our high tunnels). One of our mold preventing agents is made out of fermented knotweed!!!!! Another agent is a bacteria that might be found in fermented foods. We are essentially providing ‘probiotics’ to our marijuana and vegetable plants now. So my point earlier about the cross-application of knowledge wasn’t just theoretical.

After harvest, we had to find new customers to work with, because — unlike vegetables — we can’t sell our marijuana direct market! We can only sell to licensed retailers, processors, and distributors. And, because everything was so new last year, we had product to sell before there were even many retailers licensed to buy it! But that all shifted after the New Year when laws kicked in requiring dispensaries either to get their OLCC license or stop doing recreational sales. And, the money we made from our first modest crop was enough to allow us to meet some of our bigger picture (but modest) financial goals, including starting our first retirement account ever!

So, we considered that first year a success. We’re renewing our license and growing another cannabis crop this year, experimenting more with different kinds of marijuana (day-length neutral vs. the traditional day-length dependent strains). Now that we’ve been through an entire season, we have a much better idea of what to expect from the season and its work with this crop.

If you’re still hanging with me through this revelation of sorts, it’s likely that you have a lot of questions. We’ve noticed that people often have a lot of questions when we share about our marijuana growing, because it’s all so new and most people are learning from scratch about the basics of marijuana production, let alone the ins and outs of Oregon’s laws and how they function. We have certainly learned a ton in the last year ourselves, as we knew very little to begin with.

So, in this newsletter, I’d like to end with a Frequently Asked Questions section regarding marijuana production on our farm (and when I say “frequently asked,” I mean frequently!). Some of these questions enter into personal territory, but we like to be open about what our life as marijuana growers really looks like, because I think our operation defies a lot of people’s preconceptions, and I think that is useful for rolling back unhealthy stigmas all around. So, here are our FAQ:

“Do you guys use marijuana?”

No we do not, at this time. Really, I almost hate that answer because I don’t want to suggest that this fact somehow justifies us growing it for some people, but it is the truth. For what it’s worth, we also don’t drink alcohol at this time in our life either. That is what feels comfortable for us, for now. In future years, I don’t know what the answer to this question will be. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use marijuana if chronic pain became a part of my life or if I had to undergo chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Also, if you’re wondering, we don’t always consume everything we grow: for example, Casey doesn’t eat potatoes! And, we have grown dry beans and grains at times when we were not eating those either.

“Will you quit growing vegetables?”

No! Not in the foreseeable future! Right now, our family has three income streams, all from our farming endeavors: we grow and sell vegetables/fruits through our CSA, we grow marijuana, and we rent some portion of our land base to two other organic farmers. With all three of these income sources in place, we feel a great deal of relaxation about all of them. Should anything go awry with any one, there are two others still. We really love this level of diversity (just as we’ve always loved growing so many different crops for the CSA) — it represents risk management for the farm and for our family.

Plus, we love growing fruits and vegetables. Really, we just love plants so very much. We find them fascinating and endlessly satisfying to grow, which is part of what inspired Casey to try growing a new crop. If anything, feeling like our farm is more financially secure than ever has renewed our joy at operating our CSA. We feel like we have the wiggle room to operate it in ways that are fun and feel good to us, and we worry a lot less about possibly losing a customer here or there. It also allows us to operate a relatively small CSA (compared to some former years), which feels more fun to us. We love the small scale and how it lets us really engage with our farm in a detailed, loving way.

“So, are you guys getting rich now?”

That’d be great, wouldn’t it? Certainly, growing marijuana is the most profitable enterprise we’ve ever taken on to our farm. But part of why it has been profitable for us is because we didn’t have to invest much into it last year — we already had the farm, the tractor, the well, and lots of other tools. The only money we had to invest was in the OLCC license (which is expensive!), seeds/plants, and infrastructure specific to marijuana (which was primarily the security measures mandated by the OLCC — more about that below). So, the stakes for our farm were pretty low last year, and we covered our costs and made a profit that, like I said above, allowed us to start meeting some modest financial goals that had been put off for years and years (such as starting a retirement account).

To actually get rich growing marijuana would require investing a lot more time and energy than we are interested in doing at this time. Yes, cannabis sells for a lot of money per pound, but each pound of marijuana requires a surprising amount of labor, especially in the post-harvest handling when it is dried, cured, and trimmed. As with the CSA, we don’t want to exceed what we can do with our own labor, which naturally limits our income potential.

That being said, yes we feel like our financial situation shifted with this new crop, in very pleasant ways. We felt some pressure lift off our finances, which were always stable and positive but at times tight in spots. We have felt more comfortable spending money on things like kids’ activities (which, holy moly, add up fast!!!!). We did have to pay more in taxes than ever before though too!

Finances are of course very personal matters, but again I wanted to share this in order to dispel the notion that just growing marijuana will make one filthy rich! And, of course, the price will fluctuate as supply and demand in Oregon settle out over the years (and again when federal legalization happens, which I think is inevitable eventually). It’s likely that the price will go down over time, which is why we’re grateful that it’s only a supplement to our farm’s income rather than something we’ve invested a lot into.

“Can you get a contact high while working with it?”

Nope! Little known fact (outside the marijuana-using community at least) — marijuana is not active until it is heated. This is why it is either smoked or cooked into food. So, even though we are completely surrounded by the smell of marijuana while we work with it, there is no danger of us accidentally being affected by the cannabinoid compounds, such as THC or CBD. Most people wear gloves while harvesting or trimming marijuana, but that is to keep their hands clean! The resin can be very sticky and hard to remove, but it’s not impossible if one is willing to rub one’s skin with rubbing alcohol and coconut oil.

“How do you grow it?”

We grow our marijuana using the same methods we’ve used for growing fruits and vegetables for over a decade — using the native soil on our farm and the sunlight that falls naturally from the sky. We’ve chosen to grow our crops in two of our high tunnels, because we know how beneficial that system is for all of our crops. Last fall, having that cover was a real benefit when the early rains hit in force in October and we were still harvesting the last of our crop!

All our inputs are organic-approved, and Stellar, our certifying body, knows all about the crop and will be happy to certify it as soon as it is federally legal for them to do so! We’re keeping all the records for our marijuana that we keep for our other crops (and then some!) and the ground it grows in is certified organic. (We could actually have it certified Biodynamic right now through Demeter, but so far we haven’t seen that there is an existing demand for that and honestly it’s just one thing too many for us to manage right now!)

“Are you worried about security?”

The OLCC smartly mandates stringent security measures for all of its licensees (producers, retailers, etc.). One of the stores we’ve worked with had an attempted break-in earlier this year, and all the systems in place worked to scare off the perpetrator and alert the police to the scene before any marijuana was actually stolen.

So, one little section of our farm has an eight-foot tall perimeter fence and a security system in place. We also have to utilize a very complex auditing program to keep track of all our crop at any time — all OLCC licensees are in the system, so when we sell a package of marijuana, we have to “transfer” it in the system to a store. All of these measures insure that legal marijuana stays in the system safely and doesn’t get diverted to the black market. These measures also provide protection for the people growing and selling it.

We also don’t have any cash stored anywhere on the farm; we’ve been able to find another way to manage our money, off site (not cash based either!). Having to store cash would have been a deal-breaker for me personally, so I was glad we had other options!

“How do you guys feel about marijuana use, in general?”

I’d say that we feel neutral to positive about its use, in general. We feel concerned about unhealthy use of any kinds of substances — marijuana, alcohol, legal opioids, etc. But it seems to us that people, for the most part, use marijuana as responsibly as they use alcohol.

In our journey to more knowledge, we have learned so much about what marijuana is. First of all, it’s a plant. Seriously, folks. It’s just a plant. It has leaves, stems, flowers. When you dry the flowers, they are in ready-to-use form — no further processing needed for use. It is, basically, a very powerful herb, which is how it felt when we were working with. That is also, if you’re interested, how we explain what it is to the children: that is a very powerful herb that should only be used by adults. It’s interesting to see their nonplussed reaction so far to the whole thing; they are too young to have any concept of the historical stigma or any knowledge of “pot culture.” Cannabis is just a crop that we grow (and the OLCC prohibits their presence in the enclosure, so they don’t get to see it up close anyway).

We were also fascinated to learn more about the mechanism of this “drug,” which doesn’t technically “intoxicate” a person at all — in the sense that “intoxicate” literally means to “make toxic.” The active compounds in marijuana, cannabinoids, are not toxic to the body. In fact, our body produces cannabinoids naturally as a part of healthy functioning (these are called endocannabinoids), which is part of the theory behind marijuana’s incredible medicinal value: that it provides substances the body needs to be healthy. The mechanism of the “high” is not a side effect of thwarting the body’s systems, as in the case of opioids, but of possibly super-charging the body’s systems by adding extra cannabinoids to all those communication pathways between systems. So weird, but also so cool to learn about. Because we love plants! (Also, because I’m a runner I found this article about endocannabinoids intriguing: “To Your Brain, A Runner’s High Looks a Lot Like Smoking Weed.”)

If you want to learn more, we recommend two books (both of which are in the McMinnville Library’s collection):

“How can I become an OLCC-licensed marijuana producer too?”

Yes, this is a common question! I think that Casey’s enthusiasm for this crop is shared by many, and we’ve fielded many inquiries from other farmers and farmers-to-be about what it really takes to become an OLCC-licensed grower. We won’t actually go into the details of all of that here, but suffice to say that it is a truly rigorous process full of hoop jumping, lots of paperwork, particular infrastructure development, and inspections. But, like most hard things in life, it is totally doable if one has the determination to complete the task.

“Where can I buy some of your stuff?”

Yes, this is also a question we get! Because, as it turns out, folks who use marijuana are starting to have a choice about where and who they buy it from. And, just like with food and wine, they have preferences! We sell the marijuana under the DBA Walnut Rise (which is a play on Oakhill and has a fun story behind it). Right now we don’t have any flowers at retails stores (we sold out several months ago, selling primarily to stores in Salem), but you can buy a tincture made from our flowers from Willamette Botanicals, available locally at Medicine Tree in McMinnville.

We are happy to answer lots more questions you may have in person or through email. As I’ve said, it’s our experience that most people are very curious about this new industry. They may be casual users and still not know about marijuana’s production; or, they may have never used and only be working from stigmas about the plant — either way, people seem to like having us to answer questions as best we can. Because we’re that bridge between two groups that have been segregated from each other for so long, I think we offer a unique perspective on so many aspects of marijuana production. We too were newbies who knew nothing (except a lot about farming), and perhaps that makes us well equipped to explain all the novelty of it to others who are similarly new to the concept of legal marijuana.

It is truly a new frontier, and Oregon is on the forefront. But more states are joining us all the time. At this point, 26+ states (and D.C.) have some form of legal marijuana programs (medical and/or recreational) in place or very soon on the way (here’s a map if you’re interested). Each state also has a slightly different implementation program. From what we’ve heard of others, we really love Oregon’s, which allows individuals to grow their own (four plants per household!) and favors small growers (production operations max out at one acre per taxlot per licensee). Both of these features seem to really have the “flavor” of Oregon, where so many people love gardening and love small farms!

OSU has been a big part of promoting the growth and viability of Oregon’s small farms through its (aptly named) Small Farms Program. One of our first friendly introductions to Oregon agriculture was our 2006 attendance of their annual Small Farms conference — before we’d ever even planted a seed in the ground! We were inspired by the presentations on direct marketing and the networking opportunities provided. It truly helped launch us in a successful direction when we started our own CSA in McMinnville later that spring on one acre of rented ground outside of McMinnville. The rest, as they say, is history! We’re still at it 11 years later, starting to feel like “old folks” in the direct-market farming community. We are so grateful for that opportunity OSU provided, for us to connect to that important information and community of other growers. And that is why we’ll be driving down to Corvallis on Friday to urge OSU to extend that same warm welcome to all Oregon farmers, to the benefit of all farmers and Oregonians.

Thanks for bearing with me on all of this big stuff. I imagine that many of you have found it interesting and that at least a few of you might feel challenged. It’s definitely new territory for all. And, now that it’s “out there,” marijuana growing may make occasional cameo appearances in our newsletter, but rest assured: this is our CSA newsletter. Casey actually writes a separate blog for the Walnut Rise part of the farm, sharing marijuana growing stories (and occasional book reviews). We see these CSA newsletters as a place where we document and share the happenings of our vegetable farm and our family’s life on the farm. I, personally, love having a weekly outlet in which I can process all the interesting things that happen out here, from the arrival of the spring’s first Swainson’s Thrush (this week!) to the challenges of a wet spring to our children’s ever growing relationship to the land.

And, this week in particular, some of the actual big news of the week was the sudden abundance of spring vegetables and fruit! I can’t believe this ends up being a postscript tacked onto an already long newsletter, but truly we have been amazed by how the shift in weather brought abundance (see the photo above!). The pea and strawberry harvests exploded after last week’s CSA pick-up, and we’ve been eating plenty of both and are excited to share them with you this week too. We spent all afternoon picking peas as a family, and they are super delicious!

Thank you dear friends for being with us this farming and eating journey! Enjoy this week’s vegetables!

Your farmers, Katie & Casey Kulla

~ ~ ~

Meet this week’s vegetables: NO LIMITS this week! We think there is enough of all kinds of good stuff that everyone should be able to take home what they want! The hardest part will be choosing which items you want, it is all so good. Hoorah! Thanks for your patience as we got through that pinch point between over-wintered crops and the yummy spring stuff!

  • Strawberries
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Apples
  • Baby carrots
  • Head lettuce
  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Asian greens
  • Cabbage
  • Sunchokes
  • Green garlic
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5 Responses to A new frontier

  1. Great post Katie. I always learn something new when I read one of your posts. Very informative. Good luck with this endeavor and with OSU meeting. Cheers.

  2. Beth Rankin says:

    Thanks Katie. The federal law has to be changed. Simple as that.

  3. Barbara Boyer says:

    You can do it. I think back to when vineyards were being planted and hearing area farmers say “it’s not farming” now many years later they are recognized as “farmers”‘
    Co-existence is our new horizon

  4. E says:

    You forgot the most important question: will you include this in th CSA?

  5. Nadya says:

    Love that you’re fighting mold with fermented knotweed and probiotics! And this jumping through of hoops to grow another beautiful plant! As John said, always informative!
    I have a friend who has a cannabis club, teaching folks how to make their own salves and tinctures, plus providing info on the best strains for pain relief! She’s working with M.D.s specializing in pain relief, fighting cancer, etc.
    And another factlet, the Oregon Massage board allows LMTs to use cannabis oil or salve in massage session if neither the LMT or client have a medical C card.

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