TIMES MAGAZINE (MAY 2009)
Learn how to save money and the planet while growing the greatest, greenest ganja on Earth with a return trip to Northen California's Namaste Center for Sustainable Ganja Farming.
BY DAVID BIENENSTOCK
During the height of last year's ganja growing season, HIGH TIMES magazine dispatched one of our New York City-based reporters to Northern California to investigate a group of environmentally conscious medical marijuana providers. He returned with a story entitled Weeditopia (hightimes.com/weeditopia/), which detailed not only the ecologically friendly cultivation methods employed by the residents of the Namaste Center for Sustainable Ganja Farming (a pseudonym), but also the unique lifestyle that flourished on their land.
While our reporter noted the solar-powered water pumps, organic food gardens, compost toilets and rainwater collection systems, he also took part in communal meals, consensus-based planning meetings, and spontaneous late-night drum circles around the campfire. Along the way, he envisioned a world, not too far into the future, in which marijuana was not only legalized, but actively adopted by a new generation of growers as a means of providing society with much needed medicine, while providing themselves with a way to make a living, and form a community, that appeals to their highest ideals.
After numerous requests from readers all over the country, we dispatched that same reporter to Northern California again during this year's harvest, to check in with the plants and people at the Namaste Center, and to provide more detailed instructions for adopting eco-friendly cultivation practices in their own gardens, whether food or ganja, large or small, indoor or outdoor.
And so, as the modern world moves quickly into a bold new era, and the ancient Mayan calendar rapidly approaches it's ultimate jumping off point of December 21, 2012, let's stop for a moment, and consider that some of the oldest wisdom on Earth still holds tremendous value, particularly to those of us who have tied our health, wealth and well-being to the flourishing of a plant.
It was not too long ago, after all, in the grand scheme of things, that the first seed was saved and later planted, and our ancient ancestors took their initial, shaky step out of the chaos of prehistory. Prior to that pivotal innovation, humans hunted and gathered, finding their food and medicine wherever nature provided. Now, through trial-and-error, and the happy accidents that preface all great discoveries, these primitive farmers began slowly learning and perfecting countless ways of working with Mother Nature, using their tools and innovations to support her natural cycles.
And thusly, for thousands of years, agriculture remained completely organic, overwhelmingly local and largely sustainable, until, in the name of corporate profits and consumer "convenience," surplus chemicals left over from World War II were repurposed to create the modern, petroleum-based "agri-business" model. Complex cycles, developed over countless generations, were quickly torn apart and replaced by an assembly line of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, leading to a food system that's focused on producing the newest flavor of Doritoes, while the soil degrades, the family farmer goes broke, and the rivers clog with animal waste once treasured as an invaluable fertilizer.
That's the bad news. The good news is that now's the time to truly return to the land, and just as the market for local and organic food has skyrocketed in the last five years, so too has the market for organic ganja. And best of all, by conserving your resources, avoiding costly chemical additives, and tapping into the latest (and oldest) eco-gardening techniques, you can actually grow your all-natural, fully sustainable, wonderfully medicinal ganja for a lot less money than the next guy.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
"Let the Sunshine in!"
Among the many plagues of pot prohibition, it's an often overlooked one that most marijuana smokers are not only denied the pleasure of growing their own, but even knowing where their own comes from, who grew it, and how.
In fact, aside from pictures in this magazine and on the internet, the majority of America's 25 million stoners have never even seen a real live marijuana plant in the great outdoors. So take it from someone who has: It's a breathtaking and wondrous sight. Mary Jane looks so beautiful out in the middle of some lovely pasture, valley or hillside, soaked in morning sunshine and bright dew, leaves fluttering in a gentle breeze.
In a perfect world, all pot plants would live their lives outdoors, taking their nourishment from the sun and soil, breathing in our desperately unwanted carbon and gifting us oxygen in return. Remember, it's only the misguided laws against weed that ever drove us to hide our love away in the first place, and as soon as those laws are abolished forever, we will come out of our closets (and basements, and attics) once and for all.
For now, however, the reasons for growing marijuana indoors--stealth, quicker harvests, convenience, lack of outdoor space--remain understandable in some circumstances, but as far as the ecological impact goes, not to mention the amount of yield per dollar invested, there's still no comparison with outdoor gardens. Think about it: Going back to nature replaces electric bills and high intensity lights with free sunshine, replaces carbon filters and fans with fresh air, replaces trips to the hydro store with nutrient rich, natural soil, replaces all the costs of growroom construction with a bucket and a watering can, and so on.
And if you're worried about quality, don't be. This reporter has traveled all over the world in pursuit of the best herb on Earth, and can proudly report that the outdoor organic buds at the Namaste Center can roll with the best of them. And all with no artificial colors or flavors.
Hopefully, by now, we've convinced a few indoor growers to make the switch once the time is right. In the meantime, you can grow a little greener indoors by using more efficient 600 watt bulbs, running them at night, keeping them clean and dust free, and connecting them to properly functioning digital ballasts. You can also lower your energy costs and carbon footprint by switching your electrical current to 220, installing proper insulation in your growroom and home, using fluorescent lights for clones instead of high intensity, and installing light movers in your flowering room so you can use lower watt lights to get the same amount of light to your plans while burning less energy.
Also, never forget, an indoor growroom can also be an organic growroom. It starts with either organic soil, or an eco-friendly soilless medium like coco peat, and means that from planting to harvest, everything that touches your plants is 100% organic, including fertilizers like bat guano and natural pesticides like neem oil. Perhaps most importantly, indoor growers should seriously consider contributing some of their non-ganja green to the movement to legalize marijuana, so that we can all start growing (and smoking) out in the sunshine as soon as possible!
All across the globe, the depletion of clean, fresh water looms as a serious ecological challenge, one that already takes lives in many third world nations, and threatens to turn vast stretches of the Earth into deserts. This means that water, which fast-growing cannabis desperately needs to thrive, will become increasingly scarce and expensive in all but the wettest climates. It also means ganja growers have both a moral and financial interest in conserving water.
Let's start with the fresh, clean water that falls from the sky. After all, collecting rainwater is not only one of the oldest and most basic agricultural techniques, it's also one of the best ways for modern marijuana farmers to reduce both water usage and costs. And rainwater's not only free, it's also far better suited for your plants than what comes out of the tap.
The internet abounds with simple instructions for attaching a rain barrel to your house's gutters and countless variations on this theme will work in almost any setting with adequate rainfall. So get started as soon as possible, and make sure the next thunderstorm that passes through works for you and your garden.
Drip, drip, drip...
If that's the sound of your faucet, you're wasting water--a precious natural resource--and need to fix it immediately. But if that's the sound of your drip irrigation system, congratulations, you're on the right track, because unless you have a small garden that you can easily tend to during the day, setting up one of these simple, automatic watering systems makes sense for your plants, your pocketbook, and the planet.
By watering in small drips, in carefully measured amounts and at preset times of the day, automatic irrigation systems ensure that plants absorb as much of each watering as possible. Over time, you can adjust your settings until your plants receive an ideal amount of water for optimal growth.
Also, whether you water by hand or set up an irrigation system, water your plants early in the morning or in the cool of the evening, to ensure they get the most water to their roots before it's lost to evaporation. If you're using a watering can, water slowly, giving each plant a little at a time, and then waiting for the soil to absorb it before returning for more. Adding a bit of mulch on top of your soil will also help the plants retain more water, and use if more efficiently.
COMPOST TEA TIME
"I've never grown ganja conventionally." The Namaste Center's head ganja grower admits. "I've never had the money to do it."
So instead of buying costly soil amendments, the farm decided to brew compost tea instead, implementing their own version of a system developed by soil expert Elaine Ingham. The farm first experimented with compost tea last season, with amazing results. For a fraction of the cost, and with a lot less effort, they replaced all of their fertilizers and pesticides with just a few applications of the tea, both by pouring it into the soil, and by using it as a foliar spray on the leaves.
Comspost tea, a brew made from the farm's collected organic waste matter (like old leaves, pulled weeds, and discarded kitchen scraps), plus locally harvested organic amendments like fish hydrolosate, kelp, crab shell meal, soluble seaweed, and earthworm casing, not only feeds the plants, it builds the soil and fights off insects and diseases. Once again, this is a case of the latest science rediscovering the oldest wisdom.
Instead of thinking of your soil as an empty hole, into which you pour money and bottles of unpronounceable stuff from the hydro store, begin to think of it as a living community of tiny organisms and bacteria who have specifically evolved to benefit plant growth in exchange for their own microscopic free ride. Feed these tiny organisms, and they will gladly not only feed your crops in return, but also defend them against unwanted rivals like spider mites, bud mold, powdery mildew and caterpillars.
The process starts with a well-maintained compost pile, which not only provides the raw material for the compost tea, but also reduces the amount of trash produced on the farm. This, in turn, helps them make fewer trips into town, thus keeping a nice low profile. And even in Weeditopia, a low profile is still a good thing.
Meanwhile, many factors will affect exactly how you go about mixing up your own compost, based on your local climate, the number of plants you're growing and the amount and type of waste you have to compost. A well maintained pile doesn't stink much, but still, it's best to put it in an out of the way place. Constructing a bin will keep a smaller compost pile neat and contained, but for a larger one you needn't bother.
Do some research first, and plan your composting carefully so you don't end up with a big pile of rotting garbage. For instance, the interior of your compost pile must reach at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three days straight in order to kill off harmful bacteria and plant pathogens. Also, you must carefully monitor what goes into the pile and in what amounts to make sure there's a proper balance of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements. By the time your pile fully composts, the organic material will actually smell sweet, rich and earthy, and will easily break up in your hand.
Many farmers of all kinds already consider compost an invaluable element in their gardens, mixing it directly into their soil before planting and adding more as necessary throughout the season. By simply stuffing this material into a mesh sack and soaking it in water, you can create a rudimentary compost extract that can be more easily applied to plants, in a form they can more efficiently absorb.
The next step, if you choose to take it, involves "brewing" this extract along with a food source like molasses, thereby extracting far more of the nutrients from the compost, and creating a living population of beneficial microbes within the tea. When you apply compost tea to your plants, this "living soil" will reach the roots through watering and will reach the leaves when you spray them directly, and in both cases will quickly go to work feeding and protecting your increasingly beautiful ganja.
Most gardening stores have ready-made compost tea brewing systems available off the shelf, or you can find simple instructions on the internet for constructing your own. Switching your garden to compost tea will definitely take a little time and research up front, but down the road you'll be smoking sweeter, stronger, healthier buds at a fraction of the cost. Think of it as having a menage a trios with Mother Earth and Mary Jane!
GROW YOUR OWN (FOOD)
Come harvest time at the Namaste Center, the small, regular farm crew begins to expand with friends and friends-of-friends and helping-hands until there's about thirty full-time, live-in workers during the height of the trimming sessions. That makes for a lot of hungry mouths to feed, especially considering most of them have been smoking scissor hash since first thing in the morning.
By growing their own (food), the Namaste center can provide healthy, organic meals for its workers at less than half the cost of the supermarket, including the lengthy trip into town. Growing your own also eliminates the large carbon footprint associated with transporting food from all over the world to your local supermarket. And once again, by being self reliant and thrifty, the farm keeps a low profile--hitting the food co-op as little as possible, rather than shopping for a small army.
Best of all, since they're already extensively involved in agriculture, it's just a matter of devoting adequate space to vegetables, salad greens and other edible plants, feeding them the same compost tea as the ganja plants, and harvesting a delicious bounty day after day.
So who's hungry?
Short for "permanent agriculture," permaculture describes a philosophy of designing human habitats with a heavy emphasis on sustainability and self-sufficiency, particularly by learning to mimic the codependent systems found in nature, The phrase dates to the work of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970's, but the concept itself is ancient, dating back to a time when all agricultural production remained, by necessity, local and sustainable.
"The problem is the solution," permaculturalists are fond of saying, which means making what you have work for you, and making do without the rest. There are many applications of this principle. For instance, the photo above shows a good example of pairing the problem of needing to trim the fan leaves from a garden of outdoor buds with the "solution" of a bunch of hungry, weed-leaf-chomping ducks. Good thing those ducks don't eat the buds... Now if they only had longer necks!
AN ECOTOPIAN INTERVIEW WITH ERNEST CALLENBACH
In his 1975 novel Ecotopia, author Ernest Callenbach imagined a world in which Northern California, Oregon and Washington break off from the United States and form an independent republic based on living in harmony with the land. Twenty years later, a journalist from the New York Times-Post becomes the first official American visitor to Ecotopia since this war of independence. His newspaper columns describe a modern-day paradise in which the ideals and innovations of environmentalists have been put into practice, using modern technology to work with the bounty of nature rather than trying to subdue it, while creating a society based on community rather than consumerism.
That novel, and it's prequel, Ecotopia Emerging, inspired our journalist to imagine a world worthy of the name Weeditopia, and then to help explain how we can all work together to bring such a happy condition into existence.
So imagine our reporter's surprise and delight when none other than Ernest Callenbach, still living in Berkeley, invited him over for a cup of tea, and a discussion that would touch on medical marijuana, the end of capitalism, curbside composting, Amish farmers with solar panels, the future of the planet and why pot smokers need to get more ceremonial.
In Ecotopia, by the way, the government not only legalizes marijuana, they provide citizens with high quality seeds for free. In retrospect, it's a policy platform that the author still considers ahead of its time.
"If you look back through human history, you will find that people have always wanted to get high, in some form or other." Callenbach explains. "When I wrote Ecotopia, I had to look at the pros and cons of different mind altering substances, and it just seemed to me that in a society where people were trying to live like sensible animals, that marijuana looked like the main contender to be the standard mechanism for getting high."
Unfortunately, despite some obvious benefits, America still has not readily adopted such a policy towards marijuana. So does Callenbach see such changes in the future?
"When I wrote Ecotopia, I imagined people could figure out the sensible ways to run a sustainable society, and then they would start doing it." He says. "Now I'm more cynical, and I realize that change is much more generational. New ideas don't triumph because they're right, they triumph because the people who championed the old ideas die."
COMMUNITIES AGAINST POT POLLUTION
Last spring, a group of longtime residents in Northern California's legendary Humboldt County met to discuss the number of indoor grown operations setting up shop in what used to be America's premier breadbasket of outdoor ganja. The great migration from hidden guerilla plots in remote locations to large, diesel powered indoor bud factories started when the federal government first began its Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) program in 1983.
Faced with intensive enforcement efforts, including frequent helicopter assaults on their gardens, an increasing number of native pot growers opted for the relative safety of moving indoors, hoping to protect themselves, their plants, and their livelihoods. Recently, a steady influx of outsiders—often more interested in pot profits than quality, safety, the locals or the environment--pushed the issue to the forefront, and prompted a community meeting in a community that mostly prefers to keep to the shadows.
Calling themselves Communities Addressing Pot Pollution (CAPP), a group of eco-minded, longtime Humboldt locals, many of them also longtime outdoor growers, met informally for the first time to discuss issues regarding the environmental impact of these indoor grow ops. A few weeks later, one of their worst fears came to life, right in their own backyard.
"The spill gave everyone a kick in the butt," An anonymous CAPP spokesman told our reporter, while spreading the group's message at this year's NORML conference in Berkeley, California. " We realized that we've got to stop being silent because of the paranoia that goes with growing pot."
The spill, which sent up to 1000 gallons of diesel into Hacker Creek, in southern Humboldt County, occurred when one of the giant fuel tanks used to power an illegal indoor grow operation overflowed. Improperly installed and set up without a containment unit, the tank sent its toxic payload directly into an environmentally sensitive woodland creek.
An anonymous whistle blower called the authorities, and quickly a $200,000 clean up effort began, with local specialists removing the tanks, digging up contaminated soil and using specially absorbent materials to soak up even more. Still, the damage was done, and unfortunately, this won't be the last time—at least until we finally legalize marijuana, and take the profit incentive out of diesel-powered gardens.
Until then, CAPP hopes the spill at Hacker Creek can serve as the starting point for a sensitive but long overdue discussion about the responsibilities of ganja growers, a subject with the potential to cut deeply in a part of the country largely dependent on marijuana commerce. For starters, CAPP is calling on all indoor growers to, at the very least, install proper containment units on all diesel tanks to avoid future spills, and to run their generators on far less polluting bio-deisel. Also, make sure all wiring and electric equipment is up to code, and shut down indoor operations entirely during the dry, hot summers--in both cases to avoid the possibility of starting a wildfire.
But more importantly, CAPP hopes that by educating their fellow ganja growers, they can convince them to make the more ethical decision to grow the kind of outdoor, organic ganja most cannabis consumers still associate with Humboldt's finest. They also want to educate cannabis consumers about the benefits--including cost, taste, health, and sustainability--of supporting growers who are doing it right.
"It's a really touchy subject, because there's a lot of money involved. And unfortunately, a lot of people on the buying end don't understand what they're buying into." CAPP's spokesman says, citing a cultural bias that erroneously equates indoor hydro buds with higher potency. "We need a hiphop song about organic outdoor to fix the whole problem. Let's get back to the roots of what made Humboldt County famous in the first place."
JUST SAY NO TO DIESEL DOPE
A few facts to consider before cranking up that generator
* Growing 1.75 pounds of indoor pot with a diesel generator produces over 3,000 pounds of CO2.
* A 20-light indoor grow operation uses approximately 1,500 gallons of diesel per 75 day cycle.
* Most "diesel grows" require 75 gallons of the fuel to produce just 1 pound of herb.
* Indoor grow rooms, which rely on a completely artificial growing environment, serve as breeding grounds for pests and diseases.
In a time long before factory farming, the men and women who worked the land learned that by rotating different crops on the same pasture, they could assure that the soil remained well balanced and harvest bigger yields, while keeping pests and diseases off balance and on the run.
Modern day ganja growers can also benefit from this ancient wisdom. After a season of vigorous cannabis cultivation, a stretch of soil can find itself significantly depleted of nitrogen, a vital element that next year's marijuana plants will need in order to reach optimal growth. To "fix" this problem, certain crops can be planted in the off-season that will not only thrive in this environment, but actively return nitrogen to the soil as they grow.
Any quality organic gardening guide will discuss cover crops extensively, but in this instance, the cannabis cultivators our reporter consulted simply recommended planting fava beans immediately after harvest, and then coming back in the spring to cut the bean plants down before they went into flowering. Then you turn the soil over until the cut down stalks are fully buried.
Let the decomposing fava plants sit in the soil for a month before you plant more ganja, and you'll find that your nitrogen fixing cover crop has decomposed into a solid compost base that attracts earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
Ask any organic farmer about earthworms, and you're likely to get an earful. Not an earful of worms (hopefully), but rather an earful of praise for these small, but incredibly helpful creatures.
So what's so great about having a long, slimy, creepy crawler in your garden? Well, to put it plainly, earthworms eat decaying elements in the soil and poop out the finest, nutrient rich organic fertilizer in the world. They also, well, worm their way through the soil, creating small air pockets that allow your plants' roots to stretch and seek nutrients.
A well maintained compost pile will attract earthworms, and eventually increase their number, but by engaging in the dark art of vermiculture, also known as making a worm box, even a small scale farmer living alone in an apartment can create an impressive amount of top quality fertilizer while eliminating a surprisingly large amount of food waste. The basic concept involves raising a specific breed of earthworm known as red wrigglers by feeding them your kitchen scraps. The reward comes when the worm box begins to fill up with the kind of full-composted worm poop that your organic ganja craves.
If constructed and maintained properly, your worm box can fit into almost any sized space, while remaining virtually odorless. As you can see from the picture above, the kind farmers at the Namaste Center built quite a large worm box for themselves, since they have a lot of plants, and a plenty of food scraps with so many people living on the land. They obviously have a recommendation when it comes to further reading on the subject of building your own worm box, and there's also lots of good information on the internet.
THE TRIMMING TEEPEE
One of the ways the Namaste Center strives to reduce it's impact on the environment is by housing its workers in alternative, low-impact structures made from local, renewable resources. Here we see a trimmer making himself at home in a teepee while snipping away at the latest kind buds to emerge from the drying room. Additional Namaste gardeners live in yurts, yomes, and other structures that tread lightly on the environment.
CLEAN GREEN GANJA
"Don't panic, it's organic," or at least so goes a saying popular among devotees of all-natural ganja, grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. But how do you know that sweet, fat sack of Sour Diesel, Trainwreck, or Purple Kush is really organic? A lucky few can grow their own, but for the majority of cannabis consumers, there's just no way to be certain.
Despite the fact that medical marijuana patients in states with laws protecting their rights need organic cannabis to treat their ailments without breathing in potentially dangerous chemical additives, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has explicitly forbidden it's organic certifiers from extending their services to medical pot growers. And since no agricultural product can be legally called or labeled as organic without government certification, there's an inescapable Catch-420 that leaves medical pot smokers in the dark when it comes to their dank.
That's where Chris Van Hook and his Clean Green Certification program comes to the rescue. A California attorney and licensed USDA Organic Certifier, Van Hook responded to this pressing need by creating his own, distinct certification program for medical marijuana, one that he assures consumers is no less stringent than USDA organic certification, and in some ways, including an emphasis on sustainability, demonstrably more stringent.
Clean Green certification is available for any "agricultural crop that is legal in the state in which it's grown," but it's clear the emphasis is on providing medical marijuana patients with an easy way to assure they're getting the best medicine possible. The program also aims to promote better, healthier growing practices by recognizing the growers who are doing it right, and the dispensaries that carry their product.
As both an attorney and a government licensed organic certifier, Van Hook is uniquely positioned to both educate growers and dispensaries on the requirements for earning certification, and to defend them against any potential problems encountered in the grey market for medical marijuana. To learn more about Clean Green certification, including an introductory video and information on applying for certification, visit medicalcannabiscaregivers.org/clean_grean_certification.lasso