Search Results for: Dr Rick Freeman

Dr. Rick Freeman: Getting it Together

By Dr. Rick Freeman

For family farmers, 1988 was a tough year.  Stuck between cut-throat competition from Big Ag and the devastation of a Big Drought, many small-scale farmers dropped out.  But, not all of them.  That was the year that seven bedraggled, small-scale organic farmers in southwest Wisconsin formed the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool. Their hope for survival was to pool resources and investments while focusing on sustainability and food quality.  That co-op blossomed into Organic Valley, which today includes 1,800 farmers spread across the U.S., Canada and Australia, offering over 500 products sold in 50 states and 25 countries.  Just last year, OV’s revenue exceeded a billion dollars.   That’s pretty good for a bunch of family farmers.

Today, small-scale marijuana farmers face a wall of adversity similar to those seven families who started OV.  Fortunately, they have a good example to follow.  By embracing a cooperative structure, a rigorous sustainability standard, and a focus on product quality, marijuana producers enjoy an opportunity to create a robust, enduring brand that will benefit a broad range of people. The time is right to get started.

With a cooperative model, marijuana farmers can pool resources for vital functions like equipment purchasing and sharing, marketing, accounting, legal services, peer-lending, and more, spreading and absorbing risk that could easily doom a lone farmer.  Benefits can include pricing leverage, shared risk and optimized investments (as in sharing a pricey piece of equipment used only once a year), among others.

With a rigorous, transparent sustainability standard, co-op members can assure consumers that farming practices are creating long-term benefits for the community and environment  – and will continue to do so for future generations.  A rigorous standard can be based on a point system that reflects the strengths of diverse approaches to farming – with some common benchmarks that everyone must meet.  For example, consider a farmer whose energy efficiency is well above the energy benchmark but whose water-use efficiency is barely above the water benchmark. This farmer might score equally with a farmer whose water-use efficiency rating is high but whose energy-efficiency standard barely makes the grade.  This “indexing” system would reflect the values of co-op members and would be transparent and easy to formulate and implement.

Quality standards would set cooperative product quality well above common industry standards, capitalizing on the benefits from sustainable agriculture while assuring the consumer that products are reliably healthy, safe and beneficial.  For example, a high-quality co-op product is free of pesticides and pathogens while demonstrating a terroir of excellence – reflecting the best genetics, a robust ecology and healthy, living soil.  A quality standard would also use verifiable cannabinoid and terpene profiles for various strains, guaranteeing consumers that product quality is reliable and excellent.

With strict quality standards, rigorous sustainability standards and an economically-sustainable business model, a marijuana ag co-op would benefit the entire community – consumers, producers and neighbors.  Community economies based on diverse producers and consumers are much more stable than those based on a single industry or company, because they can absorb the effects of a failure, while the failure of a business in a limited-player economy guarantees disaster.   When a multitude of diverse producers join for quality production, the result is sustainable communities.  Now, THAT is called getting it together!

Dr. Rick Freeman: The Big Eco Squeeze

By Dr. Rick Freeman, Exclusive to MJNewsNetwork.com 

COLORADO: The advent of the legal marijuana industry has spawned some scale-up effects. One obvious outcome is that inefficiencies have surfaced as significant liabilities.  Another is that farmers are getting squeezed and are, therefore, compelled to push their agro-ecosystems to maximum short-term productivity.   In this environment, risky and sometimes questionable practices emerge and often result in catastrophe.  The bad press around pesticide abuse is a case in point: in Colorado, this year, agencies have mandated large-scale recalls of edibles, while in Washington, private researchers have identified forbidden pesticides in a variety of products.

This pattern is likely to continue, given the current industry environment, with farmers facing the squeeze from all sides.  The current combination of regulatory structures, low energy prices and low profit margins for farmers almost guarantees a certain level of pesticide abuse, pushing farmers towards over-crowded growing conditions in environments devoid of natural checks on pests and pathogens.

In agricultural ecosystems, most of our pesticide problems follow from management practices that attract pests to vulnerable crops in the first place.  Farmers well know that a dense canopy of luscious, nitrogen-rich cannabis is a giant pest target.  Critters can move happily through the canopy, swinging on webbing, piercing and sucking and having a grand time.  To make matters worse, because these indoor agro-ecosystems are isolated from natural ecosystems, they have no contact with native natural defense systems.   Instead, farmers have to buy, preserve and apply pest-thwarting critters and microbes, which can rack up materials and labor costs.  In many cases – as in an infestation crisis – farmers will deem pesticides to be a more economic choice.

In Washington, the state’s tier system forces over-crowding by mandating area limitations based on canopy area, pushing growers to accommodate as many plants as they can possibly fit.   Under this system, farmers can grow up to 30,000 square feet in a Tier III operation, 10,000 for a T-II and 2,000 for a T-I.  That means that every square foot has premium value and must produce a maximum value.  To add to the fun, spatial limitations encourage  growers to use hydroponic systems – as containers and media are bulky – and hydro spawns pests.  With few other affordable options, pesticide use is an obvious outcome.  In contrast, Colorado marijuana growers are now able to stretch their limbs, since the state has lifted vertical integration provisions that forced most cultivators to grow on-site.  And, having learned from others’s mistakes, Oregon has avoided this pitfall from the beginning.

But, other forces continue to push farmers to crowd too many plants into confined spaces.  In Colorado, where real estate is expensive and square footage is dear, many producers still grow on-site because they are locked into investments from the days of mandated vertical integration.   What’s more, in all states, growers face a tough economic climate, wherein marijuana behaves like a fungible commodity and the price paid to farmers trends ever downward.  Enter cheap fuel, which means cheap electricity, and the compulsion to grow indoors is irresistible.  Equally important, growing indoors is a familiar mode for a large sector of the industry, and farmers do what has proven to work for them.  And, finally, to exasperate the situation, because of federal prohibition, farmers can’t borrow money and buy insurance to buffer their risks.  So, they contain losses with pesticides.

But.  We’re learning.  As consumers continue to step up and demand clean marijuana – and as ecologically-minded farmers emerge and voice their opinions – the political climate will change and regulatory change will follow.  Consumer health and healthy ecosystems are important issues these days, and in the case of marijuana, they are tightly linked.  We’ll live to enjoy clean legal pot.

Marijuana Goes User-Friendly

By Dr Rick Freeman

Steve Jobs was a great example of an innovator and a visionary.  In a big way, he delivered the cyber lifestyle to the consumer world, simply by making it friendly and accessible.   By imagining the computer experience from the taste-buds of the user, he created an industry and a corporate giant.  But he also did something subtle; he changed our concept of the computer – from the cyber-menacing HAL 9000 to a smooth-running, people-friendly tool-toy for the young and old – a friendly, juicy apple that beckons, “Here, have another delicious byte.”  In place of HAL’s blinking red eye arose the smiling Apple – the modern home-computer experience.

Now it’s our turn.  We have a great opportunity to transform the marijuana industry into a consumer-friendly lifestyle brand, a range of experiences that are productive, fun, healthy, interesting and safe for a diverse market.  When we do that, we’ll open up the consumer market to an amazing range of shoppers.  Everyone will benefit.

But, to see this vision through, we’ll need to accomplish two important tasks.  First, we really need to lose these avoidable, bad practices that keep attracting attention to the widespread risk of toxins in our products.  (The Denver Post website has an ENTIRE SECTION on “Pot Pesticides.”  For real.  We seriously need to adopt better techniques and prove them with verifiable standards.  We are aware of viable agro-systems, which generally involve working with (instead of against) natural functions.  In later columns I’ll write more about those systems.

For this column, I’ll focus on the second key task, which is to gain the public’s trust.  Gaining this trust requires overcoming two stigmas – the reefer madness stigma and the toxic product stigma.  The first stigma I’ll pass over for now, just to note that it is a direct product of politics and propaganda.  The second stigma is equally insidious, but also, it’s equally compelling. So, let’s turn it into a juicy, delicious, nutritious apple by creating a reliable and meaningful standard that we can leverage into a global, user-friendly marijuana brand.  This standard needs to go beyond proving we aren’t abusing chemicals.  It needs to speak directly to the well-being of the community – to community health and sustainability.  Publicity is already forcing our hand on pesticides, and soon enough it will force us on the sustainability issues.

Consumer health, community health and sustainability all add up to a big bite, just as consumer satisfaction, productivity and technology were a big byte for Apple.  Happily, we have an available platform with the Precautionary Principle.  It’s simple: “First, do no harm.”  We can meet this standard.  Anyone submitting a product or performing an activity affecting the public must guarantee and prove that the product or activity will not harm people or environment.  That holds in the short term and the long term.  This principle is reasonable and achievable, and it directly addresses the issues and cultural obstacles we are confronting.  Whether or not we embrace it explicitly, we’ll have to recognize it on some level.

Indeed, initiative is the issue here.  We can also call it proactive strategy, or we can call it innovation. Either style, it takes us back to Steve Jobs, the pot head whose innovation transformed the world.  (Lest we forget, Steve toked.)  Notably, Mr. Jobs’ genius wasn’t so much about his technical prowess as it was about his entrepreneurial sense.  He had the ability to visualize a new way of doing things, to imagine and understand a potential market, to overcome big obstacles, and to harness all these factors with a robust and enduring brand.  That’s innovation, and that’s what we’re ready to do as well.

Homegrown: Plant That Bell And Let It Ring

By Dr. Rick Freeman

Homegrown is alright with me

Homegrown is the way it should be

Home grown is a good thing

Plant that bell and let it ring.

 

            Neil Young, “Homegrown,” American Stars and Bars, 1977


Neil Young has written some classic songs about marijuana, and he’s been “rocking in the free world” for decades.   As a businessman, Mr. Young has built and sustained a long-standing “brand” that still sells after 50 years – a brand based on a large, diverse body of music with themes ranging from personal anguish to love, pink cars and social causes.  What’s more, Neil has gone further by directly engaging in these struggles for justice and environment.  Clearly, Neil Young’s business acumen, musical talent and a dedication to doing the right thing have made for a potent mix – one that appeals to the hearts of everyday people all over the world.

Neil’s successful mix of quality and social message is well-suited as an example for us in the fledgling marijuana industry, which recently arose from an ongoing social struggle.  Whether creating a brand for an individual company or creating an image for the industry, a focus on community benefit can boost any business model, and of course, a community focus is a natural fit for the marijuana industry.  From my perspective, an obvious starting point for community action is embracing the legal homegrown movement.  Homegrown marijuana production  directly supports the causes of community health, sustainability, self-reliance and the personal liberty to grow pot, and it represents significant business opportunities.

Marijuana consumers would benefit greatly from a robust community of homegrown enthusiasts while expanding and diversifying the marijuana industry’s customer base.   The benefits to consumers and community are promising, starting with obvious cost-savings and health and quality guarantees – clean, green and not-mean!  At a home scale, the economics of growing extremely clean pot are much more flexible than growing clean at industrial scale.  So, homegrown offers the consumer peace of mind and reliability.  Plus, growing marijuana is FUN. It makes an excellent hobby and one can enjoy tangible benefits at beginner level, learning and improving along the way.  (I make my own biochar, composts, bulk media, whatnot, but one can buy all that.)  What’s more, the satisfaction of burning some properly grown and cured herb is beyond words.  Finally,  but significantly, growing herb represents two of our most revered, traditional values – the sanctity of individual liberty and its companion, self-reliance.  Given the significant material and cultural benefits of growing at home, a LOT of people will come out from hiding and grow sustainable, clean herb when empowered to grow their own.

These industrious home-growers will expand the marijuana market and help support a plethora of goods and services providers.  As with any market sector devoted to a hobby, the home grown market sector will be hungry for  a wide range goods and services.  From cultivation and curing gear to paraphernalia for packaging and consuming, home growers will buy products from a variety of businesses.  These market opportunities will only expand as Cannabis integrates into the mainstream, attracting long-time food gardeners – at a time when food gardening is rapidly expanding.

Empowering marijuana home production is appealing on so many levels, and the timing is perfect. Let’s “plant that bell and let it ring.”

EcoAg: Open-Source Marijuana

By Dr. Rick Freeman

COLORADO: Back in May an automated Tesla car failed, resulting in a collision that killed the driver.  Bad news for Tesla.  But Tesla creator Elon Musk kept moving forward, and just last week he was raising money to expand into electric cars and buses.   At first glance, his business policy might seem heady, but a closer look reveals that, in addition to an insatiable desire to move forward, the man has an ingenious business model – a model relevant to the marijuana industry.

Key to Musk’s model is his dedication to reliable open-source systems to meet the human need for transportation with sustainable technology.  The insight behind open-source is that more people creating products and services based on an open source framework means more options, more customers, and more satisfaction.   The insight behind sustainable transportation is obvious:  the market can only get bigger as the population increases and resources dwindle.

Now, that’s a logic we can apply to marijuana production, and EcoAg (ē’-cō -ag) provides the perfect context.  For  proactive farmers and investors, ecological strategies can bring clean, high-quality herb to a growing market using sustainable production techniques and accouterments.

Just like Tesla’s systems, ecology is a logic that anyone can adopt and implement anywhere at any time.  It works the same way wherever you go, with regional variations to which a savvy practitioner can readily adapt.  What’s more, because EcoAg patterns follow from the larger ecological template, ecosystems dovetail with each other.  So one innovation builds upon another.  Because agricultural ecologies are so complex, countless opportunities exist for creating goods and services that will benefit the marijuana industry.  Innovation and imagination have a wide range for exploration – at all physical scales.  (For example, imagine the possibilities for creating commercial-scale, optimized gravity flow fertigation systems.)

As with Tesla-inspired, independently-owned energy stations, when more farmers adopt EcoAg in an area, benefits increase for each farmer.  More EcoAg farms means more acreage under eco management, which in turn means robust ecosystem services overall.  Bigger areas under EcoAg enjoy a larger “core” area in proportion to the thin strip of land along the border of every farm that buffers the core from adjacent lands.  Further, a bigger area means more ecological variation and more biodiversity, and more biodiversity means fewer pest problems.

Because these systems rely on ongoing ecological processes, they are much more resilient to stress than conventional systems and thus more reliable in general – another parallel to the Tesla energy-station network.  Maximizing soil organic matter, for example, prolongs available water storage capacity, making the field more drought-resistant than a conventional farm soil.   Likewise, increasing plant diversity encourages robust diversity in soil organisms and attracts a diverse population of arthropods for an effective damper on pest populations.  Further, the organisms in an ecosystem form resource exchange relationships and networks, which continue to increase in abundance and complexity, boosting resilience against drought and pestilence.

In line with Tesla’s focus on sustainability, EcoAg is sustainable because it directly closes resource loops.  It is all about replacing industrial products, which require expensive labor input, with natural systems that rely upon site resources.  In a time of dwindling natural resources (and rising input costs), closing loops means boosting sustainability.

Building on this ecological abundance, complexity, and sustainability, a community of EcoAg marijuana producers can create resource exchange relationships and networks and nurture a resilient, sustainable and reliable industry built on a common ecological template.  In turn, industry reliability can help build trust with consumers, laying the groundwork for durable brands.  A robust and diverse community of producers based on the open-source eco-template can offer a rich basket of high-quality goods and services that will appeal to a wide range of consumers and expand the growing market.  That’s open source marijuana.

Putting Pests in Their Place

By Dr. Richard Freeman, aka Dr. Rick 

By now everybody knows that pests and pesticides are a big problem in the Cannabis industry.  With a grow house full of nitrogen-rich, moist pot plants, the little critters are going to come, by hook or by crook.  And, what’s a farmer to do? The answer depends upon the farmer and the alternatives that are available.

Fortunately, alternative farming systems do exist.  One of these systems is ecological agriculture, a synthesis of practical farming and scientific research that applies ecological patterns to agriculture, eliminating the expensive and harmful chemical addictions that commonly degrade modern farming.

Professor Miguel Altieri, UC Berkeley, represents what ecological agriculture is all about. On one hand, Dr. Altieri and his colleagues have created a lucid, science-based methodology for designing farms based on ecological patterns.  On the other, he has helped apply these methodologies to a range of endeavors, from assisting the global campesino movement in its effort to thrive in a tough environment to helping California grape growers avoid pesticide use.

A prolific researcher and writer, Altieri has written hundreds of books and articles on ecological agriculture, the methodology he’s helped create.  Eco ag is an ingenious approach to harnessing the full complexity of ecology with easy-to-implement practices.  The general goals are simple: build biodiversity and build soil organic matter.  The pay-offs are soil fertility, a natural pest management system, and in general, resilient and sustainable farms.

To build organic matter into the soil, the farmer can choose any combination of beneficial practices.  Adding carbon sources like compost and biochar, avoiding pesticide damage, and carefully choosing diverse plant species known to stimulate soil life are common Eco Ag tactics.

Planting diverse species also supports the goal of boosting biodiversity, and in addition to soil fertility, one of biodiversity’s perks is pest management.  A variety of plants confuses and distracts pests by exuding and emitting a diverse range of volatile plant oils that attract or repel them.  Many of these plants support pest predators, parasitoids and parasites by providing shelter, moisture, and food (nectar, pollen and pests).  The most commonly used tactic for building biodiversity is planting polyculture buffers, corridors, strips and blocks.  Buffers can offer crops protection from wind-borne and migrating pests, while corridors can lead beneficial critters to the target crop or to strips and/or blocks within the crop field.  In these systems, pest species take a small and balanced proportional position among a complex, diverse and abundant ecology, and they play their proper role as food for our hungry beneficials.  Eco Agriculture put pests in their place.

These simple practices are applicable to a wide range of farming scenarios, as Dr. Altieri has demonstrated.  Through his work with Food First! and other organizations, he has helped the global campesino movement adopt and promote ecological agriculture in several developing countries; through the Campesino-to-Campesino project, thousands of farmers are benefitting from and promoting ecological agriculture while forming networks for education and idea-exchange, plant genetics exchange and marketing.  Through his work on California vineyards, Dr. Altieri has helped grape growers replace pesticide use and conserve water with ecological practices in a big-money industry.  These growers are recovering from serious losses and systematic problems caused by conventional practices, while vastly improving the quality of their produce.

Vineyards depend much on the “terroir” of the grapes they produce – the deep, rich taste bestowed by the very land itself.  This revered relationship between ecology and quality is also common to our old friend Cannabis sativaa crop perfectly suited to ecological agriculture.  As the industry expands with the end of prohibition and as the herb emerges as a fungible commodity, margins are shrinking.  As margins shrink, farm resilience and sustainability are taking on more importance.  Fortunately, as these ecological systems mature and take root, their benefits increase, while conventional inputs (and money) disperse into the barren ecosystems they create.  For those looking to farm Cannabis into the future, Professor Altieri has charted the path.

Growing Opportunities From Problems

Exclusive MJNN Report by Dr. Rick Freeman

The emerging marijuana industry is all about innovation  – just like its underground parent was.  The very idea of legal weed is innovative, not to speak of all the ingenious growing and processing techniques and accouterments.  Innovators are growing this industry into a whole new world, applying adaptive, creative thinking to problem-solving and far beyond.   When meeting a challenge, the innovator goes beyond fixing the immediate problem to address the dysfunction that generates the problem in the first place.  The innovator transforms problems into opportunities and creates value in the process.

In this sense, the marijuana industry faces a giant opportunity – an opportunity that might seem like a problem.  The “problem” side of the opportunity is our recent bad press for being caught – repeatedly – selling pesticide-tainted products.  Colorado growers have attracted the most attention, and the press isn’t just local.  Here’s a doozie from the Huffington Post:  “Dangerous Pesticides Are Being Found in Colorado’s Weed.”  Here’s a story (separate incident) from USA Today: “Denver Halts Some Pot Sales Over Bug Spray Worries.”  Ugly.

But, that’s only the “problem” side of the equation.  The opportunity side offers an encouraging vision.  Please let me tell.

First of all, bad press is press, and it is free press.  Free press means free publicity, and publicity is a marketing asset.  In the end, people are looking, and they’re looking at us.  Some are seeking information; some are merely curious.  Others are lapping up evidence to support their contempt for marijuana; others for their unflagging support.  But, all of them are wondering what comes next, and hence, my next point.

In our hands we hold a juicy, engaging and unfinished story that is ours to complete.  If we don’t write the rest of the story, someone else will.   Better it be us.  And, that story has to carry a load.  It has to regain the trust of a large group of consumers who believe that buying marijuana in retail stores is risky.  Plus, it has to make consumers feel good about the industry and the social and environmental good that it’s doing.  And, of course, the story has to be interesting.

Fortunately for us, we have that story.  Our story is teeming with life, complexity and potential.  It’s about pairing marijuana agriculture with ecological pathways to grow clean, high-quality pot at commercial scale – sustainably and profitably.   It features designed agro-systems that mimic and interact with natural ecologies – systems with numerous advantages.  These systems invite natural pest-enemies to thwart mites and other pests, and they grow super-productive soils that accumulate organic matter and disease-thwarting biodiversity.   Through time, productivity and resiliency increase, and the systems require less effort to maintain – the reverse of conventional agro-stories.  What’s more, as scale increases, natural resiliency and natural defense mechanisms become more robust.  On the operations side, well-designed systems optimize labor, equipment and material flows, trimming wasted labor hours and saving tremendous costs over the years.  In this story, the grower combines ecological function with operational function to sustain the agro-system over decades.

This story of clean, sustainably-grown commercial marijuana has yet to be told.  It’s yet a vision for the future that combines the best of what we know with a bold optimism, and it is only one of many possible story lines that are emerging in the industry.  It’s really up to us to determine which story line we want to read about when we sit down to read the news – and what kind of products we want to eat or smoke at 4:20.