The Dirt On Growing Green: Soil Texture & Composition

By Sunny Kaercher

Every grower has their own approach to cannabis. Varying techniques and products are plentiful, but one thing that remains constant is that healthy plants depend on healthy roots. This is the beginning of a series dedicated to creating and maintaining a vigorous root zone, also known as the rhizosphere. These articles will range from horticultural to scientific, with the goal of educating cannabis growers about natural cycles and what makes the perfect organic growing media.

My name is Sunny Kaercher and I work with Miller Soils. We offer all-natural, cannabis-specific container media catered to growers that want to minimize their inputs and see big, beautiful yields. We design our medias to mimic and support ecological balance, both within the container and out. Now, let’s dig in.

This being the opening piece in The Dirt on Growing Green, it seems appropriate to cover some of the basics of soil science.

One of the first things to understand is soil composition; what’s in your dirt?

45% of soil is composed of mineral particles, which originate from the parent material several horizons below the surface of the earth. These particles, sand, silt and clay, are measured and identified by their diameter. Together, their ratio determines soil texture, which greatly affects important soil properties. Sand, the biggest of the three (.05-2mm), is great for drainage, but has a very low holding capacity. Clay, on the other end of the spectrum (less than .002mm), has a high surface area for adsorption of water and nutrients. Though this retention is cornerstone to a thriving rhizosphere, too much clay leads to compaction, meaning inadequate drainage and roots that cannot breath. A balanced soil, called loam, will have all sizes of particles, and in turn embody all characteristics.

Another 5% of soil is composed of organic matter (including roots) and soil organisms. These I will tackle another day… but what about the remaining 50%?

The remaining half of soil is a delicate flux of air and water, existing in the pore spaces between the physical substrate and active biology. This pore space, though ‘empty,’ is incredibly important to the success of any plant. Unlike leaves, plant roots breath in oxygen (O2) and respire carbon dioxide (CO2). Soil microorganisms and fauna need porosity for this same reason. Soil must allow gas exchange with the greater atmosphere. Water also moves through these pore spaces, but it is infinitely more complicated. There are 3 types of soil water, gravitational, capillary and hygroscopic. The latter is adhered so tightly to particle surfaces, plant roots cannot absorb it. Gravitational water drains from the soil in a matter of days, whereas capillary will be available for longer. This is directly tied to pore size and porosity. It is critical to understand soil water behavior in your cannabis container, whatever it may be, because it affects everything else, from pH to watering/feeding schedule to root vigor.

Now that we’ve covered the foundation of life in soil, air and water, we can move on to the food web.

Stay tuned for next time!

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!

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.