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.

Dr. Rick Freeman: The Big Eco Squeeze

By Dr. Rick Freeman, Exclusive to 

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.