Regenerative Organic Dry Farming – The Future of Cannabis?
By Heather Dunbar
The evidence of climate change is revealing itself all around us. It can be seen in accelerated sea-level rise, melting ice caps and glaciers, intense heatwaves in some areas, and extreme flooding in others. Some of the most recent events range from deadly floods in central China and Europe, huge wildfires in the United States, an extreme heatwave in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, to fires blazing in the Siberian tundra.
There is no shortage of signs and signals that the climate is changing, and we are all affected in diverse ways. One critically important way that communities across the globe are impacted by climate change is how we’re able to farm and produce food. Shifting weather patterns are causing extreme weather events that are disrupting agricultural productivity, and cannabis is no exception.
Many of our legacy Sun+Earth Certified farms are located in northern California, which has been suffering from ongoing drought conditions that are only getting worse. Eyes are on California, as agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water use in the state. But what if we could grow food and cannabis without water? This sounds like a crazy concept. But dry farming has a long history, with humans planting and harvesting in savannas long before wells and sprinkler systems were invented.
The idea and evolution of dry(land) farming go back to the 19th century, has been used in various parts of the world, and has evolved and adapted to the lack of moisture in certain climates. This type of farming uses land management practices that retain precipitation on the land, make use of the stored moisture in the soil, and cultivate crops without irrigation. Crops that have adapted to become drought tolerant and tend to be explosive in flavor and nutrition.
To dive deeper into dry farming practices, I sat down with Rosie Reynolds (Sensiboldt Organics), Chrystal Ortiz (High Water Farm), and Jill VanderLinden (Organic Medicinals), three Sun+Earth Certified farmers who are multi-generational cannabis and food producers. These three amazing women are also leaders and frontline activists in the cannabis community and advocates for regenerative organic farming practices. Together, they formed the Humboldt Dry Farming Alliance in 2020 to educate farmers on the science and benefits of regenerative organic dry farming and to advance these important farming practices in the cannabis industry.
Sun+Earth: Rosie, your father has a rich history as a pioneer in the organic food movement and has been dry farming for many years in Humboldt County. Can you talk about his legacy?
Rosie: Dry farming has been happening for hundreds of years all over the globe in places you would not anticipate that you could. In the early 1990s, my dad told everyone in Garberville that he could dry farm his Eel River melons, and there were bets going around to see if he could pull it off. And he did! He pulled it off with the help of community members, and the idea was that they would donate the melons locally to the community. There was an article about it called the ‘miracle melon patch.’
Sun+Earth: Can you talk about how dry farming is different compared to traditional agriculture methods, the characteristics of the environment required to dry farm and any other gems you’d like to share about your experience?
Chrystal: There is an ideal ratio of silty loam and sand with minimal amounts of clay, so everything filters through. This is important because there are super fine particles we are trying to use to pull the water up from the water table, and the fine silty soil creates the avenue for the water vapor to move up through the soil.
You often hear that tomatoes and dry-farmed food are super delicious, full of flavor and nutritive content, which is similar to cannabis. In my experience, the plants are stressed in the beginning before they adapt, and the water rises up through the soil to do its job, and then they adapt and aren’t stressed anymore.
Jill: And the plants only take in what they absolutely need. They regulate themselves, just like a redwood tree would. By creating a drought situation, the plants produce more resin to hold in that water and to protect that water so it won’t evaporate, and so we see an increase in resin and levels of terpene profiles up to 3-5 percent more from dry-farmed products.
Rosie: It’s also about the quality of water. It’s not coming from plastic containers. It’s a part of our land and our earth and mingles with our biomass. My dad would also talk about the manta, which is the ground fog that captures the essence of the old-growth redwood trees, the fruit trees, all the birds, and everything that grows in our rich, lush agriculture valley all come together and married. And that’s another part of our trait profile: you can literally smell and taste the essence of our land and our region.
Sun+Earth: Is there any limitation to where dry farming can take place?
Jill: It’s pretty much possible to dry farm anywhere as long as you create the right conditions. The soil structure is the most important. There are several ways to get to the end result, but it’s about creating that super fine, silty loam.
Chrystal: It’s also important to have a water table. Most rivers and floodplains already have this type of soil that is created through millennia of river meandering. In addition, heat is required for evaporation to bring up the water.
Rosie: It’s a combination of technique and timing. It’s also important to know your land because there’s a lot of subtle differences in each landscape. It’s about reading the land and experimenting and working with the land. There’s a fine line between overworking the soil and finding the right conditions. Talk to your neighbors and listen to the old-timers.
Sun+Earth: Chrystal, you have done some side-by-side experiments with dry-farmed cannabis plants and other cannabis plants you fed nutrients and watered. What did you discover and take away from your experiments?
Chrystal: When I first moved onto the land, I had dry-farmed produce, but I never had dry-farmed cannabis, and I had multiple different things going on. I put plants in the native soil and added some potting soil because I was convinced that silt was going to suffocate the plants. So, we did some plants using slow drip irrigation, feeding, and side-by-side watching, and the proof is in the pudding. The dry-farmed plants were crushing it in the fall, right next to the fed and watered plants. By the 4th of July, the dry-farmed cannabis plants had a look that the other plants didn’t have. You can just see it. The dry-farmed plants are vibrant. And if you think about all the money that went into the fed and watered plants, it just couldn’t be justified.
Sun+Earth: How does regenerative organic dry farming fit into the conversation of climate change? Do you see dry farming as a potential solution to combating the effects of climate change?
Chrystal: With climate change, things are getting hotter and dryer, and there’s less access to water, and people are going to have to re-think and reconsider cultivation methods. A light step on the earth is about what grows easily. When we don’t have an abundance of resources, people are going to have to learn to grow with what they have.
Jill: It’s hard to convince farmers to change. Farmers want to see the science behind it, and they want to feel secure that it’s going to work. It scares people because it’s not something that is logical. But the bottom line is, it makes sense. This way of farming is more environmentally friendly and costs practically nothing. We just have to create the systems that you can work with.
Chrystal: Hopefully, farmers are going to look and say, ‘these farmers don’t buy any soil or inputs, they don’t buy a water hose or other plastics?’ It makes more economic and environmental sense.
Rosie: What inspired the Dry Farm Cannabis Alliance was ultimately the desire to create educational material, to have the science behind dry farming, to give farmers inspiration and support, and to offer another choice. This isn’t anything new, but it’s about explaining to people that this is possible and that dry-farmed products are superior. These are scary times, but it’s not only about our farming practices; it’s also what we do for people. For us, this feels like the beginning of a bigger movement; working with organizations like Sun+Earth Certified to empower ourselves and each other as farmers, as global citizens, and as educators.
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Heather Dunbar is a passionate, mission-driven sustainability advocate with years of experience in the cannabis industry including cultivation, education, sales and marketing, communications, and strategy. Heather has also worked extensively in the natural products industry and organic food movement, leading product development, brand development, and community outreach for several pioneering businesses. Heather is a natural leader with a passion for improving the world through permaculture, regenerative practices, community development, and using business as a force for good. Heather is a contributing author of multiple publications including, CBD: A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis. She holds a degree in Human Development and Health Psychology and an MBA focused on sustainable business strategy and leadership. She is currently the Director of Communications and Marketing for Sun+Earth Certified and Brand Manager for Brother David’s Sacred Allies.