It’s no secret that legalized cannabis and the regulations that have concomitantly been introduced have affected smaller, “Mom & Pop” or craft cultivators. While the struggles of craft growers may be an unintended consequence of a state’s attempt to devise a legitimate industry, intentions are no more comforting to those farmers laboring to endure them. To learn more, I spoke with Dylan Mattole of Mattole Valley Sungrown from the green fields of Honeydew, California in Humboldt County.
Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.: What do you see as the main benefits to being a craft grower of cannabis as opposed to a much more corporate grow?
Dylan Mattole: Well, the main benefit for us as craft farmers of cannabis is that my family and I get to actually live this amazing farm experience every day! I’m able to work from home here on the homestead and farm at a pace and scale that we choose. We don’t answer to any outside corporate board of directors or any investors. Because of that, we are able to really focus on quality over just quantity and have the freedom to try new things and learn from our successes and trials as well. That’s the advantage of the craft farm versus the mega grow model of agriculture.
JSL: How have industry regulations helped and hindered your farm?
DM: Haha! That’s a fun one. Regulations have helped our farm in that they have pulled us out into this new world where we can have conversations and interviews like this openly. We, as a farm and a business, can now tell our story and share our experience, as well as our product, with more people. So, that is a benefit to our farm of regulation.
Regulation, of course, comes with lots of bureaucracy, engagement, and paperwork as well as seemingly endless fees, reports, studies, licenses, and so forth. Regulated cannabis in the state of California is no joke. So, from a point of hindrance, regulatory compliance is often cumbersome, expensive, and can be very frustrating!
JSL: Can a craft grower better tap into terroir?
DM: We may find terroir by working with nature, as opposed to trying to control it. I think of terroir as the plant expressing the essence of the place it’s grown in. It’s a connection to the surrounding physical environment, as well as the culture and practices of the farm. So, a craft farmer will likely be more in tune with all these elements and conditions that come together on the farm and express through the final product.
JSL: What do you think Big Ag means for the cannabis industry?
DM: Well, I think Big Ag will be for the cannabis industry the same as it has been for farming and agriculture across this country and the world. It will be consolidation, mass production, a loss of farm diversity and lots of “greenwashing” (misleading consumers with information about how a given company’s products are more environmentally sound). Big Ag in cannabis means corporate brand names dominating the shelves of corporate owned stores and franchises. This is already happening across California and other states with legalization.
Because of this, there will become an even greater and more pressing need for genuine differentiation in the marketplace between “craft growing” as you’ve called it, and “corporate cannabis”. We still have a long way to go in educating the consumer and amplifying the message of craft cannabis.
JSL: Why have you chosen to practice regenerative farming?
DM: Regenerative farming has been all the buzz lately. And that’s great! It’s really fun to see how cannabis is now also becoming a springboard into the regenerative farming movement for so many. It was actually at a cannabis-focused soil conference that I first heard the expression about four years ago.
There are many differing thoughts on how to define this term “regenerative farming”.
To me, in its most simple definition, regenerative farming is the intentional practice of growing crops and livestock in a way that allows us to leave the land and soil in a better condition than we found it. So, we aim to not deplete our soils by farming, but to actually build them.
If you only take and take, you will eventually run out of any resource. And unfortunately, this soil depletion and degradation is what has been happening in modern industrial agriculture for generations now. Our goal is to build systems on the farm that will regenerate and create more life, while also nourishing us and providing us with our livelihood. One way we do this is by returning organic material from the crops and animals back into the soil. This also has the incredible benefit of helping to fight climate change through carbon sequestration as we load the soil with all this carbon-rich organic matter.
Additionally, there is economic benefit to the farm as we save on labor, fertilizers, and other inputs. As the soil builds and grows in fertility, it also holds more water and, therefore, requires less irrigation. As we enter another year of drought, this alone is a reason to farm regeneratively.
JSL: Can you explain what it means to just be using natural soil for cannabis cultivation? What benefit do you see for annual soil additions versus tilling?
DM: The natural or native soil under our feet is the foundation of life for this place we live. It’s the product of millions of years of mountains eroding and rock decaying into minerals, combined with decomposing plants and animals, air, water, and countless living microorganisms. All these elements are interacting with each other and the roots of plants in ways we are still learning. So, to have this as the base to grow our cannabis in only seems natural. We start with the raw soil and start building it by growing cover crops and adding more organic matter and nutrients. The plants get plugged into this amazing living system and get turned on in a way you won’t find in imported potting soil or other mediums. This mineral soil is also far superior to most other options when it comes to both water retention and availability.
We are not strictly a no till farm. But as we build our gardens in this regenerative way, I find it becoming far less of a chore to amend and work the soil with very little tillage.
JSL: What efforts have you undertaken to mitigate water usage?
DM: We have made substantial investment into our rain catchment and water storage infrastructure. Rain is harvested from our barn roof as well as directly into large steel rain tanks. Our farm is along the Lost Coast of California and receives heavy winter rainfall, followed by very long and dry summers. So, we must be constantly water conscientious. We employ drip irrigation, mulch heavily, and have some exciting new technology to help us monitor water content and availability throughout our gardens. These sensors help me water at the correct time and avoid both drying out or overwatering the soil. Water is life on our farm. We value and conserve every drop!
JSL: What has the cultivation of cannabis meant for you personally? How do you find it to differ from cultivating other plants?
DM: Great question. For me personally, cultivating cannabis has allowed me to live the life I love. I’m blessed to be able to spend my days working outside in nature, provide for my family, and produce a product that brings joy to those who partake of it. The plant itself is so inspiring and never ceases to amaze me with its resilience, sensitivity, and vigor. She just wants to grow and reproduce! Watching these gardens transform from little patches of seedling and clones into big, beautiful mature plants loaded with buds in such a short time is personally so rewarding. And in the end, I get to sit back and smoke that sweet flower, taste the essence of this place, and feel that wonderful effect in my mind and body. There’s just something magical about the experience of the season coming full circle. It’s a gift!