Last month, Phantom Farms hosted a VIP tour of their facilities with a mission to educate consumers and promote transparency around their sustainable cultivation practices. I, along with a dozen other people, spent the weekend meeting Phantom’s team and visiting their indoor grow in Bend, as well as their outdoor operation in Southern Oregon.
If you haven’t noticed, health and wellness are the biggest cannabis trends of 2018. People are starting to pay more attention to what they’re putting into their bodies and how their products are processed. When it comes to food, consumers can rely on labels – we know to look for things like organic vegetables, wild-caught fish and free-range eggs, but what about when it comes to finding responsibly-sourced cannabis?
Just like eating organic vegetables, consuming organic cannabis is better for your body and the environment. However, due to regulation and the relative newness of the industry, it’s a bit more involved than making a trip to Whole Foods. The term “organic,” used on food and crop labeling, is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since cannabis is federally illegal, growers cannot take advantage of an official organic certification from the USDA, meaning there are no universal standards for what qualifies as organic cannabis cultivation. Although there is evidence that some states are adopting language and certifications that will enable consumers to determine whether or not the cannabis they are purchasing is grown and sourced in a sustainable fashion. A few companies attempting to change this include the nonprofit Cannabis Certification Council, Certified Kind and Clean Green. In Washington state, the WSDA is in the process of creating a certification program for organic cannabis.
But not all farms are waiting for regulatory oversight to practice organic growing principles. Since 2008, Phantom Farms has strived to offer its patients and recreational customers high-grade, sustainably-grown bud.
“We’ve always been organic,” says Allister Schultz, master cultivator and one of the founders of Phantom Farms. “We wanted to do it right from the start. It’s part of our ethos and important for us that we do it the right way because we want people to see that we’re not taking the shortcuts that have a negative impact.”
Located in Southern Oregon’s Rouge Valley, Phantom Farm’s outdoor operation boasts 120,000 square feet of canopy (in addition to its 5,000-square foot indoor facility in Bend, which includes a wholesale distribution warehouse and an extraction laboratory located onsite). Their responsible growing methods and permaculture principles go hand-in-hand with their focus on quality terpene development. The secret to their “mighty tasty cannabis” is in the soil.
“There [are] test results that show growing organically and in living soils produce higher nutrients, phytonutrients, phytocannabinoids,” said Schultz. “Since we’ve been going down the path of living soil and Korean Natural Farming, we’ve had higher terpene results.”
Terpenes are mostly known as the aromatic combinations responsible for the smell and flavor of the bud, but their main purpose as phytocannabinoids is to protect the plant from hazardous conditions. Terpenes are largely determined by the strain and growing environment, which is why organic methods like Korean Natural Farming produce a richer taste and flavor.
Korean Natural Farming, also known as peasant farming, is a permaculture technique that focuses on feeding the soil, not the plant. The goal is to create an environment that’s beneficial to micronutrients so they thrive and multiply. Instead of just trying to jam the plant full of nutrients, KNF produces a soil environment where life is abundant and naturally creates the plants’ nutrition.
Part of this involves making ferments and tinctures and using them at very specific times during the growth cycle of the plant. Phantom relies on nutrient compost teas made with local ingredients they either foraged or cultivated themselves. Think of it as a kombucha tea designed to help their crops thrive, except it’s brewed with things like fish scraps and Himalayan blackberries.
“We’re collecting sea water and putting that in our teas, it adds really awesome minerals to your soil. We’re making water soluble calcium with eggs from our chickens, which is just mixing egg shells and vinegar so it extracts the calcium that plants really need at the end of flower. We’re using animal bones for making calcium phosphate,” said Kristopher Edin, Phantom Farm’s cultivator. “There’s a list of things throughout seed to flower that you can really make just with brown sugar and things that grow on the property.”
The theory is that the plant material itself has all those growth hormones, enzymes and nutrients that plants want at a specific time. It’s low cost and bio regional specific so you take things from really healthy plants in your area and that results in crops that are strong and healthy, too. When done by the book, it’s supposed to take three years to get the soil to a place where outsourced inputs are no longer needed.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to keep it to scale, our soil is constantly changing,” said Edin. “We’re still going to have to do some traditional organic amending just because of our size, but I think it’s really rad to start experimenting and committing to it, which Phantom really is, and [we’re] being realistic too.”
Despite being an organic operation, no one can claim their cannabis to be organic because it is not recognized as an agricultural crop.Instead, Phantom Farms is Clean Green certified, which is the gold standard in the cannabis industry. Clean Green is a private organization that requires on-site inspections and third-party lab testing. Much like the USDA National Organic Program for traditional agricultural products, the whole life cycle of the plant is considered, from seed selection to harvesting and processing, as well as soil, nutrients, pesticide use, mold treatment and dust control. Clean Green companies must also put into place a carbon footprint reduction plan, water conservation measures and fair labor practices.
Most growers still rely on synthetic fertilizers, which reduce the soil nutrition and cause run-0ff into nearby ecosystems. While it may seem like an easier, less-expensive option, Schultz believes that it’s a mistake in the long run.
“It’s really easy to buy worm castings and make your own teas, but people don’t do that. They’d rather go buy a five gallon jug of salt fertilizer that’s not organic. When you break it down, it’s actually not that much cheaper, but it’s easier because you don’t have to do anything, you just dump it on. A lot of that stuff is lost to runoff that bleaches the streams,” said Schultz.
As legalization spreads, growers no longer have to hide their crops in mountains and energy-intensive warehouses and consumers are demanding more natural, sustainable growing methods in the process.
“It’s really easy to be organic if you put your mind to it, do a little bit of research and talk to people. It’s simple and much more friendly to the environment and the consumer.”