Farmer's tale: Cannabis cultivation is a labor of love
By Mitchell Colbert
Cannabis cultivators, like the people who enjoy the products of their work, come from all walks of life. Big Tree spoke to two of the farms we work with to help consumers better understand the work that goes into the bud they love before it gets to the dispensary shelves. While one of our farmers took a more conventional path from ornamental flowers into cannabis, the other followed another route out of the music industry and into growing the cannabis that helps drive the creativity behind the music.
STRIVE TO MAKE YOUR WORLD A BETTER PLACE
Brad Johnston grew up in Tennessee on a vegetable farm before moving out to the West Coast where he has lived for 15-20 years. Along the way, he went to school for ornamental horticulture and got a business degree. While growing ornamental flowers was his day job, he has been growing cannabis for 15 years, and in his view, “Growing cannabis is a lot like growing ornamental flowers.”
After providing medical cannabis in Oregon and Washington for a few years, Johnston wanted to make the jump into the adult use market, and in 2014 he founded Greenfingers 509, an adult use licensed Tier 3 cultivation in Washington. Since then, Johnston has scaled up his business from 99 plants to over 20,000, which he says was necessary to survive market volatility when “prices tanked in both states.”
While Johnston’s background is in ornamental flowers, a subset of agriculture that normally cares little about what pesticides they use (as no one consumes those flowers), Johnston is all about “natural and sustainable” cannabis growing and doesn’t use anything synthetic.
“I live where I work so why would I pollute where I live? My goal is to provide a sustainable life for my family and my workers, and walk away from this feeling like I did something beneficial for my consumers, my family, my workers, and the environment.” While some of what they grow at Greenfingers 509 is greenhouse grown, most of it is outdoor. “We tend to put the strains that grow for longer in the greenhouse,” says Johnston, “those plants tend to require a bit more work.”
When it comes to which genetics they grow, Johnston says he has “learned not to care about what I want to smoke, it's about what consumers want.” Despite growing for the market, Johnston avoids the “fad strains” and has some weird genetics he works with, adding “Some of my brokers laugh at my strain names.” No matter which strain it is, Johnston pampers his plants, “I play music for my plants, and from what I've read Elvis is the best; plants like rhythm.”
IF YOU LOVE IT, LET IT GROW
Jason Poll grew up in Seattle and has been around cannabis all his life, first growing nearly 35 years ago when he was just sixteen. His hippie parents were friends with the guy who brought the Afghani seeds to the University of Washington back in the early 80s, before those seeds “escaped” the garden (or were let out). His family roots in Washington run deep, and his family has had bars in Seattle since 1914, before and after alcohol prohibition. Given his family connection to the alcohol and cannabis industries, Poll is “pushing hard” for cannabis growers to be treated like craft brewers and sees a problem when there are “just 500 dispensaries and over 19,000 places to get alcohol.”
Before founding Gorge Gold (GG), Poll worked in the entertainment business and saw the overlap between music and cannabis first hand. “We had the first booth outside the Grateful Dead shows selling borosilicate glass, and also sold some at Lollapalooza when I was working for the Ramones,” said Poll. From those early days in the industry, Poll went on to tour the world with punk band Zeke and along the way he “got high with Dio,” “met Bowie,” and got the guys from KoRn uncomfortably high. Another claim to fame for Poll is that he helped introduce Cypress Hill to purple strains back in the 90’s, thanks to those same Afghani genetics his parent’s friend brought to the University of Washington.
Poll founded GG to create “a cool job for me and my family and friends to do, and we want to do it forever. We are going for a small craft brewery type model that I can leave to my kids.” True to his word, GG is “a total family business” and Poll works with his family and best friends, including their general manager, Josh Savoie, his first cousin.
Savoie also grew up in Seattle and joined the GG team about four years ago. “It’s a lot of hard work, you are caring for a living being, a plant,” says Savoie. “You have to feed it and care for it; if you don’t it will show in the end. Cannabis plants are like people and there’s a lot that goes into it.” While Savoie is not a grower himself he knows how to take clones, harvest, dry, and store the cured flower. While that all may sound easy to people who have never done it, Savoie says that many of those key steps get “overlooked” and “a lot of people think it is easy or quick money, but it’s not, it requires a lot of hardwork and real knowledge of what you are doing.”
Much like Brad Johnston, Poll’s business partner, Tony Rosso, has a background in cultivation and his family “has had nurseries for forever up in Seattle.” It was Rosso who picked their strategic location “right by the Gorge Amphitheater,” because of the very fertile soil (from Mt. Saint Helens’ ash) and the weather (it stays warm longer). While they use minimal soil amendments, they don’t use any chemicals and grow “as clean as possible,” or as Poll summed it up, “we don’t grow or sell anything we wouldn’t use ourselves.”
Like Greenfingers 509, most of what GG grows is outdoor, and mostly grown right in the soil. Savoie notes that they have experimented with growing in fabric pots, and they have seen that “the plants really prefer to go right into the soil and explore... the further they can go the happier they can be, when they are in pots they know there is only so far they can go. I think the plants thrive on that exploration.”
While many cannabis cultivations have been threatened by fires in recent years, GG has gotten very lucky, but they have also taken some very sensible precautions. “We take preventative measures like burning brush and weeds during the right seasons, and laying down gravel,” says Savoie. Both Poll and Savoie noted that while they have not faced fires directly, they have had to contend with smoke and haze, but not enough to impact the plants. According to Savoie, the closest they have come to facing the threat of a fire is when they “had a small brush fire across the road because the guy who owns the gas station didn’t have everything trimmed right,” but thankfully they were fine. Poll also had a funny story about the gas station down the road, saying “when we are cutting down some diesel plants people start looking around thinking it is a gas spill.” Now that is what I call terps!
Mitchell Colbert was born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County, home of the Waldos and the birthplace of 420. Mitchell has written over 100 articles on cannabis for over a dozen outlets, spoken at numerous conferences, worked on multiple statewide legalization campaigns and is a published cannabis researcher. In 2018, he founded Full Spectrum Strategy to advocate for more sustainability in the cannabis industry and increased access to recycling, primarily for vape companies. His efforts resulted in regulatory and statutory changes in Colorado which have legalized the recycling of cannabis waste for the first time in that state.