Cannabis Soils: Talking Shop with Earthfort’s Matthew Slaughter
Author – Max Richardson-Davis & Matthew Slaughter
Edited by Noah Persin & Jon Russell
What are your favorite grower’s favorite nutrients? Well, that’s the answer we’ve been trying to find out for quite some time. Luckily, with a little help from our friend Tom Scoble of Mother Magnolia Medicinals, we may have our answer. After Scoble introduced us to Earthfort’s incredible product line, GreenSea wanted to know more about the world of soil and all the living biology within it. Do cannabis farmers need to use organic soil? Is there a way to guarantee a product is organic? What makes one soil cheaper than another? Why use a provide and revive? All these questions and more were answered when internationally regarded biologist and Earthfort CEO Matthew Slaughter agreed to talk shop with GreenSea’s own Maxwell Davis.
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Thank you for taking time to speak with me, Matthew. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your company, please introduce yourself?
Matthew Slaughter, Earthfort Founder/Lab Director: Hi, I’m Matt! Thank you very much, Maxwell. I started Earthfort, LLC in Corvallis in 2005 to create a resource for growers of all types to have access to the tools to help them manage their soil microbiology. I have had the opportunity to travel around the world working with every crop/plant type in almost every type of climate and soil condition. I am currently working on a book to share the knowledge I have gained over the last 13 years. On a personal note, I live in Corvallis with my wife of 23 years, Melissa, and our dog, Kong. I am also an artist, with a couple of self-published poetry books, and a CD that Melissa and I created together of original music. If these things interest you, check our hashtags #TinesTail and #NotionsofNow on Facebook!
Maxwell Davis: It’s great to meet you, Matt. You sound like a busy guy. Jumping right into our discussion, your company’s name came up in a previous interview I conducted with Tom Scoble of Mother Magnolia Medicinals. Tell us a little bit about Earthfort and the products your company offers.
Matthew Slaughter: Earthfort is a multifaceted organization with three primary areas of interest. First and foremost is the laboratory, we do soil biology and nutrient testing to help the grower see what is going on in their soils. If you don’t test the soil, you end up guessing and that usually means you’re losing money.
The second area is the products. I have tested hundreds of products over the years to find the ones that best help us to manage our soil biology. In fact, so many failed to live up to expectations, I created my own line of products. Soil ProVide and ReVive, the Dirt Simple line of compost tea brewers and the bags that go with it. Everything we make or resell is lab tested and verified in the field. Ultimately any product is just a tool, if it is the right tool – great, but if it is not, we test for that and adjust recommendations that best fit the needs of the growers.
The third and final area is education. We do not lock up all of our “secrets”, instead, I do workshops, seminars, one-on-one trainings and consulting with all sorts of growers. I also offer a DVD series, soon, the upcoming book. My approach to consulting and the education process is all about empowerment and practicality, tools and thought processes to help you determine your best course of action. If I have learned nothing all these years, everyone is unique, the tools may be similar, but the implementation of the knowledge can never really be the same.
Maxwell Davis: Where’s the best place to buy Earthfort? Can I buy it online, for example?
Matthew Slaughter: We sell online directly through our website and we are also listed on Amazon. Locally, we are in Down to Earth Distribution, as well as Vital Organics Northwest Grow Shop. Of course, you can always come into the lab in Corvallis and buy direct from us. For testing services, it is best to get the information online and follow instructions for sending in samples, which can be hand delivered or dropped in the post.
Maxwell Davis: What initially inspired you to join the agriculture industry?
Matthew Slaughter: This is always a great question! I started out working for the lab in 2003 as a database programmer. There were two of us working full time to manage the sample data for the lab at the time. My brother and I rewrote the company’s entire system and we were able to drop the workload to about 20 hours a week. I’m all about efficiency! At that time I was looking to get away from technology and since I had worked myself out of a job, I took it upon myself to learn how to be a soil scientist. I gave my first professional talk in Spain for an European Union symposium on the science of composting called SoilACE. From there, I have given numerous talks, seminars, workshops, webinars as well as the field consulting both internationally and nationally. The last talk I gave was in Calgary, Canada this past month for 200+ farmers in that region.
Maxwell: Have you noticed an increase in sales now that cannabis has been legalized in the state of Oregon?
Matthew: Well, I think the best answer to this is a specific increase. We have always supported growers, even before the legalization. Now we see less money orders and a more open dialog regarding what they are growing and what they hope to accomplish. So, yes, certainly.
Maxwell: Would you guess that, and I don’t mean to drop a pun here but I am going to anyways, a high amount of your customers are cannabis producers?
Matthew: Actually no, it is a very small sector for us. My main customers are farmers; both organic and conventional, as well as landscape professionals, golf courses, home gardeners and urban farmers. Really, we serve every facet of the industry and, by industry, I mean people who grow plants. We work with hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, nursery’s, dairies, pastures, timber, land restoration, remediation and probably areas that I’m not even recalling right now. I also work closely with many compost producers to help them deliver the best biologically active products that they can make.
Maxwell: Do you have any specific recommendations for cannabis growers, maybe some industry secrets you want to share?
Matthew: There are many, many tools out there to help you grow your plants. Think critically about what you are using and why. Never let the label dictate what you should do! Coming from a lab perspective: always test, never guess. Given the fewness of the plants you can grow, and the relative value of those plants, don’t tinker too much. I know this is a hard one for almost every grower I have worked with, everyone is always pushing the envelope. So, one secret to success is knowledge. Know the plant, know the soil requirements, chemically, physically and biologically. Get to know the products and find ways to put the claims to test. The really great secret is that the plants know what to do, try not second guessing nature. Provide a good habitat for your plants and then try not screw it up too badly, most people tend to over-complicate things. Yes, the bio-geo-chemical interactions in the soil around your roots are insanely complex. But we do not need to manage it, we just need to allow it to do its job. If you start with a good thing, you should end with a good thing. Always test your soils, your composts, your potting mixes, your ingredients, before you introduce them to plants. This will really help you go a long way to being more successful.
Maxwell: I was recently at an Emerald Trade Alliance meeting where representatives from several licensed cannabis labs spoke on the issues of testing. Because of the new requirements introduced Oct. 1, 2016, all licensed cannabis producers are now required to have pesticide testing on all product. Given the equipment required, the speakers said, this has increased costs and wait times, leaving many in the cannabis industry frustrated. Producers are now forced to pay special attention to the ingredients of their soil, soil amendments and nutrients. What recommendations would you give in regards to purchasing soil, soil amendments and nutrients to remain as organic as possible and, most importantly, compliant with state laws?
Matthew: Yes, as I said above I recommend testing everything you can. While pesticide testing is a little out of my area, we can help test to make sure there is good biology and help growers know their sources. I think that you need to know your vendors personally; this is true in most industries, but especially true in this industry. Trust and quality are good, but to be compliant, you should be testing before you purchase. I always tell my growers, before you buy compost, make sure it is tested and has been certified to have been properly composted; otherwise there is a huge risk.
Maxwell: That’s really great information. An audience member in that same meeting gave us a tragic story of an established grower that had been using a renown Eugene, OR-based soil company. Before the new testing requirements were in place, the producer had purchased a large amount of soil from the company. Not knowing some pesticides can take up to five years to break down, and having tested product regularly before the implementation of the new stringent testing laws using the same brand of soil, the producer planted their entire crop in the soil. By all accounts, they were ready to grow some cannabis! Unfortunately, all of their tests were returned as a failure due to the pesticides coming from the recycled mulch in the soil. They lost their entire harvest. The soil had been sold as, “organic”. Is there any way to avoid issues like these going forward, anything that may help consumers with their purchasing decisions?
Matthew: Yes, it can be incredibly confusing for some buyers. Again, don’t trust anything without an analysis. My opinion would be, if the state is going to hold the growers accountable to this degree, then they should step up the requirements for the amendments. If the state does not, then there should be some trusted third parties that guarantee the products for the growers.
Maxwell: Henry Grimmett, the Lab Director at EVIO Labs, suggested producers ask for a certificate of analysis confirming products are organic before applying them to grow operations. In your opinion, is this a reasonable approach?
Matthew: Well, if the certificate is from the US Composting Council or any N.O.P. certifier, then no, this is not enough. There is not a requirement for the compost to be tested as pesticide free. The current standards only relate to the theory that, if properly thermally composted, then the pesticides will have broken down. Of course, industry insiders like us now know that this is not true and that the regulations need to be updated. Also, there is no requirement for compost producers to use certified organic inputs in order to get a certified organic finished product, so many of them will not be completely organic, regardless of the certification.
Maxwell: What kind of EarthFort tests would be relevant for cannabis growers?
Matthew: One thing that Earthfort has developed is a quick protocol for testing the biological impact of products and amendments. This does not apply to nutrient analysis or pesticide residues, but would be great for testing your soil and nutrients.
Maxwell: Thank you for your time, Matthew. It has been very appreciated. Before you leave, I have to ask, what’s the deal with your ProVide and ReVive products? Mother Mary Medicinals is a huge fan and keeps talking them up.
Matthew: Ha, you caught me with another one! Yes, the products make for great tools. These are products I created to address issues that almost every grower faces. How do I improve my biological diversity, how do I best feed it? ProVide is a shelf stable biological inoculum that can introduce beneficial organisms to help balance soils that are deficient in bacteria and fungi, the emphasis on the fungal content. ReVive is the food to feed it. I created this to be a highly concentrated bio-active food source to help feed and stimulate fungi and protozoa. All of our testing over all of these years suggest if we get these two components into a better balance, then our plants do better, experience less water consumption, more efficient nutrient uptake and less disease pressure. Again, as tools, they may or may not be the right thing for you in your situation. That being said, the success of the products speak for themselves. The reality is that they are compatible with all the other tools out there, which makes them very handy to have. Think of them as the hammer and screwdriver of your toolbox.
Maxwell: Ha, they sound like some great products. I’ll have to give one a trial run on some of my at home plants. Thanks for the information, Matthew. You have been a fantastic guest.
Matthew: Thank you Maxwell, I always appreciate a chance to share what we are up to. Be sure to visit us on the web and on social media through our hashtags: #EarthFortLLC and #DirtFixer. We are also available by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and the old fashioned way: (541) 257-2612. Better yet, stop by the lab for a tour and a chance to talk about your growing needs. Be well! Thanks again!