Cannabis Ecology: Taking Shop with Dr. Richard Freeman of Grow Ecology
Author – Max Richardson-Davis & Dr. Richard Freeman
Edited by Noah Persin & Jon Russell
Biomass, biochar, permaculture. These terms are being tossed around the cannabis industry more and more. As the commercial cannabis industry continues to grow, arranging and planning your farm’s layout will be just as important as the soils and growing strategies you use. It is important to understand the ecological processes behind creating a cannabis farm. Pest-reducing plants, nitrogen releasing soil amendments; these are just a few of the concepts a cannabis farmer, or any farmer, needs to understand. For a better understanding of what it takes to be a truly sustainable farm, we asked ecologist Dr. Richard Freeman (known to most as Dr. Rick) for his thoughts on sustainable farming and gardening, soil management and amendments, and how it all applies to the budding cannabis community.
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today, Dr. Rick. I have been avidly following your twitter account, so it’s good to finally get your insight. For those who may be unfamiliar with you and your work, would you briefly introduce yourself?
Dr. Richard Freeman (aka Dr. Rick), Grow Ecology: Hello Maxwell and hello readers, thanks for reading this interview. I design and create ecological agriculture systems for Cannabis sativa and other intensively-managed plant species. I started my career in ecological management by doing forest restoration in the wildland-urban interface as a private practitioner. After a few years of practicing ecological forestry, I shifted my focus to residential permaculture and ecological agriculture. In 2014, having worked for three years researching and designing residential permaculture gardening templates for a business partner, I honed in on C. sativa and have been devotedly developing my knowledge-base, library and decision-making framework ever since.
During my forest restoration years, I researched biomass utilization as an alternative to slash burning (slash being residual biomass from forestry operations). In addition to other projects, I built a GIS/relational database model of biomass harvest at the stand and watershed scale to measure the carbon footprint, EROEI and cost. I became interested in biochar and have been making, using, researching and teaching about biochar ever since. When I shifted my focus to agriculture ecologies, I also broadened my attention to transforming any and all industrial biomass wastes (especially urban forestry) into growing media for urban farming in containers. When I began intensively focusing on cannabis, I began developing several processes and products based on these concepts that work particularly well with C. sativa.
Maxwell Davis: That’s makes for quite the background. Your projects sound incredibly interesting. Continuing on the topic of ecology, how does one incorporate ecological design when creating a cannabis, or hemp, farm or greenhouse?
Dr. Richard Freeman: Here’s an introductory proviso: When it comes to ecology, the first correct answer to every question is: “It depends.” The “holocoenotic environment” can vary substantially between sites – and within sites. So, I’ll have to generalize with my answers.
Incorporating ecological design when creating a cannabis enterprise requires a “how” and a “what,” because we’re designing (the “how”) for optimal management (the “what”).
In regard to the “how,” design starts at the coarsest scale within site boundaries, allocating space (zones) according to management goals and functions (productive processes). I advocate a conventional zone & sector analysis (Mollison), but however one does it, the first step is allocating use zones that align with farm goals and objectives.
For example, a farm goal might be to produce a sustainable rotation of hemp for fiber and/or CBD. The farmer might prefer to grow fiber hemp in a field of rows and CBD hemp in a field of perennial alley crops – or whatever – either or both to be cultivated in the “north forty.” Another farm goal might be to raise marijuana and one or two other high-value crops plus a few medium-value crops – all destined for a niche market. In this scenario, for example, one could farm high-grade marijuana, other valuable herbs, some connoisseur mushrooms and one or two food crops in a plot next to the residence. Since these crops would require intensive care and frequent visits, growing them near the residence saves steps (labor time) every day. In this example, the farm would have two market-production zones – the remote zone (“north 40”) managed with hemp rotations and the near-proximity zone with the intensively grown crops. In addition, the farm site might include a house zone, a road and access zone, an animal husbandry zone (for domestic use), a forested zone, or other appropriate land-use zones. It may have other zones as well, depending on management goals and the geography of the site. Also, the coarse scale design addresses hydrology, wind flow, sun exposures, noise, pollution, artificial light, roads and access, and other flows between zones and neighboring sites.
The next step involves designing at a finer scale within each zone – delineating land features like forest patches, fields, orchards, nurseries, truck-trails, ponds, streams, swales and water lines, paths and access trails, critter containment areas and so forth.
The next step designs detail within these land features, including polycultures, eco-intensive beds, mounds, permaculture guilds, hutches and coops, mushroom cultivation beds, logs and stumps and other productive features. Finally, within these features the designer places individual plant species in beds and polycultures, trees and shrubs within guilds or edible forest patches.
This design process aligns with a “scale of permanence,” a concept from permaculture (again, Mollison, but also Jacke). The more permanent the feature (human made or natural), the less likely nature or people will change it. We’re more likely to substitute lettuce for carrots in our garden bed than to alter a pond or swale.
Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence – Courtesy of Bonnie Blue
As we design a site, we take into account the “what.” Specifically, we focus on operational flow, resource conservation, pest management, soil management and/or container management and irrigation. To be more specific, operational flow has to do with efficiencies in labor time and motion, resource storage & transportation, and the layout of the operational environment. Resource conservation has to do with cost control and environmental sustainability. We don’t waste water, for example. (It’s expensive.)
Pest management has to do with integrated pest management with a strong ecological pest management component. Thus, for example, we might design a perennial wildflower patch adjacent to the high-value, intensive crops described above. Within this patch we would plant species that are known to nurture pest-suppressing arthropods. Or, we could plant a wildflower buffer between a high-value crop and an upwind, off-site infection risk (like the neighbor’s monocrop desert). In addition, we would employ an effective integrated pest management (IPM) plan. IPM is a decision-making framework based on cost-benefit analysis within the constraint of the precautionary principle (first, do no harm… then be able to prove it).
Soil management has to do with sustaining a productive, robust, living soil profile. So, of course, we avoid disturbing our soil ecology with toxins or physical compaction. But, we go farther than that by incorporating high-function carbon, nutrient and biological structures into the soil. For example, we might design and re-create the soil profile from the surface down two or three feet – as in the case of eco-intensive gardens. Or, we might deep-plow a generous supply of biochar and compost. (Since we’re only tilling once, best to really lay it on.) Then we would take it a step farther by carefully choosing plant species (focusing on perennials) to build and sustain a robust soil ecology and build soil organic matter (SOM). In this context, we would build an environment for generous nutrient exchange between the roots of our perennials (via exudates, biofilms and mycorrhizal mycelial networks) and between them and our annual target plants. In addition to some soil profile and soil biology work, we would design a combination of perennial plants (a polyculture) with specific growing spaces for marijuana plants, which we would rotate out every other season with another high value annual crop in another taxonomic family. The perennials would support the soil ecology in varying, complementary ways (functions), which would become more complex and extensive through time. Complexity and extension bestow resilience and resource access to the system, adding long term productive value.
Container management is about maintaining a live container environment that lacks the functional “services” of a natural functional soil environment. In this context, well-formulated container media and fertigation management are fundamental. In addition to many other functions, our goal is to feed a robust rhizosphere that will in turn feed the plants, so any application of salts is directed at the critters, not the roots. Container growing requires a more intensive management than a soil ecology and lacks some of the natural buffers, but the farmer can grow in a greenhouse, quarantine and move plants about according to management needs.
Maxwell Davis: What are some tips to creating a self-sustaining, sustainable, cost-effective farm?
Dr. Richard Freeman: Ecological, sustainable approaches require upfront work and investment – more than conventional agriculture. But, that investment builds resilience and productivity, which means equity, and it builds an agricultural ecosystem that grows as it incorporates resource inputs, rather than dissipating and losing them. That means costs will gradually decrease. A well-designed eco-agrosystem builds on itself, which makes it more resource conservative and more resilient to disturbance and difficult weather than conventional farms.
Likewise, design is important to creating a sustainable, ecological enterprise, but good design requires upfront time and effort. However, the payoff is big, due to production gains and cost containment. Design allows for a bird’s eye view with the opportunity to integrate productive features at every scale, and it allows for reliable long-term planning. It also requires the designer to consider every relevant detail and to fit it into the larger productive configuration. Further, it allows the farmer to make and correct mistakes on paper. One can revise a design much easier than revising a land feature. Generally speaking, design helps to control risk and minimize surprise due to uncertainty and ignorance.
Whether starting from scratch or starting from an existing farm, I recommend forming an implementation or transition plan that includes a schedule based on a critical path analysis and a realistic budget. These analyses can be informal. Neither needs to include fine detail, but they need to include enough detail to assure that all projects and costs support and advance the overall plan and minimize surprise. Again, the accounting should be realistic. When implementing the design and transition plan, the farmer should proceed one step at a time, carefully observing and making necessary changes to the plan.
Furthermore, when trying out a new practice or framework, the farmer should begin with a generous test plot. Test plots are common in food agriculture; the standard for corn, for example, is 50′ x 50′. Given that your test plot is aligned with the design, scaling up from the plot will be relatively easy.
When committing land to a crop, erring too small is preferable to erring too large. An operation can make more for its investment by applying the same resources to a smaller area than spreading them thin over a larger area – and will expend far fewer labor hours working a smaller area. Of course, this maxim has a limit. But, a smaller crop of healthier plants can produce more flowers and fewer problems than a larger crop of stressed plants. If resources are limited at the beginning of the season, down-scale the cultivation area rather than hoping to catch up during mid-season under full production.
Whether embodied in a detailed GIS representation or a rough pencil drawing, a design will benefit a savvy farmer. I use a GIS because the relational database functionality has a zillion potential applications to agricultural management at any conceivable scale.
Likewise, a realistic business plan is important, because it requires the farmer explicitly to state and face all his or her relevant assumptions regarding the business – for example, market parameters, production costs, capital costs, etc. etc.
Built into a design and business plan for a sustainable farm are some design principles that align land uses with ecological flows. A key principle is stacking functions – which means working towards several goals with one productive feature. It is a lot like killing two (or more) birds with one stone. For example, in plant placement, a shrub might fix available nitrogen while yielding a commercial crop and providing mulch and shade to ground plants. Or, cleaning up a polyculture with abundant comfrey yields food for the worm bins or compost, as does cleaning the chicken coop. Thinking creatively in terms of functions will allow the farmer more leeway – more solutions for any problem and more perspectives and ways to look at a problem.
Closing loops is another key principle. Simply put, it’s about feeding “waste” outputs back into the agro-ecosystem as resources. Composting is a good example, since “wastes” become highly valuable conditioner, fertilizer and source of biological inoculation.
Maxwell Davis: That is a great introduction for growers, especially those preparing to create a new farm. I appreciate your willingness to share such great information, especially regarding the GIS. I imagine that is a very useful tool with a vast supply of applications. Now that we know how to create the idea, design and business structure behind a farm, tell me some general tips for creating a self-sustaining garden.