Growing Medicine: Talking Shop with Aaron Howard & Nathan Howard of East Fork Cultivars
East Fork Cultivars is a boutique grow in Southern Oregon with a heavy focus on producing high-quality, medicinal grade CBD cannabis. After converting to Oregon’s recreational cannabis market, the team behind East Fork Cultivars is already planning to expand and create a cannabis ranch. In the meanwhile, I sat down with the two founding partners, brothers Aaron and Nathan Howard, to discuss their inspiration behind the company and flower and have them share their insights into the world of cannabis.
Written by Maxwell Davis, Aaron Howard & Nathan Howard
Edited by Noah Persin, Maxwell Davis & Jon Russell
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Aaron and Nathan Howard, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I appreciate it. I am a big fan of your flower, but for those who may be unfamiliar with you two or your company, would you briefly introduce yourselves?
Aaron and Nathan Howard on the farm – Courtesy East Fork Cultivars
Nathan Howard, CEO of East Fork Cultivars: Thanks for having us on, Maxwell. It’s an honor. Put simply, East Fork Cultivars is an Oregon-based, OLCC licensed and Clean Green Certified® 10 acre family farm. We’re located in Southern Oregon’s Illinois Valley – think far Southwest Oregon.
Starting out we (me and my brother Aaron Howard) had one goal in mind; grow a variety of high-CBD cultivars for our oldest brother and his range of medical conditions. Wes, our incredible older brother, very recently died. While it’s been extraordinarily tough for me and the family, his passing has definitely strengthened our resolve even further.
It was witnessing the positive effects of CBD rich cannabis that drove our desire to expand, to provide all Oregonians with the same CBD flower and superior medicine, and in turn, to move forward with our OLCC Tier 2 producer application for cultivating on the East Fork Ranch.
Our entire family and parents are heavily engaged in the day-to-day operations. Our partners and employees have become our extended family. And our commitment to community and introducing high CBD cultivars throughout Oregon has given us a sense of place and pride.
Maxwell Davis: That is an incredibly moving story. My condolences to your family. Wes seems to have inspired an incredible operation, helping Oregonians the state over. As a sufferer of Crohn’s Disease, I know CBD flower like yours can make a big difference in the daily lives of those living with pain. Now, you’ve had quite the career as the cannabis entrepreneur. When did you first get involved with growing cannabis?
Aaron Howard, Co-Founder & Grower of East Fork Cultivars: Just about 15 years ago – so I’ll soon allow Nathan to call me a Master Grower. He says I am now but I’m not quite there. I’ve told him to cut it out until then!
Cultivating sungrown cannabis is a longstanding tradition in the Illinois Valley spanning many decades.We really got serious about producing high CBD flower a few years ago for the family reasons noted by Nathan.
Maxwell Davis: 15 years? Wow! So, this certainly isn’t your first rodeo. That explains why the flower is so phenomenal. Your company, East Fork Cultivars, is primarily known for their sungrown high-CBD strains. Why focus on CBD as opposed to THC?
Aaron Howard: Cannabidiol, CBD, is a compound that has significant medical benefits. And, until very recently, it’s been the forgotten and neglected cannabinoid by general consumers and the public.
For decades consumers have favored almost exclusively THC dominant strains. This trend all but eviscerated CBD genetics and dominant flower from the market. We’re now at the cusp of a consumer trend reversal. Personally, we are doing our best to act as a catalyst to further the understanding and demand of high-CBD cultivars like Ringo’s Gift, Llama Kush, OG-78, and AC/DC to name a few.
Field of AC/DC Dreams – Courtesy of East Fork Cultivars
Sungrown high-CBD flower and extracts have the power to provide relief to a variety of maladies, are generally delightful, and great for relaxation. Sungrown cannabis expresses a wider range of terpenes, higher cannabinoid content, and a fuller profile of cannabinoids. Not to mention that sungrown cannabis is the way this incredible plant was meant to be grown in nature and it’s sustainable.
Our desire to provide Oregonians with excellent CBD flower and a superior plant based medicine drives our selection of cultivars, or cannabis strains, that are high in CBD. To purchase our flower and products is to support a greater goal and mission in the cannabis industry: our effort to reintroduce CBD-rich and CBD-dominate cannabis to consumers and growers across Oregon and eventually the nation by breeding, selecting and curating cultivars that express these properties.
Maxwell Davis: That’s fascinating. AC/DC has to be one of my favorite strains on the planet. As a patient, former budtender and now cannabis salesmen, I study and love CBD. But, for someone who has no idea what we are talking about, tell me some of the benefits of consuming CBD.
Nathan Howard: Although there are dozens of cannabinoids, there are two that are predominant: Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Both of these cannabinoids provide relief to an array of symptoms.
CBD imitates endocannabinoids, a compound naturally found in our body. These endocannabinoids are active in maintaining internal stability and health by mediating communication between cells. When there is an imbalance in our endocannabinoid system, physiological symptoms and complications can occur.
CBD is able to supplement the endocannabinoid system and mitigate these symptoms and complications, all without the “stoned” feeling typically associated with THC. Simply put, CBD is one of the predominant chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids, naturally occurring in cannabis flowers that provides relief to an array of symptoms including pain, nausea, and inflammation (THC is the other). From first-hand experience to recent findings in the medical field, CBD has proven itself a safe, natural, and truly effective remedy for ailments of the body.
Maxwell Davis: What are some of your favorite CBD strains and why? Give me the story behind one of the strains you grow.
Aaron Howard: That’s a hard one. I really like Ringo’s Gift and the story behind it.
It was bred by an amazing cannabis pioneer who’s well known in our SW Oregon community – the late Lawrence Ringo. He’s inspired us, and a bunch of people we know, and we’ve been breeding with some of the excellent cultivars he created. Ringo was a cannabis activist and CBD pioneer in Southern Oregon and Northern California.
Aaron Howard with bags of Ringo’s Gift – Courtesy of East Fork Cultivars
Ringo also helped create our Pineapple Tsu, a variety that packs a powerful fruit punch flavor and aroma with a serene and centering effect. The genesis of this beautiful high-CBD cultivar, a cross between Sour Tsunami and Pineapple, can also be traced back to Ringo’s legendary breeding techniques.
Ringo developed Sour Tsunami while he was at the Southern Humboldt Seed Collective. He bred Sour Tsunami by crossing NYC Diesel to Sour Diesel for about four years, constantly crossing it back to a Sour Diesel clone. Then he crossed the results, which he dubbed Double Diesel, to a local and very rare strain called Ferrari, and then re-crossed that back to Sour Diesel to produce the Sour Tsunami, which matures after nine weeks into gorgeous musky buds with sweet undertones.
Pineapple, with its exotic fruit full favor, blooms short structured flower that smells like pineapple fruit and actually looks like the fruit. It’s best known for the role it’s played as a distant parent strain in the wildly popular THC dominant cultivar, Pineapple Express.
Maxwell Davis: Well, that is fascinating. I have never heard of Lawrence Ringo. Now, I’ve got some research to do. It’s also fascinating to learn how Sour Tsunami came to be, that is one of my favorite CBD-dominant strains on the Oregon market. Now, moving away from the flower here, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of the business. Has the new state seed-to-sale tracking system, METRC, made life simpler or more difficult for your company?
Nathan Howard: Oh, sweet METRC. Overall, definitely more difficult. But it also has made some things simpler and has forced us to create good systems that we otherwise might not have created. We have a lot we could say about METRC but we’ll leave it at that. I should mention that they have outstanding customer service.
Maxwell Davis: What are your favorite soil companies and nutrient brands today?
Aaron Howard: It’s not a company, but my favorite amendment we use in our native soil is compost tea that we create onsite.
Maxwell Davis: That’s what most the experienced growers tend to be doing, I’ve found. What is different about your company’s growing technique that makes your product stand out?
Aaron Howard: We start with a solid foundation of strong CBD genetics and carefully-selected phenotypes and raise the plants to maturity, carefully and selectively.
We plant in our native soil and all of our product and soil is 100% organic. We work to create a balanced and healthy ecosystem by caring for the soil, the water, the air, and introduce plant partners insectary gardens for symbiosis. We also strive to have a positive impact on the environment in which we live and grow, on the people in our community, and on the people who rely on our products. All that shows in the finished product.
We should also talk about our terroir.
It’s a term typically associated with the wine industry, terroir refers to the place-based environmental factors—such as soil, water and climate—that combine to give distinct characteristics. It’s terroir that enables identical cannabis cultivars to be grown in different regions and produce distinct smell, taste, and effects.
The East Fork ranch is nestled between the pristine waters of the East Fork of the Illinois River and the Siskiyou Wilderness, in the Illinois Valley; what many consider to be the heart of the world’s best sungrown cannabis.
Southern Oregon’s Illinois Valley, coupled with our sustainable farming practices and meticulous drying and curing methods, give our CBD cultivars their unique and in some cases unparalleled qualities.
Maxwell Davis: Taking a page out of the wine industry, eh? Can you speak about anything particularly unique or innovative about East Forks business practices?
Nathan Howard: Native Soil!
We grow in native soil – almost all farms do not. So that’s unique, but it shouldn’t be. We’re seeing more cultivators move back to living soil and are encouraged by that trend. Still, a lot of folks that talk about growing in ‘living soil’ are still trucking in soil another amendments and not growing in their native soil.
The vast majority of farms grow in what is essentially a soilless growing medium which is essentially very close to a hydroponic system – but setup outdoors. It’s pretty bizarre. Nature offers everything we need to grow this magical plant – but for some reason there is this tendency to want to recreate what nature offers.
The East Fork Mission – Courtesy East Fork Cultivars
The practice of trucking in soil, made up of components literally from all over the world, necessitates a heavy nutrient-feeding regimen that’s very unsustainable when applied at the scale this industry is growing towards.
By choosing to grow in native soil not only do we reduce our impact as farmers we also foster a real connection between the plants and the place they are growing. The unique soil qualities found in our Illinois Valley are responsible for creating some of the most amazing collections of plants on the west coast. By choosing to grow in native soil we reduce our impact and deepen our connection with place which helps to create a truly unparalleled flower.
All of this can be described as the terroir of the Illinois Valley – the characteristic experience, taste, and flavor imparted to a flower cultivar by the environment in which it is produced.
By skipping out on what native soil has to offer you also skip out on the terroir – the complete natural environment in which a particular flower, or wine, is produced (which includes the soil, topography, and climate).
When choosing a cannabis cultivar, there are two traits that are most commonly compared: taste and smell. Where these traits come from is both simple and complex. The smell, taste, and—to some degree—the effect, are hidden in terpenes. Terpenes are aromatic compounds found in the oils of the flower, originating in the same glands as the CBD, THC and other cannabinoids.
Terpenes can influence the neurotransmitters in the brain; for example, they can affect dopamine and serotonin production and destruction. This insight gives us an idea of why different strains not only smell and taste different but also have different physiological effects on our mood or high sensation. There are over 100 known terpenes found in cannabis; each plant, or cultivar, has a unique terpene composition.
Something we’ll increasingly do – which we hope will continue to become less unique – is breed for terpenes and conduct a full terpenoids profile test which we’ll provide to dispensaries and customers. Terpene analysis will become key for differentiating between cultivars.
Maxwell Davis: As the Director of Sales for a cannabis wholesaler, I can tell you, the terpene analysis plays a large role when purchases are made by the retail stores. Obviously, if you can smell the flower and it has a good smell, it makes for an easier sale. But, if you can prove that the flower has a range of powerful terpenes, they will purchase the flower almost every time. I am glad to hear that is a focus on your farm. Now, many in the cannabis industry are giving back to their local communities through philanthropic efforts. Tell me more about East Fork Cultivars mission.
Nathan Howard: It’s been amazing watching all the philanthropy in cannabis and local give-back programs. We actively support originations like The Bus Project, National Voter Registration Day and Yes For Affordable Homes.
In the next year or so we’ll also be launching a local give back program in our community with a percentage of all our profits going back to people and organizations in need. This is something we’re very passionate about and see as an imperative. Our county, Josephine County, is the poorest in Oregon. We have the opportunity and responsibility to do some serious good.
Maxwell Davis: That is phenomenal to hear, Nathan. I certainly wish nothing but the best for East Fork Cultivars; you create fantastic product, for a good cause, in the most sustainable way your land allows. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today, Aaron and Nathan. I appreciate you guys answering my questions.
Aaron Howard: It’s been great. Thanks for having us and for doing good work, Maxwell.
Nathan Howard: Thank you! You’re invited to take a tour of the East Fork Ranch at some point. We’ll show you around and you can meet our llamas.
Maxwell Davis: Ha! That sounds wonderful. Take care guys.