I like to think of farming as the search for free money — an eternal treasure hunt. Sunshine (solar dollars) is free energy, all around us, even on cloudy days. Plants and animals convert this solar energy into tangible goods that humans use to sustain themselves. As a farmer, it is my goal to harvest as much solar energy as possible using the most effective means available.
Cannabis, as a fast-growing annual plant, is the heaviest feeder we grow. It is also the plant most capable of converting solar energy to dollars in our economy. Government policies should allow small farms to cultivate cannabis; it would function as a small-farm subsidy that would actually provide tax revenue.
On our farm, we’re engaged in conversion of solar energy to biomass, food and medicine. We grow cover crops on our open bed spaces throughout the year to increase the amount of carbon we sequester in the soil, which also increases organic matter, fixes nitrogen and adds tilth. We’re managing our pasture towards a more perennial-based system that stays green and actively growing throughout the year. Storage of pond water provides the necessary lifeblood for our free-money conversion systems.
Cultivation of vegetables and medicine converts solar energy to money but depletes the soil of nutrients. To match this depletion, we fertilize heavily with high-quality bulk compost that comes from the waste products of our agricultural bio-region. We have a semi-truck delivered once or twice per year. This saves money and avoids bags.
Great Weed Takes Great Effort
The cannabis plant itself is one of the best illustrations of the search for free money. We all know that anybody can grow weed. But not everyone can cultivate great weed.
Since the plant grows so vigorously, there are a myriad of opportunities for the grower to increase final volume and quality of harvest.
- We’ll begin with the center of the plants. As soon as they get well established, we tie every major branch with twine from it’s first meristem (branch crotch) to the central stem or a central bamboo stake. A major broken branch can decrease yield and affect overall plant health by creating an opening for fungal diseases, so we try to prevent anything for breaking (it doesn’t always work).
- Once we’ve tied the inside, then we do an initial round of bamboo verticals; each major branch now has a twine central support that allows us to exert a certain amount of downward pressure when we tie to the bamboo. We pull and spread all of the branches down and out, extending the width and coverage as much as possible. The wider you can make the plant, the better it’s going to produce.
- Clean out the insides that are too far down to reach effective light; this creates crucial sunlight and air movement within the plant that will cut down on pests and diseases.
- Now that all branches have been twice supported on the inside, we’re able to put dramatic flex on them without fear of breakage. This is where the real search for the free money begins. This round, we install T-posts and bamboo frameworks we use to pull, spread and tie everything a third time. The horizontal bamboo allow us to fan the branches out and tie each one so that there is a place for every branch and every branch is in its place. This widens the plant again, provides a third layer of support and creates an overall system of stability so that the whole plant moves as a unit.
- By this time, the branches are long, flexible and well supported, which gives us huge leeway to pull them. You can easily double the size of your plants if you’re still working with the traditional Christmas tree method. The framework will serve as the main stability point for the whole plant; we’ll continue to use them to refine placement of branches as we move forward.
- Branches that get long enough to reach well out beyond the framework are then given another vertical bamboo to provide final support to keep flowers from hitting the mud in the event of a rain event.
- We put down mulch as we get close to harvest to avoid mudbud syndrome.
- We treat each plant as an individual; we’ll pull, spread and tie depended on the original structure/strain of the plant. Sativas are generally more sprawly and flexible. Much of our Indica-base stock is highly rigid so we have totally different methods for different types of plants.
- If a plant is too lanky, we set the mainstalk horizontal at planting and then spread the shoots as they come up.
- We generally top at least once to encourage secondary meristem growth (more shoots rather than one central top which is known as the apical meristem). We work very hard to keep our more Indica-dominant strains from leafing out too heavily because they will get powder mildew in our not-quite-high-desert climate.
- We get enough moisture, and they make enough heavy leaf that we spend hours de-leafing. We’re working to breed phenotypes of these strains that are more acclimated to our climate. This is part of the efficacy testing that is so crucial to the future but currently so limited under the gray market.
- Keeping soil moist and covered with mulch or vegetation provides appropriate habitat for biota while preventing erosion. The more mulch, crop residue, biomass, organic matter and compost we’re able to apply to the soil, the better our results are likely to be. Our native soils were poor, rocky, clay; now our slope acts as a giant sponge during rainstorms, soaking up and slowing down the water.
- Our cannabis and vegetable plantings are rotated each year to cut down on soil diseases and to spread the fertility around. We’ll grow vegetables and cover crops in the cannabis beds during the off-season, allowing us to capitalize on the extra fertility. The soil replenishes while the produce nourishes us.
- Sopping up the leftover nutrients with cover crop, mulching, and filtering our drainage through straw-filled basins guarantees our outflows are clean. This is a crucial principle of farming: your products, water discharges and smells should be clean and family-friendly. Poop stinks, and animals make plenty of it, but in general, farming practices should be clean enough to keep manure from piling up to the offensive-odor point.
- If we increase the ability of our lands to store water, there will be more available to us during the dry seasons. To this end, pay attention to the flows of water in the rainy season. Try to build your soils and pastures during the dry season so they grow more biomass to store/slow more water next winter.
- Think like a beaver. Install porous check dams with sticks, branches and twigs to slow the flows on your land. These check dams will encourage deposition of composting organic matter that can be harvested effectively for gardening. We can help to clean the silt and debris out of our flowing streams, while encouraging more water to absorb into our land. My long-term goal is to create blue-line streams from the ephemeral creeks on my land.
Nature has a set of cycles that were underway long before man started to key into them. We’ve only just scratched the surface of our ability to work within the parameters nature has given us. As we increase our technological abilities, a pinpoint focus on the health of our land allows us to magnify these technologies to greatest possible effect and benefit.
As humans, we have a long history of acting on our environment, but we’re only just re-evolving the tools needed to move forward in a world past peak-oil. The more we embed ourselves in our micro-climates, the more our patterns of observation key us into beneficial management strategies. Spend time walking your land and observe its behavior over the seasons. Magic is all around you.