My name is Igor Rakuz and I’m a regenerative soil cannabis farmer. About 15 years ago I started a small medical grow for a friend who had ALS. I witnessed the many benefits of cannabis which led me to a life of horticulture. Over the years, I was exposed to different techniques in growing and composting and what is now called Korean Natural Farming or KNF. I had the opportunity to experiment with different techniques at a nursery I started in Maine and volunteered at local health clinics teaching people about growing cannabis and its many benefits. I opened a few grow stores but never felt good about growing plants with chemical nutrients and grow lights that are both expensive and ecologically damaging, and so I closed them down. Seeing the connection between growing food and medicine and our own personal sovereignty, I opened GRO CAFE where we used locally produced foods, and grew our own organic mushrooms and micro greens.
As cannabis became "more legal," I knew it was time for us to get out of the secret cover of clandestine grow operation and move into the open sun. Many people started to grow their own cannabis and Scotts Miracle-Gro started buying up all the suppliers used by the grow stores, including the largest nutrient, lighting, and fan companies as well as the largest supplies distributor in the US. I knew it was my time to get out of the indoor cannabis game.
One of my grow stores was formerly a nursery with large green houses that gave me a place to experiment with organic techniques using tomatoes, peppers, and flowers as my test subjects. I grew my organic produce along with plants grown with the chemical fertilizers we sold in the store. It didn’t take long to realize that I could grow better tasting produce that cost less and a had higher nutritional density than those produced with synthetic chemical grow solutions.
Unfortunately, Maine is not a suitable location to grow cannabis outside. The climate is cold and wet, with short, humid summers that can see heavy rains. Cannabis is a resilient plant and can grow anywhere but does best in climates where there is little rain, similar to conditions ideal for growing grapes.
I discovered Sauvie Island in Portland when I visited Oregon in the winter of 2017 to see friends and ski the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Sauvie Island is the largest waterway island in the United States. It sees a total summer rain fall of about 3 inches and has a consistent breeze of 6 mph blowing north and south. Sauvie Island is in the Columbia River and is made of volcanic rock with a geological make up very high in basalt, a highly diamagnetic rock.
Choosing the right location to grow cannabis is more than just finding suitable environmental conditions; it means navigating strict rules from both the county and state. It means dealing with the federal government not having access to loans, bank accounts, and insurance. It means paying heavy taxes and watching out for rippers. In many ways, this location seemed ideal but there really isn’t such a thing as a perfect plot of land, or at least I haven’t found one.
I set out to grow cannabis as nature intended. That meant no high powered grow lights or chemical fertilizers. I experimented with KNF, Jadam, and Dr. Elaine Ingham's soil food web methods and found a community of farmers using regenerative soil practices across a wide spectrum of agriculture. The system we practice increases soil biodiversity, improves soil structure, protects watersheds and enhances our local ecosystem. Living soil is rich in microbial life that feeds plants and captures atmospheric carbon in soil and plant biomass. This method could reverse global carbon trends if adopted globally. We draw from decades of applied scientific research in aggro-ecology and holistic land management by leading scientists such as Dr. Elaine Ingham, Masanobu Fukuoka, and the global communities of natural and organic farmers.
Building Yasha Farms from the Underground Up
I started prepping the field in the summer of 2018. When I arrived, the field was in rough shape; very dense clay soil filled with weeds. When we used a compaction meter (a steel rod with a gauge displaying pounds per square inch), it read 200 psi at 1/2” depth. This meant we had about 1/2” of top soil, not nearly enough to grow our beloved plants. In my experience, I found cannabis roots have a hard time growing through soil denser than 165-175psi. Dr. Elaine Ingham defines dirt as highly compacted land lacking in microbiology and nutrients. This field was all dirt, more like cement than soil.
The first step was to get soil tests done. It was no surprise that the composition of our soil was mostly clay, and a biological analysis found some bacteria, no fungus, and no nematodes. This was dirt!
It was a lot of work but within one year our compression meter was now able to probe through 15” inches of living soil.
The first step was to expose the ground to oxygen. We did this manually by flipping heavy lumps of clay with a 40 lb broadfork. Gloves couldn't protect everyone at the farm from having black, blue, and calloused hands. We then spread 250 yards of woody compost to increase the organic composition of the soil and provide food for the microbes that were soon to come.
IMO: Indigenous Micro-Organisms
Sauvie island is located in the Columbia River and hosts a wide diversity of microbial life. I went for a walk in the forest on Sauvie and found turkey tail mushroom growing on a fallen tree and dug about an inch directly below it and found long white strains of fungal hyphae. This is where I placed my IMO trap. My trap was an untreated wood wine box with many 1/4” holes drilled on all sides. I filled the box with hard cooked rice, covered it with paper towels and buried it under leaves in the hole I dug. I secured the rice filled box with mesh to keep animals out. When I returned 5 days later, the bottom of the box was very warm and the rice had turned into a thick white mat of microorganisms. This was later mixed with equal parts brown sugar (IMO2) and then with 250lbs of barely husk. We left the piles until the centers reached 138° and made sure all of the compost reached the center and had sufficient time to cook (IMO3). We then mixed our field soil equal parts by volume with the IMO compost we had created. We applied the final product (IMO4) to the field.
Next, I wanted to bring saprophytic fungus to our soil. I purchased about 25 mushroom spawn bags and inoculated large cardboard boxes filled with wood chips treated with humic powder and kelp meal. Within 7 days the white mycelium filled the boxes and even started to eat the cardboard. It was time to bring the mushrooms to the field. We drilled 3” holes every 3 sqft and placed large handfuls of the mycelium in to spread over the winter and hopefully forever.
What is the Soil Food Web?
Living regenerative soil is a mindful approach to cannabis horticulture.
Its amazing to think that the huge and beautiful forest systems surrounding Portland all thrive without any outside input. This life is only made possible through the active participation and communication between trillions of microbiological inhabitants. We now understand that plants communicate with the microbes in their rhizosphere (root zone beneath the ground) by releasing exudates, chemical messengers (carbon and glucose) through their roots and into the surrounding soil. These exudates attract specific microbes such as fungus that then upcycle nutrients from clay and rock to the plant. There's an abundance of plant nutrients in clay and other compounds naturally found in the ground that microbes draw from. Some estimate that there is enough phosphorus to grow crops for over 300 years without humans adding any more. The only reason fertilizers are used is because the modern farmer has been taught to feed plants costly fertilizer rather than foster the naturally-occurring relationship between the plants roots and life in the ground. Plants that receive high inputs of chemical nutrients stop producing root exudates. Once exudate production stops so does the life in the soil that fosters healthy plant production and a cyclical degeneration occurs. The more fertilizer is used, the more the plant will require. Microbes also foster healthy soil structure as they form aggregates that bind soil together. Loss of microbiology causes soil structures to falter, which lowers the ground's capacity to retain water and leads to fertilizer in drinking water, rivers, and oceans. This cycle creates oceanic dead zones, oxygen and life depleted areas that span hundreds of miles underwater.
The living soil system is maintained by nurturing a symbiotic relationship between plants and microbes. This is no easy task. The labor and intricacies go far beyond organic requirements but are well worth the effort. Living soil is not only economical and ecological, it also allows plants to potentiate their natural genetic expression through a more robust matrix of terpenes and cannabinoids, a difference you can smell, taste, and feel.
How It Works
We use a microscope to asses our soil, a method developed by Dr. Elaine Ingham over several decades. By quantifying soil biomass and populations of various micro organisms, we can identify which groups are lacking and then develop strategies for re-introducing a fully functioning Soil Food Web as is found in forests or grasslands.
Fungus to bacteria ratio
Different ecosystems and plants have different ratios of fungus to bacteria (F:B) living in the soil. There are more bacteria than fungi in early successions of healthy ecosystems. Weeds have more bacteria than fungus, grasses have a ratio of 1:1, orchards 10:1, and healthy old-growth forest can have as much as 100:1. F:B ratios correlate to plant succession as well as which form of nitrogen is produced. When there is extreme bacterial biomass and little fungi, the majority of nitrogen will be converted to nitrate instead of remaining as ammonium. This caters to early succession plans such as weeds and may lead to the occurrence of pest and diseases in later succession plants and trees. Cannabis does well in a 1:1 to 5:1 ratio and achieving this was our goal!
African Nightcrawler poop to the rescue! Our soil's bacteria to fungus ratio was too high; we needed fungus and we needed it bad! I tested over 50 types of compost, looking for the highest fungus to bacteria ratio. Finding compost with a 1:1 ratio of Saprophytic fungus seemed to be impossible. Luckily, a friend found a batch of African Nightcrawler compost that was high in what we wanted to see: lots of fungus, protozoa, amoebas, and Nematodes, with no Actinobacteria (an indicator of anaerobic conditions), or Oomycetes (a fungus-like microbe associated with plant pathogens such as downy mildew, pythium, and blight). It was time to make an extract.
We weighed 14 pounds of compost in nylon strainer bags and placed them into 50 gallon drums filled with water. Kneading the bags for 10 minutes caused the water to turn black, with a thick coffee-like foam on top. We repeated this for all 1000lbs of worm compost. We now have a vortex compost brewer that we built in house, so no more prune fingers from hand-kneading extract. We sprayed the compost extract/tea on our cover crop and straw we spread over the ground in the fall. Another innovation we incorporated to increase our top soil depth was a soil injector calibrated to not kill the microbes we worked so hard to obtain. We inject compost extract/tea directly into the soil at about an 8-15 inch depth.
Our cover crop
In our first year, we used seven different types of seed divided equally between grass and legumes: Triticale, vetch, Crimson, winter peas, barley, winter wheat, and some clay-busting radish.
Once we were done in the fall, we had beds with mycelium hand buried in them, inoculated cover crop, IMO4, and straw soaked black with compost tea. The following spring of 2019, the soil compaction meter was able to reach a depth of 15 inches before hitting a PSI of 200. As if that wasn’t great enough, our biology improved so much that we had over a 1:1 fungus to bacteria ratio and our new soil structure test moved us from clay loam into silty loam. We now had soil and so there was no need to till in the spring before we planted our cannabis.
Spring 2019, a Visit From the Master
Dr Elaine Ingham is a true inspiration and steward of the earth. She pioneered the Soil Food Web movement and helped change the political course of GMOs. She works on global food security issues and heads soil biology research at Stanford University. I met Elaine at a conference on regenerative soil and we started corresponding. I saw her as a mentor and role model. I told Elaine about all the work that we’ve done on the field and my hopes of a cannabis industry mindful in regenerative soil techniques. When she asked how I learned to do what I’ve done I replied "By watching your old YouTube videos." I sent her photos of microscope slides and one day Dr. Ingham said she would visit our farm. I was blown away. Elaine and I talked about compost, new methods of collecting indigenous microbes specific to the conditions of the Pacific Northwest, sprayers, injectors, but the majority of our time was spent looking into a microscope. Elaine help me identify and quantify what I was seeing and tighten up my scope game. I still send my soil out for biological analysis. I feel confident in my ability to identify and quantify most microbes but feel that the validity of this project would increase if I used third-party laboratories. I use the techniques Elaine showed me when I create or identify compost. I grew cannabis for over 15 years but had zero experience in this type of agriculture and knew no one that grew cannabis using these techniques. To say I was nervous was an understatement. Elaine looked through our microscope slides and confidently assured me that our crop was going to do great. She was correct!
Dr. Elaine Ingham has programs online that are extremely worthwhile. I highly suggest that people interested in progressive farming techniques check out soilfoodweb.com.
It costs about 5500 to prep the ground of our 40,000 sq foot plant canopy, compared to the cost of buying peat moss, expensive nutrients, large pots or raised beds our cost to move from dirt to living soil was almost unbelievable:
250 yards Woody Compost: 3000
1000 lbs Worm compost: 1200
Imo ingredients: 250
Broad forks: 400
Labor: many many liters of blood sweat and tears.
We needed only the smallest amount of copper, zinc, and boron to balance our soil
Chemistry. Our total cost in nutrients for a 40,000 sq foot canopy and around 3000lbs of dried flower was about $1500.
Our first batch of Bruce Banner dried flower came back at a whopping 29.7% THC! Not only do regenerative soil practices produce better quality medicine, they aid in reversing global carbon trends. this style of agriculture is ecologically sound, and dramatically lowers cost of production making cannabis accessible to more people wile gaining a competitive advantage for growers.
Light deprivation and defused light, building above ground:
We grow in 2700 feet of high tunnels or hoop houses. I like to upcycle material as much as possible and was happy to buy used hoops from a retired farmer at about $400 for every thousand feet. We use 10mil opaque poly to defuse the sunlight and 10mil Black and white poly for our light Depp. The light deprivation plastic is on timed motors that close at 7pm, reopen at 10pm, close at 4am and reopen at 7am. Growing with light deprivation allows us to flower under the high spectrum light of June and July sun that’s actually brighter, doing so increases terpene and cannabinol production in our flowers as opposed to plants that flower later in the year when the sun is lower on the horizon. Who would’ve thought that big fireball in the sky could replace a Gavita. Using light deprivation allows us to harvest a 40,000 square-foot canopy twice a year while protecting us from late fall rains. we use little electricity at our grow and run the entire farm on a 200 amp service with an average monthly electric bill of $190 for 6 months a year. That’s 80,000 ft.² of flowering canopy for about $1200. Indoor growers do the math...
We dry our cannabis in insulated 40 foot shipping containers. We use blower fans in the first 24 hours to move air through the containers as plants tend to lose 50% of their water weight in the first day. Afterwards we use dehumidifiers to maintain humidity levels at around 50% and air conditioners to maintain temperatures between 65 and 70°. It takes about 12 days for our product to dry.
The Yasha farms team is committed to producing cannabis mindfully through innovations in regenerative cannabis horticulture. As the multinational corporations that make up the industrial cannabis complex attempt to control cannabis it is meaningful for us all to remember that cannabis culture is our culture. We are the stewards of the plants we cultivate, and of the microbes and ground they grow in.