(This story appears in the April 2017 issue of Marijuana Business Magazine.)
In an era of indoor cultivation and automation, outdoor-grown cannabis for commercial sale is a rarity.
It’s understandable, given that plants grown outdoors can be exposed to extreme temperatures, destructive winds and mold-inducing rains. Many states also have enacted regulations that bar outdoor growing, taking this option off the table for scores of entrepreneurs.
But Mike Emers is not only growing his cannabis outside, he’s also cultivating in one of the more inhospitable regions, climatologically speaking, on Earth: Alaska.
Emers, who’s admittedly low-tech, owns Rosie Creek Farm near the Tanana River about a half-hour southwest of Fairbanks. For more than 20 years he’s grown vegetables in fields and in a handful of “high tunnel” greenhouses. Now he’s turning his attention to cannabis.
“That’s not normal, but you have to plan with Murphy’s law in mind,” said Emers, whose farm has been certified as organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture since 2009.
Why go to all the trouble? Emers prefers to grow outside and organically because that’s the way he believes plants were meant to be grown.
“I’m a farmer who’s been growing outside in Alaska for over 20 years. I’m playing to my strengths,” he said.
Growing cannabis organically outdoors, especially in the middle of Alaska, can seem daunting. But with proper planning, a well-thought-out business strategy and a willingness to go through trial and error that could involve losing some plants, Emers has shown it can be done. His efforts can offer lessons for other outdoor cultivators.
Emers has about 1.5 acres set aside for cannabis where, in late May, he will put down around 60,000-80,000 seedlings. They will be started as seeds that were planted in April in seed trays inside the high tunnel greenhouses. Half of those plants will be male and must be culled.
The surviving 30,000-40,000 plants he intends to use almost exclusively for making hash and resin, unless he or his “walkers” – who patrol the rows daily – spot especially good-looking plants they believe can be sold as flower. Those plants will be transplanted into one of three or four high tunnels, each 30 feet wide, 96 feet long and 14 feet high, where Emers will already have around 800 plants that receive “extra tender loving care” and eventually will be sold as flower.
The high tunnels are covered in two layers of 6-millimeter, ultraviolet-resistant plastic film. To increase insulation, Emers punches holes in strategic places in the bottom layer of plastic and inserts fans that blow the second sheet of plastic upward, creating a 1-foot air buffer between the two plastic sheets. That air buffer helps keep cold air out and heat in.
A Truncated Trial
Emers tried a first cannabis run last year on an acre of land and in two high tunnels after receiving his license in June – even though it meant he would be a few weeks behind in what is already a short growing season.
He put the seedlings in the ground and waited as long as possible for them to mature. Emers didn’t harvest the plants until early September, when temperatures were already hitting the freezing mark. Because the first cannabis retailers in Alaska didn’t open until late October and early November, Emers had to sit on the product for a couple of months.
“The vast majority of that stuff had really tiny flowers, and we had to frantically high grade even those to get anything out,” Emers said. High grading is an old lumbering term referring to when loggers select the better trees in a forest for cutting.
Emers had to do the same in that truncated first season, whereby he high graded the best plants for use, while the rest either froze or had to be used for compost.
“In a normal season, like we hope this season will be, we hope to start harvesting by July, which is two months below freeze-up and we’ll have plenty of time to deal with the field crop,” Emers said.
Ultimately last season, Emers harvested only about 20% of the plants.
Taking such a hit is easier, however, when costs are low. Emers spends in a year what some large indoor grows spend on electricity in a month, around $31,000. About $15,000 is for the field and tunnels, $8,000 for seeds, $5,000 for fertilizer and $3,000 for maintaining equipment like the tractor, tractor implements and greenhouse furnaces.
Despite the obstacles, Emers still salvaged about 15 pounds of flower from last year’s high tunnel crop and another 150-200 pounds of lower-quality flower from the remaining field crop that was intended for processing. Emers applied for but still hasn’t received a processing license, however, and there are still no operational processors in his region. So rather than processing the flower, he’s been grinding it into pre-rolls and selling to retailers that way.
It helps, Emers noted, that there are still only a few operational cultivators, resulting in a dearth of supply. Retailers will “take anything they can get, within reason,” Emers said.
“Anything that anybody is growing right now gets gobbled up, and the store’s out of stock within a day or two, then has to wait,” he added. “Hopefully, a year from now things will be more stable.”
An Unsung Strain
While Emers’ method is low-tech, it does require some high-tech horticulture.
Because Emers cultivates outside in a short summer growing season where daylight lasts 21 hours and temperatures hit the freezing mark in September, relying on plants that flower according to light cycles like cannabis sativa and cannabis indica won’t work. They would likely freeze before being ready for harvest.
There is, however, a third and often overlooked cannabis variety, cannabis ruderalis, that has a very low THC content and therefore elicits virtually no interest from consumers. But it’s begun to garner interest from breeders and growers because, unlike indica and sativa, ruderalis is an auto-flowering strain. In other words, it flowers according to time, not light cycles.
Ruderalis got that way because it originated in the cold, rugged climes of Central Asia, where it could not wait for September’s balanced daylight and nighttime hours to flower because temperatures would already be too cold. So the plant learned to flower based on time. Specifically, ruderalis flowers 21-30 days after vegetation, and it takes 70-110 days for a ruderalis seed to go from plant to harvest, no matter the amount of daylight hours it receives.
“They know they’ll have to flower or they’ll freeze,” Emers said.
Breeders have learned to cross ruderalis varieties with popular sativa and indica varieties, so the result is a potent, auto-flowering strain.
That means that if Emers puts seedlings in the ground by middle to late May, they can be harvested by late July or early August.
“We can’t wait till Sept. 21 to have these plants mature. They have to be mature by late August, which makes auto-flowering varieties a must,” Emers said.
The Need for Seed
Another challenge is that it’s difficult to organically grow the number of plants that Emers wants to produce with clones. It would take too much time to reach those numbers. This means Emers must grow straight from seed.
For the high tunnel plants that he grows for flower, Emers buys feminized seeds from other companies. For the field plants, Emers uses seed from plants he devotes for seed increases – when breeder seeds are planted with the purpose of producing even more of the original breeder seeds. He keeps the plants used for the seed increases in special, isolated greenhouses. After last year’s seed increase, Emers has a couple hundred thousand seeds.
The main disadvantage to this, Emers said, is that there will be a huge variance in the characteristics of the plants coming from the same batch of seeds. That means each season he will need to find the best plants and try to get some seeds from them.
“Our challenge is to find varieties that work best for us,” Emers said, and “keep crossing back to the plants that we’d like to get a uniform seed crop from.”
Auto-flowering varieties that have worked well include White Widow, Cheese and Afghan Kush, Emers said, while Rosie Creek has developed its own strain, Rosebud.
“A lot of it is a learning curve for us to figure out what’s going to work well in an outdoor setting,” Emers said. If the strains don’t play out like he wants or expects, Emers will experiment with light deprivation.
Emers noted that his chief cultivator, Matt Springer, has experimented with growing outdoors for a while and has experience successfully growing auto-flowering plants. Emers, as a result, brought Springer on board.
Emers spends March preparing the greenhouses and in April plants thousands and thousands of seeds in standard greenhouse trays. The plants grow quickly and the first batch must be transferred into pots before they go into the ground. The later plantings will go right from the plug pots into the field, Emers said.
Emers takes especially good care of his fields and their soil. He rotates crops, plants cover crops, tills them as needed, and uses all organic fertilizers, manures and compost to build up the soil for a long time. The soil is high in organic matter, and it doesn’t need many supplemental nutrients, Emers said.
Typically, there is snow on the ground until the first of May, and then it takes another couple of weeks until the field dries out enough so that he can drive his tractor on it to till it, first with a chisel plow to break up the soil, followed later by a tiller over the soil. He’ll then wait a week for the first flush of weeds to come up and kill them.
Next, he’ll drive his tractor over the soil with a bed former that will create raised beds, which he’ll outfit with drip irrigation tape. The raised beds are important, Emers said, because the bigger soil profile gives the roots more room to grow. They also allow the soil to absorb the warmth of the sun from three sides rather than just from the top of the ground when the beds are not raised.
Emers next lays down plastic mulch to warm up the soil and smother weeds. He and his team then come through with a mechanical transplanter that punches holes through the plastic, and fills those holes with water.
After that, he’s ready to plant. Emers uses a mechanical transplanter that plants seeds through the plastic mulch that is over the beds. He’ll do the same in the high tunnels, just earlier in the season.
Emers can put seeds on each side of the beds because they are raised. He tries to space them about a foot apart. That means he can plant 700 seeds in one 350-foot row. Half will be males and will get pulled a couple of weeks after going to ground, so theoretically there will be 2 feet between each plant after that.
“We are constantly patrolling in the greenhouse and out in the fields for males. Somebody is walking up and down the rows, pulling males as they show themselves,” Emers explained.
The walkers are also looking for pests or mold, which they handle by either trimming the affected lead or killing the affected plant, to prevent the mold from spreading.
For irrigation, Emers has a well with lines that are connected to the drip tape that he has out in the fields. The well water comes out at 38 degrees. In the high tunnels, Emers keeps 50-gallon barrels with the same well water. But because that well water is sitting in the barrels, its temperature is rising to more than 50 degrees, even on a cloudy day. Emers will then use a sump pump and hose to send the water out of the barrels and to the plants.
Battling Against Freeze
Not surprisingly, freezing is an organic farmer’s biggest worry in a place like Fairbanks. Emers takes steps to reduce the risk, but he’s also resigned to the fact he can’t do much against freezing temperatures.
To combat the threat, Emers uses oil-powered furnaces in the high tunnels that he’ll burn for a few weeks at the start of the season. And if his plants are still in the ground come late August or September, when frost has likely already set in, he’ll lay a light frost fabric over the plants to shield them from frost and cold.
“But we’re hoping to avoid that by planting early enough and getting everything out of the field by August instead of September,” Emers said.
Still, he thinks cannabis is resilient enough to survive a light frost should it have to.
“Yes, the plants are pretty exposed, but the plants are pretty tough,” Emers said. “They can take a lot of abuse, and the plants in the high tunnels, they’re pretty well protected.”