Growing without synthetic pesticides: Q&A with Fleurish Farms’ Ethan Rubendall

By John Schroyer

Grower Ethan Rubendall is arguably an extremist: He refuses to use chemicals on his cannabis plants, opting instead for all-natural techniques to fight pests.

He argues his approach – including the use of plant-based sprays and aphid-repelling crops like chickpeas – is more effective than the potentially toxic chemicals other MJ growers use.

Rubendall has been growing cannabis professionally for about three years, most of those as the head of plant nutrition at California’s Fleurish Farms. During that time, he’s developed his own approach to pest management, which has blossomed into a hot-button issue among cultivators and activists over the past year. Synthetic pesticides have made headlines for causing product recalls in Colorado and new regulations in several more states.

“I’ve never used any kind of synthetic pesticide,” Rubendall said. “And it’s worked wonders.”

Marijuana Business Daily asked him to discuss his approach to fighting pests and protecting his plants.

Does Fleurish Farms have a policy on pesticides as far as what you use or don’t use?

We don’t use any kind of synthetic pesticides. Our (integrated pest management) program is simply natural. It’s either herbs or botanicals that we procure from farmer’s markets, or it’s all grown on the property.

Why is that?

Systemic pesticides, like Eagle 20, stay in the plant. I don’t specifically recall the half-life, but it’s not a short period of time whatsoever. Even when people talk about using it on a clone, that’s still going to be in the plant through the flowering cycle, while you harvest it, after you flush it. And it’s going to the patient. So for us, if you want to call what you’re giving out “medicine,” then it has to be grown organically. And what better way to do that than with other herbs?

Do you think pesticide regulations – like those enacted in Colorado, Oregon and Washington – are a trend that other cultivators are going to have to deal with at some point?

From what I’ve seen, I think it will. It’s already becoming more common in other industries. Even some of these biodynamic lines are coming back with (pesticides in them), just from overspraying and having used them everywhere. So I think that trend is going to continue full speed ahead. They’re not to be used as preventative measures. There’s really no reason to – even as a last resort. I’ve seen, firsthand, mites and pests that the grower can’t do anything about with whatever they’re using.

But you can beat ‘em using the proper (integrated pest management program) and predatory insects. I’ve seen those chemicals fail where a rigorous natural IPM program has worked. When you’re looking at it that way, there’s no reasons those regulations shouldn’t be in place or work.

Tell me more about the IPM program you use at Fleurish.

Right now we’re putting together a cover crop, like sweet peas and chickpeas, which repel aphids. We also grow onions, garlic, organic ginger, and we use cinnamon – the sweeter variety – and all of these things are antibacterial, antifungal. They control the types of life in our garden, and they promote the healthy life to flourish and all the bad stuff to die.

So along with cannabis, you’re growing onions, garlic, organic ginger, and all these other things right next to cannabis plants outdoors?

We use a cover crop.

What’s a cover crop?

That’s like clover. It fixes nitrogen in the soil, and promotes things like chickpeas that repel aphids. And that kind of controls your bottom layer, to keep things from crawling up there. In separate areas of the farm we’re growing vegetables like onions and garlic. And we turn those into a probiotic spray through fermentation, and (integrate them) into our pest management program. So we only spray things that are made out of plants, and it keeps the bugs away. There’s no reason to use anything else.

As far as pesticides like Eagle 20, is that still a really widespread problem? Do a lot of growers still use pesticides like those?

I definitely have seen it. You can just look at lab reports on the internet and see how many are failing for pesticides, or failing for mold or things like that. Because of the regulations coming down, the training to use organic methods isn’t there. So people don’t know how not to use pesticides. And even if they’re not using pesticides, their medicine isn’t medicine because it’s got mold and it’s got bugs.

I’ve never used any kind of synthetic pesticide. It’s always been organic: rosemary oil, thyme oil, neem oil, ginger, garlic. And it’s worked wonders. It’s kind of amazing what you don’t need.

A lot of people in the cannabis industry see pesticides and pest management as a really serious problem. What do you think the solution is going to be for the industry?

Regulation really only comes from inadequate education. People just need to understand how easy it is to grow with these methods. Most simply don’t know how to use pesticides. And to protect their profit they’re going to use (pesticides) every time. To keep a roof over your head, you’re going to use them every time. To keep your kids in school, to pay your light bill, and that’s the only way they know. So education is essential.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]

7 comments on “Growing without synthetic pesticides: Q&A with Fleurish Farms’ Ethan Rubendall
  1. Steve W on

    This grower is missing one whole class of products that should be integral to any cannabis program and that is beneficial insects and nematodes. Our grow has been organic from day one and part of that is the use of beneficial insects and organisms that provide good control of almost any pest or disease that cannabis is effected by.
    The key to all good IPM programs is that there is no “silver bullet” to clean up a big mess as is possible with chemicals. One has to be proactive and get ahead of the problem or potential problem. Start at your mother room and work your way through ALL of your grow.

    Organically Yours and Growing Large
    Steve
    Buddy Boy Farms

    Reply
  2. Ma Dang on

    I agree with Steve’s comments regarding insect use AND getting ahead of the problem (then there is no problem, only solutions), an “intergrated program” is essential to success. Mister Rubendall has brought up some interesting points that i’m not sure he realized ! None of the products or “concoctions” he says he uses are GRAS for MMJ nor are they tested for by any of the accredited labs in California. What are the carriers for the essential oils, what about other bacteria, what are the effects of smoking neem oil, or possible allergies to some of the natural products most everything he listed has a residue of some kind.
    And lastly people who continue to use prohibited products to protect their profits are going to be selling on the Black Market as their medicine will not pass scrutiny and to keep a roof over their head, keep their kids in school or pay their bills and if that’s the only way they know either they need education or it is essential that they are no longer selling medicine. “the times, they are a changing”

    Reply
  3. American Weedwolf on

    To be fair, pest pressure is generally much lower outdoors than indoors due to naturally present pest predators. This may not be possible for indoor commercial grows without significant economic damage. Also this is an OPM (Organic Pest Management) Plan; an IPM plan does not limit its pest management “toolbox”.

    Reply
  4. Toni on

    As a licensed Wa state grower since 2014 & MMJ long before, like Ethan we only offer biodynamically/organically grown Cannabisl & completely agree with him. We also use beneficial insects, predators & frogs who appear as if by magic & help gobble up anything which shouldn’t be there etc. The large CO2 giving mushrooms which pop up over winter in our hoop houses help keep the girls happy too.

    We were harvesting girls well into December with multiple snow falls on the ground which didn’t even phase our hardy girls, shook the snow off & continued harvesting as usual…it may have increased thc, we had a few test over 30%.

    Since Cannabis is a hyper accumulator plant of radiation we go one step further & add specific minerals to the soil, to prevent plant uptake of radiation, instead of being in the flower it binds to the soil…..otherwise your outdoor cannabis will be full of radiation. The effects of Fukushima will be with us for thousands of years, so we believe this is a critical procedure.

    Reply
  5. ContactMD on

    Maryland is planning to enact legislation restricting pesticides used to only Labeled pesticides against the EPA suggestions on which can fit within the parameters of the law. For organic growing we need the FIFRA 21b minimum risk pesticides that meet the suggestion. This is what Colorado now has on their website. Please allow us to us natural products and since we will have some of the most stringent required testing in the industry, test the final products for residues (which they will) to prove efficacy. Banning pesticides does not negate testing nor protect the consumer. And honestly, who wants predator bugs and poop in their medical product. for the OG guys, its not a choice of chemicals or poop in the end product as I want neither. It about responsible use of any pesticidal product and researched and tested residue levels on final flower or extract. and yes its way more complicated…

    g

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