As more states and countries come online with their medical or adult-use cannabis laws, demand is proving to be nearly insatiable in many areas with cultivators struggling to keep supplies up.
Canada ran out of cannabis within days after first opening legal sales. Same with Nevada.
Essentially, legal cannabis is proving to be an extremely valuable agricultural commodity. Same goes for the hemp variety as well.
One could go on at length about all the benefits of cannabis – from medicinal to industrial – and as more people discover these benefits, demand will continue to accelerate.
However, setting up these large cannabis grows comes with a lot of challenges and nuances, the greatest of which we must not overlook: sustainability.
How to cultivate crops in the best possible way so that they’re giving back, replenishing biodiversity, bolstering the ecosystem – and even helping to reverse climate change?
The answer: regenerative agriculture.
Regeneration International describes it as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”
In other words, regenerative agriculture is a way to ensure that your cannabis is clean, organic, and that the process of growing it actually gives back to the soil and improves the land.
It’s the ideal approach, something that many agricultural operations are missing out on, and a place where cannabis has the opportunity to help lead the way.
Regenerative Agriculture is the Holistic Approach
“Approaching any type of agriculture with a regenerative mindset is going to bring unintended good consequences,” explains Dr. David White, executive director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture.
The perfect metaphor for regenerative agriculture, White continues, is to think of it like holistic versus Western medicine.
“In Western medicine, they often focus on one little part of your body and everything is in disconnection from everything else, and as a trained ecologist the basic thing is everything is connected,” White notes.
“You can either do things positively in a regenerative manner, or you can do things in a degenerative manner, and with degenerative agriculture – of which we have a lot of examples – you get unintended bad consequences.”
Cultivating the Healthiest Cannabis Plants
A key aspect to regenerative agriculture is the soil, White explains. How to take better care of it, and continue to cultivate rather than leaching all nutrients and life from it?
“The soil food web and our understanding about the interaction between plants and soil biology is really only emerging, and the terminology ‘regenerative’ is a key part of that,” he says.
For example: if you want to put more nitrogen into the soil, why not use cover cropping rather than fertilizer?
With cover cropping you’re basically growing other plants that help manage soil erosion, provide a nitrogen channel, provide beneficial insect habitats – and these plants are fairly easy to grow.
“These are just things that folks focused on cannabis don’t always think about,” White says.
“In my experience with people who are typically backyard growers, they tend to be very focused on the crop – on the cannabis – and it’s classic monoculture where you get pest buildup and diseases.”
Teaching Regenerative Agriculture to Cannabis Growers
White has been teaching about and leading regenerative agriculture projects since the 1990s, and most recently brought his expertise to the Cannabis Cultivation Certificate Program with Green Flower Academy.
“Regenerative agriculture or any regenerative design improves the resources it works with, and you can do that across a whole gamut of parameters,” he says.
These are important concepts for any farming operation because – as White explains – our soils are dying.
“There’s too much carbon in our atmosphere, too much carbon in our oceans, and not enough of it in our soils, and that’s why they’re dying,” he says.
“So let’s put the carbon in the soils – and the way you do that is with biology, in particular fungi.”
The fungal kingdom presents a whole other aspect to regenerative soils, White adds.
The Economics of Regenerative Agriculture
If regenerative agriculture is so important, what is its impact on the cannabis cultivators who are essentially running a business?
“There’s the rub, and it’s when you’re trying to measure the output of a biological system in economic terms, especially when you’re thinking the number of dollars you can get out of these plants. That’s what farmers do; they’re interested in dollar return,” White says.
“There is a balance of accepting that you’re not totally maximizing profits, yet you’re also doing good things which hopefully resonate through the community where you live.”
And of course there is a strong argument for how doing things the right way, the sustainable way, will create stronger economic benefit over time.
“The benefits can be diffuse, and they’re positive. You’re literally avoiding dealing with poisons and toxins. All of the problems with runoff and fertilizers, air quality issues and pesticides – just having plants around and about is going to improve the quality of your life, so making a choice to grow plants is a good one – why not make it biologically valid?”
It’s a synergy between plants and soil, and you can’t really separate them, White explains.
“To be talking about the biology of soil is just one aspect of a continuum, and that continuum spirals outwards into the macro universe as well as inwards into tiny combinations of molecules.”