SPONSORED: Mammoth cabbages. Sugar-sweet carrots. Alaska’s legendary Midnight Sun brings agricultural magic to garden beds and berry patches around the state. So why not take advantage of it to grow world-class cannabis?
That was the line of thinking that led Fairbanks organic farmer Mike Emers to sow his fields with a new kind of crop.
In 2016, Emers’ Rosie Creek Farm received the very first standard cultivation permit issued by the Alaska Marijuana Control Board. Now the farm is home to about an acre and a half of field-grown cannabis, with even more sheltered inside 96-foot high tunnels — and you won’t find a grow light in sight.
Next week, Emers will head down to Anchorage’s Catalyst Cannabis Co. to speak to customers and share some of the lessons he’s learned during his first three seasons as a cannabis farmer.
And there have been plenty of lessons.
Learning to grow again
Emers is “a farmer first” and says he was never really much of a “pot person.” But when legalization passed, he saw an opportunity.
“I think, at the time, we were just assuming that a lot of farmers and standard greenhouse operations would be getting into this,” Emers said.
That turned out not to be the case. Other established farms didn’t move en masse into cannabis. And shifting gears wasn’t quite as simple as Emers thought it was going to be.
“I think I went into this three years ago feeling that my 20 years of knowledge of growing high-quality organic vegetables would transfer to this crop just fine,” Emers said. “And some parts have, and some parts haven’t.”
When the National Organic Program was established in 2001, Rosie Creek was one of the first farms in Alaska to secure the certification. Those practices are now applied to the cannabis operation.
“The basic philosophy of organic growing is feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants,” Emers said. “So we treat the soil with love.”
Still, Emers said, even if you use organic growing practices, the certification means something, and he’d like to see a national organic certification for cannabis -- something that won’t happen unless legalization happens at the federal level.
Growing greener in an energy-intensive industry
For as many “green” puns as there are to be made about cannabis, the burgeoning industry is increasingly facing up to its environmental impact.
“In the long run, for the planet, how we’re growing -- whether it’s pot or food -- we have an energy crisis, and we have a global climate warming crisis,” Emers said. “Marijuana is probably the highest energy crop there is.”
According to a report by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, indoor grow operations use about 10 times as much energy per square foot as a typical office. Researchers estimate that nationwide, indoor cultivation annually produces as much greenhouse gas pollution as 3 million cars.
“There’s a financial cost to growing lots of marijuana in warehouses with lots of electricity,” Emers said. “There’s also a cost to the planet.”
Growing outdoors, as Emers does, is significantly less resource consumptive than indoor cultivation. And Alaska’s unique growing season, which produces record-breaking cabbages and pumpkins the size of bumper cars, is friendly to cannabis as well, even contributing to the origin story of the legendary “Matanuska ThunderF---” strain.
Emers is quick to say he has a lot of respect for his colleagues who grow indoors, especially since the exacting science of indoor cultivation has yielded some techniques that are helpful in outdoor growing. But he’d love to see more people taking advantage of Alaska’s short, potent growing season.
“This is a plant that evolved like the rest of the plants on the planet and that people have cultivated outside for thousands of years,” Emers said. “Why shouldn’t we be growing outside? Why shouldn’t there be a market for that?”
Educating retailers, appealing to consumers
One of the early lessons at Rosie Creek was that there’s a big visual difference between cannabis that’s grown indoors under tightly managed conditions and bud that’s raised in a field under the sun.
“This plant is not hard to grow, but it is hard to grow outdoors,” Emers said. “With long daylight and the growing conditions that we have, (they) make our product a totally different product than indoor-grown.”
Flowers form differently when grown outdoors, he said. That added an important step to the sales process: education.
“People are so used to seeing indoor-grown bud and what that looks like,” Emers said. So they’re not sure what to make of Rosie Creek’s outdoor flower. “It’s still a high-quality product, but it’s not the tight nuggets that people are used to seeing. They’re a lot looser when grown outdoors. They get lots of sunlight, leaves are spreading out a little bit, the bud structure is looser, and people don’t like to see that.”
Emers said educating retailers -- the “gatekeepers” of the industry -- has been an important part of building the business.
“We assumed that everybody would say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to buy this low-carbon-footprint pot because it’s the right thing to do,’” Emers said.
As it turns out, customers are less interested in going green than they are in saving green.
“For the retailers, really, the marketing point is the price,” Emers said. Since he barely spends a dime on electricity, that gives him an advantage when it comes down to the bottom line: “I just show them my price list.”
Tips for growing at home
In a First Hit talk at Anchorage’s Catalyst Cannabis Co. next week, Emers will walk customers through the ins and outs of growing outdoors “from seed to harvest,” both at the commercial level and from a home grower’s perspective -- after all, he’s a gardener as well as a farmer.
Among the questions he expects to answer, Emers said: “How do I grow pot outdoors? Can I grow it in the garden? What’s an alternative to growing it in our closet?”
Some people compare growing pot to growing tomatoes, and there are similarities, Emers said -- although for a commercial farmer, those similarities end at harvest time.
“Tomatoes take a lot of care and a lot of babying,” he said, like cannabis. “The difference is, when that tomato’s ripe, I pick it and I sell it. When the buds are ripe on pot, that’s where the work begins.”
Emers said he’ll probably talk about breeding, too, since there are unique considerations in the northern climate.
“For growing pot outdoors in Alaska, you can’t clone plants,” he said. “They hit the ground running. They start flowering really quickly. We have our own strains that we’ve developed from crossing and backcrossing and all sorts of things.”
Catalyst Cannabis Co. owner Will Schneider said he’s looking forward to Emers’ presentation.
“Rosie Creek is definitely on brand with Catalyst,” Schneider said. “There are so few organic growers in this industry. With Catalyst being focused on organic growing and sustainability, we figured Mike from Rosie Creek would be a great fit for our First Hit educational series.”
Catalyst’s monthly First Hit events feature presentations by members of the Alaska cannabis industry discussing their individual areas of expertise. Schneider said the events are intended to help educate the public about cannabis and its possibilities.
Emers says cannabis is “really easy to grow,” and while raising it outside presents some unique challenges, it’s worth it.
“We have a long and successful history of farming organically in the Far North,” Emers said. “I’m growing pot this way because I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Catalyst Cannabis Co. presents “Cabbages to Cannabis: A Farmer’s Perspective on Growing in the Subarctic,” a free event featuring Rosie Creek Farms owner Mike Emers.
Wednesday, May 15
9900 Old Seward Hwy #4
Blunt Talk is a series of original articles sponsored by Alaska cannabis businesses and organizations to highlight the real people, families, businesses and groups impacted by the legalization of cannabis in Alaska. Find all the stories and a complete list of sponsors here: Story 1, Story 2, Story 3, Story 4, Story 5 and Story 6.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the series sponsors. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.