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Ground-Truth Data ‘Absolutely’ Adds Value to Top-Shelf Cannabis

With all the new cannabis legalization bills churning their way through state legislatures, it’s an exciting time to be a cannabis grower in America. Arable caught up with Ben Blake and Marley Lovell, the founders of Esensia, a close-to-the-land, award-winning outdoor operation grounded in the heart of the Emerald Triangle in California. We spoke about how they use agtech to inform their management decisions, and how data visibility keeps them on track to produce the high-quality craft cannabis their customers have come to depend on.

Esensia’s operation, in NorCal’s Emerald Triangle. Courtesy Ben Blake.

Arable Labs: Hi Ben, Hi Marley. Let’s jump right in. As outdoor craft cannabis growers, tell us what brought you guys to adopt agtech in the field in the first place.

Ben Blake: Great topic. We’ve been growing cannabis for a while now, close to 10 years. It was really a passion of working outdoors with plants that attracted both of us to it. Our approach was definitely less sophisticated in the beginning. It all started with a lot of note taking on paper and Excel docs, comparing notes, and finding ways to store and analyze the data so we could make sense of what we were seeing in the field with the different phenotypes in our breeding programs. As we got into it, we started to realize that genetics are really the foundation of what we do. Through breeding and phenotype selection, cloning, and mothering, we’re creating our own proprietary strains or cultivars with unique characteristics that we think will do well on the market. There’s definitely data involved in that, and the amount of data and tech we use will continue to grow as we continue down that rabbit hole.

Last year we had some challenges scaling our genetics commercially with the new cannabis laws — the amount you can grow now is a lot more than it used to be. We wanted to take all these really neat strains we have and be able to secure and scale them in more reliable ways, maybe license some of them. We ended up partnering with a tissue culture lab and began initiating ten of our flagship cultivars using that technology back in April [2018]. It’s a slow process, so getting started with it early was important.

AL: Is that like cloning?

BB: It’s known as micropropagation, so not traditional cloning. Traditional cloning is a pretty common practice in modern cannabis production. Both traditional cloning and tissue culture micropropagation have their pros and cons. With tissue culture micropropagation, you take little bits of meristem or nodal tissue off the plant and you grow it in vitro in a petri dish in an agar. The deeper we’ve gotten, we’ve been surprised by the variety of crops that are propagated this way, like orchids, fruiting tree crops, and nut tree crops. There’s actually one operation repopulating parts of the redwood forest up in Humboldt with tissue culture redwood trees, we learned.

AL: Whoa!

BB: Yeah! It’s way more widespread than we initially even realized. Some of the advantages are that it has the potential to clean out any viruses, diseases, or pest issues in a plant. With old genetics, it can refresh and reinvigorate them. And it’s also really scalable, so you can reproduce tens of thousands of plants in a very small setting. It’s also a really good way to archive genetics. We have a big library, close to 60 select strains that we’ve developed over ten years of breeding and pheno-selecting. It’s always been a challenge to keep those strains healthy and alive. We’ve had numerous near catastrophic experiences where we’ve almost lost certain strains for a variety of different reasons. These strains are really valuable to us, and we think will have even more value going forward. Being able to secure those and archive them is important.

AL: Can you then select for different genes?

BB: We’re actually right at the tip of that iceberg now. That’s a big thing with ag in general, genetic-based breeding tools. It’s a super interesting field. Just having deeper knowledge of the genome can help you with traditional breeding because you can know what to select for, what traits to look for. And there’s deeper levels to go, where you’re talking about actually modifying or editing genes. That’s an area we’re wary of and have some philosophical opposition to. However, we are aware that others in the industry are exploring it.

The whole thing with cannabis is that it rocketed out of the black market into the legal space and now changes in the industry are happening at a super fast rate. It’s really coming into a traditional ag space very, very quickly. It all basically happened in the last year or two.

The topics of genetic modification in cannabis, specifically the use of GMO and CRISPR technology, are hot-button issues right now. There’s a lot of opposition to these types of techniques in the Emerald Triangle because of the threat they pose to heritage genetics and cultivators. The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors has been discussing the topic and will most likely be banning the use of both technologies for cannabis and other ag as well. Having said that, there’s definitely an increased interest in gaining more knowledge about the cannabis genome, and how that can help with traditional breeding. That’s going to be a huge area for cannabis going forward, and it will be really interesting to keep following that and see what happens there.

Marley Lovell: Cannabis has been in the shadow market for quite a long time. So there’s been this transition to a regulated marketplace, which has been painful in certain ways but has also allowed us to have access to all the tools that the rest of agriculture has, which I think is really fantastic for us. A lot of those tools weren’t necessarily developed for cannabis specifically, so we’re still trying to figure out the right applications for them. One main difference is that cannabis is being produced on a much smaller scale than the rest of agriculture, for example quarter-acre to several-acre lots, as opposed to hundred- or thousand-acre lots.

The Arable Mark above the cannabis canopy. Courtesy Ben Blake.

AL: How does plant data and knowing the genetic traits of your plants change the way that you manage your fields?

ML: Ben and I have developed our company by being really attentive and detail-oriented. So the more information we have to make any type of decision, the better. It’s all about getting the right information and making sure that it’s actionable, because there are lots of situations where you might get information too late or not be able to analyze it and apply it in a timely manner.

In terms of genetics, one of the advantages of having our own in-house genetics program is that we’ll work with the exact same cultivars year after year and so we really get to know their idiosyncrasies and what they like in terms of nutrients, watering, pruning, support, pest and disease resistance, ripening, etc.

Our harvest time is always in the fall, but we harvest over the course of probably 6–7 weeks. The finishing times of the strains are something of a known quantity, but the weather that specific year can affect things. We try to stagger our plantings or plant different varietals that we know are going to finish at different times, so that we don’t get overloaded at harvest. In the past we’ve always managed it in our heads and Excel docs but we definitely have an eye towards bringing more tech into it, especially as the scale grows.

AL: In our end-of-season report, you mentioned a potential use case around late-season nighttime temperatures that correspond to the color or flavor of cannabis, similar to chilling hours, and also about forecasting in relation to harvest timing.

BB: Yeah, definitely. Certain strains will get these beautiful purple, blue, maroon, or reddish hues as the evening temperatures drop in the fall, during the plant’s later flowering stages. Colder temperatures also help enhance the terpenes, the natural chemical compounds that are responsible for the cannabis flowers’ smell. This color change trait is strain-dependent and kicks in at different temperature thresholds with different strains, or sometimes not at all.

If we can log temperature data by the hour in the fall, we can cross-reference that with what we’re seeing and smelling on the plant, and find out what those temperature thresholds are for the different strains.

Pixie Dust is a proprietary strain of ours that reaches its full potential in cold temperatures; it gets these crazy blues and purples that put the finishing touch on it. Let’s say we’re nearing the harvest window, and we see that it hasn’t made the color change yet; if we knew there was a cold event on the horizon, we would definitely hold off on harvest for a week or two to allow that color change to happen, making it a more appealing product than if it were normal green.

The gorgeous purples in Esensia’s Pixie Dust develop during late-season chilly nights. Courtesy Ben Blake.

AL: How much of a value difference do you think waiting for that coloration makes?

BB: Trying to guide the plant through its life cycle so that it reaches its full genetic potential is always our top goal. The market is so competitive that the extra bit of visual appeal always helps. It’s definitely something that would add to its chances of getting onto a higher shelf and for us getting a better price, absolutely.

AL: So how has Arable served you this past year, and where are you planning on going with it?

BB: We probably used it the most this past year for weather. We’re not always physically in the gardens, but we were able to log in on a hot day and see the hourly temperature curve throughout the day, and know how hot it actually was above the canopy right then. If it’s above a certain level, okay, that means we need to get on the phone with one of our workers and have them water, for example. If there’s rain events, or cloudy days, it’s super helpful to actually see what the temperature and humidity are in real time. We started to play around with some of the other features, and are thinking of ways the sensor on the bottom that views the crop canopy will apply to our garden. We’re also interested in attaching a wind speed monitor; because we’re at a high-elevation, windy location, wind directionality is important to us. If we know there’s going to be a big wind event coming, we’ll put up a protective shade cloth across the garden, or do extra staking or plant support.

AL: What was the most unexpected outcome of this last season that the data exposed?

BB: Before the Arable Mark, our best approximation of weather was online sites like Weather Underground. The closest weather station to us is probably at least an hour away, and at lower elevation. It really wasn’t a great representation. With the Arable Mark, we found that it was a little bit cooler over the canopy at our garden site than what Weather Underground would say. That was a reassuring piece of data to get, because a lot of times the weather report would be reading 110, 120 degrees, and we’d be freaking out. It would feel hot at the garden, but definitely cooler up there than down in the valley, and the Arable Mark was able to confirm that.

AL: What measurements are you most excited to dig deeper into next season?

BB: Aside from wind speed direction, we’re really interested to dive deeper into chlorophyll content. We have our nutrient schedule set already, before we’ve even planted; with that in mind, we’re curious to utilize the Arable Mark to see what it can tell us about plant deficiencies, if there are any, and then react based on that data. We have a pretty good sense from experience what the plants will need and when, but different strains have different likes and dislikes, and we try and treat them separately as much as we can.

The more we can get exact readings or specialized data for parts of the garden or specific strains, we can dial things in even more. That would definitely lead to the potential of producing better quality product.

AL: What are your technology plans for the next few years?

ML: One big goal in the near future is to get into light deprivation greenhouses. Right now, if you’re growing outdoor, you’re only going to be able to do one crop per year. Unless you’re growing auto-flower varietals — which is an interview for another day. With light dep greenhouses you can deprive photosensitive plants of light at certain times, and add light at other times, to get multiple crops a year. Some of them are basically warehouses with see-through roofs, and are closer to indoor. Others are designed to be more like outdoor with some coverings.

When the time comes to incorporate this technology into our operations, we definitely want it to have the feel of sun grown; we want the natural light to be a big component, we want to keep it organic, we want to be growing in living soils. We’re not going to be going hydroponic or anything like that. But we would like to have multiple cycles per year, in the most organic, natural growing environment we possibly can.

Esensia’s Lime Juice (L) and Merlot (R) strains. Courtesy Ben Blake.

AL: Talking about the cannabis market specifically, there are probably a lot of people who care about organic and natural? How does this play in the cannabis industry in California?

BB: There definitely are a lot of people who care about organic, natural, clean cannabis — especially in California. It may be surprising to some, but there really hasn’t been a good, reliable way for consumers to know that the cannabis they’re consuming meets these standards. In fact, one of the dirty little secrets of the cannabis industry is just how many nasty pesticides have historically been used — close to 85% of all cannabis products on the market two years ago would fail today’s pesticide testing standards.

Right now there’s no “organic” certification for cannabis. The term “organic” is owned by the USDA and because cannabis is still Schedule I federally, the USDA doesn’t want to touch the issue of giving the organic standard to cannabis. There’s been some other, much smaller, California-based certifying bodies that have sprung up to fill the void. One of them is called Clean Green. They go visit farms and vet them, and the farms have to pass all these standards to get the label. In the near future, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which oversees statewide cultivation licensing, is going to be rolling out a California-wide organic program; I don’t think they’re technically calling it organic, but that’s basically what it is, mandated to roll out in 2022. There’s also an appellations program that’s going to be similar to viticulture appellations.

Right now there’s basically no mechanism for the consumer to know with certainty where the product’s being produced, or how it’s being produced. A lot of the mechanisms that exist in other parts of ag and the food industry that allow the consumer to know where the product is coming from are now coming to cannabis, supported by state agencies. That is a huge and very important sea change in the industry. Emerald Triangle growers are going to need as many of these arrows in their quivers as possible to succeed in the regulated market. These organic certification standards and appellation designations have the potential to really help set them apart in the marketplace and earn them a higher price for their product.

AL: Once cannabis is just as prevalent as corn out there, do you think there could be a divide, like heirloom-quality, farmers-market-cannabis vs. mass-produced, corn-syrup-cannabis?

BB: Yeah absolutely. It’s already happening. The California medical laws came into effect in 1996. From then until a couple years ago, the medical market was filled with a diverse array of relatively small operations, many of whom were producing very high-quality craft products. Then, when the recreational laws came into effect, things changed overnight.

In under two years, you saw that traditional craft market get decimated as people had a really hard time transitioning to the regulated market, getting through all the regulatory hoops. Corporate interests have come in off the sidelines.

Nowadays, so much of the focus is on scaling, raising investment, looking for better margins, positioning to go national and even global. It’s head-spinning how quickly it’s all happening. Personally, we thought this would happen at some point, but not this quickly.

But California is a sophisticated market. Cannabis has been grown, consumed, and treated in a connoisseur way here for quite a long time. Even though there’s a lot of new, uneducated consumers, there is a history of quality, an understanding of quality, and an appreciation of quality here. We’re 100% sure there is going to be a craft market going forward and that’s really what we’re focusing on. We think that market share will be somewhere between 10–20% of the overall cannabis market in California. The consuming public in California is so big that even if the craft market is only 15% of the overall market, that’s still millions of potential consumers. We think there will be plenty of room for people who are committed craft producers to find their niche and stake their ground.

AL: We talked a bit about how agtech gives you insights and more visibility, but do you think that it’s possible to rely on it a little too much?

ML: Yeah, I definitely feel that way. In a traditional ag setting, it’s not physically possible to give each plant individual attention. That’s where agtech can help. However, if you’re leaning too heavily on that tech, you can get lulled into complacency and fall out of tune with your crop and its needs. Ben and I are trying to combine those two sides of the coin.

As opposed to replacing traditional methods with tech, we want to find the tech that is really going to support and enhance our core philosophies around cultivation.

There’s always the feeling like you want to automate things and make them easier. Farming is difficult. There’s going to be some kind of give and take, in my opinion.

BB: We’re a craft operation, trying to produce a boutique, high-grade product that’s very rich in terpenes, high in resin-production — and ultimately, wildly unique, complex, and well-rounded. We just won our second Emerald Cup award last year, and we’re seeing the market respond favorably to all this hard work and attention to detail. Traditionally, the medical cannabis market was primarily a craft market, and that’s shifting now to where a majority of the market going forward is going to be a commodities market. Really, it’s going to be more bulk production where the cannabis is extracted for oils to be used in things like edibles and vape pens, while we’re focusing on creating the most immaculate, interesting flower we can. That’s what our goal is. If you get too big, or rely too much on what the computer is telling you, you risk losing that close relationship with the plant. You really need to be in the field and have that connection to get a product of the quality that we’re going for. At the same time, we’re also trying to grow our business, and you can’t do it entirely just by feel. You definitely need the help of technology. There’s a sweet spot where you can use your intuition and also use technology. We’re definitely in the process of trying to find that middle ground as we go forward.

AL: One of our key motivations at Arable is to make technology that serves growers in the decision-making process. You’re using machines, but you’re still using your brains, and your noses, and your eyes. That type of stuff may never truly be automated, nor should it necessarily. What are your thoughts on that?

BB: 100% agree with you. We’re always going to be craft producers. Our goal is to produce the highest-quality product in the state of California — and globally. We’d like to be known as the best of the best. We never want to get away from the sight, the smell, the human sensory component. That’s really crucial. I’m not sure you can really get a craft product if you eliminate that, and we don’t want to eliminate it. But we definitely recognize that there are ways to balance the technology and the human aspects to take the product to a higher level than we’ve ever taken it before.

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