Story David Bolling | Photos Steven Krause
If Mike Benziger and Erich Pearson have their way, a 400-acre former turkey farm in the Sonoma Valley will soon become a national model for the biodynamic cultivation of cannabis and a focal point for scientific research on the impact of terroir on the individual characteristics of different varieties of pot plants.
enziger is, of course, the founder and biodynamic guru of Benziger Family Winery, one of the most widely respected voices in the nation for sustainable winemaking. He is also a two-time cancer survivor who has used medical cannabis to alleviate the effects of his cancer treatments.
Pearson is the co-founder and CEO of SPARC (San Francisco Patient and Resource Center), one of San Francisco’s biggest and most respected medical cannabis dispensaries. He is also a leader in the design and construction of marijuana nurseries, using skills from his background in building construction management.
Together, Pearson and Benziger hope to create a model for cannabis cultivation that will become the standard for Sonoma County, and beyond, as the nascent world of pot permitting, taxation and sustainable growing matures.
“I’m a double cancer survivor,” Benziger explains. “One of the big issues for me was reducing the anxiety and the pain level of treatments. Once I recovered, I wanted to help develop cannabis that could help people and not hurt the land. If we can help people by providing safe medicine that’s safe for the land, that’s a good thing.”
It’s not lost on Benziger and Pearson that within a mile of where they are standing, at least one large, illegal and ecologically destructive marijuana grow has been found and investigated by law enforcement. The SPARC project aims to be the antithesis of that clandestine site.
“My interest,” he says, “is getting the cannabis industry off to a good start—for everyone—with the right model. Sonoma County is probably the most diverse agricultural area in the world. The ideal for environmental tourism is to be able to see at the source what you’re going to eat, see what you’re going to drink and see what you’re going to smoke.”
Serving as a consultant to SPARC’s Sonoma Valley pot project, Benziger is both advising on the application of biodynamic farming techniques and helping build a database to compare genetically identical plants grown on three geologically different plots.
Biodynamic farming is a form of sustainable agriculture based on the teachings of the 19th-century Austrian philosopher, educator and social scientist Rudolph Steiner. While it employs a variety of esoteric practices—including the burial of cow horns packed with manure during the autumnal solstice—the basic principle of biodynamic agriculture is to get out of the way and let nature take control.
Explains Benziger, “There’s always a balance in biodynamics: You give up control and in exchange you get authenticity. From a biodynamic point of view, we don’t have much control. We’re limited to fingers, observation and healthy soil. It’s always using life to create more life.”
As unusual—or outright weird—as the cow horn burial process may seem, the end product is fermented manure that is then used to make a tea that is sprayed on plants and soil in small quantities. These treatments aid in humus formation, increase soil bacteria and fungi production, improve the crumb structure of the soil, increase earthworm activity and enhance absorption and retention of soil moisture.
Benziger has seen dramatic results using biodynamics to grow wine, and he sees several similarities between grapevines and pot plants. “Both plants are incredibly sensitive,” he says. “Both produce medicine so to speak. They have the ability to heal and elevate consciousness. They both take a lot of care and maintenance to achieve high quality.”
Wine grapes are heavily influenced by terroir, a vinological term du jour that encompasses soil, climate, geography, topography and other factors unique to any one vineyard. Benziger and Pearson think the same reality should apply to cannabis plants, so to test and validate the hypothesis they have created the test beds composed of genetically identical plants but grown in different soil types and locations at the project site.
Data collected from each plot with micro-weather stations, soil probes and thermal cameras will measure such variables as ambient temperature, leaf temperature, soil moisture and temperature, soil chemistry and composition, even insect and bird activity.
“You want to know that in 104-degree ambient temperature leaf temperature is not over 100 degrees,” Benziger elaborates. “You also want to look at visual clues, phenomenology. There is science and then there is trained observation. The goal over time is to build an accurate database, but it will take several years.”
“Terroir,” adds Pearson, “equals honest. It says, this is where it’s from.” And he thinks the Sonoma Valley plot, not far from Glen Ellen, is ideal.
“This is actually one of the best places in the county to grow because of that mountain there,” he says pointing to the side of the Mayacamas range. “It is five-to-seven degrees hotter here, and the soil is warmer in this area.”
About 20 employees work the site, which is leased from local owners still occupying part of the land. There is a cabernet vineyard on the property, about 15 head of cattle and 400 chickens.
The livestock are an important part of the biodynamic equation, says Benziger, because they enhance soil biodiversity. “The real key to healthy soil is having animals on top of it,” he says. “Biodynamic [word missing here??] creates plant resilience. Animals grazing on the land are eating microbes, then fermenting them in their gut and pooping it out. Biodynamic soil is completely alive, and by farming this way, with no artificial inputs, the more these plants are available to grow on your own dime.”
Biodynamic certification, says Pearson, is a ways off in the future because the certifying agency, Demeter USA (named for the Greek goddess of the harvest), is still sorting out what the appropriate parameters should be. “But Demeter has been out here and as far as we know we’re the only cannabis site they’ve looked at. These guys want to set the bar high. We’re in a sensitive area and it has to be done right.”
It appears likely that when full production at the project is initiated, only a small percentage of the plants will be targeted for biodynamic status because one of the established criteria is that plants must be grown outdoors without light deprivation.
And terroir research notwithstanding, the test plots are only a small part of the four-acre operation. On an adjacent parcel SPARC has created a major commercial grow with a current capacity of 11,000 plants, nourished in individual soil pots grown in cold frame structures with removable covers that are rotated on and off the frames to stimulate growth.
Pearson says the SPARC collective, which has medical cannabis permits for the Sonoma Valley grow operation, has about 20,000 members, with 12,000 more from a recent merger with Santa Rosa’s Peace Through Medicine collective. They produce about 60 percent of the cannabis they sell and have enough capacity to meet total demand, but not enough variety. Which is why there are now “well over 100 different varieties” being grown on the Sonoma Valley site, Pearson says.
Security, one of the primary public concerns about outdoor cannabis farms, involves a multilayered strategy, says Pearson. The system used employs laser beams, cameras on poles, UV night vision cameras and a private security firm with alarm systems connected to the security firm and law enforcement. No one on the property is armed.
For commercial growers in Sonoma County, the month of July is certain to be a period of frenzy as permit applications are submitted under the county’s new regulations. Because those regulations differ from some of the state’s rules, conflicts will inevitably arise. The state, for example, allows four acres for each permitted parcel, while Sonoma County allows only one acre. How and whether multiple applicants can apply for permits on adjoining parcels remains to be seen. SPARC, says Pearson, will be submitting permit applications for the two acres encompassing the cold frame grow operation.
Sonoma County growers seem to believe that the local permitting process will take some tweaking before it is properly operational.
However the future of legal cannabis unfolds—recreationally and medically—there is good reason to believe that Mike Benziger and Erich Pearson will play a key role in shaping that future with a model that is kind to the land and of value to the consumers who benefit from it.