Oregon’s multi-faceted cannabis market is filled with creative entrepreneurs that contribute to a thriving and expanding industry. One such company is East Fork Cultivars, a fully sun-grown CBD cannabis farm in Southern Oregon’s Illinois Valley. With a commitment to sustainable farming methods and social responsibility within the cannabis industry, East Fork Cultivars fits right in with Oregon’s progressive mindset.
It’s currently a busy harvest season for the team at East Fork Cultivars, but CEO Mason Walker was awesome enough to step away and chat with us about his company and the industry. Here’s what Mason has to say about CBD, Oregon cannabis law and the future of the industry as a whole!
Tell us about the significance of llamas to the East Fork Cultivars farm.
Mason Walker: The East Fork Ranch began in 1982 as a llama breeding facility. In the 1990s, llamas had a fad moment due to their wool and interesting aesthetic differences across breeds. When we purchased the ranch, we decided to honor the history of the ranch by adopting the llama as our spirit animal. We still have one resident llama, Sierra, that keeps watch over the farm.
Sustainability is a central component of East Fork’s mission. How do you feel the cannabis industry as a whole is doing in regards to eco-friendly practices? What about the cannabis industry in Oregon?
MW: When it comes to environmental and social responsibility, there’s a clear-cut dichotomy in the cannabis industry, both in Oregon and beyond. One half cares deeply about its impact and sees the excitement and newness of the industry as an opportunity to get it right. Unfortunately, the shadow of prohibition is still present, bringing along with it a component of secrecy and an extractive mentality. We hope that by demonstrating our mission and values, we can encourage others to follow suit and carry this industry forward with a sustainable mentality.
What are your thoughts on the way recreational cannabis continues to unfold in the state of Oregon? What about in the country as a whole?
MW: I think Oregon has done a lot right so far. Despite the dynamic (and at times frustrating) regulatory framework, changing rules and market uncertainty, the state has clearly placed more value on craft cannabis than corporate cannabis. Some states aren’t following that playbook, and I think they’ll regret the decision. For instance, the Oregon legislature decided to issue an unlimited number of smaller, restricted-use licenses, encouraging a web of small businesses to create most of the market. That worked. Contrast that against Washington’s system, which drastically limited the number of allowed retailers, allowing less people to participate in the industry and create a market that’s ripe for potential price-fixing schemes and other bad business scenarios. Oregon has some work to do to improve the industry (read: social consumption!), but I think we’re largely on the right track.
What does the strictly-CBD competition look like in the state of Oregon?
MW: From the outset, we decided to dedicate our breeding and cultivation work to CBD-rich varieties of cannabis. This gamble has positioned us well; however, CBD remains a small niche in the otherwise burgeoning cannabis marketplace. We’re confident that over time, popularity (and quality!) of CBD-rich varieties will rise due to concentrated breeding work, increased education and a consumer base that wants more precise, subtle and nuanced experiences from cannabis.
What are the benefits of 100 percent sungrown cannabis compared to indoor? What are the risks attached to going fully sungrown?
MW: Growing cannabis under the sun has two very distinct advantages. 1) Our power bill is minuscule! Growing with the sun is incredibly efficient, and the most sustainable way to grow cannabis. There’s a reason most agricultural crops are grown outside in the dirt. 2) It produces superior cannabis! The sun has a magnificent spectrum of light that indoor growers haven’t quite been able to mimic — yet. That full-spectrum light contributes immensely to the development of minor compounds, like terpenes, that make cannabis such a dynamic plant. In addition, the stress of growing outside can also be beneficial, as stressed plants produce interesting compounds as defense mechanisms against pests and adverse environmental conditions. We’re looking for stressed yet healthy plants, which we can accomplish in our native soil, under the sun, in the elements. The biggest risk we face is the same risk faced by all agriculture — crop failure. We deal with more variables than an indoor producer, and have less control over our environment. Luckily, we have a dedicated team that makes sure our plants have what they need to defend themselves from whatever Southern Oregon throws at them.
How do you feel the benefits of CBD are represented in the national conversation surrounding cannabis consumption? What do you wish more people understood?
MW: CBD is just starting to have a moment. People across the country are hearing about cannabidiol and what this compound may or may not be able to help them with, but they aren’t yet armed with any significant source of reliable information. We’re working to change that. This winter, we’re launching a program called CBD Certified, a free education curriculum focused on the latest cannabis science and medical research. It will start as a presentation delivered to Oregon dispensaries, but will eventually expand to offer public education programming. Its our aim to participate in similar efforts across the country to build science-based understanding of what cannabis, and CBD, can and can’t do.
Why does the Clean Green Certification matter? Is it more or less stringent than a federal USDA organic label?
MW: While we strive to operate responsibly on our own, its important to have third-party certifiers to hold you accountable and help you improve your practices. Clean Green Certified is one organization working to improve the industry, however they aren’t the only one. Right now, Clean Green Certified is not as stringent as USDA organic, but some groups are looking to create more rigorous programs to fill the void left by organic (the USDA won’t certify cannabis farming as organic because cannabis is still federally illegal). Keep your eye out for work by groups like Certified Kind, Resource Innovation Institute and the Cannabis Certification Council, all working to make the industry better.
How many other farms in Oregon do you know of that have obtained the Clean Green Certification?
MW: Most of our closest farm friends are Clean Green Certified, however a majority of Oregon farms have not yet taken this extra step to verify their responsible cultivation practices.
Tell us about East Fork’s company culture. What’s the day-to-day like?
MW: East Fork currently counts 12 year-round employees: nine on the farm in Southern Oregon’s Illinois Valley and three in Portland. Our tight-knit crew is our lifeblood, and definitely a source of strength in this wild industry. We’ve begun employing lean manufacturing practices, a philosophy that values continual improvement and a culture of collaboration. The farm team starts the day in a circle, discussing goals for the day and tasks that each person will focus on. We’re still in startup mode, so tasks include renovating our drying facilities, developing a new procedure for our breeding program or installing new irrigation equipment. Our minimum wage is $40,000 per year, and we provide a healthy suite of benefits and professional development opportunities.
What are your biggest concerns moving forward within the cannabis industry?
MW: While there are many swirling concerns, we focus most of our energy on developing the kind of company, and industry, that we wish to see more of in the world. With that said, one of my primary concerns is that the industry will develop without meaningful equity and inclusiveness. The war on drugs has contributed immensely to racial and socioeconomic disparities in this country. To that end, our industry has a duty to right some of those wrongs, which can best happen by being inclusive for all to participate. One group that’s doing great work is the Minority Cannabis Business Association, a Portland nonprofit working to bring more people of color into the industry and to help expunge old drug offenses so people can more easily find work.