Cannabis farm takes root in Glen Ellen
Sarah C. Phelps
With its application currently traveling down Sonoma County’s new cannabis permitting pipeline, San Francisco-based SPARC has brought its four-acre medical marijuana farm in Glen Ellen into the limelight.
The year-old SPARC (San Francisco Patient and Resource Center) farm, located on property once occupied by the Gordenker turkey farm, is the hub of cultivation for this cannabis collective’s four medical dispensaries in San Francisco, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. After a recent merge with Peace In Medicine, SPARC now has more than 30,000 members.
“We grow and produce the majority of the cannabis we sell,” said SPARC CEO Erich Pearson. “That’s really important to us. We take a lot of pride in what we’re offering.” Pearson said they have about 100 strains in cultivation on the property. The cannabis grown in Glen Ellen is processed in Berkeley and sold in its raw form as well as oils, resins and edibles. SPARC also has been donating free cannabis flowers, tinctures, and edibles to patients at Maitri Hospice for more than a decade as part of its “compassion” program. Pearson, who has a degree in building construction management from Purdue University, started his career in San Francisco advocating for AIDS patients.
This season’s first harvest, completed less than a month ago, was over 1,000 pounds. “But that’s only six pounds a day, per year, across four dispensaries. So you can see how we need to do so much more,” said Pearson. SPARC has about 150 full-time employees, counting those working on the farm, and Pearson takes pride in providing full benefits and paying a living wage.
Just like a winery grows, picks, processes and sells its grapes on site, Pearson hopes SPARC can one day replicate that model in Glen Ellen. But for now, with the county’s nascent medical marijuana permitting program, it’s baby steps at first.
“Sonoma County has done a pretty good job of creating [medical marijuana] regulations and not all counties have done that,” said Pearson. “They still have a lot of work to do, though, which will help improve compliance.” One example is the county-levied taxes that Pearson thinks are too high. There are also other costs involved. SPARC paid about $15,000 to file an application for new Dutch greenhouses, which will move some of its plants from under cold frames and into climate controlled, light controlled environments, which improves production.
In a July 21 article, the Press Democrat reported that only 18 potential cannabis cultivation projects have submitted permit applications, in addition to two manufacturers and a distribution plant, according to county staff. The Sonoma County Growers Alliance estimates there are about 5,000 growers in the county.
In addition to the new greenhouses, the SPARC farm is also working on becoming one of the first ever certified biodynamic cannabis farms in California. “We are following what Phil Coturri and Mike Benziger have pioneered [in wine] by putting the community and neighbors first. It’s what resonates with consumers,” said Pearson.
Benziger has been working as a consultant with SPARC as they embark on the years-long process of being certified biodynamic by Demeter. “I have believed in the biodynamic model for a long time. I have seen it work in the wine business. To have Erich embrace this type of farming with his cannabis could create a whole new prototype for how that crop is farmed in America,” said Benziger.
SPARC, which leases part of the 400-acre property from the Gordenker family, is working with another tenant on the property, Bee-Well Farms, owned by Austin and Melissa Lely, on the certification. Bee-Well Farms grazes hundreds of chickens and a dozen cattle on another part of the property. “The presence of livestock is necessary in the biodynamic process,” said Pearson.
Biodynamic farming uses composting, cover crops, and animals to help till soil, control pests and weeds and add nutrients back to the soil and vitality to the plants – jobs done by chemicals, pesticides and GMOs on conventional farms. Biodynamic certification requires the creation and management of a closed system, minimally dependent on imported materials, meeting its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself, along with various spiritual and holistic practices. “For biodynamic, we have to think about larger impacts on the earth. So we are rethinking how to reuse what’s already here,” said Pearson. That’s meant harvesting the compost underneath an old scrap dump on the property and collecting bat guano from a neighbor’s barn to help enhance the soil.
All this contributes to the terroir of the cannabis – a term familiar in the winegrowing circle – that’s quickly being applied to this up and coming crop.
“We are farm-to-table, terroir driven, and tap root based,” said Pearson. “When you plant a seed in the ground, each plant is a bit different. They send out tap roots that ingest minerals and water from the soil providing a unique terroir-influenced product. The cannabis grown on our biodynamic farm will be the equivalent of a reserve wine from a winery.”
The farm has three plots of about 50 plants for which they hope to receive biodynamic certification in the near future. While greenhouses offer the best control and most consistent product, they disobey the requirements for biodynamic certification. These plants, grown outside and in native soil, offer the most experimentation and excitement. This season, workers are sending soil samples from the plants to a lab for analysis in an attempt to draw conclusions between different soil chemistry and the end product.
“The way it (marijuana) has evolved is into an artisanal craft and people have started to play around with it – much like wine and beer started as artisanal products,” said Pearson.
After 20 years working in the industry and as a vocal and influential advocate, Pearson’s goal is to change societal perception of cannabis. He currently serves on the board of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “I’ve been working on the cannabis frontier for a long time,” says Pearson. “We’ve been making steady progress, but it certainly hasn’t been easy. This farm and the possibilities available from biodynamic farming are absolutely thrilling. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out, but I am sure we are onto something very special.