Food & Drink

‘Nature is like a slow-cooked meal’: Regenerative farming brings cannabis, food crops into soil harmony

Cannabis grows amid a variety of other crops at Bird Valley Organics' regenerative farm.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

With practices centered on growing crops atop mounds filled with wood and plant debris and letting the main crop mingle with all kinds of other plants and natural neighbors, Santa Cruz County’s regenerative farms are focused “on cultivating the best expression of these plants as possible.”

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Terry Sardinas never knew that the secret to good weed is growing squash next to it. She also never knew that one day, cannabis could quite literally save her life. Luckily, only the former is hyperbole.

In 2013, Sardinas and her partner, Manny, began cultivating a 99-plant cannabis garden in Aptos and producing full-spectrum cannabis oils, in which the various botanical compounds of the plant are thought to work together to provide healing properties. That same year, Sardinas was diagnosed with breast cancer, and attributes her ensuing recovery from the tumor to the full-spectrum oils of her cannabis plants.

Fast forward a few years and the partners decided to expand their garden; they set up shop in the hills of the Pajaro Valley, and Bird Valley Organics was born. They had recently learned about regenerative farming practices and decided to use the hügelkultur method — a raised-bed type of farming that, in the simplest terms, is rotten wood and plant debris formed into a mound on which crops are planted — at Bird Valley.

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“My father and my grandfather, who were both farmers, did not have a full understanding of soil health,” Sardinas says. “They knew plant health and how to use the correct chemicals to obtain plant health, but they didn’t understand the soil food web. It’s our goal as a new generation of farmers to understand and help that web.”

Now Bird Valley Organics is one of Santa Cruz County’s handful of regenerative farms. At Bird Valley, the cannabis industry and agriculture pursuits are one and the same — the cannabis grows amid fennel, parsley and chamomile, and each benefits from the success of the other. While the farm’s primary crop is cannabis, it grows fruits, vegetables and flowers, too. Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Bird Valley’s crops is that nothing on the farm has ever been exposed to pesticides, fungicides or any other chemicals.

“We are taking care of Mama Earth; we are taking care of and building the soil,” Sardinas says. “You can walk into our garden, pick anything, and stick it straight in your mouth without any fear that it’s been sprayed with pesticides. That’s pretty cool.”

Terry Sardinas amid the cannabis and other crops on Bird Valley Organics' regenerative farm.
(Kevin Painchaud /Lookout Santa Cruz)

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Regenerative farming and symbiotic relationships

Regenerative farming is less of a method than a practice. It’s built on core principles of promoting biodiversity, decreasing reliance on tillage, and reducing dependency on inputs such as fertilizer and pesticides. The idea is that it can feed and sustain itself — it’s all self-sufficient.

“When we practice regenerative farming, one of the things that is really important is closing your loops,” Sardinas says. “What I mean by that is creating your own soil, gathering your own seeds, and composting.”

For example, Sardinas says the farm’s regenerative practices have been a savings boon, because they didn’t have to buy soil, seeds, pest control or pesticides, or heavy machinery to till the soil. Though the price of cannabis has dropped over the years, Sardinas says they have still been able to produce cost-competitive cannabis products without sacrificing quality and regenerative values.

Turkeys on the move at Bird Valley Organics
“Nature is like a slow-cooked meal — you have to work with it,” Terry Sardinas says of Bird Valley Organics’ proactive approach to its natural neighbors.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You don’t really move from conventional to organic to regenerative overnight,” Sardinas says. “It’s not something you can change instantly. It’s a mindset.”

That mindset extends to all denizens of the soil. Faced earlier this year with a slug problem — an issue many growers would have used a pesticide to take care of — Sardinas says they researched and found out that slugs don’t like coffee grounds.

“We went to our local coffee shop that has organic coffee and they gave us their leftover grounds. That helped with the slug problem,” she says, “Nature is like a slow-cooked meal — you have to work with it. We can’t just eliminate all slugs, we have to work with them.”

Similarly, they might plant something that attracts lacewings that eat the aphids on neighboring plants, or let gophers nibble on beets and tomatoes so that they won’t snack on only the cannabis plants.

“The gophers are supposed to be there,” Sardinas says. “When you farm regeneratively, you aren’t trying to eradicate anything, but you sometimes have those issues and have to deal with them proactively.”

A cannabis plant
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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1 + 1 = 3

Coastal Sun Farm is another local pioneer of regenerative practices. Coastal Sun grows cannabis, and its sister farm, Coastal Moon, grows blueberries. While they share the same goals and values as Bird Valley when it comes to the purpose and importance of regenerative practices, they have more of a technology-driven approach.

Coastal Sun is twice the size of Bird Valley, at 40 acres; because of the size, it utilizes heavy machinery to minimally till the soil. Still, Coastal Sun has focused its efforts on regenerative practices such as cover cropping, insectaries and hedgerows to yield cannabis and blueberries that are nutrient-dense.

Coastal Sun Farm is another Santa Cruz County pioneer of regenerative farming practices.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“When you naturally grow plants in a regenerative fashion, they will have that nutrient density that we need to be healthy as people,” Coastal Sun Marketing Manager Greg Eaton says. “Today, people are understanding more and more the damage that has been done over several decades from conventional farming, monocropping, and the use of [the herbicide] glyphosate. Food is medicine, cannabis is medicine, so it’s important that we focus on cultivating the best expression of these plants as possible.”

One big similarity between farming cannabis and food crops is the nutrient profile of each. Nutrient-rich foods generally taste better and are better for the body. A conventionally grown tomato will likely not have the same nutrient profile as a tomato grown without any pesticides in a residential backyard, for example. Regenerative practices aim for the healthiest and most nutrient-dense foods possible, and to make the benefits of a backyard tomato more accessible on a larger, more industrial scale. The same is also true for regenerative practices in cannabis farming.

“With foods, you are talking about the more classic vitamins and minerals that we are more used to hearing about. But with cannabis, you’re talking more about terpenes and cannabinoids, Eaton says. “Terpenes are like the essential oils of cannabis. They are really important for the health of the cannabis plant because they help to attract beneficial insects and deter pests. A robust terpene profile is aligned with, for example, a healthy immune system for cannabis plants.”

Generally, terpenes and cannabinoids work together to create a particular strain’s effect and flavor. When someone consumes cannabis, the body absorbs terpenes, which then engage with the body’s endocannabinoid system. With the legalization of cannabis in California five years ago, demand increased for products with high profiles of THC, the most psychoactive cannabinoid; in turn, the prevalence of other cannabinoids began to drop. The problem with that, Eaton says, is that the strains then do not have the benefit of synergistic interactions between different types of cannabinoids and terpenes.

“The idea is that 1+1 = 3. These terpenes and cannabinoids have synergistic properties that create a greater overall effect than the sum of its parts,” Eaton says, noting that Coastal Sun’s regenerative practices are key in this synergy. “Cannabis is really unique in the different phytonutrients and health benefits that it can bring to the table when compared to food. I think in the next several years, as we are able to study the science behind those synergistic effects, a lot of light will be shed on how powerful those relationships are.”

Cannabis grows at Coastal Sun Farm
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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Regenerating for the future

Because cannabis isn’t federally legal, this isn’t a national “organic” certifier for it. But next year, the California Department of Food and Agriculture will launch its OCal Program, a cannabis-based certification comparable to the national organic program. Looking ahead, programs like OCal could create even more of a parallel to our food industry as consumers look to what is the healthiest for them and for the planet.

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“Organic farming is, of course, cleaner than conventional, but you are still buying products that you are putting into the soil,” says Terry Sardinas of Bird Valley Organics. “Organic is important but regenerative takes it another level further. Most people think organic doesn’t use any sort of chemicals, but it does. They are organic chemicals, but they are still chemicals.”

The legalization of cannabis has shined a spotlight on the different types of farming practices across the board and prompted many to think about substances we ingest beyond food.

Greg Eaton, marketing manager at Coastal Sun Farm
“Food is medicine, cannabis is medicine,” says Coastal Sun’s Greg Eaton, “so it’s important that we focus on cultivating the best expression of these plants as possible.”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

“There is always going to be a market for Budweiser, but there is also always going to be a market for craft beer,” says Valentina Temerario, vice president of Santa Cruz-based Envirocann, a third-party organization that certifies cannabis farmers, manufacturers and distributors who meet certain criteria. “Cannabis is like that, too — there is always going to be a market for the cheapest, highest percent of THC content, but there will also be demand from people who really care about what they are putting in their bodies and want regenerative, organic-comparable cannabis.”

In the future, cannabis from regenerative-focused farms like Bird Valley and Coastal Sun might fill the role of something like a craft beer. California regenerative cannabis farms are increasingly a community of people working to help the planet and the people. There is no cookie-cutter method to it, no handbook, just a bunch of future-focused farmers doing what they see as being best for everyone.

“Something that we do, and Bird Valley does, is we have a lot of transparency about what we do. We aren’t trying to keep any secrets,” Eaton says. “We want to inspire other cultivation projects to adopt as many of these methods as possible. The more farms that follow these methods, the better for everyone.”

Cannabis grows at Coastal Sun Farm
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)