In 2016, provisions for ‘micro’ and ‘cottage’ cannabis licensing in California’s legalization bill were the first to enact laws for ‘craft’ cannabis, with Massachusetts following suit just one month later. Several other states have enacted their own microbusiness provisions, including Ohio and Illinois, but in each case the implementations have been slow to develop. Until craft cannabis markets have more time to mature, states without craft cannabis or microbusiness laws are often the best place to find quality craft products, including Washington State, Oregon, Colorado, and Oklahoma. But what exactly is ‘craft cannabis’, and what is it that consumers should be looking for as the craft sector builds momentum?
What is craft cannabis?
Looking at the annual sales increases for craft beer, it comes as no surprise that producers are scrambling to win over ‘craft’ consumers, but it’s still hard to say exactly what that means for the cannabis industry. According to the Brewer’s Association, a craft brewer is a “small and independent brewer” that has at least 75 percent ownership by craft brewers. In places like Washington State, you’ll find as many ‘small’ cannabis brands on shelves as ever, but according to the producers I’ve spoken to, they’re increasingly owned by a small group of industry heavyweights. There’s a lot to be said about sales volume and ownership, but we think it’s helpful to envision ‘craft cannabis’ in two different ways. First, when it comes to ‘small and independent’, we’re looking for management that has enough hands-on experience with cultivation and processing to produce their products from start to finish. They know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and being in control of the whole process means they can make on-the-fly adjustments to protect their bottom line without sacrificing the quality of products.
The second aspect of craft cannabis is on-site consumption and sales, which many of us have become familiar with as craft brewers and distillers have exploded in popularity over the last decade. The Brewer’s Association denotes differences between microbreweries, brewpubs, and taprooms, but for cannabis, we’re talking about farms where you can purchase and consume products, or farms that sell to local lounges or farmer’s markets. The problem is, writing these things into law hasn’t been enough to make them a reality, and for places without effective laws, would-be craft operators are stuck in licensing ‘purgatory’ while they wait for things to change.
squatch washes off fabric pots at Pacific NW Roots
In some cases, that means paying bills on facilities that aren’t in use, which adds to the growing list of challenges for the small producers capable of putting out higher quality products than their larger competitors. There's more than one way to make things work, but for many craft producers, ‘sustainability’ has become more than just a buzzword in the emerging market. When it comes to farming of all types, the first principle of sustainability isn’t protecting the environment or finding alternatives to pesticides because none of that matters if the business isn’t profitable.
Sustainability really starts with making ends meet, and that’s one of the reasons we’re excited to share our visit with Pacific NW Roots at their 111 Ranch in Washington State. Let’s take a look at their trailblazing business model for success as a craft cannabis producer!
Keeping it simple: what does it take to be a craft cannabis producer?
Nestled in the woods of the Kitsap Peninsula, the small team at Pacific NW Roots is implementing a creative approach to natural farming and value-added products in the form of hash rosin. Long before Ras Kaya Paul and his team took over their current facility, they were making moves in the legacy cannabis space. Whether that was premium-quality flower delivery in Seattle, or sneaking into restaurant kitchens to use walk-in coolers for overnight hash-making, Pacific NW Roots isn’t a team of newcomers. Like most old-school enthusiasts, Kaya has fond memories of quality cannabis in years past, but he isn’t paralyzed by the nostalgia of how things used to be. Competing with today’s commercial producers has changed what it takes to survive, and learning new things has become more important than ever.
The team from left to right: Jason, Phil, Kaya, and Sky (not pictured are Steph, Ty, Eddie, Joelle, Chris, and squatch)
As I walked around their farm, it was also easy to see the ‘less is more’ approach that tends to come from experience. Instead of mounted fans hooked into a matrix of ceiling wires, I saw inline fans positioned vertically and attached to walls where no ladder or remote control was necessary. Greenhouse beds were built without the wooden panels that I’m used to seeing. That sort of simple but clever way of repurposing what’s available and reducing labor looks to be a key for any other small producer that’s establishing their business, and it becomes especially evident with their approach toward the core function of all craft cannabis business: flower production.
Should craft cannabis be indoor or outdoor: Why not both?
Even though well-grown outdoor flowers are consistently shown to have higher THC, more terpenes, and better flavor, it’s an accepted fact that indoor flowers get more money at market. That unfortunate reality hasn’t stopped Kaya from applying new skills in outdoor farming to produce top-shelf products that sell at the highest price point. How does that work? Make everything into hash!
Instead of fighting the industry’s ‘race to the bottom’, all of the flower grown at Pacific NW Roots is processed using Kaya’s specialized experience in making a product that’s much harder to find. Once it reaches the customer, “You don’t know if that was indoor or outdoor” Kaya told me. It wasn’t an obvious choice from the start, though. His team wanted to sell flower at first, but Kaya said that, “after I showed them what we can do with hash, they said, ‘we're doing hash!’”
Adding value to flower is one key to their economic sustainability, but what gives Pacific NW Roots a real edge is their adoption of natural farming techniques, often referred to as KNF, which really allows the ‘less is more’ mantra to save them money and improve the health of crops and the environment around them. Kaya attended workshops by KNF expert Chris Trump, who farms 800 acres in Hawaii and has become one of the most outspoken proponents of KNF techniques.
By fermenting vegetation and waste products from their surroundings, they’re able to save on input costs and create versatile products that act as fertilizers, plant growth regulators, bug repellents, and probiotic stimulants. Just outside their greenhouse, a 55 gallon barrel of Fish Amino Acids, or FAA, was waiting to be applied to their crop. It’s a fermentation of fish waste products that has a powerful stench but packs concentrated nutrients and microbiology that’s great for plants. It’s also perfectly safe to eat raw as a fish sauce or nutritional supplement (careful, you're gonna want a cold beer to wash that down!).
Although Trump started without a particular interest in cannabis, like many organic farming teachers, he’s found that much of his closest following comes from cannabis farmers that are deeply passionate about ecological concepts which other farmers have been slower to adopt. With his substantial experience in growing cannabis, Kaya could probably succeed with a more conventional approach, but it’s that willingness to learn, adapt, and improve that helps to ensure long-term profitable outcomes, even in declining market conditions. Without strengthening these partnerships with experts outside of the cannabis field, old school cannabis farmers are soon to find themselves at a dead end.
Bringing it back inside
Even though sun-grown organic farming has unbeatable profit margins, Pacific NW Roots hasn’t thrown everything into greenhouse production and abandoned the old school ways entirely. When it comes to producing the best-of-the-best ‘six star’ bubble hash, the team runs a series of indoor grow rooms with ‘living soil’ beds to eliminate the dust that comes with outdoor growing. When I visited, the facility was still getting up to speed and I saw one of their last rooms that was filled with plants in fabric pots. The newer soil beds come with a number of benefits, but perhaps nothing is more effective than allowing worms and other bugs to do more of the dirty work. By having rows of plants growing together in the same bed, their roots will have more space to enjoy the increased amount of microbial and insect life that can find its home in the larger volume of potting soil.
One of my favorite things I saw at Pacific NW Roots was the pipes they use to feed compost to the worms. Each soil bed had white tubes sticking out of it, and their outdoor beds had five gallon buckets buried halfway under the soil surface. Top-dressing amendments onto a heavily mulched soil bed (or in this case, ‘cover cropped’ with a living mulch) is one of the more tedious aspects of this growing style. By dumping compost and other amendments into the ‘worm tubes’, the nutrients are cycled quickly and more efficiently without the pest pressures and other headaches that come with allowing amendments to decompose on the soil surface. Once again, it’s that mix of old school experience and willingness to adapt new strategies that puts Pacific NW Roots in the best position to stay profitable while maintaining self-reliance.
Genetics matter: craft cannabis means growing in-house strains
One of the staples of any craft product is having a unique and innovative offering that consumers can’t get from anyone else. When it comes to craft cannabis, that means choosing the right genetics is just as important as knowing how to grow them. There’s no better way to get things right than to do them yourself, and that’s another way that Pacific NW Roots truly meets the definition of a craft cultivator. Ras Kaya Paul is a veteran hash plant breeder that has a stable of strong genetics which might not ring a bell for many east coast smokers. But that’s the point, isn’t it? Strains like Koffee, Hamma Hamma, and Pinkleberry are varieties that showcase some of the region's favorite flavors that aren't commonly found outside the Pacific Northwest.
So what’s their hottest strain for 2022? Kaya is still pumped about their Strawberry Yogurt, which comes from a Strawberry Kush bag seed. Two of his friends had been running the strain, one making BHO, and the other making flower. When Kaya took a crack at it, he was worried it wouldn’t wash well because it was really sticky (hash makers look for a sandy texture), and he told me, “We washed five or six different ones that were all shitty, and then that one came out and made beautiful blonde hash that stunk up the room, so we were in there high fiving because the plant was around for five years and nobody knew it could make hash like that!”
Good strawberry strains are hard to find and I’ve yet to come across good Strawberry Kush flower, which crosses Strawberry Cough and OG Kush. In recent years I’ve mostly stuck to choice flower selections, but the Strawberry Kush rosin is something I could really get used to. In Kaya’s words, “It’s got that yogurty, cheesy smell to it, with a little strawberry diesel on top”. The effects are top notch, but the flavor and aroma are what make this a craft product: you just won’t find this anywhere else. After trying something with that kind of mouth-watering flavor and smooth vapor, it’ll to be hard for anyone to dab BHO without noticing how much they’re missing out on.
Imagining a better future through craft cannabis
As we huddled underneath an awning and listened to the pitter-patter of rain, our conversation drifted from cropping cannabis and hash making to the reasons we’re both passionate about the future of craft cannabis. Not just for the love of our favorite plant, but for the ways it can change how we think about a bigger picture that includes all food and medicine. We discovered that each of our journeys in learning more about the cannabis plant left us with the realization that protecting cannabis culture might be an important step in showcasing how the world can teach itself to be a better place. “There’s gotta be some recombining of our practices and our relationships with people. It’s kind of neat to reimagine how it could be in this space,” Kaya went on, “I’ve always said that rolling out this industry is a way to reimagine how we do things. Reimagining what agricultural practices can be, how we pay the farmer, how we pay the worker. Eighty-five years ago there were a lot of small farms in America, and now they’re gone. They got commercialized and put into that [industrial] funnel, and that model is dangerous. They’re trying to do that with weed. There’s always going to be fringe stuff. But you gotta make that fringe normalized. Otherwise, when shit hits the fan, everybody is gonna starve.”
Farmers like Kaya are still on the fringes of cannabis commerce. He’s not growing Gelato, using Athena nutrients on rockwool cubes, or measuring success by pounds per light in an oversized multimillion dollar greenhouse. It’s rare to see a cannabis farmer that’s not rushing to fill their canopy allotment because they want to spend more time perfecting what they already do instead of spreading themselves too thin. “If you wanna beat these fuckers,” he tells me, “this is how you gotta do it. Beat ‘em in your cost of production and beat ‘em on quality, save on labor, and then produce hash because it multiplies the value.”
Whether or not a person cares about exotic terpenes or not, standing up for craft cannabis producers isn’t just a way to ensure we can all enjoy better weed, it feels like a place to foster our hope and imagination for a world we can be more proud of taking part in. And right now, that seems priceless.
You can find Kaya on Instagram as @PacificNwRoots_Kaya and partner Phil as @Rootz_Krew, partner Jason as @BeerdedKrakin, and shout out to partner Tory! For now, their products are only available in Washington State from retailers like Hype Herbally (Lynnwood), Fweedom (Seattle and Mountlake Terrace), and Clutch Cannabis (Bryn Mawr-Skyway).