For outdoor growers, erosion is a problem on a number of levels. First, it whisks away your precious, carefully tended topsoil, which you need to have healthy happy plants. Second, that topsoil gets into waterways and, especially if it has any nitrate-based fertilizer in it, wreaks havoc on the local environment. When it’s a small amount of fertilizer, coming from one location, the effect is hard to even measure. However, when there is a lot of fertilizer, or a little fertilizer coming from many locations, the effects can be disastrous. On the Eel River, running through Humboldt County, California, local salmon populations have suffered heavily under the pollution caused by the area’s illegal grows.
The problem is that water which is high in nitrates is a breeding ground for certain types of algae. Algae has a place in river environments, but when there’s a lot of food for them, it causes an ‘algal bloom,’ which de-oxygenates the water, killing many other creatures in that ecosystem. Algal blooms are a nationwide problem that threaten fish populations from coast to coast.
Fish advocates have not waited around for the state or federal governments to enforce EPA regulations on Humboldt County’s hidden farms, many of them illegal until relatively recently.
The Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), a branch of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, started sponsoring the Eel River Recovery Project (ERRP) four year ago, trying to educate local cannabis growers on fish-friendly farming techniques. The Eel River watershed community really took the bull by the horns here and solved a problem that government simply could not have tackled,” said IFR executive director Tim Sloane. They worked with 70 farms to teach practices that not only reduce runoff but increase efficiency.
The goal, according to ERRP consultant Jesse Dodd, is to create a 100 percent closed loop system. In a closed loop system, the nutrients for crops are all sourced from the property itself. This ensures that the farm’s ecosystem will stay in equilibrium, with the added bonus of not having to pay for outside fertilizer for every new crop.”We can start by making compost from pruned branches, or animal manure,” said Dodd. “Chickens are great to raise alongside crops because they weed, they scratch and they fertilize fields as they go. They can lower your operating costs, which is good for you, and good for the environment.”
Sunshine Johnston, who has been farming cannabis in the area since 2013, mixes eggshells into her soil, which releases calcium and deters slugs. She harvests humus from the base of trees on her property and adds it to her compost piles. Johnston plans to make a rain catchment system, either a pond or a holding tank, to be a bit more water wise.”Now, with prohibition lifting, I can come out of the shadows,” she said. Her approach is that sustainable farming is not only the right thing to do, but it is also good branding. “If corporations start growing cannabis at an industrial scale in California,” said Johnston, “having an environmentally friendly, fish friendly, artisanal product will give me the competitive edge.”