Living soil optimizes a cannabis plant's smell and taste profile, according to Kralick, giving users a tastier, smoother smoking experience. By mimicking a natural ecosystem and focusing on the microbial life in the dirt, cannabis and living soil work together the way nature intended. Kralick believes that growing cannabis this way produces cleaner bud in simpler fashion.
Kralick has been putting those philosophies to work recently as director of cultivation operations at Hava Gardens, a new 34,000-square-foot growing operating in De Beque, where she oversees four separate greenhouses and around sixty staff members. Her team currently pumps out about 450 pounds of flower per harvest, she says, but Kralick hopes to expand the Hava business footprint soon — as long as the company's carbon footprint doesn't grow with it.
We caught up with Kralick to talk soil and sustainable cultivation methods, and the challenges growers face when deciding between accepted business practices and environmental impact.
Westword: What is living soil, and what makes it more sustainable as compared with other growing mediums?
Brie Kralick: Living soil is classically defined as using organic practices and optimizing the soil food web, which is an ecosystem that exists in the soil that consists of different microbacteria, fungi and nematodes. By optimizing that, we're prioritizing the biology and feeding those living organisms. In turn, those living organisms break down those nutrients and make them available to the plant. What makes us a little bit different is that we are scalable, meaning that we're able to reproduce this method at different sizes. It's a little bit more simplified compared to some home-grow techniques that can be a little bit more complicated and detailed, but with this system, we're able to keep it kind of simple and train both newbies and experienced growers alike and get them on the same page more quickly.
How did your experience in the industry shape your approach to cultivating cannabis?
I started in the industry around 2015, working for Verde Naturals out of Denver. Cassandra Maffey developed that cultivation system and method, and that's kind of where I got my start. What I've been able to do over time with her is continue to implement this cultivation living-soil scalable system for different businesses over the years. With Hava Gardens, specifically, this was a new opportunity where we were able to turn a Western Slope company into a vertical business model. We also use greenhouses. Classically, I'm an indoor grower, but over time we've been able to develop this cultivation method in different scenarios and tweak and adjust it for different problems that arise based on different facilities, location and all those variables that can come into play.
Why don’t all cultivators choose living soil?
I think traditionally, hydroponic and synthetic methods are used, and there are pros about it: It can be fairly streamlined, you can use a lot more automation and things like that. I think living soil can seem overwhelming, but if you come at it with a more simple approach and not try to control every single aspect of biology, you can still be very successful. I think people tend to overdo it. It does require a bit more labor, as well, but you get a lot more out of the plant by using a method like this.
Where do you source the soil?
We start off with organic soil and then add inputs. We use raised fabric beds, so once that soil is in those beds, it doesn't leave those beds, which is great. We're recycling that between each flowering cycle, and we're soil-testing for nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus and things like PH and EC, and we're taking those results and adjusting granulated amendments we're adding back in — things like kelp, alfafa and other amendments based on where the nutrients are at in that system.
How does a method like that impact the quality of cannabis?
Basically, what we're seeing is a higher variety of terpenes. In some cases, it's a higher percentage of terpenes, but it really depends on a lot of additional plant health variables. By mimicking nature, we're getting more out of the plant. We're getting closer to what that plant would do naturally. By having that higher terpene content and expression, you have a higher-quality experience when you consume that flower, since the terpenes add a lot more medicinal value than just shooting for high THC only, which you see in a lot of synthetic operations.
What are the challenges of sustainable/ethical growing versus achieving potency and quality?
A lot of people aren't growing this way. In some cases, regulations aren't always in your favor. As an organics-focused cultivator, you're limited to some of the things you can do. You can't necessarily make all of your own inputs and those things that a lot of home growers like to do. It can be a little bit more labor-intensive in some cases, and it does require a bit more staff and keeping that consistency, keeping people trained, and making sure they understand the higher value of what we do.
Some studies show that cannabis cultivation leads to an excessive carbon footprint. Aside from growing in living soil, what other environmentally conscious practices do you utilize?
The method itself requires less water typically. When you have the raised beds with that higher footprint of soil, that soil holds on to moisture for a bit longer. Also, because we're not using high-salt-content nutrients or synthetics, we don't necessarily require the same amount of flush that you would see in a synthetic operation. We do work with a third party, EverGreen ZeroWaste, to compost everything we can. The greenhouses that we have here are also pretty optimal based on our location, since we're in a high desert area. We try to make sure we put as little into the landfills as possible.
What’s in store for the future?
We're looking into potentially working with breweries to capture their CO2 for CO2 supplementation instead of going the manufactured CO2 route. We're also looking into growing our own herbs and other things that we use in our compost, so we're hoping to take control of that source and reduce using third parties for that. We're thinking about using solar panels for power or even backup power, to try to reduce as much as we can to get ourselves off the grid as much as possible. But those are long-term goals.
We are going to start recycling our greenhouse runoff water, and repurpose that for landscaping around our facility and future herb garden that we're working on setting up soon. [One] of the bigger goals for the whole company is expanding and acquiring more store licenses, as we want to increase our product line and be a bigger player on the Western Slope.