Growing up in Seattle, Jian Malihi, co-owner at Clarity Farms, experienced first-hand what he calls “an important epicenter” for the marijuana movement. Just after turning 18, he got involved in growing medical cannabis with some friends and began gaining some expertise in cultivation.
At about 19, he was working with the Center for Palliative Care, a Washington dispensary, which opened his eyes to a whole different side of the industry, establishing a business creating unique, consistent products.
“They were at the forefront of interacting with patients and providing consistent supplies to them,” he says. “They had a pretty impressive list of patients who really relied on them. So I … started learning a lot about the business side of marijuana production, too.”
When Washington’s Initiative 502 passed in the 2012 election, legalizing cannabis cultivation, Malihi knew it was time to act. He worked with a few friends to apply for (and win) one of the first 40 licenses awarded by the state toward the end of 2013, and had grown Clarity Farm’s first crops by December 2014. Clarity Farms covers 30,000 square feet of outdoor canopy, the largest license available in the state, and now also includes 12,000 square feet of high-tech greenhouse, as well as a distribution and oil processing facility.
The focus of Clarity Farms is on applying sustainable, organic practices to the 30,000-square-foot outdoor cannabis grow. But the unique Washington soil also incites comparisons to the wine industry, where a regional profile can shine for a connoisseur.
Cannabis Business Times’ Managing Editor Kyle Brown talked with Malihi about what it means to build his farm’s regional profile and how to implement sustainable practices on a larger scale.
Kyle Brown: How is your grow similar to a vineyard or winery?
Jian Malihi: With wine production, there are strong cultural and terroir aspects that define wines coming from different regions. Ultimately, the same is true for cannabis. With wine, a lot has to do with how the vines are trained, with crop loads, when they harvest and what they do with the juice once it is pressed. With cannabis production in the Columbia Basin, … strong cultural aspects … go into how we create our product — namely, the strains we choose to grow, trellis techniques, stress techniques, harvest intervals, harvest processes and post[-harvest] processes, etc. We work with what we have around us, and that creates a product … unique to this specific area.
The wine angle is an inherent similarity. … The organic side of what we do is more our philosophy. We believe in the organic model being the most efficient and most sustainable for the planet in the long term.
Brown: Can you talk more about your company’s philosophy?
Malihi: The philosophy behind Clarity Farms is to scale up cannabis field-crop and greenhouse production while also increasing sustainability and consistency. We want to expand on what’s already been built and pioneered in cannabis production. ... There’s a strong cultural aspect too, because we take a lot of pride in our crop.
Brown: What can you tell me about your organic practices?
Malihi: The reason for going organic comes from wanting to get better. That requires … identifying efficiencies that can be implemented to get us a better, more consistent product that costs us less than the day before. ... We’ve decided through connoisseurial testing that the organic model offers the ability to produce the best product. Your stuff is going to come out cleaner, tastier and better-looking if you do it right.
We use OMRI [Organic Materials Review Institute]-certified fertilizers and amendments. Basically anything applied to the crop is OMRI-certified. The Washington Department of Agriculture is finalizing a program to certify cannabis as “organic” within Washington, so we’re working with them to make sure that everything we’re doing is satisfying the requirements of their new program. They’ll have their own label to put on the product. As farmers, we have a direct stake in understanding the program and giving input where we have some. … It should be rolling out within the next 12 months.
It’s not just the label that inspires us to take that direction. When you start getting into organics, that starts to be about the next power of production. You start getting into no-till and things like that. The efficiencies that can be had are really profound. We aim to identify ecological and biological systems that work together to help cut out implements, and cut out amendments, and let the soil handle itself.
Brown: Why did you take this angle with your business?
Malihi: We knew the Columbia Basin had the natural potential to be a great cannabis production area. We have a lot of friends in wine production, and that business has long been a labor of love by passionate connoisseurs. Cannabis production has long been the same way.
Living out in the Basin and interacting with other traditional crop farmers allows us to constantly study the heritage of this area. The concepts we learn and develop, and then apply to our production model creates a product as unique as the wine that comes from serious producers in great wine regions. We enjoy the idea of being able to create a product profile that relates to our home.
Brown: What does it mean to you to be similar to Napa Valley?
Malihi: I wouldn’t say we are any more similar to Napa than we might be to Bordeaux. It’s the concept that the convergence of terroir and culture creates something unique that makes us similar to those regions. Who knows if this area will gain a name like Napa has in the wine industry, but we know that we will always be striving to produce the highest-quality Washington sun-grown cannabis possible.
We want to create a flavor that is associated with Washington [among] connoisseurs. For somebody who just drinks wine, a glass here and there, they’re not going to know the difference between a wine that comes from Napa Valley and a wine that comes from Bordeaux. But if you’re a connoisseur of wine, it’s like night and day. That’s what we’re going for.
Brown: What kind of characterization do you think the valley’s soil brings to your product’s profile?
Malihi: The entire terroir of our farm contributes to the final profile. ... It is still too early in our farm’s life to know exactly which chemical and physical traits in our cannabis are unique to our region. It will take years to establish [that].
It’s a challenging soil. It has a lot of mineral and nutrient content, but it’s also very low in organic matter. We have to apply compost constantly. It’s a very complex variable to our operation. It’s in an area where the volcanic rock basically eroded and created this soil. It … had also been conventionally farmed before we got here. Now we’re in the process of rebuilding it, and reintroducing soil biology and organic matter.
Brown: What kind of practices do you have that use economies of scale?
Malihi: Basically, we’re monster-cropping fields every year. Monster-cropping is ... a term I [use] for the size of our grow. In terms of my neighbors who grow potatoes, we’re tiny, little nobodies. But … we farm thousands of plants at a time, and constantly have to engineer our way through tough challenges that have never been addressed in any farming textbooks.
For example, we have multiple drying facilities in different areas. This forces us to transport huge amounts of wet material. So we had to design a shipping system to safely and efficiently get the product to the dry line in time. Now, we have a system for moving wet material, which is a model that can be recreated and improved on.
Every process and technique we are developing is with the intention of being able to scale it to any-sized property. We anticipate the day when there will not be rules limiting things like our plant count or canopy size, or production volume in general. At some point, we will be free to farm cannabis like any other crop, and production will be limited by demand. When that day comes, we will be able to scale up huge with the processes and techniques we are developing now. The expansion should be rather seamless.
The Washington Department of Agriculture is finalizing a program to certify cannabis as ‘organic’ within Washington, so we’re working with them to make sure that everything we’re doing is satisfying the requirements of their new program.” — Jian Malihi
Brown: Do you look to more conventional commercial agriculture for ideas?
Malihi: Absolutely, it’s a small side-obsession of mine to look at what other people are doing, look at the tools they’re using, look at the materials. How can we take conventional farming ideas and adapt them? Conventional farming is distilled down to be as efficient as possible. They’re not overbuilding their systems in the field. They’re only building exactly what’s needed. … We steal those ideas. They have to be tweaked, but we monitor what they’re doing and study it.
Tractors are a good example. We’re adjusting tractor implements and building material-handling carts that can be operated out in the field by tractor. In farming, it’s really important to use tractors. We’re realizing that, and we’re designing implements that will work for what we’re doing.
Brown: What makes a cultivation operation like yours relevant to the larger industry?
Malihi: Since this is a constantly evolving industry, a lot of new things are being tried. Any company trying something new is contributing something important to the industry, whether their ideas work or not. I think we are creating a farming model that can be infinitely scaled. I already know of other farms adopting some of our techniques and using them successfully.
Brown: How did you choose the strains you work with?
Malihi: Through a very painstaking process of trial and error, mostly. We acquire genetic material usually through other growers we know. We will try a strain in the field, and if it thrives here, we might add it as a production strain. If it doesn’t pan out, we will either store ... the germplasm for future exploration or, in most cases, throw it out and move on.
It has taken us several years to finally have a strain lineup that thrives in our fields, and produces beautiful and bountiful product.
There’s a Blackberry Bubba Kush that was developed out in Sequim, Wash., by an old breeder who’s a buddy of mine. It’s a really wet climate out there, so the strain had to finish out earlier in order to beat the early October rains. It also had to be a lot more resilient to molds in general. If it can survive in western Washington and finish out, it’s going to be an ideal strain in eastern Washington.
We’ve got an OG Kush, developed on Vashon Island. That’s an extremely wet climate, and it’s the same story.
These strains were bred in Washington, so there’s a higher likelihood for being ideal production candidates than if we were to somehow acquire strains that were developed in California. It’s not necessarily a better bud, but more acclimated and better for growing in this area. We’ve whittled our strains down to about 10, and we’re excited to whittle it further to about five strains.