East Fork Cultivars Sets Itself Apart From the Oregon Marketplace

Features - Cover Story

East Fork Cultivars’ executive team took a bad hand and turned it into a business like few others in the cannabis industry.

October 3, 2019

Clockwise from Left: Aaron Howard, Mason Walker, Nathan Howard
Photos by Olivia Ashton

In life, we all get dealt bad hands: poverty or financial ruin, lost relationships, poor health, etc. We don’t control what cards we’re dealt, only how we play them.

It would have been easy and understandable for Nathan and Aaron Howard, the co-founders of Oregon-based East Fork Cultivars, to see the cards handed to their family and their other brother Wesley and fold. Wesley had a severe case of neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue such as the brain, spinal column and nerves.

Under Oregon’s original medical cannabis program (passed by ballot measure in 1998), Aaron grew for Wesley and others at his southern Oregon home (a former llama breeding ranch). Cultivating mostly high-THC cultivars that Wesley requested to manage the pain and other ailments associated with his condition, the Howard family saw up close the side effects those type 1 cultivars had on their late brother. (Wesley passed away in 2017 due to complications from his condition.) “It definitely helped him just deal with the severe pain he was in and the mental pain of being dealt a really, really difficult and unfair hand in life,” Nathan recounts. “But we thought maybe we could find or create something that was less intoxicating that could still bring Wesley relief, because he was essentially always high, like really intoxicated, and that was pretty much the only option available.”

Nathan and Aaron began searching for cultivars that would provide the pain relief and euphoria that their brother searched for in cannabis without leaving him debilitatingly high: elusive type 2 and 3 cultivars. Little did they know, that search for genetics better suited for treating their brother’s symptoms would be a major differentiator for their future company, carrying it through the tough times ahead.

In 2014, while researching cannabidiol (CBD), the brothers discovered Project CBD, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting and publicizing research into the medical uses of CBD and other components of the cannabis plant. The following year, the brothers sourced 12 plants that fit their description. Of those, only six had the correct cannabinoid profile (i.e., that weren’t high-THC varieties), different phenotypes of OG78, ACDC and Canna-Tsu. Those plants became “the beginning of our breeding work,” Nathan says.

The East Fork Ranch is located in Takilma, Ore., in the Illinois River Valley.
Aaron Howard’s home on the ranch. Aaron also cultivates flowers and vegetables at the farm.

For Aaron, these genetics offered him an opportunity to answer a question he had long posed to himself as a caregiver: What would it be like to feel good about what he was growing?

Although he knew many people enjoyed the medical benefits of high-THC cultivars, he also was aware of the recreational aspects of the cannabinoid, and that wasn’t what interested him about the market.

Organic Roots

The East Fork ranch is a 33-acre property in the town of Takilma in Oregon’s Illinois River Valley and is teeming with natural wildlife, including deer, cougars, coyotes and bears. Only an acre (43,560 square feet) of the property is dedicated to Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC)-licensed cannabis production, meaning most of the property is untouched in its native state. “Our bioregion is a wildlife hotbed, and we do our best to preserve that,” CEO Mason Walker says. “We plant many pollinator-friendly flowers every year and maintain a healthy pollinator population, with tons of bees and a diverse array of butterflies being among our favorites. We also keep a small orchard and some additional fruit tree plantings throughout the ranch.”

The team prefers using materials and resources from the property instead of importing them from other parts of the state or country. The property shares water rights from the Illinois River with neighboring farms, which feeds into the property’s three watering ponds. From there, mechanical pumps pull water from the ponds to feed the drip tape irrigation system. “This drip system is a way to minimize waste, while preventing weeds from taking hold by slowly watering only the necessary areas,” Walker explains.

In addition to gravity-fed watering ponds, East Fork Cultivars grows its crop in the native soil, further connecting the company to the region’s terroir. “By choosing to grow in native soil, we reduce our impact and deepen our connection with this place, which helps to create chemically complex cultivars,” Nathan says. “We also know that terpene profiles are mostly determined by the growing environment—and soil is a big part of that.”

To maintain and replenish that soil’s natural microbiome, the Howards have gotten into the habit of cover cropping their fields during harvest. The timing is very important, as cover cropping during or immediately after harvest ensures the soil is without vegetation for the shortest possible amount of time. “These cover crops overwinter and provide many benefits to the soils, such as fixing nutrients, improving soil structure, preventing erosion, adding organic matter, suppressing weeds and increasing biodiversity,” Aaron details.

A row of Wesley’s Wish, an East Fork genetic named after the Howard’s late brother.

Before planting the new crop, the Howards and their team test the soil to determine if any nutrient supplementation is needed. If so, locally sourced, organic dry amendments get spread via a rotary spader, “a less invasive alternative to a traditional tiller,” Aaron says. He adds that East Fork collects and cultures “indigenous microorganisms from the healthy local forests that immediately surround the ranch by inoculating rice cooked al dente or wheat middlings. This has greatly improved our soil micro-biosphere, which also improves soil loaminess, tilth, structure and attracts earthworms. We spread this inoculum at a rate of 1,200 pounds per acre and hand rake to incorporate into our beds.” Those indigenous microorganisms also are paired with biochar the East Fork team prepares out of stalks from the previous year’s harvest.

Using Korean Natural Farming (KNF) and JADAM natural farming principles, the only nutrients applied to the crop during cultivation are the anaerobic ferments made in-house by the East Fork Cultivars team. But even those feedings are kept to a minimum, as a minimal-pruning technique (when used in low humidity areas such as Southern Oregon) allows the cannabis plants to “prune themselves” by allowing the inner foliage to die back and fall to the ground. “This act of dropping unproductive plant material not only provides the soil with mulch, but it also recycles the nutrients back into the soil,” Aaron says. “Any material that is pruned or any culled plants (e.g., males) are used in a liquid ferment, further recycling nutrients back into the crop. We focus on feeding the soil, which is what feeds our plants.” (In higher humidity growing environments, be on the lookout for disease build up (botrytis and powdery mildew) if you adapt this technique.)

The East Fork farm has been Clean Green Certified since 2016, but the team is working to add a new, more robust cannabis certification, Sun+Earth, created by a nonprofit offshoot of Dr. Bronner’s, which produces organic soap and other personal care products. While both validate that cannabis producers use organic practices, Sun+Earth certification also looks at the company’s workplace culture, ethics, and community engagement track record. Walker expects the company to be only the second Oregon farm and among the first in the country to receive that certification. “Sun+Earth follows the same standards as USDA Organic certifiers and includes aspects of B Corps certification. We’re really excited about it and the potential positive impact it can have on the trade,” he says.

The Fall of Rain

Getting that first OLCC harvest in the healthy ground in 2016 was a race against the clock. To ensure the company would have enough time to let the plants fully mature, the Howards planted the first crop five weeks before their first OLCC inspection certifying the property was to code. A week before the inspection, “we really did between maybe three weeks or a month of work in one week to get it up to code for our investigator to swing by,” Nathan says, adding that he does not recommend anyone attempt this themselves. “Everybody was exhausted … and kind of wanting to quit. And it hadn’t even started yet.”

Ultimately, the gamble paid off, and East Fork received its cultivation license in time to complete its first harvest. But that was far from the last hurdle the company cleared in its now four-year journey.

That first harvest was going to prove challenging in and of itself: East Fork Cultivars brought to market different genetics with exotic terpene and cannabinoid profiles, giving the business an opportunity to differentiate itself from the competition, but it also had to educate a largely neophyte consumer on the value of non-intoxicating compounds such as CBD. In other words, East Fork had to build a marketplace for plants it was already breeding and a crop it was already growing.

A serendipitous encounter with a rep at Farma, a Portland dispensary with a strong focus on science and education, blossomed into one of East Fork’s first retail partnerships. And then came a deal with Luminous Botanicals, an Oregon company that makes THC and CBD tinctures and topicals that remains one of the farm’s most important partners today.

The first growing season looked promising: summer weather held out, plants looked healthy, East Fork was among the first to receive a cannabis production license from the state, and the harvest promised to be bountiful. And then, the storms hit. “A … typhoon hit Southern Oregon in October [2016],” remembers Walker.

“We had plants literally under water,” Nathan recollects, a slight grimace on his face as he details the frustration of seeing that first year’s hard work rained on. Some neighboring farms saw upwards of 60% crop loss, Walker and Nathan say. East Fork got lucky: Although many plants were under water, only 5% of the crop was lost to mold and mildew.

Among other water-related issues, the crop would need a longer drying time, which meant delays in revenue generation. East Fork was able to hold out through the winter season with barely any sales and bring its first crop to market in the spring of 2017, around the same time that Walker became the company’s CEO.

“The actual cannabis flower was not super attractive,” he describes. “However, it was still very efficacious having the chemical compounds that we knew were therapeutic. So, we ended up … sending most of our 1,200 pounds of cannabis that we had grown in 2016 to product-maker partners.” Although a success in some regards, that sale was a second blow, Nathan says, as East Fork had already spent time and resources hand-trimming its flower, thinking it would be sold as-is to consumers.

As its first crop made its way through the market, the East Fork team quickly saw a pattern develop—while the medical community was already getting behind CBD as a valid medical treatment option (thanks in large part to Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s 2013 coverage of Charlotte Figi, the inspiration behind the popular Charlotte’s Web CBD oil), adult-use-market consumers remained unconvinced by CBD-dominant flower products.

East Fork Cultivars’ drying racks.
Corazón de Piña, one of East Fork Cultivars’ more exotic genetics.

Summer of Fun

To help educate Oregon’s marketplace on cannabis, cannabidiol, and the endocannabinoid system, with the hopes of also lifting its own boat, East Fork Cultivars hired Anna Symonds as its director of education and created CBD Certified, a free cannabis science education program. Symonds’ role mostly consists of developing educational tools to inform both retailers and consumers on the value of cannabis’s many compounds and has presented CBD Certified to more than 3,000 people. She also has partnered with groups like the Oregon Department of Agriculture and New Seasons Market to provide education for regulators, their staff, and customers.

The company also diversified its offerings by selling pre-rolls to its dispensary partners. Sales were a bit slow at first but soon picked up. That first harvest “gave us enough momentum to a) stay alive, and b) hire our first real employees, … you know, transitioning out of being a medical startup into a scaled-production farm.”

The summer of 2017 was primed to lead East Fork to success: The farm’s full allowable acre was cultivated (mostly with type 2s and 3s), the Howards tinkered with their organic practices, Walker managed the business end of things, and the new staff learned their roles.

With the fall weather more cooperative than in the company’s first year (“75 and sunny the whole way,” Walker recounts), the executive team felt confident that it would not only do better than the last year but also do better than most cultivators in the market. After all, they were offering a product that few other growers understood, let alone one to which they had access. “I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure at this point that no matter what we grow, we can figure something out, and we won’t lose all our family’s and friends’ money,” Nathan says.

Then, the Oregon market collapsed.

An East Fork Cultivars team member doing post-harvest trimming

Winter of Sorrow

“It was a killer bumper crop particularly for Southern Oregon sun-grown farms,” Walker says. “Just an enormous glut of supply dumped onto the market, and the market exploded, imploded and just completely died.” Farmers, fresh from pulling off a terrific harvest, were the victims of their own success. “It wasn’t that you just could only sell for cheap. It was that you literally could not sell your flower because there was six times more than the state could take,” he says.

Nathan remembers seeing lines at dispensaries through January, February and March of 2018—not lines of customers looking for a great deal, but lines of cultivators looking to make cold-call showings to stores. Nathan compares what happened in Oregon to the Alaskan fishing market collapse except that “what happened to the fishing industry over several decades happened in Oregon in about 18 months.”

“The green rush became the green crush,” he adds. “What was supposed to be a new wealth-generating opportunity became a major new driver of debt and human trauma.” And that human trauma cannot be understated, as a string of farmer suicides followed that historic race to the bottom in pricing. “It was desperate and depressed, and we barely hung on as well.”

Walker credits the company’s survival on the niche it found early on. Without that differentiation, East Fork would have been fighting to sell the same product as its fellow farmers. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel pain.

East Fork had to fire nearly half of its 12-person staff. That decision still haunts Walker today, and he is committed to not repeating that experience. “I’ve got a lot of credit cards now, so there won’t be a next round,” he says, only half-joking.

Those tough times and even tougher decisions taught the East Fork team some very valuable lessons on managing expectations, relationships and building a business.

“My biggest takeaway was to speed up our strategy, which is a very basic, age-old business strategy of diversification and differentiation,” Walker says. “At every turn, we try to diversify our offerings, the way we record revenue. So that’s unique products, multiple SKUs, multiple customer types, retailers, product makers, farmers, and then differentiate. So just focus on what we do that’s different from other people,” he says.

For Nathan, the lesson was a bit more bitter. In addition to experiencing the lowest lows of the Oregon market, the Howards were mourning the one-year anniversary of Wesley’s passing. The entire season “made me pretty cynical about the Oregon market, and made me hungry for something else.”

Hemp-Loaded Reboot

Springtime brought a better market, as many farmers decided to sell their products to cannabis processors instead of waiting for flower prices to bounce back.

“It could have been a lot worse, and it was a lot worse for some of our friends’ farms. We were lucky to have a decent niche and a decent amount of differentiation ... focusing on CBD with an identity that we had created over the past few years,” Walker says.

East Fork doubled down on that approach by developing partnerships with contract processors who could turn the company’s flower into any number of extracts with any number of cannabinoid and terpene ratios. “Up until that point, we were just selling flower to product makers,” Walker says. “But we had some product-maker partners that didn’t have their own extractions.” By working with contract manufacturers, East Fork gives its partners “the ingredient that’s turnkey for their products.”

Spring also brought renewed hope to East Fork: The 2018 Farm Bill would legalize hemp production, offering the Howards an opportunity to grow hemp and reach a broader national audience.

East Fork had 1.5 acres of its 9-acre farm, at the time, available to it for hemp cultivation—a small operation, but enough to get started in the market. That is, until Walker spotted a golden opportunity at a neighboring site, just south of the company’s farm. The East Fork team bought the 24-acre property with the help of Steward, a group that provides “financing to small and midsize sustainable farmers through online, crowdfunded investments,” according to the company’s website.

East Fork now owns 33 contiguous acres, which allows it to grow certified USDA Organic hemp. (The East Fork team says that getting certified Sun+Earth demands more rigor than the USDA certification).

The team has partnerships with roughly 40 product makers that use the farm’s hemp or adult-use cannabis products in their formulations, including 16 in the hemp space. Those 16 (which include over-the-counter CBD product manufacturers) help East Fork get in front of grocery store shoppers, not just dispensary patrons. The team also is expanding its breeding program to hemp, taking a two-stage approach in developing new cultivars.

Clones of new genetics ready to be potted. These will grow into mother plants for the next sun-grown season.

“We have ... the top of the funnel, where we bring in as much genetic diversity as we can into cannabis,” Walker explains. “And a lot of that is ... THC-dominant cannabis that has unique terpene profiles that have been created over decades by dedicated breeders. … We’re really just doing lots of crosses and bigger populations that we’re then testing, or we’re trying to give ourselves as many chances as possible to find unique cannabinoid and terpene profiles, particularly type 2s and type 3s.”

The second stage is focused on hemp breeding, specifically. Because its breeding work produces a lot of nonfeminized seeds, East Fork can bring seeds from the best type 3 plants into its indoor seed replication facility, which gives the company the capacity to keep 10 populations independently producing seed, as well as the ability to stabilize seed in breeding and crossing for new hybrids, Walker describes. This is crucial to the company’s plan of bringing a hemp seed line to market by 2020, but the CEO says many hurdles remain. “There are some real ethical bars we have to clear in order to do that, and we have to be really confident in [the seed line]. The feminization rates, the field stability, the morphology, the chemical composition to make sure that hemp farmers are staying [within] legal THC levels. There’s a lot more at stake there, so we have to have more control on that side.”

In another bid to differentiate and diversify its offerings, East Fork is beginning to license its genetics and intellectual property (IP) to partner farms. While anyone can grow East Fork Cultivars genetics on a non-commercial basis, Walker and the Howards partnered with Vibrant Hemp Cultures and North American Plants, Oregon-based tissue culture labs, to produce 3 million plant clones in time for the 2020 hemp-farming season.

The East Fork team isn’t concerned about potential IP theft because the licensing agreements are signed for two years, after which the company will already have a newly licensed product, Walker says.

Sharing The Success

As they make moves to ensure the company’s long-term solubility, the Howards and Walker don’t want to be the only successful farm. Too many friends lost their livelihoods during the “Winter of Sorrow” to see that happen again. To help other farmers, East Fork recently launched the Organic Hemp Farm Network, a co-op of three farms that grow USDA-certified craft hemp. In addition to its own 12-acre hemp lot, the company has 7 additional acres across its three other partner farms, Walker explains. “So, if we have a product maker that needs more hemp than we grew, but is in line with our values and is a good kind of fit for us in our model, we can plug into that excess supply,” he says.

The OLCC-licensed cannabis farm remains in operation, but there are no plans to further expand into that market—especially considering many of the genetics grown on the OLCC lot can be grown on the hemp lot with less-stringent taxation and oversight (55% of East Fork’s OLCC lot consists of type 3 cultivars). With hemp, East Fork has an opportunity to grow from a regional craft grower to a national health and wellness brand.

And what better way to honor a late brother than to ensure that as many people as possible get the same relief that he did.

Brian MacIver is senior editor for Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary magazines.