This summer, Emerald is on a mission to learn more about Sun+Earth Certified cannabis. Join us each week as we interview certified growers and manufacturers across the United States.
Nathan and Aaron Howard founded East Fork Cultivars in 2015. This week, Emerald sat down with Mason Walker, CEO and Co-Owner. Join us in our conversation as we learn how business, cannabis, and fraternal love come together at this Southern Oregon farm.
EMERALD: How did East Fork Cultivars get started? Why did you decide to break into the cannabis industry?
WALKER: Nathan and Aaron’s late older brother, Wesley, suffered from neurofibromatosis [a genetic disorder that affects the nervous system], and later, developed epilepsy. Cannabis was a uniquely positioned medicine for him to help with the pain and swelling that came from neurofibromatosis, and then also help with seizures from epilepsy.
At the time, the only medical cannabis you could find was very high THC and very intoxicating. In 2014 or so, Aaron and Nathan started tracking down low THC varieties of cannabis, trying to find varieties that could provide relief for Wesley and his ailments without the side effect of intense intoxication.
That’s what started East Fork. We now own and operate a 33 acre farm in Southern Oregon. We have a satellite office and warehouse in Portland. We’ll soon have a little retail shop as well in Portland, Oregon. We’ve grown the business and the team pretty consistently each year. We’re still pretty small…but we do a lot of different things. We have a full breeding program [and] an R&D facility. And we just launched our first commercial genetics line. We also have an education program that we’ve run for a few years. We [also] grow USDA organic certified hemp there [and] we power some national product makers [of] CBD-infused products like Gaia herbs. And then we have some of our own products as well. Like we have a small tincture line, we sell flower and we also sell hobby seed packs for home growers and things like that.
EMERALD: Tell us some more about your new retail venture.
WALKER: We’re calling it “Hemp Bar.”
We’ll sell hemp flower and then some limited products like tinctures. It’s designed really as a community space where people can enjoy beverages that focus on functional plants. It’s called “Hemp Bar,” so hemp is kind of the star of the show. We’ll have some sort of mock-tails that are made with [things like] matcha and turmeric. We’ll have kombucha on tap. The goal is for it to be a little flagship representation of our farm in Portland.
EMERALD: It sounds like a cool place to visit. We will definitely have to consider a trip out to Portland once all this blows over to check it out. Could you elaborate on how COVID-19 has impacted life at East Fork?
MASON: We worked really hard to get cannabis deemed essential in Oregon. Our business year over year is down slightly
We’ve had to do a lot of restructuring of workspaces [and] workflows. We’ve [also] been working really hard to develop no contact delivery. I think about 15% of our staff is furloughed right now. It’s certainly chilled our fundraising efforts.
We’re trying really hard to make the leap to be a proper commercial seed provider for farmers next year. In order to professionalize our breeding program enough to go to market in a big way, the investment required is beyond cashflow [or] friends and family loans. We had launched a $2 million debt fundraise in January [and] we had some really good momentum with that and that slowed. So that’s been a big impact. Luckily everyone on the team has been healthy.
EMERALD: What would you say has been the greatest challenge trying to grow in this industry?
WALKER: (laughs) How long do you have? Well, there’s all the well documented chips stacked against us. We’re still in the shadow of prohibition, even if prohibition is over in certain states… And, you know, our difficulty in accessing basic professional services. When we do have access, they’re quite expensive. Like we’re banked and we have insurance, but we pay through the teeth for both of those things.
Access to capital [has been a] huge challenge. We’re at the point now where, if we were say, growing strawberries with our [current] cashflow balance sheets… we should qualify for a pretty significant USDA subsidized loan or line of credit each year. Even though hemp is legal, we can’t get any of that sort of financing. And then we certainly can’t get any normal bank loans, small business loans, SBA loans, any of that kind of thing. So access to capital has been very hard. A lot of credit cards in the early days.
EMERALD: It’s got to be frustrating that you’re putting a lot into the pot and you can’t get anything back, especially in these times.
WALKER: A lot of these things are the costs of being pioneers in a new space. We very much [describe] ourselves as a social enterprise. We’re in it for the movement. If we were just pure capitalists, we would not be in cannabis. (laughs)
EMERALD: We’d love to hear about your growing techniques. What does the typical day at East Fork look like?
WALKER: We’re a single season in Oregon – that’s May to October. May is… our greenhouse month. All of our seeds and clones were moved into the greenhouse [at] the beginning of May.
June’s our main transplant month. We hand transplant everything, kind of a walk up and down the rows and plant all of our cultivars. We probably have maybe 50 cultivars. We grow in native soil and we use drip irrigation across the whole field. We [also] have water rights tied to the East Fork of the Illinois River. It’s where our name comes from. And that’s where we get our water from. We try to do everything on site, in house as much as possible.
We use Korean natural farming. We make a lot of fermented amendments, both for fertilization and for pest management, [using local plant matter]. Then [in] July and August, plants get big, we host lots of tours [and] we do a little bit of plant maintenance.
Then in September, that’s when we’re kind of prepping for the harvest time. October is our main harvest month. We hand harvest everything. When we dry it, we slow dry. Then November, December, January – we call those the settling months where we’re curing flower, de-stemming, grading, packaging, storing [and] starting to shift things out. Then the cycle starts back up again in February when we start to germinate seed again.
EMERALD: Any parting thoughts for our readers?
WALKER: We’ve long been big proponents of actually rigorous third-party certifications. They bring credibility and legitimacy to the work we do and also help us get better. Sun+Earth is great because it includes all [sorts] of environmental considerations…[such as] our impact, our energy and water use. But then it also includes, and maybe more importantly, social pieces [like] what we do in terms of community engagement, corporate philanthropy, [and] employee rights.
My hope is that it becomes a recognizable seal for people.
Photos by Olivia Ashton. Courtesy of East Fork Cultivars.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
“We certify cannabis that is grown under the sun, in the soil of mother earth, without chemicals by fairly paid farmers.” – Sun+Earth