Esensia’s craft cannabis operation uses senses and sensors to navigate an industry sea change, while staying true to its roots.
With all the new cannabis legalization bills churning their way through state legislatures, it’s an exciting time to be a cannabis grower in America. Arable caught up with Ben Blake and Marley Lovell, the founders of Esensia, a close-to-the-land, award-winning outdoor operation grounded in the heart of the Emerald Triangle in California. We spoke about how they use agtech to inform their management decisions, and how data visibility keeps them on track to produce the high-quality craft cannabis their customers have come to depend on.
Arable Labs: Hi Ben, Hi Marley. Let’s jump right in. As outdoor craft cannabis growers, tell us what brought you guys to adopt agtech in the field in the first place.
Ben Blake: Great topic. We’ve been growing cannabis for a while now, close to 10 years. It was really a passion of working outdoors with plants that attracted both of us to it. Our approach was definitely less sophisticated in the beginning. It all started with a lot of note taking on paper and Excel docs, comparing notes, and finding ways to store and analyze the data so we could make sense of what we were seeing in the field with the different phenotypes in our breeding programs. As we got into it, we started to realize that genetics are really the foundation of what we do. Through breeding and phenotype selection, cloning, and mothering, we’re creating our own proprietary strains or cultivars with unique characteristics that we think will do well on the market. There’s definitely data involved in that, and the amount of data and tech we use will continue to grow as we continue down that rabbit hole.
Last year we had some challenges scaling our genetics commercially with the new cannabis laws— the amount you can grow now is a lot more than it used to be. We wanted to take all these really neat strains we have and be able to secure and scale them in more reliable ways, maybe license some of them. We ended up partnering with a tissue culture lab and began initiating ten of our flagship cultivars using that technology back in April . It’s a slow process, so getting started with it early was important.
AL: Is that like cloning?
BB: It’s known as micropropagation, so not traditional cloning. Traditional cloning is a pretty common practice in modern cannabis production. Both traditional cloning and tissue culture micropropagation have their pros and cons. With tissue culture micropropagation, you take little bits of meristem or nodal tissue off the plant and you grow it in vitro in a petri dish in an agar. The deeper we’ve gotten, we’ve been surprised by the variety of crops that are propagated this way, like orchids, fruiting tree crops, and nut tree crops. There’s actually one operation repopulating parts of the redwood forest up in Humboldt with tissue culture redwood trees, we learned.
BB: Yeah! It’s way more widespread than we initially even realized. Some of the advantages are that it has the potential to clean out any viruses, diseases, or pest issues in a plant. With old genetics, it can refresh and reinvigorate them. And it’s also really scalable, so you can reproduce tens of thousands of plants in a very small setting. It’s also a really good way to archive genetics. We have a big library, close to 60 select strains that we’ve developed over ten years of breeding and pheno-selecting. It’s always been a challenge to keep those strains healthy and alive. We’ve had numerous near catastrophic experiences where we’ve almost lost certain strains for a variety of different reasons. These strains are really valuable to us, and we think will have even more value going forward. Being able to secure those and archive them is important.
AL: Can you then select for different genes?
BB: We’re actually right at the tip of that iceberg now. That’s a big thing with ag in general, genetic-based breeding tools. It’s a super interesting field. Just having deeper knowledge of the genome can help you with traditional breeding because you can know what to select for, what traits to look for. And there’s deeper levels to go, where you’re talking about actually modifying or editing genes. That’s an area we’re wary of and have some philosophical opposition to. However, we are aware that others in the industry are exploring it.
“The whole thing with cannabis is that it rocketed out of the black market into the legal space and now changes in the industry are happening at a super fast rate. It’s really coming into a traditional ag space very, very quickly. It all basically happened in the last year or two.'
The topics of genetic modification in cannabis, specifically the use of GMO and CRISPR technology, are hot-button issues right now. There’s a lot of opposition to these types of techniques in the Emerald Triangle because of the threat they pose to heritage genetics and cultivators. The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors has been discussing the topic and will most likely be banning the use of both technologies for cannabis and other ag as well. Having said that, there’s definitely an increased interest in gaining more knowledge about the cannabis genome, and how that can help with traditional breeding. That’s going to be a huge area for cannabis going forward, and it will be really interesting to keep following that and see what happens there.
Marley Lovell: Cannabis has been in the shadow market for quite a long time. So there’s been this transition to a regulated marketplace, which has been painful in certain ways but has also allowed us to have access to all the tools that the rest of agriculture has, which I think is really fantastic for us. A lot of those tools weren’t necessarily developed for cannabis specifically, so we’re still trying to figure out the right applications for them. One main difference is that cannabis is being produced on a much smaller scale than the rest of agriculture, for example quarter-acre to several-acre lots, as opposed to hundred- or thousand-acre lots.