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Photo by Kim Nguyen

Assistant Farm Manager Cassie Cooper walks the rows of CBD-rich cannabis plants at East Fork Cultivars.

East Fork Cultivars keeps evolving

If there’s one thing that is noticeable when talking with Mason Walker, chief executive of East Fork Cultivars, a CBD-focused grow in Takilma, it’s his transparency.

The level at which he explains things — whether about the company’s cultivation techniques, business practices, philosophies or opinions about the cannabis industry in general — is clear, concise and earnest. He answers questions willingly; this could be because of his seven-year stint at the Portland Business Journal, or maybe it’s because he truly believes in what he is doing and is proud of what the farm’s family is creating. But one thing is for sure — he’s passionate about the farm and the power of cannabis, particularly CBD.

“He is a humble person, but brilliant,” says Aaron Howard, co-founder and chief operations officer, while sharing stories of getting to know Walker during the early days on the ranch, before Walker was officially hired in March 2017.

“I knew this guy was solid. He has what has made this business really click,” Howard says. “The ideas and the ability to execute them on the farm, his business acumen, long-term and strategic planning and the ability to distill ideas to make them digestible in 12 seconds or less.”

Growing CBD in Southern Oregon is not new for Howard. At about age 17, he took a class to learn how to grow cannabis after his older brother, Wesley, had his first seizure. Wesley was born with myriad illnesses that got more pronounced as he got older, and he developed epilepsy because of a brain tumor. As a result, Howard developed more of an interest in CBD due in part to learning about the Stanley Brothers, who developed a popular CBD cultivar called Charlotte’s Web that’s said to help treat seizures and other medical conditions.

“I saw a lot of the good that cannabis could do, and I saw a lot of the negative side effects, just the abuse of it,” he says. “I shifted my desire to get away from THC-dominant strains, and I learned about the potential health benefits. I was like, ‘Wow this seems like such a pharmacological treasure trove, why don’t we make this available to people?’”

He continued to grow for his brother, but he started to transition out of growing THC, just as legalization was coming to pass. His younger brother, Nathan Howard, who is active in the cannabis political and activist scene, quipped that Aaron was just getting out right as he could make a good life for himself.

“I was experimenting with CBD strains and doing carpentry on the side,” Aaron Howard says, joking he really wasn’t that good at the trade. “Farming was my interest for many years, and I played around with different business ideas. And then, probably over some beers, Nathan said, ‘Why don’t we do this CBD project you are interested in and turn it into a farm,’ and it just took off from there.”

So, in 2015, the brothers grew a small crop that drew tremendous interest — they took it as the proof they needed to move forward. The neighboring property from where Aaron lived in Takilma became available — a former llama breeding ranch surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains — and through friends, family, community support and loans, they were able to raise the money to buy the nine-acre site.

The brothers pulled in three other owners to make it work, including Walker. The others are Jo Perkins, a local licensed contractor who helped with the build-out of the property (back in 2016, they were putting in 80- to 100-hour work weeks), and Joel Fischer, who has a background in policy and government relations. His role, according to his LinkedIn profile, is “the ambassador of happiness.”

“We have five owners now, and it’s a tremendous boon to the operation because we have a diverse set of skills,” Howard says. “It’s a fantastic group of people.”

East Fork Cultivars holds a Tier II license, producing 40,000 square feet of mature canopy. The flower is 100 percent sungrown and organized into three separate sections divided by cannabinoid ratio: the first section is CBD dominant, the second has a couple percentages of THC, and the third is a one-to-one ratio of THC to CBD.

The ranch also has a plot of three acres just for hemp, which is an area the company is expanding.

As this story was being written, East Fork was in the process of acquiring 24.4 acres of land for hemp production just south of its current location, through Steward, a private lender and crowdfunding platform specializing in helping young farmers.

“A lot of folks are growing hemp this year,” says Walker. “I think we are going to see an explosion of high-quality craft hemp in Oregon this year.” He adds it won’t be long until the U.S. is the largest producer of the plant, and Oregon likely will have a big role in that. Industrial hemp, according to the federal government, is defined as cannabis that tests .3 percent or less of THC.

But the big difference — and this is where the company’s goal of diversification comes into play — hemp can be sold nationally, while cannabis can be sold statewide only.

On the new property, East Fork will be able to grow 18 acres of hemp. Instead of going through the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the company just needed to obtain a permit to grow hemp through the Department of Agriculture — a process that was much easier and cheaper.

“It will be flower-focused hemp, medical grade,” says Walker. “Not what I call industrial hemp. We will sell it in all of our existing channels, but most of it will be destined for other states and other countries. Being a CBD-focused farm, we have all these varieties, they qualify as hemp, but they have to stay inside of Oregon and have to go through licensed dispensaries only. With this crop we can grow the varieties we already grow. They will look the same, but we can sell them anywhere.”

Partnering Up

In 2017, East Fork Cultivars harvested 3,300 pounds of untrimmed flower otherwise known as sellable product. A majority of that raw cannabis goes to a carefully vetted group of processing partners. In Southern Oregon, Walker says, for many outdoor cannabis farms, the main source of revenue is trimmed flower, and while that product is still the largest product by revenue, that piece of the market pie continues to shrink.

“New cannabis consumers are not buying flower, they are buying infused kombucha and cartridges and chocolate bars,” says Walker, making it clear it’s not an exhaustive list. And as a result, the company has diversified its products.

So, while the farm does sell flower and pre-roll joints, those products are less than half the company’s revenue and less than 20 percent of its harvest volume, according to Walker.

“We work with smaller processors, and we view them as strategic partners,” Walker says. “We work on transparency with pricing and co-branding and servicing and delivering.”

Turns out it was good business sense, especially last fall when the flower market crashed due to oversaturation.

“When there was a massive glut of outdoor cannabis and shops stopped buying flower, we were lucky because we had all these relationships with processors,” Walker says. “When the market crashed, a lot of farmers relied on solely flower sales at high margins. That particular category was hammered the hardest.”

East Fork partners with more than 20 processors — focused on products such as chocolate, cartridges, tinctures and topicals.

“As we watch these products ebb and flow, we are diversified enough across all the different segments that we can absorb different cycles and the pressures of the market,” Walker says.

Aside from partnering and sharing a label with East Fork, the products made by partner processors get the benefit of being given out during the company’s statewide educational program managed by Anna Symonds.

Leaders in CBD Education

Symonds joined East Fork in July 2017, after she met Walker at Oregon’s Cultivation Classic, a competition for craft cannabis produced in Oregon. At the time she was doing management and business administration work for another grower, helping it transition from medical to recreational as well as helping patients coordinate their medical deliveries. Around the same time, Symonds, a competitive athlete, was dealing with a chronic back injury from 2013, so she became an Oregon Medical Marijuana Program patient and started exploring using CBD in more sophisticated, nuanced ways.

As she was learning more about CBD and its healing elements, East Fork was considering developing an educational program directed at dispensaries to help better inform budtenders about CBD.

“When I met Mason, we just clicked with our outlook and the way we like to work,” Symonds says. “It was an amazing opportunity for me to focus on CBD and develop the program.”

A skeleton program was developed with help from consultants, but it was Symonds’ job to flesh it out and give it legs. They started giving beta presentations to processors, and with their feedback they were able to hone the presentation and conduct a soft launch in December with a full roll-out in January.

Today, the hourlong presentation is called CBD Certified, and it’s free to any licensed dispensary in Oregon. From January until the end of June, Symonds says she’s been to around 60 dispensaries and given more than 30 presentations to processors. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for dispensaries to access the information to understand CBD more fully.

“We thought that the most important and high-impact audience is dispensary staff and budtenders, because they interact with so many people each day,” she says. “It’s been an amazing pleasure and so much fun to meet the staff at all of the different businesses, to get around the state and see what people are doing. What I found is that people are really hungry for knowledge.”

Providing the program for free to dispensaries is an investment on East Fork’s end, Symonds says, considering the farm is still small and she is being paid a full-time salary for facilitating the program.

“It’s something that we really believe in, and as a values-driven company, we feel that it’s so important,” Symonds says. “We saw the need for it and didn’t want to wait around. We know people use cannabis as medicine, and we want people to have the informational resources they need to take care of themselves. We can’t sit by and let people suffer when we have the opportunity to try our best.”

Symonds says she’d like to collaborate with OLCC to create educational courses for budtender certifications that are funded by the taxes generated by cannabis. This is to help dispel the myths that still exist around CBD. One such myth is that CBD is nonpsychoactive, which according to Symonds is not entirely accurate.

“A psychoactive substance is something that interacts with the nervous system to produce a change in mood or behavior, and CBD does do that,” she explains. “It produces anti-anxiety effects for example, and that’s a good thing. It’s just not intoxicating, and that’s where the confusion comes in. CBD doesn’t get you high, but it has powerful effects in the body working through multiple complex pathways, and it’s exciting for the budtender to understand the ‘why’ of the effects.”

As for Howard, his guiding principle for East Fork is all about the value being created and provided. “The big thing that we have tried to do is evaluate what is valuable to ourselves and the greater community, cannabis users and potential users,” he says, expressing gratitude for the visibility, growth and legitimization while also acknowledging that the company isn’t totally out of the weeds yet. “And that question has really led the way to success.”

You can follow Liz Gold on Twitter/Instagram @lizstacygold or read her blog at www.14karatliving.com.

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