Envisioning infinite possibilities for cannabis
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories about women gardeners in the Rogue Valley.
“At the time of writing, [cannabis] is projected to be a $5 billion industry in California alone. ... Yet, it’s never gone through a modern-day breeding program to select for things like disease resistance or seed stability. … There is nothing else in the world so widely grown but so little understood and yet-to-be studied.”
— Johanna Silver, “Growing Weed in the Garden,” 2020
When I recently visited Emily Gogol’s cannabis farm in the Applegate Valley, some much-needed rain was moving through the area, so we started the tour in her indoor breeding facility, which was filled with seed-bearing plants ready to be harvested for research.
Emily showed me 10 pollen-isolation tents lined up against the wall, where they were turning female hemp plants into pollen-producing male plants. I peeped through one of the tent flaps but didn’t see anything scandalous going on — just a pretty plant bathing in UV light.
We also visited the 100-foot greenhouse, where hundreds of pots were recently seeded with some of Emily’s organically grown cannabis line. I breathed in deeply the smell of fertile soil, within which all those seeds were busy germinating. Emily told me if I came back in a few weeks, the plants would already be several inches tall.
Cannabis, which includes hemp and marijuana, grows like a weed because it is a weed, but this particular weed has grown into a multibillion dollar industry. The Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission reported marijuana sales last year totaled $1.2 billion, and that number doesn’t include millions of dollars the hemp/CBD market produced. (Hemp production is overseen by the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which does not track hemp/CBD sales.)
Yet, as Johanna Silver pointed out in her book “Growing Weed in the Garden,” the burgeoning cannabis field is just beginning to focus on research and development.
That’s exactly why Emily and her husband, Ryan Burns, moved to Southern Oregon four years ago and started Infinite Tree, a cannabis research and production nursery.
“We saw a huge lack of rigorous testing and quality products in the marketplace,” Emily said. “I thought, ‘We can put together a team of scientists, engineers and agriculturalists to provide something that’s going to help cannabis farmers.’”
Emily has a Ph.D. in microbiology and genetics from the University of San Francisco, and with Ryan’s background in engineering they decided to combine their skillsets to help move the cannabis industry into the 21st century. They bought 23 acres with water rights to the Applegate River, and they’ve spent the past four years operating one of the first USDA-certified organic hemp farms to develop new hemp varieties, test them, and send them to farmers all across the U.S. as plant starts and seeds. They ship the plants in packaging that Ryan developed from recycled cardboard.
Emily recently received an OLCC license and expanded her R&D and nursery services to include marijuana. The extension made sense economically as local hemp production has fallen off dramatically since its height in 2019. Federal restrictions prohibit shipping marijuana products outside the state, but Emily enjoys having growers visit the farm so they can see what they’re buying when it’s growing in the field.
Whether hemp or marijuana, Emily’s goal is to develop and grow “best in class” cannabis that meets high standards of quality in terms of plant structure and growth habits, as well as uniformity in terpenes, CBD in hemp and THC in marijuana. “We specifically design lines for the craft market,” Emily said. “Our breeding program specializes in producing delicious, aromatic smokables and edibles made of really high-quality flower.”
Part of her job is walking through the fields and taking notes when the plants are growing outdoors. Last year, Emily trialed 30 different cannabis cultivars. She said the number of cultivars changes from year to year depending on how many partners they work with.
Another part of her job is to analyze the cannabinoid levels of harvested cannabis flower, much like viticulturalists test sugar levels in grapes. “A lot of people think cannabis is very mysterious and different from other commercially grown crops,” Emily said. “But at the end of the day, cannabis has the same quantitative benchmarks that farmers need to hit in order to sell a quality product in the marketplace.”
One of Emily’s favorite aspects of her work is to demystify best practices for growing cannabis. She works with the ODA to provide free workshops for commercial growers on different aspects of organic cultivation and pest and disease management. She launched Grow It From Home after backyard gardeners contacted her about how to grow hemp along with other herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme.
“My work with Grow It From Home helps folks across the country have access and education about growing hemp plants at home,” Emily said. “We provide USDA organic certified plants and seeds direct from our farm to their doorstep, along with instructions to help everyone with their gardening journey. I’m also passionate about connecting gardeners with expert chefs, mixologists and herbalists so they can get the most out of their plants and realize hemp is just like using other herbs, fruits and vegetables from the garden.”
For Emily, her work with backyard gardeners brings her back to her gardening roots. She grew up in San Jose, California, where she and her twin sister gardened with their mom. “My earliest gardening memory is pulling mint from underneath the rose bushes,” Emily recalled.
When she moved to San Francisco for her Ph.D. program, Emily signed up for a community garden plot. “One day while walking to that garden, I saw a ‘guerrilla garden’ happening on an empty lot in the neighborhood. I found out who was gardening there and got in touch with them. Fast forward a few years, and we created a thriving volunteer organization, built two street parks and received many accolades, including one from the state of California for our work.”
The awards helped her nonprofit group receive grants, but Emily said the real reward came from providing the community with access to plants and an opportunity to be part of a project that beautified their urban neighborhood.
I asked Emily what she thought about the illegal cannabis grows that currently proliferate in Southern Oregon. Local law enforcement officials estimate there are more than 1,000 illegal cannabis farms operating in the area, which just last week led state lawmakers to pass SB 1564 aimed at preventing illegal marijuana grows being passed off as hemp. Whereas cannabis production is tightly regulated by the OLCC, hemp production is legalized under a broader federal mandate and has become an easier front for black market growers.
Illicit operations have given the fledgling legalized cannabis industry in Southern Oregon a bad rap. In addition, the bill allows the county commissioners to request that the ODA impose a moratorium on hemp grower licenses.
“Some of the bad rap is warranted because these growers are not growing sustainably and they’re abusing natural resources,” Emily said. “Large criminal organizations move into the valley, rent the land and destroy it by removing topsoil, overfertilizing, using a ton of plastic, and pulling water illegally from rivers and creeks. It’s a real concern.”
Emily is hopeful that legalizing marijuana at the federal level will decrease illegal grows and help the cannabis market stabilize and mature.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done regarding the use of best practices for growing cannabis,” Emily said. “My focus is to guide legitimate commercial farmers and backyard gardeners to grow high-quality cannabis responsibly.”
“I love seeing a well-loved garden, whether it’s a set of planters on a tiny porch or a quarter-acre wild garden on a farm. I love any landscape where people clearly care and enjoy their plants. I am particularly partial to ‘no lawn’ front yards and dry gardens with native plants.”
“I’m inspired by everyone growing for their friends and families, and by every free farm stand. As for women, specifically, I think Penny Barthel, Johanna Silver and Jenny Saling (@thehappyherban) are really helping gardeners get more comfortable with cannabis as another plant that can be grown in the garden. Many people grow lavender just for the joy of lavender, and these woman are showing how gardeners can do the same with cannabis.”
“All Flesh is Grass: The Pleasures and Promises of Pasture Farming” by Gene Logsdon (2004)
“Growing Weed in the Garden: A No-Fuss Seed-to-Stash Guide to Outdoor Cannabis” by Johanna Silver and Rachel Weill (2020)
“The Cannabis Gardener: A Beginners Guide to Growing Vibrant, Healthy Plants in Every Region” by Penny Barthel (2021)
Learn more about Infinite Tree at https://infinite-tree.com/. Check out more of my conversation with Emily on the February 2022 episode of my podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com.