Sky Pinnick, CEO of Phantom Farms in Bend, Ore., is a big fan of kombucha: the healthy, fermented tea trending across the nation. So, he was pleased to discover from his cultivation team that his farm was brewing it. The only problem? It wasn’t for employees. Turns out, Pinnick’s cannabis plants love kombucha, too. This tea was for them.
The kombucha is part of the plants’ nutrient regimen and represents just one way the adult-use- cannabis-focused indoor/outdoor farm (which boasts 125,000 square feet of canopy space) is making its operations as sustainable as possible.
Here, Pinnick and Phantom Farms Master Grower Eddie Funtanellas share other sustainability methods the farm employs, such as its use of volcanic filtered water, why its branding focuses heavily on the farm’s staff and how the 10-year-old operation has been able to navigate Oregon’s volatile market.
Scott Guthrie: Your cultivation operation is Clean Green Certified. What does that mean for your business and what was the certification process?
Sky Pinnick: You apply [for certification], and there are certain parameters you have to meet. Then [Clean Green Certified] comes and inspects the farm. At our outdoor farm, they do soil tests, and then we give them all our inputs that we’re using. They check to make sure they are all on their list. They come every year and do an inspection.
Eddie Funtanellas: What’s cool about it is, within cannabis, there isn’t a certification for the use of the word “organic” because it’s a federally regulated term. Clean Green Certification [is] on par with organic certification, so when you see “Clean Green” attached to cannabis, you can understand that the cultivation processes and the inputs and all of the pieces combined are in alignment with the organic practices that you would see on an apple that you would buy at the grocery store.
Guthrie: In your mind, why is growing in a sustainable environment so important for cannabis plants?
Pinnick: Growing sustainably as much as you can is obviously good for multiple reasons. It lowers your inputs, or potentially lowers your inputs; it creates a better product, we think. There are less chemicals involved, so it’s a more organic process, and it’s just ultimately better for everything.
Guthrie: What steps have you taken to make your farm as sustainable as possible?
Funtanellas: We are really concerned with trying to close the loop at our farm, and that means just less inputs from buying stuff—from dirt to any kind of nutrients to anything [else]—so we’re lessening that every year. We’re all about on-farm fertility, so we’re growing all kinds of plants [to use as] nutrients for the cannabis plants.
For nutrient mixes, you can do a ferment; there are lots of different ways to do it. It’s called KNF—Korean Natural Farming. The nickname of KNF is peasant farming; the only materials you need to nurture the plants are the ones that are growing around you. We grow dynamic accumulators such as horsetail, comfrey and nettles. Material from these plants is some of the most nutritionally balanced forms of food one can harness and feed to any plant.
Pinnick: One cool thing that we’re doing is brewing kombucha on the farm for the plants. It’s just part of the nutrient schedule.
Funtanellas: We’re doing compost teas, basically trying to make all our own stuff as opposed to buying something bottled that’s made wherever, synthetically. [The kombucha] is basically a liquid culture of beneficial probiotics. It is a symbiotic slurry of bacteria and yeast. We have the utmost respect for the cannabis plant. That is why we take such good care of her.
Guthrie: You use “volcanic filtered water” in both your indoor and outdoor facilities. What is that and how does it help your plants?
Pinnick: What’s intrinsic to Oregon is that we are in a volcanic state. We’re at the base of the Cascade Mountains. All the water supply that comes in is eventually filtered down through these vast layers of lava rock and pumice and all these other remnants of all the volcanic activity that happened millions of years ago. As the water rains on the surface and filters through all the volcanic material, it ends up in the water tables below, and that’s essentially where we are drawing our water from and where most of the water in Oregon actually comes from. We like to think that the water that our plants are drinking is the remnants of what was sitting in Crater Lake or [what] has been filtered through all the volcanic layers.
Funtanellas: [For] our outdoor farm, we have irrigated water that comes from a spring that comes off Mount McLoughlin, which is a volcano, so that’s more of a direct source. The pH [levels] are really spot on. [With] tap water, they put chlorine and fluoride in there. Chlorine and fluoride are antimicrobial; we are trying to harness and nurture microbes.
Guthrie: Why do you cultivate indoors and outdoors? Does it make your jobs more challenging?
Pinnick: Our indoor and outdoor farms are 2.5 hours apart from each other, so there is an obvious logistical challenge there. Our indoor is located in central Oregon where the majority of us live, so the proximity there is convenient. But the high deserts in central Oregon aren’t the most optimal outdoor growing conditions, so it makes sense to cultivate indoors in central Oregon, [whereas] southern Oregon is the perfect terroir for cannabis. So that’s why the outdoor farms are in southern Oregon and the indoor is in Bend.
Funtanellas: Another reason why we are doing indoor and outdoor is the market demand; the consumer wants both products.
Being outside, you’re subject to outside [conditions], and then inside, it’s more of a lab. You’re studying, and you have to be way cleaner. We have two different crews. We are actually opening our indoor facility right now, so we haven’t had any indoor product out on the market.
There are two different sets of [Standard Operating Procedures for indoor and outdoor], but ... a lot of parallels, too. We’re doing some similar grow techniques—living soil inside and outside. There are very boutique inside [strains] that don’t do as well outside, so [what we’re growing in each location] is definitely different. For example, some of the ones we’re doing inside are Gelato, Sunset Sherbet, some Wedding Cake crosses, which really wouldn’t do that well outside.
Guthrie: On your website, you mention that your employees like surfing, snow and anything on wheels. What is the strategy behind this? Does it help relate to customers?
Pinnick: We all do those activities. That’s how we were all friends in the beginning, and so it’s really at the core of who we are as individuals and what we all rally around. When we get done with work, we try to go ride mountain bikes or go surfing or do whatever we can. That’s what we are trying to get out in our messaging—to let people understand where we come from, our back story and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Guthrie: You have a robust Instagram page. Why have you placed such an importance on social media and branding? Have you received any pushback from Instagram?
Pinnick: We do put a lot of time into our Instagram page, and part of the reason why is to try to [represent] our multi-faceted team. We’re not just a couple cultivators that grow cannabis and then try to sell it. The pedigree of our team is such that we have professional photographers, marketing people and designers, and cultivators and construction workers and lawyers. So while Eddie and the cultivation team are out growing these beautiful things, myself and my sister, who’s our creative director, tap into our skill sets, which are branding and advertising and photography. We then get to go document these things as they’re being done.
Because Oregon was going to be an open market where anyone can get a license, we identified early on that to stand out from the noise, we needed to focus on telling a good brand story because otherwise we are just another company growing cannabis, which there are quite a few of in Oregon. So part of the strategy from the beginning was utilizing our resources to help tell our story.
We have had pushback [from the social media platforms], especially early on. Maybe two or three years ago, it was a bumpier road. I think part of it is how you communicate. For example, we show a lot of pictures of cannabis plants, but we don’t show consumption. We talked to Instagram and said, “We’re following the rules; it’s legal in our state.” It’s just communication. Instead of going, “You shut us down, you’re a bunch of jerks,” we try to explain what we’re doing and the justification.
Guthrie: A lot of focus is given to what dispensaries look for in producers, but what do you look for in a dispensary?
Pinnick: Ultimately, who is going to be a partner? We want someone who is going to represent us and our flower, so we aren’t just bulk product on the shelf. The ideal dispensary for us is going to allow us to brand our product on the shelf, so we can work collaboratively with the budtenders and share our story with them, so that they can then share that with the consumer. We think there is importance in knowing where your product is coming from. So, the dispensaries that we would like to partner with put importance on the cultivators and help share that story. Sometimes that’s as simple as having a sticker on a jar, and sometimes it is more elaborate and cool, where it’s a branded shelf or where they highlight who the cultivators are in a more substantial way.
Guthrie: Oregon’s supply glut is well documented. How has Phantom been able to navigate this?
Pinnick: The supply glut was foreseeable. The impact and the severity of it is a little greater than what even the pessimists [among] us were predicting. But the key point there is that it was not something that hit us by surprise. We designed our business to sustain throughout that. We made our plans based on having to compete in a very price-compressed marketplace. So, we’ve been able to weather the storm and, fortunately for us, we are a pretty diverse team—at the partnership level, there are eight of us that all serve different functions. And part of that function is: We aren’t just out growing cannabis, harvesting it and then saying, “Now what?” We have multiple team members that are out blazing the trail in terms of sales and marketing and dispensary relationships.
So that allowed us to [have] a strong footprint in the state with a lot of great dispensaries that we work with. And so as the glut comes—and there are more and more people out there with a sack full of weed trying to sell it to a dispensary—fortunately, we’ve been at this for a while and we already have a relationship with that dispensary, and we kind of get to walk past people in line and high-five the people we’ve already been doing business with for several years and continue doing business.
The other thing that is important is that we established a certain amount of reliability with our brand and consistency. So, as there’s a bunch of new people coming to the market—which is great, there are a lot of great innovators out there—they have to convince a buyer. We have this consistency that people know, and they know they can trust us. Building that foundation has been part of what’s really helped us weather the storm.
Guthrie: Where will Oregon’s market be in two years?
Pinnick: I see the industry stabilizing as the allure of the Green Rush subsides. There’s more distraction now. California is open, more states are going to come online. The benefit of being one of the first few states into the system is that you get all that attention, but that’s where all those Green Rushers are trying to stake their claim and make their fortune. The ones who are undercapitalized and didn’t have strong business plans are unfortunately starting to fall by the wayside. So, there’s a little bit of consolidation happening inherently. With the diversification of attention to other states, it’s going to be spread out more, so there are going to be less people coming to Oregon, which will ultimately help stabilize. We’re starting to see the pricing structure stabilize a little bit.
My guess, too, is that you’re going to see more and more consolidations within the businesses. You’re going to see better capitalized companies acquiring the less capitalized companies and building a foundation toward a more sustainable business model.