Two Hours* with Mason Walker of East Fork Cultivars

Sometimes life leads you to cool things. Case in point: the time I got to visit East Fork Cultivars in Takilma, Oregon. Southern Oregon is about four hours (ahem, south) of Portland and since I’ve been reporting on the area for Southern Oregon Good Herb,  I thought I needed to go down and check the scene out for myself.

When I say this is out in the country, believe me. I think I passed some sort of domesticated bulls grazing in a small pasture. When I arrive I am greeted by a sign that says “East Fork Ranch” – and I soon learn, from Mason Walker, East Fork Cultivars, CEO, that the land was home to a llama breeding ranch before they purchased it in 2016. That’s why you’ll see a llama logo in their branding – it’s a nod to the ranch’s history. 

East Fork Cultivars is named because of their location; they are on the east fork of the Illinois River. The nine-acre property is surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains of California and about four miles from the state line. You can see Hope Mountain straight on from the farm, which Mason calls their deity.  I have to agree, it’s a pretty remarkable landscape. 

Mason tours me all around, it’s very apparent from the get-go that there’s much to say about cannabis and all the different facets of the industry. Farming, finances, compliance, politics, social justice, the market. This is a serious operation in an intensely fast-moving industry. Mason was asked to take on the job after a traveling break from years of working at the Portland Business Journal. He is now immersed in the life – spending about 25 percent of his time on the farm, and the rest out of the company’s office in Portland.

A peek inside East Fork Cultivars’ work space.

There are six people on their farm team – who are full-time with a minimum salary of $40K, something that Mason says is really important for the company to be doing in the southern Oregon area that has seen so much generational poverty. Aside from him, the Portland team includes a full-time education director responsible for outreach, a sales director and one of the founders, Nathan. Nathan and his brother Aaron started growing cannabis for CBD to help their brother who suffered from epilepsy. Mason is one of five owners of the company, who all live in Oregon. They started with less than $500K and reinvested whatever cash they earned back into the business. As a result, there have been no dividends to the partners – yet – as they are building the farm out for the future. 

In 2017, East Fork Cultivars harvested 3,300 pounds of cannabis on their property. That’s untrimmed flower, raw cannabis, aka sellable product. It was three times larger than their first year. Every 15-pound increment has to be tested by a state-approved lab for pesticides, potency and water content. Recently, the company decided to take distributing back into their own hands. All of their product is shipped to Portland and then distributed from their location there. Mason says a vast majority will go to processors – where their products will be co-branded. 

The business end is complicated. Mason told me about a phenomenon called “canna-gouging” – which means how it sounds. Service providers inflate their prices because they know they can since many companies refuse to do business with those in the cannabis industry.  Professionals in the legal, accounting and security industries are guilty of this. And it’s at every turn. That said, most established cannabusinesses in Oregon now have a bank account with Salem-based Maps Credit Union. Though, Mason says, his company pays $500 a month just to have a checking account. Not only that, you can’t do electronic transfers or ACH. To pay another vendor, you have to call someone up at Maps and request a transfer of money to the party that you owe.

We also talked rules – and there are a ton of them. For one, all visitors to the farm must sign in and wear a badge. There is no consumption of alcohol or cannabis on site, there has to be a designated area away from all production for such consumption, which is a bummer for those afternoons you just want to enjoy a beer on the deck. They were required by the state to install a security system that involves multiple cameras and cost $50K. The OLCC, which regulates cannabis in Oregon, is sharpening their teeth, Mason says. “There are severe penalties for little infractions. I’m a rule follower and it’s so hard to follow the rules,” he says, shaking his head. That’s because they are tough.

Though they aren’t able to get U.S. organic certified, Mason says they are right at that threshold in certain areas. Their aim is to use fewer sprays, less water (they use only 4-5 percent of their allotted water because of a drip irrigation system they installed), and less overall energy to grow healthy plants.

And there’s a lot involved. Take, for example, pests. The Hemp Russet Mites, which can be very difficult to detect and control are the biggest problem. Mason tells me that farmers in southern Oregon speak about mites in two ways — they either confidently boast that they never have mite problems (highly unlikely), or they desperately seek advice from any and everyone that might help stop the little buggers from destroying their crop. His compliance person spends half her time looking at the underside of leaves, counting the number and types of bugs and then IDing them. “If you get infested they can wipe out your entire crop.” The other half of her job? Keeping up with the state’s regulations and staying compliant. 

East Fork Cultivars holds a Tier II license – which is the largest producer license you can obtain in the state. They produce 100 percent sun-grown cannabis. They have three separate plots for the three products they sell – all CBD-focused, with varying degrees of THC. The plot set-up is inspired by a vineyard aesthetic. They harvest 40,000 square feet of “mature canopy” – divided into three areas by cannaboid ration. The first are CBD dominant, the second have a couple percentages of THC and the third is a one-to-one ratio of THC to CBD. The pre-rolls are sold in those three categories and are labeled by the effect such as “creative” or “relax.” 

When we’re walking around the farm, we pass a large pile of charcoal, which I learn are the cannabis stems kilned down to eventually use in the soil. 

Cannabis stems get burned down in a kiln and then redistributed in the soil.

And while a vast majority of the industry uses clones, Mason says there are many downsides to using them – including pest management. As it turns out when you grow a plant with a seed, its stems are stronger and more vigorous and they are more pest resistant. However, clones are favored by many because it’s easier to grow. The strain has better repeatability. East Fork is working specifically on developing seeds that are more stable and is considering buying testing equipment so they can determine inhouse if a seed is feminized more early on in the growing process. They have a room dedicated to this.

Cultivating strong seeds.

They have 15 strains in their production count – 90 percent of what they grow will be included in that 15. The others will be different varieties for experimentation. Ringo’s Gift is the top-selling strain and currently, they have more demand than supply – a good place to be considering the saturated market in Oregon. He says the average price for wholesalers/producers is $300 a pound. But for retailers (meaning selling to dispensaries), the average price is $1K a pound. “We want to sell more in that channel,” Mason says, adding he could sell out his flower this month if he decided to sell to wholesalers/producers. “That’s [retailers] a slower channel, but I want to keep more of our product available, in case.” 

This year, the farm is going to start growing hemp. So while cannabis is bred for flower production, hemp is bred for biomass and seed production. “The paradigm is shifting because of CBD,” Mason says. And while Mason jokes that CBD is the latest fad supplement, he knows better. “Oregon will be growing a massive amount of hemp,” he says, adding that it won’t be long before the U.S. is the largest producer of the plant. Hemp, according to the federal government, is defined as cannabis that tests .3 percent or less of THC. But the kicker? Hemp can be sold nationally, while cannabis can only be sold statewide.

I’m happy to see a “Black Lives Matter” sign leaning against one of the buildings on the farm – Mason says the company has a three-pronged mission: providing access to CBD rich cannabis and different varieties and access to medical research for breeding work in an effort to create a diversity for targeted medicine. In addition, providing high quality CBD at a low price so more people in need can gain access (they donate flower to Panacea, a dispensary in NE Portland that has a Free Medicine Program for OMMP patients and gives its profits to social justice); sustainability – using the platform and attention they have already received to develop more sustainable ways to grow cannabis. “We treat this like a living laboratory and that’s our guiding light.”; And social justice, with a focus on restorative justice as it pertains to the War on Drugs, which as white people in the cannabis industry, we have an obligation to make right. “We definitely know it’s our responsibility to work to fix part of that message. We are interested in putting our money where our mouths are, working for record expungement and more opportunities for those communities.” This could move in many directions, including agricultural job training and raising funds for POC entrepreneurs who want to break into the industry or expand. He points to Oregon’s decision to allow for an unlimited number of licenses in the state, which creates a lower access to entry. “Oregon did that on purpose,” he says, which is partly responsible for the current saturated state of the market. 

This is always good to see.

I felt like I could have kept asking Mason questions all afternoon but it was a Saturday and my head was already spinning. I left with a handful of pre-rolls, a llama pin and some stickers.  He wanted to make his marketing guy proud. I told Mason I needed to go get a beer to absorb all of the information he shared. And that’s what I did. 

 

*Big thanks to Mason Walker for his time and generosity. For the record, I spent less than two hours with him, but I think it was more time than either one of us expected. When I asked him if I could take photos, he said I could take photos of anything and that transparency in what they do is a value their company holds. 

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