Back to business as usual for pot farm

Timing is everything. It was the worst kind of timing on Oct. 8 when the Nuns Fire raged through the Gordenker Ranch property where SPARC, a San Francisco-based marijuana collective, leases growing acreage. In October, a good percentage of the crop had been picked and stored on site, awaiting transport to East Bay processing facilities before it would be redistributed to SPARC’s four Bay Area and Sonoma County marijuana dispensaries.

“The Nuns Fire damaged 90 percent of everything we grew last year,” said Erich Pearson, owner and CEO of SPARC. Pearson was on the property that night, and remembers waking to the smell of smoke and the orange glow of flames.

The fire burned the entire Gordenker Ranch, over 400 acres, in a matter of six hours – from Nuns Canyon Road to Trinity Road. Over 30 structures burned, including two barns on the SPARC-leased property.

Pearson rushed to warn friends in the area about the fire. When he returned to the property later that morning, he tried to save what he could, firing up generators, watering, and salvaging what was left of the plants growing under the open air trellises, called cold frames. Unfortunately, the heat and smoke damage had been done.

The Gordenker family has insurance to replace the structures burned in the fire, but Pearson and his team have no insurance to replace tools and equipment or the income from plants lost.

He said they were able to recoup some loss by sending the damaged buds off to a lab to be turned into oil. The extraction process filters out undesirable compounds and plant material, resulting in a concentrated oil that can be used for a variety of applications.

And so, charging ahead with the changing seasons, Pearson and his team are picking up just where they left off. They started with brand new seeds in November, since all the seeds saved for replanting were lost in the fire. In May, they had 4,000 plants in various stages of growth, some about waist high and six weeks from flowering. Pearson plans to get two harvests this year.

With tight finances and little work to do over the winter, Pearson regrettably had to lay off most of his employees, but now with new crop underway, they are back up to their regular 20 employees.

From the most mature plants, the female flowers are being picked and sent to the lab for analysis. When a preferred cannabinoid profile (the balance of different chemical compounds for a desired effect) is found, SPARC employees make cuttings from that plant and store the genetic material for the future.

Part of the land SPARC leases used to be an active quarry and Pearson said there is still a lot of work to be done transitioning the parcel from a mining site to an agricultural farm. This includes some removal of invasive species and replanting based on Sonoma County and state quarry reclamation guidelines, as well as a geotechnical analysis, and turning the old quarry hole, which has filled up with water and become a sort of marsh, into a managed water storage pond. As part of the County’s cannabis use permit regulations, they will also have to complete a groundwater use study. Cannabis is under much stricter rules than other ag crops, with deeper setbacks from water sources, etc., said Pearson.

SPARC has resubmitted their use permit application for 43,560 square feet of outdoor cultivation space after withdrawing their application permit post-fire last year to make some corrections. Pearson said he has plans to build greenhouses to replace the cold frames at a later date.

“Erich is a wonderful lessor and great steward of the land and we look forward to years of working with him and slowly rebuilding our ranch,” said Sylvia Gordenker Bernard.