The de facto founder of the light-deprivation greenhouse industry is now in position to help establish industry standards that will set the stage for cannabis to remake the world.
My six-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles to Grass Valley was punctuated by a series of steadily intensifying rainstorms that bade poorly for the next day’s photo shoot of Jonathan Valdman, founder of Forever Flowering Greenhouses and ardent advocate for organically grown outdoor cannabis, the innovative process of light deprivation, and a system of agrarian and cultural sustainability called permaculture. The inclement weather could not sustain itself, however. I woke to crisp blue skies and billowing white clouds, and the shoot took place as planned in a variety of stunning locations around the history-rich foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Mostly discreet cannabis farming has proliferated there in recent years, and now reaps an estimated $1 billion in revenue amidst a population that doesn’t even break 100,000. That kind of money makes a big difference in a local economy, even if not all the cash makes it into the ecosystem. Despite—or because of—the green rush, Nevada County officials uphold a perverse hostility about the positive influences of weed in their community and have banned all medical marijuana dispensaries. It’s a pyrrhic victory nonetheless: There’s plenty of bud to go around, and the region pulsates with appreciation for the benefits the miraculous plant has brought as well as for a quality of life that can still be had a mere hour from California’s state capital.
After the shoot, I sat with Valdman in the main building of Forever Flowering’s multi-acre site, which the company occupied two and a half years ago, to talk about his unorthodox life, his flourishing business, and his utter immersion in the past, present, and future of cannabis. It only takes a day accompanying him around local towns to realize practically everyone in the area knows him. A handsome, laid-back guy’s guy in his early 40s who previously had dreads to his waist and now sports a pulled-back pony and a sartorial style one might call Nevada City rustic—hip in a way that rejects the label—Valdman has twenty strong years of professional cannabism under his belt and wears his celebrity status comfortably.
“I’m a second-generation cannabis grower and smoker,” he said, by which he means “My parents both smoked and had a couple of plants in the backyard, and my entire life has been supported by cannabis in one way or another.”
A Southern California native, Valdman became a professional cannabis cultivator as soon as he was legally able to do so. “I started growing when California passed Prop 215 in 1996,” he said. “I was living here in Nevada County and also in Tahoe, and spent a lot of time growing indoors in soil and also in a warehouse down in Oakland when they passed their 144-plant ordinance.”
He founded Forever Flowering in 2006. The determinative ten years leading up to its launch was spent on a nomadic journey of self-discovery during which Valdman educated himself about permaculture and the regenerative nature of the plant. He also experienced a series of related epiphanies that generated a vision of what he wanted to accomplish with his life and the role he believed he was destined to play in the vast and unprecedented experiment that is the creation of a robust and ecologically responsible cannabis industry. That vision is now a tangible reality.
He shares custody of a young daughter he clearly adores, and a friend recently dubbed him a “perennial bachelor.” But as unsettled as some parts of a his life may be, he has found—or more appropriately, created for himself—a sweet spot in Nevada County, where structure in the literal form of the Forever Flowering light-deprivation greenhouse business has provided him a foundation from which to put into play his much grander plans. As thoughtful as he is productive—and make no mistake, Valdman’s seeming nonchalance belies a perpetual motion illustrated by driving like a bat out of hell—his ability to articulate his ideas is impressive. Get him on a roll, and before you know it a beautiful blueprint for the future of mankind is laid out before you—built on cannabis, the game-changing potential of hemp, and the system of permaculture.
“Permaculture stands for permanent agriculture,” explained Valdman. “It’s a term coined [in the late 1970s] by [Australian academics] Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, that has become a global phenomenon the opposite of traditional agriculture, which tends to degrade the planet by mono-cropping the same crops over and over until they lose layers of topsoil. Permaculture is regenerative and allows you to bring land back to life and create food forests and systems where, for instance, the roof of your house catches rainwater that’s then put back into your garden. It creates systems consistent with a living landscape and is actually more than being sustainable, which has become as overused a word as organic at this point and which really means that we’re trying to not do any worse than how we’re doing right now, meaning we’ll be able to just coast along right where we are.
“The idea behind regeneration,” he continued, “is to take areas and make them better than how we found them. That’s a huge thing that I see cannabis making possible, because in the form of hemp it is actually regenerative to the earth. I was talking to these folks who are looking at a project in South Africa in which they will grow hemp and from that hemp make lumber, and then use that lumber to rebuild towns and villages that have been crumbling since apartheid, regenerating not only the planet but actual communities and civilizations.”
The route to this revolution of scale, contends Valdman, is via business, which he said is the leading determinative force for change in the world. “Throughout history,” he said, “different power structures have determined why things happened or didn’t happen. For example, religion ruled the world for centuries, but at this point in time business defines why things happen. That means that, ultimately, it’s the consumer who controls everything. You can give them whatever you want, but if they’re not going to buy it you have no reason to make it anymore. So it really comes down to the consumer being able to change the way things happen on the planet.”
Needless to say, Valdman wants consumers to embrace cannabis as a global catalyst for change. He also recognizes work needs to be done. “Most people are focused on THC and CBD,” he said, “but once we start focusing on hemp with the textile and fuel industries, and in nutrition and biofuels, that’s when we’re going to see a revolution occur, because there is not much that hemp can’t do. You can even make plastic out of hemp-based polymers.”
Such a scenario would appear to argue for creating an enlightened consumer-base. “Absolutely,” he agreed, “but consumers aren’t being given the option because prohibition forced cannabis and hemp out of the commercial market for so long that a lot of people don’t even know that they are the same thing. So it’s really a process of reeducation.”
Valdman sees this process of reeducation as one of many responsibilities facing the cannabis industry and people, like him, who have established businesses in it. Determined to contribute substantially in a variety of ways, he has put into action several initiatives designed to do just that. They include his participation in local politics to bring cannabis-friendly regulation to Nevada County; his founding of Greening Corporate Cannabis, a member-participatory group that embraces “the idea of bringing sustainability into the conversation”; his forward-looking work with FOCUS (Foundation for Cannabis Unified Standards); and, of course, his business, Forever Flowering, which he conceptualized years ago on a beach in Kawaii, Hawaii, and which today embodies the permaculture philosophy that now informs his life’s work.
So what, exactly, is light deprivation, and why has it spawned a growing number of Forever Flowering competitors over the past ten years? The company’s website defines light dep as “the ability to control the amount of hours of light, or photoperiod, that your plant is receiving.” For cannabis in particular, light dep offers farmers a way to harness the unequaled energy of the sun year-round, in any environment.
Valdman—who built the first automated canopy greenhouse on property he still lives on today—explained, “Light deprivation really comes out of the chrysanthemum and poinsettia industry, but the acceptable light levels are totally different in that genre of cultivation. The mechanics are mostly the same, but the difference for cannabis is in the blackout system, the corners and the seals, because you’re looking to eliminate light, but not necessarily all light.
“The human eye sees more light than a plant does,” he added. “When there are zero lumens of light we can still seem, but a plant thinks that it’s dark. The flowering cycle of cannabis is controlled by the number of hours of darkness that it has, so by giving it a certain number of hours of darkness and light, you tell the plant when you want it to flower.
“Outdoors,” he continued, “that happens when the sun cycle changes as we move into fall, and [increased hours of darkness] communicates to the plant that it’s time to start going into flower to create seed to continue its species. The accepted flowering cycle is twelve hours of lightness and twelve hours of darkness, which is what the majority of people grow with. Indoors, you do that by turning lights on and off with a timer. But with a greenhouse, we accomplish that by shutting the light out so that in the summertime, when there are sixteen or seventeen hours of light—depending on how north you are—you may close the blackout curtain to get darkness from seven at night until seven in the morning, which triggers the plant to go into flowering. That’s how you’re able to get the exact same amount of crops in a light-dep greenhouse as you are in an indoor scene.”
The main difference between growing indoors and outdoors is the amount of energy consumed. In that regard, Valdman—who grew cannabis indoors for many years—said indoor cannot begin to compete with outdoor growing, which harnesses the complete spectrum of the sun’s light for free. Despite the free source of energy, most people in the industry grew indoors for years because it was illegal to grow at all and because light-dep had a lousy reputation.
“For the longest time outdoor weed had a bad name because of the subpar conditions in which people were forced to grow,” he recalls. “Light-dep had an even worse reputation because people didn’t know how to control the environment; they were regularly getting really moldy buds that weren’t good at all. So indoor was the way everyone was going, even though it was clear that it wasn’t going to be a sustainable model because of the amount of product that was going to be needed and because of the carbon footprint that was being made from all the indoor cultivation.
It was simple math. So many people were going to start growing that the exponential amount of energy they would necessarily consume was going to be an environmental travesty.”
Valdman experimented with makeshift light-dep greenhouses, which people still do to this day, but he knew the ultimate solution lay in developing automated systems that could be scaled to meet the demands of commercial farmers of all sizes. The first prototype constructed on his property was just the beginning of a years-long learning process that culminated in the superior product he produces today, which can meet the requirements of any budget and almost any environmental condition.
“We just sold a greenhouse that is just under an acre that is going to Hawaii, which required extra engineering for hurricanes,” he said. The cost of that greenhouse was considerable, however. “I think it’s around $550,000, and that’s just for the equipment. It’s also costing $30,000 or $40,000 to have it delivered.” The rule of thumb is to add half the cost of the equipment for installation and another half to get up and running, meaning the Hawaii project will require $1 million to realize its first harvest.
“But in that situation, you’re growing an acre of cannabis for five cycles a year, and your overhead is drastically low,” said Valdman. “You can make your investment back in your first cycle, three months, and you can have a similar three-month return with any size greenhouse.” Combine that sort of return with farmers looking to cut energy-consumption costs in order to stay competitive in a growing industry, and it’s no wonder Valdman’s business is increasing by 35 percent year over year—not just in the number of units sold, but also in the size of orders.
“When we sell an acre-size greenhouse, we just did 125 percent of last year’s revenue in one sale,” he said. “So that one sale made our company grow exponentially. So now we’re doing sales that are in the hundreds of thousands when we used to do sales that were $30,000 to $90,000, or maybe get one that was $150,000 or something. It’s a total game-changer, and now we’re starting to get more of those.”
Forever Flowering offers three basic sizes of light-dep greenhouses, but the ability for people to customize is practically endless, limited only by the legal restrictions states place on cannabis grows. That said, constant innovation and attention to customers’ needs is a priority for Valdman and his capable staff that only numbers a half-dozen or so. Things are going so smoothly, in fact, that Valdman has been able to shift focus to his other cannabis industry passion: FOCUS.
Valdman’s participation in FOCUS, the Foundation for Cannabis Unified Standards, resulted from a merger of two organizations with similar goals. After founding Greening Corporate Cannabis (GCC) in December 2014 with “the idea of bringing sustainability into the conversation,” Valdman brought some likeminded industry leaders into the fold and coordinated a few panels at industry events. Then he met Lezli Engelking, a former senior sales rep for Eli Lily and the founder of Bloom Phoenix, the first medical marijuana dispensary to open in Phoenix. Concerned the industry had no established standards with which to pursue a nationwide growth strategy, she founded FOCUS to begin the work of creating standards that will be accepted by ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and ultimately iSO (International Organization for Standardization).
“GCC merged with FOCUS to work on developing standards to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint,” said Valdman. “There are currently about eighty participants and six to eight of us that are in the upper branches of [the organization]. We are working at creating these standards, rolling out the initial pilot program at the beginning of the year and continuing to improve upon it over the following years.
“I love being part of where FOCUS is going,” he added. “Part of my goal is to make the standards we’re putting together accepted globally, because if no one accepts your standards it really doesn’t matter.”
The desire to put his talents toward developing industry standards that have a global impact is consistent with Valdman’s proclivity to take the road less traveled, but it is also in harmony with his passionate belief that the strength of the cannabis community is its unique capacity for cooperation on a historic scale.
“Co-branding and collaboration is one of the industry’s natural safeguards,” he said. “We all have our networks of people that we work with, and by working together we can construct larger networks and social tribes that will be able to stand up to the large corporations that are basically empty because they are just based on the bottom line.”
That does not mean Valdman is against “big money” coming into the industry. “Money is just energy, and if we are able to take that energy and get it into a place where we are able to distribute this lifestyle, this vision and idea on a global level, it’s going to change like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
Indeed, nothing seems to excite him more than knowing he is part of something truly unique in the annals of history. “None of this has ever been done,” he said. “We’re talking about a global phenomenon. We’re talking about something we’ve never seen the likes of before.”
Light deprivation, or “light dep,” is the ability to control the amount of hours of light, or photoperiod, a plant receives. Typically done indoors by turning grow lights on and off, in a greenhouse light dep is accomplished by blocking sunlight with blackout fabrics. This gives the grower the ability to control the flowering cycle of a plant under natural lighting.
Legendary horticulturist and author Ed Rosenthal encourages outdoor gardeners to employ light deprivation techniques for three reasons:
- Exposure to UVB light increases THC production.
- Harvest happens before cooler, damper fall weather sets in.
- Plants are harvested before law enforcement typically comes around.
More wisdom from Ed can be found at EdRosenthal.com.
The Breathable Wall
Tested at less than 5 percent air restriction, the Breathable Wall is the perfect addition when full airflow and no light are required. When used in a greenhouse in conjunction with a fan, the Breathable Wall eliminates heat and humidity while blackout tarps are closed. See more at: ForeverFlowering.net/breathable-wall/#sthash.OFdYR64e.dpuf
Forever Flowering Greenhouses:
Available Widths 16’ and 20’
- Meets NGMA engineering standards.
- Non-code structure.
- Great for beginning growers.
- 16’ wide is easiest for pulling blackout tarps over the top.
- 20’ wide can be set up for pulling blackout tarps inside or over the top.
- Quick and easy installation and takedown.
Available Widths 24’ and 30’
- Meets NGMA engineering standards.
- With the optional ridge vent and roll-up sidewalls, this structure can cool passively.
- Designed for added snow and wind loads.
- Internal manual blackout options.
- Available with FFG’s AutoFlowerer auto light-deprivation kit with manual override.
- Start with a basic package and upgrade at any time.
- Comparable to a Cold Frame in price, but with many more options to expand.
Available widths 18’, 24’, 30’, and 42’
- Meets NGMA engineering standards.
- Custom-engineered for high snow and wind loads.
- Ideal for commercial applications with gutter-connected options.
- Considered a “dry house” due to built-in condensate controls.
- With available ridge vent and side vents, this structure can cool passively.
- Glazed with polycarbonate, making for a more secure structure.
- Side and end walls can be glazed with sheet metal and roof glazed in polycarbonate to create a “stealth greenhouse.”
- Available with FFG’s AutoFlowerer automated light-deprivation kit with manual override.
- Can be glazed with sheet metal and insulated, creating a connected processing facility, head house, office, or warehouse.
More information available at ForeverFlowering.net.
FOCUS (Foundation of Cannabis United Standards)
FOCUS follows the American National Standards Institute Essential Guidelines to ensure impartiality and transparency in the standards-development process. The organization’s goal is to create standards suitable for accreditation and adoption into both state and federal regulations. The group develops comprehensive, international, third-party, voluntary-consensus standards for the cannabis industry in the following areas:
Cultivators must demonstrate management responsibility, worker training, production planning, use of propagation material, soil management, irrigation, fertilizer use, pest management, traceability, security, product testing, equipment management, waste management, harvest practices, product handling, and worker health and safety.
Retail, Marketing & Patient Care
Retail and dispensary operations must demonstrate management responsibility, worker training, worker practices, cleaning and sanitation, compliant facility operations, patient and consumer procedures, record keeping, traceability and recall, product testing, product safety, product transfers, pest management, security, waste management, product storage, formulas, packaging and labeling, transportation, and worker health and safety.
Processors must demonstrate management responsibility, worker training and safety, worker practices, sanitary facilities, product safety plans, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans, water quality, pest management, concentrated production procedures, traceability, product security, product and raw materials testing, production equipment, waste management, product storage, packaging and labeling, transportation, and worker health and safety.
Producers must demonstrate management responsibility, worker training, worker practices, cleaning and sanitation, product safety plan, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points plans, water quality, pest management, production procedures, traceability, product security, product and raw materials testing, allergens, production equipment, waste management, product storage, formulas, packaging and labeling, transportation, and worker health and safety.
Any cannabis operation including cultivation, extraction, infusion, and retail stores/dispensaries must consistently meet security requirements in the areas of management responsibilities, risk management assessment, physical security, dynamic entry, cash management, product control, alarms, video, transportation procedures, training and background checks, and emergency procedures.
Labs must provide guidance for management responsibilities, worker training and credentials, laboratory environment, equipment and facilities, quality control, record keeping and reporting, lab methodologies, complaints management, conflict of interest, security and access, storage, and worker health and safety.
Sustainability topics include ecosystem management, water conservation, energy conservation, pesticide (if used) phase-out, carbon footprint reduction, reuse, recycling, composting, sustainable sourcing, fair labor practices, worker safety, social sustainability, crisis management, and business viability including self-assessments, insurance, licenses, internal controls, and advertising.
Packaging & Labeling
The standards provide detailed guidance about establishing product specifications, batch processes, yield calculations, rejected-product control, labeling protocols, edible-products labeling, transportation, exit packages, and a variety of packaging approaches including child-proof, tamper-proof, and tamper-evident.
Visit FOCUSstandards.org for more information.