Discover more from Big Sky Chat House
Growing marijuana with raw fish and bananas: 5 Questions for Dave Ventura of Borealis Natural Gardens
Plus, the inaugural installment of the "Montana Song of the Week."
Welcome to Big Sky Chat House— a newsletter about movers and shakers in Montana.
If you found this email in your Promotions folder, please move it to your Primary inbox. That will make it easier to find down the road, and teach Gmail to send it to other subscribers’ Primary inboxes as well. Thanks!
Ahoy, readers of the Chat House! I hope you’re relishing all of the joys of Second Winter.
I’m so thrilled to share this interview with Dave Ventura, co-owner of Borealis Natural Gardens, with you. But before we dive into that, we’re gonna try something new…
These days, I’m constantly stumbling across Montana-based musicians and bands that knock my socks off: terrific songwriters, brilliant vocalists and killer drummers, epic guitar shredders and bat-shit crazy weirdo rappers, bold experimentalists and more. The whole nine yards.
Moving forward, you’ll see a brief blurb about a single song at the top of each newsletter. Whenever possible, I’ll include a link to the artist’s Bandcamp page, so you can throw them a few bucks, if you’re so inclined.
Know an artist that you think would be a great fit? Comfortable with shameless self-promotion yourself? Get at me. email@example.com
So, without further ado, here’s our inaugural song of the week!
Montana Song of the Week
Throughout the Fake Flower EP (out now on Anything Bagel Records), the St. Ignatius-based musician Jesse Hadden couples their rich voice with a wide array of synthesizers and drum machines to create sumptuous, down-tempo songs that embrace elements of off-kilter pop and R&B.
Standout track “Another Place” begins with a rolling synth line that crashes, rhythmically, like a wave. Soon, a skittering drum machine, pulsing bass figure and bright, unexpected jabs of horns enter the mix. With just a few ingredients, Hadden creates a vivid, lurching sonic stew that leaves me feeling unmoored and floating every time I hear it. In that regard, it reminds me a bit of this dreamy low-key banger.
“Another Place” conversely offers the project’s most insistent ear worm of a chorus, a simple melody sung in a bold yet melancholy tone. While the ‘another place’ that Hadden alludes to remains a mystery by the song’s end, they’ve nonetheless succeeded in taking us on a beautiful, heady journey.
Alright, let’s talk weed.
I first met Dave and James on a reporting trip to the Flathead Valley last summer. Beyond their passion for cannabis cultivation, I was struck by their dedication to maintaining a rigorous life-work balance: these guys work hard, and also make time to savor all of the recreation that Montana has to offer.
Their business, Borealis Natural Gardens, in Olney, occupies a rare position in the Montana cannabis industry. For one, Dave and Ryan don’t have their own storefront—they simply wholesale their cannabis flower to other businesses. But it’s their approach to cultivation and sustainability that I find most exciting.
Borealis embraces some of the tenets of the Korean Natural Farming (KNF) technique in order to limit their waste: most notably, they ferment leftover food scraps—from sushi to melons—into a “bloom ferment” liquid that they feed to their plants. They compost harvested cannabis plants into their soil beds, and have taken steps to eliminate their wastewater.
If you’re wondering if these funky inputs and atypical growing methods detract from the end product, the answer is hell no: Borealis’ flower ranks among the most flavorful and enjoyable I’ve tried in Montana.
Read on to learn more about Borealis’ approach to cultivation, their take on the market writ large and the strains they love to grow.
Max: Dave, can you talk a bit about the farming techniques that you employ, and how they're different from a conventional cannabis grow?
Dave Ventura: We are a Korean Natural Farming-focused indoor cultivation facility. We grow in living soil.
Although we follow a lot of the recipes and concepts of Master Cho, we don’t follow traditional KNF. What we follow is called Modern Natural Farming. It was developed by a guy that goes by The World's Last Hope, and it's a cannabis-specific version of KNF.
Man, I wish that was my name.
In an ideal scenario, you can gather everything for free. For example, we get the scraps from the sushi store when they trim off their choice cuts, and we ferment the fish.
Most indoor cannabis farms typically use salt-based synthetic fertilizers. With Korean Natural Farming, we can give [the plants] a bioavailable food source without using salt-based synthetics. It's better for the earth. It produces a higher quality cannabis and cleaner cannabis.
The soil is very, very nutrient dense and we're constantly adding to it and keeping the microbe populations in the soil. We harvest our own indigenous microbes by putting rice out in the woods—or wherever there's good microbe life—and then bringing that back and colonizing the beds with it.
[With] living soil, there’s a focus on feeding the soil, not the plant, and keeping the soil really healthy. And through the microbial life in the soil, the plant is gonna have what it needs. The KNF extra inputs are basically an extra boost.
Beyond the raw fish, what other KNF inputs do you use?
Bananas are super high in potassium, and all flowering plants need a lot of potassium. It's pretty easy to go to a store and get cheap or sometimes free bananas, the ones that people don’t want—the brown, nasty ones. Those are fine for what we're doing.
[When we started], we actually shared a property with our friend who is an organic farmer, Ted Wycall of North Shore Farms. He would be throwing away cucumbers, which are really high in silica. Squash is really good. It's very high in all the things that flowers and plants need. Magnesium, B vitamins, potassium. We source things from all over.
For some of our bloom fermented fruit, we sometimes buy specialty organic things from the grocery store, like melons and stuff that doesn't really grow much around here.
It begs the question: what does your grow facility smell like?
The big misconception is that ferments smell bad. Most of them smell like syrup. You're taking something and cutting it with brown sugar to start the fermentation process. So what you end up basically looks like maple syrup. The fish smells like a sweet syrupy fish sauce, for example.
One of the more stronger smells that we rely pretty heavily on is called OHN, or Oriental Herbal Nutrients. It's a tincture of medicinal herbs and roots: basil, rosemary, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, stuff like that. Whenever you spray it, it smells really good.
If I'm understanding correctly, KNF ferments don’t go directly into the soil. Is that right?
With the KNF inputs, like your fermented banana or your fermented cannabis leaves, once a week we'll [spray] a foliar feed up until the plants develop flowers. You don't want to spray anything on flowering plants. But the first two weeks or so when they're basically in a vegetative state, it's safe to spray KNF stuff on the plants. Most of this stuff is actually perfectly fine to eat, it's human consumable.
We'll also do a soil drench of this stuff once a week. So we mix a specified amount into a reservoir, then go in with the watering wand and water it into every bed.
After every run, we get a soil test from a lab that [shows] what is available to the plant in that soil. And so we'll amend that soil after every run to balance it out and with single source rock minerals. You could use gypsum, for example, if your calcium was low. If your magnesium was low, you might use Epsom salt. You're top dressing that—throwing a specified amount on every bed—and the microbes and the worms and the insects will break it down.
Beyond saving money, does your process have other incentives?
Environmentally speaking, we're not producing waste. We're closing loops in the system. We're not producing any wastewater, but we're also not producing much cannabis waste. The stems can be dried and chipped and added as a mulch to the soil and put back into the system. The leaves can be fermented or top dressed and put back into the system. Essentially, everything that plant gobbled up ends up in the leaves, and instead of just throwing that away, you just add it right back in.
Theoretically, our soil can probably be reused indefinitely forever. That is the goal.
We're also not going through plastic jugs [of water-based nutrients]. Our nutrients are stored in mason jars in a fridge, and they're very, very highly concentrated.
It seems like shops tend to highlight strains with high amounts of THC in Montana (and in other states’ markets). What do you think about that?
It’s like if alcohol just became legal and people wanted to buy Everclear instead of fine wine or craft beer. It's a [young] market in Montana. It's evolving. Unfortunately for guys like us, it kind of limits some of the genetics we can grow, because we have to sell weed. We can't just be a fun project.
What are some strains you’re hyped on right now?
We put a very strong focus on unique genetics. We try to source things that nobody else has in the state.
We have a strain called Bubba Diagonal. It's a cross of a bunch of old-school strains. It's complex. It's got spice, it's got cherry, it's got fuel; it’s not just a one-tone thing. The one we're most excited to drop is called Donny Burger #61.
We don't want to just have what everybody else has. There's no point. It’s not something that's needed in the market.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking to try Borealis’ flower for yourself? A handful of shops around the state carry their products:
Greenhouse Farmacy (Missoula), Sensicare (Billings), Ember (Columbia Falls), Puffin (Whitefish), Dire Need (Whitefish), King Garden Industries (Columbia Falls) and Preem (opening soon in Helena).
One more thing (or two)…
Marijuana drama is afoot in Helena, and I’ve been fortunate to cover some of it for Montana Free Press.
Last Friday, state Senator Keith Regier (R-Kalispell) introduced a bill to completely eliminate the recreational cannabis market in Montana, reversing the state’s 2020 vote to legalize (which passed on a margin of 57-43). His bill would also raise taxes on medical marijuana fivefold and put a bold cap on marijuana potency.
Lawmakers recently tabled a separate bill to prohibit nearly all marijuana advertising in Montana.
Thanks so much for being here. We’ll see you next week! In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.