Recreating the circle of life inside Pakalolo

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Pakalolo

The retail store at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

When looking at the history of legal cannabis operations in Alaska, Pakalolo Supply Co. in Fairbanks is undeniably the trailblazer. The huge cultivation and retail operation is owned by Cole Hollister and his sons, Keenan and Tyler Hollister, and the three were the first cannabis licensees and legal cultivators in the state. They also made Alaska’s first legal cannabis sale on Oct. 29, 2016, ushering in a stampede of weed entrepreneurs eager to make their mark in an industry about to explode.

Another thing that sets Pakalolo apart is the Hollisters’ dedication to organic growing. Keenan Hollister explained the complicated and labor-intensive process as he took Alaska Cannabist on a tour of the 15,000-square-foot facility, located in a former warehouse in the railroad industrial area in Fairbanks.

Pakalolo

Marijuana plants grow along with a grass cover crop at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

How does your garden grow?

Pakalolo’s plants are never grown hydroponically because “plants’ roots belong in soil,” according to Keenan Hollister. Since the soil’s composition is vitally important to the health and quality of the plants grown in it, Pakalolo uses a combination of organic and Korean natural farming to create a “living soil.”

“There’s a movement of people using this farming practice all over the country,” he said. “It’s typically done in small grows, home grows or small organic farms. Very few companies are doing it nationwide. I think we’re one of the only ones on this scale that are doing all regenerative practices and living soil.”

The process starts with organic compost purchased at a place out on Eielson Farm Road. In a far corner of the vast cultivation space, piles of compost are mixed with salmon meal, fish bone meal, grass seed, sand, bone meal, perlite, neem seed meal, corn, oats, barley, animal feed, peat, vegan grass compost, and earthworm castings.

“We let it sit in piles and let it cook, basically,” Hollister said. “The result is a living soil that we make ourselves from pretty much all natural, locally sourced ingredients. The only thing not locally sourced is the perlite.”

The resulting soil is put into 2-foot-tall 4-by-4 tubs made out of wooden frames and industrial Tyvek road construction fabric. Perforated PVC pipe along the bottom and sides of the tubs help to aerate the soil, and an Alaska grass mix is planted on top “to add diversity.”

“We’ll come and mow the grass, give it a haircut, and that grass starts to rot into the soil and becomes an easy source of nitrogen,” Hollister said. “When we move it to the next step, we’ll cover it in a top dressing of dry amendments, like fish emulsion, that leach into the soil. We’ll cover that in straw, which will seal the moisture in and kill this layer of grass, and that will become part of the soil.”

Eventually, Pakalolo hopes to get to a “no till” state in which the soil recharges itself and improves over time.

“Nobody comes along and fertilizes the redwood forest or the Amazon rain forest; it just gets regenerated. Leaves drop down, the soil feeds the plants, the plants feed the soil. It’s all part of the circle of life. We’re trying to recreate that as much as we can, inside Pakalolo,” he said.

Mother of invention

Pakalolo

Keenan Hollister talks about selling clones at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

There are several schools of thought when it comes to growing cannabis. Some grow from seed, some like to start each new crop by cutting clones from a mother plant, and others prefer to take their clones from successive generations of a strain. Hollister is firmly in the mother plant camp.

“Having mothers is better,” he said. “Our mothers are all really healthy, and we do grow new moms. This mom isn’t going to be around here forever,” he said, gesturing to a large, robust plant with a stem as thick as a man’s thumb. Her “daughter” plant, slender and much smaller, sat growing in a container in front of her.

“This one’s still Mama right here and this one’s growing,” he said, pointing first to the mother and then to her thriving progeny. “When she’s big and strong, and this one is starting to get weak and we’ve taken most of the clone sites or it’s getting up into the lights, we’ll finish her off and work with this one.” Even after retirement, the mother still nurtures her offspring. Pakalolo staff chop her up, grind up her stem, put her into the compost bin, and make nutrients out of the leftover leaves.

“Nothing leaves our facility, so everything thrown away here means it’s going into nutrients or compost that’s going to eventually feed the plants.”

Pakalolo

Jars containing a variety of fermented extracts used to make Korean Natural Farming herbal nutrients at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Better living through chemistry

Once the freshly cut clones develop roots, they’re planted in 4-inch cups and spend the “veg” state of their development in an upstairs room. It takes a few weeks until they’re sturdy and “ready to be their own plant,” at which point they’re moved downstairs into the main cultivation area. There they get planted in the large tubs, where they bask under banks of lights and constant air flow. The move to the main grow room is a rite of passage of sorts for the plants.

“They go from being a strain batch to being their own individual plant. It gets assigned a plant tag and is tracked individually from then until it’s harvested,” Hollister said. “Each plant is numbered, bar coded and has an RFID tag that state inspectors can scan and collect every tag and make sure that what we say in the computer system is what we physically have. We have to be very dialed in and really keep track and keep organized.”

Throughout their life cycle, the plants are fed with nutrient-enriched water. True to the organic mission of the operation, the nutrient mixtures are made in-house.

Hollister launched into an enthusiastic explanation of the nutrient-making process as he opened a large metal closet filled with large jars of dark, strong-smelling liquid and tubs of ginger root and garlic.

Pakalolo

(from left) Victoria Hollister, Julius Greene and Katie Stredny mix jars of fermented extracts used to make Korean Natural Farming herbal nutrients at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

“Here we have a bunch of natural ingredients which are commonly used in Asian cooking. What we are doing is fermenting and distilling them down into what is called Oriental Herbal Nutrient (aka OHN), which is just a fermented, distilled root extract. It kind of smells like an Asian food restaurant,” Hollister said, unscrewing a cap and releasing a nostril-hair singeing blast of intense aroma. “Basically, that is plant medicine.”

In addition to the OHN, Pakalolo also creates fermented fruit and plant juices.

“For plant juices we use organic kale and spinach that we get in bulk from the Co-op Market, butternut squash and cannabis leaves. For fruit juices we have strawberries, papaya straight from Hawaii, some really nice mangoes, pineapple and blueberries,” he said, adding that they also make a fermented grass juice. “The plant juices provide the growth hormones and all of the building blocks for growth. The fruits are going to have a lot of that stuff but also some of the building blocks of flavor.”

To make the ferments, Pakalolo staff chop up the material and place it in jars with organic sugar. They seal it up, put it in a dry, dark place and wait while the fermentation process extracts the minerals out of the plants. The result is strained until “we come up with this really dark green goo, like a thick syrup, that gets mixed by spoonfuls to gallons and gallons of water.”

Hollister likens Pakalolo’s growing process to “eating at a luxurious buffet.”

“The way that we grow, where the plants share the soil in a big bed and there’s more soil than the plants actually need, they can grow as big as they want to, and they can take as much of they want of the nutrients we’re providing. We’re not force feeding the plants and not cramming them into just one plant in one pot,” Hollister said. “Instead of the way it’s done in hydroponics, where you say, ‘Here’s how much you’re going to eat today,’ we’re making a really, really rich soil with all of the nutrients that they need, and then watering in more nutrients through our fermented plant juices, and they take exactly what they want.”

Pakalolo

Keenan Hollister looks over a flowering room at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Flower power

Once the plant canopy becomes full and the plants are mature and tall enough to start pushing up against the grow lights, they’re moved into several repurposed walk-in coolers for the flowering stage.

“One of the advantages of having the flower room in a former cooler is it’s completely sealed and no light seeps in. It gets pretty hot with the lights, so we had to install air conditioning, exhaust and dehumidification, so we have the right temperature and humidity for the plants all of the time.”

Generally, a plant spends eight to 10 weeks in the flower room but can stay as long as 12 weeks. Deciding when to harvest the flower is based on observing the trichomes — or crystals — on the buds, a process that takes experience and a certain amount of intuition.

“We’ll examine with a jewelers loupe and a microscope. You get in there and you can see that they’re all the right colors in the right percentage. They go from being totally clear little balls on a stem of chemical, basically, and then they get to milky white. As they’re over-finishing they start to turn amber. We want to look for a certain percentage of amber that is done, and a certain percentage of milky white that we feel is just right, and a certain percentage is going to be clear.”

Pakalolo

A bud-laden marijuana plant is harvested at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

Though many growers have a tendency to harvest too early, according to Hollister, there’s also a danger in waiting too long. An unharvested plant at the end of its natural life tends to revert to a hermaphrodite state or start pumping out pollen in an effort to reproduce.

“This plant is very self-aware in preservation. If it gets crazy hot and 100 degrees in here one day, it would maybe potentially freak out and try to have sex, basically,” Hollister said, waving his arms around and acting the part of a distressed cannabis plant. ‘It’s D-Day, it’s nuclear death day, the world is ending! We need to reproduce!”

Your nose knows

When it comes to choosing what strain to buy, Hollister feels many consumers shortchange themselves by focusing on THC content.

“People get hung up on the numbers, and it’s funny, because in alcohol, when you’re picking a glass of wine, you’re not picking it based on what’s the most potent. That would be weird. Nobody goes to a winery and says ‘What’s the strongest batch you have?’”

Hollister believes that the terpenes — organic compounds that give each strain its own flavor and aroma profile — are better indicators of quality.

“Honestly, I think that people should pick the strains they smoke based on the smell,” illustrating his point by asking his visitor to smell three different buds. “This Northern Lights here is going to have some pepper, some fruity berry smells, and it has a pungent skunkiness. Something like this Strawberry Cough is going to be mostly sweetness, and then the Blueberry is skunky and sweet,” Hollister finished, avidly watching for his visitor’s reaction. He smiled like a proud father when the third sample elicited an enthusiastic response.

Pakalolo

Awards and accolades on display at Pakalolo Supply Co. Tuesday afternoon, August 27, 2019. Eric Engman/News-Miner

“See, you smelled three different strains just now and said, ‘Oh yeah, I like this one!’ That means that this is probably the best-suited strain for you,” he said, pointing to the Alaskan Blueberry plant. “Finding strains that are most appealing usually means following your nose. It typically doesn’t do you wrong.”

Pakalolo was voted Alaska’s store of the year at the 2017 and 2018 Cannabis Classic and was voted Fairbanks’ best cannabis retailer in the 2019 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner’s Readers’ Choice awards. The Hollisters recently opened a second store, Pakalolo Oceanside, in Anchorage and have hired former Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office enforcement officer Amanda Stonecipher to provide consulting services to the Alaska cannabis industry. Both stores sell a wide variety of strains in every form — flower, pre-rolls, palm leaf cigars, cartridges, concentrates, edibles, topicals, trim and an assortment of hemp CBD products.

Contact Alaska Cannabist staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7582 or at dchomicz@AlaskaCannabist.com.

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