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Imagine the following scenario: You walk into your favorite dispensary, and you’re immediately bowled over by the sights and mingled smells of cannabis grown throughout Oregon. It all looks tantalizing, but you’re on a mission for a specific kind of locally grown cannabis so you tell the budtender: “I’m looking for something organically sungrown from the Applegate Valley that has lower THC and dominant limonene terpenes with floral notes.”

Rather than looking at you strangely, the friendly staff person responds enthusiastically, “We’ve got just what you’re looking for!”

She takes you to a cannabis selection that is labeled as certifiably grown in the Applegate Valley’s distinctive landscape, soil and growing conditions.

This scenario takes cannabis consumption to the level of locovore-connoisseur. In fact, as the supply of and demand for locally crafted cannabis increases, recreational consumers are developing ever more sophisticated tastes. In the near future, choosing which buds to buy could become a lot like choosing local estate wines, craft beers and ciders. Like wine, locally grown cannabis tastings could become a part of the Southern Oregon experience.

Cannabis appellations

Such a scenario is already playing out in Northern California’s “Emerald Triangle,” where the Mendocino Appellations Project has drafted a map of 11 distinct growing zones, or appellations, within the county. Mendocino County is known as the “Napa of cannabis,” and craft cannaculturists in the area want to distinguish themselves and their products from other growers, particularly Big Ag growers who have been buying up land for large indoor operations.

Californians passed Senate Bill 94 in 2017, which recognizes cannabis as an official commercial crop of the state, and protects the intellectual property rights of cannabis farmers who can demonstrate their strains have unique place-based characteristics. The bill paved the way for growers in Mendocino County and other regions in California to organize, gather data, and establish appellations of origin (AO) similar to designated wine appellations in Oregon, such as the Applegate and Rogue Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVAs).

The California State Department of Food and Agriculture is charged with overseeing a process and criteria for establishing cannabis appellations by 2022, as well as a certification program for licensed cannabis farmers who want to market their products as having additional value because they were grown in a particular appellation. To qualify for AO status in California, the cannabis must be grown outdoors in full sun and planted in native soil.

According to the Cannabis Horticultural Association, “Cannabis appellations might be the single-most important proactive action that small, artisanal, craft cannabis growers can take to carve out a niche in the fast-growing market.”

In Oregon, cannabis appellations were proposed in 2015 by cannabis farmers who wanted to protect their outdoor crops from contamination by neighboring hemp farms. (Male hemp plants can fertilize female marijuana plants, causing the marijuana flower to produce seeds.) Designated cannabis appellations would support regulation of crop boundaries, crop types and production methods.

So far, no legislative measure to create Oregon cannabis appellations, like California’s SB94, has been proposed. However, the Oregon Sungrowers Guild has been focusing efforts on certifying farms that use sustainable, natural growing methods for cannabis. And Oregon’s Craft Cannabis Alliance lobbied successfully last year for the passage of Senate Bill 582, which allows the interstate transport of Oregon-grown cannabis once the federal government stops prosecuting interstate cannabis trade.

These activities indicate that Oregon, especially Southern Oregon where much of Oregon’s cannabis is produced, is poised for a cannabis appellation program. We now have a growing cadre of environmentally conscious farmers whose sungrown cannabis reflects the distinctive climate of Southern Oregon’s “banana belt.” And we have a progressive law that supports marketing Oregon-grown cannabis beyond our state borders.

Cannabis terroir

If Oregon follows California’s lead, cannabis appellations would be defined as specific areas that produce strains possessing consistent characteristics associated with features of that region. The signature strains grown in a particular appellation would have a reputation for quality and would be recognized as maintaining their distinctive identity over time.

An important component of cannabis appellations of origin is the unique character of the strains created by a region’s terroir (pronounced ter-wahr), a French word that translates to “land” or “territory.”

Terroir has long been a key factor in wine-making and marketing, especially since the mid-20th century, when French viticulturalists began emphasizing terroir to set their vintages apart from the growing number of wines imported from California.

The concept of terroir has also been important for marketing cheese, coffee, tea, apples and syrup. (Think Wisconsin cheese, Kona coffee, Darjeeling tea, Washington apples and Vermont maple syrup.)

Terroir includes several distinctive features of a place, including its climate over time (high and low temperatures, sunlight, precipitation, winds, air pressure, humidity), topography (landforms, elevation, slope, exposure) and soil (composition, drainage, microbial activity).

Research has shown that for wine grapes terroir significantly impacts the concentration of terpenes, or aromatic oils. Wine grapes are a perennial vine crop and cannabis is an annual herb; however, mother cannabis plants are cloned and their offspring share the same genetic traits. Therefore, terroir is thought to influence the appearance, aroma, flavor and texture of “estate flower” — cannabis varieties that have been grown outdoors in native soil and have adapted to local environmental conditions over time.

Irrigation, fertilizing, harvesting and curing/processing methods are thought to emphasize or decrease elements of terroir in the final product. Craft cannabis farmers who are interested in terroir use onsite or local resources, such as soil, compost and natural fertilizers, rather than importing them from outside the region.

Cannabis terroir research

Up until now, evidence of the effects of terroir on cannabis has been only anecdotal. However, designating cannabis appellations based on terroir depends on scientific studies that show local terroir significantly affects cannabis characteristics. The legalization of cannabis in Oregon and several other states has spurred such research efforts.

One study on cannabis terroir is underway by Portland State University geology professor John Bershaw and his graduate students. They’re examining whether the unique chemistry of Southern Oregon soils has a significant effect on the chemistry of cannabis plants grown here. Bershaw’s study will inform a larger research effort to better understand cannabis terroir in Southern Oregon.

Bershaw worked with the staff at Alter Farms in Grants Pass to collect soil samples from five cannabis farms, which represented the diversity of native Southern Oregon soils. Each soil was analyzed for its elemental compositions of organic matter and inorganic minerals.

Two of Alter Farms’ clones, Fire Runner and Purple Hindu Kush, were selected for the study, and three plants of each strain were planted in outdoor raised beds, each bed filled with a different soil type.

“Alter Farms is really into the science, and they’re very detail-oriented when it comes to the study methods, which is helpful,” Bershaw said.

In order to comply with federal restrictions, Bershaw and his students were not permitted to handle the cannabis themselves, or bring the cannabis on PSU’s campus. Alter Farms staff made sure growing methods, watering regimens, and the production process stayed consistent across all of the plants in the study, and they took observational notes on physical characteristics of the plants throughout last year’s growing season.

Cured flower samples from the six study plants were sent to Aurora Innovations lab in Eugene for a complex analysis of cannabinoid and terpene concentrations, as well as measurements of major elements (such as nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus) and trace elements (such as iron, manganese, boron, copper, iodine and zinc).

Analysis of the study findings is underway, and results will be available in June, Bershaw said.

“There are so many things you could ask regarding cannabis terroir, but we’re only looking at whether or not there is a correlation between the chemistry of plants and the soil they are grown in,” Bershaw said.

The uniqueness of soils in different parts of Southern Oregon may be an important factor for establishing cannabis appellations, along with other environmental influences. In addition, local crop varieties, agricultural practices and quality standards set for specific growing regions could play a role in defining cannabis appellations.

Time will tell how cannabis appellations in Oregon will be mapped and marketed. In the meantime, discussion about Southern Oregon’s unique terroir, and how it distinguishes locally grown cannabis from others, provides opportunities for consumers to become more informed about where their weed comes from, who grew it and how.

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