Rugged Alps roll into thundering waves along the wild Kaikoura Coast in Marlborough, New Zealand. I stand in a field high above the southern coast of the Pacific Ocean, inhaling deeply; The sweet pungent scent of sunny hemp and crisp ocean air surrounds me. Suddenly an overwhelming sense of déjà vu hit me – as if I’d been here before.
I’m on a mission to visit Kēkerengū, the growth operation of Puro, the largest licensed medical cannabis grower in New Zealand. Founded in 2018, Puro is part of an exclusive international group of large scale commercial farmers using organic farming methods. Tiffany Tompkins of Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) is also on the tour. As CEO, her mission, she says, is to help OANZ members, including Puro, work collaboratively towards organic policies that benefit the health of New Zealand’s people, communities, environment and economy.
Kēkerengū is roughly the exact distance from the equator to Humboldt County but along southern latitudes, explains Winston MacFarlane, site manager for Puro. Therefore, the same land that makes the Emerald Triangle grows some of the best cannabis in the world can also be found here.
Kēkerengū has been the home of the Macfarlane family for over 130 years. Winston and his older brother Sank McFarlane, who is also on the Borough Leadership Team, are the sixth generation to farm the 1,000-hectare estate. By applying sustainable growing practices, they work to grow premium medicinal cannabis that improves the health and well-being of people, along with the surrounding environment.
The younger MacFarlane says Puro’s decision to grow under organic protocols came from the company’s core values. “We are committed to growing and sourcing premium hemp products as sustainably and ethically as possible.”
Overwhelming evidence indicates that the synthetic chemicals used in conventional farming pose harmful health risks to humans, as well as nasty side effects on the environment. On the other hand, organic farming works in partnership with nature – it nourishes the health of people and ecosystems. With an emphasis on clean water and creating soil vitality teeming with microscopic life, organic farming encourages rooted soil flourishing, rather than treating it as an inert monolayer.
As MacFarlane leads us across the farm toward the hemp fields, Tompkins can’t hide her excitement. “It’s really exciting to see this new medical cannabis industry emerging in New Zealand. Boro is setting a new precedent for organic farming,” she said.
It’s late summer on the flat plateau of Kokeringo, and plants are thriving in their microenvironment. The undergrowth provides high levels of UV rays and many hours of sunshine, while the salty sea spray provides a natural antibacterial coating, helping to keep insect and pest numbers down.
Puro Managing Director Tim Aldridge and Head of Commercial Agriculture Max Jablonski join us in the fields. We walk through rows of fragrant bushes, checking out the beauty and abundance of blooming pink pistils, and Jablonski begins to tell me about his life before New Zealand: He worked at Caliva, a vertically integrated cannabis company in California, where he focused on post-harvest cultivation and fertilization. Turns out we had some mutual connections; Again, California doesn’t seem that far away.
“Kēkerengū provides ideal growing conditions, with a coastal climate ideal for the production of medical cannabis,” Aldridge said, adding that he and his team believe New Zealand has the potential to produce some of the best cannabis in the world. Cannabis grown under New Zealand’s organic protocols has sparked international interest, and Puro is currently finalizing its first export orders. According to Aldridge, the government was very helpful, particularly to New Zealand trade and enterprise.
Aldridge also reveals that Puro’s Director of Agriculture, Tom Forrest, is leading a research and breeding program with geneticist Dr. Anna Campbell of AbacusBio, a global genetics company. Using a scientifically driven quantitative breeding program, the two are developing a seed bank of consistent medicinal varieties that are adaptable to organic farming methods, along with traditionally important traits such as yield and potency.
A fellow cannabis grower of Churchill’s, Forrest has spent time at more than 50 cannabis-growing facilities in eight countries, studying different approaches and optimal approaches to growing cannabis. Under his leadership, Puro achieved an “In Conversion” membership certificate.
“After informal experiments with different living soil methodologies and forays into the world of permaculture, it’s becoming very clear that organic farming is a necessary part of our future,” Forrest told me later on the phone after my visit. “Although it is still somewhat anecdotal evidence, we are confident that organic, natural, and organic farming methods will encourage healthy growth with desirable secondary metabolite production—higher concentrations of terpenes, flavonoids, and cannabinoids.”
Growing up in a traditional farming family, Forrest says he’s always wanted to challenge traditional modern farming and find more advanced means of growing healthy foods and medicines.
“Natural products have been associated with pharmaceutical practices since the dawn of mankind,” he said. “Our first patented medicines were all botanical and organic. Herbal medicines are now a strong voice in the pharmaceutical group, and cannabis has a strong role to play.”
We agree on the sheer beauty of Kēkerengū’s outdoor planting site, and discuss Puro’s comprehensive plans to improve the land, soil, and environment while contributing to a healthier future for both plants and people. Forrest believes that the relationship between organic hemp and the local environment, the benefits to the farm and the farmers, and the influence of land on hemp expression are all strong arguments for organic hemp.
“Cultivating organic and sustainable medical cannabis are two of our core values,” Forrest said. “We aim to improve the land, soil and environment of our growing sites and contribute to a healthier future.”