#122 – Farming Hemp for the First Time with Len Mackey of Shima Hill Hemp Farm
Welcome to CBD School. I’m your host, Jenn Procacci. Thanks for listening today. I’ve got a great guest with me here today, Len Mackey. He is the farmer at Shima Hill Hemp Farm. And we’re going to be talking all about his experience as a first time hemp farmer. But before we get started with that, I just want to let you know that if you think the CBD School Podcast sounds great, thanks the guys at The Base Sound Creations. Whether you’re thinking about getting into podcasting or you already have a show, I highly recommend getting in touch with them. They’ll help you with sound editing and mixing, publishing, even distribution, promotion, branding, content analysis, tech support, and basically every other production aspect you could imagine. They can really take your show to a whole new level of quality and visibility. You can email them at [email protected] Making sure to use the coupon code MYPODCASTNOW to get a free 30-minute consultation. For more information, visit thebasesound.com and start podcasting the right way now.
All right. I’ve got Len Mackey here with me today. He is a highly motivated, adaptable and spiritual individual who has been growing the sacred cannabis in small secret gardens from the age of 15. They’ll be turning 40 on the 20th Yup, he’s a Scorpio. Len currently runs Shima Hill Hemp Farm outside of Canton, New York, and offers ancient Earth skills classes, little tracker homeschool programming and wellness courses at local universities and on the farm. These include programs such as feral human outdoor fitness, yoga, corrective exercise and personal training, ninjutsu, and West African drum and dance.
In previous incarnations, he was a professional wedding photographer, exotic dancer, ballroom, teacher, Reiki practitioner, and modern dance accompanist. Either he is a renaissance man or he just has ADD. He’s not sure which. As a northern New York native, he grew up getting stung by honeybees in the family garden and playing in the woods — hunting, fishing, trapping and talking with the Earth Spirits. As an artist, he has been the recipient of art start and decentralization grants provided by New York State by the St. Lawrence County Arts Council for six years now, offering music performance and cultural education. He is the founder of the YouTube channel Ancient Earth Skills – Len Mackey and Song of the Spheres, Inc., a multimedia company specializing in education and entertainment for children of all ages. Find him on Instagram @ancientearthskills. All right, Len, are you here with us today?
I am here in one form or another.
Great, thanks so much for taking the time to join me. And as we get started today, I just wanted to ask you to share with our listeners, what is your personal relationship to cannabis?
Well, I’ve been interacting with that beautiful plant since I was a teenager, using it for recreational purposes to relax, to pray, to give offerings in the morning. And first started growing it when I was just a lad there, about 15 and, you know, always had a grand adventure, sneaking out to my little gardens and trying to leave not a trace or a track. So it’s been quite an adventure going from that kind of relationship to the one I am in now, which is a legal farm here in New York, growing hemp, CBD and CBG hemp. So it has been absolutely the greatest pleasure, not filled with blood, sweat and tears, of course, but lots of joy, working through this process and actually being able to grow the wonderful plant out in the open field with the irrigation and all the fertilizer and love that I could possibly put upon her. So it’s been a wonderful dance with this plant. And you know, it’s helped me in so many ways. I can’t even really count them. So I have a lot of gratitude for cannabis. That is for sure.
Getting Started: Tending the Soil
Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. I do as well. So we definitely have that in common. So you mentioned that you’ve cultivated cannabis before. But how did you get started with hemp farming? Is this something you thought you would ever do?
It’s kind of interesting, actually. I was living in an intentional community called Birdsfoot Farm not far from here, just probably half mile down the road, where I met a wonderful fellow named Phil Hosking, who is the man who owns the land here and as my farming partner. And Phil has been cultivating medicinal cannabis for a number of years in California, and, you know, had enough success to be able to buy the farm here. So it’s kind of like a prayer answered actually. Because the previous landowner, I’ve been hunting here and doing bird habitat projects sponsored by Audubon Society and stuff to develop the land for different species. And the previous landowner was actually planning to log the forest and I didn’t have the money to buy the land. So I was, like, please, you know, whatever you’re called, stop this, whatever. Just make it so this doesn’t occur. And so it wasn’t. A few months after that, Phil ended up buying the land. And he knew that I had been gardening for a while, and we had a good relationship while he was visiting there with a girlfriend of his. So we immediately developed a wonderful rapport, and then a couple years go by, and he’s like, “Hey, Len, you want to grow some hemp?” I’m like, “Well, let me think about it.” And honestly, you know, I didn’t have to think about it that long. Because it was more like a dream coming true than anything, because I’d always wished that it was perfectly legal for me to cultivate cannabis. And now it is here in New York. So I am truly blessed.
Oh, that’s a wonderful and heartwarming story you shared with us just there. Thank you. So it sounds like you have a pretty strong connection to the land that you work on. And how does that connection that you have with the land inform your farming practices?
Definitely in every way that I can try to be a caretaker of the land, the soil. This year, we experimented with a variety of methods of no-till farming, as well as some till and cover cropping for the University of Vermont experiment that surveyed different cover crop methods. So you know, basically trying to make as little impact as possible. And actually, you know, over time, if there’s a way to find ways to improve the soil, to improve the local forest, with a little tracker program, we planted probably over 500 black walnut seeds so far, teaching the kids about primary, secondary and tertiary directions. Like “Okay, let’s chuck walnuts to the east, to the south, to the west, to the north, you know, so trying to find fun ways to enrich the land here for future generations in the hemp field and in the surrounding environment, you know, bird habitat, and, you know, lots of nuts for the squirrels and for the humans as well, hopefully, in the future. So that’s kind of what really motivates me more than just loving farming and watching things grow and tending to the soil and seeing the fruits of our labors in a direct way. But hoping to, you know, pass something good on to the next one’s coming up.
That’s really wonderful. It sounds like stewarding the land and also involving the community were definitely goals of yours with this project. Did you have any other goals that you hopefully realized, or perhaps didn’t?
Well, I guess, you know, lots of little goals and big goals and just starting the farm here from scratch. And first, okay, I got to build a greenhouse, got some recycled parts. Okay, how can I put this together, so it’s like one day at a time facing the little challenges, like blow ups in the irrigation on a hot day when the hose was not running and fixing it with a piece of an old didgeridoo, you know. Finding those challenges along the way are fun and good to navigate. But I’m hoping ultimately that through all this, that we can actually make a very successful farm here. And you know, I have loads of student debt from my studies in Rochester Institute of Technology studying photography. So if I could eliminate that, oh, well, that would just be amazing. And really, I guess, living life with the intent to create medicine and things that feed the people in a number of manners, you know, a variety of ways, from just food and the fiber and also things to eliminate their pain or help them sleep or, you know, regulate their emotions or whatever it may be. That makes me really happy. And so that way, you know, when it’s my time to feed the garden, I can die a happy man, I suppose.
That’s wonderful. So was this the first farming project that you took on by yourself? It sounds like you did some farming before at the intentional community perhaps. And you know, it sounds like you’ve had your cannabis secret gardens out there. But is this your first sort of larger scale solo farming project?
Yeah, this is my first full on commercial farming endeavor. So it definitely upscale everything. And, you know, growing up, we had a garden and I had strawberries and beans. And, you know, we always hunted for food. And so I’ve always had a real close connection to that and did some gardening at Birdsfoot Farm. And, you know, we always had little personal gardens along the way. And so, you know, with everything that’s going on in the world now, I was very much happy to immediately become a full time farmer and spend a lot of time here outside and, you know, alongside the hemp group, lots of squash and pumpkins, and would have had a bit of corn, but the raccoon ate all that. So, you know, trying to raise some ducks and some chickens and a bunch of hot peppers and potatoes and other good stuff. So, you know, at this point in my life, just my heart tells me this, my mind tells me this makes the most sense, at least for me personally to, you know, farm and learn as much as I can along the way.
Hemp Farming Techniques
That’s right. I think us farmers are pretty lucky right now with the state of the world, to be out here on the land, being able to provide, you know, food for ourselves and hopefully for our communities as well. I’m a farmer also. I have a licensed cannabis farm here in California called WildLand Cannabis. And I’m as sustainable as I possibly can be. I try to incorporate regenerative techniques into my farming practices. So I’d love to ask you some questions about your farming techniques. You mentioned some companion planting and some cover cropping and that you had some poultry. Are you growing your hemp in the ground? And what kind of irrigation are you using? Would you just talk a little bit about your farming techniques for us?
Sure. We did a variety of different planting techniques this year. We did three rows rototilled with a variety of cover crops, basically studying the effects of, you know, using haylage, black plastic, clover or nothing at all through an experiment we did with University of Vermont. So that was quite interesting. And we’ve been collecting data and we’ll be continuing to do that through the final product. So we did that. We also did a bunch of no-till, where we basically dug holes on the ground and added a nice mix of nutrients and then just flipped the sod over and used that to help keep the grass back.
We did some different companion planting methods. We planted a good row of buckwheat and helps to bring in things that would keep the aphids down or draw the aphids away from the hemp and actually ended up really helping us out when the rodents came in and started girdling the plants and attacking the tap roots, tree gum and cayenne pepper was a major deterrent and then at the time the shrews came into the garden as the buckwheat also came into its full fruit, which drew the voles and other things away from the hemp. So that was very, very helpful.
And in the field there, we mowed but, you know, basically disturbed as little as possible and there’s, you know, naturally occurring goldenrod and vetch and cleavers, you know, or bedstraw, and other grasses and things that are diversifying the area. So I think that really helped keep the pests down. We had virtually no pestilence aside from the mice, which happened immediately after they heyed the field, they moved right in. So that seemed to really regulate the aphids. Because our friends have a farm not far from here and they tell everything and they had a serious aphid problem last year, but we hardly saw a single one. So I think having that diversity and, you know, disturbing the soil as little as possible was really a boon for us alongside the buckwheat.
We also experimented with planting different mints in with some of the CBG to possibly encourage the terpene production of the plants and we’re going to play more with that I think in the future. So we have a bunch of different things we’re playing with here, different experiments. So it’s always fun to see, you know, what happens.
That’s super cool. I grow mint in my cannabis garden also with the same hope of increasing terpene production, and I grow some other companion plants for that purpose as well. Yarrow is one of them, sage, I grow some bee balm and echinacea in there too. And jury’s out, I think on whether or not it’s increased my terpene production, but it looks beautiful. And the beneficial insects love it, you know, the bees are all over the men and the bee balm and the echinacea. And it just adds to the kind of high vibe of the whole garden, in my opinion. So that’s awesome that you’re doing that. Good for you. You mentioned several different kinds of experiments you did with different types of cover cropping and sort of like tilling versus not tilling, was there one combination of those that seemed to work the best?
Well, you know, it’s interesting. As far as ease, fluidity, and you know, the ergonomics of putting in the plants and digging the holes and preparing the fields, definitely having the rows rototilled made that process a lot faster and easier. And those plants did do really well. We basically put black plastic on one portion, another portion was seeded with clover, another portion was covered with haylage, you know, composted hay. And then the final section was just left to the open air. And actually a whole lot of chenopodium or lambsquarters ended up moving in there from one of the experimental rows with the buckwheat, I think. We have a bunch of migrants.
So those plants did quite well. And one thing I did notice in the rows where the area where it was not covered with anything, the plants seem to grow a lot more vertically, and they were taller and skinnier than the other ones, which was interesting. You know, it was such a dry year, I don’t know if that was a reflection of the taproot going deeper and straighter versus having the cover of the other stuff to keep in the moisture. I’m not sure exactly, but that was quite noticeable. I haven’t calculated the final weights and measures of bucked flower and trimmed flower yet. So that will be the final kind of tell tale for that experiment.
And, you know, the biggest plants that we had were actually in a section of the garden where we did no-till. But they happen to be in the area where the hillside drained and a lot of the nutrients I think settled in this one row and so that soil was particularly rich. And I mean, those plants just did amazing. And that was basically just digging about an 18-inch hole a foot and a half down and putting in, you know, our chicken poop and bone char and mycorrhiza and other good stuff. And, you know, having a drip line irrigation system that was run off of a pump that came out of the Little River, it’s a small river that runs through the land here, made it really easy and just saved us because we had the driest year here, I think on record in some cases. And so having the drip irrigation was very, very, I mean, just essential to the bounty of the garden this year.
We use the gold pump, a Xylem pump that worked just fantastic and could be used for a larger area than what we ended up cultivating, which wasn’t probably much more than an acre. We put in about 470 some plants and after we lost maybe three dozen to the rodents, and then some other, you know, side damage and we had some teeny tiny cherry wines. Something to do with those genetics. We had about 40 plants out of 100 and some seed that was planted to just be like these little bond’s eyes, and they were so cute, but they didn’t get very big. So that was funny. So we planted them with the buckwheat and that was kind of like our tribute to the cherry wine and to the cannabis and to the earth. You know, a little offering and thanksgiving, gratitude. Definitely, that’s a big part of it too, you know, with every seed planted and every transplanting and every planting and just little offerings of gratitude and herbs and prayers of thanksgiving, you know, I think it sweetens the medicine that much more.