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Vancouver-based Backwoods Biochar getting to root of the challenge

Startup aims to help pot industry improve crop, sustainability

By , Columbian business reporter
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4 Photos
Al Graham loads two-gallon buckets with Petey Green soil from Vancouver-based Backwoods Biochar. The company bills its specialized soil as a way to grow bigger cannabis plants with less water and fertilizer.
Al Graham loads two-gallon buckets with Petey Green soil from Vancouver-based Backwoods Biochar. The company bills its specialized soil as a way to grow bigger cannabis plants with less water and fertilizer. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The Pacific Northwest’s cannabis industry has seen near-constant growth since Washington and Oregon legalized cannabis cultivation and sales, both in terms of new retail stores and cannabis-growing operations.

But cannabis plants can be picky, demanding careful cultivation and often requiring a heavy supply of water, nutrients and sunlight, raising concerns about the environmental impact of the region’s growing crop of growers. The owners of Vancouver-based startup Backwoods Biochar say they want to tackle the root of that problem by supplying the cannabis industry with eco-friendly soil.

The pitch, as explained by company Vice President Josh Rasey, is extremely straightforward: “Bigger, better buds.” More specifically, he said, that means soil that can help cannabis plants grow faster while using significantly less water.

Carbon-neutral byproduct

Biochar is a carbon-rich charcoal created through an energy production process called biomass gasification, which uses high temperature and pressure to trigger chemical reactions in wood or other carbon-based materials, converting them to synthetic gas.

It’s an old-school technology that’s taken on new relevance in the fight against climate change because it requires very little oxygen input compared with conventional burning, and therefore doesn’t spew out carbon dioxide. Instead, the byproduct is biochar.

When infused into soil, the material’s structure improves the soil’s ability to retain water, microorganisms and nutrients, Rasey said, giving it the potential to cut down on contaminated runoff by eliminating the need to add more nutrients throughout the plants’ growth cycle.

It’s also a form of carbon sequestration, he said, putting carbon back into the ground rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

“It takes away a lot of the waste, headache and uncertainty,” said Backwoods Biochar President Miles Murray.

The company’s biochar is sourced from a separate operation called Locoal, also run by Murray, which specializes in recycling industrial pallet waste as fuel for gasification.

The idea for Backwoods Biochar began as an offshoot, Murray said. Biochar is already widely used in agricultural applications, so he and his business partner Matthew Peterson were trying to tap into that market to sell the biochar produced by the company’s operations — but they found themselves struggling to garner interest in the raw material.

The breakthrough came when they decided to begin selling soil infused with biochar and a cocktail of nutrients, produced in-house using a proprietary formula that Peterson had developed, which they would later brand as “Petey Green Living Soil,” Backwood’s Biochar’s flagship product.

“It was difficult getting it into the market until we readily packaged it into a turnkey model,” Murray said. “People were asking for an organic living soil that was low-maintenance.”

It made more sense to set up the soil production as a separate venture, Murray said, so he called Rasey, whom he’d met years earlier when the two of them were serving in the military, to head up the sales and logistics side of the business.

Biochar-infused soil can be used to grow a wide range of plants, but the rapidly emerging cannabis industry made a good entry point, Rasey said — and Peterson’s formula was specifically designed for cannabis plants.

Vancouver operation

The trio founded Backwoods Biochar in June, then spent several months planning and setting up operations. Locoal is based in Texas, but Rasey lives in Battle Ground and the Portland area seemed like a logical place to open a cannabis soil company, so they settled on Vancouver for the headquarters and distribution hub.

The company’s branding leans heavily into an environmentalist mindset — one of its taglines is “Chronic Sustainability” — which Rasey said stems from his experience in the military. He and Murray both said their Army service gave them a firsthand look at the amount of pallet waste generated by industrial operations, and the need for sustainable disposal options.

Their shared background also led to one of Rasey’s other big goals for Backwoods Biochar: he’s aiming to hire military veterans. Everyone at the company’s recently opened distribution facility in Minnehaha is a veteran, drawing on Rasey’s long list of contacts from his 14-year Army career, and he said he wants to maintain that hiring pattern as the company grows.

Serving in the Army builds a range of skills that can transfer to the civilian labor market, Rasey said, but the exact translation isn’t always obvious, and retired veterans can be left feeling directionless without a clear pathway for how to get started.

“I want to change that and give them a new mission — to resupply America’s topsoil,” he said.

Backwoods Biochar officially debuted about two months ago, and Rasey said they’ve already seen interest from growers in Western Washington and beyond.

The company is taking a try-it-and-see approach to push its way into the industry, reaching out to local cannabis growers and selling the soil in two-gallon buckets to test out on their crops. They’re also trying to partner with local cannabis shops to stock soil buckets, he said, to see if they catch the eye of any amateur home growers.

The initial sales have been in individual buckets, but Rasey and Murray both said they expect to see bigger orders once customers get a chance to test out Peterson’s soil formula. Their distribution facility speaks to that ambition — the warehouse floor is filled with dozens of bulk shipping bags housing hundreds of cubic yards of soil.

“Even though we just started, we started because we knew we could scale nationwide within less than a year,” Murray said.

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