Have you heard our podcast episode with Ball Family Farms founder and CEO Chris Ball, and director of genetics Ashton Howarth? We had so much fun learning about their experience in cultivation and farming that we wanted to dive even deeper into this topic, and learn about their experience in this space. Have you ever wondered how your plant medicine is grown? Do you know the origins of what you’re putting into your body? These two experts have pulled back the curtain.
Ball started in sales (the business to consumer side of the industry), and was somewhat forced into the world of cultivation. His experience came from a need to learn everything about cannabis cultivation — and learn it quickly. “I officially got into cannabis cultivation in 2014 when an ex business partner of mine in the traditional market owed me money and couldn’t pay me,” said Ball. “He offered me a 14 light grow in a warehouse in Van Nuys, CA in exchange for his debt. So I took it, and that's when cultivation school officially began.”
He describes the transition as painful, educational, and one of the hardest things he’s had to do in his life (and he’s comparing that to going to UC Berkeley, and playing D1 football). “Once I started cultivating, I was in for a rude awakening because I thought growing weed was simple… You plant the clones and they grow.” He assumed after eight to 10 weeks he’d hit the jackpot, and promptly discovered that assertion was… wildly incorrect.
Ball told us that the average person has “no idea” just how much goes into growing cannabis — “what type of commitment, patience, sacrifice and relentless pursuit one must have to be able to learn how to grow these living, breathing organisms properly and their individual conditions and environments.” So we decided to ask Ball and Howarth to give us a behind-the-scenes peek at the process (plus info on the industry, their experience, and vision boards coming to life!).
Svn: How did you two [Chris and Ashton] meet and join forces?
CB: I brought Ashton aboard BFF shortly after we had finally received our authorization letter from [Department of Cannabis Regulation] back in 2018. I like to refer to us as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on the 1992 Olympic team: I am ebony (African American) and he is ivory (caucasian), but together we make a crazy grey that everybody in the cannabis space is taking notice of.
If you met us separately you would probably never think we were business partners let alone friends, but we are. I am the charisma; the street cred and the swagg of the company. He is the introvert; the knowledge, the green thumb of the company (He also has a swagg that most people wouldn’t believe as well, but I’ll let him show the industry that himself).
Our dynamic is a perfect one in my opinion, because Ashton’s extensive knowledge on genetics and botany, coupled with his 20 years of growing experience, makes him a master of the plant. Now, you tie that knowledge and production together with an ex-pro athlete who was born in the inner city streets of Los Angeles with one of the biggest distribution networks in the city — also, coupled with some federal detention for the distribution of marijuana throughout the United States — Well you get Ball Family Farms.
Svn: What have you learned through the cultivation process? Eye opening moments, new farming techniques?
AH: The cultivation process is an ongoing lesson. Even the most advanced growers still don't know everything about growing because the process is so complex and ever-changing. I think at a point what actually separates the pros from the amateurs is realizing and admitting you can't know everything, but you are constantly striving to learn as much as possible.
For me, one of the most eye opening moments was in realizing that less is always more when it comes to fertilizer input. Most commercial feed charts put forward by fertilizer companies will recommend way too much fertilizer because they are a business, therefore making it more profitable when you use more of their product. Most cannabis grows just fine and maybe will even do better at 50-75-percent of what most commercial feeding charts suggest.
Svn: What is the importance of buying US-grown cannabis and hemp products?
CB: The main reason it is important to buy American grown cannabis and hemp is because of the testing restrictions on cannabis cultivation. The lab testing in America — when it pertains to cannabis — is more stringent than that of the food industry. Yes, that’s right… It’s easier to pass a food test and inspection than a cannabis or hemp one.
I used to think this was just a way for the state to try and take over our business and culture. But, after educating myself on testing and some of the products we are prohibited to use in the state of California even though those same products can be used on foods we eat. I now understand the why [behind that].
For example, the reason certain products can be used to mitigate mold and pests on foods, but can’t be used on cannabis is because certain products have a toxic reaction when they are lit on fire [ie, smoked]. Those toxic reactions don’t occur when the food is eaten and swallowed.
Our throat, stomach and stomach lining also have a number of filters such as stomach acids etc that the food must pass through before it actually gets to our blood stream and digestive system. So, by the time that all that happens we are only being nourished by the good parts of the food. Now, when cannabis is lit on fire with these pesticides on them, they create toxins that are now being inhaled directly into the lungs and not passing through any filters making the individual high risk for lung cancer and all kinds of other illnesses. So, I say… Buy domestic.
Svn: Can you explain the difference between indoor and outdoor cultivation?
AH: Having had the ability to cultivate cannabis outdoors, indoors, and in greenhouses has really allowed me to see the differences in quality outcomes as well as given me the ability to see the time and money spent on each technique of cultivation.
Indoor cultivation, while having the highest input cost, really allows a grower to dial in environmental conditions and maximize crop turnovers. This allows for a consistent product with consistent yields and testing results.
Outdoor cultivation in contrast has the lowest input cost, in terms of cost per pound of finished product, but also puts the cultivator at the whims of nature. Crop yield and quality become more seasonally dependent.
In the viticulture industry, many growers will use the French term "terroir" to apply to the environment of a region of the country that is best suited to a specific cultivar and growing style. In cannabis this term is also greatly relevant to outdoor cultivation sites. Just as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay grapes prefer cooler coastal climates, there are varieties of cannabis that also prefer a cooler climate, or are more acclimated to a shorter growing season. This makes the cultivators knowledge of strain selection, as well as of the geographical region, much more important to produce successful harvests of top quality flowers.
The other cultivation method referred to as greenhouse cannabis, is somewhat of a hybrid between indoor and outdoor in all aspects. Greenhouses allow for more crop cycles per year and more consistent quality like indoor, while still utilizing farming techniques and practices of outdoor cultivation. The more advanced greenhouses with full light deprivation and artificial supplemental lighting almost bring the quality and number of harvest per year to full indoor capabilities with savings on electricity because the crops are still mainly powered by the sun for most of the year.
Visually speaking, indoor flower is at the top tier of the quality standards expected from a cannabis connoisseur. There is very little UV radiation coming from artificial lighting, if at all, so plants don't develop the golden or brownish hues sometimes seen in greenhouse or outdoor cannabis that would diminish the visual appeal.
Also, due to the full spectrum of light cast by the sun, outdoor plants develop a higher leaf to flower ratio making outdoor product appear shaggier. Again though, it really is up to the cultivators skill sets in regards to strain selection and cultivation knowledge, as I've seen flowers from expert outdoor farmers that would destroy indoor flower from an amateur cultivator.
Svn: Where do you see cannabis cultivation going?
CB: I see cannabis cultivation becoming one of the major, mainstream, new methods of medicine. I believe cannabis cultivators will in some ways become our new holistic doctors; There are so many health benefits associated with this plant, that its healing power is becoming more and more undeniable.
The cultivators who understand this and understand plant expressions and genetics the best will soon be able identify these characteristics and healing compounds in genetics and will be able to cultivate and offer the correct medicine in the form of a gummy bear to the 10 year child with seizures. Also, being able to offer pain medication to the 80 year old cancer patient instead of opioids.
As far as exciting things coming up for Ball Family Farms… There are a few, but only one I am able to speak about at the moment.
The first is our exciting collaboration with another black-owned cannabis brand. The brand’s founder has been a trailblazing mentor of mine in the space and it was honestly the first collaboration I put on my vision board back in 2018 when I finally got my license. At first, my desire to partner with the brand was simply to get more eyes on BFF because I knew they had such a huge following. After meeting the team, coupled with everything that's going on with the BLM movement and black businesses supporting one another, it seemed like the perfect timing for our two companies to come together and do something special for the cannabis culture and our people. Be on the lookout for a special strain that's about to hit the scene. More info to follow.
Svn: How has growing cannabis allowed you to grow as a person?
CB: Cannabis has been one of the main reasons I am the man I am today. By that I mean my business savvy, my patience as a CEO and business partner, my compassion for others around me and my employees, my street awareness and my relentless pursuit of success.
I also have to give some credit to my mother and father, my football coaches at Mt. Sac Junior College, my boy Paul Louiza who I caught my federal indictment with, and my cousin Errol for handing me my first ounce of weed when I was 16. All these things and people combined have made me the crazy, passionate, motivated Chris Ball you see today.
Svn: OK, two part question. You were unjustly incarcerated and served a federal indictment for distributing a plant that heals people — one that many businesses are now making a massive profit off of. For one, what was it about cannabis that brought you back to the space after your indictment? What made you believe in the plant so strongly? Secondly, what can people do to start reversing the stigma of the industry and help get other people like you out of prison; how can we support the movement?
I guess what brought me back to the industry even after my indictment (I risked going back to federal prison if I was caught) was my passion for the culture. I remember growing up and watching my dad smoke weed, and he was one of my heroes. I watched my cousin Errol make a name for himself in our city growing up, and he would always let me wear his fresh clothes and Jordans.
My relatives and elders at family barbecues were always smoking weed and they appeared to be having the time of their lives. Then, when I made my first dollar selling weed and bought my first paid off Air Jordans with my own money, I was hooked. So, initially my desire and passion for cannabis was fueled by money. It literally helped me put myself through junior college before receiving my football scholarship to Cal Berkeley.
The more time I spent in the culture and the more I learned about the plant, the more I became obsessed. How could something that was put here by the creator, that has left such a positive impression and impact on me all my life, be so bad? I guess you could say I’ve been drawn to the plant and industry since I was 10 years old and the ironic thing about that is…. I don’t even smoke. [Editor’s note: I KNOW, CRAZY RIGHT?!]
I’m honestly grateful for my incarceration, Dominique. At the time I was incarcerated, the cannabis industry was nowhere near where it is today. I was also nowhere near as mature, nor knowledgeable as I am today. I was involved with the wrong organization and the wrong energy back then, and that incarceration and indictment forced me to take a step back and reevaluate the priorities and direction of my life.
Federal prison is also where the light bulb of growing my own cannabis instead of selling someone else’s was turned on for me. It also gave me a clean break from the people I was associated with, and allowed me a fresh clean start -- only this time it would be my way. It also gave me the street credibility that’s making my brand so much more respected in the industry today, and let’s be *100* … without that indictment and conviction I would not have qualified for the SEP (social equity program). You would not be interviewing me at this very moment, and the legal cannabis industry would never know Chris Ball, Ball Family Farms, or Daniel LaRusso.
To hear more from this dynamic duo, tune into Episode 23 of The Space podcast on Spotify, Stitcher, or Apple Podcasts.