Inspired lives tend to have a fulcrum, a central truth around which everything else revolves. For DJ Chamberlain, or “Professor Hash,” founder of The High Altitude School of Hydroponics (H.A.S.H.) in Loveland, CO, that truth was the 1969 lunar landing.
“I’m part of the post-space generation,” he says. “For me, space was always a reality.”
Or rather life in space – one sustained by the green fruits of the earth – is the reality that has informed Chamberlain’s passions and pursuits since adolescence. His undergraduate research into Advanced Life Support Systems kicked off a meandering path that led him to N.A.S.A., through large-scale Aquarium design (Chamberlain insists that aquatic cities will also be a “reality” some day) and on to stints in commercial horticulture and pharmaceuticals. Fusing his horticultural chops with a taste for entrepreneurship, Chamberlain finally landed in the restaurant business, supplying his own produce through a separate hydroponics research operation.
In many ways, there could be no better resume to prepare someone to take advantage of Colorado’s 2012 passage of Amendment 64. The bill’s constraints – that adults could legally grow “3 immature and 3 mature cannabis plants in a locked space,” provided for Chamberlain a moment of inspiration. He brushed aside his other projects, called a few cannabis-fluent friends, and created th Colorado Grow Box, a self-contained grow chamber that fits inconspicuously into a corner, and later the AutoGrow, a water-based, ‘bubble-ponic’ module that requires almost no baby-sitting on the part of its owner.
“Like a refrigerator,” says Chamberlain, “but where you open the door and pick off a bud.”
The AutoGrow is a nice hybrid for individuals who want to grow but don’t have a taste for the muss-n-fuss of gardening or the vigilance that cannabis farming requires. At first glance the AutoGrow does seem very much the fantasy of a high-school pot-head obsessed with outer space: full of light and effervescent water, a magical box ticking and whirring away in a corner that once cracked, reveals splendidly fat plants for one’s mind-expanding pleasure. .
In conversation Chamberlain handles terms from both orbital technology and advanced horticulture like loose change, and has a retired college professor’s tendency to gaze into the middle distance and hold forth without taking a breath. He has a scientist’s implacable need to know, a cannabis grower’s temerity, and the stoner’s puckish wonder and drift, an ability to face the infinite with sly humor.
Here, Chamberlain talks about growing plants in space, his passion for the people’s right-to-grow, big pharma, and what he sees as a sustainable future for cannabis cultivation.
Solstice Q & A with DJ Chamberlain
(aka Professor Hash)
You’ve been involved with a lot of eclectic disciplines – from outer space to the restaurant business. What events led you to focus on cannabis grow technology?
DJC: Colorado passed Amendment 64, which said, “Anyone 21 or over can grow marijuana without regulation.” You don’t need to submit to a background check or anything. And you can have cannabis on your person or grow it.
“Or grow it” was important because that meant you could have somebody assist. That wording is what caught my eye. It flashed in front of me like a big bright light. I was working away one day and I called up associates of mine and said, “Guess what we’re going to do! We’re going to start a school.”
Who are your students and clients? What is your demographic?
DJC: When I started this I thought I’d attract little stoner kids, but I’ve got people in business suits – most everybody is in their 40’s and 50’s. The crowd is not what I expected: I’ve got the pauper who can’t pay his bills and can’t afford his medicine, to wealthy, well-to do business people who want to invest, and people who want to grow their own because buying it is expensive.
There are people who come to me who smoke cannabis for pain. They know what they need, and they’ve been paying for their marijuana through the nose for years, and I for one am sick of it. I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for years, and I’d hate to see the marijuana industry become like that.
Tell me about what principles makes the AutoGrow module work. How did you apply past research to its creation?
DJC: The auto grow is the module that goes inside the Colorado Grow Box. We call it shallow water culture, or ‘bubbleponics.’ I hate to call it that because if you’re just putting bubbles in the bottom of a 5-gallon bucket, then you’re not doing service to this huge plant.
It has an individualized container, but it doesn’t circulate the water to a reservoir. All the nutrients stay down below. And this is about 5 gallons of nutrients and all the roots are exposed 24/7 to these nutrients.
And the nutrient solution has a continual force of air. You keep them effervescent; oxygen in the nutrient solution is the key to nutrient uptake. It’s a metabolic process; there’s a respiration going on.
I preach oxygen – that is my mantra in class. We just give the plants oxygen all the time. And instead of trying to separate water, we’re separating oxygen. Very simple. Very clean. There’s no media, no media at all.
It seems you have made a life and practice of looking ahead. How do you see the future of this plant in say 25 or 50 years?
DJC: The future? I think it’s sort of like tea roses. We make a tea rose and it’s a beautiful thing. Is that something that grows in the wild? No. Look at most of our agricultural crops. They’re not something that grows in the wild. They’re domesticated species.
Cannabis has been a domesticated species for thousands of years and just like the crops we have now, they have the ability to improve them genetically through normal Mendelian genetics breeding programs. So with the average personal grower who is experimenting with breeding – that’s wonderful and I encourage people to work with that and I encourage people to work with feminized seeds that they like.
But then one starts to get at – and I don’t even feel comfortable discussing this – it’s like a Pandora’s box. Now I’m an old school plant physiologist – ok? Yeah, I’m a cannabis grower, a cannabis smoker, all that stuff, but I went through twelve years in academia and the pharmaceutical industry, and I’ve seen what agriculture and flora-culture is today. And we’re not talking Mendelian genetics. Even this idea of ‘feminized seeds’ is starting to tweak the borders of nature.
But cannabis is already so highly cultivated – don’t you think that the ‘tweaking,’ especially with changing laws and greater commercial interest, is inevitable?
DJC: I’m afraid of what the big companies are going to start doing when they get a hold of the genetics and they say, “We own that. We own the genetics. And you know what? We own the opioid genetics too. And we’re going to combine them.”
It’s a dangerous thing if they start saying, “Oh this is cannabis,” but in reality there’s this other genetic in it that’s different – nicotine, maybe. We must tread lightly on that one.
The bottom line is the tea rose aspect. This idea of the personal grower, the hobby grower. Where do the true innovations come from? The hobbyists. The top-notch tomatoes? You don’t get those from a grocery store. You get those from a home gardener. It’s the personal grower. They’re going to learn the basics and go off and make some fantastic herb.
So you’re talking about artisanal, or heirloom cannabis?
DJC: Like microbrews. Vintage wines. It’s going to be those heirloom growers. The Ben and Jerry’s, the Budweisers, those huge corporations will jump in. And they’ll have their products.
But it will be a mass produced product versus someone who gave it love and care. And right now, this is the beauty and advantage the personal grower has. Big business doesn’t want to touch this. It doesn’t know how to touch it. Because for so long it has been demonized. How do they approach people they’ve lied to all these years and let them know it’s really a performance-enhancing drug?
The idea that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug will be their new frontier; I think that will be their strategy. But they can’t do an about-face right now because they’ve been demonizing it for so long. Until they do, the small personal cannabis growers will have the upper hand.