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As legal cannabis spreads, growers go organic — and beyond
Credit: Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural

As legal cannabis spreads, growers go organic — and beyond

Pot prohibition is gradually lifting, but state and federal growing guidance is lacking. EHN visited West Coast growers committed to nudging the fledgling industry in a chemical-free, Earth-friendly direction.

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On a noisy, littered block in southeast San Francisco lined end-to-end with mismatched warehouses, Chris Lu grows organic cannabis for discerning customers in California's legal market.

He shuns synthetic pesticides and applies only approved fertilizers like bone meal, bat guano, and compost tea. That's a big deal in an industry long dependent on potent garden-store chemicals to protect valuable crops from damage — particularly at indoor operations, where pests and mildew can be harder to eradicate.

It's also a sign of the times. With the advent of legalization and commercialization here and in eight other states since 2013, new state-level pesticide regulations and growing consumer demand for clean weed have helped improve the industry's secretive, often suspect cultivation practices.

Credit: Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural

To protect consumers, states with new legal-cannabis markets — also including Alaska, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington — have banned some traditionally applied chemicals and restricted the use of others. Yet with limited science to guide them and a complete lack of oversight from the federal government, their policies have been all over the map.

As a result, some growers like Lu have opted to exceed state-level requirements and adopt stricter standards addressing both product safety and environmental stewardship.

They're hoping to buck the chemical-dependent model and set the young industry on a more healthy, sustainable, Earth-friendly path — while reaping some rewards in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

And organic, it turns out, is just a gateway.

Certifiers step in

"We try not to go into intervention," Lu told EHN while gazing into a brightly lit room full of a couple hundred young cannabis plants and a few older, larger ones. "We do a lot of prevention in the mom stage as well as the clone stage."

During these stages, plants grow stems and leaves but do not produce flowers, the part of the plant that is harvested. Preventative spraying reduces the risk that problems will arise later during flowering, and that any residues will remain on the final product.

To stave off problems before they start, Lu relies on regular applications of neem oil, a pesticide and fungicide derived from the neem tree, and Actinovate, a patented fungus-fighting beneficial bacterium. Both are common in organic agriculture.

These sprays replace more harmful options like bifenthrin, a possible human carcinogen often used to kill spider mites, and myclobutanil, a chemical fungicide known to produce toxic hydrogen cyanide when heated. Residues of both are permitted in small amounts on legal California cannabis.

A former mechanical engineer and self-taught cannabis grower, Lu said he developed his approach gradually over the years. In 2018, when California enacted the strictest pesticide laws in the nation for any crop upon legalizing recreational use of cannabis, he decided to go fully organic.

His high-end flowers from potent strains with names like GMO and Wild Cherry Punch are now produced according to the requirements of the United States' National Organic Program (NOP) — though the government itself won't vouch for it, due to federal prohibition.

Until that status changes, the USDA Organic label so familiar to American consumers is likely to remain off-limits to cannabis.

Instead the industry will rely on state-level designations, like one being developed by the Washington State Department of Agriculture, or third-party facsimiles like Certified Kind and Clean Green Certified.

Lu's brand, Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural, has earned the approval of the latter, an independent company based in Northern California whose standards borrow from and occasionally exceed those of the NOP — and whose seal now adorns Lu's product.

Owner Chris Van Hook launched Clean Green 15 years ago in California's Emerald Triangle cannabis-growing region — which comprises Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties along the state's northern coast — certifying farmers who were selling on the state's massive, freewheeling "medical" market, which lacked any pesticide restrictions of its own.

Since then, Van Hook says, Clean Green growers have regularly won top competitions and industry awards while producing some of the state's cleanest pot.

"In the past, there was no push for pesticide-free cannabis," he told EHN. "We created a lot of that demand, starting in 2004. When we started, people said you could not grow good cannabis organically. And our farmers proved that not only can you grow cannabis organically, but you can grow the world's finest cannabis organically."

Today, with 89 certified producers in seven states including Montana, which permits medical use only, and Vermont, which allows recreational use but not commercial sales, Clean Green is the nation's largest third-party certifier of cannabis cultivation practices.

But it's no longer an outlier.

Letting nature "do the heavy lifting" 

At the same time that indoor farmers like Lu are eschewing synthetic pesticides and going organic, some outdoor cannabis growers are going further.

That's the goal, at least, of Demeter Certified Biodynamic, a program established in Germany in 1928 by Rudolf Steiner, who also developed Waldorf education, to promote a holistic and ecological view of farming that accounts for soil health and biodiversity.

Demeter's taglines include "healing the planet through agriculture" and "beyond organic."

In October 2015, Oregon-based Demeter USA certified its first Biodynamic cannabis farm, Washington Pot.

Over the next two months it added two more, including, 10 days before Christmas, a small operation called Glen Tucky Family Farms.

Located in Northern California Wine Country about an hour and a half north of Buddy Buddy's in San Francisco, the farm was launched — and is still run almost single-handedly — by 67-year-old Mike Benziger, a wine-industry pioneer and Biodynamics proponent who had just exited the grape business to learn a new crop.

Today, on a steep mountainside shrouded in oak, upslope from the 85-acre vineyard and estate he no longer owns, Benziger doesn't just grow cannabis. He also farms fruits, vegetables, and medicinal herbs.

And, at the heart of it all, on the plot he planted first, a vibrant array of insectary plants like California lilac, verbena, and sedum. They attract beneficial insects like ladybugs and lacewings that prey on harmful mites and aphids.

Benziger also raises sheep and chickens, whose bedding helps feed massive piles of compost that in turn feed all of his plants nutrients and a steady supply of beneficial microorganisms.

These cycles, mini-ecosystems rooted in the productivity of the Earth, are central to the Biodynamic approach.

"The absolute basis for what we do is soil, and the absolute basis for soil is how alive it is," Benziger told EHN. He has been farming Biodynamically since his vineyard was certified in 2000, and offers many such pithy descriptors of the practice, which he admits can be tricky to explain and involves the use of quirky "preparations" such as "horn manure," made from cow manure buried inside a cow horn during the winter months.

"One of the goals of Biodynamics is farm individuality. We look at the farm as a living entity," he said. "In Biodynamics, we give up control in order for nature to do the heavy lifting."

Moon Gazer Farms, a biodynamic cannabis farm in California. (Credit: Joshua Khankhanian)

The program doesn't prohibit the use of outside inputs, however, and Benziger, like Lu, relies on neem oil to help protect his plants. He also sprays organic soaps and a fungicide Serenade, which uses the beneficial bacterium Bacillus subtillus to prevent cannabis-killing powdery mildew.

His 50 cannabis plants represent three different strains, including the popular Sour Diesel. But his personal favorite is Blood Orange, with a citrusy nose and relaxing yet uplifting effect that he hopes will help cancer patients as cannabis helped him overcome two bouts of the disease in the past decade.

Four years into its pot foray, Demeter now counts a total of 10 Biodynamic cannabis farms among its ranks, plus another four for hemp, two new applicants pending, and dozens of leads in the pipeline, director of business development Erin Sojourner told EHN.

Certified farms span the country, from the West Coast and Colorado to Michigan and North Carolina.

"It's something that people are very excited about to help differentiate them," Sojourner said. "The Baby Boomers were just interested in food safety. My generation was more into no pesticides and chemicals. Now the Millennials are really seeking transparency, and I think that Biodynamic farming gives that sense of a higher-tier product."

A growing market

Woman rolling a joint at the 4th annual Women Grow Leadership Summit in Denver, Colorado in February 2018. (Credit: Beverly Yuen Thompson/flickr)

Even on the scale of the nation's still-nascent legal cannabis marketplace, Biodynamic farming has a small footprint. But Demeter isn't alone in promoting ecological farming and regenerative soil management within the industry.

Appearing on the scene just this year, and garnering attention because of its affiliation with the natural-soap company Dr. Bronner's, is an all-new, cannabis-specific program called Sun+Earth Certified.

Sun+Earth is like Biodynamic with fair-labor practices but without the preparations. Certification requires building soil quality through mulching, crop rotation, and reduced tillage, for example, as well as protecting worker rights and engaging with the local community.

"We wanted to create a very high-bar standard for the industry, and the standard would cover more than just the land-management issues, and more than just basic organic in terms of prohibiting certain inputs," Les Szabo, director of constructive capital at Dr. Bronner's, told EHN.

Fourteen California farms have signed up so far, and Sun+Earth hopes to certify another 30 across the country over the next year.

"Now that we see there is momentum moving toward federal legalization, we asked ourselves, 'What kind of industry do we want to see? What do we see this industry evolving into?'" Szabo said. "Current forecasts are that industry size could be anywhere from 50 to even 80 billion dollars, just in the U.S. And an industry that size has huge social and environmental impacts and consequences."

Of course, farmers needn't be certified by anyone to grow more sustainably. And state-level regulations, at least in California, have already forced the industry to cut way back on pesticide use.

But with certification comes cachet — and, farmers expect, some form of financial return. After all, they must pay both a flat fee for certification and an ongoing percentage of sales.

Credit: Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural

Then there's the higher cost of some organic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides.

Every year, Clean Green-certified Puffin Farms in southwestern Washington state drops up to $10,000 worth of worm castings into the soil, said co-founder and CEO Jade Stefano.

"That's a really expensive input, but we really feel like it improves the quality of our soil long-term, and the plants love it, so it's worth it to us," she told EHN.

Organic producers can lower their costs over time, notes Stefano, by making compost on-site and using it to steadily improve soil health and fertility.

They can also naturally attract beneficial insects, instead of buying and deploying them, with plants like yarrow, calendula, and dill. Puffin Farm is crawling with ladybugs, she said.

The market advantage for growing organically (or better) and getting certified can vary widely from state to state and product to product. An oversupplied market in Washington, for example, means Puffin can't charge a significant premium for its sun-grown organic cannabis.

"[Certification] is definitely a benefit, not as much as I would have expected or liked, but it definitely is another thing that is helping us stay afloat in this really hard market," Stefano said.

Meanwhile indoor-grown cannabis is valued primarily for its dense flowers, distinct flavors, and often higher levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis flowers, said Lu of Buddy Buddy Indoor Natural.

He decided to get certified anyway, he said, to show that cannabis can be grown well without pesticides, to reduce his environmental footprint, and to add to customers' confidence in picking up his products among so many new options available at dispensaries.

So, while Lu believes the Clean Green logo on his black-and-neon jars of Wild Cherry Punch attracts buyers, it doesn't always seal the deal.

"The general consumer is only looking for the highest THC," he says. "Once we have that, it flies off the shelf."

About the author(s):

Nate Seltenrich

Seltenrich is an independent science journalist. He holds a B.A. in Print Journalism from Santa Clara University.

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