With legalization taking root in states throughout the U.S., many innovative sustainable farming options have emerged for cannabis growers. One of the most important outgrowths of the legal cannabis market in states like California is the necessity of following strict cultivation guidelines.
In the days when the black market was a farmer’s only option, nothing prevented unscrupulous growers from using questionable methods to bring their bud to harvest. Now that legalized cannabis must be tested before it reaches a retailer’s display case, the focus has rightfully shifted to sustainable growing practices.
But what exactly is sustainable cannabis farming?
The definition of sustainable farming isn’t exclusive to cannabis. Farmers across the world have been adapting sustainable farm practices for decades or longer. There are a few hallmarks of sustainable agriculture, which are outlined succinctly by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at UC Davis:
“The goal of sustainable agriculture is to meet society’s food and textile needs in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity.”
One of the upsides of legalization is the necessity for farmers to incorporate sustainability into their farming practices. These include but aren’t limited to:
Sustainability models also support healthy, safe environments for farm workers.
These days, the crossover between farmers, soil scientists, water control boards, and local and state regulatory agencies can make growing cannabis a daunting enterprise. But there are many indicators that overall, the cannabis industry is moving toward accepting sustainable agriculture practices.
Farmers are working overtime to bring their gardens and industry into a world where science and technology can help increase crop yields and protect the environment.
Managing water use is key to sustainable farming. Cannabis farmers are responding to the need to protect the environment by:
One of the knocks against cannabis cultivation, especially indoor growers, is the traditionally steep energy costs associated with expensive lighting. But the advent of lower-energy LED lights and other conservation techniques are beginning to show a downtick in energy use by marijuana growers.
Power companies like California’s Pacific Gas and Electric offer up to $100,000 in interest-free financing for LED lighting. This is part of the growing evidence that sustainable farming is cost effective for farmers and for the energy grid. There are many more incentives in legalized cannabis states encouraging farmers to replace outdated technology with more sustainable practices.
If you visit a retailer who claims to sell organic cannabis, Russell Green, founder and owner of Kure Wellness in Ukiah, CA, would respond with: Buyer beware.
For years, the USDA struggled with manufacturers marketing products as natural or organic before creating strict regulations that defined what these words actually mean. “Today, as unscrupulous marketers tout their wares as organic, the cannabis industry is in much the same situation,” says Russell. “Because cannabis is federally illegal, the USDA will not allow cannabis to be certified as organic,” he explains.
In fact, the word organic is literally owned by the federal government, with fines of up to $11,000 per violation for businesses who illegally represent their products as organic.
Meeting the high bar for organic cannabis certification is complicated. In standard agriculture, inputs up and down the lifecycle of a plant must meet or exceed organic standards in order to be certified.
“The majority of organically based cannabis rooting substrates like coco coir and rock wool generally have inorganic elements added to them. Unfortunately, this means that the vast majority of cannabis seedlings start their lives in a product that would not meet federal organic standards,” Russell continues.
Fertilizers are another gray area. Many cannabis companies produce fertilizers containing a combination of synthetic and organic nutrients. Unless a product is consistent with the USDA’s National Organic Program, it probably wouldn’t pass muster were the farm able to undergo a USDA compliance review.
“The best farmers use products and practices that exceed stringent local and state regulatory standards,” says Russell. “As a farmer myself, I look at the types of pesticides and growing practices used by cultivators wanting to sell their products at our store. Most farmers we work with rely solely on products certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute.”
Because licensed cannabis retailers in California may only work with licensed marijuana farmers, all flowers and all other products are now subject to lab testing. “There are very few non-organic pesticides available to commercial cultivators. Any cannabis containing traces of unacceptable pesticides will never pass mandatory lab testing, and we’re seeing this play out with product recalls right now,” Russell notes.
In addition to the type and amount of cannabis in a product, Kure Wellness looks at the other ingredients that make up an edible or ingested item. “We place preference on manufacturers who use certified organic ingredients in their edibles, and we prefer concentrate manufacturers who use solvent-free [extraction] techniques,” says Russell.
For a fee, a few companies certify farms as meeting organic standards. “Until the USDA certifies farms as organic, we will respect the government’s definition of the word organic and only use it to describe general growing practices, and not entire product lines or farms. Our existing relationships with farmers are the best way to determine use of inorganic chemicals and pesticides. Our standard is, ‘Would we feel comfortable giving this product to our grandmother?’ If the answer is no, we don’t have a deal,” Russell says with a smile.
Many sustainable farmers are upping their game and taking their practices to the next level. DEMPure Farms is one example of a certification company that represents over 60 farms in Oregon, California, Washington and other legal states. They’re committed to a polyculture approach to cannabis farming. To receive their Pure certification, farms are required to:
Farms must also refrain from:
For the farms that certify with DEMPure, the philosophy is that sustainability isn’t enough. That’s why they promote no-till farming, using compost and compost tea, cover crops, crop rotation, worm farming and integrating farm animals into the operation.
To a traditional farmer, it may sound like cannabis farms have come full circle—and are now just plain old farms.