By John Schroyer
“Organic” has become a big buzzword in the cannabis industry as of late.
An increasing number of patients and consumers are clamoring for marijuana grown using organic methods, and cultivators around the country are claiming they do just that – slapping the word on labels, inserting it into marketing materials and using it in their company names.
But the industry is still so new and fragmented that cultivation practices have not yet been refined to the same point as other crops. And while the U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates what foods can be labeled as organic according to specific growing practices, there are no such guidelines for marijuana because the plant is still prohibited by federal law.
As a result, there aren’t any set standards or an industry consensus on what qualifies for organic cannabis aside from whatever strictures cultivators place upon themselves.
“It’s largely unregulated,” said Ben Gelt, a founding board member of the Colorado-based Organic Cannabis Association, which is working on developing a certification program for growers that want to cultivate organically. “You see a lot of greenwashing, where people are just throwing ‘organic’ on labels because it makes it sell better.”
There’s also a lot of controversy over what constitutes “organic” cannabis. Some growers that claim they grow organically, for instance, use Eagle 20, which many experts say is a dangerously toxic pesticide.
Given all the confusion, what’s a grower that wants to cultivate organic cannabis to do?
Several longtime cannabis growers that focus on organic practices shared some tips for commercial cultivators looking to move in that direction.
Hire Experienced Staff
Instead of bringing on longtime marijuana growers who may have been growing in their basements, look for professionals from the agriculture and horticulture industry who have experience with organic practices specifically.
“I would get somebody who has already been growing organically commercially… and bring them in,” said Ed Rosenthal, a California grower who’s considered a leading expert on organic cultivation. “Experience counts.”
Amy Tancig-Andrle, a board member of the Organic Cannabis Association who also co-owns a Denver cannabis shop, echoed that sentiment. Of her shop’s two lead growers, one is a former organic tomato grower for Whole Foods and the other is an ex-staffer at a raw dairy farm in upstate New York.
Her head growers already understood “the premise of organic and cultural practices and farming practices that are sustainable, that don’t use synthetic chemicals, and that are responsible,” she said.
Look for Organic Pesticides, Fertilizers
It’s nearly impossible to completely avoid pest problems without using some type of spray, but experts say there are still ways to combat pests without using substances such as Eagle 20.
“There are certain sprays that are non-toxic that are recommended to deter and manage mildew and other types of pests,” said Jennifer Martin, a Hawaii-based consultant to the cannabis industry.
Martin suggested essential oils such as neem or lavender. Another Eagle 20 substitute that Martin proposed is called Green Cure, an organic fungicide, though she emphasized it has to be rinsed off immediately after application.
Rosenthal said he uses a pesticide that’s derived from cinnamon, rosemary and thyme. Tancig-Andrle uses garlic oil.
Both Martin and Rosenthal also emphasized the importance of soil health, and they said determining which nutrients to use during the growing process can also be key. Martin pointed to a nutrient called Silica that she said works extremely well, while Rosenthal advised checking the Organic Materials Research Institute’s (OMRI) website for listings.
“There are two things that kind of make some organic or not organic, and that’s the fertilizers that you use and any pesticides or fungicides that you use. If something is registered with OMRI, then it’s okay to use,” Rosenthal said.
Mind Your Environment
Humidity, plant spacing, proper air circulation, overall cleanliness and constant supervision are all key to successfully growing organically, Tancig-Andrle said.
“When plants are cramped together, that creates opportunity for humidity or moisture to stay on leaves,” she said. “If you have a good air flow and proper spacing, then those leaves aren’t going to have any residual moisture buildup that would be a haven for powdery mildew or fungus.”
Pest prevention – as opposed to eradication – is also a big cog in the wheel, she added, so she has staffers consistently scouting for potential problems and checking over leaves to make sure they’re healthy.
“We’re constantly de-leafing and pruning plants so they have a healthy structure,” Tancig-Andrle said.
Focus on Benefits Over Costs
In the end, it all comes down to whether commercial growers want to expend the time, money and energy to grow organically the “right” way. Martin and Rosenthal said they don’t see any real reason why major producers with tens of thousands of plants couldn’t use organic cultivation practices if they really wanted to.
But Tancig-Andrle said there is a very real cost associated with organic production.
Her store probably sacrifices $1 million annually in cannabis revenue because it chooses to grow organically, Tancig-Andrle estimated, along with another quarter million dollars annually on extra payroll costs for their 15 full-time employees.
“It’s a lot,” she said.
Tancig-Andrle estimated her store probably grows around 40% less marijuana than a comparably-sized non-organic cultivation operation. Extra manpower and extra time spent caring for the plants adds up to extra costs for the business, and that ultimately gets passed on to the consumer, she said.
“When consumers come here, it is like going to Whole Foods,” Tancig-Andrle said, but added that the final quality of the product is what differentiates them from competitors.
“It’s just like craft beer,” she said. “Budweiser couldn’t do what some other craft brewer in north Denver could do.”
John Schroyer can be reached at [email protected]