Agriculture & Cultivation

Your Guide to ‘Organic’ Cannabis

January 10, 2017 / By admin

Products grown, manufactured and distributed with organic methods and practices are in high demand. The term “organic” provides consumer confidence in the safety and morality of the products they are purchasing. In turn, operations that comply with all state-mandated guidelines, while working to provide a product that is produced via standardized ecological principles, appeal to that consumer confidence, in addition to having resilient production that can absorb biological shocks and disturbances.

The National Organic Standards Board has defined the “organic agriculture” as: “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain and enhance ecological harmony.”

With the above definition, it is important to ask if cannabis can even be grown in an organic manner. Unfortunately, the term organic is often used as a greenwash to attract consumers. While many cannabis patients and consumers are under the impression that the organic label in the cannabis industry is governed by a set of rules and regulations, no guidelines or stipulations exist for cannabis to be produced organically. (There is no federally recognized organic certification for cannabis.) Many steps, however, can be taken to ensure you are using organic practices and methodologies to provide a safe product for consumers.

Cannabis: Organic Products Versus Organic Methodologies

 

Without federal regulation, definitions and guidance for production and labeling, cannabis is governed on a loose patchwork of state laws that are often difficult to enforce. Many opportunities exist for businesses in this industry to deceive consumers and regulators.

While hoping for federal assistance is mostly a fantasy, there are positive ways to move forward that will foster the most responsible, honest practices for consumers and workers. Growers must be prepared to speak to every aspect of the cultivation and distribution process, including:

Lighting Choices

 

  • There is no such thing as a USDA-certified organic indoor lighting option. The sun is the only option.
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  • The sun provides both long-wave ultraviolet A (UVA) and short-wave ultraviolet B (UVB), which serves as an antifungal agent. This prevents powdery mildew, increased production of resin, which creates high potency. Plus it’s free.
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  • Specialty indoor lights that contain UVA and UVB have potential to create a dangerous work environment due to the high concentration and proximity to workers’ eyes. If proper protection is not used, eye and skin damage can occur.
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  • When compared with electric lighting, sun-grown crops have zero carbon footprint with regards to power grid consumption (related to lighting).

 

Growing Media

 

  • Hydroponic production can’t be classified as organic even when the substrate is considered organic. Organic cultivation entails continuous soil restoration by adding combinations of manure, compost and natural rock. Since hydroponic crops don’t use soil, hydroponically grown crops would not be able to be classified as organic by the USDA, if a certification was available.
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  • Hydroponic growing media can be classified as organic on an individual basis. These consist of different naturally occurring amendments, such as coco coir, peat moss, perlite, bone meals, Azomite, and many other naturally replenishable, nutrient-rich products.
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  • The use of beneficial bacteria, microbes and advantageous fungi create a living soil and strengthen the plant’s immune system, nutrient uptake and ability to resist stress-inducing environmental factors. Mycorrhizae, compost teas and other microbes often are added to an organic medium to assist in creating a living soil. Water used in production also is an important factor, as most municipalities include chlorine in tap water, and the chlorine will kill many of the microbes and bacteria.
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Disease Mitigation

 

  • Organic-based standard operating procedures (SOPs) and methodologies are key to disease prevention, and it is not as simple as applying one product to prevent or combat any specific infestation.
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  • As a rule, healthy plants are less likely to get sick. An organic soil-input regimen that ensures every plant is getting the nutrients and attention needed at each growth stage is a must. If one plant is missed and gets sick, those pathogens then have the potential to spread to the rest of the crop.
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  • A plant’s environment is a critical facet in disease mitigation. A consistently clean, well-ventilated operation with no large shifts in temperature and humidity is essential. Indoor and greenhouse facilities that create homeostasis using dynamic and responsive environmental controls are necessary for keeping plants healthy.
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  • When adding nutrients in organic methods, a grower could include any variety of naturally occurring amendments based on the desired level of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients. Compost teas and probiotics also aid the system by creating symbiotic relationships that strengthen plant health and immunity. They should be utilized as part of an integrated pest management (IPM) program.
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  • Using beneficial/predatory insects: The use of ladybugs to treat or prevent spider mites is a common practice within organic agriculture, and many other types of insects can be used successfully and will prevent the need to apply sprays or other pest control products to your crops.
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  • Oil-based pest control products, such as peppermint, clove, geranium and neem oil, work to disrupt and prevent pest infestations. They provide a layer of protection on the leaves of plants, and the oil will gradually seep into the plant. Oil-based pest control is typically implemented as a foliar application used primarily during the vegetative stage. The plant retains these oils and excretes them slowly through the growing process without the need to spray frequently.
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  • Pest/disease identification protocols need to be defined, to include the process the cultivation staff will implement when a pest or disease is discovered. Reactionary responses can be the death of a crop and/or a business. A pest or disease is not a reason to go into panic mode; by responding in a systematic fashion with a defined process to mitigate the disease, whether it is altering the environment to make it less appealing, releasing beneficial insects, or another approach, the importance is knowing the plan of action and implementing it as specified in your SOPs.

 

Other Operational Best Practices

 

  • New strain/clone protocols for new plants entering a facility should include quarantine and observation away from other plants. Too often, clones compromised with pests or other disease are sold, with the contamination not obvious upon purchase. Designate an area to inspect and cure these clones as necessary to prevent putting the rest of your cultivation at risk.
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  • Cleaning processes must be strictly defined and followed, and growers should be careful about the types of cleaning products used, so that unforeseen chemicals are not unknowingly leeched into the plant.
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  • Curing plants with the proper humidity is essential to ensure they do not dry too fast or too slow. High humidity can lead to mold at any growth stage, and proper ventilation in a drying room is essential to ensure that flowers are curing properly.

 
Creating a product with an organic methodology requires an in-depth understanding of the inputs that go into it. When making an infused-cannabis product, organic agricultural practices must be used to grow the flour, sugar and other components for your product to meet organic standards. Every ingredient used should be evaluated for its origin, cultivation process and shelf life.

Quality organic practices begin with having a meticulous and rational cultivation system. Having well-defined operational procedures, standardized across an entire business, will result in the best outcome. While it’s common to have SOPs in place, these SOPs may not be organically sound. An example would be an SOP for managing spider mites that involves dousing the affected area with Eagle 20; clearly, this SOP is not organic (nor is Eagle 20 on Colorado’s list of cannabis-approved pesticides).

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State programs need to fund and implement better enforcement policies that ensure consistent third-party sampling is completed, standardized testing facilities are used, and real penalties are incurred when rules are broken. All of these factors benefit industry participants who want to see long-term success for their operation and the industry.

How Producers Can Best Represent Organic

 

Compliance is a large part of maintaining responsible practices that best exemplify the term “organic.” One of the easiest ways producers can create a product that could (when federal law allows) be considered organic is to adhere to all regulations put forth by the state program. The list of banned pesticides in Colorado and Oregon is comprehensive, and sets forth approved and banned products similar to those approved in organic agriculture.

Producers need to understand what they can and can’t do, and use those practices daily. Within these applied compliance standards, there are other guiding frameworks producers should strive to work within. Using defined good agricultural practices (GAPs), SOPs, and third-party certifications, such as American’s For Safe Access’ (ASA) Patient Focused Certification (PFC), will guide the protocols with which operations should comply.

Working with other industry professionals, and pulling from a long history of sustainable agricultural practices, producers have a plethora of information to use when designing responsible operations. Establishing an integrated pest management (IPM) program is critical to any operation, organic or otherwise. Clean room protocols and disease vector management all support healthy-plant production. Healthy plants are easier to maintain, produce quality yields, and typically cost less to fix when a problem does arise.

The Bigger Picture

 

The idea of producing an organically sourced product is to provide a high-quality, safe product for consumers while avoiding harm to and supporting biological systems. These benefits support a producer’s bottom line through increasing the efficient use of inputs while creating a product with consumer appeal, as well as furthering the industry’s efforts to do the right thing for people, planet and profit.

The best methods and materials to use in organic cannabis production are neither secret nor in need of innovation. Implementing responsible-cultivation methods used for generations by farmers caring for the longevity of their lands and their customers will be the best way forward.

In a new, federally unregulated industry, consumers need to demand accountability, and producers must demonstrate that accountability through accurate representations of their growing materials and processes.

If there’s a takeaway here for cannabis entrepreneurs and businesspeople looking to get an edge in the ‘organic’ consumer market, it’s this: Standardize operational procedures and systematize every single step of your process to align with growing methods and products that are good for people, planet and your bottom line. Make sure to act appropriately in all levels of compliance that have been set forth by the state program, and advocate for tight oversight and enforcement. This will allow you to look at your operation as a whole and say, “This product is grown using organic methodologies and organic ingredients, every time and without fail.”

About the Author: Nic Easley is the founder and CEO of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C). A decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Easley established a 35-acre organic farm in Colorado after completing his military service, and has degrees in biology and environmental studies. Over the past eight years, Easley and 3C has consulted with more than 75 clients in the Cannabis industry and formed 3C to bring organic, sustainable cultivation solutions and business practices to the world.

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