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While the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) official organic label for medicinal and adult cannabis is still inaccessible due to its federal illegal status, a new set of standards for regenerative cannabis has been created to fill the gaps. One of these programs is Sun + Earth, whose certification standards are based on three main pillars: soil care and cultivation, which requires sun-grown cannabis to be grown using organic and regenerative methods that improve soil quality; human empowerment, which requires farms to treat workers fairly; and community engagement, which requires farms to be involved in and giving back to their communities. “Soil building was seen as an important organic farm activity, but a truly regenerative farm also recognizes that community building is just as important,” Sun + Earth says on its website.
Its strict standard of nearly 60 requirements quickly caught the attention of hemp and cannabis businesses in the United States. Since its official launch on Earth Day in 2019, Sun + Earth has certified 35 adult cannabis farms, five hemp farms and three cannabis processors.
Andrew Black, Executive Director of Sun + Earth, talks about the origins of the group, the work behind the certified farms and much more.
Cannabis grower: First of all, can you give me some background information on the development of this certification?
AB: There have been a few other cannabis certifications that mirror USDA organic certification – one of which was created by me called the Certified Kind which is still in operation but certifies outdoor, greenhouse and indoor certifications. So there was a desire to create an outdoor cannabis certification program that was grown using the most environmentally friendly practices possible, and also something like fair trade.
When we started developing the standard, we also realized that the community’s commitment to the cannabis farms that helped us develop the standard was really important and that the community was always a huge part of the heritage of the farmers in the areas that we worked in … So did you want a standard where when you participate you can’t just be a soulless company that doesn’t care about the community? Let’s say you have a large company that is starting a farm but not really getting involved or uplifting the local community. We tried to make this impossible by creating a community engagement for Sun + Earth.
HG: Can you give me an overview of the certification process and how long it usually takes?
AB: Basically someone will contact us who is interested in certification and we have a questionnaire just to weed out people. One of the requirements is that they have a permit from their state to grow cannabis or industrial hemp. If so, we will send you an application. The application can also be used as a Sun + Earth farm plan. They answer a series of questions and give us information about their farming practices and how they treat their workers, how much they pay their workers, whether or not they have contracts with their workers, and what they do for the engagement and upliftment Community do their local community.
Once we receive this application, which is your farm plan, we will do an initial review in our formal review process. If the farm turns out to be eligible for certification, we schedule the inspection. Then we do the inspection and you can think of that as a verification step. We check that the information in their farm plan is correct and complete and that all other farming practices they have are in line with our standards. Once the inspection is complete, the inspector will write an inspection report which will be reviewed by one of our certification specialists who is very familiar with our standards. They determine if there are areas where the farm is non-compliant, inadequate, or if changes need to be made. They return a certification decision that is either approved or denied.
We have a certification exam committee made up of our board of directors. We make all data anonymous so the board of directors doesn’t know which farm they are reviewing and they go over it as a group to complete certification. Typically it takes six to eight weeks … and it’s an annual certification process based on USDA organic certification.
HG: How much does it cost to get this certification?
AB: The normal price for certification is $ 2,200, but we have a grant from Dr. Received Bronner’s Magic Soap so we can offer certification for $ 400 this year. [Editor’s note: Sun+Earth was created by a nonprofit offshoot of Dr. Bronner’s, which produces organic soap and other personal care products.] We had 45 of these slots available with reduced fees … and I think they’ll all be full by the end of the year. The aim of this scholarship is to keep certification costs as low as possible so that small businesses can take part in certification without this becoming a financial burden.
HG: Does cannabis and hemp farms seem to be growing interested in this certification? Why do you think this is?
AB: Yes, the interest has grown. We started out in 2018 with 14 plants on a pilot program to see how it would work if we put our standards together, and now we are over 40 years old two years later. Most of the farms we certify are in Northern California, but we also certify farms in Oregon, Washington, Colorado and then as far as Wisconsin and Michigan. We have received requests for applications from farms in North Carolina, Minnesota, and even Puerto Rico.
So there is an interest in this type of certification. This applies to organic cannabis production, but our standards go beyond that [certified] organic. I think people are looking for ways how to become sustainable and they are looking for ways to get recognition for the work they are doing to protect the environment, treat their employees fairly, and uplift their communities. The Sun + Earth Certification Standards Program helps them achieve this recognition.
We also do a few things to promote Sun + Earth and its farms. We have a consumer awareness campaign we’re running in California this year. We partner with approximately 25 pharmacies in California to promote the Sun + Earth certified farms down there. So this is helpful in getting the word out, and that additional promotion of the farms that are being certified also helps.
HG: Can you talk about some of the ways Sun + Earth certified farms participate in their communities?
AB: Yes, it’s enough. Many of the farms we have certified have been an integral part of their communities for several generations and residents of their rural properties. Cannabis was a way for them to make money and still live on the farm they created. Many of them are part of the voluntary fire brigades. Some of them are in school boards.
Specific initiatives would be like a farm, every two or three times a season, they take out all of their crew and they patrol the country road they live on. And some people organize farmers’ markets. Some of the farms have community-sponsored farming programs where they basically sell boxes of vegetables every week. They enable the farms to find ways through their farming practices to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to the local communities where they live. You create community by building these healthy vegetable markets. Part of that is this other model called CFA or Community Supported Agriculture where people buy a subscription every week and keep a box of vegetables.
Other people are advocates and activists of sensible cannabis policies. Some of them are strong proponents of outdoor cannabis production. The reason that is important is that much of the cannabis production in the United States still takes place indoors. In some countries there is actually a stigma against growing cannabis outdoors. This is why we need activists and advocates who support and encourage outdoor cannabis production using the sun as a source of energy, not something like coal power.