A Brief Glossary on Sustainable Cannabis Farming
These farming practices have been adapted to the cannabis industry.
This year’s 420 marked yet another milestone, albeit a particularly sobering one: on that day, the carbon concentration in the world’s atmosphere reached 420 parts per million for the first time in human history. A day-long conference, 420PPM, spoke to the growing cannabis industry, and how it can potentially avoid further burdening the planet. Not just a decade ago, a study on the energy consumption of cannabis cultivation estimated that illegal and legal cannabis growing took up 1% of the nation’s electric use and associated an average kilogram of cannabis with 4600 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions into the air. With 38 states now opting for legality and the industry’s growth since then, it’s probably gone up higher since then.
Consumers will pay a premium for sustainably grown cannabis. Particularly on the West Coast, longtime growers have brought in a variety of conservation-minded agricultural practices, utilized for years within mainstream agriculture, and adapted them for their own purposes. We’ve put together a few of the more interesting trends that have been explored by cannabis farmers over the past few years. It can make a big difference, not just in the quality of cannabis grown, but in the larger impact it makes on the planet we all live in.
As the most recognizable of the agricultural standards, “organic” certifications are handled by the National Organic Program, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture. To gain it, food that is either grown or processed cannot use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, but there are also 40 different agencies and private programs which can also have their own laws.
Since cannabis is federally illegal, manufacturers and cultivators can’t legally market their products or plants under this name. However, hemp can be certified as organic, and many hemp products are.
The health of any farm depends on its soil, and regenerative farming focuses by and large on soil health and judicious use of surrounding resources — hence the rise of regenerative farming. Generally a catchall term for any manner of sustainable agricultural practices, which also includes tactics developed in organic, permaculture and biodynamic farming, regenerative farming has established a beachhead within the California cannabis market, with the annual Emerald Cup featuring a Regenerative Agriculture Garden Expo at its events.
It’s a portmanteau for “permanent” and “agriculture,” and it’s also a sprawling agricultural strategy which embraces many different practices, often derived from indigenous land stewardship, to continue nourishing the land. Defined as “the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way” by its modern-day founder, Tasmanian farmer Bill Mollison, permacultural projects embrace 12 design principles, from simple declarations like “observe and interact” to more philosophical ones such as “use edges and value the marginal” (this refers to the most interesting developments in farming happening around borders”), to create self-sustaining farms which create and recycle their “inputs” and, if they’re designed particularly well, do most of the work for you.
One of its hallmarks is perennial crops. Think apple or cherry trees instead of corn or soy. Such a practice cuts down on tilling the soil. While cannabis isn’t a perennial, this can be managed through crop rotation — you’ll never see a permaculture farm where cannabis, or any other plant, is the only crop.
Perhaps the most esoteric, but still highly valued, of the sustainable agriculture movements, these techniques were developed by the German theorist Rudolph Steiner, who also founded the Waldorf School. It shares many of them in common with other sustainable practices, (i.e. crop rotation, the eschewing of chemical fertilizers and pesticides), but also weighs several other influences, such as astrological concordances, into the calculus of planting. All biodynamic farms are certified by an international organization, called Demeter International, which require that 10% of the land should be preserved for biodiversity.
Particularly in California, biodynamic farms have become a potent marketing tool within the wine industry, with wines bearing the certification winning awards throughout the world. For a crop as shaped by terroir as cannabis, it’s not surprising to see various California growers embrace biodynamic techniques as well.