Growing clean hemp for a sustainable environment

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Casting for new grafts (all photos courtesy of C. Maffey.)

Hemp is one of the oldest man-made crops. It has been around since 8,000 BC. Cultivated, the beginning of human agriculture. Archaeologists found traces of hemp in what is now Taiwan and China.

As for hemp history in the United States, the plant is as American as apple pie. It was first grown in the United States in Jamestown, Virginia, and was a culture that the colonists had to grow. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both grew hemp. Pioneers used hemp to make car covers.

Hemp uses less water, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides than many other crops. It’s efficient at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making it a less useful crop than many others. One hectare of hemp absorbs 10 to 15 tons of CO2 in one growing season, which corresponds to the average amount of CO2 per person per year.

When it comes to eco-friendly fibers and fabrics, hemp is high on the list with jute and organically grown cotton, flax (linen) and bamboo. Hemp seeds can be used for animal feed and the stem fibers as insulation and animal bedding.

Hemp is good for the soil too. A farmer will get more corn yield from a field if it was first grown with hemp. Wheat and barley are also good crops to grow after a hemp harvest. With all of its potential environmental benefits, some growers want to get into organic certification for hemp and cannabis production.

Go organic
Cassandra Maffey is the vice president of cultivation for Hava Gardens, an organic cannabis grower in De Beque, Colorado and the largest living cannabis grower in the state. Although Hava Gardens is a new venture (they bought their greenhouse and renovated it in 2020 and had their first harvest in 2021), Maffey has 20 years of regulated cannabis growing experience in both the US and Europe.

Cassandra Maffey, vice president of crops at Hava Gardens, said it was important that pests do not enter organic production.

Maffey said she learned about organic farming through trial and error. “I’ve tried synthetics. I’ve tried aeroponics and a few different types of hydroponics. I’ve never been as satisfied with the quality as I was when I switched to organic. “

Hava Gardens grows its plants in a greenhouse, but even under cover, Maffey still firmly believes in growing plants in a soil full of life.

“Living soil is rich in organic matter and probiotic microorganisms. Living soil really only mimics what exists in nature. Soil shouldn’t even be used for a harvest and then thrown away, ”Maffey said.

The soil for new transplants at Hava includes peat moss and worm castings to create a biodynamic environment for young plants.

She prefers to create an environment that slowly consumes what she puts into the ground. “At Hava Gardens we are creating a great ecosystem in the soil for organisms to thrive.”
Maffey likes to use organic seaweed and alfalfa meal along with various crushed minerals and regularly tests the soil for nutrients and micronutrients. Instead of seaweed extract, she uses dry bulk material – for example, dried seaweed. The seaweed flour is minimally processed. It acts naturally as a slow release fertilizer in the soil. With seaweed flour, the fermentation process can occur through the soil. In the case of seaweed extract, fermentation is carried out by the nutrient manufacturer. By buying seaweed flour, a grower isn’t paying to basically ship a lot of water, Maffey noted.

Living soil produces less waste
“If you use your soil once and then throw it away, that’s tons of waste that, in many cases, would go straight to a landfill,” said Maffey.

Plants are transplanted into living soil at Hava Gardens.

In the best case scenario, the used soil goes to an industrial composting facility, but that requires fossil fuels, Maffey emphasizes, and can mean additional trips up to five to six times a year.

Maffey starts with a soil mix that includes materials like peat moss and worm cast. How do the microorganisms get into the soil?

Organic production requires more “eyes on the plants”.

“Mycorrhizal fungi are often in the soil mixture. Much of this food web in the soil is introduced passively, ”she said, citing nematodes as an example. “There are nematodes all over the world. Our broad spectrum inoculant is worm cast. Everything that the worms eat is put into the ground. “

Sometimes a slightly larger increase in microorganisms is required. “We have some inoculants that we can use from time to time to make sure we have a pretty diverse microsystem,” Maffey said. “A lot of people ended up spending a lot of money on microorganisms that might only live for a few days.”

Growing in the greenhouse
Growing plants in a greenhouse has a lower carbon footprint than growing them indoors, Maffey said. Growing in a greenhouse uses less HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) and lighting than in an indoor facility, where growers need to provide 100% of the light.

“Lights generate heat, so you have to provide 50 to 80 percent more HVAC,” Maffey says. For cooling, Hava Gardens uses a wet wall to cool the growing environment with water. “We do not use any refrigerant.”

Pruning a plant in Hava Gardens.

Growing cannabis in a greenhouse won’t work in every location. “For example, in western Pennsylvania or the Midwest, where it’s cloudy and humid for a month, it can be really difficult to get a great cannabis crop in a greenhouse in winter,” Maffey said. “You always have to compensate for the weather.”

It is important to choose the location of your greenhouse; in a warm, dry place with lots of sunlight, Maffey notes.

Eyes on the plant
You can’t let pests gain a foothold. Hiring more people will help with that.
“I think if you want to become an organic grower, integrated pest control is one of the most important things. You need more people, more eyes on the plants to look for pests. More pruning so air can flow through the canopy, ”Maffey said.
Employee training is also important. “In an organic farm, you have to make sure that your employees are really well trained. Then they could say, ‘You have Pythium in the third bay.’ As long as it hasn’t gone too far, you can bring this up right away, ”said Maffey.
With synthetic methods, a breeder could wait too long for a problem and then attempt to correct it with high doses of chemical sprays.

Sustainably growing certifications
In the cannabis world, two California farms are the first to become OCal certified cannabis farms. Certification is carried out by California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). OCal’s standards closely mirror the USDA’s National Organics Program (NOP). It is hailed as “comparable to organic”. The certification goes to Sensibolt Organics from Humboldt County and The Highland Canopy at Sonoma Hills Farm from Sonoma County. Sonoma Hills Farm’s pastures, as well as their flower and vegetable crops, were recently certified organic.

Maffey enjoys using organic seaweed and alfalfa meal along with various crushed minerals, and regularly tests the soil at Hava Gardens, Colorado for nutrients and micronutrients.

The OCal certification process involves completing an application, review, inspection, compliance check, and finally certification. OCal is a California specific program, but if cannabis becomes legal at the federal level, the USDA would likely offer similar organic certification to qualified farms across the country.

Sonoma Hills Farm and Sensibolt Organics are both also Sun + Earth certified. This certification process is different from OCal. Sun + Earth is a non-profit certification for regenerative organic hemp and cannabis smallholder farmers who grow their plants outdoors under the sun. Sun + Earth not only looks at a farm’s sustainable farming practices, but also takes into account how a farm treats its employees and how much the farm is integrated into the community. Examples of community involvement are helping to organize farmers’ markets, participating in CFA or even collecting rubbish along rural roads.

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