Home » Sun+Earth Certified Sets a High Bar for Cannabis Production

Sun+Earth Certified Sets a High Bar for Cannabis Production

Interview by Ben Trollinger

Photo courtesy of Sun+Earth Certified

With the federal legalization of hemp and the continuing state-by-state rollout of recreational psychoactive cannabis, the cannabis industry is just picking up steam in the U.S. A California-based nonprofit is aiming to lead the way on setting regenerative and socially responsible standards that empower farmers and farm workers in a rapidly expanding agricultural sector. Acres U.S.A. recently talked with Andrew Black, the executive director of Sun+Earth Certified, a beyond-organic standard for cannabis and hemp, and Josh Gulliver, a regenerative hemp and herb farmer based in Oregon, about the challenges and opportunities for on the horizon for cannabis growers.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, I thought we’d start with you. Could you tell us a little bit about your operation out in Oregon and why you’ve taken a regenerative approach to hemp production?

Josh Gulliver. I started J and J Organics shortly after the Oregon Hemp Pilot Program was put in place. I started it with a farmer who’s owned a mixed vegetable farm for many years, a place called Gathering Together Farm here in Oregon. I made his compost for five years before the two of us started growing hemp together, as a side project at first. We grew an acre and it turned out really well. So, we continued.

John’s farm was organic. It’s organic today. It was a natural transition to grow organic hemp. Also, the vegetable farm’s a production farm, so we had this natural inclination to really try to produce hemp on a larger scale. But, as we got further and further into the hemp industry, a couple things happened. First, we recognized that no matter how much organic product we produced, we couldn’t get it to the retailer. We couldn’t find an outlet that actually brought that organic integrity all the way to the person who would finally use CBD or hemp products for their well-being. The hemp industry has been a wild ride. So, it was very quick that we all of a sudden went from an acre and a couple of years later, we put in 22.

When we put in that 22 acres, it changed my perspective in a large way about how to grow hemp. We put down a lot of plastic. Even this year, which is two years later, I still roam through the field and I pull up plastic. Again, it’s legal for organics and so forth. But I drove about, I want to say it was 15,000 pounds of plastic and irrigation materials off the farm at the end of that season. Just drove it straight to the dump.

When I would reflect upon that, I wondered how much that actually saved me. What was the purpose of that? I’ve always been somebody who likes to identify myself as more than just a farmer. I’m somewhat of an activist generally. It just didn’t feel right to me.

So very quickly, we decided to eliminate plastic use. Rather than use traditional weed control, we would load the fields with interplanting of everything, from calendula to sunflower, and all sorts of different things. We quickly identified the benefits of that just from a pollinator perspective and the ecological support system that we created here on the farm. It just turned into something really fantastic.

Then, about three or four years ago, I want to say, I was doing an event called Organicology. I had the pleasure of listening to Andrew Black talk about Sun+Earth certification. Certifications are something that I’ve always really been interested in. I like when certifiers and certifications align with my values generally, from the farming perspective right through the social justice issues I like to align myself with. It was pretty obvious right off the bat, after listening to them present that their kind of certification was something that we’d been looking for.

At the time—and even today—did it have the clout of something like organics? Not necessarily, but it was definitely something that better aligned with our values.

Acres U.S.A. This might be a good opportunity to bring Andrew into the conversation, and walk us through Sun+Earth certification and what that means, and why specifically that is needed in addition to something like, say, Regenerative Organic Certification.

Andrew Black. Sun+Earth is founded on three pillars. We have earth care, human empowerment, and community engagement. Where organics does a pretty good job of trying to get people to stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, Sun+Earth also requires that and goes several steps further with the earth care portion of the standard. It really promotes biodiversity and mulching, reduced tillage, cover cropping, and farms creating their own fertility onsite.

So someone like Josh, who has experience making high-quality compost and utilizing it, and doing companion planting, and cover cropping — already practicing what we would call regenerative organic practices — it was a lot easier for him to qualify for Sun+Earth and meet those earth care standards.

Now, like I said, a very interesting thing about Sun+Earth that makes it different than USDA Organic is the pillars of human empowerment and community engagement. If you look at USDA Organic right now, it’s clear that there’s nothing in those standards that really protect farm workers, or tries to foster sustainable working relationships between the farmer and the farm worker, right?

So, we’ve added some very simple principles that require written contracts between farm owner and farm labor, and requires a commitment to farm worker protections. Similarly, we have added a community engagement piece to the Sun+Earth standard. Again, it comes from this idea of simply requiring a written strategy about how you engage with the community.

We don’t want to go and overregulate the farmers that work with us. But if you have some simple rules that shift the perspective away from me, me, me, and put it outwards towards the landscape, the workers, and the community, then we’ve actually done something radical. We’ve shifted the certification program away from just buying inputs, and pumping out product, and making money to okay, let’s expand our horizons here and consider these things, and actually have conversations with the farms about various aspects.

In that way, Sun+Earth is very unique as a certification standard. I’m excited to see how we can implement more certification in hemp. Josh mentioned that we have, right now, certified over 40 farms. That’s true. Sun+Earth Certified was created with the THC cannabis farmer in mind. We didn’t create Sun+Earth to capture all the hemp farmers in the world. We created Sun+Earth thinking about how are these legacy homesteader medical marijuana farms going to survive in these places where they’ve been farming cannabis for its medicinal purposes for two, three, four generations. That was the impetus of Sun+Earth and it’s grown to include certain hemp farms, like Josh’s, who goes way beyond organic practices and has a commitment to the three pillars that I mentioned.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, it sounds like you were doing a lot of the earth care practices already before going through the certification process. I’m curious, though, how that process changed your business or changed your approach, particularly the community engagement piece. Could you talk more about that?

Gulliver. Sure. I’d say the biggest thing that it’s done — this is a little detrimental on myself — sometimes when you are required to do something, even though it’s something that you really want to do generally, it forces you to find the time to do it. I’d suggest that Sun+Earth’s priorities have helped me align my own in terms of educational outreach. My partner here at our processing center and I try our best to do community outreach all the time, whether it’s just at our local co-op talking to people about organics, about Sun+Earth, about regenerative agriculture, and what that means for their final product on the shelf and so forth. [Sun+Earth] holds me a little more accountable to make sure that I do the things that I want to do, to make sure I find the time to do them.

Acres U.S.A. I think consumer awareness is something that’s always evolving. You might have people who are really in touch with where their food comes from and they have relationships with farmers, et cetera, et cetera. But cannabis is this thing that has come onto the landscape over the last few years through legalization efforts. The transparency and awareness within that industry is in its infancy. Could you contrast what you’re doing with what the industry is doing as a whole, and how those two things are different? In other words, in your case, how is most CBD product produced in the U.S.? How is that different from what you’re doing?

Black. The current model of agriculture is being used in hemp production as well, and for CBD production. You can think of a 50-acre block or a 100-acre plot, where people are planting hemp in rows with black plastic and pumping them with synthetic fertilizers, not considering or making space for plant biodiversity within the rows or alongside the rows. So, you’ve got really monoculture cropping going on with hemp. You can see it. Come out to Oregon in the summer and you just drive by any country road, you can see it north, south, all the way into eastern Oregon. You can see it all over the nation, right?

So, that type of farming, it’s non-organic. There’s very little consideration to treating the landscape as a home place or a living organism. That’s in stark contrast to Josh’s farm, J and J Organics, where they’re not using black plastic. They’re actually planting medicinal calendula crops and other medicinal herb crops, saving the seed back from these herbs. And now they’ve realized well, maybe we can’t make it just by selling our CBD, our dried flower bulk, to another CBD processor. So, they’re processing all sorts of medicine in their own facility. They’ve achieved that over the years and are having success.

There are other hemp farms that we certify, that we work with through Sun+Earth that do the same thing, or a little bit differently. They’ll plant hemp in, let’s say, a quarter-acre block or a half-acre block alongside echinacea that they also harvest and take to market. There is a stark difference between a reality where hemp becomes just another commoditized monocrop versus hemp that is grown in a way where you’d let your children play in the field.

Gulliver. There’s so much noise in the industry that the certifications are, A, very important to get so that whether you’re wholesaling or retailing, it allows you to show people that you’re trying to adhere to some level of integrity.

I also would suggest that hemp farmers—most of them—have kind of come from a cannabis background. If you’ve my age and you’ve been growing cannabis, you’ve experienced it as a real illegal thing to do, in most situations — unless you’re brought up on the west coast. Naturally, it’s created this very internal culture where people don’t really share information. They’ve been in their basement trying to do the best that they can. It’s not a collaborative environment.

I’d say that early on, my relationship with John Eveland at Gathering Together, taught me that to do this on any kind of scale that’s achievable and that you can be successful at, and to do it in a manner that carries values and integrity to the person you’re selling product to, it takes that collaboration. It takes getting out there and talking about it, and settling the dust a little bit, and realizing that a vegetable farmer who’s been farming for 40 years versus a cannabis guy who’s been in their basement for five, the cannabis guy, it’s going to behoove him to talk to that vegetable farmer to figure out how to do it on a scale that he can actually produce a product that gets to a retail outlet.

Early on, I mentioned we recognized that there wasn’t a way to get organic product to a retail outlet, to an individual. We started another Sun+Earth-certified facility actually called SunGold Botanicals. That’s where we take our hemp and we turn it into products. It gets turned into raw oil, it gets brought right through to a finished product.

It’s important to mention Sun+Earth on that end too because it’s about maintaining the integrity of the plant right out of the ground, right? Sun+Earth would never certify, say, an isolate made with harsh chemicals. It’s a CBD isolate, right? It has no THC, but honestly it’s terrible for the environment and it’s a terrible thing to make, but probably the most popular CBD product right now.

Sun+Earth helps us carry that integrity all the way through. That’s why we do the outreach. Why we let people know these things. I’d say 15 years ago, I was in California and I ran a microgreen farm. It was similar, right? Microgreens were something I was bringing to chefs and they were like, what the…? What am I going do with this? We had to do an educational outreach. Now, I think we’re doing the same thing.

On the manufacturing end, we get to do it through white-labeling tinctures for smaller companies that want to put their own product on shelf. That gives us this decentralized way to get information to the consumer. Naturally, the centralized system seems to fail in our case. So, I like the educational outreach aspect of everything.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew, could you tell us a little bit more about the history of Sun+Earth? It has a connection with Dr. Bronner’s, specifically David Bronner, I believe. Could you tell us a little bit about that? And why that was something that he was passionate about and wanted to start? Because it seems to me that Dr. Bronner’s has a pretty masterful grasp of supply chains.

Black. Exactly.

Acres U.S.A. I’m imagining that that’s incredibly useful for someone like Josh. I guess it’s really two questions. One is background, history. Then, the other is helping farmers and growers understand how to vertically integrate what they’re doing.

Black. Well, let me tackle the first question first. I’ve been involved in organic certification since 2005. I worked for a long time with Oregon Tilth doing certification throughout the United States. Also in Latin America, I ran the Latin American program for Oregon Tilth for a number of years. That experience really helped me understand standards and how to implement a certification program.

In 2017, I was approached by Dr. Bronner’s. They were interested in putting together a certification standard that was for sun-grown cannabis that went beyond organics. That was the root conversation. In 2018, Dr. Bronner’s funded us to do a pilot program.

We created a technical advisory committee. We had eight meetings to create the standards. During that time, while we were creating the standards, we recruited 12 farms in the Emerald Triangle in California — Mendocino, Humboldt and Trinity Counties, and Sonoma County, actually, as well — to participate. We tested our certification program with those guys. They helped us flesh it out. We actually went to their farms twice that year, so they had two inspections each. We worked out the kinks. We had a 50-day public comment period, received comments and then published our standard.

Since then, we’ve grown to 40 certified farms. Our goal is to get up to 60 certified farms or manufacturers this year. Dr. Bronner’s is the main funder. They have a program where — it’s called Constructive Capital. They give away a lot of philanthropy money to nonprofits that they’re interested in supporting. A lot of them are in the regenerative agriculture space. That’s where we fit in.

Acres U.S.A. Describe how Sun+Earth is a necessary piece of this particular industry. Why couldn’t someone like Josh just do Regenerative Organic Certification, which Dr. Bronner’s is also involved in? Why was it important to have a specific certification for cannabis growers?

Black. Well, I think back in 2018, when we started, the ROC, which you referred to, was just also getting started. Also, we were dealing with THC cannabis farms. I don’t know if the ROC will actually certify adult-use cannabis. On some level, this certification was needed specifically for sun-grown adult-use cannabis.

I was a part of — and I still am — Certified Kind, which is a certification standard for organically grown cannabis. That certification standard allows indoor famers to get certified, for example. But Sun+Earth goes beyond that and only certifies cannabis that was grown under the sun and in the soil. But the need was there for a high-bar standard. That was created collaboratively. The need is there because most certification standards can’t touch adult-use cannabis. It’s still too much of a stretch. For example, USDA Organic certifiers won’t certify adult-use cannabis, even in states that have legalized it.

Acres U.S.A. Josh, could you talk a little bit about your approach to producing CBD and other products? You seem to have a big focus on soil health. Do you see a big difference in the end product?

Gulliver. The values are dictated by what you want to do with it at the end product. For example, we’ve been making essential oil, hemp essential oil. The plant that I want in the field that I’m going to utilize for hemp essential oil is not the same one that I want to utilize for standard hemp biomass that we might put through an ethanol extraction to product hemp CBD oil. So, I’d say that the biggest thing there is to start with the genetics. We utilized different genetics, depending on what we want to use it for. It’s hard to say that it changes the final product substantially.

In our processing outfit, we’ll have multiple farms bring us their hemp. The final product is typically pretty similar when it comes to CBD oil. The big difference is terpenes, to tell you the truth. The smell. That’s why I mentioned the essential oil as well because we only want to use cultivars that produce that really heavy cannabis smell so we can allow that to transcend through to the final product. But really, I’d say that the way I grow a vegetable is very similar to the way I grow hemp. We test the soil, we figure out what kind of nutrients it wants.

One of the nice things about Sun+Earth is it does limit how much nitrogen we can put down. One thing Andrew and I haven’t really mentioned in any kind of depth is climate change. All these things that we’re talking about, all the regenerative agricultural aspects of this, is completely related to that. To give you an example, we did a test on dry farming hemp a few years ago. This will tie back in, but when we did the test, we determined that with no irrigation whatsoever, we only lost about ten percent of production. So as a farmer, I had to say to myself, “Okay. What does that really mean from an input perspective? Let alone a climate change perspective, but what does that mean from just an input perspective? Can I farm on even more of a shoestring by not applying water?”

To give you the number, 49 gallons of water produced one pound of hemp on an irrigated field, and 4.6 gallons of water produced hemp on an unirrigated field. Which is a substantial difference, and we only lost ten percent in our production. So, I have to ask myself as a farmer, those kind of experiments have definitely shaped how we move forward, and how much we apply, and when we apply irrigation, for example.

Acres U.S.A. You mentioned earlier using different genetics based on intended application. Can you talk more about your approach to genetics? I know it varies by hemp farmer.

Gulliver. I mentioned that I come from a vegetable production farming background. I don’t want to see blanks in my field. I don’t want my hemp seeded. When I put regular seed out, naturally I’m going walk through that field and I’m going pull out all the males. I might have 20 females in a row, and a blank of 40 feet and two females.

When I look at how to efficiently farm in the manner that I want to, we’re tight. We’re tight on margins. It’s hard to be a regenerative farm in today’s agricultural community. Especially with hemp. Hemp is a roller coaster.

I have the privilege of being right down the road from Oregon CBD. Oregon CBD is one of the larger hemp seed producers in the country. They’re really good at it. They have $100 million of overhead and all sorts of things to make these seeds. What’s nice about that is I’m keenly aware that whether it’s an echinacea seed or whether it’s a hemp seed, it’s gonna grow better in your environment if it was bred in your [environment]. Naturally, that is where I source my production seeds from. I source feminized seed only because I don’t want those blanks in the field. Because I can’t afford those blanks in the field, quite honestly. There’s some great farms that are now trying to produce feminized seed in a manner in which Sun+Earth supports and organic supports. East Fork Cultivars is one of those. We use them for our essential oil. They’re also in southern Oregon. So again, it’s a privilege for us because they’re right next door and I know it’s produced here in Oregon, I know it’s going to grow well in my environment. So, it’s pretty simple for me when it comes to that. I definitely would prefer to source seeds locally and I do.

Acres U.S.A. I’m wondering if you had to come up with a few rules of thumb for people who are looking to get into regenerative hemp, what would you tell them? Where would they start? What should they know?

Black. For me, it’s simple. It’s very simple. My number one advice would be to, before you even think about doing this, cultivate a market for it. Too many farmers have been left with thousands of pounds of hemp and incurred tens of thousands of dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars of loss because they went big. Start small, know your market.

Gulliver. Yeah. I’d also say that starting out with a regenerative approach, starting out with an organic approach. There’s a general idea that it’s more expensive to farm that way. You do have to do it on a shoestring budget. But when you approach it practically and say to yourselves, “Okay. If I interplant with this type of cultivar, I can avoid weeding.” Especially when you’re first setting up a farm, I think when you go into it with those ideals and those priorities aligned correctly, in two or three years, you can really create a, I don’t want to call it a food forest, but you can create a real ecological system that continues to produce for you. That is not going happen with traditional agricultural and conventional agricultural methods.

Acres U.S.A. Andrew’s advice was to know your market and have a market, build a market. Was that your experience? Did you go into it that way?

Gulliver. I don’t want to be too much of a cynic. The hemp industry is a very tough industry to exist in right now. J and J Organics has expanded their crop line by almost 20 cultivars that’s non-hemp related this season alone just because we need to continue to do things. We need to produce some kind of revenue. Hemp alone, as a company that’s been fairly successful in the industry here — at least I like to think we have been—hemp alone would not keep my farm 100% afloat this year. The industry has gone from something where you’re seeing $80 or $90/pound price points to all of a sudden conventional hemp, you might be lucky to get $1.50, $2/pound right now in today’s market, which is a tremendous crash.

I guess not only do you want to be careful going into it, but you want to really do some realistic numbers and say to yourself, “Okay. What am I going to put into this and what am I going to get out of it? It’s a difficult market to navigate right now. My biggest thing with it is do not put all your eggs in one basket. It’s funny. J and J Organics is very much considered a hemp farm. Like I mentioned, we have a lot of different crops on the list. I don’t necessarily identify myself as only a hemp farm these days because I think it’s going be hard to exist as just that.

Acres U.S.A. What are the factors at play there?

Gulliver. Well, I’ve give you the most simple explanation I can. Last year, it cost me about $11.70/pound to get out of the field. I could sell it for maybe $15.

Acres U.S.A. Even the high-end stuff that you’re producing?

Gulliver. Even organic, biodynamic, regenerative, Sun+Earth-certified hemp. There are customers out there that will recognize the importance of those ideals and those certifications, and they’ll pay you for them. But with an industry that you can get on eBay and buy an isolate tincture that has 5,000 milligrams of CBD and they have no idea where it came from, they can get it for $22 or something. Then, compare that to what we produce on a shelf that’s a much, much different product.

Acres U.S.A. It sounds like there’s got to be a change in consciousness. I was talking to a blueberry farmer in Oregon, up in your neck of the woods. He was talking about his goal was always to produce the most nutrient-dense blueberries he could, certified organic, et cetera. He realized that wholesale distributors don’t care about your nutrient density. They just want your organic certification. It’s like getting all these certifications and then expecting a big premium isn’t necessarily a realistic goal?

Gulliver. No, it’s not. That’s what I mentioned, one thing about certifications that’s really important to me personally is this aligning of values. Because I think once people discover what Sun+Earth is about and what it represents, then yes, those individuals that now have learned about it are going to see the value, going probably try to search out Sun+Earth-certified products. But yeah, they don’t always equate to profits or revenue, or any of that thing, to be frank. Not at all.

Black. That’s clear. The certification itself isn’t going raise the value that you can get at the marketplace by 3X, 4X, in a similar way that some organic crops get. It’s not going happen. Because of that, we have a scholarship fund that basically allows us to do the third-party certification on a shoestring budget, where we only charge the growers $400. The annual fee for the certification is $400, which is a pretty good value as far as certifications go. It’s a flat fee. We can thank Dr. Bronner’s, their charitable arm, for that because they’re the ones that are supporting this Sun+Earth program and allowing us to do that.

Acres U.S.A. To close this out, Andrew, could you tell us a little bit about the future for Sun+Earth, and what your plans are? I know that it’s sort of rolling out in different parts of the country.

Black. Our goal is to be a certification standard that we can offer anywhere in the world where they have adult-use cannabis farming or hemp farming. But right now, we’re really strong in California. We have over 30 farms certified in California. We’re focused on trying to educate the marketplace in California to develop what I call a truly green marketplace in California. If we’re successful there, I think that the same types of projects that we do where we’re going into dispensaries and educating the bud tenders about why Sun+Earth is important, and how we’re making an impact, and why consumers will be interested in having these high-quality products. That type of education at the point of sale is a project that we’re focused on. What we realize is that with this new certification, and just certification in general, it’s that point of sale education and awareness is so important. We’ve got initiatives there.

We hope to expand to the eastern seaboard. We’re talking to some people in Massachusetts. Little by little — just onesies, twosies — if we can certify hemp farms on the East Coast, or even adult-use cannabis in some of these states that are legalizing, then we can continue to put the information out there and raise awareness about these beautiful farms — how they’re farming, why it’s different, why it’s important.

That’s the goal. The goal is just to raise the awareness about these farms and help them succeed. The tendency in agriculture and all things in our culture these days is to point to technology and say this is going to save us. In agriculture, the technology that is put out there is GMO and chemicals, and even sometimes CRISPR technology. These are suspect. We really need to shift the narrative. This type of technology is inferior to the natural technology that traditional cultures have known about for eons and that we’ve added to. That is part of the message that ultimately comes out. We’re saying grow cannabis under the sun and in the earth. It’s better for the environment. It produces a superior product. This seems like a no-brainer to a lot of people who are already familiar with the benefits of organic agriculture. But to a lot of people who know nothing about hemp production or cannabis production, or even how to grow a tomato, the concept of natural farming is foreign to them. If we can bring this through cannabis and hemp, the idea of natural farming and how important it is to cannabis and hemp, then we’ve succeeded.