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Vermont Growers and Processors Navigate the Path to Organic Certification

Photo by Erin Doble
Grant Taylor
Grant Taylor 30 Dec 2019

The 2018 USDA Farm Bill opened up a whole new market for Americans when it legalized hemp and hemp products, providing a slew of solutions as well as new challenges for cannabis businesses and consumers around the nation. Of the more than 900 Vermont hemp farmers and CBD processors who are registered with the state, 75% have registered for organic certification.

Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF) certifies businesses in Vermont to the USDA organic regulations, while the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA VT) concentrates its efforts around strong communication and effective programs to support healthy food, strong communities, and organic farms in the state. Together they manage the policies coming from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Organic Program (NOP), and new farm bills.

Before 2001, there was no national-level organic certification for products, and farmers and producers could make whatever claims they wanted.

VOF Certification Director Nicole Dehne has been certifying organic hemp seeds and fiber since the 2014 Farm Bill went into effect, with the first certification for research purposes issued in 2017. She sees the market changing quickly due to demand, and VOF continues to base its certification on the NOP standards developed in 2002.

History of Organic Certification
Before 2001, there was no national-level organic certification for products, and farmers and producers could make whatever claims they wanted. The National Organic Program (NOP) was established by Congress in 2001, creating a uniform measure for all products with that stamp – though some argue that this new standard was actually lower than what Vermont farmers had already been considering organic.

When the 2018 Farm Bill was written four years later, pressure from consumers, industry lobbyists, and farmers led to an expansion for organically certified cannabis products, and the bill included hemp flower, as well as processed hemp and CBD products.

The 2014 Farm Bill allowed farmers to advertise USDA Organically Certified industrial hemp and seeds along with corn, beef, and other products. When the 2018 Farm Bill was written four years later, pressure from consumers, industry lobbyists, and farmers led to an expansion for organically certified cannabis products, and the bill included hemp flower, as well as processed hemp and CBD products.

For comparison, there is another group that has been helping cannabis growers work more responsibly. Clean Green Certified (CGC), a California-based group that has been certifying sustainable farming methods as well as socially responsible practices for cannabis farmers since 2004. CGC operates in seven states currently, including Vermont.

New Hemp Laws Open Doors for Cannabis-Related Businesses

“There’s a sore point amongst producers about the use of the word ‘organic’ on labels without any verification by a certifying organization.”

Freeing up this market after decades of prohibition is a massive change for those involved in the industry. Jared Rolston of Bordertown Farm in Brattleboro points out that “there’s a sore point amongst producers about the use of the word ‘organic’ on labels without any verification by a certifying organization.”

Rolston notes that hemp labels reporting vegan, gluten-free, and non-GMO are “like advertising water as non-dirt and poison-free.” He wants to see more education for consumers about what they are buying, including what the myriad of logos and language really convey. Despite this aspect, Rolston believes that Vermont has done a good job at promoting hemp farming and keeping hemp grower registration fees more affordable than some other states.

Cary Giguere, director of public health, within the agricultural resource management division of the State Agency of Agriculture, is pleased with how things are going. Ever since the 2014 and 2018 Farm Bills’ expansion to allow hemp cultivation, CBD flower, and extract, he has seen customers being increasingly vocal about what they want, and driving an increasingly expansive market.

“We have an opportunity for ‘Vermont Organic’ to represent a higher standard than our national organic certification.”

Giguere says more Vermont hemp growers are seeking organic certification now that it can be applied to hemp grown for more than food and fiber, and that there are new CBD products being introduced every few weeks. He mentioned the importance of third party certification in the coming decades as more markets emerge. “We have an opportunity for ‘Vermont Organic’ to represent a higher standard than our national organic certification,” he says.

Giguere has paid attention to the CGC program as well as the VOF, NOFA VT, and USDA programs. He agrees that “Clean Green goes beyond organic, involving social justice issues, larger environmental conservation efforts, and yearly advances in operational transparency.” He says CGC focuses on production standards, fair wages, and migrant labor issues also. “Both are good marketing tools right now,” he says. “It just depends on which sticker you want on your product.”

Farming Focused on Environmental Health
Regeneration Vermont is a nonprofit that educates and advocates for more sustainable farming practices throughout the state, hoping that the hemp scene here will self-regulate towards standard organic practices. Michael Colby, Regeneration Vermont’s top organic/sustainable guru, is the former executive director of Food & Water, Inc., a grassroots organization that has led national campaigns against radiation, pesticides, and GMOs in food production.

“It doesn’t make sense to grow hemp inorganically.”

Colby thinks Vermont is heading in a good direction, and wants the state’s hemp production to be synonymous with organic. “It doesn’t make sense to grow hemp inorganically,” he said. “It’s a progressive product on a progressive road. Some farms have been creating problems with chemicals and pesticides; organic hemp solves those problems.”

Organic Certification + Vermont = Natural Fit?
VOF’s Dehne sees USDA-based organic hemp certification as a good opportunity to expand into a market that is currently paying well and could help support the viability of Vermont farms. “There’s a natural fit between hemp being grown for health reasons and organic certification,” she stated, noting that CBD and hemp are not classified as medicines and that the FDA has made it unlawful to even advertise it as a dietary supplement.

To be clear, VOF is accredited by the USDA to certify products as organic. This means that organic products must meet rigorous standards that include managing soil fertility and health, protecting natural resources and maintaining and improving biodiversity. Although hemp can be certified organic, cannabis cannot be, no matter how sustainably the crop is managed, because the USDA does not recognize cannabis as a legitimate agricultural crop. The Clean Green Certified program, modeled after the USDA organic program, was created in 2004 as a way to regulate legal cannabis-products that called themselves “organic.”

“There’s a natural fit between hemp being grown for health reasons and organic certification.”

Rolston, who has certifications from both VOF and CGC, agrees that the CGC certification is more stringent than the VOF certification, noting that they are also very similar. Both certifications look at run-on from other properties, the drying process, fertilizer tracking, and sanitation.

Rolston says the VOF did ask him for a timing schedule and calendar for all fertilizers, plantings, and crop rotations, as well as notes on adjustments to his farm’s growing methods. Bordertown strictly farms organic hay and hemp, and finds the certifications from both VOF and CGC to be “very good selling points,” and that both certifications were very efficient processes, only taking a few weeks.

Vermont’s cannabis growers are working to find a collective identity, and become known for their pure, high-quality products. What remains to be seen is whether a USDA organic certification will become the new standard; or if something more in depth, and created specifically for the cannabis industry, will help push sustainable hemp farming even further to create a symbol of Vermont ingenuity and high-quality craft products.

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