Farms Finest: Growing high-altitude organic marijuana | AspenTimes.com

Farms Finest: Growing high-altitude organic marijuana

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

Chris Van Hook inspects Maggie's Farm's organic marijuana in Colorado.

The tarantula reminded me of two things: first why I like cowboy boots and secondly that Colorado's Wild West is still going strong — only the shootouts are now between state and federal marijuana laws.

In spite of the giant and hairy spider, I was thrilled to be looking at acres of sun-grown, organic marijuana, proof that sustainable and healthy growing practices can also be found in Colorado's emerging agricultural crop.

The new "farmers" are growing marijuana in million-dollar greenhouses and hydroponic closets, which resemble gun safes. But, like food, ingredients in marijuana and edible products will begin to require more transparency.

The gold rush in the beautiful Rocky Mountains is on, but this time it is marijuana. I have wondered what products and methods are being used in growing. Healthy food comes from an equally healthy environment, so how could this be any different for marijuana from how it is for tomatoes? Why not be able certify some marijuana choices as organic like other foods?

My search for answers led to "Clean Green Certification" and owner Chris Van Hook, of Northern California. He is a licensed attorney and a certified inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

I asked how Clean Green's organic marijuana inspection evolved, and Van Hook responded: "In the past, several California marijuana growers asked me for an organic inspection that would mirror the USDA's Certified Organic program. While there are no federal organic certifications for marijuana (federally illegal), a third-party certification, modeled after the USDA's, is a positive step for organic growers. This certification allows organic methods and product-quality recognition, plus their compliance is already in place for federal when that day arrives."

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Wanting to know more, I arranged a day to observe the recertification of the only Colorado organically certified marijuana business, Maggie's Farm.

We met in Denver, and the following dawn the owner picked us up, and for what seemed like hours we drove to Maggie's Farm's growing fields. We stopped at a desolate hilltop to stretch our legs and look over a valley — where a tarantula casually passed between us. Below us spread acres of meticulously clean rows of over 65 strains of organic marijuana, quietly extending to the horizon. All were planted in ground, spring-fed, full sun and naturally healthy.

We then continued down to the field and harvesting facility and began walking between the uniformly spaced marijuana rows. There, plants were carefully inspected under hand lenses, soil tests taken, irrigation reviewed, harvesting procedures recorded and all growing products listed. Together, employees, the owner and Van Hook took time to discuss industry news and cultivation practices.

By midday we were back on the road, headed for the inspection of two of Maggie's Farm's dispensaries. There, at each location, modern glassware displayed extensive varieties of edibles and bud strains. Professional sales associates gave the feeling you were with a hometown pharmacist as they described products in detail.

While Van Hook worked on the second location's recertification, I spoke with the manager and was shown how every nursery plant is banded with a barcode and tracked from field to final point of sale. Precise accounting is the best compliance assurance for this rapidly changing industry.

The Clean Green Certification is a three-part program composed of legal compliance, growing methods and crop inspection. Combined, they distinguish the organic product quality from field to sale. Environmentally clean standards and sustainability methods are an important element in the review.

Consumers of medical marijuana naturally want to obtain the most pure product. As availability increases, even more consumers will look for product transparency.

All crops get lab-tested for THC and CBD levels and more, but there are no federal labs to test marijuana, and there's no standardization. (This is why Van Hook uses federally licensed soil-testing labs.)

The day ended long after sunset, and while driving back to Denver, Van Hook energetically talked about the day and how important it is to help clients grow the very best organic product.

Exhausted, I said my thanks and goodbyes, and Van Hook cheerfully responded he was off to Wisconsin at 4 a.m. for a USDA cheese inspection.

Growing more agriculture crops will help put silent farmland into production, which is invaluable in countless ways beyond the obvious economics. "New" crops, whether marijuana or hemp, hopefully will be grown sustainably, not repeating the errors of Big Agribusiness. But, admittedly, it will be difficult to keep Skippy, Betty and Oscar from getting into this cookie jar.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, visit http://www.farms finest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farmsfinest.com.

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