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Branded Buds

Third-party certification offers growers an edge

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As California's cannabis industry gathers mass, the message to small growers seems to be, get big or get out.

Harborside Farms, Oakland's heavyweight cannabis dispensary, also operates a 47-acre farm in the Salinas Valley alongside more traditional lettuce and flower crops. The farm, much of it under greenhouse glass, has about 360,000 square feet of growing space and the capacity to produce 100,000 plants.

"Harborside takes grief for being the 800-pound gorilla," says Jeff Brothers, chief executive of Harborside Farms' parent company in an interview with the New York Times last month. "But if we want cannabis to be widely accepted, we need it to be cheap."

Is that true? Big farms and cheap pot sends chills down the spines of Northern California's cottage-scale growers who fear the rise of industrial-scale cannabis. But third-party certification and branded, boutique farms may help small-scale growers compete.Single-vineyard-designated wines have found a lucrative niche. Why not artisanal pot?

A small but growing number of biodynamic certified farmers are adding cannabis to their crops. Biodynamic agriculture is a holistic method of farming that goes beyond organic standards and draws esoteric concepts developed by Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. Among other things, certified biodynamic marijuana has to be grown outdoors without light deprivation. (Cannabis farms cannot be certified organic under the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of federal marijuana prohibition.)

Elizabeth Candelario, managing director of the biodynamic certification nonprofit Demeter USA, says California wineries were early adopters of biodynamics because of the superior wine it produces and the ecological benefits. "Those of us who worked in the wine industry need look no further to see where cannabis is going to go," she says. "The only difference is this a plant that can really help heal people."

Mike Benziger is a nationally recognized expert in biodynamic viticulture whose small plot of medical cannabis was certified by Demeter in 2015. He's also a two-time cancer surviror, thanks in part to pot, he says.

"I want to raise the level of respect for the land and farming practices," Benzier says. "My dream for Sonoma County is, of course, for a vibrant wine industry, but also a vibrant farm industry with some medical marijuana to help with the income stream."

Healdsburg's Shed will hold a panel discussion on biodynamic cannabis on May 7 at 1pm. The panel will be moderated by yours truly. Panelists include Mike Benziger, Alicia Rose of Herba Buena dispensary, grower Steve Terre of Red Tail Ranch and Jim Fullmer of Demeter USA. 25 North St. $15.

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