Growing Like a Weed


Third-party certification encourages cannabis farmers in California and beyond to adopt regenerative agricultural practices, champion workers' rights, and support their communities.

Joseph Haggard’s family has been tending land in Mendocino County, California, since his great grandmother bought property there in 1936. On their farm, Emerald Spirit Botanicals, the family grows fruits, vegetables, and cannabis.

California legalized cannabis in November of 2016, and by 2023, annual sales in the state amounted to $5.9 billion. While legalization has opened the door to many opportunities, it’s also brought challenges. The Haggards are one of dozens of families who own cannabis farms in the “Emerald Triangle” — a region in northwest California renowned for its cannabis produce — who have been feeling the squeeze of an industry with growing big money players.

In many respects, the questions asked by cannabis consumers are the same as those asked by consumers of other products: Where did the product come from? How can I know that it’s good quality? What makes its quality good? Do production methods align with my values?

In the world of cannabis cultivation, such questions revolve around environmental impact, workers’ rights, and the potency of the drug itself. In much the same way that certifications like Fairtrade strive to encourage ethical production practices, Sun+Earth Certified is having a positive impact on grassroots cannabis cultivators.

A map of the Sun+Earth certified farms in the United States.
A map of the Sun+Earth certified farms in the United States. – Photo courtesy of Datawrapper

Sun+Earth is a nonprofit third-party certification — which is to say an independent assessment that measures businesses against specific standards — that advocates for regenerative organic cannabis cultivation techniques. Since its launch in 2019, with support from David Bronner (as in Dr. Bronner), the certification has spread far beyond its Emerald Triangle origins. As of January 2024, it has been awarded to seventy-four farms across the United States and one in Canada. 

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The certification standards break down into three core areas:

Earth Care & Cultivation.

Charactarised as “beyond organic,” these requirements include regenerative agriculture methods like seed saving, mulching, and growing crops in natural sunlight.

Human Empowerment.

This concerns workers’ rights, enshrining collective bargaining, fair working conditions and compensation, skills development through training, and respect for land.

Community Engagement.

Cultivators have a responsibility not just to their local environment, but to local people as well through community events and knowledge sharing.

“The standards are designed to uplift folks who are doing it right for the right reasons,” says Sun+Earth’s communications director Heather Dunbar. “People throw out ‘green’ and ‘organic’ and ‘natural,’ but those are very diluted terms these days. Third-party verification is a way for people to see producers are doing what they say they’re doing.”

There is a gray area around the term “organic” for U.S. cannabis cultivators, in particular because it’s a federally defined term, and cannabis is not yet a federally legal plant. By wedding National Organic Program-style standards with workers’ rights and protections, Sun+Earth gives cannabis farms the recognition that would be a formality for other crops.

The impact on the likes of Emerald Spirit Botanical has been strong and long-lasting. Having studied sustainable agriculture at UC Santa Cruz, Joseph Haggard is part of a network of cultivators devoted to regenerative farming, natural pesticides, soil health, and water conservation. “What’s at stake is leaving a healthy planet for our grandkids,” Haggard says. “Wouldn’t you want your food and medicine grown in a healthy, balanced environment where all the things around it are thriving?”

In terms of community engagement, for seven years, Haggard has been an organizer at the Norcal Winter Charity Series, which has raised over $150,000 for youth programs, food and toy drives, fire departments, and community aid. Other Sun+Earth-certified farms in the region host regular farmers markets and regenerative farming workshops and are active members of conservation land trusts like Sanctuary Forest. “For us it was about elevating our work and allowing people to recognize we were bringing to the table something that was beyond organic,” Haggard says. “Not only are we supporting the community locally, but, as a set of Sun+Earth farms, we’re supporting each other as a network of certified farms working towards a common cause.” 

One example of this mutual support was the Weed Like Change campaign, in which a coalition of farms, dispensaries, and other kindred businesses advocated for chemical-free, sungrown cannabis techniques that include living wages for workers. The initiative led to a new relationship with a distribution partner for Emerald Spirit, allowing the Haggard family to get their cannabis to more people.

Sun+Earth also emboldened the farm to form Farm Cut, a self-funded cooperative with other local cultivators. “The response has been incredible,” Haggard says. “[Customers] understand they’re supporting more than just a farmer, they’re supporting a whole community of people.”

The backdrop — and in many respects the catalyst — for initiatives like Sun+Earth is the competition within a fledgling yet lucrative industry. Cannabis sales in the US are estimated at $33.6 billion for 2023, with $56.9 billion projected for 2028.

California, for its part, has only around 1,000 legal dispensaries for its 40 million residents, which has resulted in intense competition for extremely limited shelf space. Such an environment is challenging for independent farmers who are up against large-scale, industrial producers. “It’s like ice skating uphill,” Sun+Earth’s Heather Dunbar says. “Corporate entities have infrastructure that gives them major legs up.”

Sun+Earth has emerged not just as a means of making members more discoverable, but also as a champion of holistic alternatives to industrial agriculture techniques. The organic movement in farming emerged in recent decades to push back against destructive industrial agricultural practices, and, in that sense, initiatives like Sun+Earth are joining the fight rather than leading it. But the introduction of cannabis to the legal market offers a unique opportunity for industrial cultivation methods to be scrutinized and challenged afresh. “Cannabis is an opportunity for us to turn this around and help people learn to not only care about where their medicine comes from, but also learn about where their food comes from,” says Haggard. “You begin to understand the difference between a factory farmed tomato or an industrially grown cannabis bud because you feel different.” Dunbar adds, “Not only are you what you eat, you are what you smoke.”

What You Can Do

  • Ask questions when purchasing: Where is it grown? How is it grown? 
  • Seek out cooperatives and producers who support local communities. Sun+Earth offers a search for dispensaries with certified products
  • Request that your dispensary stock Sun+Earth certified products. 

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