A grower prunes a marijuana plant that he is growing indoors in Portland, Dec. 13, 2017. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

When Nicholas Morton decided to start growing medical marijuana for his own use and to sell, he knew he wanted to produce a product free of synthetic chemicals or additives.

So when he heard about the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association “clean cannabis” pilot program two years ago, he knew he was on to something.

Working with MOFGA’s pilot program seemed a natural fit, said Morton, who wanted to produce something natural and synthetic chemical-free for himself and his customers.

“I knew this flowering plant did something to balance me,” Morton said. “But when I started looking around at products and dispensaries [in Maine] I found many grew their cannabis using some sort of [synthetic] growth product, leading me down the road of wondering, ‘How is that beneficial?’”

MOFGA created the new certification program so growers would have a standard for clean, chemical-free growing, according to Chris Grigsby, MOFGA’s director of certification. But before it could do so, the nonprofit organization had to tweak their current certification program.

“Federally, cannabis is still illegal [and] with the USDA owning the national organic program we can’t certify it ‘organic,’” Grigsby said. “So if MOFGA wanted to take this on, we knew we wanted to mirror the national [organic] standards.”

Working with five interested cannabis growers, the certification team at MOFGA developed the standards for the MOFGA Certified Clean Cannabis program, or MC3 for short, and in 2016 certified those five growers as a pilot program.

“They came through and investigated everything I do,” Morton said. “They looked at my buildings, my ingredients, my soil. I was really impressed in how they went from corner to corner and how nice they are.”

After that first year MOFGA declared the pilot program a success and opened the MC3 applications up to all cannabis growers in Maine in 2017.

“We felt pretty good about offering to other caregivers and growers who essentially want that third-party verification,” Grigsby said. “It’s an opportunity for them to say in their marketing of their product they have growing practices on a par with the national organic standards.”

By the end of 2017 there were 11 MC3 growers in Maine. A list of those growers is on the MOFGA certification website.

Certified clean

Among those who became certified last year is Mike Howland of Dyer Ridge Pharm in Jefferson.

“We have always grown [cannabis] organically, so why not assure people that we are following that protocol?” Howland said. “It gives us a stamp of approval [and] from MOFGA that holds a lot of weight.”

Like Morton, Howland said when the MOFGA certification team came through they left no stone or leaf unturned.

“They want to see everything you are using from growing process to your water source,” Howland said. “Basically the same criteria they apply as if they were certifying organic carrots.”

Howland, who got certified this past year, is not sure if the MC3 certification is going to make a huge difference to his current customers and so far has received little comment from them.

“But I think it will make a difference in the future,” he said. “We are hearing from people more and more seeking out [cannabis] they can be assured was grown responsibly and clean.”

Credit: Courtesy of Mike Howland

Currently MOFGA only certifies clean cannabis grown in soil, whether that is in a greenhouse or outside.

“We are not certifying hydroponics,” Grigsby said. “That does not fall under the principles of what MOFGA defines as organic.”

In hydroponic gardening, plants are grown using minerals and nutrients in water without soil.

“The cannabis has to be grown in some kind of container that holds a soil-based medium,” Grigsby said. “We do allow folks taking cuttings from a ‘mother’ plant to use a non-soil container at first, but that cutting must be moved into soil within three weeks of the cutting.”

At Dyer Ridge Pharm, Howland devotes about 2,000 square feet between two greenhouses to growing his cannabis.

“We are off-grid with solar panels and pretty sustainable,” Howland said. “We have a ‘light deprivation’ system in the greenhouse where we can close off the light and keep the plants in the dark, which is pretty unique in the industry.”

By controlling the light cycle, Howland said, he is able to force his plants to flower three times over his season.

When started from a seed, the plant goes through several growth stages. Germination can take up to two weeks to produce a seedling. The seedling stage lasts another two to three weeks, then the plant enters the vegetative stage and starts to rapidly produce foliage and roots for the next two to eight weeks.

Flowering is the final stage for the plant, when it receives less than 12 hours of light per day. It’s in this final stage that the resinous buds develop and mature and are ready for harvest.

“We can do two rotations in the summer months and one final harvest in the fall,” he said.

Morton grows his cannabis plants inside using an organic soil mixture he developed based on years of research and hands-on experience.

“I grew up on a dairy farm,” he said. “I was always around watching them use different methods and composting [and] everyday was an eye-widening experience,” he said. “I took my desire to grow and my engineering mind and started researching how to engineer dirt.”

Morton uses ancient techniques taken from Korean farming methods, cooling methods developed in the tropics and state-of-the-art lighting technology from Germany.

“It’s really putting my soul and brain to work,” Morton said. “And without a governing body like MOFGA we wouldn’t be able to have the certification that puts us on the same level as flowers and vegetables.”

That’s an important consideration, according to Grigsby.

“We are looking at cannabis just like any other crop in Maine,” he said. “We are the third-party verification organization in the growing process [and] the fact that these folks are seeking that verification to back up their [clean] marketing claims we feel is important.”

The application deadline for the 2018 certification just closed and Grigsby said about seven growers signed up for inspection.

“We are hoping more people decide to go with this,” he said. “We are looking forward to working with them.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.