Organic certification is increasingly becoming a part of everyday consumer choices, and so it’s no shock that cannabis has been trying to climb on board. Legally, cannabis cannot be called organic, a term that is federally regulated under a 2003 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), but that isn’t stopping third party certifiers from developing standards anyway. And this is where Chris Van Hook’s Clean Green comes in, providing just that to cannabis farmers in California, Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
From the Ground Up
Van Hook started the pioneering Clean Green in April of 2004, though he didn’t start out certifying cannabis. Four years prior, the USDA started the National Organic Program, and Van Hook was fresh out of law school. He started out inspecting organic farms for a company, but found himself wanting to work in an environment with greater ethical standards and oversight, eventually moving out on his own. Van Hook’s new business became one of only 84 companies that had the USDA national organic accreditation.
It wasn’t until 2004, though, when a little old lady from Pasadena called – he loves starting the story this way – and asked if he could certify her cannabis. While California said yes, the federal government said no, and that’s when the Clean Green Certification Program was officially born.
“It was a really fun time,” Van Hook exclaims. “We only worked with legal growers, or those that were arguably compliant, and it grew from our first farm to now being in seven states, Canada, and Puerto Rico. We’ve had up to 40 farms in Oregon and last year we certified up to 300,000 pounds of trimmed cannabis.”
Now in his sixteenth year on the road, Clean Green takes Van Hook up and down the West coast, inspecting farms who wish to be a part of the Clean Green certified community.
At this point, the Clean Green logo has become nationally recognizable, and Leafly calls them a staple certification program that allows consumers to identify products that meet “organic” standards. They have a sterling reputation in the industry, and it’s not hard to find cannabis shops that will only partner with Clean Green farms. This, in turn, drives a great number of farms and dispensaries to apply for the certification each year (there are currently 91 listed on the Clean Green website).
All Clean Green inspectors are either USDA approved organic inspectors, or have the qualifications to be.
“The reason people want this certification is because it helps them in their marketing. Community is sort of an overused word, but there is a greater level of trust within our Clean Green membership,” says Van Hook.
The program essentially follows the same standards as the USDA organic program, but has to be called Clean Green. Previously, cannabis farmers had to hide their product and were not used to having inspectors come up to their farm, but because Van Hook is an attorney, he can extend the attorney-client privilege to put them at ease.
In order to be able to offer a Clean Green Certification, the inspector looks for responsible business practices, following federal and state food handling guidelines, storing products out of the way of chemicals, and most importantly having a Carbon Footprint Reduction Program that improves every year.
The Extra Mile
Cannabis has had a poor environmental reputation in the past, and Clean Green addresses this with rigorous requirements that ensures consumers that the grower stands for legal compliance, consumer quality, and environmental stewardship throughout the supply chain.
The Clean Green motto is: “responsible agriculture, not agriculture so bureaucratic that you can’t do a damn thing,” and one thing Van Hook prides Clean Green on is their ability to adapt.
“As different issues arise, we’re able to address them quickly because we’re not a federal program,” he states. Clean Green has implemented standards ranging from disallowing diesel generators, to keeping farm dogs chain-free.
One interesting story pertained to a trimming team from Guatemala. They would work 12-15 hours a day, sleep on the floor, eat frozen burritos from Costco, and then only the supervisor would get paid $15 an hour. Clean Green came to the conclusion that in instances such as these, receipts for fresh food, separate facilities for men and women, and a wage of $15 an hour for all workers must be provided.
“People argued and rebelled about it,” Van Hook recalls, “but we have a tendency to punch something right in the nose.”
The Future of Organic Cannabis
“Every year this industry changes,” Van Hook states, “so it’s imperative that we stay nimble and flexible in our approach.”
If cannabis becomes federally organically certifiable, Clean Green would branch out into working to help farmers get that certification. Van Hook also recently got his brokerage license to help buy and sell farms, and there’s staff on hand that can do agricultural and permit assessments.
“Being a farmer-centric organization, we’re always looking for what our farmers need. When we started, people said you can’t grow good cannabis organically, and now not only have we proven you can grow good cannabis, but the world’s finest cannabis, organically,” Van Hook states.
A Clean Green grower won the San Francisco High Times Cup from 2010 to 2016, and others have consistently won numerous other cannabis awards nationally.
When asked what Clean Green would like to say to the public, Van Hook replies, “Just like organic food or fair trade coffee, consumers have a lot of power with their consumer dollars. When the consumers look for, ask for, and purchase clean green products, they’re not only getting the highest quality cannabis, but they’re also putting their money directly into supporting the farmers who have been doing the right thing for years. I would just say to the consumers, ‘Look for it, and if you don’t see it, ask why not?’”
There is a huge contingent of people who want organically grown products, and I expect we’re going to see more startups like Clean Green in the future, especially as cannabis approaches federal legalization. This is the new age of cannabis: ethical, safe, high quality, and held to a standard that helps protect the earth we harvest it from.
By Laine Aswad