Who Grows Your Pot? Petaluma Startup Seeks Cannabis Labels

Photo Credit: Jim Brueckner

It’s been more than two decades since Michael Straus helped his family forever change the landscape of local agriculture with the concept of organic dairy products. Now, he’s hoping to play the same role in Sonoma County’s burgeoning cannabis sector.

The Straus Family Creamery, a Petaluma icon founded in 1994, became the first certified organic dairy west of the Mississippi and the first 100 percent organic creamery in the U.S. Michael Straus handled marketing, preaching the gospel of organics in a time when that concept was largely foreign to most consumers.

About two years ago, the epiphany for his newest venture, Hugo Straus, came to him as he was smoking a joint on the family farm in Marshall. As he inhaled the pungent smoke, he realized he didn’t know a whole lot about the cannabis carefully arranged in the rolling paper.

“My career was knowing about sustainable agriculture and local food and organic, small-scale farms and all that stuff. I knew where all my food came from,” said Straus, 50, who also founded Straus Communications, a public relations agency focused on organics and sustainability. “One day I’m smoking a joint and I look at myself like … Oh my god, I have no idea who grew this pot.”

His research into cannabis exposed what he described as a gap in the industry — some products were grown with pesticides, and “no one seemed to be paying attention,” he said. This year, California introduced more stringent testing regulations, and additional hurdles are set to kick in this July. But, some studies, including a 2016 study by Berkeley-based cannabis testing and analytics business Steep Hill, have shown that contamination has been found in cannabis products.

For Straus, it’s an issue for both the consumer and the environment.

“A lot of people consume cannabis for a wide variety of reasons. If there’s any opportunity to start talking about sustainable practices and small farmers and rural economic development or corporatization of the marketplace, cannabis is a great place to start,” said Straus, whose brother Albert Straus is the CEO of Straus Family Creamery. “At the moment, there’s an opportunity because people are aware of and demand high quality, pure products.”

During the creamery’s launch, he spent countless hours talking to consumers one-on-one about organics and the importance of sustainable farming practices, and he’s embarked on a similar crusade for cannabis.

“I use organic as not just the USDA definition of organic … I’m talking about regenerative agriculture, sustainable components, health and social justice,” he said. “The label organic is about an ethic and so what we’re going to do is go out there … customer by customer, patient by patient, farmer by farmer — what I’ve been doing my entire career – and figure out how to build community around the ethic of regenerative agriculture and regenerative cannabis.”

Though Prop. 64 legalized recreational cannabis in California last year, it’s still illegal at the federal level and is not eligible for a U.S. Department of Agriculture organic label. Still, there are other ways to certify products and farms as “biodynamic,” while other organic designations are being studied in Washington, Straus said.

Biodynamic farming means that the operation is “minimally dependent” on imported materials, and meets its needs through the farm itself. Waste from one aspect of the farm is used as fuel for another part, bolstering its own sustainability.

“Among other things, by eliminating importation of agricultural materials — such as soil or fertilizer — the benefits of the farm include reducing the carbon footprint while, at the same time, creating a self-contained, cash-crop generating ecosystem, which is simultaneously regenerating the environment. It’s really inspiring to learn from biodynamic farmers,” Straus said.

He’s developing his Hugo Straus brand, which will eventually have its own line of sustainable cannabis products produced independently at a manufacturing facility or in concert with existing brands. He worked with Temple Extracts, which sells pure cannabis extracts, and is now partnering with Alicia Rose, who founded HerbaBuena, a biodynamic certified purveyor of sustainable medical cannabis products.

The two submitted an application to open a dispensary in Napa as Straus is networking with players from all facets of the cannabis industry to assemble a community focused on sustainable cannabis. The focus now remains on medical marijuana rather than recreational, he said.

He’s also a founding member of the Sustainable Cannabis Coalition, a collaborative of players in the cannabis industry focused on regenerative principles and providing resources. He’s spreading his message at events, including a Feb. 15 “Dope Love” conference at the Petaluma Hotel, which brought together key members of the local cannabis and agricultural sphere.

“There are so many amazing people in the cannabis industry — everyone from farmers to innovators — we’re trying to figure out how to build and support a community of innovation that puts the environment at the forefront, and through that, we develop medicine that is pure and clean and has a vibrancy to it,” he said. “This is a spirit plant — cannabis is quite a miraculous plant that can help people through a variety of medical conditions.”