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Foreword: In this Growers’ Spotlight, we interviewed Don Wolf, a fertilizer specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA). Don is an industry leading watchdog for nutrients and fertilizers.

Nutrients & Fertilizers

Nutrients are defined as elements that are essential metabolites or plant constituents. Without these elements, a plant will die or cease to grow/reproduce. This definition says nothing about the optimal amount of nutrients for a plant, just that without these elements, plant growth/reproduction will cease and the plant may die.

Consumer Protection

At its core, the ODA fertilizer program sees itself as consumer protection — not just for the end consumer, but also consumer protection for the manufacturers buying raw ingredients. As part of their endeavor to protect consumers, the ODA tests any product that claims to contain plant nutrients, increase plant growth, improve crop yield, or change some characteristic of the soil.

When the ODA tests a product, they look at four things:

1. The label makes reasonable claims
2. The nutrient content comports with the label
3. The origin of the nutrition is accurate
4. The heavy metals tests are below safety guidelines

Any product that does not meet these standards is not allowed for sale.

It’s important to mention, however, that the ODA is not perfect in its ability to protect consumers. For example:

They test the claims on the label as a minimum. Some products may have more of a nutrient than what the label says. Many companies choose to “guarantee” the lowest value of the materials they have gotten over several years.

The fines that the ODA can impose on a company for products failing to meet state standards are out of date. The laws for these fines were written in the early 1900s, and do not account for inflation. Thus, the first fines for failure to meet state standards are little more than slaps on the wrist.

Nutrient companies are not required to be completely transparent to do business in Oregon. Many companies partition their websites in a way to redirect traffic from states like Oregon to the state-friendly versions of the company’s websites. This allows the companies to meet all state standards inside Oregon, but maintain less transparency elsewhere.

Oregon: What Makes it Different?

Almost every state has a testing program for nutrients and fertilizers. What makes the ODA fertilizer program different is that Oregon chooses to examine every product that is registered with them, instead of just a class of products.

In addition to that, Oregon tests more than just the bare elements in the fertilizers and nutrients. Oregon tests nutrients for microbial contamination. Additionally, the ODA tests to make sure that every claimed source of nutrition, such as bat guano, actually came from the claimed source. If a company fails to meet what their label says, the label must be changed or the product removed from stores.

In short, the ODA doesn’t only care about end consumers or big agriculture. The ODA cares about every consumer throughout the business chain, and it shows because many companies active in Oregon try to maintain an active dialogue with the ODA.

How to Protect Yourself

The important thing to remember about plant nutrition is that nutrients are nutrients, regardless of where you get them. Nutrients manufactured by larger companies are more likely to sell products that are close to what you see on the label.

Don’t succumb to magical thinking. Products that make exorbitant claims such as using “magnets” or “altered water” to improve the nutrients in your crops are probably not worth your time or your money.

Don Wolf had a few handy bits of advice if you’re a grower who doesn’t want to get burned:

If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

If a company is claiming a product is unique, then ask why. What makes it unique?

If a product is supposed to do something unusual, ask how it works. Don’t fall for pseudoscience like “frequency altered water” or a “rock that vibrates with magnetic frequency.”

Keep a skeptical mind.

Ask who you’re buying the product from. Check out their reputation on Google. Look up how long they’ve been in the market.

Consider going outside cannabis-specific products.

If you just want normal nutrients, big agricultural companies make fertilizers and sell them nationwide. They don’t get a market advantage by sneaking things into their nutrients. They also will tend to have more consistent quality control.

Send samples to a lab for a third party analysis. Many large-scale growing operations do their own testing for this reason.

This article is featured with permission from Growers’ Spotlight.

Want to learn more? Visit Growers’ Network.