Oregon Consumer Protection

Oregon Consumer Protection

In this Growers Spotlight we interview Don Wolf, a fertilizer specialist for the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).

Don Wolf is widely regarded as an industry leading watchdog for nutrients and beneficial products. His tests to prove or disprove nutrient and pesticide claims have helped growers carefully separate quality products from those that are dishonest or hyped up.

In this Spotlight, Don discusses consumer protections, safety measures, and the plant nutrition industry. We interviewed Don because we wanted to know Oregon’s standards for nutrients, and why they’re testing their nutrients.

The following was an interview with an industry expert. Growers Network does not endorse nor evaluate the claims of our interviewees, nor do they influence our editorial process. We thank our interviewees for their time and effort so we can continue our exclusive Growers Spotlight service.

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What are plant nutrients?

In order to be defined as a nutrient, an element must be necessary for the plant in one of two ways:

  1. The element is part of an essential plant metabolite or constituent (IE sugars).
  2. A plant will die or cease growing/reproducing without said element.

Please note that this says nothing about the optimal amount of nutrients for any given plant, just that a plant will cease to grow/reproduce, or die without the nutrient.

Based on these definitions, there are 23 total nutrients a plant needs, and only 20 a plant needs from its soil or nutrient water.
  1. Three out of 23 nutrients are derived from the air and water: Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen. They are marked in the table below in blue.
  2. Another three out of 23 nutrients are necessary in large quantities from the soil or nutrient solution, and thus defined as primary macronutrients. They are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). These are also referred to as primary nutrients because they are most commonly the limiting nutrients in the soil or nutrient solution. We marked them in the table below in yellow.
  3. Yet another three out of 23 nutrients nutrients are secondary macronutrients, meaning that they are required in large amounts, but typically not a limiting factor in a plant’s growth. These are Sulfur (S), Calcium (Ca), and Magnesium (Mg). We marked them in the table below in red.
  4. 14 of the 23 nutrients are micronutrients, meaning that plants need these nutrients only in very small amounts. These are Iron (Fe), Molybdenum (Mo), Boron (B), Copper (Cu), Manganese (Mn), Sodium (Na), Zinc (Zn), Nickel (Ni), Chlorine (Cl), Cobalt (Co), Aluminum (Al), Silicon (Si), Vanadium (V), and Selenium (Se). We marked them in the table below in green.

Macronutrients are typically described in terms of percentage of dry mass, whereas micronutrients are typically described in quantities of parts-per-million (ppm). We will cover more about nutrition in a future article.

Consumer Protection

Did you get what you paid for?Don Wolf
At our core, we see at ourselves as consumer protection. Consumers aren’t just somebody buying something from their local retail store, but also the people who are manufacturing different products. The ingredients they are buying makes them a consumer. We believe that we are trying to provide the assurance that everything that you buy lives up to the claims that are made for it.
Any product that claims to contain plant nutrients that increase plant growth, improve crop yield, or change the chemical, physical, or biological character of the soil must be registered with us, including any nutrient solution containing the usual chemical elements.

We require registrations before any product can be sold or offered for sale. Some companies try to presell, thinking that they will have their registration soon. This is not allowed; the product has to be registered before it can be sold or otherwise distributed; you cannot even give it away.

When we have a product submitted for registration, we do four things:

  1. Look at the label, and make sure that the claims that are being made are reasonable.
  2. Verify that the nutrients match what they are claiming.
  3. Check to see if the sources of the nutrients are true. (IE: Is the nitrogen really coming from bat guano?)
  4. The product must be tested for heavy metals, and the company must send us a copy of that test. Third party laboratories do the testing for heavy metals.

A lot of these regulations are basic safety precautions in addition to consumer protection. Did you get what you paid for?

There are some other claims that we don’t allow. No product can claim that it’s non-toxic unless the company can provide specific toxicological data. Nor can a product claim that it’s kid and pet safe because, as packaged, most of them are not. We look at safety as part of the consumer protection.

Editor’s Note: No nutrient or amendment product can be sold in Oregon unless it passes the above four steps.

There are 3 of us that implement the fertilizer program for the state. We handle all of the product registration, sampling, and inspection. Our website has about 10,000 registered products. The products we analyze are chosen at random. And, depending on the year, we can probably examine about 300 samples for full analysis. If a product claims enzymes, we must have it tested for enzymes. When nutrients are being claimed, we send it out for testing on those. The company has to submit information like heavy metal testing.
The guaranteed claims on a fertilizer label is a minimum. This is an important thing for a lot of people to understand.

When you make a guarantee on a fertilizer label, the guarantee is that the consumer will get at least that much. So there are some companies that over-formulate, especially with some of the products that use natural ingredients (Alfalfa-meal, kelp-meal, soybean-meal). Natural materials vary quite a bit in their nutrient content.

Some companies, will take the lowest value – not the average value – of the materials that they have gotten over several years. And they will use that to calculate the claim they make on the label. It is possible that the consumer is getting a little more than the claim. A little more is okay.

We have had a few products, that were too over-formulated. One of them claimed .02 nitrogen, and it was over 20! We do look at over-formulations, but generally we’re focusing on the minimums.

Everything that is known about the product should be on the label. If it’s not on the label, such as the information being listed on their sales sheet or website, then we consider the product mislabeled. The consumer is supposed to get all the information available about the product, and that is supposed to be on the label.

However, there is only so far we can go with regulation, because you are dealing with regulations which were written a couple generations ago, before these types of issues even came up.

This is where consumers need to come in – if you don’t know what’s in it, don’t buy it! Otherwise, you are buying into magical thinking. You are buying a product without knowing anything that is in it or that anything in it works. This is why we need to educate consumers.

Editor’s Note: Just to emphasize Don’s point, do not buy a product unless you know what is in it. Companies get away with bad behaviors because we buy their products without thinking.

This has to do with states that are more restrictive about labeling, such as Oregon and California. As part of our consumer protection laws, website information must match the information found on a product’s label.

However, not every state has the same laws regarding consumer protection. Companies that do not want to restrict what they say about their products will make a special partition on their websites specifically for Oregon and California to meet the consumer protection laws while making whatever claims they wish on the main website.

An example of this would be a company that does not guarantee enzymes on the label. So if it’s not guaranteed on the label, Oregon/California would tell them to either take it off the website or add it to the label. One or the other! If you go to the unpartitioned part of their website (not designed for California or Oregon), it would claim it has enzymes (solvic acid and almac acid) and a whole bunch of other things, but none of them are guaranteed by an amount. So if a consumer buys it, they are buying a very vague claim.

The first time it happens, we send the company a letter, stating the claim they made, what we found, and asking for the reason behind the discrepancy. Most companies will go back and look at their manufacturing process. They look at various things in their manufacturing, find the issue, and then update the label claim.

After the first failure to meet a claim, we test the product again next year. If we find the same issue again, we send them an official letter telling them to fix it now or face penalties.

And if we find the mistake a third time, they get a civil penalty. Unfortunately, the first civil penalty is only $125 for the first infraction. Sadly, this often does not deter a company that has made this many errors.

If we test and find this issue again, they get a second civil penalty of $375. The third civil penalty is $2,500. In other words, we have to catch them repeatedly before it begins to hurt at all.

This has to do with the history of these laws. In 1908, a civil penalty was $100, which was a lot at the time. You could buy a car with that. Unfortunately these laws are not written with inflation in mind, so they get set in stone and nobody changes it.

What the first penalty should cost.

Editor’s Note: The first 3 fines Don listed are barely a scratch on most companies’ bottom line. It’s a disturbing reality to what happens when laws are not designed to be “future-proof.” The result is that less-ethical companies don’t feel any sting when engaging in bad behavior. If you accounted for inflation, the fines would today be ($2,430.78), ($9,115.42), and ($60,769.44) respectively.

While I’m not in the position of one of these companies, I think there’s two main reasons to not be transparent.

The first and most obvious reasoning is marketing. Why spill the “secret” on what makes your product work? If you put in enzymes or organisms that give you an edge, why let your competitors know?

On the flip side, why let people know that there’s nothing special about your product? Some people swear up and down that a product benefits their plants without necessarily knowing why.

The second reason for lack of transparency is statutory. An example is pesticides and nutrients with the Association of American Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO). While pesticides are regulated at the federal level, nutrient products and amendments are not. Those are regulated state-by-state. One of the basic understandings the AAPFCO has with states is that a minimum guarantee for nutrients must be met before that nutrient can be claimed on a label. So products that have a nutrient, but lower than the guarantee amount, do not list that nutrient.

What makes Oregon Different?

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a nursery or a farmer or a hydroponic customer – we look at everybody who is a consumer as someone that needs to get the same protections.Don Wolf
We are not that different from other states with nutrient testing. Most states have a testing program. Some of the states in the midwest focus only on production agriculture. They are mainly interested in making sure their farmers are getting what they pay for. The reason why our program is different is not just because of nutrient testing, but because we test for other things. Right now, we are the only state doing microbial testing. Oregon is the only state that has been doing mycorrhizae samples. In other states, the people who test fertilizer also test seed, feed, and many other things. But we are specialists. All we do are fertilizers and amendments.

Recently, bat guano was something that came to our attention. There were some claims being made about bat guano that we didn’t think quite matched up. We did testing (including some DNA testing) and determined that those companies claiming to be high-phosphorus bat guano were actually rock phosphate. People were not getting what they assumed they were. That is part of why we are unique. We don’t just test nutrients; we test and think about things with a more comprehensive perspective.

What does that mean? For example, we had seaweed extracts that claimed to be 0-0-17 NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium). Well that 17% Potassium did not come from the seaweed. It came from potassium hydroxide: the lime used to break the seaweed apart. If you wanted seaweed based Potassium, then you were out of luck.

The numbers of states doing this type of testing are increasing. Originally, Oregon and California were the primary states. Now, we hear increasingly from South Dakota, Michigan, Wisconsin, and other states that there are more and more people that are starting to look at labels. That trend is growing, and growing fairly quickly.

Some companies actually have their own testing programs. One of the larger bat guano purveyors talks with us to make sure they are operating a good testing program, so they know what it is that they are actually selling.

And that’s just one of the things companies can do. They can make sure the ingredients they are putting into the product is what they purchased, and check it again once it is correctly blended.

When it comes to microbial products, we have noticed that even if a company puts in the right amount initially, the product can change while in transit or in storage. We have been trying to get companies to consider sending out field representatives to go around to various outlets and buy their product off the shelf every couple of months, just to check to see if the microbial populations are surviving for those periods of time. And if they aren’t, then maybe the companies need to reformulate their product or put an expiration date on it listing how the populations change. Do not assume that what you started with upon first mixing is what you end up with at the point-of-sale.

We started inspecting hydroponic products and hydroponics stores around 2003-2004, because a consumer is a consumer, and they are a citizen of the state of Oregon. Our job is to provide protections for people, regardless of whether it’s a nursery or a farmer or a hydroponics customer – we look at everybody who is a consumer.

You have to focus your resources on a goal, and in our case, we decided to spread them out between everybody. Our primary duty is to look at a variety of products. California does many similar tests, but they generally don’t publicize their test results. Instead, they only publish trends.

We believe in complete transparency, so every test we do ends up on the ODA Cannabis and Pesticide Page. All of our stuff ends up on the website, no secrets. Every year we have done testing, we have posted the results on our website for every nutrient test we have ever done. You can check any company on the heavy metals ODA listings database, and see how they are doing.

Related: Some products in marijuana production fail to list pesticides (Washington).

Cannabis Nutrition and Protecting Yourself

We see everything. A company out of Colorado was trying to market a product that claimed to resonate with the frequency of the earth.Don Wolf
For a long time, companies could not say what plant they were designed for and it was always a nod and a wink. That also meant consumers did not have a lot of information about the product and no protection against malicious behavior.

I’m hoping that as we begin to have a more open system, companies targeting the cannabis industry will behave more professionally. That way products will get better and companies will be more open about their products.

Because the market was so underground, products were never really checked the way they should have been. An example is pesticide contamination. Companies put pesticides in the products because no one was ever really looking. And because these products were designed for people who were operating outside the law at the time, they couldn’t report issues to officials when things went wrong. This meant no protections whatsoever. So I’m hoping that legalization will make things more professional and safe.

Nutrients are nutrients, regardless of species. The ratios, formulas, and timing will change, but the nutrients themselves stay the same. Nutrients manufactured by larger companies are probably closer to a guaranteed analysis overall.

There is a recent increase in the agricultural industry for microbial products. A lot may or may not be appropriate for cannabis. Some of them are species-specific. A few of them take months. For example, most of the mycorrhizae products do not actually take effect for long periods of time. On a crop that has a 12-week cycle, mycorrhizae products are not going to do much.

There’s also a lot more ‘magical thinking’ in many cannabis-specific products. We see everything. We’ve even seen exorbitant claims for a paramagnetic rock that’s magically going to improve your crop. Another example is “frequency water” and nutrient products that claim to be structured water. There is no scientific evidence that they have any beneficial effect. In many cases, there is evidence they do not have beneficial effect, yet people are still selling them. A Colorado company was trying to market a product that “resonated with the frequency of the Earth”. There used to be a company that sold a product that played the sound of crickets, and the plants stomata would open up and magically take in the special kelp fertilizer.

I’m hoping that we see less and less of that, as this market becomes more professional.

Editor’s Note: Many companies will attempt to deceive with statements that sound “scientific” but are just a form of pseudoscientific woo.

  1. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
    1. A company claims that a product is unique in the marketplace. Why? What makes it unique? We had someone in southern Oregon, that claimed to only use a potting soil from a certain company on his crop. His product tested with too much myclobutanil — a chemical regarded as slightly toxic to humans by UC Davis Department of Integrated Pest Management.
    2. Watch out for other pseudoscientific things like frequency water. If it claims to be something harmless but makes the eyeballs of mice explode, it is likely that something else going on.
  2. Keep a skeptical mind.
    1. Look into who you are buying from. Think about their reputation and how long they have been on the market. Read their reviews on Google.
  3. Consider going outside cannabis-specific products.
    1. If you’re looking for nutrients, try the big agriculture companies that make fertilizers and sell them nationwide. They don’t have an incentive to include a secret fungicide or miticide.
    2. Editor’s note: Large-scale manufacturers tend to have more consistent quality control than start-ups do.

You can send samples to a lab for your own 3rd party guaranteed analysis. Many large-scale growing operations no longer trust companies’ marketing claims and do their own testing. This helps eliminate all risk associated unknown product manufacturers. You can also coordinate lab testing with other growers via Growers Network.

Related: The ODA is offering an email list for when new information is released by the department.

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About the Author

Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.