The Changing Face of Cannabis Cultivation

Marijuana growers are looking to new technology, mainstream methods as industry evolves

by John Schroyer

Commercial marijuana is no longer just grown in windowless basements and padlocked closets or in the hills of northern California, far from the prying eyes of law enforcement.

As cannabis has blossomed into a multi-billion dollar industry, commercial grow operations have come out of the shadows, and the methods used to cultivate the plant have evolved in lockstep along the way. Many grows are now located in enormous warehouses in the middle of cities, open fields in plain sight of the public and greenhouses tied to dispensaries and recreational marijuana stores.

In other words, the face of cannabis cultivation has changed remarkably in recent times. That’s especially true for indoor grows – a method used by more than 70% of the industry, according to the 2015 Marijuana Business Factbook.

Cannabis cultivation will no doubt continue to mature thanks to new technology and practices that help boost yields, cut down on costs, increase efficiency, lower energy use and maximize profit margins.

With new states coming online in the future and more growth ahead in existing markets, plenty of professional growers are actively exploring ways to get an edge on the competition. That means exploring not just new technology, but also longstanding agricultural practices that mainstream farmers have been using for decades – ranging from computers used for climate control to automated irrigation systems to advanced lighting options.

“It all comes down to really two things: keeping your labor costs under control and keeping your energy costs under control,” said Brian Corr, president of Sycamore Horticulture Consulting in Illinois.

To remain competitive – and even survive – going forward, commercial marijuana growers will have to continue to evolve with the times.

Here’s a look at some of the technologies, processes and methods that will shape cannabis cultivation going forward.

Automation

Automated mechanical systems that replace human labor not only reduce costs and save time, they also increase efficiency and precision. There are automated systems for nearly everything in the general horticultural industry, yet longtime cannabis growers have been slow to adopt such practices.

“All of these issues, in terms of controlling temperature and humidity and light, they’ve been solved probably since before you and I were born by the horticultural industry,” said Jay Czarkowski, a principal at Colorado-based Canna Advisors. “Automatic watering is pretty simple. But believe it or not, not many (marijuana growers) use it.”

Automation can be applied to nearly anything, from harvesting to lighting cycles. Fusion Pharm, a Colorado-based company that produces indoor growing pods for cultivators, went so far as to develop its own automated software to monitor every piece of the environment inside its enclosed systems, said CEO Scott Dittman.

“If you want it to control everything, and run your complete fertigation and water system, so be it,” Dittman said. “Down the road, we’ll see lots and lots of automation, lots more than we see today.”

Rich Abromeit, the CEO of Montana Agricultural Consultants, also runs his own grow and dispensary in his company’s namesake state. He ordered an automatic plant trimmer over the summer from CenturionPro, which has proven to be a huge money saver.

“It basically creates a vortex tunnel with the air and cylinder, so it doesn’t get touched as much,” Abromeit said. “The blades cut about 32,000 cuts a minute. It has really revolutionized the way we trim, and the amount of labor it takes, the number of man hours, being able to produce a premium product.”

Another added benefit: An automated trimmer isn’t going to pilfer cannabis, whereas a human worker might be tempted to do so.

“It’s not just money-saving, it’s also security,” Abromeit said.

Abromeit and Czarkowski said they think a lot of growers are still stuck in an outdated mindset, a “do-everything-by-hand” approach that’s antithetical to modern business.

But it’s not difficult to update cultivation systems; it just takes investment. For example, Abromeit’s trimmer retails for just under $9,000 – an expense that was paid for in less than two months of labor savings. He estimated it’s saving him $1,500-$1,800 a week, an amount he says is “unbelievable.”

Another added benefit, Abromeit said, is that those savings have allowed him to keep his prices down, which makes his dispensary more competitive in the Montana market.

Other automated systems can be more expensive, but plenty of cultivators say the upfront costs are worth it.

Machines are, however, no substitute for human oversight, cautioned Dittman.

“I’m not a proponent of having a fully automated grow,” Dittman said. “I think there’s great value in having a high-quality grower, and great risk in letting the machine do all the thinking. Somewhere, there’s a happy medium between monitoring and reporting, and actually controlling.”

LED Grow Lights

Light-emitting diode (LED) technology is a controversial topic, and it probably isn’t yet ready for prime-time. But there are a growing number of believers who say it’s only a matter of time and further research before LEDs take over the marijuana lighting space.

John Lord, the owner of Colorado marijuana chain LivWell, said his company has been running experiments nonstop with at least six different LED brands for nearly three years. Executives finally found a light spectrum recipe that they believe works.
“Now we’re achieving yields beyond what we did with (high-pressure sodium lights), and in a shorter crop cycle,” Lord said. “We feel strongly that it’s the future of growing.”

One of the main reasons a lot of growers are attracted to the potential of LEDs is because they use far less energy than traditional high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights, or even ceramic metal halide lights. That’s enough to get any grower’s attention, since energy bills are often the largest cost of doing business. But Lord said the biggest benefit is actually tangential to that.

“The number one benefit would be the lack of heat, which curbs the amount of air conditioning we actually need,” Lord said. “That’s a greater cost-saver than actually the light itself, which uses about 50% less energy, but the air conditioning is the real cost-saving.”

He estimated that once his 140,000-square-foot grow operation is completely converted to LEDs, which he expects will be in the second half of 2016, it’ll save LivWell about $100,000 a month in energy costs.

The main obstacles for LEDs include both the upfront costs (several times traditional HPS lights) and finding the right light spectrum recipe for individual strains, which respond differently to various spectra. So it’ll likely take more time before LEDs break into the mainstream – but many are betting big that this technology will have a solid place in the future of marijuana cultivation.

Tissue Culture Cultivation

Some growers are so interested in the future that they’re willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a tissue culture laboratory. While that may seem like a huge gamble, it could pay serious dividends in the long run.

“Commercial agriculture has had lots of success in producing ample amounts of food that’s free of problems and diseases using this technology, and I feel it has a lot to offer the marijuana industry as well,” said Mitchell Stern, the CEO of California-based Burning Bush Nursery. “With tissue culture, you’re essentially growing an entirely new plant using a small amount of leaf matter… so you end up with a tiny little plant inside a petri dish.”

The process is highly technical and involves careful scientific setup, said Dan Grace, whose Dark Heart Nursery in Oakland has one of only a few tissue culture laboratories devoted to cannabis. Staffing the lab has been a huge cost – one of his in-house scientists has “decades of experience doing tissue culture lab work.”

“It’s been a very costly project, but not only do we get to put out a better product, we should be able to dramatically increase production,” Grace said, adding that he expects the process will cause the plants to grow more buds.

Another benefit of tissue culture cultivation is that the process is so sterilized it eradicates any chance of pests disrupting the plant’s growth. That eliminates the need for pest control of any kind, Stern said.

Tissue culture is still very new to cannabis, however. Stern said he only knows two growers in California who use the tissue culture process, and Grace said he’s the only grower he knows who has a lab up and running (LivWell has one also). Grace expects to be delivering product to market from the process in early 2016. So it’s yet to be seen how much of a benefit the technology will prove to be.

Nutrients and Injectors

Another longtime horticultural standard working its way into the cannabis industry is the use of supplemental nutrients for crops. But instead of spending thousands of dollars, if not tens of thousands, on brand-name marijuana nutrients, a lot of growers are realizing that it’s much less costly to cut out the middleman and go directly to the source.

“The trend that’s already started that’s really going to take hold is the larger growers moving away from what you would call the hobbyist nutrient packs, and either designing their own custom packs or buying nutrients from the horticulture world,” said Van McConnon, a senior consultant with Colorado Cannabis Systems.

Going directly to an agricultural nutrient wholesaler and ordering custom nutrient mixes is far cheaper than purchasing, say, General Hydro or Botanicare.

“I figured out that I could buy nutrients for about a twentieth the cost and would get better results if I just went to agricultural supply houses and bought my own powdered nutrients,” McConnon said.

McConnon spoke to a horticultural expert at Ohio State University, came up with his own nutrient mix, began using it, and since then says he has been getting a 2-3% better yield from his crops. And he said buying a custom mix from an agricultural wholesaler is roughly 20 times cheaper than buying brand name nutrients.

“It’s to the point now where nutrients are one of my lowest line items when I look at my cost of goods sold,” McConnon said.

And nutrients are another part of the cultivation process that can be automated using injector systems. Such systems are made by a number of regular horticultural suppliers, such as Argus Control Systems, Hanna Instruments, and Griffin Automation.

“People are going to start having machines mix their nutrients instead of doing it themselves,” he added. “In larger grows, that’s really the only way to do it.”

Greenhouse Technologies

Although marijuana has traditionally been grown indoors thanks to decades of prohibition, both outdoor cultivation and greenhouses are both becoming more prominent in several states. Greenhouses in particular are likely to play a big role in the future of growing, given that such facilities utilize the sun for a primary light source while also allowing for year-round cultivation.

“A lot of producers know that… greenhouses are a part of that long-term strategy,” said Matt Sampson, owner of North Coast Growers in Washington State.

Enter companies such as Oregon-based TRiQ, which was founded just two years ago and specializes in greenhouse facilities for cannabis growers. The company’s CEO, Matt Cohen, said his firm has put together plans for facilities that incorporate growing areas underneath glass along with automated functions for processing and packaging, as well as tissue culture laboratories, extraction labs and edibles kitchens. And the entire facility is so automated that it can all be run from a single computer screen, he said.

“What we believe is that the business processes of inside the product life cycle really all need to be connected,” Cohen said. “If you’re making a Toyota, you don’t make the alternator in one building and then bring it to another building to install it. They have a manufacturing line that’s integrated, and this is the same thing.”

TRiQ’s facilities are definitely the opposite of cheap, however; with starting prices at around $5 million for a 50,000-square-foot facility, they’re only for well-funded growers with an eye on the future. Prices go up – way up – from there. The company is already under contract for a facility in the United States (Cohen wouldn’t disclose where) that’s over 200,000 square feet.

The market for greenhouses – and facilities such as TRiQ’s – will certainly vary from state to state, however. They may be less utilized in markets that allow outdoor cultivation, or in warmer southern climates, but proponents argue that the basic model would allow crops to utilize the sun while also controlling for both summer and winter extremes.

The return on investment can also be significant, Cohen said. One of his smaller facilities can produce 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of cannabis a year, and simultaneously cut production and packaging costs from around $1,200 per pound to $400 per pound.

And there are other companies lining up to produce similar facilities, said Sycamore Horticulture’s Corr.

“(TRiQ has) put together a good package, but they’re not the only people who have put together a good package,” said Corr. He pointed to Colorado-based Nexus as a similar company that he’s been impressed with.

The bottom line is that greenhouses are here to stay in the world of cannabis, and they’re likely only going to get bigger and better as time goes on. Companies such as TRiQ and Nexus will continue to learn from greenhouse farmers who grow crops such as tomatoes, adopt new processes, and integrate them into their own systems.

Because, as Cohen put it, “If it makes sense for tomatoes, it makes sense for cannabis, because cannabis is a hell of a lot more profitable than tomatoes.”