By Scott Dittman
The growth and evolution of the medical cannabis industry has been as fascinating as it has been fast-moving, and nowhere is that more true than on the cultivation side of the business.
For those individuals resilient enough to still be around since the industry really began to take shape several years ago, the change is truly remarkable. In the summer of 2010, when the country’s first state-sanctioned cannabis cultivation industry formed in Colorado, the actual crop results were less than impressive. Most cultivators took techniques that had worked for them on a small scale and tried to blow them up to large scale in warehouses all over the state.
The result: They learned some hard – and expensive – lessons very quickly. Growers soon found that just hanging lights from rafters and placing plants on the floor didn’t work well in giant spaces. They lost crops at an astounding rate to everything from pests and powdery mildew to heat and mechanical failures to hermaphrodites and pollen from unseen males that turned entire warehouses to seed.
It wasn’t a pretty scene.
But evolve the industry did. Visit any licensed cultivation center now and you are likely to see a much different picture. Big spaces have turned into much smaller individual grow rooms, which growers quickly learned allow for much more precise (and inexpensive) control of temperature, humidity and CO2. Small rooms also let growers quarantine pest and mildew problems and implement simpler cultivation processes. Today’s growers speak about the volumetric efficiency of their grow space, not just the square footage.
The level of sophistication available for environmental control has also grown dramatically. Advanced programmable logic controllers send today’s growers texts to let them know when the temperature or humidity are outside of acceptable levels, allowing them to make adjustments or hustle back to the garden to investigate. Some growers can even make adjustments from their living room using their smartphones. In short, small problems are not allowed to become big problems any longer.
Growing techniques and equipment are also evolving rapidly as cultivators seek to increase productivity and reduce costs. Experienced cultivators are seeing productivity increases as they experiment with soil-less mediums like hydroponics, aeroponics, deep water culture and nutrient film technique (NFT) systems. Lighting is another area of constant improvement, with high-intensity discharge (HID) lights slowly giving way to well-known lighting options like fluorescent and LED…but also to lesser-known systems like induction and plasma.
Just like cultivation techniques have evolved, the metrics growers use have progressed as well. Remember when productivity was measured in pounds per plant? “Dude, I get two pounds per plant!” was a common refrain a few years back.
Today’s grower most commonly speaks in “pounds per light” to measure productivity. One pound per light (per cycle) has become a baseline metric of the current industry.
Evolution, however, continues to march on and new and more precise metrics are being used by advanced cultivators. Grams per watt (over time) is now being adopted as advanced cultivators seek to compare productivity over various sizes and types of lighting configurations. The end of the evolutionary path, where metrics are concerned, will ultimately be in the form of a total cost per gram produced. After all, as the cultivation of cannabis becomes less art and more agriculture, that is the metric that will really matter.
Not all of the evolution comes from within, of course.
As the industry struggles to become mainstream, entirely new sets of government and building code regulations force further changes. Gone are the days of mylar walls as building codes and regulations require fireproof walls, ceilings and corridors. While double layers of sheetrock make the fire department happy, they unfortunately do nothing for new “food safe” regulations that have sent cultivators scrambling around town for “cleanable” surfaces to put on top of their drywall.
New requirements for CO2 control and exhausting capability will also soon force growers to spend time and money changing or retrofitting their CO2 systems. More changes, some predictable and some not, are sure to be around the corner.
The Greek Philosopher Heraclitus once said “the only thing constant is change.”
He would have been a deft cultivator.
Scott Dittman is the CEO of FusionPharm Inc., a publicly traded company that manufactures turn-key commercial cannabis cultivation systems called PharmPods