By Van McConnon
Get ready for the new era of cannabis cultivation.
Technology is triggering a sea change in the way marijuana is grown, allowing cultivation sites to lower costs, boost yields and maximize production capacity. The situation is changing so rapidly that the decisions marijuana cultivation businesses make today will play a huge role in whether they are still around in a few years.
Growers who stick with traditional methods of cultivating marijuana – employing what essentially amounts to modified basement technology – will lose out in the long-run. Those who incorporate advancements in technology, on the other hand, will lead the way forward and have a distinct advantage in the future.
We’re already seeing a significant gap emerge: The cost of producing a pound of premium cannabis in Colorado, for example, ranges from around $385 to $1,450. Technology is a big reason for the difference.
Here are some technologies that will play an important role in cannabis cultivation in the next few years:
This isn’t exactly “new” technology: It’s been used for years in commercial agriculture, but the cannabis cultivation industry is just beginning to adopt it. Automated fertigation is really making a difference in grow facilities over 10,000 square feet, cutting fertilizer and labor costs dramatically.
When implementing this technology, the first step is to organize your grow into zones. These can be rooms, sections of a greenhouse or groupings of plants. Define each zone’s nutrient and water requirements, plumb the system, place sensors at different points in the system…and watch your plants thrive.
These automated systems mix on the fly to very exact standards. Some use analog mixing technology and others use electronic injectors to get nutrients and water to the plants in the right proportions and the correct pH balance.
If your facility is big enough, fertigation will improve consistency and cut labor costs. The biggest issue is adapting the systems for organic growers and traditional cannabis nutrient packs. Using a base of powdered commercial fertilizers will work best in these systems since they run cleaner and can usually be mixed into three or four tanks of concentrate. The fertigation system can then mix and pH-balance each tank.
Effective automated fertigation systems for cannabis are available from Dosatron, Envirotech and Gryphon Automation.
Modern Greenhouse Technology
Forget about the musty nursery where your family picked up bedding plants in the spring of 1986. A modern greenhouse can peg the day at the beach as effectively and predictably as any indoor facility – creating cost savings, consistency and simply a better product.
Colorado recently had a cold snap. It was minus 2 outside, but I was standing in a 27,000-square-foot greenhouse surrounded by gorgeous seven-foot plants a week or so from harvest. The temperature was 79 degrees and the relative humidity was pegged at 45%. The heaters were doubling as carbon dioxide generators, running at 1,250 parts per million CO2 levels to give the plants that extra boost. The greenhouse was the only space that was actually handling the cold and maintaining the environment perfectly.
This is a great example of how effective and efficient greenhouse technology has become.
A modern cannabis greenhouse will use double-paneled poly with light diffusion technology. This will eliminate 95% of the photo bleaching seen with some strains grown outdoors or in low-tech greenhouses.
For some really photosensitive strains prone to bleaching, shading technology can be used to match the light to the variety’s ability to use it.
An advanced cannabis greenhouse will have an effective blackout system so that you can modify the flowering cycle in the spring, summer and fall. Cannabis seems to be marginally more sensitive to light than mums or poinsettias, so make sure that your supplier has experience with cannabis growers and their black-out requirements.
Supplemental lighting will turn those nine hour days to twelve in December and January. An Israeli company has developed dehumidification technology that combines heat, humidification and mold control – manna from heaven for a grower.
The best part about a greenhouse is the cost. An acre cannabis greenhouse will cost 15% less to build than an indoor facility using high-pressure sodium lights (HPS) and will produce substantially more cannabis over the course of a year.
The operating costs deliver even more dramatic savings. A greenhouse will cost 33% percent less to operate than a HPS facility over the course of a year while generating a higher yield per square foot. A Denver cultivator calls indoor HPS facilities “the noose that will hang a lot of growers.” He grows in a greenhouse and is charging top dollar for his flowers because his product is phenomenal.
LED lighting has been my Holy Grail of lighting since I got into this business five years ago.
Between the cooling, venting and power requirements, HPS and metal halide lamps burn money and power at an incredible rate. On the other hand, LED lamps emit almost no heat, do not require venting or cooling and consume less power. With LED, your cooling system can be dramatically scaled back or – in the case of a cultivation site I designed recently – even eliminated.
The problem with LED has always been that it can lead to low yields and poor quality. This has changed, in large part because of advancements in LED technology tied to the International Space Station.
One dispensary in Colorado – Denver Relief – reported a 13% increase in yield and a 40% reduction in energy under LED technology developed by Lighting Science in a side-by-side test with HPS. Our own tests of this system have produced similar results.
Up-front expenses can be a challenge. A 20,000-square-foot LED facility will cost $400,000 more to build than an HPS site. But the difference over time is astounding: The HPS facility is about $2 million more expensive to operate over a five-year period than the LED site.
So if you are planning to spend millions of dollars on a new facility using HPS and metal halide, you may be digging your own grave. The only reason marijuana was grown indoor with modified street lamps was because it was illegal.
Going forward, every grower will have to implement some or all of these technologies to stay competitive. There will be more than 10 million square feet of space dedicated to the legal commercial cultivation of marijuana by the end of 2014. How the next 5 million square feet gets built will determine who wins and who loses.
Van McConnon is a senior consultant with Colorado Cannabis Systems in Boulder, Colorado, and has been growing and selling legal medical marijuana in the state for five years.