Ask the Experts: Cultivation

February 3, 2020

Leading cultivators and researchers from the cannabis industry participate in this round-table discussion

Leading cultivators and researchers from the cannabis industry-Zac Hildenbrand, Inform Environmental, LLC; Karan Kapoor, KapoorAg Consulting Inc. (formerly with JC Green Inc. and Avana Canada Inc.); Autumn Karcey, Cultivo, Inc.; and Roger Kern, Agate Biosciences participate in this round-table discussion on cultivation.

What is the biggest challenge in cannabis cultivation?Zac Hildenbrand: Controlling the environment conditions is always a challenge. For example, controlling pests and microbes is a daunting, yet manageable task; however, trying to prevent the occurrence of cross-pollinating is sometimes impossible. This has become more of a prevalent issue with the emergence of outdoor hemp cultivation that is conducted in the proximity of outdoor cannabis cultivation. The pollination of hemp with cannabis pollen or the pollination of cannabis with hemp pollen can have devastating impacts on an outdoor crop.

Karan Kapoor: The biggest challenge from my point of view is the lack of scientific ideas in the cannabis industry compared to the agriculture sector. Because of prohibition, cannabis science is almost 50 years behind compared to agriculture, which has led to a lot of misinformation in the cannabis industry. For example, there is not reliable information about the cannabis strains. An ongoing operational challenge in the industry is between quality assurance (QA) teams and growers. Many experienced growers who came to the legal industry don’t have an educational base to understand the quality assurance process, which leads to conflicts. Industry should spend some resources on educating these growers to understand the QA process.

The lack of a “structured breeding” approach in the cannabis industry is another problem that has led to too many cannabis strains, the majority of which might not be significantly different from each other in secondary metabolites contents and quality. Indoor breeding of cannabis has led to very week plants at disease resistance level which has led to some licensed producers having lost up to 90% of their crop because of diseases. There is a large need for developing disease and pest resistance.

Another challenge is the lack of government initiative towards research and development (plant sciences side). Still governments do not have clear guidelines on grant submission for cannabis. Cannabis does not fall completely under agriculture, food, or pharmaceuticals, but in a combination of all.

Autumn Karcey: I would say overall the biggest challenge in cannabis cultivation is producing quality and consistency while attempting to scale. Many of the methodologies used in small scale cultivation do not scale well and it becomes counter intuitive like trying to turn a liquor store into a Costco, the same rules don’t always apply. Understanding thresholds of large scale processing while not impeding on quality is key and can be a challenge for any company.   

Roger Kern: It depends. For the grower starting out, it’s a matter of finding the proper strain and matching it to the proper environment. For larger growers, it’s all about efficiency: efficiency of energy and efficiency of labor. Efficiency of labor means designing your facility with a proper workflow and choosing technology that minimizes the labor involved and people’s interaction with the plants. The fewer people, the less likely for them to bring diseases into the controlled-crop environment. 

What type of cultivation (greenhouse, outdoor, controlled-environment agriculture) do you find the most effective for your plants?
Hildenbrand:
Each of these different modalities has their merits. For example, indoor cultivation allows for control of the environmental conditions as well as the use of advanced lighting technologies (such as light-emitting diodes [LEDs]) that produce a better yield than sunlight. Alternatively, outdoor cultivation costs less and generally allows one to grow more plants, albeit under the mercy of outdoor conditions. Greenhouse cultivation is somewhat of a happy medium, providing growers with the best of both worlds.

Kapoor: I would put them in this order: Indoor will give you a consistent product; Greenhouse (greenhouse will be more exposed to variation in growth factors compared to indoor but better than outdoor); Outdoor (no control on the growth atmosphere).

Karcey: Depending on what the end goal of production is I would say that all forms of cultivation listed have a place in the industry for different reasons. From a cultivation standpoint it all starts with location, location, location. Many climates even if they are “zoned correctly” may not be optimal for greenhouse or outdoor production for a myriad of reasons. I try to encourage anyone before investing in property either for greenhouse or outdoor production that they perform the proper due diligence necessary on the land; including soil tests, water tests, weather reports, and take into account things like pesticide drift from neighboring farms.

I always say the difference between indoor and greenhouse or outdoor cultivation is that with indoor cultivation “you’re playing god,” meaning you should have 100% control over your environmental parameters, whereas with outdoor cultivation “you’re at the mercy of the environment around you”-you will have to learn to adapt on the fly to any unforeseen and unanticipated circumstances.

For companies developing medical products I feel the research and development of understanding certain cultivars would benefit from the consistency and quality that comes with indoor cultivation. On the contrary, if a company is concerned with the lowest cost of goods sold, cultivating outdoors in an optimal environment may be the way to go. Greenhouse is a hybrid of both indoor and outdoor philosophies where you have much more environmental control than outdoor and with the use of supplemental lighting and blackout curtains often times you are able to produce year round. However, the efficiency of a greenhouse is still determined by the environment in which it sits.   

Kern: Again, it depends. For a medical or top-shelf recreational flower, I like indoor because at every moment you can control and optimize all the environmental variables: temperature, humidity, and lighting (intensity and spectrum). If you’re interested in producing flower for oil production, then I think the greenhouse is the best option because of energy considerations. Sunlight is free, almost-there are always temperature-control issues.

What is the best piece of advice you can offer for newcomers?Hildenbrand: Don’t be afraid to ask for the advice of your more knowledgeable peers. Growing premium cannabis is as much of an art form as it is a science.

Kapoor: New people joining the cannabis industry have to make sure they take some basic courses on horticulture, especially plant nutrition and integrated pest management. An understanding of production economics is very important to survive in this competitive industry. Growing cannabis is combination of both art and science, be creative in your ways without compromising the science behind it. Always be receptive to new ideas.

Karcey: Start by getting the right team with some experience in place. If the expertise doesn’t support the business model then start slow and proceed at a steady, methodical pace. Don’t get too ambitious and bite off more than you can chew.

Kern: Keep it simple and know there is a lot you don’t know but can learn. Educate yourself. If you can, volunteer to work with somebody before you invest in your own grow so you get a feel for the plant and the processes that support it.

Visit www.cannabissciencetech.com/cultivation for more on this topic.

How to Cite This Article

M. L'Heureux, Cannabis Science and Technology3(1), 28-29 (2020).