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From setting up a grow to tracking each plant, a look at new cultivation technology solutions designed to both improve efficiencies and create more data analytics.
This second “Tech Innovations” column examines the state of the art in cannabis cultivation technology by first examining the history of cannabis growing operations—where it began, where it is going, and the forces behind its historic evolution. This column focuses on technology in use now, from setting up a grow to tracking each plant, and proposes new technology solutions that are either in place now or on the drawing board, all designed to both improve the grow efficiencies of cannabis and create more data analytics for better cannabis cultivation in the future.
The tech future of cannabis cultivation is already happening in some places around the country, borrowing from or even leading agricultural technology development already in use for growing other crops such as cut flowers.
Cannabis cultivation uses the same methods as other agricultural cultivation grow operations—either outdoor, greenhouse, or indoor—with important distinctions about what works best and why, all wrapped up in regulatory seed-to-sale reporting responsibilities on a new high dollar crop.
Growers have found that cannabis is more than just another agricultural plant. Yes, cannabis grows wild like a weed. But growing it commercially, and profitably, is about managing how this weed becomes a repeatable, valuable product that meets the expectations of a demanding consumer willing to pay for a quality agriculture product.
Today, as cannabis has been legalized in some form (medical, adult use, or both) across 33 states and the District of Columbia (1), with the likelihood of more to come, all three types of grow operations—outdoor, greenhouse, and indoor—continue to be used.
But there are, and will be, more states where cannabis grow operations don’t work outdoors because of winter and summer weather challenges.
Greenhouses may be the only choice for some states, but seasonal operational expenses associated with fluctuating weather and heating-venting-air conditioning (HVAC) demands could seriously affect earnings margins.
Other states joining the legalized cannabis grow community are compromised by smaller footprints of available land, as in built-out states such as New Jersey, leaving indoor farming (both updated hydroponic grows and new cultivation ideas such as vertical grows) as the only logical choice to make a profit off of a high-dollar crop like cannabis.
In Table I presented here, we showcase some of the new cultivation products that have been brought to market since 2019. Tables II-V are presented here in the online version of this column due to space considerations. These tables provide more details on each product that was submitted. Cannabis Science and Technology sent out a survey during the spring and summer of 2020 asking vendors to supply them with any cultivation products launched within the last year. Because information for this article is obtained sporadically over the course of many months, it is very possible that some information has been missed. The reader is encouraged to check with specific vendors for additional products as well as more-detailed information regarding what is covered here.
Location is critical for the outdoor grow because this type of cultivation operation faces many variables: weather, pest mitigation, irrigation challenges, and even challenges because of the atmosphere, as is the case in outdoor grows in and around mile-high Denver.
Year-round outdoor growing regions that are nearest to the equator—Jamaica, for instance—are better for larger sativa-dominant plants. Growers say it’s in these regions where the future of outdoor cannabis grows will naturally gravitate.
In the US, the outdoor cannabis grow has been the legacy grow operation for cannabis since the cultivation of cannabis began in earnest in the 1960s, mostly in California’s Emerald Triangle in Humboldt County. This area is still the largest producer of both black market and legal cannabis in the US today.
However, the Emerald Triangle grow area in northern California is not really an ideal setting, according to a recent study (2). Poor quality agricultural soil covers nearly 90% of the county. Cannabis requires water throughout its growing season, which takes place during Humboldt County’s dry season and can last up to 150 days. With the dry summers and falls in this area, irrigation of cannabis plants is needed on a nearly daily basis. It’s not the most commercially friendly method of growing cannabis, and not a leader in new uses of grow technology.
“If I am running a cannabis grow, I am running a business for profit,” said Jim Eaves, an agricultural economist at Universite Laval in Quebec City, Quebec Canada. “The real sun might have wonderful things it is providing. But if the market can’t perceive those things so that I can be compensated for the higher cost and higher risk of growing under the sun, that I have to incur for growing outside, then it’s not worth it.”
Brett Strauss, president and cofounder of FolioGrow, makers of a cloud-based horticulture productivity platform, explained that outdoor grows don’t embrace technology as much because the number of steps you have to take during the grow cycle is pretty slow. “But when you compress that down to two or three months like you do with indoor growing, all of a sudden all of the tasks become rapid fire,” he said. “If you have a plant that grows and harvests in 90 days and one that grows and harvests in 85 days, that’s five days that are valuable to me. That is five days of such things as rent, electricity, marketing. You have THC levels, speed to harvest, how well it is selling, what is my yield—all of these moving parts are going on. When you collect all of that data and you can look at it, you can make better decisions on what you should be doing.”
There are large cannabis greenhouse operations in both Canada and the US—such as the massive 40-acre Copper State Farms in Snowflake, Arizona (3); the Glass House Farms 505,000-square foot greenhouse in Carpinteria Valley near Los Angeles, California (4); or the Aphria Inc. greenhouse, which is 2.4 million square feet of cultivation space in Leamington, Ontario, Canada (5).
All offer the controls needed to get repeatable plant grows. But all come with their own set of drawbacks.
“The first instinct after cannabis was legalized was to take advantage of the free electricity of the sun,” said Eaves. “But the mistake of that is that the sun’s electricity is not free. You have to have a glass building and that’s not cheap. It’s not insulated. And now to allow that sun in, I have to have all this equipment to try to control my environment in a space where there is very little protection from heat.”
“You see growers struggling with the fact that now the cloud comes over, and the humidity spikes, and then the cloud goes away and its super dry and hot inside the greenhouse," said Eaves. "They are constantly fighting against radiation.”
Greenhouse glass is expensive. Controlling the sun and the indoor HVAC environment of a greenhouse is challenging. Meeting the environmental requirements about power and water usage can put a strain on the bottom line.
The greenhouse operator also has to find a way to mitigate the smell of the cannabis growing there, in accordance with local ordinances.
But there have been inventions for the greenhouse operation to help reduce costs. For example, greenhouses can be fitted or retrofitted with retractable energy-saving shade curtains, which can be used to adjust the heat inside the greenhouse; and boiler units using biomass for fuel to power heating units. Other ideas include installing hot water radiant floors for more controllable area and zone heating, further reducing overall heating costs.
When Colorado legalized adult use cannabis in 2014, there was a run on warehouse space in Denver and other jurisdictions in the state because most Colorado cities were required to have the grow and retail sales operations in the same building. Setting up grows in renovated industrial buildings wasn’t as straightforward as early growers had hoped. They began encountering issues with mold and HVAC access and use.
Growers who had come from outdoor grows, or worked in much smaller indoor grows, were now tasked with being environmental engineers and smart building designers while managing growing at scale—with sometimes disastrous consequences, such as losing an entire grow due to mold. The indoor concept evolved over time as hard lessons were learned.
Eaves said indoor farms immediately began disrupting the greenhouse models in cannabis cultivation. “The main value of growing indoors is that, when you are growing a lot of varieties, you have to create different environments. And that is just cheaper to do indoors than in a greenhouse,” he said.
There are only a few crops where the market demands more varieties than cannabis right now, and it is much easier to have a flexible manufacturing environment indoors explained Eaves. “Just the value of being able to respond to the customer rapidly and well, that alone will lead to indoor farms disrupting greenhouses in many parts of the world, for many different plants not just cannabis,” he said.
Indoor cannabis cultivation has essentially four big issues to deal with: lighting, HVAC, pest mitigation, and contamination such as mold or other pathogens that can come from either the building itself or the human working with the plants. All have come under more and more scrutiny and control as the industry evolves.
Early on, lights were the focus of getting a more efficient, better yield operation overall, and came with a set of pros and cons still being worked out today. Cannabis cultivation lighting has come down to a discussion of high pressure sodium (HPS), the early preferred light for cannabis for indoor grows, versus light emitting diodes (LED). But HPS lights generate too much heat, and tend to spread light too widely within a grow. LEDs are initially more expensive, but they operate cooler, use less electricity, and are more directable.
Eaves wrote in a white paper (6) that cannabis growers can buy a general-purpose, broad-spectrum LED (for example, a flood light used for lighting streets or warehouses) or they can buy an LED light with a spectrum that has been “tuned” specifically for horticulture applications.
Eaves’ study found that the LED is more efficient at directing photons to the plants, causing a higher proportion to hit the plants versus the walls and floor. Since the LED emits far less radiant heat, the grower can place the lights much closer to the plants.
He also found that it is possible that spectrum tuning offered by LEDs may improve the cannabinoid profile substantially enough to justify a price premium. But the discussion of which lighting system works best rages on today.
Seed-to-sale tracking is a required regulatory compliance process that has always been a part of the cannabis grow process, mostly in place to eliminate the potential diversion of the product to the black or gray market.
One company that has built an app to help collect and streamline that information is GeoShepard, with their automation solution software. The software allows cannabis growers to automate the data entry of compliance information into the compliance seed-to-sale tracking platform, and connect with state compliance tracking at Metrc, a software application reporting tool used by most states.
“We have been able to put 10,000 plants from single harvest batches through our system in one day to Metrc,” said Jay Lineberry, cofounder and CTO of GeoShepard. “That is our record so far.”
Their biggest project now is their offline mode, where users can use their iphone or Android devices out in the field where they don’t have wifi connectivity. They can enter that cannabis plant batch information on their devices, then connect and upload that information once they are back in their offices.
GeoShepard is thinking of compiling the information they gather to make the software more of an analytical piece to show what strains are being grown and sold more often, and help identify trends. “We do have that information, but it is not something we have built yet,” said Lineberry. “But it is on our roadmap for something to do in the future.”
Strauss calls FolioGrow’s cannabis production management (CCM) platform “money ball for cannabis,” that is more of a “seed-to-wholesale” platform.
“The application is built to help growers really analyze the math behind the business that they are doing,” said Strauss. “We convert a lot of the data into a readable actionable form.”
He said that growers are spending a lot of time tracking production using spreadsheets. But his application is an automatically updating software-as-a-service (SaaS) application, with data entered by employees as they are doing their day-to-day jobs, so that they can do that spreadsheet-type analysis in real time. “All the grow manager has to do is look over their shoulders at the data and run reports,” said Strauss. “At the core the application is really a task and project management system specific to the cannabis industry.”
Their application provides information about everything that was done every day to and with the plant, when it was done, who did it, how long it took to do it—all of which offers a sort of “CSI for the harvested plant.”
“If you were expecting 28 grams per plant and got 23 for example, that is a 25% loss,” said Strauss. “Why did that happen? Maybe it was because you had an HVAC system go out. Or maybe you were expecting 28 grams per plant and got 32. So let’s figure out why that happened so we can replicate it.”
Strauss said that in the near future, he wants to merge data analytics from multi-state operators (MSOs) on the CCM platform. “When you use a piece of technology like ours, every time you grow a batch you are basically doing research and development,” he said. “So if I have multiple grows in multiple states, I can merge that data and analyze it. I can find out why my Florida shop is getting 36 grams per plant on average for Blue Dream, and my Ohio shop is only getting 26. Maybe I can get Ohio to grow something else. Or maybe I can replicate what they are doing in Florida in Ohio and help them bring their yields up.”
One of the newer ideas being explored in agriculture tech is the vertical farm—growing plants vertically in a smaller real estate footprint to make better use of grow space in non-traditional farm locations.
Vertical farming is now working its way into the cannabis business. Chris Treville, the cofounder of Growex, explainedthat his company is working on a vertical farming concept that they call “true vertical.” It is basically a wall of plants inside a gas-tight envelope that eliminates contamination and pests issues, with plants facing each other.
That configuration allows for a more dense canopy, or more crops per square footprint, and uses laser LED lights that are software controlled to mimic morning, noon, and night.
Their two sites in Quebec are in rooms that are 25 feet high, but he wants to go higher than that, eventually with their 4.0 model (they are on 2.0 now), and remove some of the interaction with a human by using a robotic arm to pick up a row of plants and bring it down to the floor for someone to work with.
Growex has been working with a large Dutch fruit produce company inside an 80-foot high automated distribution center perfecting the concept, and are bringing a modified version of that model into the cannabis space. “We chose the cannabis plant because there is a big demand for it,” he said. “The margins allow for research and development more so than other crops. But we do want to go back to other crops afterwards.”
Cannabis is now their “spearhead crop” for new cultivation technology, he stated, as they take a look at how the plants grow and what his model can do. “I call it an algorithm, which is a relationship between different parameters—lighting, nutrients, CO2, O2, HVAC, and others—that affect a plant growth,” said Treville.
“When you are indoors, you have the most precise controls of that. If you can control all of those elements with digital precision, then you can play with those parameters and figure out that algorithm,” he said.
Treville explained that they are trying to get to grow efficiencies of 50 cents per gram. “We have never had real mass to work with until now. But we are working with a facility in Montreal that will produce 5 million grams of dried cannabis flower a year, or 96 kilos a week. That facility is complete and licensed by Health Canada. So we have been doing a dry run with our system, and expect to be ramping up to full production at the end of the year,” he said.
“We think we are actually going to be able to get around 20 cents per gram, then add a couple cents for packaging and add 15 to 20 cents for amortization of building and equipment. All in, it should be about
50 cents,” said Treville.
Artificial intelligence (AI) will be a part of the equation going forward, he said. “If you add AI you increase height and automate more,” he said. “That is where you are going to get to 30 cent range all in, and really be competitive.”
Bringing AI into the grow operations for cannabis and other plants is a concept that is getting closer to reality. For example, the University of California-Riverside was recently awarded a $10 million grant to develop AI for sustainable water, nutrient, salinity, and pest management in the western US (7). AI and digital agriculture, which are the transdisciplinary application of high-performance computing and hyperdimensional data, will be developed to improve farming resilience. The AI project at UC-Riverside is focused on digital tools for agricultural input management, early pest detection, the integration of physical and statistical models, daily remote sensing merged with recommendations for soil-water balanced irrigation scheduling, salinity leaching, and fertilization—all in a single framework.
Eaves explained that AI is inevitable in the near future and will make cannabis farms completely automated. “Because they are so well controlled, and you can gather data so well, they are going to use that data and analyze it so that you basically have self-driving farms,” he said. “They are adjusting on the fly in real time based on data they are gathering.”
Strauss agrees that the time for AI is here. “Being able to make predictions about production and finding anomalies in your process is what AI is going to be giving people,” he said.
Strauss said that the cannabis cultivation community in general has not been very open to technology. “I am talking about the entire industry,” he said. “You will find organizations that will be very dialed in. Others are like those guys up in northern California doing outdoor grows that are on quads using flip phones. It’s a low tech industry compared to others.”
Traditional farming has always been done by instinct, gut, and ego. “You get 100 growers in the room and every one of them thinks they are the smartest in the room,” Strauss said. “And they all think the other 99 are idiots. But the reality is that if you can analyze the math of what you are doing, really look at the numbers behind the decisions you are making, you can maximize your revenue.”
“Remember, every grower has the same limitations—they have limited square footage and there are 24 hours in a day," added Strauss. “Their goal is to make the maximum amount of money they can possibly make given those limitations.”
Treville said that the basic premise of Growex’s evolution has been built on one principle—don’t just listen to the grower. “Have them sit down with the engineers and builders if you are going to grow a plant at scale,” he said. “Those are the people who know the base components needed for making a facility contamination free and can help you produce the results you are looking for. It’s a different ballgame.”
Product reviews such as the present work would not be possible without the contributions and cooperation of the manufacturers that responded to the Cannabis Science and Technology survey. Their effort is greatly appreciated. Although Cannabis Science and Technology has made every attempt to include every submission, it is possible that some have been missed. If there have been omissions or if you want to be sure to be included in the 2021 new cultivation coverage, please contact Megan L’Heureux, Editor-in-Chief, Cannabis Science and Technology, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Hodes has written for many cannabis publications, and organized or moderated sessions at national and international cannabis trade shows. He was voted the 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access, the world’s largest medical cannabis advocacy organization.