Cultivators are searching for a pure balance between ecology and commerce.
The cannabis industry is making history on multiple levels—from health and wellness to the economy to gastronomy and even tourism—but nothing will have as long-lasting an impact as the industry’s shaping of the green movement.
Well before the dawn of modern cannabis legalization, weed farmers in northern California were obsessed with the soil, sun, nutrients, light, water, critters, and weather. They have experimented for decades with off-the-grid, DIY ways to preserve the land they love while also growing the most potent herb known to man. They weren’t the first to develop a special relationship with the plant. As far back as 10,000 B.C., China’s Chou Dynasty began utilizing cannabis for warfare, apparel, medicine, paper…and to “purify the soil.” Emperor Shen-Nung (c. 2700 B.C.), the father of Chinese medicine, noted planting sativa (“ma”) produced positive effects “on the rich, silken soil.” According to Shen-Nung, vegetables, animals, and minerals flourished because sativa’s feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang, properties were especially harmonious.
More recently, the infamous outlaw cannabis farmers of the twentieth century who chiefly operated in the thick forests of California’s Emerald Triangle quickly took note that pungent, bewitching cannabis did not deplete the earth and its natural resources, as some had warned it would. Instead, weed enhanced its cultivation area—if grown in harmony with nature. Guerilla cultivators were some of the first to try soil-friendly regenerative agriculture practices, thereby becoming unwitting trailblazers for the eco-environmental movement that sprouted in California during the 1960s.
The modern cannabis marketplace is a vastly different world. Commercial and investor pressure, thin profit margins, supply-line deadlines, compliance earthquakes, and fickle consumers conspire to shove cannabis off its earth-friendly footing. The question is: Can today’s cannabis industry advance ecological vigilance and maintain a solid balance sheet?
For the average cannabis farm, electricity is the second highest expenditure. In July, New Frontier Data partnered with Scale Microgrid Solutions and the Resource Innovation Institute to suggest ways in which the industry may be able to reduce its reliance on resource-intensive cultivation practices. According to a statement from the partners, the project will address the issues with actionable data based on “the most comprehensive analysis of current energy consumption.” The study will examine hundreds of cultivators’ and operators’ energy consumption across North America and provide operational insights and cost indicators that can be used immediately to assess both the efficiency and profitability at the root of the ecosystem.
“Baseline usage data is the key for cannabis producers to see where they currently stand and to help them make decisions about best practices and technology upgrades that drive a lower cost per pound,” said Derek Smith, executive director for the Resource Innovation Institute.
Right now, the easiest way to lower energy costs and help the environment is to grow outdoors, under the sun. According to John Downs, director of business development for The Arcview Group, the cost per pound of indoor, outdoor, and greenhouse growing is substantially different because the energy needs of each grow type are vastly different. “You can’t downplay how much of an impact energy efficiency has and energy costs have for cannabis producers,” he said. “These energy-related costs can account for as much as 50 percent of what it takes financially to run an indoor grow.”
Farmers who prefer to grow indoors or in greenhouses may be able to reduce costs and leave a much smaller carbon footprint by employing new technologies. Replacing traditional lights with light-emitting diodes and installing sensor systems, algorithms, and machine learning can help improve efficiency. U.S. Department of Energy studies have shown employing LEDs can knock up to 40 percent off farmers’ energy costs. Tack on additional, next-generation technologies—like energy-conserving heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems and vertical growing—and savings could reach 55 percent.
Granted, the upfront costs for switching to LEDs can be daunting and paying off the investment can take up to two years. In the long run, however, LED systems solve a big dilemma: how to maintain the bottom line while remaining a conscientious steward of the planet. Giving you the most bang for your LED buck is the Roleadro Galaxyhydro Series 300W, a full range system that incorporates light wavelengths covering the photosynthetic dynamic radiation zone.
A number of companies have stepped into the cannabis space with LED systems appropriate for indoor grows. Galaxyhydro offers nine spectrum groups that mimic the sun and provide optimal lighting for all growth stages. Viparspectra’s original product, the Reflector Series 300W LED grow light, is full spectrum, has a daisy chain option, and offers five-watt diodes. Not to be outshone, the new Viparspectra Reflector Series 450W offers all the latest bells and whistles: lighting for each period of plant growth, self-cooling fans, and conventional warmth sinks for quickly disseminating heat. For sheer power and wattage, the Dimgogo 1000W is impressive. New to the market, the product comprises triple-chip 10W LEDs, which are brighter and more efficient than two-chip 3W or 5W LEDs. In addition, the product incorporates a robust cooling framework that includes two fans and a massive warmth sink; the light uses about 185W to cover a five-foot by four-foot growing space.
During a recent review of his balance sheets, Jesse Peters, co-founder of Oregon’s Eco Firma Farms, discovered much of the reason for the operation’s higher-than-expected profits came from simply converting the lighting system to LED. An eco-progressive farm even before the switch, Peters said Eco Firma now spends about half what his indoor-growing peers spend. In a time when wholesale flower prices are plummeting, Peters has become an enthusiastic advocate for the LED movement. For him, it’s all about trying new things and being patient. “The hardest thing with growing is stepping out of your comfort zone without a war chest to make mistakes with,” he said.
Resource Innovation Institute’s Smith is an advocate, too. As he travels from farm to farm advising growers how to become more energy efficient, the first thing he tells them is to invest in LEDs because sooner or later their company’s survival will depend on the move. “If you’re not figuring out how to be energy-efficient as an indoor cannabis operator, your time in the competitive spotlight will likely be short-lived,” Smith said.
The LED era is only in its infancy and will continue to innovate, according to Nate Lipton, chief executive for leading online cultivation supply shop Growers House. “In the past few years our sales of LED grow lights have increased sevenfold,” he noted “Those that make the switch to LED are suddenly able to spend less money on cooling, water, and nutrients. And by giving farmers the option of safely stacking multiple layers of plants in a single warehouse, LEDs allow growers to make far more money than they could with [traditional high-intensity discharge lamps] in the same amount of space.”
While many cannabis farmers use synthetic pesticides for a cost-effective and robust harvest, more environmentally conscious growers employ predatory bugs, bacteria, and fungi to create an optimal environment that not only resists pests but also sequesters carbon and repopulates flora. For Tyson Haworth, a veteran of the organic produce industry and a cannabis cultivator at SoFresh Farms, natural pest control is only the start of creating sustainable cannabis agriculture. “It’s not enough to not be bad when it comes to sustainability,” he said. “We want to be good. We want to be part of the solution.”
On his quarter-acre farm in southern Oregon, Haworth is laser-focused on doing just that. For instance, he puts his plant trimmings in vats with lactic acid bacteria, which turn the waste into nutrient-rich plant grub. According to Haworth, any trimmings that aren’t used for fertilizer go into giant compost heaps dotting the property. Chickens take care of the rest. “My chickens dart from their coop to the mounds, turning the compost and pecking the soil,” he noted.
Instead of growing three rounds of large plants in a year, Haworth grows five rounds of smaller plants. He said dividing the heat and energy by five produces a smaller footprint. “Excess heat from the farm’s indoor grow space is pumped into a separate room where the cannabis seedlings grow, reducing the need to heat that space with more propane,” he said.
The roof of his barn incorporates gutters that funnel rainwater into a reclamation system. The dehumidifiers and air-conditioning units also serve a dual purpose: A condensation pump takes the excess moisture that collects on metal exteriors and siphons it into the reclamation tanks to help reduce the farm’s dependence on groundwater. To say Haworth, one of the first farmers to earn a Clean Green certificate, is obsessed with waste management is an understatement. “I think about that all the time,” he said. “What’s your waste source, and how can you turn that into a revenue stream or help with an expense?”
While not every farmer is ready to go to the lengths Haworth has, there are little things almost all growers can do that may make big differences. For instance, Epsom salts (hydrated magnesium sulfate, or MgSO4 + 7H2O) have been used for centuries to treat human ailments and provide a clean tool for gardeners experiencing magnesium deficiencies. Coco coir is another option. A by-product of manufacturing coconut products, the husks retain water while allowing plenty of oxygen to reach plant roots. Substituting insects and predatory nematodes—earthworms, ladybugs, praying mantis—for chemical pesticides is efficient, fun, and environmentally sound. Earthworms dig tunnels under the soil, allowing better oxygen flow and significantly reducing fungal infections and disease. And according to cannabis cultivator writer, editor, and author Danny Danko, switching to oxygenated compost tea can work wonders.
“Steep the compost in a bucket of water utilizing an old stocking,” said Danko. “Then oxygenate the tea for twenty-four hours using an air-pump and air stones from an aquarium supply shop to fully activate the beneficial bacteria and microbes. This mild nutrient will feed your plants and protect them from pests and disease.”
Going veganic is in vogue. Studies have shown one-third of Earth’s greenhouse emissions come from industrial animal agriculture, which causes environmentally destructive forces like deforestation, huge emission of methane into the atmosphere, and massive water waste. Replacing animal byproducts like bone meal, blood meal, and fish meal with kelp, seaweed, worm castings, humic acid, and mycorrhizal fungi makes a world of difference for the planet, especially when mixed with companion planting. Companion planting is a natural way to reduce the use of toxic materials: Placing plants such as clover (nitrogen fixing), borage (uproots trace minerals), basil (repels slugs), foxglove (attracts insects that kill white flies), garlic (natural fungicide and pesticide), and marigold (cannabis-devouring insects hate it) in cannabis fields can provide essential ground cover for the plants.
At what cost?
How many cannabis farmers really have the desire and wherewithal to go green? Timothy Hade, chief operating officer and co-founder of clean technology company Scale Microgrid Solutions, doesn’t believe enough cultivators are concerned with greening their grows. He noted while many are working to reduce their energy consumption to decrease expenses, others display much less concern about environmental impact. Ultimately, that may harm their bottom line.
“In most states, retail prices are still north of $1,200 a pound. At that price point, managing costs isn’t really a top priority for cultivators,” Hade said. “Cultivators are primarily focused on maximizing production, regardless of cost. But retail prices in all states are going to fall off a cliff as the cannabis market matures and regulations ease. Once retail prices hit $600 a pound, then energy costs start to matter a lot.”
That’s why the partnership between New Frontier Data, Scale Microgrid Solutions, and the Resource Innovation Institute matters, according to New Frontier founder and Chief Executive Officer Giadha Aguirre De Carcer. “Data is the basis to any business’s ability to optimize,” she said. “In the cannabis industry, where electricity is the second highest expenditure in a cultivation operation, lowering energy costs can make the difference in whether a business survives in this increasingly competitive environment. Wholesale pricing has now dropped by over 50 percent in most key markets across the United States. Having the ability to manage cost could not be more timely for both new and existing businesses touching the plant.”
Absent this baseline usage data cultivators are, like the nocturnal pests that terrorize their plants, operating in the dark. As more growers and regulators become educated about the cannabis industry’s energy footprint, the more innovation will thrive, which means healthier nutrients, more efficient lights, less water use, and a reduction in land damage. According to De Carcer, the partnership’s reports will inform farmers with real-time, data-driven solutions for vital issues ranging from the average energy usage per square foot of flowering canopy to per-gram production energy costs, among others. She made clear the data will affect all aspects of the industry, from the money men to growers, manufacturers, and consumers.
“Investors will be able to assess investment opportunities and determine how efficient those opportunities are in their operation,” De Carcer said. “Regulators will now have the broadest benchmark associated with current cannabis energy and resource usage. Finally, operators can determine how they compare to the rest of the industry when it comes to energy use and efficient cultivation.”
But ready data isn’t the only obstacle. According to Haworth, one of the major bumps in convincing farmers to jettison old habits in favor of more sustainable practices is that they are stubbornly set in their ways. “We’re trying to be a leader and show people it’s possible to not use pesticides when you have spider mites,” Haworth said. “We’ve had them all, and we haven’t used pesticides, and we’re still growing Cannabis-Cup-winning flowers. I just don’t think a lot of people know that’s possible.”
Hade was more circumspect. “Long term, energy management is probably the single biggest driver of economic success in the cannabis market,” he said. “Today, energy costs represent anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent of a cultivation facility’s total operating costs. That percentage will almost certainly go up as the cultivation process becomes increasingly automated, which is already happening.”