Growing Weed in a Growing Industry
do different forms of marijuana cultivation affect the final product?
By now, everyone should understand that marijuana is a plant. It needs sunshine and water to grow, and nutrients to make it strong.
But what most people probably don’t know, is there are many different ways to grow the plant. Sticking the seeds in a pot of soil might just do the trick, but is that the most effective way, and what kind of product can you expect?
Marijuana can be grown indoors in a green house or with artificial lights. It can be grown with both at the same time. It can be grown outdoors with no artificial environment, and it can be grown directly from water, hydroponics, not soil.
As a booming industry is on the rise, demand for product will increase. Is there a cookie cutter mold that should be followed on how to grow cannabis? Or will different approaches find their own niche in the market?
The method to growing varies among farmers, some prefer indoor, some outdoor, and some prefer soil or hydroponics.
In 2012 Colorado voters passed amendment-64 allowing legal marijuana across the state. The ballot states,
“Providing for the licensing of cultivation facilities, product manufacturing facilities, testing facilities, and retail stores; permitting local governments to regulate or prohibit such facilities.”
This means that the local government has control to decide where cultivation facilities are, and most of Colorado has been forced to grow indoors.
Growing pot indoors can be done a variety of ways. There can be rows of LED, LEC, and HPS lights covering the roof of your farm. Or there is the greenhouse approach.
Because indoor marijuana has an 18–6 light schedule during the vegetation cycle, meaning the lights are on for 18 hours a day and off for 6, some natural environments can’t grow pot outdoors as productively.
Hawaii for example has a natural 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness every day year round. Often these growers will use a hybrid system, growing their marijuana with natural light, and supplementing extra sunlight time needed by turning on artificial lights.
Artificial lighting can restrain a cultivation operation from growing a variety of strains, however. Marijuana has many different strains, and they can grow with immense height differences. With artificial lighting, a room or a plot of plants needs to be mono-cropped, because the lights hanging above need to be a certain height above the plant. This prevents tip burn on the fan leafs, and also provides enough light for the plant to grow.
With indoor cultivation, the environment can be controlled. Marijuana is a plant that grows in hot temperatures with moderate humidity. Mother nature doesn’t favor these conditions everywhere, so often times indoor growing is the only option.
A hugely popular method to growing cannabis indoors is hydroponically. This means without soil, as the roots are submerged in water.
There are many different hydroponic systems; deep water culture, nutrient film techniques, ebb and flow tables, vertical hydro towers and systems, among others. Hydroponics is supposed to reduce water usage by 90–95% more than conventional farming.
Jamie Yeast, the hydroponic farm manager at the GrowHaus, explain that
“This is a hard number to reach. It’s hard because we don’t have a soil farm to compare with, with yields. I challenge this number because we also have a wet wall, and in the summer this evaporative cooler can use 600 gallons of water a day.”
A note to this is that not all hydroponic systems need a wet wall, and this stems from the hybrid style of the GrowHaus, an indoor hydrofarm with a greenhouse structure.
Yeast continued saying, “The potential is there. The reality and execution is hard.”
While these numbers may be suspicious, hydroponic growth does effect growing cycles. “Bibb lettuce grows in 12 weeks from seed, we grow it in eight, and some claim to be able to do it in six. All with hydroponics,” said Yeast.
He also went on to explain that maintenance for a year round farm is much more than a seasonal outdoor farm, and with hydroponics everything is mechanized so there is huge room for errors and failures. The cost to build a farm similar to the 5,000 sq ft hydrofarm at the GrowHaus? Yeast estimated at $1.5 million dollars, with $200,000 in yearly budgeting.
Indoor grows can also produce marijuana year round, where as many popular outdoor locations, such as northern California, have a seven to eight month growing season.
Phil Coturri, a renown Sonoma valley viticulturist and a 40 year veteran of growing cannabis outdoors, weighed in his opinion on artificial lighting and indoor growing.
“Indoor the trichomes are more prevalent but not as strong,” Coturri said.
The trichomes are the crystals visible on the outside of a bud.
“Outdoor flowers are much more dense, and the terpenes are released when you break them open,” he continued. “You can replicate sunlight, but can’t replicate mother nature. Mother nature always throws you a curve during the growing season. Heat spikes, cold snaps, indoor is mechanically the same so you’re breeding…” He trailed off. “Imperfections create flavor that can’t be replicated.”
Imperfections create flavor that can’t be replicated.
While the indoor environment can be controlled, there is something to say for outdoor growing.
Letting mother nature control the way the plants grow can result in a very different product than indoor growing.
Coturri stated that in his experience, “Cold weather right before harvest can turn your buds purple. You can’t replicate that indoors. The true cannabis grown outdoors, in sunlight, in dry climates, produces a far superior product.”
With an outdoor crop, Coturri can also grow a variety of plants. His farm currently has 17 different strains, and is integrated with other plants such as clovers, lava beans, and others. This integration acts as a natural crop rotation during the off season, so as not to destroy the soil from which the plants grow.
Coturri went on to explain that there still is a lot of maintenance with outdoor crops, irrigations systems, pests, and curation are all still labor intensive issues.
With indoor growing, pests can often effect the entire farm, fast. Yeast explained that aphids and thrips could be huge pest problems, and could effect yields by a huge margin. Rarely are pesticides used in hydroponics, until a massive pest outbreak. Coturri also battles with pests outside, but has a different approach.
“You must embrace nature, not try to control it,” Coturri says. “I put out lacewings and predatory mites. Integrated pest management, but I always have more predators than pests. Aphid problem? Lady bugs naturally kill them.”
Both Yeast and Coturri agreed that soil, among other factors, effected the final product.
“The way its grown matters to me personally. Characteristics make it different. You get high off anything, but I like a skunky kush, a pungent flavor. I think the soil, air, light effects all of this. Pollutants in manhattan caused NYC diesel to be this way or that way, something you can’t replicate in a hydro farm,”
“Hydro tomatoes don’t have the same taste soil grown tomatoes do. I feel like the soil does many things on many levels that’s not just about basic nutrient uptake. There is more happening than just on the molecular level. There are more antioxidants when a plant is beat up, vs. hydroponics where plant is ‘bottle fed’.”
Coturri expanded on this, relating marijuana with fine wines.
“Dirt has a big part of it. Terroir is soils, aspects, slope, exposure, and attitude of grower. Terroir driven pot, expresses a sense of place. This is known with wine, and we relate it to weed.”
When asked if there was science behind this notion, Coturri responded, “is there science behind taste? It’s all subjective.”
He spoke of the current season, where northern California was being ravaged by wildfires. He has marijuana grown before the fires, and some that is still curing but was grown during the fires. Coturri believes there is a noticeable difference in the taste of these pre and post fire buds.
So What Way Should Weed Be Grown?
As both Yeast and Coturri have stated, this is subjective. Mother nature and the great outdoors can potentially effect the flavor and taste of the final product with marijuana, but will the consumer even notice this minor discrepancy? Hydroponics might create a less tasteful bud, but can produce more product quicker, in a smaller space.
As the market expands, so will cultivation needs. Hydroponics scales well with industrial production needs, but the dying breed of outdoor marijuana cultivation may still find a niche market, as did craft brews and $300 dollar bottles of wine.