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National Ag Day: An Interview with Industry Leaders Disrupting Agriculture in Positive Ways

By Aaron Green
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National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.

The ACA believes that every American should:

  • Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
  • Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
  • Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
  • Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.

We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.

Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies

Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?

Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.

Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies

A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.

Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?

McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.

We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.

Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.

Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?

Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.

Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.

With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.

Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?

Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.

Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)

Aaron Green: What motivated you to publish the Cannabis H2O: Water Use and Sustainability in Cultivation report?

Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)

Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.

Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?

Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:

  1. When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
  2. In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
  3. Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
  4. As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.

The Ten Biggest Mistakes When Building a Cultivation Facility

By Michael Burnstein
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As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:

  • Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest? 
  • Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
  • Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
  • Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
  • Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
  • Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
  • Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
  • MedicineManTechGrowPoor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
  • Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
  • Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.
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Reduce Environmental Impact of Cannabinoid Production Through Biosynthesis

By Maxim Mikheev
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Cannabinoids—the molecules found in the cannabis plant—are becoming an immensely popular industry, with applications in pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, cosmetics and more. However, the traditional method of harvesting cannabinoids through plants has a tremendous environmental footprint, with the energy-intensive practices required to produce the cannabis plant costing the U.S. billions of dollars each year 

Fortunately, new innovations have emerged that will make this process require significantly less time, energy and natural resources. This article will explore two methods of rare cannabinoid production—the traditional method of cultivation through plants and the newer method of biosynthesis—and will compare their impact on the environment. 

Natural Cultivation

The companies that use the traditional process of growth, harvest, extraction and purification have a major problem when it comes to harvesting rare cannabinoids. Rare cannabinoids only show up in trace amounts in plants, which means you need to grow vast quantities of plants to harvest just a tiny amount of rare cannabinoids.

Once you factor in the amount of plants that need to be grown, equipment, fuel, fertilizers, water, man hours, harvesting, extraction and purification, the costs are economically unfeasible. This process uses so much energy, natural resources, water and fertilizers that the end product is not affordable for the majority of consumers.

Cultivation through plants requires hundreds of acres of land, thousands of pounds of fertilizer, thousands of gallons of water and thousands of man hours. In addition, this process uses significant amounts of energy to run equipment, in addition to extraction and purification. Plus, the end products can contain contaminants and toxins due to heavy metals, pesticides, pests, mold and more.

Biosynthesis

Biosynthesis is the production of a desired compound through the natural means of an organism’s biological processes. It produces identical compounds to those found in nature, lending itself as the optimal pathway for the manufacture of cannabinoids identical to their naturally occurring counterparts. ​

While cultivation through plants is harmful to the environment, biosynthesis produces a much lower environmental footprint because it requires significantly fewer resources. Biosynthesis requires over 90% less energy, natural resources and man hours, along with zero fertilizers, contaminants and toxins. There also no extraction and purification costs.

Biosynthesis needs only 6,000 square feet to produce the same amount of rare cannabinoids as hundreds of acres of plants. This process produces pharmaceutical-grade, organic, non-GMO products at a 70-90% lower cost than cultivation through plants—resulting in cannabinoid products that are more affordable for the consumer.

With climate change increasingly becoming a concern, it’s crucial for us to rely on more environmentally friendly avenues for cannabinoid production. Biosynthesis provides a method of cannabinoid production that requires significantly less time, energy and natural resources than cultivation through plants—resulting in not only a decreased environmental footprint but also safer and less expensive products.

NCIA Publishes Environmental Sustainability Recommendations

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Earlier this week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) published its recommendations for improving environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry. The report, titled Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices, and Policy Considerations, was developed by their Policy Council along with experts in the field of environmental sustainability.

The 58-page report is quite comprehensive and covers things like land use, soil health, water, energy, air quality, waste and the negative effects of an unregulated market. While the report goes into great detail on specific environmental policy considerations, like recycling, water usage, energy efficiency and more, it makes a handful of overarching policy recommendations that impact environmental sustainability on a much more macro level.

The report mentions developing a platform for sharing information in the national cannabis industry. The idea here is that information sharing on a national scale for things like energy use can be used as a communication tool for regulators as well as a tool for companies to collaborate and share ideas.

The second more overarching policy recommendation the NCIA makes in this report is “to incorporate environmental best practices and regulatory requirements into existing marijuana licensing and testing processes.” This would help streamline and unify regulations already in place and keeps sustainability in the discussion from the very start.

The last major policy recommendation they make is for incentive programs. They say that governments should incentivize cannabis businesses to operate more sustainably and “prioritize funds provided to businesses where barriers exist to entering the market, such as small- or minority-owned businesses.” The report adds that this could essentially kill two birds with one stone by promoting environmental sustainability and diversity at the same time.

Kaitlin Urso is the lead author of the report and executive project and engagement manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She says that these policy recommendations were designed to benefit everyone. “A successful, socially responsible cannabis industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. This paper is a vital first step in that effort,” says Urso. “This is important, ongoing work that will benefit everyone. The NCIA’s paper on environmental sustainability is going to inform how we approach important questions related to the future of the cannabis industry.”

To read the report in its entirety, click here.

Comparable to Organic: How This California Company Aims to Certify Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC is not eligible for USDA organic certification, due to the crop’s Schedule I status. While some hemp farmers are currently on the path to obtain a USDA organic certification, the rest of the cannabis industry is left without that ability.

Growers, producers, manufacturers and dispensaries that utilize the same practices as the national organic program should be able to use that to their advantage in their marketing. Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann, wants to help cannabis companies tap into that potential with what he likes to call, “comparable to organic.”

Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann & co-founder of SC Labs

Rice co-founded SC Laboratories in 2010, one of the first cannabis testing labs in the world, and helped develop the cannabis industry’s first testing standards. In 2016, Rice and his partners at SC Labs launched Envirocann, a third-party certification organization, focused on the quality assurance and quality control of cannabis products. Through on-site inspections and lab testing, Envirocann verifies and subsequently certifies that best practices are used to grow and process cannabis, while confirming environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance.

“Our backyard in Santa Cruz and the central coast is the birthplace of the organic movement,” says Rice. California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), founded in Santa Cruz more than 40 years ago, was one of the first organizations in the early 1990s that helped write the national organic program.

“What we came to realize in the lab testing space and as the cannabis market grew, was that a lot of cannabis companies were making the organic claims on their products,” says Rice. “At the time, only one or two organizations in the cannabis space were making an attempt to qualify best practices or create an organic-type feel of confidence among consumers.” What Rice saw in their lab was not cannabis that could be considered organic: “We saw products being labeled as organic, or with certain claims of best practices, that were regularly failing tests and testing positive for banned chemicals. That really didn’t sit well with us.”

Coastal Sun Farms, Enviroganic-certified

At the time, there was no real pathway to certify cannabis products and qualify best practices. “We met with a few people at the CCOF that were very encouraging for us to adopt the national organic program’s standards for cannabis. We followed their lead in how to adopt the standards and apply a certification, building a vehicle intended to certify cannabis producers.”

Because of their background in lab testing they added the requirement for every crop that gets certified to undergo a site inspection, sampling, as well as a pesticide residue test to confirm no pesticides were used at all during the production cycle. One of their clients is Coastal Sun Farms, a greenhouse and outdoor cannabis producer. “They grow incredible products at a high-level, commercial scale at the Enviroganic standard,” says Rice. “They have been able to prove that organic cannabis is economically viable.”

The Envirocann certification goes a bit beyond the USDA’s organic program in helping their clients with downstream supply chain risk management tools (SCRM). “Because of the rigorous testing of products to get certified and go to market, we are getting way ahead of supply chain or production issues,” says Rice. “That includes greater oversight and transparency, not just for marketing the final product.”

A good example of using SCRM to a client’s advantage is in the extraction business. A common scenario recently in the cannabis market involves flower or trim passing the pesticide tests at the lab. But when that flower makes it down the supply chain to a manufacturer, the extraction process concentrates chemical levels along with cannabinoid levels that might have previously been acceptable for flower. “I’ve witnessed millions and millions of dollars evaporate because flower passed, but the concentrated final product did not,” says Rice. “We’ve introduced a tool to get ahead of that decision-making process, looking beyond just a pass/fail. With our partner labs, we look at the chromatograms in greater detail beyond regulatory requirements, which gives us information on trace levels of chemicals we may be looking for. It’s a really rigorous audit on these sites and it’s all for the benefit of our clients.”

Envirocann has also recently added a processing certification for the manufacturing sector and a retail certification for dispensaries. That retail certification is intended to provide consumers with transparency, truth in labeling and legitimate education. The retail certification includes an assessment and audit of their management plan, which goes into details like procurement and budtender education, as well as basic considerations like energy usage and waste management.

Fog City Farms, Envirocann-certified

While Envirocann has essentially adopted the USDA’s organic program’s set of standards for what qualifies organic producers, which they call “Enviroganic,” they also certify more conventional producers with their “Envirocann” certification. “While these producers might not be considered organic farmers, they use conventional methods of production that are responsible and deserve recognition,” says Rice. “A great example for that tier would be Fog City Farms: They are growing indoor with LED lighting and have multiple levels in their indoor environment to optimize efficiency and minimize their impact with waste and energy usage, including overall considerations for sustainability in their business.”

Looking to the future, Ian Rice is using the term “comparable to organic” very intentionally, preparing for California’s roll out of their own organic cannabis program. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is launching the “OCal Comparable-to-Organic Cannabis Program.” Envirocann is obviously using the same language as the CDFA. That’s because Envirocann aims to be one of the verifying agents under the CDFA’s new program. That program will begin on January 1, 2021.

Cannabis Economics & Creating Efficiencies for Profit Margin

By Laura Breit
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News of cannabis glut and falling wholesale prices has been dominating the airwaves of late, despite some recent reports showing that prices are remaining steady. As legalization continues to spread across the nation, the industry is poised to become commoditized, especially in those areas where it has been legal for a longer period of time. Whether specializing in retail cannabis products or industrial hemp, companies in the cannabis industry should be taking note of the sweeping economic implications of a maturing marketplace.

As is true in any industry, rapid growth and significant investments are sometimes followed by a slowdown (think dot-com, but less extreme). There are measures that companies can take in order to avoid negative outcomes, and a step in the right direction includes focusing on the bottom line and planning for future growth. Company leaders need to educate themselves on the competitive landscape and take the long view toward solutions for their operations.

Sounds easy enough, but how do we actually do this? One key step is to pay attention to overall expenses and create efficiencies wherever possible in order to remain competitive. This means that during the facility and systems design phase, all outcomes need to be taken into account. One of the most important – and cost conscious – things to consider is energy usage. Energy Star, the EPA-backed program for energy efficiency, says that facilities can “reduce their energy use by up to 30 percent through low or no-cost measures.” Generally, this means that efficiencies are built-in to the design with energy cost savings and sustainability in mind.

One of the largest energy outputs for a cannabis operation includes the facility’s HVAC and electrical systems. We have found that when clients step back to consider a range of alternatives, they have a more comprehensive base for this important decision. Considering outside factors, such as growth projections and specific goals, cannabis companies can make a more educated decision on the system that will provide the best economic outcome for their business. Often, those that plan ahead and look past the initial system cost, find longer term savings and lower energy usage over time.

A plant in flowering under an LED fixture

As an example, we had a client looking to build an indoor cannabis cultivation operation. They had originally chosen to build their facility with high pressure sodium lighting to save money up front. Because this method of lighting typically has a lower first cost, it appeals to many companies that are starting out and wary of their budget. However, this particular client was poised for growth and looking to make sustainable choices that would impact their bottom line and meet their goals for environmentally sound business practices. We were able to create a model for them to illustrate the long-term benefits of installing LED lighting. This type of lighting allows growers to keep room temperatures higher, without compromising plant health with issues like tip burn. In addition, LED lights are more efficient and reduce the cooling load. This means mechanical systems were able to be downsized reducing first costs, and these systems also consumed less energy, reducing operational costs. Despite a higher first cost of the LED lights, the company ended up saving enough money in the reduced mechanical equipment size, as well as in the reduction of energy use from the lights and the mechanical equipment. The first costs between an HPS system and an LED system were much more comparable than originally expected, and they were able to keep their operational costs to an absolute minimum. This type of scenario has proven true over and over when models are built to show longer-term cost benefits for electrical and HVAC systems, using analysis from an experienced team of designers and engineers.

While the greater economic outlook for the cannabis industry is in flux, a thoughtful approach can help operations avoid negative outcomes. As more and more companies continue to enter the space, investments roll in and supply rises, we will all watch to see if demand will match this growth. Taking note of incremental methods for impacting the bottom line, such as smart HVAC and electrical system selection, can mean the difference between success and failure (and profit margins!) in this turbulent landscape.

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Taking the Guesswork out of Horticultural Lighting

By Leora Radetsky
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With 33 states and the District of Columbia having passed laws legalizing marijuana in some form, cannabis cultivation is quickly becoming a booming new business across much of the US. From an energy standpoint, unfortunately, it’s not easy being “green”.

New Frontier Data’s 2018 Cannabis Energy Report found that legal cannabis cultivation in the US consumes approximately 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power 92,500 homes or a community the size of Newark, NJ, and accounts for carbon emissions equivalent to that of 92,600 cars. And that consumption is forecasted to increase 162 percent from 2017 to 2022. The report recommended that the industry “evaluate energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies” to nip this challenge in the bud.

Growers seeking to reduce their electricity usage through more efficient lighting face a confusing landscape of options, however. It can be difficult to know what will save electricity and work well for their operations. Technology is advancing quickly and questions abound, from how long a fixture will last and whether a manufacturer’s claims about efficacy are accurate to the effectiveness of various wavelengths for growing a particular plant.

Here’s the good news: there are reliable, third-party lighting and safety standards to help indoor growers make the leap from old-school lighting to state-of-the-art light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that use a fraction of the electricity and are increasingly effective for growing crops from cannabis to tomatoes. Here’s a closer look:

Most lighting fixtures in the North American market go through rigorous inspection by certified third-party testing labs. The first part of the check is for safety – an official UL safety standard tailored for the unique challenges of the greenhouse environment was recently released (UL 8800, the Standard for Horticultural Lighting Equipment and Systems). This standard and similar safety certifications at other major labs address wiring, environmental conditions, ingress protection and worker safety related to prolonged photobiological exposure to the eyes and skin. Growers should always ask a fixture manufacturer about safety certification specifically targeted for horticultural environments.

Next on the standards checklist for horticultural fixtures is performance testing. This often happens at the same labs that do safety testing, but is designed to verify efficacy, output, spectrum and other important performance variables. Commercial labs are certified for specific standards, so that a test on a fixture is repeatable at any other lab certified to the same standard. This performance testing results in a report summarizing items like photosynthetic photon flux (PPF), input power (watts), photosynthetic flux efficacy (PPE, measured in μmol/J or micromoles of photosynthetic photons per joule of electrical input power), and spectral content (flux per nanometer (nm) between 400 and 700 nm).

Then, there are flux maintenance standards (such as IES LM-80 and IES TM-21) that help make sure the photosynthetic light output of LED products degrades at an acceptable rate to make a grower’s investment worthwhile. The testing and calculation methods that go into these standards were painstakingly developed through a consensus of knowledgeable lighting stakeholders. A key difference between general lighting and plant lighting, however, is how flux maintenance is measured and benchmarked – the bar is significantly higher for plants compared to people since their metabolism and growth are dependent on the light spectrum and amount.

A plant in flowering under an LED fixture

What’s described above just scratches the surface of the detailed testing used to determine and communicate performance features for commercial horticultural lighting fixtures. There’s a lot of important information to know, but it takes an informed reader to analyze this information and use it to select appropriate horticultural lighting. Our organization, the DesignLights Consortium (DLC), strives to make the vetting process easier for everyone, freeing up growers to focus on their core business.

In the early days of LED lighting, electric utilities had to compare these different lighting factors and reports to inform their energy efficiency rebate/incentive programs. The DLC was founded to fill this need, serving as a central clearinghouse for setting energy efficiency and other product performance minimum standards, and to evaluate products against those standards. Then and now, lighting products that pass review qualify for an online qualified products list (QPL) that utilities use to quickly and accurately incentivize high-performing products.

Credit: ProGrowTech

With its new minimum performance standards for horticultural light fixtures, the DLC seeks to accelerate the adoption of new energy-saving LED fixtures in controlled agriculture environments. To be on the new DLC Horticultural QPL, an LED fixture must be at least 10 percent more efficacious than the best non-LED alternative – a 1,000-watt double-ended high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixture. It also must have a Q90 of 36,000 hours (the number of hours before the photon flux output depreciates to 90 percent), and its driver and fan (if included) must have a rated life of at least 50,000 hours.

Most importantly, every product is listed online in a searchable, filterable database to help growers and facility designers quickly narrow their options. For example, in a retrofit, a grower might know what PPF is needed from each fixture but might also need to stay within a power budget to avoid rewiring circuits. The DLC’s Horticultural QPL can be filtered to quickly find and compare conforming products.

When a new technology is introduced, there is always uncertainty about how to optimally apply it. The horticultural world is no different. We look forward to research supporting additional predictive metrics that allow us to take advantage of the full benefits of high-performance LED and controls technologies. In the meantime, the established standards described here allow for energy efficient and safe cultivation facilities where growers can confidently produce more with less.

Beyond THC: Encouraging Cannabinoid and Terpene Production with LEDs

By Andrew Myers
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For years, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) got all the attention. While THC certainly delivers its own benefits (such as relaxation and pain relief), there’s a whole host of other – and often overlooked – compounds found in cannabis with important benefits as well. THC is truly only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cannabis’s potential.

As the cannabis industry evolves with changing consumer tastes and developing medical research, growers may employ techniques to boost cannabinoid and terpene profiles in their harvests – beyond merely focusing on THC. Advanced LEDs allow growers to elicit specific biological responses in cannabis crops, including increased concentrations of these naturally occurring chemical compounds.

The Foundation of Cannabis’s Effects
Whether used medicinally or otherwise, cannabis has changed our society and many of our lives – and there’s a collection of naturally occurring chemical compounds, known as cannabinoids and terpenes, to thank.

  • The cannabinoids THC and CBD are the most common and well-researched, however they are accompanied by more than 200 additional compounds, including cannabinol (CBN), cannabigerol (CBG) and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), among others.
  • The cannabis plant also contains terpenes. These structures are responsible for giving flowers (including cannabis), fruits and spices their distinctive flavors and aromas. Common terpenes include limonene, linalool, pinene and myrcene.

Both cannabinoids and terpenes are found in the cannabis plant’s glandular structures known as trichomes. Look closely, and you’ll notice trichomes coating the cannabis flowers and leaves, giving the plant an almost frosty appearance.

macropistil/trichome
A macro view of the trichomes and pistils on the plant

Trichomes – which are found across several plant species – are a key aspect of a cannabis plant’s survival. The specific combination of metabolites produced by trichomes may attract certain pollinators and repel plant-eating animals. Moreover, trichomes (and specifically THC) may act as the plant’s form of sunscreen and shield the plant from harmful ultraviolet rays.

While they play an essential part in the cannabis plant’s lifecycle, trichomes are volatile and easily influenced by a range of environmental factors, including light, heat, physical agitation and time. Therefore, environment is a defining variable in the development of these important structures.

How LEDs Support Cannabinoid and Terpene Development in Crops
Spectrally tunable LEDs give indoor cannabis growers unparalleled control over their crops. As research has expanded about plants’ responses to the light spectrum, growers have discovered they are able to elicit certain physiological responses in the plant. This phenomenon is called photomorphogenesis. At its root, photomorphogenesis is a survival tactic – it’s how the plant responds to miniscule changes in its environment to increase the chances of reaching full maturity and, eventually, reproducing. While cultivated cannabis plants won’t reproduce at an indoor setting, growers can still use the light spectrum to encourage strong root and stem development, hasten the flowering process and the development of bigger, brightly colored flowers.

It makes sense that using the proper light spectrums may also have an impact on the production of specific cannabinoids and terpenes – an important factor when responding to highly specific consumer needs and desires, both within medical and adult-use markets.

Here are a few more reasons why utilizing full-spectrum LEDs can lead to higher quality cannabis:

  • Lower Heat, but the Same Intensity.
    When compared to HPS, fluorescent and other conventional lighting technologies, LEDs have a much lower heat output, but provide the same level of intensity (and often improved uniformity). This represents an enormous advantage for cannabis cultivators, as the lights can be hung much closer to the plant canopy without burning trichomes than they would be able to with other lighting technologies.
  • UV Light. Cannabinoids and terpenes are part of the cannabis plant’s natural defense mechanism, so it makes sense that lightly stressing plants can boost cannabinoid and terpene numbers. Some studies illustrate an increase in UV-B and UV-A light can lead to richer cannabinoid and terpene profiles.1 It’s a fine line to walk, though – too much UV can result in burned plants, which leads to a noticeable drop in cannabinoids.
  • Full-Spectrum Capabilities. The cannabis plant evolved over millions of years under the steady and reliable light of the sun. Full-spectrum is the closest thing to natural sunlight that growers will be able to find for indoor growing – and they’ve been shown to perform better in terms of cannabinoid development. A 2018 study titled “The Effect of Light Spectrum on the Morphology and Cannabinoid Content for Cannabis Sativa L.,” explored how an optimized light spectrum resulted in increased expression of cannabinoids CBG and THCV.2

This is the most important tip for indoor growers: your plants’ environment is everything. It can make or break a successful harvest. That means cultivators are responsible for ensuring the plants are kept in ideal conditions. Lights are certainly important at an indoor facility, but there are several other factors to consider that can affect your lights’ performance and the potency of your final product. This includes your temperature regulation, humidity, the density of plants within the space, CO2 concentration and many other variables. For the best results, your lights should be fully aligned with other environmental controls in your space. Nothing sabotages a once-promising crop like recurrent issues in the indoor environment.

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Indoor cultivation facilities often use high powered lights that can give off heat

Cannabinoids and terpenes take time to develop – so cultivators will want to avoid harvesting their plants too early. On the other hand, these compounds begin to degrade over time, so growers can’t wait too long either.

Cultivators seeking potent cannabinoid and terpene profiles must find a happy medium for the best results – and the best place to look is where cannabinoids and terpenes develop: the trichomes. With a microscope, cultivators can get up close and personal with these sparkly structures. Younger plants begin with clear trichomes, which eventually become opaque and change to amber. Once your plants show amber-hued trichomes, they’re ready for harvest.

The truth here is that there’s no perfect formula to elicit show-stopping cannabinoids and dizzying terpenes with every harvest. A lot of cannabis cultivation is based around trial-and-error, finding what works for your space, your business and your team. But understanding the basics around indoor environmental controls like lighting and temperature – and how they can affect the development of cannabinoids and terpenes – is an excellent place to start. Using high quality equipment, such as full-spectrum LED lighting can boost both cannabinoid and terpene production, resulting in richer, more potent and higher quality strains.


References:

  1. Lyndon, John, Teramura, Alan H., Coffman, Benjamin C. “UV-B Radiation Effects on Photosynthesis, Growth and Cannabinoid Production of Two Cannabis Sativa Chemotypes.” August 1987. Photochemistry and photobiology. Web. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-1097.1987.tb04757.x?&sid=nlm%3Apubmed
  2. Magagnini G., Grassi G., Kotiranta, S. “The Effect of Light Spectrum on the Morphology and Cannabinoid Content of Cannabis sativa L.” 2018. Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids. Web: https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/489030

Understanding Dissolved Oxygen in Cannabis Cultivation

By Aaron G. Biros
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Oxygen plays an integral role in plant photosynthesis, respiration and transpiration. Photosynthesis requires water from the roots making its way up the plant via capillary action, which is where oxygen’s job comes in. For both water and nutrient uptake, oxygen levels at the root tips and hairs is a controlling input. A plant converts sugar from photosynthesis to ATP in the respiration process, where oxygen is delivered from the root system to the leaf and plays a direct role in the process.

Charlie Hayes has a degree in biochemistry and spent the past 17 years researching and designing water treatment processes to improve plant health. Hayes is a biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies, a water treatment solutions provider. In a presentation at the CannaGrow conference, Hayes discussed the various benefits of dissolved oxygen throughout the cultivation process. We sat down with Hayes to learn about the science behind improving cannabis plant production via dissolved oxygen.

In transpiration, water evaporates from a plant’s leaves via the stomata and creates a ‘transpirational pull,’ drawing water, oxygen and nutrients from the soil or other growing medium. That process helps cool the plant down, changes osmotic pressure in cells and enables a flow of water and nutrients up from the root system, according to Hayes.

Charlie Hayes, biochemist and owner of Advanced Treatment Technologies

Roots in an oxygen-rich environment can absorb nutrients more effectively. “The metabolic energy required for nutrient uptake come from root respiration using oxygen,” says Hayes. “Using high levels of oxygen can ensure more root mass, more fine root hairs and healthy root tips.” A majority of water in the plant is taken up by the fine root hairs and requires a lot of energy, and thus oxygen, to produce new cells.

So what happens if you don’t have enough oxygen in your root system? Hayes says that can reduce water and nutrient uptake, reduce root and overall plant growth, induce wilting (even outside of heat stress) in heat stress and reduce the overall photosynthesis and glucose transfer capabilities of the plant. Lower levels of dissolved oxygen also significantly reduce transpiration in the plant. Another effect that oxygen-deprived root systems can have is the production of ethylene, which can cause cells to collapse and make them more susceptible to disease. He says if you are having issues with unhealthy root systems, increasing the oxygen levels around the root system can improve root health. “Oxygen starved root tips can lead to a calcium shortage in the shoot,” says Hayes. “That calcium shortage is a common issue with a lack of oxygen, but in an oxygen-deprived environment, anaerobic organisms can attack the root system, which could present bigger problems.”

So how much dissolved oxygen do you need in the root system and how do you achieve that desired level? Hayes says the first step is getting a dissolved oxygen meter and probe to measure your baseline. The typical dissolved oxygen probe can detect from 20 up to 50 ppm and up to 500% saturation. That is a critical first step and tool in understanding dissolved oxygen in the root system. Another important tool to have is an oxidation-reduction potential meter (ORP meter), which indicates the level of residual oxidizer left in the water.

Their treatment system includes check valves that are OSHA and fire code-compliant.

Citing research and experience from his previous work, he says that health and production improvements in cannabis plateau at the 40-45 parts-per-million (ppm) of dissolved oxygen in the root zone. But to achieve those levels, growers need to start with an even higher level of dissolved oxygen in a treatment system to deliver that 40-45 ppm to the roots. “Let’s say for example with 3 ppm of oxygen in the root tissue and 6ppm of oxygen in the surrounding soil or growing medium, higher concentrations outside of the tissue would help drive absorption for the root system membrane,” says Hayes.

Reaching that 40-45 ppm range can be difficult however and there are a couple methods of delivering dissolved oxygen. The most typical method is aeration of water using bubbling or injecting air into the water. This method has some unexpected ramifications though. Oxygen is only one of many gasses in air and those other gasses can be much more soluble in water. Paying attention to Henry’s Law is important here. Henry’s Law essentially means that the solubility of gasses is controlled by temperature, pressure and concentration. For example, Hayes says carbon dioxide is up to twenty times more soluble than oxygen. That means the longer you aerate water, the higher concentration of carbon dioxide and lower concentration of oxygen over time.

Another popular method of oxidizing water is chemically. Some growers might use hydrogen peroxide to add dissolved oxygen to a water-based solution, but that can create a certain level of phytotoxicity that could be bad for root health.

Using ozone, Hayes says, is by far the most effective method of getting dissolved oxygen in water, (because it is 12 ½ times more soluble than oxygen). But just using an ozone generator will not effectively deliver dissolved oxygen at the target levels to the root system. In order to use ozone properly, you need a treatment system that can handle a high enough concentration of ozone, mix it properly and hold it in the solution, says Hayes. “Ozone is an inherently unstable molecule, with a half-life of 15 minutes and even down to 3-5 minutes, which is when it converts to dissolved oxygen,” says Hayes. Using a patented control vessel, Hayes can use a counter-current, counter-rotational liquid vortex to mix the solution under pressure after leaving a vacuum. Their system can produce two necessary tools for growers: highly ozonized water, which can be sent through the irrigation system to effectively destroy microorganisms and resident biofilms, and water with high levels of dissolved oxygen for use in the root system.

Building or Converting to a Greenhouse? Four Considerations for Commercial Growers

By Taylor Engert
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Successful cannabis cultivation practices leverage commercial agricultural industry practices for the most efficient and cost-effective production of the crop. Since the 1990s, the cannabis industry has cultivated primarily in indoor warehouses and outdoor farms, however the industry is experiencing a significant shift toward greenhouses.

Shelly Peterson, vice president of light product solutions at urban-gro, joined a recent panel of industry experts including Shivawn Brady, chief executive officer and founder of Seva Crop Consulting, and Karl Keich, executive director at Canna Consulting Group, at the Marijuana Business Conference in Orlando, Florida, to discuss how to transition from an indoor or outdoor grow to a greenhouse facility.

What are the considerations when deciding between a warehouse and greenhouse? The panel shares four factors around the costs and operational challenges, and the benefits of a greenhouse.

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The panel at the Marijuana Business Conference.

Maximize Efficiency in Every Process

Why are cannabis cultivators looking toward greenhouses? Peterson says it is all about efficiency. “In a warehouse, electricity costs can run up to 50 percent of the total cost of goods sold, which is a tremendous amount that can be decreased by switching to a greenhouse,” says Peterson. “In a greenhouse, you can add supplemental lighting to augment what the plant is receiving from the sun.”

For cultivators, Peterson noted that it is critical to ensure growers have experienced vendors and advisors on the team to help maximize the efficiency of the greenhouse. “As the cost of this product comes down, the efficient growers will be the ones in it for the long haul,” added Peterson.

Construction vs. Operating Costs

A greenhouse facility that urban-gro helped bring to operation.
A greenhouse facility that urban-gro helped bring to operation.

The panel identified upfront cost as one of the biggest challenges faced when building out a greenhouse. “The cost of retrofitting a warehouse and building a greenhouse are similar, but where you will save is in the operational costs,” says Peterson. “Lighting can be up to one third of your total cost in indoor facilities, when you switch to a greenhouse that cost can be reduced by 50 to 70 percent.”

Brady acknowledged that some traditional greenhouses have challenges in controlling the environment, but automated greenhouses offer retractable roofs and siding. “If you have the resources to invest in your greenhouse system upfront, that is generally a better way to save money in the long run,” says Brady. “Managing pests in greenhouses can also become very challenging if you don’t have the proper climate regulations.”

Lighting for Your Greenhouse

One of the greatest benefits of growing in a greenhouse is the ability to source natural light. But what about the required light levels? Peterson pointed out that light levels change throughout the year and the plants have different light needs in different stage. Supplement with a lighting system that can read the natural light levels received over any given period of time and be adjusted accordingly. “Greenhouse facilities also need to be outfitted to meet the needs of the cannabis plant, which differ in some ways from other agricultural crops,” says Peterson.

Peterson explained that every light is designed with a different purpose in mind. “There are different lights for indoor warehouse facilities where the lighting system provides 100 percent of the available light for cannabis growth versus supplemental lighting for greenhouses,” Peterson adds. “The key is to measure how much light is actually delivered by the sun on a daily basis, which changes throughout the year; at urban-gro, we supplement the facility with light fixtures that will not create shadowing during hours of sunlight and adjust to reach the optimal collective light levels.”

With LED lighting a hot button topic, Peterson explained that the most important consideration for any light fixture, whether LED or HPS, is it’s efficiency capacity. “It all depends on the budget and payback period and a lot of numbers need to be crunched,” says Peterson. “Yield is directly correlated to light; planning properly, sealing your environment, making sure you have the right target DLI, and buying good light meters, are all key.”

Make a Positive Impact and Quality Product

Brady noted that industry leaders are conscious of positive impact towards human health and environmental stewardship when moving to a greenhouse. Cultivators may find the process challenging initially, however the facilities are quite easy to operate and manage, and allow stress-free cultivation of commercial-scale crops.

Keich added that the cannabis industry is becoming more like commercial agriculture. By utilizing the correct technologies and regulators, greenhouse cultivation makes the crop smell, taste and look that much better. “Let’s use natural sunlight to minimize costs and be environmentally friendly to produce a superior product,” says Keich.

Peterson wrapped up by stressing that cultivators should evaluate the greenhouse environment and lighting to improve their bottom line. “Look at the most efficient way to lower your cost of goods sold. Lighting is a very big component to that,” she continued. “Make sure you evaluate the efficiency of the fixture and ask the questions: Why are we targeting this light level? Is the color spectrum correct? Are you measuring in micromoles per watt? These are all different questions, however figure out how much light is coming out of the fixture and verify it for yourself, and you will be successful,” says Peterson.