It all starts with the plant. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that, if we get caught up in regulation, politics or the consumer aspects of cannabis. But it begins with farming — light, water, nutrients and a seed. In this quickly evolving industry, farming is where ideas and advancements begin.
Cannabis farming techniques have been researched more in the past five years than perhaps the prior few decades. New agricultural technologies are pushing for optimization. Despite advances, the farming community faces government and health regulations, evolving consumer preferences, and in some cases, diminishing margins.
I surveyed an accomplished group of cannabis industry growers, manufacturers and technology providers to get their thoughts and predictions on agriculture trends and advances we can expect to see in 2018.
The Marijuana Market Is Evolving
The cannabis collective has never been more important than now, because the cannabis grower community needs to pull together to weather tight regulations and even tighter competition looming over the horizon. Big companies like Constellation Brands — owner of Corona beer and Svedka Vodka among others — has wholly bought into the production of cannabis, with its plan to invest $191 million in Canadian medical marijuana company Canopy Growth Corporation. Constellation plans to develop a pot-infused, non-alcoholic drink for the Canadian market, and it likes to own the end-to-end processes by growing its own ingredients.
These commercial agriculture powerhouses are bringing with them deep commercial farming experience, knowledge of best practices, and a charter to drive wholesale marijuana prices down. This poses a big threat for small-to-medium grows, in particular, that depend on high prices to help afford them a profitable craft. In popular grow counties like Northern California’s Humboldt, state representatives are calling on local government to cap commercial cannabis farms to one acre per person, saying it will protect small farmers from being outcompeted by larger companies.
But there’s power in numbers, and for cannabis growers, that means consolidation and cooperation.
The consolidation of cultivators will be necessary to compete against larger brands, much in the same way small vineyards do. “Cannabis wholesale prices are plunging, [causing] the small to medium cultivators to suffer due to lack of resources, high taxes, scalability issues, and supply-chain inexperience,” says Cynthia Salarizadeh, co-founder of Green Market Report and publisher of Cannabis Trend Report.
The uniform goal for everyone is to driving down cost of goods sold in 2018 and beyond. A great part of this will be fueled by the development and adoption of new agriculture technology.
As consumer-driven technology advances, it pushes this innovation surge even further.
If you can’t control it from your phone, it’s obsolete. And that goes for agriculture, too. Gone are the days when the farmer had to rise at dawn from the annoying cackle of a rooster to start their day. Today’s green giant can sleep in — the internet of things has it covered.
“The internet of things is coming into the industry in a big way,” declares Wil Ralston, president of cannabis cryptocurrency payment innovator SinglePoint. “It will provide Master Growers the ability and insight to manage their operations from their mobile device and make changes to temperatures, water cycles, air quality instantly from that device.”
All this affords farmers greater production optimization, increase in yields, recyclability, and cost effectiveness. The Economist’s Technology Quarterly: The Future of Agriculture asserts that farms are becoming more like factories, having “tightly controlled operations for turning out reliable products, immune as far as possible from the vagaries of nature.”
Cannabis farms can become the best “factories” in the world. One of the great things about cannabis is it’s worth way more than a tomato. That provides the industry an abundance of money to invest in technology and innovation. You can then afford to explore new productivity ideas and ways to develop the best products using the least resources in the volume needed.
But don’t worry, tomatoes — you’ll benefit from everything cannabis discovers.
Cannabis Lighting Trends
The electricity cost of grow lights is a major outlay for indoor growers. Just recently, Stephanie Smith, a woman in California running an unlicensed operation — which included employees, guards, an advanced drip-irrigation system, and had multiple buildings filled with more than 24,000 marijuana plants — got caught because she had run up a suspicious $67,000 electricity bill.
It’s these soaring electricity costs that have sparked a surge of innovation to create the next best light. Something that will not hurt your yield or quality, but will cut down on your overheads.
Two technologies expected to make strides in 2018 are ceramic metal halide lights and LED technology. Timothy Shaw, COO at cannabis advisory group MariMed, explains that ceramic metal halide lights use 315 watts per lamp, delivering comparable yields, and increased quality, compared to the 1,000-watt high pressure sodium (HPS) lights favored in the past.
This reduction in wattage also cuts down the spend on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning needs for grows, further reducing electricity bills.
LED lights are getting greater consideration for commercial applications.
“The concept of LED always made sense on paper. However, in real time, in my experience, they could never deliver the yield needed to justify using LED lighting,” Shaw says. “They cost four to five times more than traditional lighting and could not produce a comparable yield.
“Some reputable companies are taking this technology to the next level, both producing quality and quantity,” Shaw continues. “With the minimal heat they create you can double your floor space with a racking system, which can really help with expansion as the markets grow — no pun intended!”
It’s expected that farmers strive for higher spectral balance in 2018. Light is the most powerful environmental stimulus for plant growth and plants have sophisticated sensing systems to monitor light quantity, quality, direction and duration. LEDs are capable of manipulating the light spectrum to optimize plant growth of indoor grows, and cultivators want to create a custom-designed light spectrum for their plants’ development cycle and enhance biomass production. LEDs have been shown to create a stronger terpene profile than many traditional HPS lights, while still maintaining high potency.
“Cultivators will pay more attention to light wavelengths, blending blue, red and yellow for spectral balance,” says David Taeb, general manager at Altus Labs. Growers will soon realize that not all LED lights are created equal, even though they all claim to cover the whole spectrum.
Soil, Fertilizer And Pesticides
As cannabis becomes more mainstream and consumers more educated, they will become increasingly critical of how products are produced, and with which ingredients. Flavor preferences will evolve.
The flavor of your flower has everything to do with what cannabis plants are fed. And some might argue that the food cannabis plants prefer to eat cannot be recreated by lab-made fertilizers. Perhaps it will be the pronounced shift to naturally derived ingredients, with a shorter list of inputs and fewer additives.
“We anticipate cultivators to grow more organically, using soil containing plant food that does not contain any ingredient that has seen the inside of a laboratory,” Taeb says.
In addition, there could be greater restrictions on ingredients to protect public health as we begin to hear more unforeseen cases of negligence. Brands that embrace product transparency will succeed with high-ticket items like cannabis. “There will be a steep learning curve, especially for outdoor and greenhouse growers, because third-party testing, if legitimate, will essentially end the use of pesticide during flower,” said Tim McGraw, Canna-Hub CEO.
Integrated pest management should become a significant part of soil content very soon, according to Jean-Pierre Ceccaldi, board adviser and European channel development exec with New York-based Blinc Group, a cannabis management consulting firm. “Biologic countermeasures are needed to combat frequent pest threats, such as mites.” Ceccaldi believes a program of integrated pest management should be available in 2018.
With Ameri Research publishing a study projecting that the global legal marijuana market will be worth $63.5 billion by 2024 and affirming that the US is the leader in cannabis sales, the world has its eyes on California and its estimated $7 billion market to see what’s working, what’s not, and how to respond. California’s tight regulations may very well set the precedent for those who follow.
“With California coming online and testing becoming a top priority, I think we will start seeing soil and fertilizer become cleaner and more pesticide free,” Ralston suggests. “We will see plants get much more natural.”
Outdoor Growing Vs. Indoor Growing
Historically, indoor cannabis growing became popular as outdoor growing became riskier. A combination of factors, including Mexican border crackdowns in the late 1960s and the war on drugs in the 1980s, pushed the need for indoor growing and innovation, like high intensity discharge (HID) indoor grow lighting.
Today, some predict the optimal plant can be attained through indoor growing, and they’re paying top dollar to prove it. The arid California desert is suddenly more valuable than ever, with the legalization of recreational cannabis set to begin in January of 2018.
In June 2017 the Palm Desert Patch reported that the California city of Coachella held a groundbreaking ceremony for its first cannabis manufacturing facility, totalling a whopping 111,500 square feet. These best-in-class campuses will be loaded with the latest in automation, sensors and climate controls.
“Technology will further give us the ability to provide an even closer to perfect environment in indoor cultivation,” Taeb anticipates. But the desert isn’t ideal for others.
“Outdoor has the edge in safely and effectively reusing refuse water, less energy consumption, and the ability to grow more plants,” Taeb explains.
The evolution of the cannabis consumer is helping shape trends in growing processes. As new novice consumers emerge, so too do simplified and varied cannabis ingestion methods, and this means a rise in demand for cannabis concentrates. In fact, cannabis concentrates and edibles are the largest and fastest growing segments of the cannabis market, expected to overtake whole-flower sales by 2020.
Growing cannabis for concentrates, farmers need mostly be concerned with harvest timing, weight, cannabinoid percentages, and outdoor growing environment. Concentrate processing will destroy contaminants, extract the THC and other cannabinoids, and dispose of remaining whole-plant material after extraction.
“The demand for extracts will lead to increase in outdoor cultivation,” predicts William Campbell, head of growing at Tikun Olam, the largest supplier of medical cannabis in Israel.
Greenhouses, too, may start to see steady growth in popularity in 2018, as they make for a near-perfect option for farmers transitioning from outdoor to indoor growing. “They are cheap to set up and you can start growing within 4–6 weeks of breaking ground,” Ralston points out. “So to get started I think we will see a lot of these popping up. Then once these cultivators have been driving revenue, they will start ground on a full indoor facility.”
Some cannabis farmers swear by indoors; others prefer outdoors. The need for investment in automation, however, is undeniable to both. Advances in cultivation robotics are predicted to impact both indoor and outdoor grows. “So far the machines operate on frameworks. I expect to see the first autonomous robotic gardener for both indoor and outdoor cultivations this year,” Ceccaldi says.
Five years from now, the marijuana industry will look very different than it does today. Let’s hope advancements in agriculture help provide the industry’s pioneers an opportunity to compete on an international level.