Although greenhouses currently account for only 1% of American cannabis cultivation centers, there are signs that the industry is slowly embracing methods used by traditional horticulture for decades
By Leigh Coulter
According to information published by Marijuana Business Daily, cannabis cultivation in the U.S. is still dominated by indoor growing facilities. Perhaps even more surprising than the domination of indoor grow ops is that outdoor marijuana production is also six times greater than greenhouse cultivation.
Coming from the commercial greenhouse industry, this statistic seems implausible. Cannabis grows very well in greenhouses, and the commercial scale of agriculture with all the technical advancements for environmental control lends itself to cannabis production.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both growing environments. Indoor cannabis cultivation is likely to stay a significant part of the industry; however, as marijuana continues to grow in popularity, an increase of greenhouse cultivation will be seen. According to Marijuana Business Daily, 92% of marijuana cultivation in the U.S. is done indoors, followed by 6% outdoors and just 1% in greenhouses. So why have marijuana growers preferred warehouse cultivation over greenhouses?
– Early legislation: With the exception of Washington, Colorado, Oregon and Alaska, marijuana is legal only for medical purposed in Canada and about half the United States.
Legislators looking to control production quality and security of a medicine are more likely to be comfortable with industrial warehouse manufacturing similar to the pharmaceutical industry than with greenhouses.
– Demand in urban centers: Throughout all forms of agriculture, the “grow local” movement has spurred a rise in urban agriculture. Where marijuana cultivation is allowed inside dispensaries, grow local is logical. And converting existing commercial property into cannabis growing rooms is, in the short term, more cost effective than building roof-top greenhouses.
– Sticking to what the grower knows: The initial crop experts did not have much experience with greenhouse growing or any of the traditional agricultural environmental production methods. Master growers with cannabis crop experience typically gained their experience through indoor grow-ops or outdoor field production. These pioneers were entering a newly-developing legal industry with plenty of uncertainty; it would not have been wise to experiment with new growing techniques at the start.
– Controlled environment agriculture: As much as sophisticated greenhouse technology has allowed us to control the greenhouse growing environment, growing in a completely enclosed warehouse environment provides the ultimate in control by eliminating all external environmental factors such as natural light. With medical marijuana being put under the microscope, growers need to be 100% certain that all environmental inputs are exactly the same to achieve consistent lab testing.
– Traditional horticulture: While the traditional horticulture industry has taken an interest in the potential of cannabis, most are not looking to jump into the emerging industry. On the surface, growing a cannabis plant is similar to several other greenhouse crops, however growing the crop is only one important component of a successful business. The appeal of a high-value crop is undeniable, but the marketing, sale, distribution and regulatory environment are all vastly different than the industries served by traditional horticulture. For most greenhouse operators, getting into marijuana would require a completely new business plan, and either abandoning the current business or setting up to run two different corporations.
Future of greenhouses
As laws change and the cannabis industry adapts to different methods of cultivation, greenhouses are likely to be seen in a new light. Why will greenhouse cultivation of marijuana increase in popularity in the near future?
– Legislation: Lawmakers are becoming more familiar and comfortable with greenhouses. Even in Canada where the strictest of medical marijuana licensing regulations are in place, several greenhouse operators have already been approved. Colorado, Washington and Oregon are all are seeing more marijuana growers building greenhouses. In fact, according to the Marijuana Business Factbook 2015, Oregon is leading the nation in greenhouse marijuana cultivation. About 14% of Oregon’s cannabis is grown in greenhouses, compared to 16% outdoor and 71% indoor.
Also consider the soon-to-be-licensed Florida companies (operating under an extremely limited medical marijuana law), and you can see that more politicians appreciate the agricultural nature of growing cannabis. Florida’s legislation requires that the successful bidders be nursery growers with at least a 30-year history.
– Technology: Greenhouse technology is providing solutions to previous concerns about growing cannabis. The initial worries legislators had about greenhouse cultivation primarily stemmed the issues of security and smell. Security issues were easily answered as greenhouse growers built fences, and installed sophisticated security monitoring systems. The odor problem is also being worked on by several different technological advances.
– Cost of production: While urban agriculture has its place in the industry, greenhouse operations are simple more cost effective. Large-scale cannabis greenhouses have the benefit of decades of agricultural production advancements, and while the cannabis crop currently offers a high sales value, this in time will be reduced as we travel along the supply and demand curve. Sophisticated business people recognize that the future success of growing cannabis will depend on automation and labor reduction, and for that, greenhouse cultivation is the answer.
– Labor trends: Marijuana businesses are hiring horticultural graduates from the best universities and colleges. The “master grower” profile is rapidly changing as marijuana businesses recognize the need for large-scale agricultural production knowledge, as well as crop-specific experience. As their growing facilities increase from several hundred square feet, to multiple acres, cannabis businesses realize they need technical knowledge and expertise, not just of the cannabis plant, but of the whole production process, and the technology of controlled environments. This new crop of future master growers bring with them an understanding and comfort of growing in a greenhouse.
– Advisors: There are companies that have the crop knowledge, industry knowledge and technical know-how that have helped growers get the most out of their crops, regardless of whether they are growing in greenhouses or in enclosed warehouse buildings. This ensures that greenhouses are presented as a viable option.
In the end, for some operations, marijuana cultivation is best done in an industrial warehouse, and some marijuana businesses will be better at cultivating marijuana in a greenhouse.
Leigh Coulter is the president of GGS Structures, which aims to help its customers grow by understanding their unique needs. A version of this story was originally published at www.ggsstructures.com.