What if NASA grew marijuana?
It might look a lot like Ceres, which utilizes deep-water aquaponics, LEDs and highly efficient systems of automation
Story by Greg James
Photos by Kristen Angelo
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA), like so many other high-tech industries, has jumped forward by leaps and bounds in the last few decades. In Bellevue, Washington, the partners at the Ceres indoor grow facility made note of those advances, and decided to pursue a technology-driven, non-traditional approach to the cultivation of cannabis. As a result, the company is producing high-quality recreational marijuana at cost-efficient prices by leveraging currently available equipment and techniques in an impressive facility with numerous unique features.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
One of the great things about writing for a marijuana business publication is the opportunity to visit some of the most impressive marijuana cultivation facilities on the planet. I can imagine it’s a bit like the writer for a car magazine test driving all sorts of automobiles that exhibit vastly different styles and driving experiences, and for vastly different applications — think big pickup truck vs. Ferrari vs. Prius.
That said, if I were to draw a parallel to automobiles, then Ceres would have to be a Tesla. As with the Tesla, which combines the carbon footprint of a Prius with the high-tech performance of a Ferrari, Ceres represents the pinnacle of CEA technology while producing beautiful product reliably and efficiently.
From the 100% LED lighting used during the vegetative stage, to the state-of-the-art, computer-controlled deep-water aquaponic (DWA) grow system, Ceres is about as “gee whiz” as any facility can be. It has the look and feel of something dreamed up by NASA to supply its astronauts with high-quality bud while drifting through the heavens.
It’s that cool.
A look inside
The Ceres indoor grow farm was never intended to be a fanciful dream cooked up by a wistful tech millionaire. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, when the founders thought about the likely opportunities that would unfold with the legalization of marijuana, they spent long hours researching the myriad ways that cannabis could be cultivated on a commercial scale. They carefully considered a number of factors: Carbon footprint, plant growth rates, maintenance costs, utility costs, ROI on equipment, scalability, product quality and dozens of other variables.
They did this because they knew they had to be profitable, and because they also understood that technology is only valuable if it works in practical applications and affords an advantage over its competitors. The many hours of research ultimately resulted in a facility design that was both unique and purposeful.
Vertical vs. Horizontal
The minute you walk through the door of the Ceres facility, you know you’re witnessing something special. The ID system for visitor check-in is the same type used by many software companies to create visitor badges. It utilizes automatic photo-capturing technology and instant printing. The main doors open to a warehouse that forgoes the typical horizontal orientation in favor of one that extends vertically.
An advanced racking system creates a three-level design that takes advantage of the 35-foot ceiling height, and holds plants in various stages of development. The facility manager explained why: “Warehouse space is expensive in the suburbs of Seattle, and that presented a dilemma for us. We wanted to have a place close to our homes and families, but also required a good-sized facility that we could expand as needed. It was difficult finding both. In the end we decided that by utilizing vertical space efficiently, we could use a smaller warehouse than we initially thought, be close to our families, and grow up instead of out.”
Once the space issue was settled, the partners went about designing the actual grow systems. They enjoyed reading about the latest advances in CEA, and set about making Ceres a facility like no other. After much research and discussion, they decided to go with a DWA grow system of their own design. The primary driver behind the DWA decision was fairly simple — when done correctly, it can double the growth rate of plants compared to more traditional methods.
However, they soon realized that while DWA is a proven growing technique, there are very few companies that actually manufacture the equipment used to make it a reality. This presented the partners with a major challenge.
“Once we decided to go with DWA, we had to figure out how to build it,” the facility’s operations manager explained. “We quickly discovered that there were no commercially available systems that could scale to the size we required. This forced us to manufacture a lot of the equipment ourselves in China, Canada and the EU.”
Because of the exhaustive list of control variables and super tight tolerances, standard plumbing equipment was not going to work.
“DWA is an amazing way to grow plants, but it’s incredibly exacting,” the operations manager said. “One mistake and you can lose everything. For example, the water has to be constantly within 5 degrees of 64 degrees Fahrenheit. It also has to be sterile, and the pH must be just right.”
A lot of the initial set-up cost went into manufacturing proprietary products that were fabricated to medical equipment standards.
“It added cost, but also gave us a much higher comfort level, and reduced the chances that we might experience a catastrophic failure.”
So far, it’s worked like a charm.
The next big decision came down to horticultural lighting.
Management — already leaning toward LEDs — turned to Kathleen Sullivan at Forever Green Indoors for her thoughts on the latest indoor horticultural light systems. As an industry veteran with more than 75 commercial installations under her belt and a dozen years of running her own business, Kathleen is nationally respected as an authority on the latest in CEA lighting technology. She was immediately impressed with the Ceres team’s knowledge.
“The management was incredibly well-informed on all aspects of indoor growing, and had obviously done their homework. That made my job fairly easy, and I recommended the latest Vivid Gro-V1 LED fixture from Lighting Science,” Kathleen said. “It’s a top-rated horticultural light, and was designed by former NASA engineer Robert Soler. It’s also extremely efficient, and suited them perfectly.
“We installed 469 LED fixtures, which are primarily used in the vegetative growth state, and they’ve worked flawlessly.”
The project was made possible by a grant from Puget Sound Energy due to the massive electricity savings of LED in the vegetative stage.
“We are big believers in LED technology, and love how fast the industry is evolving. Also, when it comes to the flowering period, the industry standard high-pressure sodium (HPS) works beautifully with the stronger plants created by LED in the veg cycle,” the Ceres team said. “The newer LED fixtures for flowering are scheduled for the next phase of development for this project.”
When asked why they went with LED for the plants’ growth period, and high-intensity discharge (HID) for flowering, the answer made perfect sense.
LEDs work great when the requirements are for lower heat and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) delivery to shorter, horizontally-oriented plants in the growth stage; use HPS when those same plants are 2-3 feet tall and flowering, and benefit from PAR delivered in the more vertical manner consistent with HPS.
As my tour progressed, I became more and more impressed with how well-thought-out the entire business seemed. Employee count is held to a minimum because of the automated systems of the DWA grow. According to the facility manager, all 6,000 plants are tended by four people, who are able to deliver nutrients, manage automatic pest controls and otherwise run the entire facility by themselves.
“It wouldn’t happen without the automation and a lot of advanced planning.”
Consistency, Promotion, Presentation
One word used repeatedly by the Ceres team is “consistency.” At Ceres, it’s practically a religion, and the entire operation is designed to facilitate the creation of a consistent, predictable, and always excellent product. With an advanced DWA grow system, every conceivable variable is tightly controlled. This creates an environment where production is as predictable as the sun rising in the morning.
It also allows for 12 harvests per annum, which equates to a steady flow of product with few interruptions for the retail customers that Ceres ultimately depends upon.
“Many of our retail partners have come to expect a continuous output of product and have commented on how reliable we are. We love that,” said the company’s marketing director. “We also spend a lot of time on promotion and presentation. Our sales staff work with budtenders every day, and we go to great lengths to create a lasting impression with the folks who work at the retail stores that carry our product lines. This, in turn, results in those budtenders becoming our own brand ambassadors with the public.”
One of the fascinating things about the rapidly evolving recreational marijuana industry is just how varied the approaches are, and how quickly businesses are finding niches. If the U.S. government is ever in need of an experienced company to advise them on the creation of an advanced space-age automated farm, I have no doubt their search will lead them to Bellevue, Washington. In the meantime, the great products of Ceres can be found here on earth in plenty of retail locations.