Nation’s largest horticulture event showcases the latest technology and gives a glimpse into the future of cannabis production
By Greg James and Garrett Rudolph
Photos by Greg James, Aaron Greenreich and Garrett Rudolph
With more than 600 exhibitors and 10,000-plus industry professionals, Cultivate has traditionally been the biggest event of the year for anyone interested in horticulture and controlled-environment agriculture. From large multinationals like Phillips and BSF to small manufacturers of gardening tools and soil, the event showcases a vast array of products and technologies.
Held each July in Columbus Ohio, Cultivate takes up the entire Columbus Convention Center and will be even larger next year with a remodeled event space. The industry-only trade show is hosted by AmericanHort, the leading national trade association for all aspects of the horticulture industry.
For any cannabis grower, Cultivate is a must-attend event where major greenhouse manufacturers and cultivation technology companies from around the world display their latest products.
Marijuana Venture and Otoké, a consulting company, were the first cannabis-focused businesses to exhibit at Cultivate. Here are six takeaways from North America’s largest and most respected horticulture show.
- Yes, marijuana is agriculture.
It was impossible to predict the type of reception a marijuana magazine would receive at a longstanding industry trade show in America’s heartland.
As it turned out, the vast majority of Cultivate attendees were excited to learn more about marijuana business opportunities. Most immediately accepted it as a legitimate form of agriculture.
Few, if any, openly disapproved of cannabis, and most of the conversations revolved around the future of legalization in America. At a time when political disagreements are the norm, the questions were consistently pedestrian:
“When is my state going to go legal?”
“How much weed can I grow on an acre of land?”
And most common of all: “Did you bring any samples?”
- Your future competitors attended Cultivate ’16.
Many companies and individuals in the cannabis industry are concerned about competition from multinational corporate interests, such as giants in the pharmaceutical and alcohol industries. But it’s possible that the biggest competition, from a production standpoint, will come from companies that are already involved in horticulture. They’re the flower producers that make their money selling hundreds of thousands of ornamentals for a couple bucks a plant. They’re the companies with a half-million square feet of greenhouses already outfitted with the latest in automation and environmental control technology.
These companies already have the know-how and infrastructure to start growing commercial-scale cannabis immediately.
Because of declining profits and increasing competition from overseas flower importers, nursery owners are looking for ways to supplement their revenue. They might not know much about cannabis — yet — but they’ve been dealing with pests, powdery mildew and plummeting wholesale prices for longer than any cannabis grower has been operating legally.
- Automation is a big deal.
Hundreds of exhibitors at Cultivate displayed various automated systems for greenhouses and other grow facilities. There were automated machines for mixing soil, potting, watering, feeding and trimming. There were electronics that managed light cycles, blackout curtains, heating, cooling and CO2 systems. For any task that could be completed manually, there was a piece of technology designed to reduce the man-power required or speed up the process at which it happened.
Some of the equipment is probably overkill for the average cannabis operation — such as potting machines that can handle several thousand pots per hour — but there are also smaller units that would be more than capable of helping a marijuana business improve its efficiency at a fraction of the labor cost.
The cannabis industry has yet to fully embrace automation; even in large-scale grow operations, hand-trimming, hand-packaging and hand-rolling joints is still common. But as competition continues to get tougher, business owners will eventually begin to look for any advantage they can find.
- The vast majority of the country doesn’t know squat about cannabis.
They might know about plants — some of them even know a whole lot about plants. But many attendees at Cultivate didn’t know the first thing about marijuana in the 21st century. Many didn’t know where in the country it was legal, that Ohio had recently become the 25th state to legalize medical marijuana or anything about the federal schedule of controlled substances. It showed that despite half the U.S. allowing medical marijuana, a huge percentage of the country remains open territory for the cannabis industry.
- True experts make the price of admission worthwhile.
One of the major flaws with many cannabis industry trade shows is a lack of qualified, expert speakers. While there are some great speakers at a number of the marijuana shows, many are woefully unqualified to address the needs and requirements of commercial businesses operating in a tough, tightly-regulated industry.
Far too often, the speakers at big marijuana trade shows seem to be selling something rather than providing information for the audience. And it always seems to be the same half-dozen or so people that speak at every event. Again, some are great. Others tend to get pretty stale.
The speakers at Cultivate were top-notch: They included university professors and a variety of well-respected experts.
Hopefully, as marijuana continues to gain mainstream acceptance, trade shows will be able to bring in more unbiased experts in the fields of pest control, lighting, plant sciences and sales strategies.
- This is where the marijuana business will be in five years.
The illegal nature of cannabis has forced most growers to remain underground for the past century. That means they’ve never been able to take advantage of economies of scale or utilize the latest and greatest in controlled-environment agriculture.
With legalization slowly expanding throughout the nation, growers are now able to scale up and make capital investments without tempting law enforcement agencies to knock on their door. Right now, the cannabis industry makes up a tiny fraction of the total horticulture business. But it’s obvious that five years from now, it could be the other way around. At Cultivate ’16, there were just two companies whose sole focus was cannabis. With Ohio recently legalizing medical marijuana, and nearby states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and New York expanding their programs, Cultivate ’17 could be an entirely different scene.