Checks and balances for labor, electricity and more play a bigger role as cannabis grow operations begin to mimic traditional ag manufacturers
By David Hodes
Building and operating an efficient grow facility begins with the design process.
Rather than looking at the current market, growers need to look three or four years down the road.
“If you design a facility based on what you are thinking now, you are dead in the water,” says Jan Carlos Byl, founder and managing member of MedCanna Consulting Group.
“There is a lot of intricacy to all of this growing,” he says. “You have to track growth, collect data and dial in the light level, temperature and humidity to get the plants to be the best that they can be.”
Use of resources
According to Byl, one of the biggest mistakes indoor growers make is having a large open space where all the plants are growing. The result is a lot less individual attention and more of a broad-strokes approach to cultivating large quantities of plants, he says. It also reduces growers’ ability to effectively map out a harvest schedule.
A more efficient method is to have individual subdivided rooms. Byl favors a dense canopy and shorter veg times, with the goal of producing about 30 grams per square meter. That way, a room can be completely harvested on the first day, cleaned the second day and back up and running on day three.
Damian Solomon, director of cultivation for MedMen, says one key variable for an efficient grow operation is to limit labor to about 30% of total expenses. This can be easier said than done.
Grow operations often hire trimmers and other workers who are paid minimum wage and have little or no background working in a production facility.
“You have to have properly trained employees to perform the task,” Solomon says. “That means consistent supervision for quality control. You want to ensure that they are doing the right job as efficiently as possible, and that they are not taking a lot of bathroom breaks or cell phone breaks.”
He says supervisors in the cannabis industry are not collecting enough data from their employees about what they are doing and when. Increasing productivity, even if it’s only by a couple percent, means a more profitable organization.
Creating step-by-step checklists is one way to track workers as they complete tasks. It also helps managers keep the process on schedule and maintain quality control.
Byl says labor efficiency is one of the biggest hurdles in running a profitable grow operation.
“Labor is a killer,” he says. “I go into these grows and there are 150 employees. This is mind-boggling. You should have 25 for any sized grow.”
The electricity bill for an indoor facility can be enough to sink an entire operation. The cost of lighting alone, particularly at grows that use high-intensity discharge bulbs, can be a major drag on profits. Add in all the electricity needed to run water pumps, heating and cooling, extraction equipment and trimming machines, and it’s easy to see why growers are looking for any advantage they can get.
Solomon says the adoption of new technology, like LED lights, is gaining a lot of interest in cannabis cultivation.
“They are used now in a lot of vertical grow farms for food production systems and are a great way to lower energy consumption,” he says.
Not only are the lights themselves more efficient, but the lower heat output allows facilities to use less cooling.
While there are ways to improve energy efficiency in an indoor facility, part of the problem is the business model itself. More and more, cannabis growers are following the path of traditional agriculture by growing outdoors or in commercial greenhouses.
Solomon says a regular analysis of drain water can improve the fertilizer content.
“You need to know what your fertilizer targets are and then what your plants get,” he says. “You have to adjust your fertilizer program to meet the needs of the crop quickly, and give it what it needs for each phase of its life cycle.”[pullquote]Knowing the nutritional requirements of each stage of the crop cycle helps determine what and how much fertilizer to use, Solomon says. [/pullquote]
Knowing the nutritional requirements of each stage of the crop cycle helps determine what and how much fertilizer to use, Solomon says.
One way of using fertilizer efficiently is to buy dry fertilizer in bulk and mix it at the facility, instead of paying to ship liquid fertilizer. The cost savings of dry fertilizer compared to liquid can be significant.
Byl says automation and specialization are becoming more prevalent in the cannabis industry. He points to cultivators who outsource trimming duties during peak productivity periods as an example of how some facilities save money.
Solomon says cannabis growers can should take tips from other agricultural business operations, like tomato and cucumber growers, that have to be profitable at a much lower price per pound than marijuana operations.
In the future, operations could utilize robots that designed to harvest vegetables based on color and firmness.
“It’s very easy to be able to transition that type of technology and tweak it a little for the cannabis space,” Byl says. “It’s really about just a transfer of knowledge.”