Forecasting the future is a challenge in every market sector. But for businesses getting started in the horticulture space, predicting how various factors may influence cultivar quality and business economics can be even more complex. For millennia, horticulture has been subject to the nuances of climate shifts, and environmental pathogens that threaten yield and quality. The modern-day marketplace presents economic challenges to navigate as prices fluctuate and new players enter the market. While some factors are beyond a grower’s control, history from established markets suggests some insights that can help cultivators steer their business’ future, particularly during the all-important start-up stage.
The experiences of growers in established markets offer some insights for growers just getting started. As markets move toward maturation, product prices may fluctuate. Prices may soar as a new market opens up, but as high prices attract more market players, prices may decline, while operational costs – equipment, leases, labor, etc. – remain fixed or even rise. In start-up circles, this situation is often referred to as the “Valley of Death.” During this stage, cultivators must find ways to exercise control over as many variables as possible to minimize the effects of price drops.
A disciplined focus on achieving consistency and avoiding unnecessary input costs can help businesses manage the Valley of Death and help operations. Strategies can include minimizing biosecurity risks; documenting and maintaining processes to drive consistency and replicability; automating where possible; and selectively choosing inputs. Below, we consider six takeaways from established markets to help start-up growers just beginning their journey:
1 – Biosecurity starts before day 1
Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to setting up the grow house. Establishing biosecurity starts with an efficient layout and design and should be considered at the earliest stage of the grow.
Bringing in contaminated plant material can provide a pathway for opportunistic pathogens and pests to invade and attack other plants. Once a biosecurity threat like some species of fusarium, molds or select plant viruses and viroids become established in a growing facility the most cost effective and fastest solution may be to remove everything, sterilize the building and equipment and begin anew. Battling established problems can add time and expense to remediation practices and is unlikely to be successful.
2 – Test and refine
Testing to validate the benefit of a new input is standard practice throughout varied horticulture environments. Before adding a new element into the grow, conduct a trial with a small subset. If the results are encouraging, the size of the sample can be increased, or the grower may choose to conduct a second trial before introducing the input more broadly. Reasonable time should be allowed to evaluate a system before adjusting. Altering variables should only begin once a good production rhythm has been established.
Growers should test one change at a time, in a gradual approach to refining the system. Once the benefits of a new input or practice are confirmed, repeat it to drive consistency. Predictability of product quality and consistent production of high-quality products are important factors to establishing and maintaining a customer base.1,2 These aspects are easier to achieve when a consistent growing process is relied on cycle after cycle.
3 – Document the process
Documenting practices and procedures for employees to follow can drive consistency and repeatability, particularly as a business expands and new team members are added. Without everyone following the same processes across the enterprise, changes in the decision-making process can introduce process variations that lead to product inconsistencies.
4 – Automate systems
Employing automation helps replicable production and removes some of the subjectivity that comes with heeding a master grower’s opinion. While knowledge and experience are important, aspects like supplying water, fertigation, nutrients, air circulation or lighting can be automated for specific times and in pre-determined amounts. For inputs like water and nutrients, automation also can be a way for speed of delivery. Substrate sensors applied to growing media can trigger watering based on a defined moisture content level, so plants are not under- or over-watered. These types of systems also provide a way to help improve efficiency within a growing operation – by consistently delivering a specific level of inputs. Automation can be used to benefit growing operations regardless of size.
5 – Focus on the basics of a system
Several elements should be considered when choosing the materials to be used in a growing operation. One goal when determining growing practices is to help create a workable system. Once the system is documented and introduced, it should be used consistently to drive repeatable results. Consistency is integral to building customer trust and establishing repeat business. During the start-up phase, every input should demonstrate value. For example, growers should select a fertilizer mix that provides needed nutrients without adding unnecessary expense. Salt-based fertilizers can supply plants with necessary nutrients without expensive “add-on” inputs.
6 – Evaluate ease-of-use, hidden dangers in growing media
Consider how equipment choices, like growing media, deliver ease of use, repeatability, water dispersion, plant steerability and the potential to harbor pests. The source of inputs should also be considered. For example, some materials used as growing media may have a long, international supply chain. As a material travels further from source to destination, the risk of contamination may rise, requiring inoculants or bio-control agents to prevent pathogen growth. A soilless growing medium, like mineral wool, helps prevent it from harboring pests.
From an ease-of-use perspective, factors to consider include storage needs, weight, repeatability and water management. Growing media that do not require special handling, are lightweight or designed to facilitate movement from one stage of the grow to another can help reduce the labor involved in production and reduce strain on employees. Drawing on more than a half-century of working with mineral wool, the developers of VidaWool® growing medium designed it to support consistent, repeatable production and ease of use. The medium is lightweight, precut and designed for easy transition among production stages. Additionally, the proprietary Hydro-Xtend™ water dispersion technology is designed to reduce dry zone formation. Moreover, the product was designed with a protective liner that reduces root zone exposure to light, guarding against algae growth and UV damage. A North American-based supply chain helps reduce access concerns.
While biosecurity, the supply of product in a marketplace and market prices may fall outside a grower’s control, an efficient production process can help businesses navigate the critical start-up period. A focus on achieving consistent, high-quality product and minimizing unnecessary inputs, can help cultivators navigate the “valley of death” when revenues do not keep up with operational costs. Developing repeatable practices, implementing automation and being selective with inputs and production elements can help safeguard operations, ensure efficient production and reduce unwanted variation.
1 – Donnan, J., Shogan, O., Bishop, L. et al. (2022). Characteristics that influence purchase choice for cannabis products: a systematic review. J Cannabis Res 4, 9. https://doi.org/10.1186/s42238-022-00117-0
2 – Gomez, B. and Schau, J. (2016, June 30). What Cannabis Consumers Want. New Cannabis Ventures. https://www.newcannabisventures.com/what-cannabis-consumers-want/
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