By Chris Bayley
Even though we’re on the precipice of spring, it’s easy to imagine this year’s crop of plants swaying back and forth by the wind’s gentle persuasion. Fortunately, the reality of this dream is just around the corner, but there’s plenty of work to do as the growing season begins.
Now is the time to think about preventative measures that are necessary to avoid sub-par crops and crop failures. Preventative measures begin at germination, and must be continued during day-to-day operation and through harvest time. This is especially important for licensed growers still in the design phase who are setting the stage for future success.
This is also the time of the year to talk about maintenance, setting up crop schedules and turning outdoor dirt into black gold by utilizing soil-building programs.
There’s a famous Benjamin Franklin quote that says “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The theme of prevention has been a regular subject in the pages of this magazine. The reason for such unrelenting repetitiveness is to hammer home how important prevention is for the success of your operation.
No producers will intentionally take steps that will lead to their business’ demise, but that’s potentially what can happen by overlooking preventative maintenance. As if it weren’t already tough enough to get — and keep — a producer’s license in Washington State, be prepared to hand over more than 40% of your earnings via taxes. This means margins are already razor-thin. And here’s another reality check: Those growing pains are compounded when battling pest and pathogen outbreaks. For the producers who are battling an infectious pest or pathogen, they can figure a revenue loss of at least 5%. This means that between taxes and pest management, producers are watching at least half of their earnings float right out the door, and this doesn’t even include operating expenses.
These issues are most relevant to greenhouse and indoor growers. Luckily for outdoor growers, the majority of these factors are mitigated through the checks and balances of the outdoor growing environment.
Points of Prevention
Here’s a breakdown of preventative measures to follow when designing and operating a cannabis production facility.
Facility design: Every facility should be designed first and foremost with prevention in mind. All entry points to the facility need to be viewed as potential portals for pests and pathogens. This includes all the fresh-air intakes, exhaust outtakes, windows, garage doors and walk-through entry doors. Wherever air is coming in and out the facility, it needs to be filtered, and the intake air needs to be UV sterilized.
All vehicle and employee access points need to be built utilizing airlocks that separate the two environments. Airlocks aren’t very preventative unless sterilization and pressurization are utilized. Remember, all the natural checks and balances that help the outdoor grower combat pests and pathogens goes right out the window when growing indoors.
With measures put in place to prevent the invasion, other methods like in-room, recirculating, sterilizing filter boxes need to be utilized. Depending on your HVAC system, you may be able to take care of this via the air handling unit. For those of you running closed-loop systems, every room should have independent filtering and sterilizing systems.
Perhaps the most critical application though is in the drying and curing rooms. Plant material is most susceptible to pathogenic attack at this stage, and there’s no such thing as redundant prevention here.
Defining facility curtilage: Here is the definition of curtilage via Webster’s Dictionary: “A piece of ground (as a yard or courtyard) within the fence surrounding the house.”
This term technically and lawfully represents a scenario where a physical barrier has been placed a reasonable distance from the home, making it obvious that the space between the home and the barrier are considered private-use space. Many homeowners have lost self-defense cases based on the fact that they didn’t reasonably show the space immediately around their home as private-use space, or rather, a space that clearly defines a reasonable expectation of privacy.
This may not have any direct lawful benefit to a business — cannabis or otherwise — but here’s the takeaway from this: If you expect local law enforcement or the state to support you, then protecting the general populace and yourself through a designated curtilage area should go a long way in winning over the most staunch anti-cannabis opponents. Prevent your facility from being an easy target, while simultaneously protecting yourself with the necessary privacy.
Employees and guests: As the manger of a production facility, it will be up to you to have every employee follow the correct protocol when entering and leaving the facility. Every production facility should have an employee handbook that describes its policies and procedures in full, and it should be read and signed by all employees. The biggest concern, no matter who’s entering the facility, is whether or not they are carrying a potential threat.
As far as employees go, hopefully they understand the importance of being conscientious when it comes to cleanliness before entering the facility. Just remember, being jumped on by Fido or inadvertently brushing up against outdoor plant material could dramatically increase your odds of becoming a carrier for pests and pathogens.
This same facet applies for all state inspectors, law enforcement, consultants, contractors and guests. It’s quite a conundrum as far as state inspectors go. For the sake of efficiency, state inspectors probably try to hit as many production facilities as possible within any particular route. The downside to this, as they weave in and out of facilities, is that they’re likely to become a conduit for hitchhiking pests. At the minimum, producers should keep disposable booties on hand so it’s convenient for inspectors to slip them on before entering the facility. For those producers who want to capitalize on tourism, consider viewing portals or designated walk-through rooms because every tour that comes through could be a roll of the dice.
Genetics: For producers who don’t already have their genetics and have to outsource them, there are two options — take your chances by purchasing clones or begin from seed. Most experts would advise beginning from seed. There are too many producers who are battling spider mites and powdery mildew in vain. It’s difficult to watch producers getting stuck in the constant loop of pest eradication. The unfortunate thing about buying clones from a third party is that it’s impossible to know what’s flowing through a plant’s vascular system, or what might sit invisibly on a leaf’s surface. For these reasons, it’s worth the time to find high-quality seeds, and scratch that future headache off your list.
Crop scheduling: Consistent crop scheduling is important for both the indoor and outdoor grower. With crop scheduling, it’s important to begin by penciling the year out on paper. Having a bird’s eye view really allows you to visualize the sequential steps you’ll take in order to stay on top of that schedule. Whether you’re harvesting one crop a year or a dozen, always start with the harvest date and work backward. Using an eight-week flowering strain, and Aug. 3 as the target harvest date, here’s what a basic crop schedule would look like:
April 27 Clone 2 weeks
May 11 Plant 4 weeks
June 8 Florescence Induction 8 weeks
Aug. 3 Harvest
This is a basic outline, and there are limitless iterations of this schedule. Sometimes cloning takes longer than expected. Maybe there are various transplanting stages, or depending on the size of your plants prior to flowering, the growth stage could last from one week to four months. Once the crop schedule is understood, growers have the ability to forecast their harvest dates as far into the future as they want. Doing so provides an itinerary to follow, which, in turn, keeps responsibilities as focused and efficient as possible.
Crop schedules will look considerably different for indoor and outdoor growers. For Indoor growers, harvests can be timed from every day to once a month, while outdoor growers, at least in the Northwest, get to focus on one crop. The exception to this is greenhouse growers who can capitalize on the best of both worlds.
Scheduling possibilities for greenhouse growers are extensive. First, it should be noted that hoop houses and greenhouses are completely different growing systems. Hoop houses are not considered greenhouses, but rather season extenders, because they offer very little environmental control. They’re not typically designed to be used with light deprivation systems, and are more difficult in terms of sealing out pests. View hoop houses as a tool to prevent fall rains and frost from hitting your crops. This means that growing in hoop houses isn’t much different than growing outdoors as far as crop scheduling is concerned. On the other hand, producers who use true light-dep greenhouses can flower cannabis year-round, just like indoor growers, while leaving a lighter carbon footprint and a lower monthly electricity bill.
Spring Time Maintenance
Any buildings with filter housings that pass through an exterior wall need to be inspected inside and out. Establish a filter housing maintenance checklist that includes air leaks, torn insulation, UV bulb damage and filters. The same routine goes for all openings in the building’s envelope. These openings (windows, doors, air intakes and exhaust ports) need to be examined for possible damage, and repaired or resealed if necessary. Look at the mechanical entry points such as water and electrical outlets. Always keep a safe distance from power lines and transformers, and if anything seems out of place, call your local utility district or electric company immediately. If you have any outdoor water storage tanks, propane tanks, frost control systems, outdoor irrigation lines, weather stations, communication equipment, surveillance and security systems, etc. — everything needs to be inspected regularly.
If there’s any dirty work that needs to be done, this is the time. Perhaps it’s expanding the canopy footprint, rebuilding and re-graveling driveways, reseeding your lawn area or the grass strips between planting rows. Any water-related projects like new irrigation lines, upgrading water or sewer needs, or any well work should be done before things heat up and heavy demand sets in.
Greenhouse growers need to follow the same inspection routine on all entry points. Check for structural damage along with making sure the greenhouse covering material is intact. Repair or replace any damaged material. If you have a glass or polycarbonate material that can withstand pressure, don’t be afraid to wash it down. Cheaper plastics fall prey to the sun’s intense rays fairly quickly. If using plastics, familiarize yourself with the material’s strength during the installation process. New plastics are very resilient and quite tough. However, if the plastic is gets to the point where it’s brittle, a fracturing process tends to spread very fast, potentially leaving your crops exposed and vulnerable.
In-Ground Soil Building Programs
In-ground, sun-grown cannabis is as good as it gets, with the only real competition being in-ground, greenhouse-grown cannabis. Either way, what makes it the best is that nature got her way. The plant was cultivated under conditions in which it was blueprinted to perform. This means that the plant was powered by the sun while being sustained via the soil food web (SFW). There are very few places where the soil is registering the perfect pH level, along with balanced bio-available nutrients. The reason for undertaking a soil-building program is to continually improve your planting site’s fertility from one season to the next.
Regardless of your growing experience, producers who are planting directly in the ground would benefit from working with a soil scientist, such as the folks at Eco Paradigm out of Eastern Washington. Phillip and Richard are soil scientists who have decades of experience that can knock your learning curve out of the park.
Why do you need soil scientists? Cost savings. It can take several seasons to fully optimize a grow site, and hiring an expert can take the guesswork out the whole program. In turn, you get optimized plant production, as opposed to making a mistake that diminishes crop yield and your bottom line.
The whole program begins by taking soil and water samples, to look at the pH along with nutrient level and balance, and the analyses become the blueprints from which the soil-building program begins. You need to have a complete understanding of chemistry and soil biology in order to interpret the analysis and move forward with the proper amendments. Once the analysis is interpreted, the soil-building program can proceed. Generally the best time to commence the program is immediately after the fall harvest. In doing this, the applied amendments have all winter to get worked over by the microbial life. By spring the nutrients have had time to balance out and become more bio-available.
Beginning in early spring, a second soil analysis can be done to see how all the nutrients and pH have balanced. From this point forward, ongoing seasonal testing, reapplied amendments, compost teas, mulches, nitrogen fixing cover crops, top dressings and plant tissue analysis are but some of the components used within soil building programs. If the soil in your outdoor planting site is low quality, then it’s advisable to bring in a commercially-mixed soil designed for cannabis.
Remember, stay focused and let it grow.
Chris Bayley owns and operates a cannabis consulting company called Hortistructure, Inc. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.