A look at the equipment, supplies and processes deemed indispensable by commercial cannabis growers
Soil Amendment: Rice Hulls
The cost of shipping bulk consumables to Alaska can be prohibitive, so Rainforest Farms co-founder Giono Barrett prefers to use soil amendments and inputs that can be found locally. He says the Juneau area has some of the best agricultural resources in the world, but the one thing he can’t get locally — and that he can’t live without — is rice hulls.
“It’s a necessity at this point,” he says.
It definitely costs a lot of money for shipping, but it’s an expense he happily pays, as opposed to using perlite or another substitute.
“My worms love it and it aerates my soil perfectly,” Barrett says.
Lights: Fluence Technology SPYDRx Plus
Barrett had been contemplating LED technology for a couple years before finally investing in SPYDRx Plus fixtures.
“You tend to lose sleep over something like that because you’ve got hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in the equipment and the costs associated with the equipment,” he says.
Now that Rainforest is producing crops that it can sell through its state-licensed retail store, Barrett calls it “the best decision I’ve made, hands down.”
The low-heat LEDs have allowed him to maintain his indoor grow’s temperature and humidity without an extensive HVAC system, saving a great deal of money despite the added cost of purchasing more expensive lights. Their low-profile design provides the opportunity to save space by growing vertically as the company expands.
The lights produce perfectly even growth throughout the grow room, and Barrett says he notices better PAR penetration through the canopy, which works great with his screen-of-green growing technique with low, wide plants.
Plus, the full spectrum light isn’t as harsh on his and his employees’ eyes.
“That light has really been a game-changer for me, and I don’t think I could go back (to high-pressure sodium),” he says.
Soil: Custom-mixed living soil
In addition to adapting to modern LEDs, Barrett has also had a learning curve with using a custom-mixed living soil in 10- to 15-gallon Smart Pots.
“I grew up on a farm and worked in agriculture, managing a farm in Minnesota, so I knew how to do this, but I had never done it for cannabis,” he says.
Now that he has made the switch from pre-mixed bags, he finds himself spending a lot of energy maintaining the microorganisms in the soil. Focusing on microorganisms has also changed other facets of the operation, including hiring employees and watering mechanisms (see below).
It does force Barrett to think further into the future; rather than looking three months in advance, he has to plan five and six months at a time for the needs of his soil.
“Now I’m more of a soil builder than I am actually working with the plants,” he says.
But, he believes the final result is worth the effort.
“In the end, that’s where the flavor is at,” he says.
He’s also experimenting with adding mulch and a cover crop.
“I like the idea of no-till, but I’m kind of one foot in and one foot out,” he says. “That might be in my future. One thing at a time.”
More and more, Barrett finds himself hiring employees without any cannabis cultivation experience whatsoever. Typically, he looks for people with degrees in agriculture or with a background in farming.
“It takes a certain type of person to get excited about microorganisms,” he says.
Rainforest Farms is lucky that Juneau has such clean water, Barrett says.
Eventually, Barrett may spring for a Vortex Brewer to produce and dispense compost teas, but for now, he’s made do with 25-gallon drums placed on stands about eight feet off the ground.
The relatively small size makes them easy to wash. Plus, the entire system is gravity-fed, so there are no pumps, which saves energy and allows his microorganisms to thrive.
If it sounds like Barrett spends a lot of time thinking about microorganisms … that’s because he does. He looks at the wine industry, where vintners are particularly proud of the terroir that creates special grapes, which are unique to their region.
“I think maybe cannabis can go the same direction,” he says.
Across the country, most cannabis tastes the same, he says. That’s because so many growers use essentially the same soil and the same amendments.
“Our idea was to really focus on what we have in the region and allow that to dictate the flavor in the cannabis,” he says.
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