Marijuana is now legal so you can buy it off the streets or in the comfort of your own home. And this is great news for entrepreneurs and current medical marijuana patients who are ready to make money by selling their own product.
Cannabis has been around for thousands of years. However, it wasn’t until the 20th century that we started to see a large surge of people growing their own cannabis plants for use in various forms of treatment. Although many people think that growing your own marijuana is a difficult task, it’s actually not very complicated. It’s all about understanding the basic science, learning how to save money on your growing set up, how to protect your crop and maintaining your plants for maximum yields.
When indoor cannabis cultivation began in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, the technology was limited. The equipment needed to create a standard grow room consists of a number of high-intensity lamps, fans, a dehumidifier and, if you want to go overboard, a CO2 regulator. Local hydroponics stores sold three or four brands of each product, almost all of which were identical. But like every other major agricultural industry, technological advances have dramatically changed the game of cannabis indoors in recent decades, especially in the commercial part of the industry, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake with each harvest. When large companies design and build new production facilities, they look for the latest technology and equipment to ensure efficient and stable operation. Despite advances in greenhouse technology and the organic appeal of outdoor-grown flowers, ultra-fresh buds remain a favorite with indoor consumers, especially as more states in the Midwest and on the East Coast join the party. Indoor cannabis growers now have the ability to take genetics and yields to unprecedented heights with sensors that track every moment of the plant’s life cycle and software that analyzes it. The question now is: Which technologies will rise above the hype, prove their worth and become the new norm in an industry expected to generate nearly $20 billion in revenue this year? This conversation starts with three simple letters.
HID or LED?
One of the most important and controversial debates in the field of indoor cultivation in the past decade has been the performance of High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps versus the technologically advanced and energy-efficient Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamps. HPS (high pressure sodium) lamps from manufacturers such as Gavita have dominated the high pressure discharge lamp market and have been the de facto standard for indoor cannabis cultivation for decades. Talk to many old-school farmers and they will dismiss the idea of switching to LEDs, arguing that LEDs don’t penetrate the canopy, are unreliable, or are just too expensive to justify the change. LED lighting technology has made tremendous strides in recent years and will dominate as the industry evolves to become more data-driven and environmentally conscious. As it stands, however, many experienced growers on the West Coast remain in the HID camp and are reluctant to change anything when they are producing high quality flowers with varieties that have thrived under the HPS spectrum for years. One of the leading lamp manufacturers in the US is Revolution Microelectronics, based in Atlanta, which has designed and manufactured some of the most powerful HID lamps on the market over the past decade. CTO Greg Richter has over 30 years of experience in electronics and systems engineering. Before entering the lighting industry, he developed custom instruments for aircraft and automatic controls for agriculture. According to co-founder and CEO Marisa McRaney, one of the first models, Revolution’s HPS Deva DE bulb, broke four world performance records and increased efficiency by more than 2 percent over any other HID bulb on the market at the time. Greg really hit the nail on the head with this design, and I talked to him about it for years afterwards: Hey, let’s make an LED light. The industry seems to be moving in that direction, and it would be more efficient, she said. And Greg always told me, sorry, but the diodes aren’t ready yet. Richter finally changed his mind a few years ago, after LED manufacturers had perfected some of the key technologies – transistors, drivers, chips, converters – that make up the brain that controls light, spectrum and thermal output. Five years ago, Revolution Micro was 100 percent in the HID camp, Richter said, but today the company’s new East Coast projects are 100 percent LED. The entire East Coast is switching to LEDs because it’s the new way, and new construction is almost all LED, Richter said. It’s no use talking: I want to grow 20% less weed per square foot. If you raise $10 million to build a factory, you spend $11 million and get $2 million back in the first round. That’s why all the big players are switching to LEDs. There are MBAs who say that otherwise there is no point in working with her. On the West Coast, there are a lot of good people doing upgrades, he said. When their high-pressure lights fail, they go from room to room with LED lights and learn [to work with them]. Revolution Micro LED bulbs provide more light with less heat than HPS bulbs, which Richter says lose 5 percent of their brightness in the first eight weeks and become progressively less bright after that. In addition, LEDs have a much longer life. McRaney noted that a growing number of lighting companies are having their products certified by organizations such as the Federal Trade Commission, Standards Canada and the DesignLights Consortium, a non-profit group that tests energy-efficient lighting products.
The transition from HID to LED lamps will inevitably involve growing pains and major adjustments, but most manufacturers believe the benefits outweigh the challenges. LEDs are superior in terms of efficiency and performance and can deliver 100% better quality than HPS lights if farmers can adapt to them, Richter said. But if you change the lighting to a higher intensity and better spectrum, but don’t change everything else, it won’t work. So adapt or die. While the future of the industry undoubtedly lies in the LED spectrum, for many farmers the present is a complex equation with considerations beyond simply improving efficiency and yields. My only concern is that, say, I’ve been in the business long enough to create a brand based on a certain profile and flavor expression, and I’m afraid that’s not a perfect fit for LED, says Jesse Porter, sales director at InSpire Transpiration Solutions. If I have these varieties that I have developed, selected and grown under HID conditions, it will take me possibly a year to convert these plants to LED or grow them under LED to get pure varieties that will grow in that space. So it’s time to adapt, and you need to focus on the breeding goal and target genetics that thrive on LED. This is the future. Everyone will be forced to switch to LEDs, whether mandatory or not, simply because they are so efficient. Keith Schultz, co-founder and COO of 3 Agriculture in Fort Collins, Colorado, recently helped Nokhu Labs convert its grow room from a traditional HID lamp facility to a vertical environment with ThinkGrow LEDs. By converting a one-story canopy into a multi-story facility, Nokhu was able to more than double its growing space and reduce its energy consumption for lighting, Schultz said. The company received approximately $50,000 in rebates to offset the cost of the lighting and ventilation systems. We spent a few weeks in each of their flower rooms, measured the light and determined the average [photosynthetically active radiation], which we then tried to simulate with LEDs, Schultz says. When we introduced the LED system, we wanted to give the plants the same light, but now we change the spectrum. They found that throughout the growth cycle, they never needed more than 70% of the full power of the LEDs to achieve what they had achieved with the 1000 watt HPS lights. This would allow them to reduce their overall electricity consumption. The LED upgrade will allow Nokhu to significantly reduce its production costs, Schultz said, and he expects the company to recoup its investment by the first harvest. After the first harvest, Nokhu reported that the quality of the flowers was as good or even better than with the HPS lights. Especially his varieties Tropicana Banana and Colin OG performed much better under LED. The THC, CBD and other cannabinoid content varies by LED, but no more than +/- 5 percent. For the past five years, Mr. Schultz has worked as a specialist in sustainable agriculture solutions. There are now many more reliable LED manufacturers, he added, and more objective and transparent testing standards have been developed by the DesignLights Consortium and other groups. I really appreciate that the DLC focuses on testing agricultural LEDs. So far, more than 300 products are on the list of products certified by the KFD, he said. To be included in the [list], a fixture must meet certain standards, such as the warranty period. The DLC list contains specific data based on independent test results, such as B. Efficiency and actual energy consumption per luminaire. Therefore, we analyze the specific characteristics of the device based on this data, not on passport data, but on performance, i.e. how this product will perform during use.
In addition to the basic variables of the growing environment – temperature, humidity, CO2 levels – indoor growers must also be aware of (or at least become familiar with) more obscure and complex concepts such as differential vapor pressure, photomorphogenesis and external static pressure. This is where equipment specialists and consultants, including InSpire consultants for sweat solutions, make their living. The company works with a number of manufacturing partners to develop custom HVAC systems that integrate dehumidification and air conditioning into one integrated unit with a dashboard to control all critical variables, from temperature and dehumidification to CO2 control and lighting levels. Mr. Porter travels the country advising companies on the design and implementation of HVAC systems that complement other critical components of their operations to improve overall product quality and performance. One of the trends he sees in today’s indoor environments is more precise management of plants through environmental controls that can optimize everything from humidity and temperature to transpiration rates and feeding schedules. It used to be like this: Oh, I want to stress my plant, and some forms of plant care are just that. But really, it’s about finding good genetics and keeping them as happy as possible from seed to compost. It is the real engine of productivity and consistency. It’s about controlling fertilization and lighting, he says. If you increase the light intensity, you must now also increase the fertilisation, because the plant eats more, drinks more and needs a drying of the ambient air and better air exchange. If you don’t put the whole symphony together, you end up with a kid in the corner beating a drum and calling it music. When the symphony of equipment and genetics begins to fall into place, it looks like what Team Elite Genetics has created in their grow rooms in Southern California. When co-founder and president Steve Castillo began building the Elite Flower brand in 2014, he knew that marketing would become an important part of the game in the future. So he began entering competitions and won twenty-six High Times Cannabis Cup awards for flowers and extracts. Castillo uses the InSpire HVAC system in his grow rooms and can program and adjust the environmental conditions that each of the ten to fifteen varieties in his rotation prefers. Castillo acknowledges that LED lighting and other indoor growing equipment that automate processes and increase yields are already on the rise. But as an artisan producer of some of California’s most prized flowers, he still uses HID lights and can command high prices for his products, which are known for their high content of terpenes and cannabinoids and their exotic flavor. Growers love me because I do everything I can to maximize the terpenes in the flower, he says. Everything I give the plant and everything I do is geared towards maximizing the aroma and terpenes that define the buzz. One of the most recent elite flowers, Fatso by Phinest Cannabis, had a cannabinoid content of 44.5% and a THC content of 41.7%, which is rare even among the best flower growers. Even with advanced automation, it remains difficult for commercial growers to keep track of thousands of plants in warehouses with dozens of rooms and hundreds or thousands of lights. One solution to this problem is the use of high-resolution cameras and/or sensors, integrated with software platforms to monitor and track inventory 24 hours a day, with alert systems to warn of potential problems. One such environment is Agrify Corp’s Vertical Farm Unit (VFU), a stackable, climate-controlled, high-tech module with an integrated software solution called Agrify Insights. The system uses environmental controls and process automation for real-time monitoring and visualization of all parts of the operation. Each plant VFU collects up to 1 million holistic data points per year, which can be used to analyze the smallest details of the plant lifecycle. We are now correlating all of this environmental and microclimate data at VFU with the results, says Steve Drucker, Agrify’s senior vice president of software development. We compare all results in wet and dry weight, as well as percentage of terpenes and cannabinoids. Until now, it has simply been a matter of helping farmers improve by pushing them toward a recipe-based format that can be reproduced and consistently produces the desired results. Another company that has plunged into data collection is Seattle-based iUNU, which has developed a system that uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to measure plant growth per minute. The LUNA system uses autonomous cameras mounted on rails and sensors in the top of the trees to monitor the plants and detect the slightest changes so that potential problems can be detected before they spread. The LUNA application can be installed on computers and mobile devices and provides farmers with remote access to the analysis data. THC is one thing you want to measure, but you may also want to know when the hairs change color or what the fan leaves look like; find out how much extraction value you can get from fan leaves compared to others, says Adam Greenberg, co-founder and CEO of iUNU. If you can see it, we can measure it. People want to start looking at the growth rate of the flowers, so if I want an early-bearing variety, well, now we have a whole kind of comparison and analysis, he added. It is a comprehensive phenotyping tool that allows you to evaluate all plant characteristics of all inventory items you have ever grown with this system. The iUNU software can also create detailed models of individual plants and has self-learning features that help growers identify threats faster and optimize germination and growth rates. Once the images are stored in the system, the operator can detect any problems – mold, parasites, light burns, etc. – and correct them immediately. – and correct them immediately. – and correct them immediately. Less time is spent solving problems, allowing farmers to spend more time on interesting opportunities, such as identifying the best phenotypes in the space and improving yields.
Trade vs. crafts
The future of indoor cannabis cultivation could go in several directions, with growers using the technologies and equipment that best fit their business strategy. Commercial growers are building large-scale cultivation facilities with the latest equipment and technology to ensure a steady harvest, much of which is destined for the growing extraction market. In the meantime, many producers will continue to take a more cautious approach and only introduce new technologies when they see an opportunity to take their genetics to the next level. They all want to reduce their overhead costs and increase revenue, which leads them to play with rock wool and salt-based feeding programs, Castillo says. I mean, it’s cheap, and you get a high performance product, but you’ll never get the flavor I can get out of a plant with soil, supplements, compost tea, and watering by hand. So there are advantages and disadvantages. There are many technologies that make it easier to grow a good product, but I always say that every corner that is cut is a step closer to Mids [medium, medium flowers]. The alternative is for manufacturers to produce thousands and thousands of books a year while trying to keep people away from the technology. When I worked in the aviation world, I used to say that the cockpit of the future would have a pilot and a dog. The pilot’s job is to feed the dog, and the dog’s job is to bite the pilot when he touches the computer, Richter said. I think that in the near future, farmers will not be growers so much as system operators. We are shifting from the plant as a biological system to a more chemical system, and pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals are a big part of that. So you want the same thing as last time. Crafters, yes, they will always want super-duper colors, but extractors want consistency.
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