I often describe the current state of medical marijuana cultivation as a high stakes race against nature.
In this race, grow methodology is the sneakers we put on our feet. We may be able buy the best shoes, but nature still has one heck of a head start.
While some debate remains regarding the initial discovery/use of marijuana,The Archaeology of Ancient China (Yale University Press, 1968) confirms that the ancient Taiwanese used hemp fibers for decorative purposes around 8000 B.C. That’s more than 10,000 years of evolution, natural selection and environmental adaptation for cannabis, which has spawned some remarkable genetic variety!
I previously wrote about the importance of a strong genetic foundation to cultivation success and the adaptability of landrace genetics to their environment of origin. However, genetic selection is merely the first step in cultivating quality marijuana.
This is where the race begins. Cultivators should not be content merely attempting to recreate the environmental conditions of the Hindu Kush mountain range, but should strive to improve on them.
In outdoor grows or farms, it’s obviously quite difficult to control environmental conditions, but most legal medical marijuana jurisdictions require cultivation to be indoors for security purposes. So if your state or local municipality requires indoor cultivation, how do you outfit a facility to not only mimic the sun and wind but enhance your plants’ exposure to these essential elements?
Choose a method
The first decision every cultivator must make is what grow methodology will your facility employ. There are numerous methods that have proven successful under proper care: Sea of Green, Recirculating Deep Water Culture (RDWC), Screen of Green (ScrOG), Drip System, Nutrient Film Technique (NFT), etc.
In many cases regulatory agencies will ease the burden of making this particular decision. In states with enforced plant counts for cultivators such as Colorado or Michigan it doesn’t make sense to use a method like Sea of Green where plant counts per light can range up to 54 (or more) per light.
Where there are no plant count limits, like emerging markets Illinois and Maryland, Sea of Green provides a distinct advantage by allowing cultivators to focus on growing top colas and reducing vegetative time.
At Good Meds we currently employ a Screen of Green (trellised) canopy, where plants are woven (or tied) into a screen/net for bud support and to increase light penetration to all exposed flower sites. Simultaneously, we run a custom irrigation system with drip emitters. Drip systems are ideal for feeding large quantities of plants but must be closely monitored for clogs and other defects.
Automate where possible
An intelligent and hardworking staff is essential to any business but human error and rising labor costs have the potential to submarine marijuana businesses that have hard licensing and regulatory costs and little margin for error.
Automation comes at heavy initial cost but the ROI is generally immediate. Simple improvements like timers for irrigation pumps ensure that plants are fed at the same time and same amount every day. Following a standardized routine for plant feeding and maintenance (topping, training, pruning and defoliating) will greatly reduce stress and increase overall efficiency.
New technology like automated nutrient mixers, as well as environmental sensors and monitoring equipment must be considered for any large-scale commercial cultivator. Sensors that can read room temperature and turn off lights in case of a HVAC malfunction can save entire crops and countless dollars.
Media, nutrients and light
The grow methodology you select will generally have an ideal corresponding media, for example, Recirculating Deep Water Culture’s media is obviously water. I prefer pure coco (ground coconut husk) because it has no additives and is less prone to clogging drip emitters.
Nutrient selection is difficult because of the endless number of available products. However, most nutrients found at the local hydroponic shop will provide all of the essential minerals needed for productive growth — if used correctly. So, I prefer nutrients that are simple to mix and don’t require numerous additives.
Various media and nutrient lines are acceptable for providing a strong grow foundation and in many ways can improve upon the natural environment that marijuana has grown in for millennia. Light selection, however, is a bit more sophisticated. After all, we are trying to replicate and enhance light given by the sun.
Marijuana, like all plants derive their food through photosynthesis which converts light into energy. Double ended high pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs have become the industry standard in flower cultivation, while metal halides and fluorescents are also still widely used in the vegetative process. When Good Meds converted its bulbs from standard HPS bulbs to double ended bulbs our yields immediately increased 34 percent.
Like the plant, be ready to adapt
While marijuana cultivators can argue over the best grow media, nutrient line, pest prevention regime or light brand, the most important quality in being a successful cultivator is adaptability.
We are at the precipice of an emerging industry and technological advances are happening daily. While I love the double ended HPS lights, there are exciting developments with LED technology and it may soon become the industry standard.
All cultivators must pay close attention to the experts in our field, as they help legitimize and standardize medical marijuana best practices.
Nathan Kelly, is the Executive Vice President of the Good Meds Network, a medical marijuana business in Denver, Colorado. He has spent six years in the MMJ industry building the Good Meds cultivation business into a leading provider of high quality cannabis in Colorado marketplace. Good Meds’ Pure Power Plant was awarded the Denver High Times Cannabis Cup for best Hybrid Strain in 2014. He has also served as a marijuana consultant in Michigan, Illinois, Maryland and continues to try to expand Good Meds business into new national and global marijuana markets as they come online. Previously, he graduated from Michigan State University with an Interdisciplinary Humanities degree and worked as Public Relations specialist for a workforce development non-profit in Washington, DC. Nathan and his wife Kristi, who is also his business partner, live in Denver with their two dogs Stringer and Cici.
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