Emerging Sector in Commercial Horticulture for Cannabis

There’s no question legal cannabis (marijuana) is going to be an important high-value cash crop wherever it’s legal. By the year 2020, according to a forecast by the analyst firm Arcview Market Research, legal marijuana sales will surpass $21 billion, a number that is more than double the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s estimate for the sales of wheat. The sheer enormity of this market is attracting a lot of research and development into how to grow cannabis better.  “Better” means different things to different people in the industry. It could mean higher content of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds that make marijuana valuable for both medical and recreational use. It could mean more efficiency, using less resources and energy to grow a crop to harvest. It could mean reducing the time it takes to go from seed to harvest so growers can increase the number of harvests per year.To one company in Central Oregon, it means all three.

Smart Grow Systems, founded six years ago in Sisters, develops vertical farming systems. An emerging sector in commercial horticulture, vertical farming is a form of indoor farming where crops are grown in shelves on racks. This week Smart Grow debuted a new design in LED grow lighting. Called GOLDENi, it’s the first LED grow lighting system engineered specifically for commercial vertical farming, and so far, local cannabis growers think it’s a major game changer.  There has been some debate as to whether LED grow lighting is as effective as other grow lights, but Smart Grow boasts its lights have proven results. The key differences are the LED’s color or light spectrum, and the use of a wide frame and hundreds of LEDs to create an even spray of light that covers and penetrates the tops of plants, even when they are densely packed together.

“Switching to LEDs is the smartest business decision we could make,” says Dylan Mcmahon of Deschutes Growery. “We have a reputation for some of the finest organically indoor-grown cannabis flowers in Oregon and are very careful about the choices we make to help reduce our impact on the environment.”  Recently Deschutes began upgrading its operation from the more commonly used high pressure sodium grow lamps to a new vertical farming system that features Smart Grow’s GOLDENi lights. The tests it put GOLDENi through provided some startling results.

“We have been able to increase our yields by at least 400 percent per harvest inside the same space and have reduced our carbon footprint by more than 50 percent,” adds Mcmahon. Deschutes Growery believes it will be able to recoup its investment after the first harvest with the help of the Oregon Energy Trust. “Smart Grow LED’s in conjunction with our vertical farming system makes best use of our grower’s producer license by allowing us to maximize our canopy size without adding real estate.”

In Oregon, indoor cannabis growers can grow up to 10,000 square feet of “canopy” – that is, the top layer of the crop. Without vertical farming, a grower needs more than 10,000 square feet of floor space to grow the limit. But Smart Grow was able to help Deschutes Growery create four layers of canopy in a room with only 10-foot ceilings.

“We’re not just creating canopy; we’re creating biomass,” says Darrin Dow, CEO of Smart Grow Systems. “We’re filling a room from floor to ceiling with sellable crop. The plants that grow with our system are shorter, but the sellable product output is at least equal to larger plant yields. It’s all about the flower at the top of the canopy, and we produce a lot more of that as compared to the rest of the plant.”  Larger plants have larger trunks and branches which aren’t as valuable or usable, and growing them takes a lot more energy, water, resources and manpower. It also takes longer to grow larger plants.  “The veg cycle is that part of the plant’s growth where it gets really big and tall,” explains Dow. “We’re cutting out the veg cycle from the growth cycle, and getting our plants ready for harvest in about half the time it takes other grow methods. But the product — the flower — is as big or bigger, and has a lot more of the compounds used in medicinal marijuana products or are desirable for recreational use.”

“There’s a lot of investment in cannabis right now, and it’s a market that’s exploding not only nationwide, but also in Canada and Mexico. So cannabis is providing lots of opportunity,” says Dow.

Canada is working toward making recreational use of marijuana legal across the country by July 1, 2018, and Mexico’s legislature just approved medical marijuana for that country. But perhaps of more interest to cannabis grow supply vendors in Oregon is that soon medical and recreational marijuana will be legal in California and Nevada. So far, more than 30 states and Washington, DC have made at least medical marijuana legal, and more states are considering legalization this year and next.

Dow explains that marijuana is a very challenging crop to grow well, which coupled with its value attracts a lot of research and development investment. But the technology that’s perfected for cannabis has application with many other crops. “Growers of other cash crops like hops and high cost spices and herbs are also working with us, and we’ve started working with growers on agricultural tissue samples as well.”

“I’ve been using Smart Grow LED lights for several years now and their products started out performing incredibly and have evolved from there to become the single most exciting development in indoor farming I’ve ever seen,” says Brian Turner, owner of Sunriver Organics of Bend. Speaking of Smart Grow’s GOLDENi lights, Turner adds, “I think we’re all looking at the new standard by which all indoor cultivation will soon be measured.”

Dow adds, “There are a lot of businesses in Bend and in the region that have tools, technology and supplies for the legal cannabis industry, and they can really do quite well as that market expands. They’re calling it a Green Rush, and it really is an exciting part of horticulture. What I particularly find exciting is the potential of cannabis driving down costs of all this new horticultural technology so that one day we can help feed the world with far more efficiency and quality.”