Lighting: the economics of growing

From growing peppers and tomatoes to growing medicinal hemp. This is the story of Sonny, co-founder of Thrive Farms Colorado, a medicinal organic hemp company active in Norwood, Colorado. Sonny is a guy with a very sunny disposition, really passionate about his job. However, impressive is his commitment in the company’s mission, “we serve the pet industry. In other words, we make CBD hemp products for dogs”, Sonny explains. Sonny realized that joining the hemp industry was easy but surviving in it was not an easy endeavor and that the risk would be on his and his brother Mark’s shoulders. “At the beginning, we did not know exactly what the difference between Cannabis called hemp and Cannabis called marijuana really was. This uncertainty was quickly cleared up once growing our first “hemp” plants. The first season was hard, and we lost our entire greenhouse to a dust devil which caused us to lose a substantial amount of money. The second season our well ran dry! However, even though challenges have to be dealt with initially, the important thing is to learn from that. And we surely did.”

Sonny's peppers

The ‘three big lies’
As Sonny points out, one of the major issues he had was regarding the distinction between hemp and cannabis. “Here in the US, we can say that there are three big lies they told us when we were kids”, Sonny jokingly says, “The first one is Santa Claus. The second lie is the Easter Bunny. And the third is indeed the differentiation between Cannabis plants called hemp, and Cannabis plants called Marijuana. These terms are both very misleading. They represent the same family except the only real difference is the THC content being above or below .3%. However, depending on how it is cultivated especially if breeding is in play over time – and depending also on the variety – Cannabis could have high levels of either THC or CBD, and a wide range of terpenes”, Sonny explains.

“The US government made this rule out of thin air, while in reality what matters is what a grower wants to make out of a given plant. Consequently, the farming technique can change and hence the end result will change. Sometimes undesirable if you are trying to get a cultivar to do something it was not bred to do.  Cannabis plants that the world routinely calls Hemp are usually bred to be tall, fibrous and provide heavy seed oil production and those same “Cannabis Hemp” plants would not be a good candidate to grow in a sea of green indoor method for CBD or THC production. So much breeding time has been put into High THC Cannabis.

“The fact is that Hemp cultivars are 40 years behind, and Hemp bred for High CBD and small stature are just getting started in the last 4 years. This has resulted in most Cannabis cultivars being developed specifically for what the grower is after in both camps. Most hemp farmers were outdoors so most hemp cultivars to choose from were bred with those guys in mind. If you want a Hemp seed crop you have a handful of genetics to choose from. If you want an indoor, short, stocky plant with tight nugs, then a completely different selection of Cannabis plants is going to be bred for that environment. So that weird THC .3% legal threshold is actually the difference between two of the same plant.” 

Testing lights
Through a process of trial and error, Sonny and his brother eventually realized that for their specific situation and plans hemp is best cultivated indoor rather than in a greenhouse. Obviously, this farming method brings a whole different set of issues which need to be assessed. “One of these is what type of lighting system to use and therefore which company and what kind of light to resort to.” In addition to his job as a farmer, the Thrive Farms tests lights, nutrients, water treatments, and a micro-grow environment for multiple companies. “Most of the light companies are from China. Not all of them are reliable, and since they are so many, it is even harder to pick one.” 

During a trade fair called Hemp and Hops in Montrose, CO, Sonny was inevitably struck by a series of seedlings illuminated by a very peculiar light. “Those little plants were so perfect I thought they were made of plastic. So, the first thing I thought was ‘these are such cool little plastic Cannabis plants, I wonder where I can buy some’, and then I proceeded to touch them without even asking if I could. You cannot imagine my surprise when I realized that those plants were real!”

In that occasion, Sonny met Violet Gro, a company manufacturing lights for cannabis growers, “I had to ask them how those seedlings could be so perfect”, Sonny says. “The thing that I appreciated the most was Violet Gro willingness to listen to my feedback. The conversation was not a sales pitch, they were really interested in providing me with solutions that were suited for me and, at the same time, they wanted to hear from me what I thought of these and how to improve them.”

It’s all about math
Therefore, Sonny started testing different light solutions to find what was the best for his business: “It’s all about math. LED lights are more expensive at the beginning, but they will pay off big in the long period”, he explains. “However, the cannabis industry requires great quantities of energy, both in terms of electricity, water and so forth. Hence, the bill at the end of the month can be very expensive.” Although this is not that big of an issue for big corporations, for family-run farms like Sonny’s, a careful management of the energy bills could mean the difference between life and death. “There has been a need for a long time of light technology that produces results”, Sonny explains. “It is hard to convince people to change light company after years they have been relying on the same one. From Violet Gro, we learnt that one just needs to do the math.” Sonny explains that if a light were cheaper in terms of energy consumption and provided a bigger yield at the same time, then “It would be a no brainer.” However, if a given light were cheaper and provided a slightly lower yield, then it is necessary to study what the benefits are, “For specific applications, there is absolutely no doubt that there is an advantage here.”

Sonny explains that the industry standard in terms of light is of 2 HPS lights of 1000 watts each for a 4-feet by 8-feet table. “Violet Gro has four lights that would replace that, which are one hundred watts each. We have seen that we get a little bit lower of a yield, but the cost saving is real – much more than half. It is important to look at the goals and the parameters you are growing with. That’s the mathematic: if the yield is slightly lower but its quality is equally high, and at the same time the cost saving is extremely convenient, then it comes out ahead.”

The economics of growing
Therefore, it is important to take into consideration the economics of growing, as Terrance Berland, CEO of Violet Gro, takes care to explain. “Our goal since starting the company was to think about the entire system economics of growing.  By giving plants only the light they need, growers can maximize their profit by minimizing both their energy costs, in terms of lower electricity to operate the lights and lower cooling costs, and their long-term capital costs in terms of repair and bulb replacement, while still producing high quality plants.”

Another interesting aspect of Violet Gro lights is that the human element is taken into consideration. “People make mistakes, they do happen and there is nothing much we can do about it. This is why I particularly appreciated the fact that Violet Gro lights are water resistant. Imagine if a new employee gets distracted and sprays some water on the light. Usually, this could be a bad situation to deal with. With Violet Gro light this would not happen. Additionally, they remain ‘cool’: in the case there is some sudden damage or problem, the light can be taken out without the risk of getting burnt.”

Light as crop protection
Thrive Farms does not use any chemical crop protection. Every product they use is fully organic, and Sonny takes care to remark this. With regards to this, Violet Gro is producing a UV light which functions exactly as crop protection. “I have been testing this prototype light that emits only UV rays. It turns on only at night for a certain amount of time. We put some new plants we had just picked up in the quarantine room, as we spotted some aphids on the plant. The day after, they were all gone. But more importantly, the plants look healthy only after a few hours” According to Sonny, this UV light is useful to fight aphids, E. coli or powdery mildew. “That role alone gives Violet Gro a place at the conversation table. We have plans to build a new seedling and quarantine room and we certainly will be using Violet Gro in there.” 

“I think that we really need more light companies to enter the space. As I have said, most of them are Chinese manufactured so having some manufactured in other places around the world would be really cool. The more companies that jump into this market, the more competition there will be, and therefore this will push companies to aim for the best quality and for the best tailor-made solutions. When that happens, the growers win!” 

For more information:
Violet Gro


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