The medical cannabis market promises a lot of success to those capable of growing the plant to pharma-grade standards. One of the easier ways to do this is by utilizing an indoor facility, as the controlled environment allows for complete control over the different elements that make up the grow. Yet, the operational cost of such a cultivation facility can be very high, and on the other hand its impact on the environment can be quite harsh.
These are just two of the reasons why a number of companies have been switching to greenhouses, or set up their operation with greenhouses from the get-go. This cultivation system can be more challenging to manage than an indoor one, yet the benefits are many. “In a greenhouse you work with the sun, so you’d need cooling,” Benjamin Vermeer with Full Green Control explains. Benjamin is a horticultural consultant with many years of experience. Since a few years now, he has been leveraging this knowledge to help cannabis growers to operate their cultivation in the most efficient and successful way possible. “As a grower and manager of a large-scale agricultural operation, you don’t have to look at the plant as living organisms to nurture only, but you have to look at that as money as well,” he explains. “This is why I always suggest to people to grow cannabis in a greenhouse: operational costs are lower, environmental impact is lower, and the quality of the product is way superior compared to that grown indoors.”
However, even if one masters greenhouse cultivation, growing for the medical market can pose a whole new set of challenges, especially if one plans on marketing to Europe. “EU-GMP is a very strict and costly standard that allows companies to sell their medical cannabis products in the European Union,” he further explains. “Exactly because of its costly and challenging nature, there are really only a handful of companies growing cannabis in a greenhouse under EU-GMP standards.” However, Benjamin thinks this is a completely doable endeavor – yet challenging nonetheless.
“One of the most important things to take into consideration is the clean rooting and the dirty rooting,” Benjamin points out. “They must not cross each other, in order to prevent any contamination possible. Then, the HVAC needs to be able to withstand a big overpressure, which can be quite expensive.”
Another important element to keep in mind is the cleanliness of the facility. “The other most important thing is to have all the airlocks in,” he says. “You need at least, three, if not four airlocks, so when people transition to different areas, they have to go through the airlocks. That is why it's also important that there is a manager controlling the employees to comply with the guidelines. I have worked in vegetables for a lot of years, and you have one manager only for the whole facility. For cannabis, however, it seems as if you would need one manager per employee, almost!”
An additional crucial aspect of the EU-GMP cannabis greenhouse is the track and tracing system. “Thanks to that, you know where everything in a batch comes from,” he explains. “However, the lab analyses are very expensive, that is why most of the growers tend to make the very first batch as big as possible. Though, the EU-GMP guidelines also outline the maximum size of a batch. So, you really need to calculate everything in advance and be sure to be as efficient as possible.”
Many challenges, yet many benefits
Benjamin takes care to remark that EU-GMP greenhouse cannabis cultivation is not easy at all, but with the right mindset and the right qualified people, it represents one of the best ways to cultivate cannabis for the medical market. “I get a lot of requests from Spain, Greece, and North Macedonia to set up EU-GMP cannabis greenhouses,” he says. “That’s because not only are greenhouses cheaper to operate, but also because the price of the end-product is lower, thus increasing its marketability.”