Given our years in the industry, we are often asked about the difference between outdoor, or open-air greenhouse cultivation, and controlled environment (indoor or sealed greenhouse) cultivation methodologies, and why so many operators choose the controlled environment route. After all, cultivating indoors is widely understood to be extremely energy-intensive. So why does it make sense for so many cultivators?
Indoor cultivation is often mandated in emerging markets, typically to mitigate odor control or physical security concerns. These are good reasons of course, but they’re not insurmountable concerns in outdoor cultivation, and they’re certainly not the most compelling reasons to grow indoors.
The truth is, there is a strong business case to be made for cultivating in controlled environments. And in the near future, as renewable energy options increase and climate change continues to impact weather patterns, there will be a strong sustainability case to be made as well.
Outdoor crops are harvested once a year, and while open-air greenhouses with light deprivation can yield additional crops, production is typically shut down during the hottest and coldest times of the year. Cultivating in controlled environments means 5-6 crops per year, and with a well-managed production schedule, can mean a perpetual harvest.
While outdoor harvests are usually very large, reliance on a single harvest for a year’s worth of income can carry a lot of risk, especially when relying on Mother Nature for the quality and volume of that harvest, which leads us to the next point.
In a controlled environment, the only real risk to your crop is….you. Quality and yield of outdoor crops are a constant risk, from weather events (fire, flood, hail, wind, drought) to infestation by pests to mold, mildew and other fungi. 2020’s fire season has resulted in significantly diminished crop quality in some areas, and complete losses in others.
This uncertainty about the end result can make or break a cultivation operation, and this reality is why food producers in the United States have so much access to federal assistance in farming operations. Unfortunately, cannabis operators don’t have access to federal crop insurance.
While operating in a controlled environment doesn’t completely eliminate those risks, it certainly reduces them dramatically. Threats from weather related events are almost non-existent. And a well-designed floorplan, SOP’s, and thoughtfully executed mechanical and ventilation system can all protect against pests, pathogens and fungi.
In outdoor environments, the only biosecurity protection is the application of pesticides and fungicides, which is expensive, time consuming, and generally undesirable.
As every commercial farmer knows, outdoor harvests will vary in both volume and consistency from year to year. Some years, it’s a bumper crop and other years, not so much. And some years even result in a complete loss. Apart from the risks of catastrophic weather events and pests or pathogens that lead to diminished harvests, simple variances in weather from year to year will also create inconsistencies from harvest to harvest.
In controlled environments, the process is far more comparable to a manufacturing operation where the methodology is consistent, so production results are known ahead of time. Tightly managed climates result in consistent results, and the value of a consistent crop to a cultivator is twofold. First, it ensures that business owners know what to project for revenue from harvest to harvest. Second, it ensures that their clients know what to expect of the products they purchase, ensuring repeat business.
Most outdoor cannabis cultivation is done in rural areas, where commercial farming is also prevalent. Use of glyphosate is very common in commercial farming, as are the application of fungicides and pesticides that are not approved for use in cannabis.
Pollen contamination from hemp operations is also a possibility. Lastly, for outdoor cultivators growing directly in natural soil (as opposed to pots above grade), metal contamination can be a real concern. Cultivating in controlled environments, with carefully managed ventilation and filtration strategies, can eliminate the risk of this kind of contamination.
From a sustainability standpoint, irrigation of outdoor crops is extremely wasteful, and management of water resources will become more and more critical as time goes on. Currently, commercial farming uses an estimated 80% of the world’s water resources, much of which is wasted through run off or evaporation.
Cultivating in controlled environments allows cultivators to eliminate waste from run off entirely, and to collect all condensate associated with evaporation and plant transpiration. Through this collection and reuse of water, it’s possible to cultivate indoors with zero water waste, and reduce overall water usage by over 90%.
Commercial farmers are already being forced to meter and reduce water consumption (even from private wells) in agricultural areas due to dwindling resources in those areas. The water issue is likely to drive a number of outdoor cultivators indoors, or out of business, in the coming years.
Mitigating Energy Use
As climate change continues to drive weather patterns that will drive cultivators (of both food and cannabis) to more tightly controlled environment cultivation, so does the energy use associated with controlled environment cultivation contribute to climate change.
The energy use associated with indoor cultivation is an obvious drawback and it’s incumbent on the industry to continue to understand how energy is used in indoor cultivation, and how to mitigate that energy use to ensure that we can maintain sustainability. This is important not just for producers of cannabis, but also to promote food security as we move into the future.
To that end, lighting companies in our industry continue to focus on efficient technologies, and cultivators are starting to see the benefits of energy efficiency to their bottom line. They are encouraging their design teams to work harder to identify areas where energy use can be reduced without sacrificing yield.