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Colorado Cannabis Farmers Turn to Tech While Navigating a New and Uncertain Industry

July 23, 2015

As the number of US states relaxing their restrictions on cannabis usage grows, many companies are looking for ways to offer specialized goods and services to the new crop of cannabis farmers. Colorado-based Surna, Inc, a manufacturer serving the growing indoor cannabis cultivation sector, recently announced the major expansion of its existing facility in the city of Boulder.

The new space will add 7,000 square feet to the existing 18,000 sq. ft. Boulder facility, and will be used to expand and scale up manufacturing operations in order to stay on top of increasing demand from cannabis producers, according to Surna.

“We call it the hybrid facility because it combines the best benefits of indoor greenhouse growth with the security and control of a CEA operation,” Surna’s chief business officer David Traylor told AgFunderNews. Surna’s hybrid facility is particularly savvy when it comes to water conservation. “You can place a certain amount of water in this facility and based on the way the system operates you won’t need to supplement more water into the facility. It recycles the water throughout so that it can be reused over and over.”

When it comes to control, Surna enlists a number of principles used in Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). “Cannabis is one of the few crops where you have to have tight parameter controls,” says Traylor. “Humidity has to be controlled within a tight band, and the temperature has to be controlled.” Depending on size, a single grow operation could be worth between $2 million and $3 million. Losing control of the humidity or heating may cause a total crop loss. Most cannabis growers agree that the ideal temperature for the plants is somewhere between 74 and 84 degrees with a humidity between 40 to 60 percent.

Lighting also plays a major role in successful cannabis cultivation. The CEA environment provides Surna with more control over the plants’ exposure to light and the type of lighting that is used. “Cannabis is one of the few crops that responds to high-intensity light. The idea is that if you provide high intensity light to cannabis, it will essentially provide a stimulus to metabolize nutrients more quickly and the plant will grow larger,” explains Traylor.

CEA also solves one of the most pressing issues with growing cannabis: cross-pollination. “The potency of the weed is derived from its THC content, which is only expressed in female plants,” says Traylor. “The THC resins only develop when the female plant is seeking pollination. If you prevent them from being cross-pollinated, the plants produce more and more resin making for a higher THC content.”

Like almost every other crop, cannabis is susceptible to certain pests and diseases. “The most common pests are spider mites and powdering mildew,” says vice president of marketing Katie O’Block. Today, there are virtually no regulations governing pesticide and insecticide usage in commercial cannabis production. Nor are there any rules providing a framework and approval system for producing organic cannabis.

“A lot of people use the same chemicals that are used on standard crops and there’s a big debate going on in Colorado right now about it,” says O’Block. The danger with using traditional pesticides and other crop protectant chemicals lies in the way cannabis is consumed. The end product is typically lit on fire while the consumer inhales the smoke as opposed to being eaten like traditional produce crops. “The controversy is whether lighting the treated product on fire and consuming the smoke poses any health risks. Subjecting a chemical to heat or fire can change its properties.”

In April 2015, Denver city officials stopped the sale of millions of dollars worth of licensed marijuana farms due to concerns that the pesticide or fungicides used to treat the crop resulted in contamination. Eagle 20, a commercial grade fungicide, caused particular concern for the inspectors. Pesticides used in farming and gardening operations are subject to extreme testing, approval, and monitoring at the federal level. Because cannabis remains illegal to cultivate and distribute for commercial purposes at the federal level, however, studies into pesticide use and approval of certain chemicals has not happened.

In Colorado, the Marijuana Enforcement Division conducts marijuana licensing and regulation. Other states that have loosened restrictions on marijuana cultivation and usage have turned to other regulatory means. Washington, for example, vested authority to regulate cannabis with its existing liquor control board. “Regulations for pesticide usage in cannabis are starting to come about,” says O’Block. “This is a process that the whole industry is going through right now.”

In the meantime, CEA offers cannabis farmers a nearly chemical-free way to control pests and disease. Using a controlled air flow system, Surna can control the exchange of air between isolated grow rooms within its facility. If an infestation or outbreak is detected in one of the rooms, Surna can isloate that system and prevent contaminants from traveling through the system to other rooms.

Having a completely controlled operation also fends off another kind of pest—burglars. “CEA provides more security and control than greenhouses,” says O’Block. Marijuana is a high-value commodity that can fetch a large sum on the open market. Colorado has experienced a rash of cannabis burglaries over the last year, causing many growers to choose CEA systems due to the security they provide.

In Colorado, where marijuana has been approved for both recreational and medicinal use, cannabis cultivation is becoming a competitive market. As a result, growers and producers are looking for ways to reduce their bottom line while maximizing yields—goals that aren’t too far off from what most produce farmers and livestock ranchers strive to achieve.

Adding a unique wrinkle to the emerging cannabis market is the legal climate surrounding this newborn industry. “You cannot transport Colorado-grown cannabis across state lines, so anything that is grown in Colorado must be consumed in Colorado,” O’Block told AgFunderNews. “As a result, you get some pretty weird supply and demand economics.”

With a lack of prior data to help predict the market demand, many Colorado-based growers may find themselves with a surplus on their hands sooner than they’d expect. “There’s a lot of money being invested into Colorado growers and as a result a surplus is building,” says O’Block.

Legal approval and social controversy aside, cannabis has already shown promise when it comes to making technological advancements in agriculture. “We think there are a number of applications and tools relevant to CEA that we have developed for cannabis, says Traylor. “We can definitely apply some of those outside cannabis. This could help open the eyes of new investors who aren’t aware about cannabis’ potential.”

“The technology can so easily be applied to other aspects because cannabis is really just farming nuanced by the unique aspects of the crop,” says O’Block. “Cannabis farming will lead to advancements in CEA for lettuce, tomatoes, and other crops. We will see ripple effects into the larger CEA industry that we may not have seen otherwise.”


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