The technology portfolio, aimed at larger, commercial-scale growers, is essentially a network of monitors, sensors and controls that give cultivators real-time data on things like temperature, humidity, light, barometric pressure and other key factors. The idea of using IoT and hypersensitive monitoring is not new to horticulture, food or agriculture, but this is certainly a very new development for the cannabis growing space.
According to Brad Nattrass, chief executive officer and co-founder of urban-gro, it’s technology like this that’ll help growers control microclimates, helping them make the minor adjustments needed to ultimately improve yield and quality. “As ROI and optimized yields become increasingly important for commercial cultivators, the need for technologies that deliver rich granular data and real-time insights becomes critical,” says Nattrass. “With the ability to comprehensively sense, monitor, and control the microclimates throughout your facility in real-time, cultivators will be able to make proactive decisions to maximize yields.”
One of the more exciting aspects of this platform is the integration of sensors, and controls with automation. With the system monitoring and controlling fertigation, lighting and climate, it can detect when conditions are not ideal, which gives a cultivator valuable insights for directing pest management or HVAC decisions, according to Dan Droller, vice president of corporate development with urban-gro. “As we add more data, for example, adding alerts for when temperatures falls or humidity spikes can tell a grower to be on the lookout for powdery mildew,” says Droller. “We saw a corner of a bench get hot in the system’s monitoring, based on predefined alerts, which told us a bench fan was broken.” Hooking up a lot of these nodes and sensors with IoT and their platform allows the grower to get real-time monitoring on the entire operation, from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Droller says using more and more sensors creates super high-density data, which translates to being able to see a problem quickly and regroup on the fly. “Cannabis growers need to maintain ideal conditions, usually they do that with a handful of sensors right now,” says Droller. “They get peace of mind based on two or three sensors sending data points back. Our technology scales to the plant and bench level, connecting all of the aggregate data in one automated system.”
In the future, urban-gro is anticipating this will lay the groundwork for using artificial intelligence to learn when controls need to be adjusted based on the monitoring. Droller hopes to see the data from environmental conditions mapped with yield and by strain type, which could allow for ultra-precise breeding based on environmental conditions. “As we add more and more data and develop the platform further, we can deliver some elements of AI in the future, with increased controls and more scientific data,” says Droller.
The modern chemical agricultural approach is based on the assumption that chemical science has discovered all facets of plant nutritional requirements. It is clear that the traditional NPK approach to plant/soil systems has its limitations, both from an ecological perspective and in terms of its ability to create nutrient-dense food.
Soil and plant systems have existed together for millions of years and have evolved the capacity to coexist in a way that is mutually beneficial. Plants have been fed and evolved with these biological and environmental stimuli over millennia.
Looking to the geologic record for evidence, we can see that it shows that invertebrates, fungi and early vascular plants appeared on land roughly 400 million years ago, the first seed bearing plants about 360 million years ago and the first flowering plants 130 million years ago. What does this mean? The soil food web has been in existence for millions of years and significant evidence exists that plants and soil biology have co-evolved together for millennia.
Between mineral rich soils and the soil food web, this natural system has been able to create and provide significant plant available nutrients, certainly enough to facilitate the successful life cycle of many species. Clearly from an evolutionary context this system has been able to facilitate maximum genetic expression and the ongoing evolution of biologic species.
In the not-too-distant past, agricultural fertilization practices were based on the existence of a diversity of plant and animal byproducts, animal manures, green manures, etc. These were reintroduced to the system and combined with the appropriate biologic populations, resulting in the decomposition of these organic material inputs and their conversion into plant-available nutrients.
An overview of traditional farming practices provides substantial evidence that farming has been occurring for at least 10,000 years. Why, with such a long history of symbiotic interactions between biologic species, are we now witnessing the mass deterioration of arable land, and agricultural commodities containing lower nutritional value?
An interesting common question among the conventional farming community, when the topic of organics or sustainability comes up, is “how are you going to feed the world?” Well that goal certainly will not be well served by the development of shelf stable, but low nutrient-dense foods. A greater volume of low nutrient-value foods certainly does not seem like a winning approach. Supporting agricultural systems that encourage the development of sustainable systems via locally produced, nutrient-dense food is a good start.
And the same holds true for cannabis. In fact, the parallels between the production of high quality nutrient dense foods and high quality cannabis products are quite significant.
Nutrient density in crops results from balanced, mineral rich soils, and a diversity of organic materials and biologic life, these elements provide the framework to facilitate the creation of a highly functional, biologic nutrient cycling system. A highly functional soil system results in more nutrient-dense crops, which contain measurably larger quantities of different phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, and terpenes as compared to a system operating at a lower level of biologic efficiency.
Benefits that have been observed from nutrient-dense crops are: more pest and disease resistance in the vegetative and fruiting stages, greater yield, more complex and intense flavors and a longer shelf life.
Ultimately advancement in any cultivation system means finding and defining limiting factors in the given system. The objective should be ensuring the maximum biologic vitality of the components of said system and its outputs. Practically speaking, in order to enable the full genetic potential of biologic species, this means identifying and working toward the removal of limiting factors. Minimizing or entirely alleviating the factors that limit maximum plant growth will undoubtedly net positive gains and must be an integral component to any sustainable cultivation strategy.
The Earth has provided us with a highly successful, multi-million-year-old biologic system, capable of providing abundant plant available nutrients on demand, a dynamic which must be integral to appropriate and intelligent systems design.
In the pursuit of sustainability, perhaps it is time to return to our roots and begin to pursue dynamics that are mutually beneficial to all forms of biologic life.
In the next article, we will take a step back from viewing sustainability through the lens of soil and plant specific cultivation methodologies, and focus on the broader context of sustainability in cultivation systems. We will look at sustainability from the context of operational efficiency, and provide a case study from a 400-light commercial indoor cannabis operation. The case study will provide evidence that, in order to achieve higher levels of sustainability, both cultivation strategies and operational efficiency must be factored into the equation. As we will see, true sustainability is created through the efficient design, incorporation, use and management of system elements, all of which can, when appropriately designed, work together to create improved efficiency for the system.
This past week, over 10,000 individuals traveled to Columbus, Ohio to attend Cultivate’16, a conference hosted by AmericanHort, an organization dedicated to leading and unifying the horticultural industry. Cultivate’16 had hundreds of vendors displaying the latest technology and equipment for greenhouse production, design and controls along with the latest innovations in software, manufacturing, automation and more.
For all of the energy surrounding the nascent cannabis industry, there was very little representation from it at Cultivate’16. Our associates encountered an estimated thirty cannabis industry professionals, compared to an estimated total of 10,000 attendees. This further compounds the reality that the cannabis industry is still a very young industry when compared with the more mature and well established industries such as conventional agriculture, finance, information technology and others.
At Cultivate’16, there was enormous potential for businesses in the cannabis industry to learn from the traditional horticultural industry. The horticultural industry has had to become extremely efficient with its capital, resources and time in a manner which the cannabis industry has not had to accommodate yet. There were automated container filling machines, cost effective nutrient solutions and greenhouses that are controlled wirelessly. Those were just a fraction of the products and systems that could save cannabis cultivators hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Horticulturalists have been forced through shrinking margins to increase their output and savings. The horticultural market is expanding at an average rate of 5% per year as opposed to the cannabis market which is currently growing at a rate of 68% year over year. Cannabis operators can still get anywhere from $1,200 to $1,400 a pound in most legal markets on the lower end. This is in comparison to basil at $4 a pound. This difference is stark. It means that cannabis cultivators are not under the same pressure to be efficient as other traditional crop cultivators. It is clear though that with increasing legalization of cannabis in both the medical and adult use markets that the price of cannabis will fall. Therefore, it would be wise for the cannabis professionals to attend events such as Cultivate’16 in greater numbers to prepare for the eventual decrease in price.
3C Consulting was present at Cultivate’16 because we understand the importance of looking to other successful industries for guidance. We were able to converse with a diverse array of vendors and business owners to further our own knowledge on the best practices to bring to the cannabis industry. To be able to learn from those that have come before you is a strength, not a weakness. Far too often the cannabis industry seeks to reinvent the wheel. It does not have to be this way.
By learning from other industries, utilizing the latest horticultural technology and becoming more cost-effective the cannabis cultivators will be able survive and thrive. It is those that prepare for turbulence that are best able to capitalize on change. In the Chinese language, the word for crisis is the same as the word for opportunity. It is wise to prepare for a crisis so that when it does occur you are able to transform it into an opportunity.
The average commercial cannabis cultivator seems to be following the modern agricultural paradigm. That model is based on questionable and, one might say, ineffective soil systems management.
In the high-yield cannabis world, amidst decades of prohibition, following the lead of the modern agricultural model has resulted in the adoption of cultural practices that go something like this: Use and destroy the soil, then dispose of it once it is rendered lifeless and useless due to repeated heavy applications of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other poisons.
Certainly conventional agricultural food production and the soil management systems underpinning them are faltering, evidenced by soil systems deteriorating many times faster than they are being improved. This qualifies as a failure in my book.
What will be the fate of profit margins, sustainability and medicine in the cannabis industry if we continue to follow blindly in the footsteps of chemical agriculture? Perhaps it is time to turn over a new leaf.
Well…world agricultural production accounts for about three-quarters of the soil erosion worldwide. This steep decline in arable soil is occurring during a time when the world’s demand for food is rapidly increasing. It is estimated that the world will need to grow 50% more food by 2050, and it is important to note that, the total volume of food necessary, remains relative to the nutrient density of the food.
Time for a radical solution, and cannabis can lead the way.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow, now more than ever we have the opportunity, and I believe the responsibility, to cultivate in ecologically mindful ways, improve the end product and it’s positive impacts, increase both short-term and long-term profits, decrease or eliminate waste and lower the carbon footprint of cannabis cultivation operations.
Most importantly, we have the opportunity to fund, implement and lead the way in research and development of sustainable, medical, phytonutrient-dense crop production methodologies.
Only by implementing more rigorous scientific methods to cannabis cultivation can we hope to provide truly meaningful improvements in and contributions to the fields of agriculture, science, medicine and human health.
While dumpsters of potting soil continue to roll off to the landfill, complex health and human science and the cultivators truly engaged in science will continue to provide meaningful data regarding plant compounds and what factors influence the best outcome for the desired end product.
I am willing to bet that what is best will not be coming from the business models employing antiquated, wasteful and destructive cultivation strategies, and that in due time these models will fade into distant memories.
This is the first in a series of articles, in which we will explore topics related to the pursuit of high yield, phytonutrient-dense “high brix” cannabis production.
The next article will provide a historical and geologic context to the cannabis plant, as viewed from the scope of soil biology and the progression of ecosystems and soil types, and how maximized genetic expression, through maximized soil and plant health influence the production of high quality cannabis.
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