How does your company grow (its cannabis, that is)?
This year, sustainable cultivation practices and in-house R&D efforts emerged as common trends that growers pursued, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Here, three cultivators share which techniques they focused on in 2022 and what they may try going into 2023.
1. Biodynamic Farming
Lex Corwin, founder and CEO of Nevada City, Calif.-based Stone Road Farms, shared with Cannabis Business Times in January that the company, which grows cannabis in greenhouses and outdoors, uses elements of biodynamic farming.
“Obviously, [we don’t do] all of the crazy stuff, like combining cow manure with llama poop and growing under a full moon,” he said at the time. “We don’t have time for all that. But [we implement] other things, like regenerative water practices [and] using living soil. Instead of using pesticides or synthetics, [we use] predator mites. [We make] our own compost teas.”
Earlier this month, CBT caught up with Corwin about Stone Road’s cultivation techniques and found that the team is still implementing—and perfecting—biodynamic farming practices.
“Basically, we’re just trying to close the loop and make as much of our nutrients as possible,” Corwin said. “It’s better both environmentally and cost-savings wise.”
Stone Road composts as much as possible and sources ingredients to make compost teas, rather than purchasing ready made ones at the store. The company has used the same soil for the last six years and continues to improve its health and diversity to ensure it will continue to yield high-quality flower.
“We’ve never used sprays, even the organic sprays that are usually plant-based pesticides,” Corwin said. “We’ve opted to just use predator mites and ladybugs. … It’s basically just setting up the systems and then it runs itself, giving it all the components that the plants need to thrive.”
Stone Road chooses genetics that can thrive in a more natural environment, and the team tends to the plants with the same compost teas and nutrient mixes, whether outdoors or in the greenhouse.
“Initially, it is, of course, more expensive because you need more labor and ladybugs have been expensive and making your own compost tea—it all costs a lot up front, but once you’ve got the systems going, where it is naturally kicking off the nutrients that the plant needs [and you have] the preventative measures that you need for pest management, it then is really just running on autopilot,” Corwin said.
Stone Road spends much less on nutrients now that it has a stockpile of fresh compost to mix in with its existing soil, for example, which is particularly helpful in a market like California, which has seen a steep decline in wholesale prices.
Biodynamic farming practices also give the company a unique story to tell consumers, and a way to stand out in the crowded California market.
“This is why we’re different,” Corwin said. “Anyone can buy a preroll from a dispensary. There are hundreds of options. There are thousands of different SKUs. So, … why are we unique? … It’s about lowering our impact on the earth. It’s about putting out really high-quality products at a really affordable price. And doing all these things help us get there.”
It’s also helped Stone Road expand into new markets. The company announced its launch into Michigan last month, after previously signing licensing deals in Oklahoma and Massachusetts. In Michigan, Stone Road landed a partnership with Gamut Cannabis to bring its product line to the state in early 2023.
“In Michigan, we’re partnering with other small, family-owned farms that employ a lot of the same techniques that we use in California,” Corwin said. “We know that the values are going to be aligned, and we know that, ultimately, the quality of the flower is going to be top notch.”
Looking toward the future, Corwin is interested in exploring hügelkultur, which he describes as excavating the soil before the growing season and layering in logs, sticks, leaves and other biomass that is then covered with a layer of soil. As the biomass breaks down, it releases core nutrients for the plants and retains water for the crop.
In the meantime, Corwin plans to lean into the biodynamic farming practices Stone Road has already started, trying new compost styles and different compost additives that will lead to even greater plant growth.
“We’re just basically doubling down on the things we’ve started on because not only are we saving money, but the plants this year, the quality has never been better,” Corwin said. “I can’t wait for consumers in California to see the yield that we got from this year—just sheer volume-wise, we’ve never grown this amount of cannabis before. We grew double what we have in prior years.”
2. Crop Steering
Jorel Decker, the owner of Lindsay, Okla.-based Ramshead Cannabis and a member of nu-metal group Hollywood Undead, is “obsessed” with crop steering.
“I love crop steering,” he said. “I’m obsessed with it. I’m currently right now trying mixing and matching different companies with their sensors and their automatic crop steering. There are so many people offering the same stuff, so I keep experimenting, using sensors from one company with a brain from another, seeing which one can handle it more. I’m trying the automatic scheduling. I’m trying to take out human error. It’s not there yet, but that’s all I’ve been doing, is trying to figure out the best way to do this.”
Decker told CBT in July that “crop steering is the hot topic these days, and where cannabis is and will continue to go.”
Often described as a plant growth management practice where environmental setpoints or inputs are manipulated to trigger specific plant responses or encourage plants to grow in a certain way, crop steering has been a part of Ramshead’s operations for a while now.
“When I first started learning it, I couldn’t afford the $50,000 of sensors that it required,” Decker said. “So, originally, we were using one handheld sensor and data logging by hand all throughout the day and making these judgements.”
Now, the company uses LED lighting throughout its entire indoor facility, and Decker is continuing his research into automatic environmental controls and even more advanced LED technology.
“You can set schedules now and it’ll change the weeks for you, but there’s no such thing as a set and forget in growing,” he said. “You have to check and calibrate your equipment constantly. I’d be curious to try it just to see how good it works, but nothing’s better than having a human or a professional overseeing everything.”
The Ramshead team is also focused on finding the right genetics and dialing in its crop steering efforts for each variety.
“Everything drinks different,” Decker said. “We have 32 light rooms. We try to keep it two strains per room, which isn’t ideal. You want a monocrop, which is one strain per room, because one strain will drink a ton of water and one will drink none and tend to be overwatered. You really have to pair them up properly, and that’s why you need sensors. … When you’re crop steering, you can’t mismatch the strains if you have multiple rooms, which a lot of growers do. They’ll throw 12 strains in one room—one of them thrives, one of them practically dies. There’s no roadmap for crop steering. Every strain is completely different as far as environment and watering goes.”
Decker is looking forward to seeing the results of Ramshead’s latest crop steering efforts heading into next year and said that while “it’s not for the faint of heart,” the practice is worthwhile to get the most out of the plants.
“I knew it was the future and I knew if I didn’t learn it and do it right, I would be one of those companies that faded away eventually because you really produce the highest quality yields by crop steering correctly,” he said.
3. In-House Trials
Zoe Reece, founder and CEO of New Zealand medical cannabis producer Ora Pharm, told CBT earlier this year that the company had launched in-house trials in a dedicated R&D greenhouse to continue to improve its grow practices.
“We recently received a government grant from New Zealand to help with the trials, which is pretty fantastic,” Reece shared earlier this month, adding that the company’s current trials aim to find and perfect a nutrient recipe.
The grant was provided by Callaghan Innovation, a government agency focused on helping businesses conduct R&D and find innovative ways to give New Zealand a competitive advantage when producing products.
The nutrient trial is in its second grow cycle and aims to find the perfect mix of what works for the plants and Ora Pharm’s cultivation techniques.
“We’re doing a direct comparison with the liquid nutrients that we’ve been using with the new mix that we’ve created,” Reece said. “We’ve been trying out different cultivars and the next trial that we’re going to do, we’re going to do all one cultivar, so that gives us a bit more straight data around it.”
The research not only helps Ora Pharm reduce its cost of production, but also gives the company more control over the growing process to consistently produce high-quality yields.
“In New Zealand, we are exporting most of this and it has to be to EU GMP quality standards, and that means that there is a very tight band on all of the different parameters of the products, especially the cannabinoids,” Reece said. “So, by having control over what the plant eats, we can tweak that up and down as needed.”
By having a dedicated greenhouse for R&D, the trials won’t impact the commercial crops, which need that consistency and quality behind them.
In the past, Ora Pharm has conducted trials on lighting and soil, and Reece said the team has a long list of trials it would like to launch in the future.
“I guess we’re just very focused on data, data collection and data analysis around the plants and what’s happening,” she said. “I think collecting as much data as we can using our sensors, using different programs on the R&D side, [is important] to see if there are any small changes that should be applied.”
And, she added, the findings could be applied to not just cannabis, but also to the broader horticultural space.
“It just provides innovation in all industries, which stems from the cannabis space, which is really exciting,” she said.