On Election Day 2020, Montana and South Dakota both passed amendments that would legalize recreational use of marijuana. That brings about a whole realm of questions: how to grow it, who will grow it, and especially, is it an agricultural product?
Don Brown, former commissioner of agriculture for Colorado, came into office in 2015, three years after recreational use and growing of marijuana was approved in that state. Brown explained that the main focus in his office was centered around pesticide use on cannabis; the Department of Revenue handled most of the other issues.
“Indoor growing conditions of marijuana created a tropical environment that accelerated insect and pest pressure. The problem is there are no federally licensed pesticides to use on cannabis because it’s a Schedule 1 drug.” (According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Association Schedule 1 drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.)
“In Colorado we allowed cannabis growers to use pesticides that could be used on any green, leafy growing matter. If it’s broad enough on label on the chemical, you could let them apply it. The Colorado Depart of Agriculture website listed the pesticides that could be used, although we were struggling because as a state, we don’t have the authority to determine the tolerance of pesticides.”
Brown explained that because cannabis and its byproducts can be used in many different fashions—edible, oils and smoked, real problems arose because some of the pesticides became poisonous when they turned to smoke.
“We were cautious about that. It was a huge issue,” Brown said. The Colorado Department of Agriculture did a lot of monitoring and sampling in grow houses. The Department of Agriculture has a long list of accepted pesticides on their website.
Brown noted that the growers in Colorado are business people and are very production oriented. “Keep in mind that with cannabis, the Department of Revenue is involved 99 percent with the cannabis industry and the Department of Agriculture is 1 percent. It’s exactly the reverse with growing hemp.”
Hemp (a variety of cannabis sativa that is grown for industrial use and has very low THC) is grown outdoors and doesn’t have the pest pressure that the indoor growing of marijuana has. There are regulations regarding the distance hemp can be planted from outdoor marijuana plants, because hemp will cross-pollinate it, resulting in a much lower, undesirable THC level.
The effect of legalization of recreational marijuana on the agriculture industry has been minimal. Brown explained that it’s primarily grown in the urban corridors in large warehouses and greenhouses; generally it’s not the traditional farming community growing it.
Farmers who enjoy growing crops may face a gamut of new challenges regarding growing cannabis. It might sound like great money for farmers, but there is a whole new learning curve with different pests and unique growing conditions, it will be a new learning curve.
“You can grow marijuana outside, and some growers have been successful. It certainly is more cost-effective to grow it outside. However, it won’t be the high-quality plant that you can grow indoors,” explained Travis Nelson, president of the Colorado Cannabis Growers Association and cofounder of Halcyon Hemp. “You don’t need as high quality cannabis or hemp for extraction to be used in edibles or CBD oil.”
Nelson explained that the two additional ways of growing the plants are either in a greenhouse or completely indoors, like a warehouse. One needs to have a light deprivation greenhouse where you can black out the natural light with curtains to simulate Spring and Fall sunlight hours.
“Plants need light 18 hours a day while they are in vegetative state, that is before you have flowers and have only leaves,” said Nelson. “Say you have natural light for 12 hours, but you will need to use supplemental light for another six hours. The plants are in the vegetative state for 30 days. Marijuana plants can be grown from a clone, seed or tissue culture. It takes 90-100 days from using a clone to have a plant ready to harvest.”
The grower adds that using the indoors method, such as a warehouse, grows the highest-quality cannabis, but is also the most difficult and expensive way to grow cannabis. Some indoor facilities use hundreds of 1000 watt high pressure sodium lights
“I just did a tour of a 40,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility that includes offices, growing facilities, manufacturing area and storage which was a $7 million dollar facility,” said Nelson. “It’s going to take about a $1 million dollars to set up an entry level growing facility. Yes, it could pay for itself–you can make money on growing cannabis, but it’s intricate grow correctly. You need to know what you’re doing so you don’t get pests—such as spider mites– or pathogens—such as powdery mildew– in your crop. If you do it right, you can make about $1000 profit per 10 sq ft every 3 months.
Can farmers be good cannabis growers? Possibly, although the skills needed to grow cannabis are more greenhouse grower skills. “When we grow hemp, we use farmers instead of marijuana growers because farmers understand the scale of the field,” Nelson noted. He also cautions that to date, it is considered illegal interstate trafficking to take cannabis clones or seeds across state lines; only cell tissue cultures are acceptable, and, of course, anyone interested should carefully research all regulations regarding growing cannabis.
Anyone pondering putting together a marijuana growing facility needs to closely examine regulations; there are many state and local regulations and zoning compliance issues, such as how far you have to be from a school due to drug-free zones. It’s important to be able to comply with the regulatory framework established by your state. Typically hurdles occur with setbacks from churches and schools and navigating local zoning regulations. Access to commercial water is also a significant concern.
Nelson’s advice for someone wanting to get into the business: jump in early. “The people who get started early are the ones who make the money,” he said. “Get your license to grow. That license could be worth $1 million dollars the next year if someone wants to buy your business.”
Nelson is willing to visit with anyone interested in cannabis and hemp products. He can be reached at email@example.com, 719-890-4424. Halcyon Hemp is also available to assist farmers interested in growing cannabis or hemp to set up their greenhouses and indoor grow facilities and produces a large variety of feminized CBD hemp seeds.