Once you step outside. Read on, and I’ll explain…
While perusing an article discussing the energy-intensive nature of indoor cannabis cultivation, I came across a quote expressing a sentiment that I hear all too often in the industry.
“Growing indoors is pretty energy inefficient, but in most places in the U.S. you can only get one or two seasons outdoors, so there’s really not much of a choice,” said David DeGraff, chief executive officer of The Grow School in Denver.
As noted, the sentiment that indoor cultivation can out-yield farming cannabis outdoors is pervasive. I would also argue that it is misguided, based more on the fact that most growers entire experience consists of cultivating inside under lamps, rather than direct, evidence-based comparisons. Fortunately, now that more reliable data on cannabis cultivation is being gathered and analyzed, we have the opportunity to debunk such myths and push cannabis farming forward in a more intelligent, responsible manner.
The data refuting the assertion that indoor facilities – which can achieve up to 5-6 harvests per year – produce more product than outdoor farms – which are generally limited to a single harvest – comes in the form of yield figures collected by the state of Washington. The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board publishes Weekly Reports on various metrics relevant to the state’s legal recreational cannabis industry. The pertinent data is compiled in a chart titled, “Marijuana Flower Harvested,” which I have included below.
As you can see, there is a dramatic difference in the amount of cannabis that Washington’s producers harvested in the autumn, as compared with the rest of the year. This is due to the state’s outdoor farmers cutting down their crops from mid-September through November, with some greenhouse growers likely able to extend their season into December via supplemental lighting and climate controls.
For perspective, let’s consider October and November – the prime outdoor harvest months – in relation to the production that took place during the first nine months of the year. Simple addition shows us that from January through September (which likely included some early outdoor harvests), Washington’s growers cut down 60,191 pounds of cannabis flower. In October and November alone, 83,307 pounds of cannabis flower were harvested. In other words, the two prime months of the fall harvest season yielded nearly 140% the amount of cannabis reaped during the first nine months of the year. If December’s figures are included in the outdoor category – in addition to part of September’s – the realization becomes more stark; indoor cannabis cultivation cannot be performed on a scale comparable to that of outdoor, despite being able to achieve multiple harvests annually.
Also consider that only a very small percentage of cultivators in Washington grow outdoors. Marijuana Business Daily notes that, nationwide, 92% of cannabis cultivation takes place indoors. Additionally, a consultant’s report commissioned by the state of Washington anticipated that pure outdoor cultivation would account for only 2% of the state’s producers. Indeed, growers wishing to work outside had to lobby the state specifically to allow farming under the sun. Based on my knowledge of the industry, I would estimate that 10% of Washington’s producers grow outside, making their massive fall production even more impressive.
To provide an additional take on the matter, consider my own experience operating a warehouse that consisted of 350 lights devoted to flowering plants. If assuming 25 square feet of canopy space for each light (a 5′ x 5′ footprint), then the total area devoted to flowering – in what is a medium-sized facility in the industry – amounts to 8,750 square feet. Multiply that by 5 harvests per year, and you ultimately have 43,750 square feet of effective flowering area annually. This is roughly equal to a single (1) acre (43,560 square feet). I have visited small farms in southern Colorado that consist of 5-10 acres; small being a relative term, others being established in that area are much larger. Again assuming 5 harvests per year, even an indoor facility with 50,000 square feet of flowering canopy (of which not many exist) ultimately constitutes just 5.7 acres.
Some may still argue that a steady supply throughout the year is preferable. However, I must dispute that notion as well. Cannabis ages well and, like fine cigars, benefits greatly from extended curing. Outdoor producers have the luxury of curing a significant portion of their total yield and, if doing so properly, can sell a product six months after harvest that is actually higher quality in terms of aroma, taste, and effects than batches moved earlier, despite the fact that it was all part of the same crop. Many informed cannabis consumers in Colorado and Washington will attest that the majority of product purchased from commercial dispensaries (the vast majority of which is grown indoors) is only dried, not cured – a grassy, hay-like smell is a reliable indicator of such treatment. Furthermore, it is often dried quickly, which can result in a harsh smoking experience.
While prevailing ideas assert that indoor flower is generally higher-quality, a large part of that notion is based simply on the more polished appearance of warehouse-grown bud. This position is further reinforced by outdated conceptions of outdoor cannabis. Prior to legalization, much of the product grown outdoors was not tended or cared for, but simply planted, checked on occasionally, then harvested and sold quickly, all to avoid detection by law enforcement. However, on legally-licensed farms, skilled cultivators are proving able to produce extremely high-quality flower even in the face of exposure to the elements.
All this to say – in response to the original quote above – that there is a choice, and it is an easy one. The industry is expanding rapidly and prices cannot be sustained at their current level forever. Even if one cares little for carbon footprints and environmental impacts, the figures above are sufficient to demonstrate that warehouse growing is simply not tenable as the industry’s primary cultivation method. It’s time to move out into the sun.