(This is the second installment in a series examining sustainability in cannabis cultivation. Read Part 1 here.)
Environmental sustainability in cannabis cultivation operations sounds nice in marketing material, but in practice, hemp growers need to turn a profit to keep their companies alive.
So how can a cannabis grower do both?
“Balancing the health of the pocketbook with the health of the planet is a step that all cannabis facilities should consider regardless of their own worldviews, because it just makes sense,” said Av Singh, cultivation expert at Nova Scotia-based Flemming & Singh Cannabis.
Three key areas to consider when thinking about improving a cannabis operation’s impact on the environment are:
- How to add financially viable sustainability
- How to work sustainability into a business plan.
- How to ensure a return on a sustainability investment.
To gain some advice and insights, Hemp Industry Daily spoke with three cultivation experts.
Here are their insights.
1. How to add financially viable sustainability.
Singh recommends growers start with a “trash inventory” to take stock of what is lost to the landfill.
“When you find that the majority of your waste is in rockwool or coco blocks or it’s in foot covers and pesticides, or that most of your money is being spent on electricity or water — you now have real information which you can act on for some more cost-effective and sustainable solutions,” he said.
For example, foot covers are not costly, but they add trash.
Instead of assuming that foot covers are the only way to minimize pathogens, do an environmental scan and test where pathogens are truly a problem, Singh added.
“Sustainable business practices and profitable businesses are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” said David Kessler, chief science officer of Burlington, Massachusetts-based Agrify, which makes hardware and software for indoor cannabis cultivators.
“Making choices based on sustainability can often lead to a more successful enterprise.”
Kessler recommended growers looking to improve sustainability focus on the following areas:
Cultivation room environmental management: Sizing HVAC systems for a cultivation room is more like the requirements for an indoor pool than a factory, Kessler said.
“Managing the temperature in a grow room is easier than controlling the humidity, a problem that compounds with increased plant density,” he added. “Also, consider more than the price and the size of your HVAC equipment. Consider the operational efficiency.”
Lighting selection: Electricity is one of the primary cultivation cost drivers, according to Kessler.
Choosing energy-efficient LED lighting over high-intensity discharge bulbs can reduce energy consumption by more than a third, he added.
Fertigation automation: This can reduce the amount of water used by a cultivation operation. It also eliminates human error and reduces the amount of spent water and fertilizer), according to Kessler.
Media selection: Choosing a sustainable growing media like coco coir over peat-based substrates reduces the depletion of peat bogs, Kessler said.
“Peat fields house roughly one-third of the world’s soil-sequestered carbon, the harvesting of which releases tremendous amounts of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change,” he added.
Switching from hydroponics to organic or living soil is another way cultivators can make their operations more sustainable, according to Ryan Douglas, a Florida-based cannabis consultant .
“Soil-based substrates are teeming with microorganisms that constantly break down organic matter and slowly release nutrition to the crop,” he said. “This minimizes the amount of additional fertilizer required, and the soil can be used more than once.”
Use appropriate caution, however.
Soil-borne pests, difficulties sourcing raw ingredients and problems ensuring sufficient volume for commercial-scale production can result in a steep learning curve for cultivators new to soil growing, Douglas added.
2. How to work sustainability into a business plan.
Singh doesn’t recommend setting a specific budget for sustainability.
Instead, the operation should maintain a healthy work environment. It also should maintain optimal quality and continue to reduce production costs, he added.
“Hopefully, you can, over time and with proper management, increase your efficiency,” he said.
“The savings from these efficiencies should go toward meeting your sustainability goals.”
A good business plan will weave sustainable practices and initiatives throughout, mindful of the costs and contemplating the benefits, according to Kessler.
For example, buying grow media in bulk can offset cost differences and allow for more sustainable options.
Douglas said cultivators should focus on staying profitable when wholesale marijuana flower prices are about $500 a pound, much lower for hemp flower.
They can do so through a combination of process improvements, automation and sustainable cultivation practices.
“Focusing only on sustainability at the cost of profitability makes no business sense,” he added. “A cultivation business that’s (environmentally) sustainable but not profitable is not a sustainable business.”
3. How to ensure a return on the investment.
Climate-smart cultivation practices can help lower a crop’s overall cost of production and decrease a company’s exposure to variations in the supply chain, according to Douglas.
For example, living soils provide their own nutrients and can be used repeatedly, whereas hydroponic facilities rely on single-use substrates that require the constant addition of mineral fertilizers, he added.
“Sustainable operations are also less reliant on global supply chains,” Douglas said.
“If your 100,000-square-foot facility grows in coconut shell fiber sourced from Sri Lanka and there’s a disruption to the worldwide supply chain, now what?”
Choosing to adopt environmentally sustainable practices doesn’t necessarily equate to less profit, according to Kessler. The ongoing savings of energy-efficient cultivation systems pay for themselves in short order.
“Now, more than ever, consumers vote with their wallets. If you make sustainability a core value, tie it to your brand identity,” he added.
“Let sustainability and environmental conscientiousness drive consumers to you.”
Bart Schaneman can be reached at [email protected].