How can you use greenhouses and technology to take your cultivation to best in class? Here to tell us is Ryan Douglas, author of From Seed to Success.
Learn more at https://douglascultivation.com
[00:43] An inside look at Ryan’s cultivation consulting company, Ryan Douglas Cultivation
[00:58] Ryan’s background in cannabis cultivation
[1:41] The benefits of using a greenhouse to grow cannabis
[10:56] Why so many growers experience problems with mold and how to avoid this
[16:24] New greenhouse technologies in cannabis to look out for
[20:46] How to budget for an optimal greenhouse environment
[22:28] Tricks of the trade Ryan has brought with him to cannabis from his long background in cultivation
[30:32] How Ryan sees greenhouses and automation changing cannabis cultivation in the next 3-5 years
Matthew Kind: Hi, I'm Matthew Kind. Every Monday look for a fresh new episode where I'll take you behind the scenes and interview the insiders that are shaping the rapidly evolving cannabis industry. Learn more at cannainsider.com. That's C-A-N-N-A insider dot com. Now here's your program. How can you use greenhouses and technology to take your cultivation to best in class? We're about to find out with today's guest, Ryan Douglas. Ryan, welcome back to CannaInsider.
Ryan Douglas: Hey, thanks for having me on again. It's my pleasure.
Matthew: Give us a sense of geography. Where are you in the world today?
Ryan: I'm currently in Maine, in the Northeastern US.
Matthew: Okay. Remind us, what is your business, Ryan Douglas Cultivation, at a high level?
Ryan: I'm a cultivation consultant, so I help newly licensed cannabis businesses come to market quickly and spend less money getting there.
Matthew: Okay. Can you give a snapshot of your background in cannabis cultivation for new listeners?
Ryan: Sure, absolutely. In 2013, I was hired to direct cultivation for Canopy Growth Corporation, which at the time was one of the largest legal producers of cannabis in Canada, but prior to that job, actually, for 15 years, I was a commercial greenhouse grower of ornamental and edible crops. That's really my background and training and it helped to build the foundation upon which I became a commercial cannabis grower.
Matthew: Okay. You're steeped in this stuff, so it's second nature to you.
Ryan: It's all I know [laughs].
Matthew: Okay. What are the primary benefits of using a greenhouse to grow cannabis?
Ryan: Well, probably the biggest benefit is energy savings and the ability to minimize an operation's carbon footprint. We're in a bit of an interesting predicament with the cannabis industry because fortunately now we have more and more states legalizing cannabis, but unfortunately, the majority of those operations are indoor grow operations. These facilities are large and they can crank out a lot of cannabis and high-quality cannabis, but they use a ton of electricity and as a result, they have a huge carbon footprint. Probably the biggest benefit of moving towards greenhouses is allowing a grower to continue to produce a lot of quality cannabis at scale, but at a fraction of the cost and at a fraction of the electrical consumption as an indoor facility.
Matthew: Okay. We're seeing a lot of this emergence of the ESG directives, environmental sustainable governance, which is essentially shorthand is, reduce your carbon footprint or else, or an or else in most cases is penalties or you can't get investment from investors whose charter says, "Hey, we don't invest in companies that aren't looking closely at their environmental impact." When you make the case for a greenhouse, you can really show kind of a black and white difference in terms of sustainability then, is that right?
Ryan: Exactly, and this issue goes beyond just the US because just as you mentioned, as other countries begin to implement their plans for either reducing their carbon footprint or becoming carbon neutral, we all know that that they're first going to look at the industry. Unfortunately, we don't have a ton to be proud about when we look at electrical consumption and carbon footprint for cannabis growers. You might even have heard there's some rumors that it's possible that cannabis producers are going to take on a trend from some other food products where there'll be implementing consumer-facing labels that tells the consumer exactly what kind of a carbon footprint their product leaves.
At the moment, that would be quite embarrassing for the majority of cannabis growers, because like I said, most are indoors and most are producing really good cannabis, but they're doing so with a ton of electrical consumption.
Matthew: A non-sequitur here, but have you seen these micronuclear fusion reactors that can power four or 500 homes and they're incapable of having a meltdown, which is the big fear, like Three Mile Island and all these like a Fukushima and Chernobyl, those were kind of the big worst-case scenarios. Now they're making these tiny ones that could power a subdivision and really have just, there's really no downside. The only downside is there's such a stigma from the word nuclear, everybody instantly, the hair on the back of their neck go up and they don't want to try that, but it looks like there's something emerging here, which could be super powerful if we harness it. Have you heard anything about that?
Ryan: I haven't heard about that, but it sounds very interesting.
Matthew: Yes. Yes. We talked about the upsides of greenhouses. Is there any downsides or trade-offs?
Ryan: Yes, I think there's an assumption among cannabis growers that the quality of cannabis that comes out of a greenhouse isn't equal to that of an indoor grow. I find that opinion to be most strong among growers that have never grown in a greenhouse. When we think about quality cannabis, it really comes down to the genetics and the grower and the ability of the facility to maintain the optimal growing parameters. When you think about an indoor facility, the reason it's so attractive is that the grower really plays mother nature. They can control down to the point temperature, relative humidity, carbon dioxide, and so they're really in complete control of the whole grow up.
If you take a grower that's acclimated or accustomed to growing indoors, and now you put them in a greenhouse, there's a little bit less control, and there's a big learning curve in terms of learning how to use all of the equipment in a greenhouse to create the ideal growing conditions. In my introduction, I mentioned actually my background and training is in greenhouse production so I'm a lot more familiar with the methods and equipment that greenhouse growers use to create the perfect growing environment for their plants. Just as an example, anytime a greenhouse heats up, literally the greenhouse effect, there's options to use a natural ventilation or a forced ventilation with the sands.
We use evaporative cooling, which is simply providing water vapor into the greenhouse, through either a high-pressure fog system or something called a wet wall. The evaporation process actually cools down the greenhouse. We also use shade curtains that let us select how much of the sunlight we let in and as a result, we can cool temperatures that way. Instead of running to the air conditioning unit to turn it up or turn it down in a greenhouse, we actually use four or five or six different methods for cooling the greenhouse.
I think probably the biggest concern for growers, the reason a lot of commercial operators do not want to head into greenhouses, it has to do with humidity. For anyone that's not a cannabis grower, the flower is very susceptible to mold, especially in the last few weeks of the crop cycle, and because we're growing something that's consumed directly or inhaled, we're really limited, as we should be, to any protective fungicides that we could apply to the flower to prevent mold. Really the only tool we have is creating an environment that isn't conducive to mold growth.
Indoors, growers are installing massive dehumidification units and they do the job. They can, even if it's raining outside, which is essentially a hundred percent humidity, they can get down to maybe 40% relative humidity which is really dry, inside of the grow room. That's what protects the crop, but we don't really have that ability to dehumidify a greenhouse efficiently. I think that's probably one of the reasons that a lot of growers actually would prefer not to explore greenhouse production, but the good news is that there are ways to manage humidity in the greenhouse because cannabis is not the only crop that runs the risk of mold.
For decades, we've been growing in greenhouses and we've been managing the environment to grow the crops, so just briefly as an example, what we've been doing for decades, and I did this when I was growing flowers is utilized heat and vent cycles. As we know, heat rises in a greenhouse and as the air rises, it takes along with it moisture. Then once it hits the roof of the greenhouse, we simply open the vents for a short period of time and this air escapes. By using a combination of fans inside the greenhouse and these heating and ventilation cycles, we actually can adequately dehumidify greenhouses in the majority of the growing regions in the US.
The problem, one of the challenges greenhouse growers have is in places like Florida, where you have a booming cannabis industry, but most of the year it's too humid to grow crops in greenhouses. That's why you find a lot of the big producers in Florida are growing indoors. In that instance, unfortunately, there's not an easy solution. What a lot of growers do is actually utilize a chilled water system, which is essentially hooking up the greenhouse to an air conditioner. As we're talking about electrical consumption and carbon footprints, that's not ideal, but at least in that situation, you're still taking advantage of the natural sunlight.
You might be spending as much money and consuming as much energy as an indoor grow to manage the humidity and temperature, but you're still getting the light for free which is a step above a typical indoor grow. I think there's a number of fears that are justified but if you're not a greenhouse grower, then the idea is completely foreign and you wouldn't consider it. I think as an industry we really don't have much of a choice, I think growers are going to come under increased pressure to not only reduce costs but comply with environmental regulations in the future. I think you'll see more and more commercial operators start in a greenhouse or if they're currently indoors, as they expand, they'll be expanding into greenhouse production.
Matthew: You mentioned that the cannabis plants are-- You can get mold especially during the last few weeks of the grow and before harvest there. Why do most growers fall into that trap? They don't have a dehumidifier that can keep up with the amount of moisture in the grow and they think it's not going to get to you a point where- so they have too small, the humidifier, and then the last few weeks like sneak up on them and surprise them, is that what happens?
Ryan: Yes, so you're referring to greenhouse production or cannabis production in general?
Matthew: The cannabis production, in general, it's like what- like that mold the last few weeks.
Ryan: Yes, it's less common indoors because that comes down to a basic mathematical calculation. Depending on how you grow the crop, the density of plants inside the grow room and the volume and frequency with which you're irrigating your plants, you can get an idea of how much moisture you need to strip out of the environment. Plants will transpire or will evaporate 95% of the water that they receive in an irrigation. Mechanical engineers, especially in these big commercial facilities, mechanical engineers need to take care to do calculations to determine how much moisture in the air they need to strip in a 24-hour period. If you're not involving these skilled tradesmen or engineers in the production of your facility, then you might just be eyeballing it or estimating.
In that instance, if you are equipped to grow up with an insufficient capacity to dehumidify the environment, then indoors you certainly could run into mold issues by simply not having enough equipment or enough dehumidifiers or strong enough dehumidifiers that can strip that moisture from the air rapidly, and not allow the creation of an environment where mold spores are going to germinate and propagate and potentially ruin the crop.
Matthew: Yes, and this is where we see growers get into a pickle where they don't have a backup plan but they've got mold in their grow and they're upside down on their expenses and revenues, and then they resort to like eagle seven or something. They spray on there and they think, "Oh, I just did - just this one time", and then they might get caught and get into trouble. It's just better not to be in that pickle to begin with.
Ryan: Yes, especially since the majority of states require a laboratory analysis of the final product before you can sell it to a dispensary or sell it in your own dispensary. One of the things they check for in addition to different bacteria and fungus and heavy metals is the presence of pesticides or fungicides. There is really no chemical pesticides or fungicides that are allowed to be used on cannabis crops, so all of these laboratory tests, they need to show that the product falls well below the threshold. It's usually if not parts per million, sometimes parts per billion. It might be a quick fix to save the crop but if you can't sell the product, then you really haven't helped yourself at all.
Matthew: Then where doesn't it make sense for a greenhouse? Is there a latitude where you say, "This really doesn't make sense?"
Ryan: Well, we can get around it being too cold, so there's a number of ways to efficiently heat a greenhouse, and just by the nature of the greenhouse effect, if there's even moderate sunlight, that goes a long way. There's a number of ways to cool the greenhouse, so really warm regions, it can be challenging but it wouldn't be game over. I think the most challenging is going to be places where it's extremely humid all of the time because then you might reach a point where the cost of outfitting your greenhouse with a chilled water system, that decreases the temperature and also causes the moisture in the air to condense so it can be removed.
Air conditioning in your greenhouse is really inefficient and really expensive. You might reach a point, if you're in a place like Southern Florida for example, or maybe a tropical island that legalizes cannabis production. It just might make more sense in terms of capital expenditures, and then ongoing operational expenditures, to grow indoors. Again, that's because we can't wash the flour prior to consumption. A lot of other crops that are susceptible to mold, it's common to use fungicides on these crops because they're either washed prior to being packaged, like if you think of ready-to-eat lettuce or tomatoes, they go through a rinsing process before they're packaged.
It can be done at the production facility and then we as consumers can wash it again prior to eating and preparing it but we don't have that option with cannabis. There's really nothing we can apply on the plant, the best we can do is modify the environment, so the plant is less susceptible to a disease infestation.
Matthew: Okay. Are there any innovations or automations occurring inside the greenhouse that people might not be aware of that you think are cool or helpful?
Ryan: Yes. The interesting thing about cannabis is that the value of the crop is so high that the industry in my opinion is ripe for new technology or new inventions that can help a producer lower their Carbon footprint or lower their production costs, or actually increase crop quality. One technology that I'm interested encircles-- It has to do with carbon dioxide supplementation. Plants utilize carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. What happens in grow rooms and in greenhouses, I mean semi-closed greenhouses, is that if the crop is photosynthesizing and growing at a rapid rate, it can actually deplete the level of carbon dioxide lower than ambient levels.
Where you and I are right now it's roughly 340 parts per million carbon dioxide in the air, but if we were to load up the room I'm in with the plants, that level is going to drop dramatically, and as a result, the plants are going to slow their growth and they'll be less productive. What cannabis growers do indoors and in greenhouses is they supplement the environment with carbon dioxide gas to not only maintain ambient levels but research has shown that actually if you increase two or three times the ambient levels of carbon dioxide, the plants will actually grow faster and produce more.
The challenge is. if you read some reports about the carbon footprint of the cannabis industry, there's some attention that's being given to carbon dioxide supplementation. It's not the carbon dioxide that's released into the environment that causes the carbon footprint because the plants consume it. It's actually the process of condensing this gas into a liquid and keeping it cool and transporting these massive tanks to facilities that actually increases the growers' carbon footprint. There's one technology that really interests me. Instead of buying these massive tanks of liquid, CO2, plopping it outside of the facility and then bringing that gas into the grow room, what they've done is found a way to combine this carbon dioxide with water and they deliver it to the plants through a high-pressure fog system.
What happens is this high-pressure fog really creates a fog or a mist, it settles onto the plant temporarily and within a few minutes, it evaporates. During that time, it remains in a liquid form long enough to provide the needed CO2 to the plant, but it evaporates fast enough that it doesn't create a mold risk for the crop. What they're finding is that this method provides the crop with the needed levels of carbon dioxide for healthy growth but using 95% less carbon dioxide than traditional methods. As a plus, as the mist with the CO2 is evaporating off of the leaf, it temporarily acidifies the leaf surface.
One of the biggest risks to growers is a mold called powdery mildew. If you're not familiar, you haven't seen it before, this mold looks like someone sprinkled Talcum Powder on top of the plant and it can destroy a plant in the crop and it can spread rapidly, but in order for that mold to take hold, the pH of the leaf surface has to be just perfect. If it's too low or too high, that mold isn't going to take hold. What they're finding is that with this novel method of carbon dioxide delivery to the plants, they're using much less carbon dioxide and as a result, it's acting almost like a preventative fungicide, which is fascinating because seldom do you invent something that has a side effect that is just as important as the reason you invented the thing.
There's an example of a new up-and-coming technology that is going to help growers lessen their carbon footprint, lower their production cost and actually potentially increase the quality of the plant by helping to eliminate the risk of powdery mildew.
Matthew: Let's say I'm an investor, business owner, or cultivator, how do I go about budgeting appropriately for creating an ideal greenhouse environment?
Ryan: That's an excellent question. Unfortunately, it's going to differ dramatically depending on the region of the country. If we look at the US, if we look at the farther outside of the optimal growing range, the more expensive it's going to be to build a greenhouse. Currently, I'm in Maine. We have a beautiful summer but it's short. It's only 90 days. For growing a crop like cannabis that likes warm weather and strong sunlight, we need to invest a lot in order to maintain the right temperature, maintain the right light levels, and maintain the right humidity levels as well.
You could be looking at building a state-of-the-art greenhouse in the Northeast for $400 a square foot. That actually rivals the cost of building an indoor facility but if you go to another place in the US, maybe we'll look at Arizona where it's much drier and you have much more sun year-round, it's going to be less expensive to build there. Maybe you can anticipate budgeting $250 a square foot for a greenhouse down there. It really comes down to how much you need to modify the environment to create the optimal growing conditions. The farther outside of those conditions, the more expensive it will be to build a greenhouse.
Matthew: You've mentioned, Ryan, that you were in the general horticultural business before getting into cannabis, is there any tricks of the trade or tools or ideas that you brought over from that part of the industry into cannabis that you feel is like not as widely used that's helpful to you?
Ryan: Yes. In my experience, growing any commercial crop, whether it's flowers or hydroponic vegetables, 80% or 90% of the principles, the concepts apply directly to cannabis. I'm not saying that growing a tomato plant and growing a cannabis plant is exactly the same thing but what I believe is that when we're talking about commercial-scale production, when we're talking about planning production, managing production, managing the environment, managing people, managing the facility. A lot of these principles are exactly the same so I was fortunate in that I had 15 years of experience growing flowers, potted ornamental crops on a commercial scale, and growing hydroponic vegetables on a commercial scale, prior to tackling cannabis on a commercial scale.
What I found as a consultant is that when clients call me in to look at a crop problem, they bring me over to where their problem is and they point to the plant. As I begin the process of troubleshooting, oftentimes it leads back to a lack of experience in the cultivation leadership, which is to say the Head Grower or the Master Grower simply doesn't have the experience to pull off a grow of that size. When you ask about a specific technique or anything that's underutilized, there is one practice that is not very well known in cannabis that is common to traditional horticulture which I think has a lot of potential for cannabis growers, which is the use of plant sap analysis as a way to manage nutrients.
Just briefly, if you think back to our junior-high botany classes or plant science classes, the xylem and the phloem of the plant is what brings the water and the nutrients up and down throughout the plant. Plant sap analysis extracts this sap and it allows the grower a way of instantly seeing what's going on in the plant, so they can make real-time adjustments to their fertilizer regime. The reason this is important is that if you think about nutrient management, nutrient excesses, if you use too much nutrients it can result in burnt plants or increase susceptibility to insect diseases or extra costs that you really don't need to be applying that much fertilizer.
On the flip side, if you don't have enough fertilizer, then it can result in sick plants, low yields, and again increase susceptibility to insects and disease. As of now, what people usually do, if they see a problem in their crop, they'll take some samples of leaves and they'll ship it off to a lab for a dry tissue analysis. The problem is that is really the equivalent of a post-mortem exam because once you get that information back, let's say, you realize it was low in potassium, there's not much you can do because the crop has already suffered some amount of economic damage and the best you can do is try to prevent it from the next crop. When we're talking about cannabis, there's so much money at stake that growers really can't afford to wait to find out what's going on.
The beauty of this process of plant sap analysis is that you can instantly see what's going on in your crop and determine whether or not you're using excess nutrients or not enough nutrients. What that means, in the end, is that the grower can prevent using too many nutrients so they can dial back certain nutrients if they believe that the plant doesn't need it. Essentially, it lowers the cost of production but it can also result in a higher quality more productive plant because the plant is getting exactly the nutrients it needs at exactly the right time.
In my experience, actually in my opinion, I think a lot of cannabis growers are over-fertilizing their plants. They're just pounding the fertilizer to the plant when a lot of that is unnecessary. At the beginning of this call, we spoke about the beauty is that you've got more and more states that are legalizing cannabis which means there's more and more states that are cultivating cannabis. The majority of these growers are pouring the leaching from these grow-ups either out the back door or into the municipal water system so there's very few growers that are using these closed-loop systems that capture the leachate or the runoff, the drain that comes out of the bottom of the pot.
There's very few growers that have a closed-loop system that captures that and reutilizes it again. When we look at trying to comply with environmental regulations, all of this fertilizer somehow is going to find its way into the environment so it causes algae blooms and all sorts of things. I think, right now, it's still under the radar but as more and more states grow cannabis, I think it's going to come under the same kind of scrutiny that any other farming, so a lot of farmers have to be careful about how they irrigate, where the runoff goes to, what are they running off.
Just coming back to the plant sap analysis is that not only does it help the growers spend less money on fertilizer they would need, they also potentially can grow a much healthier crop. They're also much more environmentally friendly in terms of what is leaving their production facility.
Matthew: You mentioned a lot of growers, they have a knowledge gap just like we all do. No one can know everything and sometimes there are some unknown-unknowns, how can you hire a Head Grower and come up with a way to at least understand that grower's gap in knowledge or make sure that they're at a critical level, bare minimum, how do you measure those things and know you're getting a grower with the right skill set?
Ryan: That's tricky. Since you have more and more states legalizing, you've got fewer and fewer experienced cannabis growers available to hire. Naturally, we need to look for growers that maybe are outside of the cannabis industry but still bring that skill set that I mentioned where 80% or 90% of the principles directly apply. For anyone that's looking to hire a grower and interested in hiring someone from traditional horticulture, I think it really comes down to experience. You want to find someone that has at least 10 years of experience growing any crop on a commercial scale because they'll have well ingrained in them skills such as production, planning skills, people management skills, facility management skills, and the remainder, the crop-specific details of cannabis can be taught to a commercial grower through either a cannabis subject matter expert or a consultant. These commercial growers are trained to learn new crops quickly. Whether it's a different kind of a poinsettia or a different kind of a vegetable or a cannabis for the first time, they've already got a solid foundation of understanding of how to organize and execute commercial plant production. It's just simply a matter of filling in those crop-specific details, which they would do regardless of which crop they're growing. I think one of the biggest benefits growers from a traditional horticulture can bring the cannabis industry really comes in terms of helping the operation produce at the lowest cost possible.
With increasing competition, we've got to anticipate, eventually, there's going to be some price pressure, and so these companies that can produce cannabis for the lowest feasible cost possible are going to be some of the most successful. When you think about crops like tomatoes, you're buying them for a couple dollars a pound at the grocery store, which means they've got to be produced for half of that. When you look at cannabis, some places are selling it for $4,000 a pound wholesale to dispensaries. When it comes to minimizing costs, growers from commercial horticulture, they're hyper-focused on optimizing energy and work efficiencies, because the margins are razor-thin in the world where they come from.
If you hire a commercial grower from a vegetable or a flower range, from day one, they're already looking at ways to minimize the amount of times that you touch a plant, or the workflow of people, just how things are done. I think it's a tremendous benefit to being able to hire a grower from that world, because immediately you can begin to realize cost savings on an operational level.
Matthew: How do you see greenhouses, automation, technology, changing cannabis cultivation in the next three to five years?
Ryan: I think a lot of it's going to be focused on doing more with less in the sense that we're requiring less energy in order to do what we're already doing. Less electricity to run lights, which is why LEDs are so popular, or less energy to be able to cool or dehumidify the growing environment, or like the example with carbon dioxide, less energy in order to provide the plant with exactly what it needs. We can't change how much fertilizer or water a plant needs. We can't change the temperature it needs to grow, but we can change the manner in which we deliver those to the plant. I think that's where the greatest opportunity is in terms of inventions and new technology, is just becoming more efficient at the way that we grow plants on a commercial scale.
Matthew: Ryan, I'd like to move to some personal development questions to help listeners get a better sense of who you are as a person. What is your favorite unhealthy comfort food?
Ryan: I like chips and salsa. I think that might be healthy, but I like it.
Matthew: Do you really put a lot of stuff on there too, besides just the salsa, and some guac, some cheese or anything like that?
Ryan: As long as it's fresh, that's the most important thing. I think fresh salsa beats jarred salsa any day.
Matthew: Yes. What was the last song that made you sing out loud while you were driving or otherwise?
Ryan: It would have had to been a Spanish salsa song and I don't even know what I was singing, but I think I listened to it enough times that a few of the Spanish words stuck in my head and I just couldn't resist [inaudible [00:34:02]
Matthew: Okay. [laughs] Now I'd like to end with a quick tip, Ryan, before you give out your website and we close. What is it--? Cannabis plants love light, but part of the plant does not, which part of the plant doesn't?
Ryan: That would be the root system.
Matthew: Right. You got to be careful not to have certain kinds of pots. Right?
Ryan: Right. You want to be careful about anything that's transparent or even white plastic pots or white bags. Those are pretty common, but the problem is the light penetrates and really roots do not like to be exposed to light at all. Really the best rule of thumb is above the soil as much light as possible, but below the soil line, it needs to be dark.
Matthew: Great little helpful tip there. Ryan, as we close, how can listeners find your book and reach out to you if they need help with their cultivation practice?
Ryan: Sure. I recently published a book called From seed to success, how to launch a great cannabis cultivation business in record time. That can be purchased on Amazon or through my website at douglascultivation.com.
Matthew: Great, Ryan, thanks so much for coming back on and educating us. You got a lot of knowledge trapped in your head there. I'm glad you could come out and share some of it.
Ryan: Oh, It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.
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