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20 July 2021

Vertical Farming: The Next Generation in Cannabis Cultivation

The cannabis industry is poised to become a revolutionary influence in modern culture. Due to high-rising demand in the recreational sector and an overwhelming interest in medicinal practices with the discovery of CBD and other cannabinoids, the black market for the ‘illegal drug’ is soon to be reminiscent of a bygone era.

The pioneers of cannabis cultivation grappled with first learning about its potentials, not to mention knowing little of its genetic diversity. However, because of our forefathers and mother’s ground-breaking fortitude, learning how to grow the plant efficiently has become one of the hottest topics in modern times.

In recent years, technological advancements in many areas of cannabis cultivation and horticulture continue to revolutionize the industry, especially in indoor farming operations. Robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) practices perform many cultivation tactics, allowing remote contact with the grow environment 24/7.

Nutrients and water applied to plants are easily accomplished with a simple tap of a button on a smartphone. Additionally, lighting technology, HVAC systems, and plant health direct a cannabis company’s vision of a profitable return on investment (ROI).

Undoubtedly, the question that comes to mind for many entrepreneurial business owners is, “How can the operation maximize space”? Massive warehouses filled with a room full of plants are a popular setting for many lucrative businesses. But what if a grower could double the output within the same space?

Taking cultivation up a notch, many large cannabis companies have implemented vertical growing techniques into their operations. By growing in tiered levels, doubling or tripling plant count considerably increases profit margins by maximizing every square foot of space in the grow room.

Adding high-tech environmental controls and automation into the design showcases a precise business plan for future development. As the industry continues to forge into new territories, vertical farming is already becoming renowned as the next generation in cannabis cultivation.

Why Grow Up?

Visualizing the Future – As populations continue to grow and land availability becomes scarce, ‘space’ becomes an issue in cannabis cultivation strategies. Corporations looking to purchase real estate to invest in either a new company or expand an existing business now spend considerably more in today’s volatile real estate market than they might have just a few years ago, assuming that there is still land available to purchase.

While large swaths of open space still exist, people are on the move, especially since the pandemic and many of those with money are investing heavily in farmland real estate. Maximizing space with vertical farming systems alleviates costs associated with added land purchases while increasing production profits.

Water is another consideration. As climates struggle with excessive drought and heat, water availability – or the lack of is becoming increasingly problematic. Sophisticated vertical cannabis growing environments implementing hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponic systems require substantially less water as they recycle it within the closed system.

Moreover, as populations increase, the demand for cannabis shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, as research continues to discover the medicinal properties held within the intriguing plant and the need continues to increase in the recreational market, the possibilities for advancement in the cannabis market are endless.

Location, Location, Location

Due to odours and security purposes, large-scale outdoor and indoor grow operations often exist in rural areas and warehouses located on the outskirts of town. As cannabis corporations expand to include both cultivation sites and dispensaries to sell their products, savvy cannabis company executives realize the benefits of growing cannabis closer to large urban communities.

Unfortunately, densely populated cities rarely offer large buildings for cannabis cultivation. By increasing production per square foot with vertical farming techniques, businesses amplify their output two or three-fold. Vertical farms housed inside a thriving city atmosphere increase profit margins without the additional cost of transportation while offering a constant supply chain of locally grown marijuana and hemp to the community.

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Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

Cannabis cultivation practices began as humanity learned the many benefits of growing the plant. Our ancestors discovered its treasures in both therapeutic qualities and as a natural fibre resource. In fact, colonial pioneers were encouraged to plant large hemp fields to support the textile industries. As legalization halted that practice, early traditional farming growers had to adjust their growing styles.

While many cultivators continued to grow inconspicuously outdoors throughout the years, others took their operations inside. The benefits of indoor grow set-ups alleviated many discerning elements such as unpredictable weather, cross-pollination, and outdoor pest problems, not to mention getting caught by the Federales.

For many years, indoor growers adapted to inclusive surroundings. In most set-ups, plants were lined out on floor space using metal halide(MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) artificial light to grow the plants. As farming technology became more advanced in recent years, however, growers began alternating their practices.

The advent of legalization, coupled with tech advancements, elevated the playing field for indoor farm operations. Many cannabis cultivation sites now implement LED lighting as it uses fewer emissions and emits cooler light. The full-spectrum LED lights provide both blue light for the vegetative stage and the red bands for the flowering phase, resulting in a single fixture for all cannabis plant growth.

As a bonus, automation took over labour costs associated with watering and nutrient applications. Advanced systems dial in nutrient recipes, adjusting them accordingly to a grower’s plan for optimal plant growth. Many automatic watering and nutrient dosing systems now on the market provide remote adjustments via a computer or a smartphone.

Vertical farming practices began around the turn of this century for food production, initially to offer fresh produce with a constant food supply of leafy greens and microgreens. Intrigued by vertical farming’s sustainability in recent years, cannabis growers began dabbling with the idea of growing up. Entrepreneurial corporations looking to increase profits perceived the notion of maximizing space in CEA’s.

Futuristic cannabis growing operations now include tiered, vertical racks which hold double or triple the plant count achieved from a single-level design. In addition to automation, many of these operations also apply robotics to rotate the racks for easy plant work at ground level. As the cannabis industry continues to advance, this new generation of vertical farming will undoubtedly play an essential role in future indoor agriculture practices.

Cannabis grown in vertical farm set up.

How Vertical Grow Environments Stack Up

Most vertical systems incorporate either square or hexagon-shaped modules to allow easy plant access. Rack designs are either stationary or rolling, depending on the grow room dimensions. Each unit contains overhead LED lighting, providing direct light coverage for plants throughout all growth stages.

The rack schematics allow multiple tiers to be placed on top of each other depending on the height space available in the grow room. Strategically placed sensors throughout the room monitor temperature, relative humidity, CO₂ levels, and air pressure. Airflow is directed above and below the canopy on some rack designs through direct ducting on the units.

Depending on the grower’s preference, hydroponic, aeroponic, and even soil-grown plants thrive under optimal conditions in vertical grow ecosystems. Generally, plants grow through a quick vegetative stage before being flipped into the flowering phase, much like the Sea of Green (SOG) method.

Due to the plants’ proximity with each other, topping, defoliating, and low-stress training methods such as Screen of Green (SCROG) decrease mould and fungal infiltrations in the racks. While proper airflow is essential for cannabis plant growth in any environment, stacking plants in vertical systems requires ample airflow throughout the grow environment.

Going Through the Growing Pains

While growing marijuana in vertical systems is undoubtedly appealing to many mega cannabis conglomerates, this new indoor farm cultivation method does have some hurdles to overcome. Initial upfront costs for the racking systems, automation, and cutting-edge robotic equipment will severely impact start-up cost analysis. However, looking at the potential ROI, in the long run, should diminish those negative numbers in a flash.

Additionally, HVAC system costs may present a shock with the first utility bill due to the essential requirements for ventilation and dehumidification. Also, depending on the location, electrical utilities for an indoor facility may wreak havoc on the balance sheet. However, these necessities mandate the outcome of the product.

For high-production cannabis companies, a tight production plan with a constant supply of finished products is easy to achieve with a scheduled format. Many vertical growing pros recommend short, stalking indica varieties for vertical cultivation since they grow much denser than lengthy sativa strains. However, autoflowering cultivars may be the answer for scheduled production in a vertical growing scheme.

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Post author
Charle Thibodeau
Charle’ Thibodeau is a freelance writer with almost a decade´s experience, specializing in cannabis content for the past two years. A strong motivation to educate, inform, and promote the culture surrounding this miraculous plant is her earnest mission.
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