Cannabis Cultivation: Myths and Misconceptions

Columns - Tomorrow in Cannabis

September 22, 2017

With dedicated 4-foot aisles, 50 percent of this garden’s available floor space is unusable, which is very inefficient.
Photo Courtesy Kenneth Morrow

Several months ago, a few of us with long histories in the cannabis field started a weekly YouTube forum entitled “Talking Cannabis,” which airs on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. PST.

    In addition to myself, participants include:
  • Todd McCormick, author and cancer survivor;
  • Sam the Skunk Man, breeder of Skunk #1, legend, teacher and mentor to many;
  • Mel Frank, author of “Marijuana Grower’s Insider’s Guide,” among others, and approaching five decades of cannabis cultivation, breeding, consulting and photography experience;
  • Richard Rose, executive director of the Medicinal Hemp Association and director of the American Hemp Association;
  • Étienne Fontán, director, vice president and co-owner at Berkeley Patients Group, and director at NuLeaf Las Vegas and NuLeaf Incline Village;
  • Ryan Chimera, legendary breeder and consultant;
  • Thomas Alexander, publisher of Sensimilla Tips magazine from 1980 to 1990 and Growing Edge magazine from 1990 to 2011.

In “Talking Cannabis,” we organically discuss a multitude of cannabis-related topics and experiences. The public is invited to watch and comment in real time. The most interesting feedback I’ve seen regarding the show content occurred in Episode 5.

In his comment, one gentleman stated, “I love listening to you guys. Why? Because even at your collective pinnacle of knowledge and experience in the industry, you are frequently and clearly stating, ‘We don’t know this,’ or, ‘We don’t know that,’ and ’Until we see that data, we’re just speculating.’ ‘Talking Cannabis’ combines the confidence that only real-world, long-time experience can bring with healthy, rational skepticism toward even the most widespread beliefs until and unless they are proven by scientific method.”

Reading this comment was both refreshing and interesting in that there are more than 300 years of combined cannabis knowledge present in that Saturday morning forum.

Allow me to reflect on cannabis myths that were once thought to be facts and the practices employed today that eventually will be legitimately studied and be either disproven or result in publishable, factual data. As Michael Pollan said in his book and film, “A Botany of Desire,” cannabis is, at the same time, both the most- and least-studied plant.

I vividly remember being a 13-year-old growing cannabis in a hydroponic growing system called Hydropot. The system included instructions clearly stating that the final step after harvest of the whole plant, prior to drying, was to take the whole plant out of the lava rock medium, roots and all, and place the roots into a pot of boiling water to encourage the desirable compounds to migrate from the branches and stems into the leaves, etc.

My mother witnessed this and looked at me like I was an idiot. I explained that this was what the instructions clearly stated. My mother, knowing a little about horticulture, explained she did not believe the instructions. But kids know more than their parents, so boil away I did.

Today, I try to examine both old and new practices with skepticism. There are many old and new practices that are performed and repeated as gospel, without any factual data or study to support the method or practice. For example:

  • It was once considered necessary to hang cannabis plants upside down after harvest to encourage the THC in the stalks and stems to—again—migrate to the buds and leaves, which we all know is complete nonsense.
  • Purposely stressing cannabis plants by splitting the main stalk close to the soil line and inserting a small stone or Popsicle stick was once touted as a beneficial method of producing better finished product.
  • Feeding artificial flavorings to a plant in the belief that it would uptake and retain that flavor was also believed to be true.
  • Some once said that cannabis plants literally drip resin from the plant when ripe.
  • And others speculated that UVB light spectrum increases, accentuates, promotes, encourages or stimulates the production of THC in some way.

Many, myself included, have performed numerous hours of research in this last area and have yet to see substantial increases in THC production from direct application of UVB light. That said, we have a substantial amount of published scientific data that clearly states there is, in fact, a benefit.

Therefore, which to believe? I suspect in the near future a specific numerical percentage will be determined regarding the desirable minimum and maximum percentages of UVB light a cannabis plant utilizes for mildew and/or mold control, and any possible cannabinoid or terpene accentuation.

Over the years, I’ve repeatedly read that it is beneficial to leave the lights off 24 to 48 hours prior to harvest and then to harvest first thing in the morning before the lights are turned on—the premise being that it lowers levels of undesired chemicals and raises the level of desired chemicals.

True? Not true? And how might this result in superior cannabis?

Myths and methods such as these lead me to question many of today’s other common practices that are taken as fact, including “flushing” and “when to harvest,” both of which are very eloquently questioned by Kurt and Kerrie Badertscher, of Otoké Horticulture, in their columns in previous editions of Cannabis Business Times. In these articles, the authors rightly question the observation-based logic that is today taken as fact.

Other things I question are “proper” pH (potential hydrogen) and PPM (parts per million). And, just as important, what is the perfect NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for a cannabis plant? And what is the NPK variance, given the vast diversity of genetics?

Myth: Large-Scale Growing Is Easy

Fancy catwalks and induction lighting in what the author considers to be an inefficient large-scale production facility.
Photo courtesy of Kenneth Morrow

When it comes to the biggest myth or misconception, you must first understand the difference between horticulture and agriculture. For a basic explanation, Merriam-Webster defines horticulture as: “the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers, or ornamental plants”; it defines agriculture as: “the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products.”

With that in mind, the biggest misconception is that growing superior cannabis is easy to do on a large scale—as an agricultural crop. It is not easy and has never been easy when done properly. It takes very hard work and dedication, and a great deal of knowledge, like any other pride-of-purpose profession. Jumping in blindly is a mistake, and an immensely expensive one. I’ve seen it myself, more than once.

Too often I’ve witnessed overconfident businessmen discount the abilities of professional cannabis producers and mistakenly think that they can do it better, making decisions that would never have been made by experienced growers. One businessman with no cultivation experience spent more than $350,000 on custom light-metal catwalks that hung in between the rows of plants, not understanding that the stationary catwalks themselves killed efficiency, in that they took up way too much floorspace and dictated the floor plan, leaving unusable dedicated aisles between the rows of plants. Then the same person purchased $100,000 worth of induction lights to attach to the fancy catwalks for both vegetative and flowering stages.

What’s wrong with these decisions?

  1. One would never really need or use catwalks in between their plants. The whole idea was a waste of funds and a hindrance to efficiency.
  2. No experienced grower would use induction lighting for the flowering stage. Induction lighting is never recommended for flowering stages because the light spectrum is wrong.

Recently, I received an email from another businessman who did not want to consult his own paid consultant. The email read:

“To be honest, I have been in no mood to talk to anyone, really. This project has taken its toll on me. I admit to a lot of mistakes. … But besides my mistakes, I have never seen such a combination of bad luck, bad decisions or lack of accountability and honesty from others. All of these—mounds of disappointments and time-consuming failures—have caused me the worst project of my life and financially worn me out.

I have decided to just salvage whatever I can, if anything can be salvaged. It makes me sick to know how much money has been spent and the lack of progress that has been made. … If I do make it to the finish line I will be crawling.”

None of this surprised me, because both he and his business partner, who also had no cultivation experience, believed the misconception that the cannabis industry is easy and that they could do things much better than, or at least without soliciting or accepting any guidance from, those who pioneered the industry and are currently engaged in it.

Their original business concept was cultivating cannabis on a farm and building a processing facility, but as time went on, the partners figured there were many other opportunities to seize. First, they decided they could design a better rosin press and have it made in China—and they decided to make rosin bags, as well. Then they decided greenhouses from China would be good, then tractors and a cyclone fence company. They purchased a subzero freezer without proper UL certification and a $100,000 biochar kiln. They had to walk away from the first farm due to a dispute with their other partners, then purchased a second farm to house the greenhouses, the kiln, and so on, all the while constructing a processing facility filled with equipment they didn’t have a qualified person to operate.

Needless to say, they wound up with no credibility, no established brand and no product. They have never grown, extracted nor processed anything. Their first foray into growing was an attempt to free-plant thousands of dollars’-worth of seeds into the ground without first properly germinating them. I did not have the heart to explain he should expect only more doom and failure.

This is a daunting story, but one filled with hard-learned lessons—the biggest of which is that large-scale cultivation is anything but easy. Those who will survive in this industry are those who do the right things (not cutting corners, or spraying anything and everything on the plants just to make a buck), and those who work hard and strive to make the highest-quality product or medicine they can. And that can’t be done by jumping in blindly, throwing money at fancy (or cheaply made) equipment and trying to run a large-scale cultivation facility without cultivation knowledge or the help of an experienced cultivator or consultant. If you think otherwise, you are in for a rude awakening.

Kenneth Morrow is an author, consultant; Owner of Trichome Technologies™.