Hydroponics or Soil?

Columns - Growing Pains

How to choose the right growing method for your cultivation operation.

December 5, 2016

Photo: thinkstock

Cannabis cultivation involves many levels of decision-making and fundamental production choices that ultimately determine the quality and efficiency of product output. While there are myriad factors to be considered around cultivation style and methods, choosing the specific medium that cannabis will be grown in is a broad, but important topic of debate within the cannabis industry. Ultimately, the decision boils down to choosing between hydroponic or soil cultivation methods.

Many arguments can be made in favor of, or against, both methods, and it is up to informed producers to determine the best growing choice for them. Soil mixes specific to the needs and demands of cannabis are based in generations of agricultural know-how to best mimic naturally occurring ecosystems utilizing natural resources. Hydroponic growing has unique advantages and disadvantages, and can be a valuable growing technique.

The best strategy for cultivators in deciding which growing media to utilize is to consider site-appropriate technology, specific fertilization programs, the yields and consumer base, and, finally, the overall effect on the company’s bottom line with regards to economics and business values. Deciding what type of growing media is best to use and how to make informed decisions about what cultivation methodologies your company will implement can set your company on the path to success.

The Dirt on Soil: Simple, Lower Cost and the Soil Food Web

Soil cultivation uses natural humic and mineral compounds, dispersed in a physical matrix of carbon matter. The underlying foundation for all soil production centers around a web of microbiological actors, including fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and many others. Indeed, the defining characteristic of soil is the ability for this microbiological food web to maintain and regulate nutrient dispersion, water usage, plant health and overall growth. The added support provided by the soil food web aids beginning growers or operations that have reached a maximum point of operational complexity (where one more issue to manage would be too much to handle). Cannabis grown in soil is often more forgiving when it comes to nutrient dosing, pH balancing and water management.

The use of soil in cannabis production is applicable across a broad range of site-specific parameters. Soil is relatively simple to understand, simple to manage and requires less initial overhead investment and ongoing maintenance than hydroponic systems.

With soil in commercial grows, growers can easily alter fertilization sophistication, which ranges from acute mixes used in conjunction with soluble nutrients, topdressing and fermented teas, to basic ‘dirt’ found on-site that can be amended and used in a bare-bones fashion.

Soil grows afford cultivators a consistent background of plant nutrients that can be adjusted to achieve quality and yield goals (in combination with other factors). Soil amendments are the equivalent to the food humans eat, allowing the underlying cellular reaction process to take place. Humus is the component differentiating soil from other inert media used in hydroponics. It is made of composted organic material containing key acids and microbes to help promote plant health, and regulate soil pH and nutrient uptake. Based on the operation’s scale, the type of light used (i.e., natural or artificial), and expected returns, growers can customize amendments in their fertilization program to maximize quality and yield based on the desired end product and market being targeted.

The successful use of soil cultivation can be seen in small operations, not able to afford the overhead cost of complex hydroponic systems, and is applicable all the way through large-scale operations. The self-regulating ability of soil, regarding fertilization and watering regimens, results in lower overall producer costs when coupled with locally sourced, wholesale ingredients.

Growers selecting soil as their cultivation media often do so out of economic concern, and/or their interest in using “natural” techniques, which they can market to consumers. Cultivation operations using soil understand that there is no exact or perfect soil mix recipe or fertilization program, but that with the right approach for each cultivator’s goals, soil can produce a highly competitive product in an increasingly competitive market.

Hydroponics are most appropriately used indoors, in highly regulated environments that bring precision to their operations.

Hydroponics: From Covert to Consistent

Hydroponics were developed as a response to restrictive growing regulations resulting from societal stigma and is still utilized to this day, in part, for similar reasons. With cannabis prohibition, cultivation was forced to retreat into clandestine locations. Though legalization in many states is changing the way cannabis is perceived, production continues to face and reflect challenges of the past.

Many restrictions exist as to where growers can operate, and often locations are limited by size and utility (power/water) accessibility. Hydroponics are most appropriately used indoors, in highly regulated environments that bring precision to their operations. Often the burden of increased space required for storing, mixing and managing soil exceeds the reasonable operational capacity for facilities with size limitations.

The application of appropriate technology relevant to hydroponics is typically based on factors of space, management techniques and knowledge. The decision to use hydroponics is often forced by local zoning regulations that provide limited square footage. Growers dealing with limited space often work to maximize square footage for plant canopy and decrease the infrastructure space using this production method.

Cultivation operations using soil understand that there is no exact or perfect soil fertilization program, but that with the right approach, soil can produce a highly competitive product in an increasingly competitive market.

Another major factor in using hydroponics is the desire for precision and control over the grow. Hydroponic production provides an increased degree of control for all plant inputs through a fertilization program. This aligns with an already highly regulated industry and form of agriculture, where, ideally, growers can create reliable and repeatable product results. The ability to accurately monitor and control, with total automation, pH levels and parts-per-million nutrient content makes hydroponic production the logical choice for many growers.

While many wrongly claim that hydroponic production alone increases yield, the true added benefit is a faster rate of growth in the vegetative phase and more consistent yield volumes. Accurately predicting scheduled yields will make for more successful business operations.

The perception that hydroponics produce denser, more potent marijuana is common among growers and consumers alike. Though there is little to no evidence that hydroponic production directly correlates to increased “bag quality” and plant yield, this common misperception is still used as a branding strategy and selling point. A reason for this misperception may be linked to the more common use of plant-growth regulators in hydroponic production, leading to dense buds and increased resin production, which are often rewarded in the market with higher price points.

Ultimately, the producer’s bottom line influences the decision to grow one way or the other, and the perceived increase in price point can motivate growers to choose hydroponics.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a cultivation method can be a complex process. In many scenarios, soil would be the obvious choice. Soil is more aligned with historically proven agricultural methods and it has a strong appeal, due to the perception of natural or “organic” growing techniques, thus perceived as producing a higher-quality, sought-after product. Hydroponic production also has its place for growers with space restrictions and/or the desire for high levels of control over output quality and quantity. Growers without extensive experience in agriculture may feel less intimidated by hydroponic growing methods and find confidence in the ability to fine-tune and control the fertilization program.

Whether choosing hydroponic or soil media, it is important to consider the operation’s bottom line. Careful evaluation of which method has lower costs, is easier to manage, and contributes to overall quality standards and yield should be at the forefront of all decision making in this highly competitive market.

About the Author: Nic Easley is the founder and CEO of Comprehensive Cannabis Consulting (3C). A decorated veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Easley established a 35-acre organic farm in Colorado after completing his military service, and has degrees in biology and environmental studies. Over the past eight years, Easley and 3C has consulted with more than 75 clients in the Cannabis industry and formed 3C to bring organic, sustainable cultivation solutions and business practices to the world.