The 2 Keys to a Successful Greenhouse Grow

Columns - Tomorrow in Cannabis

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October 3, 2016

One of Houweling’s Tomatoes' greenhouses. Houweling's is a perfect example of what it takes to produce a crop on a large-scale and how every business decision can balance profit and sustainability.
Photo: Courtesy of Houwelings Tomatoes

Given the fact that greenhouses offer the lowest cost of production, it is inevitable that cannabis producers increasingly will utilize them in the future. Many factors, however, must be considered before purchasing a greenhouse or buying/leasing land for it. In most circumstances, the farther away you get from an urban area, the lower the land prices; but a location that is too remote can cause many problems as well. So deciding where to construct a greenhouse and how to mitigate potential problems is the first key to potential success — or failure. The cheapest land or greenhouse is not always best.

Consider the following:

Water: Does the property have an existing water supply? Water rights? Does it utilize a municipal water supply or have an established well?

Municipal water can be easily filtered and adjusted.

Well water needs to be closely monitored and tested. Well water content also can vary from time to time, so it must be analyzed multiple times a year. Is the well water clean? Does it contain anything detrimental? If so, it must be properly and efficiently filtered. If it can't be filtered, you can't use that well.

You must assess the water source of any prospective property before doing anything else. Without a proper water source, the property is useless.

Power: Availability and cost of power, be it electricity or natural gas, is crucial. Is there existing electricity to the property? Close to the property? If not, how much will it cost to get power and/or gas to the property, and at what rate will it be sold to you?

Some companies offer special rates for agriculture. Investigate all viable options before buying any property.

Issues around water and power can make or break a business. Bad or no water and expensive power are difficult to overcome inexpensively or efficiently.

A mentor and friend of mine recently built a large greenhouse for tomato production. I asked him why he would spend tens of millions of dollars on a greenhouse in Utah rather than just deal with the shipping cost associated with transporting tomatoes from California. He explained that before purchasing the property, he negotiated a deal with a nearby power plant that produced hot water as waste. He spent millions of dollars to level the earth between the power plant and his greenhouse in order to build a level pipeline (no one wants to pump water uphill) to pump the water to his greenhouse. This enables the hot water to be used to heat the floors and environment of the greenhouse in the cold winter months, significantly reducing natural gas or electricity usage and heating costs.

He had calculated the shipping and heating-cost mitigation, and the associated profit potential, before seriously considering building a greenhouse in that location. Cost savings aside, this was the sustainable and ecologically right thing to do.

Also consider:

Shipping and delivery of supplies: When a greenhouse is too remote, it creates logistical problems regarding the shipping and receiving of supplies, and deliveries both to and from the location. Too remote, and you could unwittingly increase your costs by thousands of dollars.

Pests and diseases on vegetation surrounding a property: Grapes are susceptible to spider mites and powdery mildew. Tomatoes are, as well. Many plants surrounding your prospective location could be infected with things you do not want infesting your new greenhouse. You must investigate your surroundings to know exactly what problems you may face.

Staffing options: The more remote the greenhouse, the farther staff have to commute to work. If your greenhouse is even one hour outside of a city, your staff obviously needs to commute two hours a day. An eight-hour shift means 10 hour days, 5 to 6 days a week, which makes obtaining, retaining and paying for skilled labor a major problem for anyone in farming or agricultural production. Hiring a skilled labor force in the current cannabis climate will be difficult. Most skilled workers are currently employed at indoor production facilities typically located in industrial areas of metropolitan cities, where the staff have shorter commute times. Thus, finding specialized labor more than an hour from the city will be an extra challenge.

My friend and mentor, the tomato grower, also mentioned another salient matter for consideration. Before he commits millions of dollars to a greenhouse or land, and all related ancillary outlays involved in production, he takes a drive through the town from which he would ultimately source his workforce. He has found that if a prospective workforce does not take care of their front yards, they probably won't take care of yours. He would much rather employ those who want to do the work and take pride in everything they do, and in turn, he takes pride in caring for his employees.

The Greenhouse Design

Once you have considered all of the above, you must realize the second key factor that will ultimately dictate your success or failure: All greenhouses are not created equal.

I recently watched a Vice TV show called “Weediquette”; featured was a prominent Northern California dispensary owner who was shown standing in front of a row of greenhouses in California’s Central Valley, proudly proclaiming he was planning to produce cannabis in them. These are old greenhouses currently used for growing crops other than cannabis. The flaws in this plan are many, but the No. 1 problem this man faces is control of pests and diseases, or better yet, complete prevention of them.

The greenhouses were designed to produce plants that could legally be sprayed with products prohibited for cannabis use. They were designed to produce plants that don't typically get infested with many of the same pests and diseases as cannabis. The greenhouse doors open to the outside and have floors of compacted gravel. They are not sealed. Employees walk from one greenhouse to the next on dirty gravel paths.

Proper sealing is an absolute must. You cannot have insects entering the growth environment from the floor or through gaps and doors. The greenhouse must be completely sealed with a slight positive pressure to the inside environment.

Nothing about these greenhouses was designed for prevention. So it is not a matter of if it will get infected, only a matter of when. And when that happens, what will they do? Complete elimination means just that: Eliminate all plants and decontaminate the complete facility to begin again. Decontamination can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars on such a large scale, and that does not take into account the loss of production or the restart costs.

Additionally, many retailers want their products to be “organic” and pesticide-free, but what does that mean? When these greenhouses ultimately get infected — and they will — these folks believe pesticide-free pest management means releasing predator insects to control the bad insects. But control is the keyword, because the good bugs will never eliminate all the bad bugs (the food source) and magically leave. Bugs can only be managed. So based on that fact, you have to ask if you want the eggs, exuviae (empty outer shells) and feces of one bug in or on your cannabis, let alone those of two.

The FDA, which will eventually have its hands in the cannabis market, would not allow the use of chemicals nor insect eggs, their exuviae or their feces in consumable cannabis. It may settle on an acceptable allowance for consumables at some point, but bug- and disease-infested cannabis will not make it into the legal recreational and medical or pharmaceutical markets.

The key to success is to start clean and stay clean.

I have never heard of GW Pharmaceuticals being infected or infested in its light-deprivation, supplemental-lighting greenhouses in the company’s nearly 20 years in business. It designed and built its greenhouses properly from the start. It has the single-most professional cannabis cultivation greenhouse I have ever seen. Every aspect is efficient and productive.

Houweling’s collects, sterilizes and recycles all water. The water-holding ponds have solar panels over them to minimize algae growth and evaporation. Houweling’s is a zero-waste facility. It utilizes huge water storage tanks to heat water using the sun, then circulates the water from the top of the tank to heat the greenhouse floors, as well as circulates the water from the cooler bottom of the tank on hot days.
Photo: Courtesy of Houwelings Tomatoes

The ‘Properly Built’ Greenhouse

What does properly built mean? The answer is complicated in that we have a two-tier cannabis market, with corporate/pharmaceutical growers on one hand and boutique/craft growers on the other. The boutique/craft growers produce the incredible raw cannabis buds and concentrates the general public consumes. These can be grown on family farms as they always have been, in greenhouses with dirt floors or in the ground using methods and practices that are acceptable to the consumer on a small scale — akin to family farmers selling their sun-grown, pesticide-free organic fruits and vegetables at their local farmer’s market. A blemish or insect here or there, nobody cares.

But such practices and methods are very difficult to replicate on a large scale without something going wrong eventually. The answer is the properly built greenhouse that has:

  • Easy-to-decontaminate cement floors with proper drainage to prevent standing water and algae growth, and to minimize disease outbreaks.
  • Proper sealing is an absolute must. You cannot have insects entering the growth environment from the floor or through gaps and doors. The greenhouse must be completely sealed with a slight positive pressure to the inside environment. Bug screens must be present on all intake and exhaust vents.
  • There must be a separate, but attached facility that allows employees to enter and decontaminate, and change into work attire. Employees must work only in their assigned environment and not be allowed to roam and possibly cross-contaminate.
  • Clean cement floor employee areas that can be regularly cleaned — no dirt floors.
  • All ancillary equipment must also be in properly constructed buildings, i.e., the water-filtration area, the supplies area, the processing area, and each and every workstation, and all related areas must be regularly cleaned on a fixed schedule.

So, again, a proper greenhouse for large-scale, sustainable production does not have dirt or gravel floors, nor any gaps for pests and diseases to enter. It does not have flimsy plastic coverings such as those used with hoop houses or other less-expensive types of greenhouse construction. There are many companies, all with many years in the industry, who know how to build a proper greenhouse.

A proper greenhouse for large-scale, sustainable production does not have dirt or gravel floors, nor any gaps for pests and diseases to enter. It does not have flimsy plastic coverings.

Large-Scale, Low-Impact

Years ago, I was given the honor of touring the greenhouses of world-renowned tomato grower Houweling’s Tomatoes at the company’s Camarillo, Calif., location, with Casey Houweling himself. It was a very eye-opening experience for me. Besides realizing the magnitude of what it took to produce a crop on a large scale, sustainably, I learned that the choices you make regarding your greenhouse construction and planning can have far-reaching environmental impacts.

Houweling’s collects, sterilizes and recycles all water. The water-holding ponds have solar panels over them to minimize algae growth and evaporation. Houweling’s is a zero-waste facility. It utilizes huge water storage tanks to heat water using the sun, then circulates the water from the top of the tank to heat the greenhouse floors, as well as circulates the water from the cooler bottom of the tank on hot days.

Bees pollinate Casey’s tomatoes. He is herbicide-free. He utilizes automation whenever it is intelligent and efficient. He uses IBMTM robotic equipment to size, grade and package his product. He goes to great lengths to do things sustainably and ecologically, all the while maintaining a very successful company with greenhouses in Canada, Utah and California.

When I expressed how impressed I was with all the eco-friendly applications, Casey explained two things l’ll never forget: First, those applications are simply the logical choices for successful operations. Second, each of the polished, eco-friendly applications I marveled over started as a concept that can now be viewed as an evolution of failure and refinement over many years and at great cost.

To me, it seemed even more impressive that he had made a conscious decision, from the onset, to do the right thing whenever possible, not only for his business, but to purposefully have little or no negative impact on the world around him.

About the Author: Kenneth Morrow is an author and writer who has been covering cannabis-related subjects for more than 20 years. He is the owner of Trichome Technologies™, a cannabis research and development company. Morrow also is an award-winning grower and breeder. He has made contributions to many of today's extraction methodologies and holds multiple patents in the field. He currently specializes in product formulation and consults on all cannabis-related subjects. Find him on Instagram (TrichomeTechnologies) or Facebook (Trichome Technologies).