Solvency and Sustainability in Cannabis Cultivation: A Q&A With Damian Solomon
As the former head of MedMen’s cultivation operations, Damian Solomon knows better than most what challenges cannabis cultivation can bring on a big scale. Now at the helm of his own consulting company, the growing guru tells Analytical Cannabis what makes cannabis cultivation unique and what the industry can do to tackle its supply and sustainability setbacks.
Leo Bear-McGuinness (LBM): You’ve said that 90 percent of cannabis cultivation is just the same as tomato cultivation or any other crop. So what does the other 10 percent consist of?
Damian Solomon (DS): Well the other 10 percent, from a cultivation standpoint, is just going to be cultivar-specific requirements. So it doesn't matter if it's a tomato plant, a cucumber plant, a cannabis plant, or a lettuce plant. Plants all require sunlight, CO2, water, nutrients to grow. From a strict plant growing standpoint, all commercial plants can be grown in a similar fashion because they require the same amount of inputs. But where the difference comes in – that 10 percent – is that cannabis is going to require 180 ppms of nitrogen, whereas lettuce requires 65 ppms of nitrogen. So that'd be the interspecies specifics that are the main difference.
LBM: What areas of cultivation do you see as opportunities for growth?
DS: So now that it's out of the shadows, and it's a commercial crop and it's becoming more widely accepted globally, then you're going to start to really see some advancements in cannabis. There's a huge opportunity to be able to take what has already been done and improve upon it right. And so one of the areas would be genetics.
There have been some fantastic genetics being developed over the years without the use of any real scientific or agricultural tools. So now that it's at the forefront, they're able to have access to genomic services that will help them accelerate the rate of production of new strains. Up until now, it's been what we call pollen chucking, where you have a male [cannabis plant] and you walk into a room of females and you bang the plant to distribute the pollen everywhere to create fertilization and to create seeds. But that's not really a true targeted type of breeding programme where you have a set of targeted characteristics. So I think genetics is going to be one of the biggest areas of opportunity within the cannabis space.
LBM: When you were MedMen's director of cultivation what expertise did you impart?
DS: I was the director of conservation and agricultural technology for MedMen for about three and a half years, and in that time my role was to develop their entire cultivation methodology that included all of the facility designs. And we had two blueprints; we had an indoor blueprint and we had a greenhouse blueprint. Both situations are high technology.
Prior to that we built large tomato greenhouse projects, multimillion-dollar projects. And when you're growing veggies, you have to operate on a very slim margin. You have to be ultra-efficient. So I was able to transition the methodologies and the procedures over from commercial agriculture to ensure that all of the processes and all of the procedures, the layouts, the workflow, the technology, the labour programme, everything was always focused on efficiency.
So one of the challenges that I see in the industry right now is that you have operators who do a wonderful job, but they can't keep a consistent crop. So they might have one really good crop a year. And the other four or five crops they struggle with a little bit because they can't get the uniformity. But you know, it’s partly because they don't have the necessary technology to be able to create that uniformity in the grow space.
LBM: What did you learn about the cannabis industry after working on such a massive cultivation operation?
DS: When I was at MedMen, it was when California went legal and so there was a big boom and it was really the epicentre. But what I really learned was that [the cannabis industry] was just very far behind the rest of commercial agriculture by 30 years – not just the plant itself, but the commercialization of the plant and being able to grow it in a commercial way.
What I found was that because a lot of growers tend to do what they know, they really don't like to charter new territory. They were a little bit scared of the unknown. Most operators were really reluctant to adopt any type of new technology or methodology. And part of that was they didn't want to see the cannabis ‘destroyed’ – to them, it’s very spiritual, very special. And they didn't want to see corporate greed come into the situation and destroy a plant that they really love. So I think those are the two biggest things: reluctance to accept new technologies and a fear that corporate America was going to destroy cannabis.
LBM: California, Oregon, and Canada have actually been overproducing for their market size. And partly due to a slow rollout of retail stores and licenses, there's a lot of excess cannabis that has been grown that hasn't yet been sold. So should cultivators be more aware of their market size, and know when enough is enough?
DS: The issue is on the retail side of things; if you can get it to the general public at a low cost, and make it easily accessible, then people will buy it. So I think there's a bottleneck on the retail side, more so than there is an overproduction. I just think that there's not enough retail stores to get enough of the product to the people who demand it, so they end up going to the grey market or the black market because it's easier.
So if they can get the taxes correct, they get the price structure correct, and they get the retail side correct, then that's going to help to push out the black market, because if you could include the black market into some of these scenarios and some of these calculations, you'd be astounded at the number of pounds that people actually consume on a yearly basis. I think it's just the access to it at a low cost.
LBM: I remember reading a study that infamously found that indoor cannabis cultivation represents about 1 percent of total electricity used across the US. And given the climate conscious world we live in, how can cultivators cut down on their carbon footprint?
DS: I think it's one of two ways, one of them is just adopting better technology. So with cultivation, you would use LED lighting technology versus the standardised old approach of HID, high intensity discharge, and HPS, high pressure sodium bulbs, which are very power hungry. They don't use all the power to deliver photons to the plant. So LED lighting technology’s much more efficient, it's engineered to deliver a certain spectrum that the plant can use. So all the input energy they're able to translate most of that into output energy the plant can use. Whereas HPS produces a lot of heat that we want to expel from the room. So [we want to be] moving to better lighting technologies and the adoption of better, more sustainable farming practices.
But also look at the region you're going to grow in. So if you're in southern California and you can utilize natural sunlight then consider doing a greenhouse situation. If you were to look at apples to oranges and compared a greenhouse situation to indoor situation, the greenhouse design is going to be able to function at the same level with about 60 to 70 percent less energy costs, because you're getting free energy from the sun. You do still need to supplement lights for cloudy days or in the wintertime when the angle of the sun is low, but you still get a majority of your energy from the sun. But it's not possible everywhere in the world. In Boston, Massachusetts, it's very difficult to build a greenhouse because it's really cold in the winter and really hot and humid in the summer. It's not that you can't build and design a greenhouse on a work, it's going to come at the cost of extra equipment to mitigate those challenges. Outside climate plays a big role in how you design your facility.
So, I think by moving into a situation where they can utilize natural sunlight is going to help to drive efficiency and drive down the carbon footprint. Also I think, being able to utilize some of your waste material. After you harvest currently, we just throw the stems and the stocks and the roots away. But if we can find a product stream for that instead of being a waste stream, then we can also be more easily sustainable and utilize our waste products instead of dumping them into the landfill. I think that's one that Canada is getting a lot of flak for right now because their cannabis packaging is horrible. On the retail side, you buy one gram from a dispensary and you get a huge plastic bottle with one little nugget at the bottom.
So I think better, smarter laws. Everybody [has] be more educated so that when they're making these regulations, the operators can have the flexibility to be more sustainable. So it has to be a grassroots movement that moves throughout the entire supply chain.
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Advances in Cannabis Cultivation Science ebook in December 2019.