Outdoor cannabis crop risks compared to indoor growing (protected cropping): What are the dangers and potential disasters of outdoor medicinal cannabis cultivation?
Outdoor medicinal cannabis cultivation may offer lower-cost production options for commercial-scale operators…but what are the risks?
- Operational costs for outdoor cannabis crops tend to be significantly lower than indoor cultivation settings.
- This is especially true for cultivation sites with good soil and optimal climatic conditions (adequate sunlight and rainfall), which can greatly improve a cannabis business’s overall profitability and plant yield.
The lower cultivation costs — and higher profit margins — are often gained through:
- Reduced power requirements
- Larger growing spaces (commercial-scale crop sizes)
- Lower labour costs for outdoor cultivation, although this can vary from site to site
Read Trevor Schoerie’s insights into the Indoor Vs Outdoor Cannabis Debate.
Yet certain crop loss risks are elevated in outdoor cultivation operations, compared with indoor growing and greenhouse facilities.
- What are the risks involved with outdoor cannabis cultivation, exactly?
- And what, if anything, can operators do to help reduce the risks of outdoor cannabis cultivation for commercial-scale medicinal cannabis crops?
5 Risks of Outdoor Medicinal Cannabis Crop Cultivation (Broadacre Crop Risks)
Outdoor cannabis crop risks can range from weather disasters, such as recently hit northern regions of the United States with very early snowfalls, to crop diversion (theft) to pollination by other nearby crops/hemp crops.
The primary risks in outdoor cultivation operations relate to climate risks and a lack of controls.
It’s easier to control climate factors in indoor and greenhouse settings; but doing so is often costly.
But climate factors are not the only risk for outdoor cannabis operations.
Operators need to be aware of the PROS and CONS of outdoor cannabis cultivation versus indoor growing, from operational cost differences to crop loss risks from a variety of factors, some manageable and others which are random — and often, non-insurable.
First, the PROS of outdoor cannabis crop cultivation compared to greenhouses or indoor grows.
- Operational power cost differences: Cannabis cultivation costs are typically lower with outdoor grows because indoor cannabis cultivation tends to involve far higher operational costs in terms of:
(a) power requirements for lighting and climate controls (e.g. humidity and temperature adjustments)
(b) equipment and climate monitoring systems/monitoring devices required for indoor cannabis crops
(c) operational staff
- Soil supplement requirements: If you have rich soil, abundant land ownership, and a suitable cannabis cultivation location, you will not only save on lighting, heating and power costs, you’ll likely reduce your reliance on expensive growing mediums, nutrients, and fertilizers.
Yield increases: outdoor cultivation offers a more natural growing environment than indoor settings. While you can better control your crop interventions in protected cropping settings, there are pros and cons to altering the environment cannabis plants would encounter ‘in the wild.’
- Larger crop volumes may help minimize the financial impacts of crop loss: Outdoor growing means crop sizes of over 4,000 m², and the larger the crop, the higher the potential crop-loss margins the operation can withstand. If the entire crop is destroyed, it’s a different story, but in most cases, only a portion of a crop is destroyed. Studies indicate cannabis crop losses of up to 25% are fairly common (primarily due to contamination, pests and/or plant diseases); so the larger the crop, the greater the leeway to absorb a percentage of crop loss.
- Profitability margins: Overall, the costs for outdoor cropping (broadacre cropping) can end up being less than 10% of your indoor cannabis cultivation costs (the difference encompasses a wide range, however; from 5% to 70% or higher).
There are so many different growing methods and facility designs, as well as climatic differences in crop locations, that it’s challenging to make a direct comparison between outdoor growing costs vs indoor cannabis cultivation costs. But most operators agree that outdoor cannabis crop cultivation offers higher profit margins, as long as you choose your cannabis cultivation site very carefully.
Next, the CONS of Outdoor Cannabis Crop Cultivation vs Indoor Grows or Greenhouse Grows
Top 5 Risks for Outdoor Crop Cultivation (Medicinal Cannabis)
Risk 1: Extreme Weather Conditions and Cannabis Crop Loss Risks
- Extreme weather events or fluctuations including damaging winds, floods, dust storms, bush fires — even very early snowstorms — could potentially destroy your entire outdoor cannabis crop.
- This recently occurred when an early snowstorm in Colorado ruined half of a ‘bumper year cannabis crop’ and with low temps and/or early snowfall in Oregon and Montana concerning cannabis growers in September 2019.
Risk 2: Pollination from nearby hemp crops/male cannabis plants
- Nearby or on-site hemp plants (male cannabis plants) pollinating female plants can lead to significant reductions in yield and crop value.
- Also, it can be harder to scout and spot male cannabis plants or hermaphrodite plants in a much larger, often taller-growing outdoor cannabis crop.
- Read the latest article about an increase in reported incidents of hemp pollination of cannabis crops in Colorado.
Risk 3: Pests and Plant Diseases
- Pests and plant diseases are a cultivation risk — and operational concern —- no matter how you grow your crop.
- But controlling pests in a protected environment with white floors tends to be somewhat easier than outdoor settings, where pests can more readily hide and where diseases can go undetected due to the crop size alone.
- Indoors may have an advantage here, as you can (a) more readily remove and quarantine any pest-ridden or diseased cannabis plants and (b) conduct regular scouting with easy-access benching systems or vertical growing systems offering easier pest-and-disease scouting capacities.
- The advantage of outdoor growing over indoor growing, however, is that if your outdoor soil is uncontaminated to start with; that’s a plus for outdoor growing.
- It is also likely easier to maintain uncontaminated soil states outdoors; unless your neighbour starts crop-dusting with forbidden pesticides which drift onto your crop (this is yet another reason site selection and site layouts are crucial for profitable cannabis cultivation operations)
- Indoor grows might have higher soil contamination risks related to incoming deliveries of soil mediums, growing substrates and/or contaminated pots; as well as from humans not following hygiene procedures.
- Circulated indoor air also means airborne contaminants in indoor grow facilities and greenhouses could readily impact your entire crop due to indoor air circulation methods (HVAC systems); so outdoor crops — depending on wind factors — may offer more protection from airborne bacterial contamination.
Risk 4: Diversion Risks
- Outdoor crops are more difficult to put under close 24/7 surveillance cameras.
- There’s more room for cannabis diversion, from your employees as well as site visitors or intruders, as you cannot monitor the entire crop as closely as you can in indoor settings and greenhouses.
Risk 5: Irrigation system failures and water pollution risks
- Sometimes outdoor cannabis crops are more vulnerable to problems with irrigation systems and/or water supplies.
- If an irrigation system fails, large sections of crops could be flooded and/or denied adequate water.
- This would significantly impact yield and also increase the risk of pollination related to plant stress leading to hermaphrodites.
- Also, if nearby water sources become contaminated with pesticides or heavy metals, your final product may not pass quality testing and may lose its value or saleability — meaning the crop may be destroyed (that noted, indoor water sources and irrigation systems can also readily become contaminated).
How do you mitigate these risks?
For high-income/high-value crops such as medicinal cannabis, recognise some risks are inevitable no matter how you choose to cultivate your crops.
For outdoor cultivation or other growing methods, the best ways to minimise your crop loss risks are to:
- Carefully consider site selection, site layouts and workflows.
- Build-in quality assurance measures and quality testing into your operations including employee training/crop management and vendor selection/vendor inspections.
- Seek expert cannabis consulting advice on facilities, cultivation methods, crop management/plant maintenance, equipment and infrastructure (engineering).
- Remember that medicinal cannabis is a robust but vulnerable crop and a highly regulated industry.
- Learn all you can about the GMP and EUGMP requirements for selling medicinal cannabis crop products and/or finished medicines or cosmetics and the licencing and permit requirements for your country of cultivation, domestic use and/or export goals for your medicinal cannabis crops.
Summary: Industry naivety has led to confusion and disappointments for early cannabis industry investors and cultivation operators.
There remains a widespread underestimation of the nature of the cannabis industry, the importance of site selection and facility architecture, and the vulnerability of commercial-scale cannabis crops intended for domestic or export markets.
For assistance with your project, contact PharmOut’s international cannabis industry consultants, licence application support teams and facility design experts.