June 08, 2020 10 min read

By Alexa Peters

Throughout the cannabis industry, there is a long-established bias for indoor cannabis cultivation, which is perceived to be of better and more consistent quality than weed grown outdoors.

That said, outdoor growers like Jeremy Moberg of CannaSol Farms in Okanogan, WA, remain loyal to their outdoor cannabis farms, and tout the under-appreciated potential of outdoor grow-ops when it comes to cost-effectiveness, relative ease as compared to indoor, eco-friendliness—and quality.

“I started growing indoors in a basement. Quickly, I realized I didn’t like a lot about indoor growing—the electrical consumption, the waste stream, the water filled with nitrate and phosphates going down the drain—I just didn’t like working under the lights, either,” said Moberg.

Shortly thereafter, Moberg transitioned to outdoor growing, in the only way that was possible at the time of prohibition—with off-grid guerilla grows.

He was living on an old hippy commune, using makeshift do-it-yourself irrigation systems, and hiding plants from helicopters flying overhead. Still, he preferred the method and continued to fine-tune his process. 

“It was tough and success wasn’t always a given,” said Moberg. “But, we had some successes. Kept at it over the years, kept doing guerilla grows using open-pollinated, or land-raised strains.”

Eventually, Washington legalized cannabis.

This allowed growers to come out of the shadows— although initially, outdoor cannabis cultivation was not initially considered legal alongside indoor cultivation. But, through Moberg’s loud support of sun-grown cannabis, which he says can be as good of quality as indoor weed when cultivated using light deprivation, Moberg changed the minds of Washington state politicians and made outdoor cultivation possible in Washington state.

Soon after, CannaSol became the first sung-grown cannabis to make it to market in Washington state.

“I gave a Power Point presentation to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board that really opened their eyes. There were like 35 people there, and they literally said, ‘everyone we’ve talked to before you said you could not grow weed outside,’ and I was like, I am here to tell you not only can you, but you would be making a big environmental mistake if you don’t allow it be grown outside,” said Moberg.

All this being said, outdoor commercial cultivation does still come with its own set of challenges that are important to understand before you dive in as a new cultivator.

In this Entrepreneur’s Guide to Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation, we’ll cover four major aspects that can make or break your outdoor commercial grow: land politics, water rights, environment, and labor.

Land Politics

The first and most important step to starting and maintaining a successful outdoor grow-op is choosing an appropriate location.

With cannabis laws that vary by state and a ban from cultivating cannabis on federally-controlled lands or with federally-controlled water, this can be a tricky endeavor.

In fact, even in states that have declared recreational marijuana legal, local governments across states like California and Washington have enacted zoning ordinances to prohibit recreational marijuana businesses of any kind in their area—and for cannabis entrepreneurs caught in these policy’s wakes, the impact can be devastating. 

“Brian Lehman has been scrambling to find a new location for his state-licensed cannabis farm since receiving a cease-and-desist order from Yakima County officials. Now, the county is seeking an abatement order in Yakima County Superior Court to enter his property, shut down his business and remove any unpermitted structures, equipment or products, including marijuana,”reported Q13 Fox in early 2019. “Lehman said he refinanced his home and took a construction job to make payments on the idled six acres on which he intended to grow marijuana.”

Hence, before you choose your location, make sure you are legally able to grow cannabis there.

The liquor and cannabis board in your state should have that information. For instance, California State Association of Counties explicitly lists county cannabis ordinanceson their website.

Keep in mind, too, that states often require you to have an appropriate location chosen for your farm before they will even grant you a cultivation license.

Water Rights

Another part of the politics of your land, is the politics of the resources on your land—water, in particular.

“I’d recommend that everyone that grows outdoors has a water right,” said Moberg.

A water right is a specific, state-provided permit that grants you the right to use a certain amount of water on your land for agricultural purposes.

All farms farming agricultural crops in the United States have to have a water right to operate by law. But, because cannabis is not designated federally as an agricultural crop, some growers attempt to use domestic exemptions and other work arounds for their irrigation.

“The Washington Department of Ecology wrote a policy that allowed 2-3 farms to operate under the domestic exemption—a commercial industrial exemption that gives people 5000 gallons of water a day. There are lots of places out there with non-water right wells using the domestic exemption for several different grows. They’re out of compliance,” said Moberg. “Even though you can do it, I wouldn’t do it because maybe we get agricultural status someday.”

Depending on your property, you may already have a water right. Washington state provides this portal,  which can determine if your property already has a water right. To ascertain a water right, a cultivator must go through an application process with the state, which looks different depending where you live.

In Washington, applicants must go through a pre-screening process, pay and submit an application to be approved for a water right. Oregon’s water right laws, are similar. 

In some cases, like in much of Oregon, obtaining an individual water right may not be possible—especially if planning to locate in an area with many other farms. In this case, irrigation districts may be the best option.

Irrigation Districts hold water rights in trust for their patrons, and distribute water to them. Irrigation Districts can be run by privately-owned companies and governmental agencies, so if you decide to go this route carefully vet your plot of land to determine who controls your irrigation district.

In many cases, cannabis growers can’t use federally-controlled water due to cannabis’ status as a Schedule I drug, in which case you may want to look for another location.

Choosing a Suitable Cannabis Cultivation Environment

When it comes to growing quality outdoor weed, it’s not enough to find a legal place to put your farm—the area has to be suitable to growing cannabis, as well. 

The most ideal outdoor locations for growing cannabis are sunny, close to a water source, not too windy, isolated from other farms, secure, and easily accessible by you and your laborers.

To determine the best spot for your farm, Moberg recommends new cultivators look at solar, cloud cover, and temperature maps provided to the public by the United States Geological Survey to find the location most environmentally conducive to growing cannabis.

“Look at the maps. Avoid river bottoms, watch your major wind patterns, and understand the problems that come with clustering [farms together],” said Moberg. “My farm, I was the only one, now there’s 20-something farms. Cross-pollination is one issue, more likely is people not taking care of their bugs and [they] can spread.”

Maintaining your Outdoor Cannabis Plants

Once you’ve found a legal and suitable location and planted your crop, your plants must be maintained by controlling environmental factors like light, temperature humidity, irrigation, and nutrients—must be rigorously and unceasingly monitored—just as you would do with an indoor grow.

The difference with outdoor cultivation, is the way you monitor and control these factors looks a little different.

With indoor weed, controlling these factors can be arguably easier because they are fabricated by equipment and monitored by you to begin with. But, when growing outside, you and your cannabis are at the mercy of the natural world—which can have positives and negatives.

The positives are that outdoor weed is cheaper, less energy-intensive and can be easier to grow, purely because you are harnessing sunlight and other natural processes instead of paying for, installing, and monitoring equipment that mimic them.

After all, cannabis has been grown outdoors for thousands of years.

That said, the industry favors indoor weed because of the perception that outdoor weed is of lesser quality, and when grown without a proper awareness of the impact of the natural environment, it almost certainly will be, Moberg says.

“When I first started growing outdoors, we were only doing natural, full-term grows using seed and open pollination with limited success. The quality isn’t the best and not necessarily what we expect—especially if you’re familiar with indoor growing,” he said.

Lighting for Outdoor Cannabis Cultivation

But, outdoor weed doesn’t have to be bad quality, asserts Moberg.

The quality of outdoor weed is especially contingent how florigen, the hormone which signals flowering in a cannabis plant, is released—and there are ways that can be controlled with light deprivation.

Florigen is produced in the big cannabis leaves at night, moves to the tips of the plant to initiate flowering, but is destroyed by sunlight.

In full-term outdoor growing, when a plant is left to go into the flowering state based on the gradual and natural shortening of late summer nights, florigen is released in a gradual trickle.

But, outdoor weed grown using light deprivation—when the cannabis plants are plunged into sudden darkness using light-proof tarps—leads to a surge in florigen that shocks the plant and makes for more calyxes, or budlets. This, in turn, makes for a higher quality crop.

“The plant expression that comes from the quick transition is lower leaf content and high calix to leaf ratios. Light deprivation and indoor [cannabis] are going to have a lot more calyx and a lot less leaf because of that hard transition. A natural plant, that’s going to slowly have more calyxes. That’s why outdoor cannabis has higher leaf content and is lower quality overall,” said Moberg.

Hence, at Cannasol, Moberg grows his outdoor crops using light deprivation to control the quality of a cannabis, and also to control when plants flower.

This can help an outdoor grower increase and stagger yields to make better profits. (According tomultiple sources online, you can use anything to cover your plants as long as it’s light-proof, and has a structure that keeps it up off the plant canopy).

“For instance, my farm, we’ve been in flowering now in one greenhouse for 5 weeks [and its only May]. We’re only 3 weeks away from our first crop,” said Moberg. 

Temperature and Humidity

In contrast to indoor environments, which can be set at the right temperature and humidity using equipment, outdoor plants are at the mercy of the elements.

This is when the careful consideration you put into choosing a location for your farm pays off—or not.

Cannabis plants are generally, quite adaptable, but according to Leafly, “sustained temperatures above 86°F will cause your plants to stop growing, while continued temperatures below 55°F can cause damage and stunting to plants, even death. Heavy rains and high winds can cause physical damage to plants and reduce yields, and excessive moisture can lead to mold and powdery mildew, especially during the flowering stage.”

Unfortunately, even if you discover early you’ve put your cannabis plants in the wrong location, there’s not much you can do beyond attending as well as you can to their needs and seeing how they do.

Additionally, if you’re having a particularly long stretch of hot weather, Grow Weed Easy suggests making shade structures and feeding your plants seaweed kelp extract, known to help heat-stressed plants, in a last-ditch effort to salvage your plants.

Irrigation and Nutrients

How you water your outdoor crop and what additional nutrients and fertilizers you feed them are closely linked, and require you to choose whether or not you prefer to grow organically.

For instance, most commercial cannabis farms water using fertigation systems. Simply put, this involves injecting your irrigation water with nutrients and fertilizers you want to use for your plants, usually into one made water tank. Waterlines then pull from that tank to deliver nutrient-rich irrigation water to your grow site through drip emitters. (Some of the most popular synthetic nutrients are Fox Farms and Dyna-Grow plant food.)

But, this process becomes a lot trickier if you decide to go organic—like with General Hydroponics General Organics Go Box—because organic nutrients have a lot of sediment in them, which clogs traditional drip emitters. 

“Yeah, you know, not everybody does it the way I do it. Most people are non-organic. So, traditional fertigation systems are available and quite inexpensive. So, if you’re just running salt-based nutrients through then you can just use traditional fertigation. It’s just pulls a little out of a tank and introduces it directly [to the grow site]. But, you can only do that if you’re not organic. Once you’re organic it becomes more difficult.”

In this case, Moberg had to find some specialized micro-sprinklers that could deliver the larger particles to their plants, which he mixes into a large 4000-gallon tank.

(For this sort of equipment there are companies like Cannabis Irrigation Supply, but you can also use traditional agricultural irrigations offerings, like those sold by the 10 companies listed in this link.)

As for how much to water your plants and when, this requires—yet again—a deep understanding of your area’s climate, the quality of your soil, the sun intensity, the season, other weather, even the strain you’re growing and what stage of life your plants are in.

The best way to effectively water your plants is to become familiar with the signs that your plants are thirsty—wilting, dry and droopy leaves.

Generally, these signs can be prevented by watering your plants weekly. If you live in particular hot, sunny climates, more frequent irrigation may be necessary.

Labor Costs

Lastly, another consideration unique to outdoor cultivators is your labor costs. Outdoor grows tend to be large, requiring cultivators to hire farm laborers to help with trimming and other tasks. 

According to a 2017 study from University of California-Davis, entitled “Economics of Cannabis and Demand for Farm Labor, outdoor cannabis in California employed 23,460 full-time employees at $20 an hour, as opposed to indoor cannabis in California, which employed 4,971 full-time employees at $20/hour.

“You need much more labor in outdoor settings, but you also have access to traditional agricultural workers,” said Moberg.

Conclusion

Commercial cannabis cultivation, regardless of whether it’s done indoors or outdoors, is complicated.  But, by doing your homework and carefully choosing a suitable location and diligently maintaining your plants, you too can grow some high-quality commercial outdoor cannabis.

Another thing to consider is that some latitudes may not even allow an outdoor grower to grow full-term.

For instance, in Washington state, the majority of common genetics cannot finish their cycle naturally and come to fruition before freezing temperatures.

So, light deprivation can help ensure you have a harvestable crop before the bad weather hits, especially if the grower is starting with seeds or clones that have not been acclimated to the area through open pollination, which is quite common.

“Most of the strains that the public knows and wants cannot grow naturally outside at these latitudes. You get down to southern Oregon and northern California, and more strains can complete their cycle before fall and winter [with full-term growing],” said Moberg.

“But when you get up to the 49th parallel, or really all of Washington, the winter comes too fast [for full-term growing]. [The only way] to ensure that you’re going to have a crop that is harvestable in early October or late September, is to use seed stock that’s been acclimated to the area. The only way you acclimate it is to open pollinate every year—and there aren’t many land-raised strains left.”


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