Image credit Flickr user Martijn under creative commons license

By Gabe Blanchet, Co-Founder, CEO of Grove

By now, most of us have heard about how pornography helped shape the development of the Internet. While the exact percentage of how much of the web’s early traffic was made up of porn is still debated to this day, what isn’t up for debate is the outsized influence the industry had on bolstering streaming and other underlying technologies for the Internet in the 90s and 2000s.

Indoor and vertical farming had a similar driving force in its early days, only instead of pornography helping to drive the technology development and innovation of this budding industry, much of the early technology developed for today’s modern indoor farming industry owes a debt of gratitude to the world’s indoor cannabis farmers.

But it wasn’t just pot. Another important driver of innovation in indoor farming was the focus from NASA and the promise/necessity of plant cultivation both in space and on other planets. This spurred a lot of the focus on aeroponic and water-efficient technologies (due to their low weight — optimal for transport). Although astronauts could likely benefit from a bit of recreational cannabis, most of the focus was on growing nutritious, edible and oxygen-producing crops with limited resources.

And although it often gets less coverage, another key element has always been the global greenhouse growing industry. Innovations from R&D in greenhouses of all different levels of sophistication have helped pave the way for indoor commercial farming in its current incarnations.

In short: cannabis, plants in space, and greenhouses → modern indoor farming.

Innovation Drivers

While today’s indoor farming owes a whole lot to the cannabis, NASA and greenhouse research, my focus in this piece is on the formative impact pot growers had on this industry.

There were a couple specific drivers that helped cannabis have an outsized influence on small-scale indoor/vertical farming:

Driver #1: Demand
Combine the illegality of growing cannabis and specifically the 1980’s Regan-era ‘war on drugs’ which drove cannabis growth indoors and out of the limelight (and sunlight, with that) with the MASSIVE, ~$54B annual US consumer demand for cannabis (medicinal and recreational), and you can understand why cannabis farmers felt forced indoors and off the radar. Outside of the driving force of secrecy, the other large benefit to indoor cultivation of cannabis remains consistency, quality and a year-round growing season.

Driver #2: Margin
Cannabis is by a long shot among THE most profitable crops to grow. Although it’s not a perfect comparison (due to cannabis-based on cultivated flower whereas harvested collard greens entail the whole vegetative plant), cannabis represents a price to consumers (avg. legally and illegally) of ~$100-250/ounce, compared to <$.50-1/ounce of collard greens. That’s anywhere from 100-500x more revenue per ounce sold.

Combine massive demand with the huge premium, and it’s no surprise the underground cannabis industry was a major economic driver for the young controlled environment agriculture industry.

Innovating In Secret

Many indoor growing technologies — from high pressure (HPS) sodium lighting to metal halide lighting to LED grow lighting to specially formulated nutrient blends to rootzone technologies like rockwool, hydroponics, + aeroponics, even beneficial mycorrhizal fungi inoculants — were developed, improved, and marketed for cannabis growers, driving innovation in hydroponics and aeroponics, mostly in secrecy.

When we started our company, Grove, in 2013 with a mission to empower people to grow their own fresh, delicious food in their homes, year-round, it didn’t take long for my cofounder Jamie and I to realize the how much we owed to the cannabis industry. We found we were using the awareness, technology, and techniques developed by and for large and small scale indoor cannabis growers in most of our physical and ecological prototyping. Although cannabis is just one of the plants we set out to empower people to grow successfully, we realized we were scouring blogs and forums dominated by anonymous cannabis growers. We learned a lot from them; while they often departed from any form of the rigorous scientific method, there was no doubt these cannabis-growing forum-dwellers tended to have practical and tried-and-true responses and insights.

A Process Of Optimization

This early focus on cannabis resulted in a few defining characteristics of modern indoor farming: 

Optimizing for One Crop Type: Cannabis is a flowering crop, which means it requires nutrient blends (fertilizers) formulated with higher levels of potassium and phosphorus and high-intensity warm-spectrum lighting formulated to trigger and maintain the flowering cycle.

Focus on inorganic methods: There (traditionally) has been less of a focus or keen eye on how ‘organic’ your cannabis is — or where it came from at all. I can attest to this — growing up, my friends were just thrilled to get their hands on some and didn’t ask too many questions.

That means the growing methodology and especially nutrient regimes developed have focused less on organic, sustainable inputs and instead on highest yield. Similar focus to conventional farming throughout the 20th century — yield, yield, yield.

Industry-wide association with ‘weed’: Most consumers in the US equate the term “hydroponics” and indoor growing in general with weed. This is good and bad.

The good: it gets people talking. It’s controversial. It’s interesting.

The bad (for those of us focused on cultivating fresh produce or other medicinals): the industry association with cannabis turns a lot of consumers off from seeing the benefits of the technology. This leads to a lot of quick quips instead of real consideration.

2,000+ brick and mortar indoor growing retailers: The popularization of indoor cannabis cultivation resulted in a boom in brick and mortar indoor growing/hydroponics retailers. There are estimated to be about 2,000 stores in the USA and Canada. Access to these supplies has been a big boost for the indoor growing/smart gardening industry. For example, that’s where Jamie bought his first lighting system for our MIT dorm room setup (which led to us founding Grove).

So Thank You, Cannabis Farmers

With the continued growth in commercial high-tech indoor farming and the introduction and popularization of personal indoor farming appliances (my own company, Grove, will introduce a couple next year), indoor farming will continue to touch more parts of our everyday lives. Everyone touched by indoor farming owes a lot to those maverick cannabis growers who developed the awareness, technology, and techniques that continue to drive the industry today. These developments have helped result in much more expansive opportunities for indoor, controlled environment farming such as the opportunity to reshape how fresh produce ( ~$60B annual spend just in the US) and, more generally, how food is grown on our planet.

So thank you, cannabis farmers.

Gabe is Co-Founder, CEO of Grove. Gabe believes that inspiring and educating people to have fun growing their food is a powerful way to promote healthy food choices for both individuals and the planet.

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