There is a belief among marijuana growers that growing plants in greenhouses means getting a low-quality product. On some level, some growers are even ashamed of having cannabis greenhouses. At the same time, this way of growing can significantly decrease your electricity bills.
In Arizona, where there are no limits on the number of marijuana plants one can grow, you can find all kinds of different gardens: some may count only 5-10 plants, while others have thousands. Today, there are 99 state-licensed dispensaries in the state, and 79 of them have got permits for cannabis growing. It is difficult to track which way of growing was chosen by all these growers, but according to the estimate of the Arizona Department of Health Services, only three of these growers use greenhouses.
One of these growers is situated in Phoenix’s Grand Avenue industrial district. A regular brick warehouse hides a high-tech agricultural facility inside it. A crew of about 30 people is busy with watering, inspecting, and trimming “the ladies.” The atmosphere at Nature’s AZ Medicines is calm, the scent of marijuana is overwhelming, and while you are listening to nice old-school reggae music (growers believe that cannabis plants respond to the type of music you play them), you remain under the dazzling artificial light at all times.
The first thing you notice here is how beautiful cannabis is―the dark-green canopy of leaves reveals healthy and mighty plants. The second thing that may pop up in your mind is that electricity bills here might also be “mighty,” not to say scary.
Indeed, indoor marijuana cultivation does not come cheap. The cannabis industry uses $6 billion worth of electricity every year. And that is approximately one percent of the whole electricity in the U.S. If Arizona legalizes recreational use of marijuana in November, the numbers will be even higher.
Four years ago, a landmark study at the University of California found that each marijuana joint was an equivalent of driving almost 23 miles in a hybrid car or using a 100-watt light bulb for 25 hours.
So here comes the question: why then not grow pot outdoors? With natural (and free!) sunlight and natural wind, will the final product not turn out cheaper and better? In Arizona, with its strong sun, it seems to be logical to rely on Mother Nature that provides all (or at least most) of its resources for free.
However, growing marijuana outdoors means risking your whole crop. Insects, diseases, soil erosion, pouring rains, scalding sun―all these factors get out of your control. Add public perception and the risk of being robbed. The security problem is probably the most essential.
That is why indoor growing, which provides you total control of all the stages of growing, is more popular. Even despite high expenses, people prefer to be calm about their gardens and avoid worries about pests, natural disasters, or security breaches.
Another factor that pushes growers to go for indoor growing is low education level on agricultural practices. Most growers do not bother about any innovations. They prefer to use time-proved methods that they used to apply many years ago to their first secret gardens.
That is why today's marijuana gardens resemble unassailable fortresses that consume huge amounts of energy. The biggest part of electricity expenses lies in recreating sunlight using artificial light. And here comes a greenhouse, a cross between outdoor and indoor growing that uses sunlight and keeps you in control of other factors.
For instance, Nature’s AZ Medicines operates in both greenhouses and indoor facilities. The indoor complex takes about 14,000 square feet, and it costs $25,000 a month to provide light coverage. At the same time, two greenhouses that cover an area seven times larger (a bit more than 100,000 square feet) cost pretty much the same price.
So why not use greenhouses if they save so much money? The answer is simple. The lack of control.
The greenhouse method indeed can save you a fortune on electricity, but then you have to face other problems. Unstable light, lack of climate control, high risk of pest contamination, and, of course, unwanted attention from the public. Even the specialists at Nature’s AZ Medicines admit that so far, it has been easier to grow cannabis indoors.
The more control you have over the growing, the fewer problems you face. As a result, indoor-grown marijuana is considered higher-quality than the one grown in a greenhouse. But is lower cost worth the quality loss?
“There is absolutely a quality difference between indoor and greenhouse marijuana. Indoor is much higher quality,” believes Jennifer Gote, a cultivation consultant who works in Arizona dispensaries.
Last year, Arizona growers grew and sold more almost 20 tons of medical cannabis. The exact price of this marijuana is unknown, but New Times estimated it was more that $215 million. The national legal cannabis market was around $5.5 billion in revenue in 2015. According to a report by ArcView Market Research, this number can reach $21.8 billion by 2020.
So far, most of this weed has been grown in energy-intensive indoor facilities. And that means that a big part of the revenue goes to paying electricity bills. Is it possible to find a way to get the best from both, indoor and greenhouse, methods and grow high-quality marijuana with low costs? That is what we need to find out.