The Unique Challenges of Cannabis Cultivation

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The Unique Challenges of Cannabis Cultivation

Cannabis Cultivation – A Unique Set of Challenges

Growing cannabis has its own set of challenges are specific to this complex little plant. Colloquially called ‘weed’, cannabis will grow easily just like a weed outdoors but to grow a cannabinoid-rich plant that produces potent, marketable THC, CBD, or CBG, you’ll need to do more than drop a few seeds into soil.  

Before embarking on a cannabis grow operation, it pays to do plenty of research so that you’re realistic about the challenges that growing cannabis or hemp involves. This will ensure not only a successful grow but also a cultivation business that will thrive.

Table of Contents:

1. A Constantly Changing Patchwork of Cannabis Laws

2. Taxes

3. Choosing between a greenhouse, indoor grow, or hybrid facility

4. The Cannabis Plant Lifecycle

5. The Constant Manipulation of Light Sources

6. Volatile Industry Trends and Market Demands

7. The Challenge of Minimizing Costs

8. The Challenge of Maximizing Yields (Quality and Quantity)

A Constantly Changing Patchwork of Cannabis Laws 

Your first challenge is the most obvious but often underestimated: the complex legal framework surrounding hemp and cannabis cultivation in the US. At time of writing there is a constantly evolving patchwork of cannabis and hemp laws across all 50 states. These range from zero legalization states like Idaho and Iowa, through to openly legal (yet heavily taxed and regulated) states like California—a state that is in itself the largest (both legal and illicit) cannabis market in the world.  

(Note: at the time of writing, all cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds above 0.3% THC remain illegal at the federal level.) 

Thanks to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill that legalized hemp and its derivatives across all 50 states, hemp oil is legal at the federal level but only if it’s derived from hemp—not cannabis. And it gets even more confusing because while hemp and cannabis are the exact same plant, “hemp” is legally defined as a cannabis plant that contains less than 0.3% THC.  

Things get a lot more complex at the state level. 

With 35+ states at different stages of legalization, it’s critical to do your homework and learn all about your own state’s laws before undertaking any cannabis or hemp cultivation. You may also want to investigate laws that are about to be implemented to mitigate business risk.  

It’s also important to be aware of your state’s laws around transporting your harvested cannabis or hemp crop across state lines. Even if you’re transporting from one fully legal state to another fully legal state, like from California to Oregon, you may still be breaking the law by just crossing the border. So, it pays to do your homework. 

Start by finding out if your local government has a pro-cannabis mindset. It sounds obvious but determining the legality and philosophy of your city/county government towards cannabis and hemp cultivation is the first and most critical step before taking any action.  

Checklist of questions to consider:  

  • Does your city or county permit, or better yet promote legal cultivation? 
  • How difficult is the approval process to gain your cannabis cultivation license/permits? 
  • What new laws/regulations are in the pipeline?  

Learn more about the cannabis greenhouse construction process.  


Taxes are one of the biggest challenges for “mom-and-pop” small business cannabis growers and will vary greatly from state to state. Excise taxes can vary greatly depending on your state, so it pays to do your research as you’re planning your cannabis cultivation facility. 

Your local and/or state government may charge you an excise tax for the privilege of growing in their area. This tax (and other related taxes) will directly impact the profitability of your crop and needs to be considered when planning your business.  

An excise tax can be (depending on your state) something like $15 per square foot per year. The tax may even be charged on a per pound basis of something like 15% and will take a good chunk out of your profit margins.  

To learn more about the taxes in your state we encourage you to go directly to your local AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) to learn about the tax laws regarding cannabis cultivation in your state.

Choosing between a greenhouse, indoor grow, or hybrid facility.

Any serious cannabis cultivator will need to make a decision on whether to build a cannabis cultivation greenhouse or retrofit a warehouse for indoor grow. 

The Prospiant and Cannabis Business Times’ 2021 State of the Cannabis Cultivation Industry Report <upload PDF to website> has revealed a very strong trend toward indoor grow facilities (or a hybrid of indoor & greenhouse) over cannabis or hemp outdoor grows.  

The main reason for this popularity is that it’s easier to control the environment indoors even though you’re going to have to invest a lot more money into equipment and building out structures.  

Indoor grows were the dominant operating facilities reported by this year’s research participants. The vast majority (80%) of participants reported cultivation operations taking place in an indoor environment (whether purpose-built or a retrofitted structure), which is a figure up 20 percentage points from 2020. 

When choosing what style of indoor grow to construct for your particular operation, an array of factors will drive the verdict. You must weigh the balance of capital and operational costs while being realistic about your capabilities to manage the “plant factory” you’re purchasing because indoor grows don’t run themselves. However,  environmental automation will reduce human labor costs significantly.  

Some decisions may be made based on geographic climate and your specific state’s regulations. The degree to which the environment is controlled is often associated with the desired final product—for example boutique flower end-products will require greater care than extracted THC oil. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to cannabis cultivation, and what is successful today may not be profitable tomorrow. Staying adaptable to the changing market forces is critical.

Learn more about what type of cannabis cultivation structure will work for you.

The Cannabis Plant Lifecycle

Yet another factor that makes cannabis cultivation unique is the lifecycle of the plant itself. Each various phase of growth has its own specific nutrient, water, and light needs. These all have to be carefully monitored and considered throughout the entire lifecycle of the plant to ensure a successful crop.  

As an annual flowering plant, the cannabis plant’s life cycle is limited to one season and after harvest, the plant dies. This lifecycle can start in a couple of different ways, but typically the plant makes its way through a vegetative and flowering period before harvest. Commercial growers will propagate their plants typically using one of three techniques: seed, cuttings, or tissue culture.   

As your plant matures and enters the flowering phase it’s in this stage that the cannabinoid-rich trichomes will be produced. A photoperiod of 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark is induced to begin the flowering cycle.  

Controlling this dark period is very important and all light leaks should be prevented, as interruptions to the dark period have been associated with hermaphroditism in female plants, causing the production of pollen sacs.   

Upon harvest, cannabis plants are removed from the cultivation environment and transitioned to any number of steps depending on the desired final end-product.  

Growing cannabis is different from many other flowers, but at the end of the day it still requires many of the same inputs any other photosynthesizing plant needs just at a pace unique to this complex little ‘weed’.  

Creating a balance of light, air, and water components is key to growing a successful crop. Growers can drive cannabis productivity by manipulating these factors to increase yield by improving each component in tandem with the others.   

Learn more about the cannabis lifecycle and the perfect balance of air, water, and light.

The Constant Manipulation of Light Sources

“Cannabis loves light” is a familiar axiom in cannabis cultivation circles.  

Quite often, many will cite that adding 1% light equates to a 1% increase in yield. Research is beginning to show a potential linear correlation between light intensity and yield up to 1,800 umol/m2/s or nearly 80 DLI/m2 over a 12-hour period. This is an enormous amount of light! Nearly 3x times the recommended level for tomatoes and 5x times that of lettuce. Cannabis’ ability to utilize such a high amount of light into the production of cannabinoids has brought new perspective to driving the plant.   

The added challenges is that as cannabis photosynthesizes more light, it requires additional carbon dioxide and water. Due to the sugars made during photosynthesis, the plant grows faster and needs additional nutrients along with oxygen to undergo cellular respiration.  

Providing too much light and not enough of these other elements may create more harm than good and is why many facilities aim for 25-35DLI/m2 of light.  

You then have to figure the cost of electricity into your equation. Supplementing light via grow lights can prove quite expensive from a capital and operational cost perspective. In some cases, it may be more effective to build additional cultivation areas. When selecting a grow light it is important to look at what type of light cannabis uses.   

In the world of horticulture light is often measured in terms of photosynthetically active radiation, or PAR. This range measures light in the ranges of 400-700 nanometers in wavelength, similar to how humans see light in the visible spectrum from 380-750 nanometers.  

The PAR spectrum is used because plants primarily use light in this range during photosynthesis. However, even in the PAR spectrum all light is not equal, as certain wavelengths induce photosynthesis and other reactions. 

Learn more about PAR and light for optimum cannabis growth.

Volatile Industry Trends and Market Demands

To best choose a future facility, one must look at what the industry will become in 2022, 2023 and beyond.  

Current emerging cannabis cultivation trends include:  

  • Focus on water conservation 
  • Emphasis on efficiency  
  • Brands scaling to new markets 
  • Crop steering 
  • More cutting-edge studies and reports about cannabis 

To learn more about current industry trends and the latest market forecasts, we encourage you to read the Prospiant and Cannabis Business Times’ 2021 State of the Cannabis Cultivation Industry Report.

The Challenge of Minimizing Costs

Many growers who are looking to design and build an indoor grow cannabis cultivation facility go in with the mindset of minimizing the costs of construction and operations.  

However, with this mindset, the problem that arises is that a bare minimum standard must be reached—because cannabis can be grown by simply sowing a seed in soil. But to economically grow cannabis in a controlled environment certain criterion must be met, and the equipment required to meet this criterion can change depending on property, climate, and regulations.   

Learn more about how to minimize costs and boost profit margins.

The Challenge of Maximizing Yields (Quality and Quantity)

There’s an entire science around maximizing your cannabis yield so that you can make better profit margins. And while most people may think it’s about the quantity of biomass produced, it’s becoming more about maximizing its quality to ensure a valuable—and potent—end-product. Market demands are pushing the need for both terpene-rich flavors AND high THC concentrations.  

In most cases, market value will equal potency, flavor, and effects which includes the amount of active cannabis compounds such as terpenes and cannabinoids such as THC, CBD, and CBG. 

To maximize quality and quantity of yields you need to evaluate and optimize the core pillars of cannabis cultivation. Once you have these covered you are more likely to produce a successful crop.  

Learn more about how to maximize your cannabis yield quality and quantity.

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