For cannabis growers who plant outdoors, turning leaves signify the fall harvest. During the month of October — colloquially known as Croptober — cultivators throughout Colorado cut down their marijuana fields, the first step in the plants’ journey to reach consumers at dispensaries.
Growing outside is reminiscent of the days before cannabis was legal, when producers raised their crop in hidden fields rather than in today’s high-tech indoor operations, which come with expensive lighting apparatuses, air monitoring equipment and soil treatment.
But, it isn’t easy. Growers contend with unpredictable weather, pests and natural disasters, like wildfires. They also face a long-rooted stigma that sun-grown cannabis is inferior to the flower grown indoors. Still, those who grow outside — including with greenhouses — point to plenty of benefits. Lower startup and operational costs allow them to increase their profit margins, while their operations have a lesser impact on the environment.
From growers’ perspectives, 2022 is a good year to be out in the sunshine.
“This year and last year, weather-wise, were ideal,” said Anthony Romero, director of operations at Pueblo West’s Stratos, which completed its harvest last week with almost 1,000 plants. “We’ve been able to wait for everything to finish, and take it down at our pace, instead of having to hurry against that snow or the cold.”
Cultivators are increasingly looking to pinch pennies as well. The average cannabis wholesale price recently fell to an all-time low of $658 per pound for flower, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. That’s down 7% from the previous low of $709 per pound on July 1. The previous low point was $759 per pound in 2018.
Factors contributing to the price slump include an oversupply of product and a drop in demand, due to inflation and legalization in neighboring states, said Truman Bradley, executive director of Marijuana Industry Group. Eager to win over consumers, dispensaries are also competing to offer product discounts.
Mike Biggio, co-owner of Area 420 near Moffat, estimates the cost of production for indoor grow houses near Denver is over $1,000 a pound. That includes electricity for grow lights, air conditioners and heaters, dehumidifiers and carbon dioxide generators.
“Doing it outdoors, we’re a fraction of that – I’d say 10%,” Biggio said. At Area 420, the sun “is providing that power for us” for free.
Obstacles, benefits of sun-grown marijuana
Colorado’s recreational industry got its start indoors because the first municipalities to allow cultivation were in urban areas, such as Denver and Boulder, Bradley said. It wasn’t until Pueblo opted to allow recreational businesses that the industry started to see outdoor, or sun-grown, marijuana grows.
Early regulations also required dispensaries to be vertically integrated, meaning they had to grow the vast majority of the crop they sold. When Colorado got rid of the requirement in 2014, businesses focusing exclusively on cultivation flourished, Bradley said.
Today, Colorado cultivators grow outdoors in a variety of ways. In February or March, Stratos’ farming team gathers clones, or cuttings of marijuana plants, from its one-acre outdoor plot and then protects them inside of a greenhouse. After the last frost of the year – typically in May and June – the plants move outdoors. From there, the length of the growing process depends on the strain.
But success also relies on the weather. Wind and hail can damage the plants, while wildfire smoke can contaminate them, said Chelsey Joseph, founder and CEO of The Republic, an outdoor grow and dispensary in Boulder.
Joseph recently harvested about 1,500 plants from her farm, which were planted in long rows exposed to the elements like any other crop. She previously used a greenhouse, but, in 2021, the weather that drove the Marshall Fire blew the roof off.
“We have to stay very nimble,” she said. “Our cultivation team is constantly running through contingency plans and what-if scenarios, so we can act quickly if there’s a change in weather or unexpected environmental hazard.”
Pests also present challenges. This year, caterpillars that burrow into marijuana flowers were Stratos’ biggest issue, Romero said.
Despite the obstacles, advocates are quick to tout the benefits of sun-grown pot. In addition to being cost-effective, it’s also energy efficient.
A 2021 Colorado State University study sought to quantify the environmental impact from indoor cannabis cultivation. Researchers estimated indoor growing accounted for 1.3% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the state, Colorado Public Radio reported. Comparatively, coal mining contributed 1.8%, the station said.
“At the end of the day, the sun is going to be powerful; the wind and the weather are what they are. It’s more about selecting the best environment,” said Amanda Reiman, chief knowledge officer at analytics firm New Frontier Data.
At Area 420, a 420-acre plot that works like a co-op for marijuana licensees, a water table sits about six feet underground and is accessible with menial irrigation. Biggio said the soil lacks many heavy metals, meaning plants grown there can more easily pass the state’s safety and testing requirements.
Area 420’s growing season at 7,566 feet in elevation is shorter, but the conditions are so ideal that Biggio, who maintains a year-round greenhouse, is planning to add an outdoor plot next year.
Climate and cannabis
Colorado produced more than 17 million plants for medical and recreational use in 2021, and the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division reported that an average of 1,258,552 plants are cultivated monthly.
New Frontier Data estimates that indoor accounts for roughly 50% of legal weed in Colorado, while greenhouses account for 35% and outdoor contributes 15%. In 2021, growers harvested about 427,000 pounds of indoor cannabis, 299,000 pounds of greenhouse and 128,000 pounds of outdoor, the firm reported. It expects those figures to decrease in 2022.
New Frontier Data predicts that, by 2030, Colorado will continue to grow equally as much indoor as greenhouse and outdoor cannabis combined, with greenhouses being the predominant outdoor form. That will be in response to climate change, Reiman said. But, for now, “we should be throwing weight behind what’s sustainable.”
“There’s no reason to force people into highly energy-intensive cultivation if the climate doesn’t require it,” Reiman said.
But some key players in the local industry, such as Native Roots Cannabis Co., avoid growing outdoors altogether. The reasons “all tie back to quality,” said Buck Dutton, vice president of marketing.
Indoor grows don’t confine them to a singular growing season or leave them vulnerable to weather and pests. Alternatively, growing indoors puts every function into their control “so that we can produce the highest quality of flower possible,” Dutton said.
“Top shelf [flower] is usually grown indoors because the environment can be more controlled,” said Bradley. “Not to say outdoor flower doesn’t make it to the dispensary, because it does. But a significant portion of cannabis grown outdoors is used for extraction to make oil and edibles, concentrates, extracts and tinctures.”
Flower is the most popular product choice among consumers; it remains to be seen if demand will gravitate toward sun-grown strains. Joseph at The Republic hopes to entice customers by helping them save money.
“We’re currently selling outdoor for $75 to $100 an ounce,” she said. “It’s very affordable.”