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Articles

Reaching new heights through vertical farming

Ethan Matthews

The Oregon Innovation Center

The Oregon Innovation Center

Advances in LED grow light systems allow horticulture technicians to farm vertically and make the most of their space. Low heat LED solutions allow us to place lights as little as 1 foot above the canopy, whereas previous industry standard lights (HPS, HID, CFL) needed to be up to 12 feet or more above leaf surface to create an environment where plants won’t burn. Just like a productive city, an efficient use of vertical space is key to modern indoor farming.

We’ve heard the horror stories from the front lines – farms with enthusiasm to grow in a burgeoning new industry but strapped by monthly electricity bills larger than rent. Whether you’re new to cannabis cultivation, or a seasoned grower you’re probably already aware of the considerable energy it can take to keep your operation lit. How can we double or even triple our yields while spending less on electricity? By fitting more plants into the same amount of space and allocating less resources to energy needs.

 

We at Sunscape have aimed our R&D on solutions that focus on enabling vertical farming, as well as more traditional methods.

The vast majority of indoor cannabis farms are still growing using a single level of space, even when using LED solutions. Although LED lighting can positively impact cultivation in single-level farming systems by keeping energy costs lower, we can also increase yield by 100% or more by going vertical! It is also our desire to help cultivators in a systemic fashion to improve their operations. Growing vertically is a great way to increase yield and quality, while working with the most new and innovative methods and technologies

What have we found? Setting up a properly configured vertical cannabis operation requires some planning, but is well within reach...

Here at Sunscape our R&D has been oriented toward vertical farming from the beginning – in fact our first case study employed a vertical growing solution that more than doubled output for a struggling medical cannabis grower in Los Angeles.

Vertical, CEA farming also brings you the opportunity to use faster growing clones. By eliminating the male counterpart and producing faster, more predictable harvests, cloning allows your indoor grow some obvious advantages.  With clones and LED solutions harvesting and replanting can occur much faster – now it’s not only the size of the harvest itself that counts, but our replanting and overall harvest cycle speed. With the latest LED semiconductor tech we can save money, grow more, and grow more consistently. We also have a rare industry opportunity where saving money is positively correlated with being environmentally friendly. Every natural products company I’ve ever worked with desired to do better for the environment, even if they weren’t hitting on all cylinders with their sustainability programs. Creating a sustainable future is a win-win outcome for growers and consumers, and cannabis cultivators are set to become the next major force in the natural products world. Luckily our industry has a culture of innovation just like the natural products industry as a whole. The future looks very bright!

 

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Some important things to consider when building a vertical farm:

 

1). Start with a two-tier system, and only add more tiers when you know you are ready.

It’s tempting to grow to the roof when implementing your first vertical solution. Be forewarned, that even with cool running LEDs heat can start to increase when growing on more than two tiers. Your jurisdiction’s code requirements may also prevent racks from being built to the moon. Zoning definitions can vary by city and depend on whether you are in an industrial, commercial, or mixed use zone. University of California has some zoning resources available related to urban agriculture, and you can check your local regulations at the city level.

Also consider that building higher means your grower may need more than a simple rolling step ladder to access the third or highest level. You need at least 4-5 feet per tier to house the plants AND lighting, and even though this is a lot less than HPS and other lighting systems there are still limits.

 

2). Ergonomics: for infrastructure and growers

Make sure to leave plenty of space for any other infrastructure needed – from cooling, to watering and fertigation systems. This means both pre-planned vertical space for infrastructure, as well as aisle space between racking systems. This is where your growers spend the most of their time. Just like with vertical space, it’s tempting to fit as much horizontally as you can, but keep in mind that you need a solid, navigable workspace for your growers to do their best work!

 

3). Drainage

Keep in mind that waste water drainage is more complex when building a vertical system. If you haven’t already had a plumber do a consultation it may be the time to do so before implementing your first vertical system. This is true when expanding any operation type, but it’s particularly important with vertical farming. The piping materials you use need to be sound because if a pipe were to rupture for any reason (due to back up or some other fault) you could potentially impact or lose a significant amount of plant material. There are also differing laws on and regulations on the kinds of nutrients that can end up in wastewater. Your waste treatment system needs to conform to the standards in your area; the EPA keeps general regulations for agriculture. Hyperlogic provides some fantastic information to help you get started on this deep topic as it applies to the cannabis industry.

 

4). Plan for plant proper height

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Some strains may naturally grow too tall to fit your vertical system properly, even when cloned from a mother. Grower research is essential before deciding on rack space height. You may want to plan for some racks that are taller and have more tier space, or still holding some amount of one-tier area(s) within your operation with LEDs that can be raised and lowered. Decide where you are doing your vegetative phase vs. flowering early on in your process. Certain strains will still gain height in the flowering stage, but most do not. Again, proper research is necessary so you can work with the strains you really want to, especially if you have limited growing space.

These are some basic things to consider whether you are deciding on the design for your first operation, or scaling up to a vertical solution in your current operation. We at Sunscape and our Innovation Center are happy to provide further information on what we’re doing to make the best use of vertical space. We advise and are also available for on-site consultations. You can also visit The Innovation Center directly – set up an appointment with us today!

 

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