Environment & Ecology• Agriculture

Can Sustainable Cannabis Disrupt Big Agriculture?

On the cusp of broader legalization, the cannabis industry prepares for more competition, as well as helping reform and improve other fields of farming nationwide.
Christine Giraud

Massachusetts voted by referendum in November of 2016 to legalize recreational cannabis. As of late September 2018, only 38 businesses had gotten recreational licenses. In light of this slow pace, it’s fair to say people still don’t feel like the industry has quite taken off. One silver lining is that the state has a good amount of time to draft environmental regulations before business gets very active. As part of its Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA), Massachusetts must reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent (below 1990 levels) by 2050. A work group has been formed with representatives from the energy, agriculture, and waste departments to recommend regulations to the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), the main governing body for the industry. 

Since cannabis is a crop, albeit one that’s been in hiding for decades, it’s useful to get a snapshot of agriculture in Massachusetts before considering how cannabis may change the game. Nearly 1,600 producers in the area grow vegetables and fruit. The majority of farms are individually or family owned (82 percent) and fall into the United States Department of Agriculture category of “small farms” (95 percent), meaning their gross income is under $350,000 per year. The average Massachusetts farm is 68 acres in size and has $64,000 in annual sales. A short growing season, harsh winters, competition for land, high labor costs, and high national competition make farming here difficult. At the same time, the agricultural culture is entrepreneurial, with many farms taking advantage of diversified farming and a strong farmers market program. 

The growing legalization of cannabis at the state level has made its federal legality seem much more likely at some point in the future. That has sparked excitement among activists who see this as not just a way to free the plant from prohibition, but to challenge “Big Agriculture.” The heavy technology used to keep cannabis alive underground was so environmentally compromising that state governments need to mandate new, sustainable ways of growing. And if this creates a precedent for government to impose more stringent regulation on one crop—cannabis—then government may be convinced to similarly regulate environmentally harmful practices common with other industrial crops. 

The high energy needs of the cannabis industry are a legacy of its prohibition. Forced indoors, growers became skilled at cultivating cannabinoid-rich flowers by using high pressure sodium (HPS) lights. Such lights can increase the temperature in a grow room by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit, so heat, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems had to be used to maintain a consistent temperature. 

This adds up to lot of energy use. According to a 2011 study done by researcher Evan Mills at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, cannabis growing, both illicit and legal, consumes around 1 percent of U.S. electricity output, or enough to power two million average homes, and contributes greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to three million cars. A single joint represents 2 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions. 

Legalization has made changing traditional practices imperative, given that a lot more cannabis is likely to be grown soon. When Matthew Leder started growing cannabis in rural Ashby two years ago, he didn’t consider using sustainable methods for cannabis like he did in his vegetable garden. But now he’s working very hard to do so. For example, his water source will be collected rainwater, with his private well for backup. Leder has one greenhouse with a dehumidifier. Outdoor growing in the summer will be supplemented with growing autoflowering cannabis (which flowers regardless of changes in the light/dark cycle) in the greenhouse, with LED lights during the winter. The seedlings in April will get a head start indoors. Black barrels full of water will heat up during the day and warm the greenhouse at night. When it’s too cold, he’ll put in a heat generator. The HVAC system will be normally used only for fans pushing and pulling air in and out.

Leder knows he is part of a political movement, and everyone else in the cannabis industry knows it too. Cannabis has always been a politically charged plant since the 1930s, so it’s no surprise that activists fighting “Big Ag” have made it the center of their movement. 

Two groups are using cannabis to steer us away from monoculture and fight climate change. Both agree that cannabis is uniquely suited to lead this fight because it’s a resource-intensive crop and in a process of reinvention. Both groups think overconsumption is a problem. Both are thinking long-term. And both agree that small-scale, local farming is ideal. But each group has very different visions of how to get there.

One side of the pro-cannabis movement advocates for looking at agriculture in a way we might call “holistic,” encompassing all input resources—water, energy, soil, air, the entire ecosystem. Perhaps counterintuitively, they are adjusting to climate change in order to fight it. They recognize climate change is taking a toll on agricultural outfits large and small, especially with unpredictable seasons. Small-scale farmers are turning to artificial environments that are protected from climate change in order to grow dependably and sustainably.

Anya Gordon is CEO of GroTec Builders, a firm in Portland, Oregon, that designs and builds sustainable “grows.” A believer in the holistic view, Gordon thinks cannabis is shaking things up more than any other crop because of its history of bring grown indoors. “Cannabis has put a massive spotlight on agriculture. Because it is so resource intensive, because it’s not economically 

sustainable on its own now that it’s legal, we have to fix the industry. That will change all of agriculture. If you can use an artificial grow with a minimal impact on the environment, why wouldn’t you?”

Upfront costs of setting up the most efficient grows may intimidate small-scale farmers, but those costs can range widely. According to Tony Kiefer of Arch Solar, a greenhouse design firm in Portland, Maine, there are innovative ways to get to a sustainable future for every farmer. “It doesn’t have to be done all upfront. You need to be planning for it and open to it.” 

An example of an affordable grow that uses technology to have a minimal impact on the environment is the “grow box,” a greenhouse built out of refurbished shipping containers by Arch Solar. They’re insulated, customizable, and energy efficient, with a hybrid indoor-outdoor structure. Tony Kiefer, an Arch Solar consultant, knows many farmers want to grow sustainably but don’t have a lot of capital. “We felt from talking to growers that there was a need for this option when starting out. In so doing, you don’t have to give away 35 percent of your money to a venture capitalist.”

In contrast to the holistic farmers are fans of the “slow cannabis” movement, found primarily on the West Coast. They’re interested in creating a long-term strategy connected to a region’s sustainable agricultural traditions. Because outdoor growing limits harvests, slow cannabis forces us to consider how much we really need to be happy and healthy. 

Slow cannabis does have its believers in New England. Sanford Lewis, an environmental lawyer and general counsel of the Sustainable Cannabis Project of Western Massachusetts, is working to support cannabis farmers who want to grow seasonally, outside. The CCC offered half-price licensing fees for outdoor growing, but pressure from local governments worried about odor and security has resulted in most licensed cultivation being indoors so far. “We live in an agricultural region, and we put up with all kinds of smells in our community. The smell of marijuana is not worse than the smell of manure. I’m not suggesting that we put in massive marijuana farms, but I do think we have to have some level of tolerance for farming it in the region.” 

If and when cannabis becomes federally legal and Big Ag gets into the game, vast fields of marijuana may become the norm. Could small farmers survive by imitating producers in food, wine, and beer—growing unique, localized strains of “craft cannabis”? 

Massachusetts does have a tradition of supporting local farmers. With time, that may extend to cannabis. According to Eric Schwartz, co-founder of the cannabis-friendly Farm Bug Co-op, “The farmers here are sustainably minded. The local food movement has been a big influence in Massachusetts and New England. There’s a good farmers market system. That kind of culture and mindset already exists.”

California in fact already uses a wine-like cannabis “appellation” system to help craft-cannabis farms establish legal appellations of county origin. This transparency would be advantageous for farmers in Massachusetts as well. The state’s CCC has taken the initiative to implement some of the strongest energy restrictions on growers of any state. Potential energy use has been capped at 36 watts per square foot of cultivation space for large farms, 50 watts per square foot for small farms (under 5,000 square feet). 

Sam Milton, principal of Climate Resources Group and a consultant to the CCC, stresses that one thing seriously lacking in the industry has been data. Right now, there is no clear plan for how to collect that data. One regulation already in place is that after one year of operation, facilities must report their energy consumption. That should help better understand the industry. 

Growers are a traditional bunch, and many still prefer old HPS lights over LED, for example. Now there are new technologies to cut energy, such as combined heat and power (CHP) systems, and growers should learn about their benefits. 

There’s also a need to educate communities about cannabis. With a few exceptions, most towns that have allowed cannabis grows are zoning them as industrial, which means growing plants indoors and usually on the outskirts of town. As mentioned above, odor and security are major concerns.

Matthew Leder has met some resistance in Ashby, particularly over water use, but he told town representatives that he was using his own resources and they let it go. For his part, he isn’t worried about the town, for now. Like a lot of his fellow farmers growing up and going legit in a newly legal industry, he’s got a lot on his mind already.