How Green Is Your Weed? Mass. Limits Energy Usage For Marijuana Growers 07:33
So far just a single grower in Massachusetts has been approved to start sowing marijuana seeds for adult-recreational use. The first crop of pot will be ready to harvest in the fall.
And the state has high expectations that suppliers of marijuana to shops will go green. New regulations set strict limits — some of the toughest in the nation — on the amount of energy growers can use to raise their plants.
The Cannabis Control Commission’s Energy Working Group traveled around the state to hear the concerns of growers and about the new energy regulations.
“We understand that marijuana cultivation and product manufacturing is one of the most energy-intense industries that there is right now,” says Commissioner Kay Doyle.
The energy footprint of a typical indoor pot-growing facility is eight to 10 times that of a similar size office space. One study found 3 percent of the electricity used in California went for raising weed.
Doyle says that is why the CCC needs to enforce the energy regulations from the start.
“We want to make sure that it is not something that throws us out of whack with the Global Warming Solutions Act,” she says.
That 2008 act requires Massachusetts to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels. But the energy needed to grow a single pound of pot indoors can put 5,000 pounds of climate-changing CO2 into the atmosphere.
‘Goldilocks Zone Of Environment’
Peter Bernard is helping to solve the problem with an active, but laid-back, approach. On his porch in Taunton, he grinds up some homegrown, fills a rolling paper, and lights up.
Once a type-A tech guy, Bernard began growing medical marijuana after hurting his back. Now he is executive director of the Massachusetts Growers Advocacy Council. He represents cultivators large and small, helping craft growers and corporations navigate the complex state marijuana regulations.
“If I’m talking to a legislator or a regulator and I’m trying to be all proper, it’s cannabis,” he says. “If I’m talking to my friends, it’s weed or, ‘Let’s smoke a bone.’ “
Bernard runs the council out of his home, where he also raises his private stash.
Bernard places his hand next to one of his mature marijuana plants growing beneath LED lights to show how large the buds are. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A window air conditioner and dehumidifier hum in the background. The electric bill for his small grow room runs about $110 a month.
“Cannabis likes to have a Goldilocks zone of environment,” Bernard says. “Your temperature has to be just right. Your humidity has to be just right. If you do, they’re going to be at their happiest.”
The plants Bernard cultivates look very content; two stalks of Blue Dream have big flowering buds. They grow under a purple light cast by an expensive LED lamp. Nearby, in a separate reflective tent, two Blue Magoos are bathed in yellow, growing under a low-cost ceramic metal halide lights.
During the 70-day flowering season the lamps are on 12 hours a day.
Bernard’s small crop highlights the challenges large producers will face trying to meet the new state energy regulations.
Those growing over 10,000 square feet of pot are limited to 36 watts of power per square foot of canopy. For smaller commercial growers the limit is 50 watts.
Bernard acknowledges the regs are complicated.
“This is why people are having a problem with this wattage deal,” he says. His ceramic metal halide light costs $150. His energy efficient LED costs $850. “But, the ceramic metal halide cost me $40 a month to run,” says Bernard. “The LED cost me $8. So you’re paying now or you’re paying later.”
Or, you can use renewables. The regulations state that if a commercial grower gets 100 percent of their energy from resources off the grid, they can use as much electricity as they want.
“It’s going to force larger growers to think outside the box to solve their lighting problems,” says Bernard. “There are a lot of really viable LED solutions, but the capital upfront investment of that could be prohibitive.”
Step Inside The STEM Box
STEM Cultivation co-founder and chief technology officer Chris Denaro slides PVC columns, each one holding up to 12 cannabis plants, into the center aisle of the STEM Box. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Alternatively, growers can think inside the box.
Chris Denaro, co-founder and chief tech officer of STEM Cultivation, built a prototype of the company’s system in a Salem warehouse.
“Basically, this is going to be a prebuilt modular grow system,” he says.
The STEM Box is designed to use science, technology, engineering and math to produce pot the most energy efficient way, says Denaro.
“As a mechanical engineer this was a dream project for me,” he says. “I got to just take all of the coolest technologies and put together a system to help maximize yield and efficiency of growing.”
The STEM Box is a self-contained, vertical, hydroponic pot farm. Roots, mounted in 24 plastic columns that slide in and out for harvesting, are automatically fed precise amounts of water and nutrients. A 5-ton AC keeps 240 plants Goldilocks happy.
The LED lights are so bright you have to wear shades. The state-of-the-art LED bulbs lining the STEM Box are made by a Massachusetts company. The lights are intense and positioned just right to maximize plant canopy exposure.
“To us, efficiency equals cost. More efficiency, lower cost. It’s as simple as that,” says STEM Cultivation CEO Kyle Moffitt. He is the money guy and estimates that in the three months it takes to grow 40 pounds of pot in a STEM Box, the system will use the same amount of electricity as the average home in a year.
STEM Cultivation co-founders Chris Denaro and Kyle Moffitt stand in a prototype of the STEM Box. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The STEM business model has licensed growers renting the boxes and growing the plants. They can add to the module 10 x 10 x 25 boxes as demand for recreational pot increases.
Moffitt says the STEM startup needs seed money to begin production. He’ll grow pot to grow the business.
“What we’d like to do is grow ourselves, get a micro business cultivator license, just up to 5,000 square feet,” he says. “And that R&D will help fund the business.”
Moffitt predicts the future of STEM is bright.
“It could get big fast because our objective is so clear,” he says. “We’re trying to figure out what is the absolute most efficient way to grow cannabis — really any plant, and that’s why we call it a universal agronomy system. It can be used for anything.”
Marijuana could be the tip of the iceberg. Lettuce that is. There are already a few companies in Boston using hydroponics in shipping containers to raise crops like lettuce.
Energy consultant Sam Milton, principal with Climate Resources Group in Arlington, says the lessons learned from efficiently cultivating could lead to much bigger ambitions.
“For me the exciting part about this industry is that I see it as a bridge to a future where we have real sustainable urban agriculture where we’re growing the plants we need to feed our community here in Boston,” Milton says.
So imagine: energy efficient, sustainable, vertical, indoor farming that can one day feed a hungry world. Pioneered, in part, by pot.
This segment aired on June 29, 2018.
Bruce Gellerman is an award-winning journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.
Butterfly Weed Seeds
To determine if a plant is sufficiently cold hardy, the USDA created numbered zones indicating winter low temperatures; the lower the zone number the colder the winter.
- If the coldest winter temperature expected in your area is -15°F (zone 5) then any plants rated zones 3-5 will survive the winter temperatures in your area.
- If you live in very warm winter areas (zones 9-11) plants with zones 3-4 ratings are not recommended. The lack of freezing winter temperatures do not provide a time for winter dormancy (rest).
Find Your Planting Zone:
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is one of our great North American native flowers with rich Indian and medicinal history. The brilliant orange blooms light up meadows dramatically, and of course, visits by butterflies are a bonus. This wildflower, also prized as a garden perennial, is not easy to grow, but once established, is a tough, dependable colormaker.
Native Range for Asclepias tuberosa (Butterfly Weed) – AL, AR, AZ, CA, CO, CT, DC, DE, FL, GA, IA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MA, MD, ME, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, NE, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WI, WV.
Attract Butterflies To Your Garden With Milkweed!
Understanding Milkweed (Asclepias) Seed & Germinating
Germination: To start Milkweed seed we recommend starting inside, but before this happens Milkweed seeds need to go through a cold stratification period. Cold stratification is very important for the germination and growth of Milkweed. It helps break the seeds natural dormancy cycle. To do this, we recommend placing Milkweed seed in a damp paper towel or damp sand in a zip lock bag and place in your fridge for 3 – 6 weeks (30 days). Place in an area of the fridge, where it won’t get damaged. We taped ours to the bottom of a refrigerator shelf.
Planting In Spring: Once the 30 days are complete, it’s time to plant the cold stratified Milkweed (asclepias) seeds. We recommend planting in 2-4” peat pots. Fill peat pots ¾ of the way with seed starting potting soil and gently add water. Water should be able to drain through the peat pots. Once the soil is damp, place 1-2 cold stratified seeds into each pot. To finish, place 1/4 inch of soil on top of the seed.
Planting In Fall: If you’re planting Milkweed seed in the fall, let nature do the cold stratification for you! There is no need to place your seeds in the refrigerator before planting, you can plant seeds directly into the soil after there have been a few frosts in your area. This allows for the seeds to remain dormant for the winter and come up in the early spring. Clear away any existing growth and using your index finger to measure, create 1.5" holes for each Milkweed seed. We recommend spacing seeds about 4-6” apart. Place a seed in each hole and cover. Water thoroughly.
Watering: Gently water the planted seed to give additional hydration. The best way to water is from the bottom up. Use a flat pan under the peat pots and add a half inch of water to the bottom of the tray. Don’t over water as it can cause fungus. Water every day or every other day as needed, the best way to test the soil dampness is to touch it. If the soil seems dry then add water; if it’s wet, wait for the soil to dry out to water.
Light Requirements: For the next few weeks, make sure the Milkweed is either in a sunny window, in a green house or under a grow light. Milkweed needs lots of sun and warmth to grow. If you’re using a grow light, make sure to lower the bulb closer to the pots or your seedlings may become leggy, as they stretch to the light. In our experiment, this happened to us. Ideally a sturdier stem is better. Cold stratified seeds should germinate and sprout within 10-15 days once planted. In total Milkweed from the day they are cold stratified to growth can take 40 plus days, so be patient!
Other planting options: Place dry seed (not stratified) in seed starting soil and plant in peat pots under a grow light or in a greenhouse to germinate seeds. The success rate for this is low and more difficult to accomplish. If you choose to use this option it can take months for the seeds to germinate.
If you are planting seed outside, we suggest seeding in late fall, and let the Milkweed seed lay on the ground through winter. Milkweed seed will have a long winter of dormancy, so once the sun comes out and the ground warms in the spring, the seeds will germinate on their own.
Transplanting Milkweed (Asclepias) Seedling Outdoors
Where to Plant: Milkweed does well in open areas with full sunlight exposure areas like fields, parks, cultivated gardens, roadsides, highway medians, and road sides. We suggest transplanting Milkweed when the plant is no larger than 3 inches tall. In most cases in transplanting, the Milkweed plant will go though some shock and could lose all its leaves. This happens, don’t panic. The plant is trying to establish its roots and will eventually grow leaves again. This is the main reason we suggest planting seeds in peat pots, because Milkweed roots are very sensitive. Peat Pots breakdown over time in the ground, which allows the milkweed roots to grows without being disrupted. We found this to be the best way to transplant. If you decide to plant in plastic containers, but make sure it’s deep enough for roots to grow. If you receive a plant already grown in plastic, be careful to take out the plant and not disturb the roots.
When to plant: Soil moisture and temperature are very important when growing Milkweed. The best time to plant Milkweed is in early spring after the danger of frost has passed. If you plant seeds late in the spring, the seeds may not grow due to Common Milkweed Field Grown germination time and temperature. Common Milkweed seed doesn’t germinate over 85 degrees.
Caring For Milkweed (Asclepias) Plants
Once your seedling is planted, water it for a few days to get it established, but after that, the plant doesn’t need a lot of supplemental water. Only water if you have an unusual dry spell. Peat pots are nice to use, but you need to be sure there is no top edge above the soil line after transplanting. In dry climates, this will wick away valuable soil moisture. A small 2 1/2″ diameter x 3 in. deep pot is ideal. Asclepias are somewhat finicky native plants. So minimizing the time growing in a pot and transplanting them as young plants is the best approach.
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Hot Hemp in Massachusetts
To be legal, your hemp has to test at or below 0.3% THC. So what if your hemp crop comes in over the limit? Now you’ve got “hot hemp”. Which means you just grew a field of illegal marijuana. Why did this happen? What can you do about it?
Why does your hemp have too much THC?
As you probably know, hemp is simply a variant of Cannabis that produces a minimal amount of the cannabinoid THC. The government has drawn the line at 0.3% to distinguish between industrial hemp and marijuana used for medicine and recreation.
Cannabinoid production is largely an expression of genetics, but environment can play a role as well. So, your hemp might be hot because the seeds you used were not properly bred, or not stable. However, various environmental factors can also affect THC production, including drought, flooding, nutrition, heat, cold, light, etc. Have your hemp seeds been tested in your region?
Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) requires licensed hemp growers to only acquire seeds from an “approved distributor”, but this policy cannot be relied upon to ensure that your finished hemp flower won’t exceed the limit.
How common is hot hemp? If we look to Colorado, we see that in that state’s first hemp season, about 40% of the crops failed due to THC levels. But by 2017, only about 8% of the crops had problems. The Colorado Department of Agriculture now approves certified hemp seeds, and other regulatory mechanisms exist to assist farmers in producing compliant crops. Similarly, in 2017, North Carolina hemp was testing hot in about 10% of samples. But states new to the hemp game may have more problems. For instance, in 2019, Hawaii saw over half of it’s hemp crops destroyed due to high THC levels.
Testing Hemp in Massachusetts
MDAR will conduct routine, scheduled, sampling prior to harvest, as well as record inspections to ensure the grower is keeping records and documentation. MDAR will also conduct “followup inspections” which may be unannounced and can be for almost any purpose, including testing the crop.
The grower must give MDAR 14 days notice of an impending harvest. MDAR will come take samples of the hemp for testing. Harvest must be conducted within 10 days of the sampling. If the THC tests at no more than 0.3%, then the crop will be certified and can be moved off the site for processing or sale.
If the hemp tests hot, then the crop is no longer hemp and is now illegal marijuana, which means it cannot be harvested or sold, and must be destroyed. The grower potentially faces civil and/or criminal penalties.
What to do if your hemp tests over the THC limit?
Call your attorney
MDAR enforcement actions may be appealed under MGL c. 128 section 123.
It’s worth the cost.
If your plants are still in the ground, discuss the timing of the retest with your attorney and your head grower regarding the timing related variables of THC production as well as the regulatory requirements of retesting.
In Massachusetts, it’s three strikes and you’re out. If the third test comes back hot, you must destroy the crop.
Look at your contract with the seed supplier
Hopefully you have a contract; if not, call your attorney
Is there a clause that determines what will happen if the crop exceeds the THC limit?
Did the seed vendor make any guarantees regarding THC?
Does the contract determine damages if the crop must be destroyed?
Assess what went wrong and determine whether to find a different seed source
Cooperate with MDAR and any other regulators in order to keep your hemp license and avoid fines or worse.
What can you do before the next growing season?
Vet your seed source
Preserve documentation from the seed source
Get a written contract that has a clause describing what will happen if the hemp tests hot
Talk with your insurance provider
At this time, it appears that crop insurance will not cover variable THC levels
Assess your business plan’s capacity to absorb the loss of a high-THC crop