Changing Of The Seasons: How Outdoor Cultivators Prepare For Various Crop Threats

In recent years, an uptick in wildfires and the severity of hurricanes have heightened the risk cannabis cultivators face. As a result, growers are doing what they can to prepare for potentially devastating circumstances.

"Farming can be a high-risk endeavor wherever you are, and no location is void from natural disasters," said Natural Order Supply CEO and harvesting expert Dan Ramsay. "Understanding your growing zone, geographical region, and weather patterns is the first step in creating risk management and response plan for farmers."

How Operations Are Affected

Risks are always present in the cultivation space, but the autumn season is especially rough.

"Fall is typically the highest risk time of the year for farmers as their crops are nearing harvesting and all the embodied time and money with their plants is at this largest," Ramsay said. "This time of year, when we have the highest fire danger, cold snaps are most frequent and hurricane season is in full swing."

This year has been particularly impactful, with wildfires across Western America and several hurricanes hitting the Gulf states.

A 70-degree cold snap in Colorado also presents challenges, according to Whole Grow CEO Rudy Ellenbogen.

"Immediately, a freak weather event can wipe out an entire harvest, it can frustrate retail and business relationships and financially stall the company," Ellenbogen said. "Long term, it creates doubt by potential partners and collaborators worried about reliability and can have farmers harvesting too soon, trying to avoid the hail season the end product ends up robbed of its important final growth moments."

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Many strains can rebound from a cold snap with a night or two at 32 degrees, but if it gets down to 28 degrees, which is considered a "hard freeze," most plant material is unusable.

"At this point, farmers are hoping they had crop insurance which few in the hemp and cannabis do for outdoor crops," Ramsay explained.

In California, brands like the vertically integrated Glass House Group said the wildfires' effects reach beyond crops and sites burnt.

"Wildfires can burn and destroy crops, but even grows far from a fire can become tainted from smoke and ash in the air," said Glass House president Graham Farrar. He added that mature plants and their trichomes are particularly vulnerable due to the plant glands' sticky nature.

Farrar credits greenhouses for saving the company's yield during the Santa Barbara County Thomas Fire in 2017.

"Utilizing greenhouses can help protect cannabis crops from these occurrences while also making it easier to conduct precision agriculture, which allows for a more sustainable operation," he said.

Farrar also mentioned crop insurance as a possible option while bringing up its limited availability to cannabis cultivators.

Site Selection And Preparation

Site location planning is essential to a company's development.

"It's a significant consideration at early stage evaluation and location scouting," said Whole Grow's Ellenbogen, whose company has built facilities in Colorado, Massachusetts, California, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, as well as in Colombia.

Considerations should include the market's value, ease of operations, weather, soil, sunlight, water, elevation and other factors.

"The final consideration is how much capital is required in order to overcome the challenges of that specific regionality and reach profitability," he added.

Once a site is chosen, strategizing for the seasons is next on deck.

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Ramsay advises companies to protect themselves through genetic selection using auto-flower strains, insurance policies and adequate response plans for disasters.

Quick response plans are also useful.

"Last year many hemp farmers harvested earlier than the original plan with a 'hard freeze' swept the state in early October," Ramsay said. "This resulted in a small yield but many farmers were able to save some of their crops before it was compromised."

Beyond greenhouses, Farrar says the key to preventing disasters is by addressing climate change.

"At the end of the day, the number one thing we can do to protect crops from fire is work to protect our planet from climate change, which has caused the uptick in the wildfires we've seen in recent years," he said.

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