Fires continue to rage on the West Coast.
A record-breaking 4 million acres have burned in California, and the season is not over. Cal Fire reports inching towards containment in Napa and Sonoma counties. Another 1.6 million acres have burned in Oregon and Washington. At 5.6 million acres so far, the 2020 fire season leaves in its wake damage larger than the state of New Jersey.
The cannabis industry is vulnerable to fires, particularly as it has less access to disaster insurance than traditional industries. It is estimated that 2/3 of California’s cannabis is grown outdoors. Fires have hindered this Croptober for the West Coast, the outdoor growing capitol of the U.S. Croptober is the time of year when cannabis yields its biggest harvest. Many outdoor plants reach a flowering peak throughout the month of October and beyond, into early November.
There is no controlling the elements. This time last year, growers in Oregon, California, and Washington reported to MJBizDaily a wetter-than-average year for outdoor crops. This meant less fires, but a different type of environmental risk: over-watering due to late-season rain, which can lead to the growth of mold or bacteria.
How can the cannabis and hemp industries prepare for a future of climate crises?
An engineer in the space, Jay Evans, is the CEO and Founder of Keirton Inc., one of the largest commercial cultivation technology companies in the world. Based out of Surrey, British Columbia, now with equipment in 20 countries, Keirton’s tech processes an estimated 3 million kilograms of cannabis each year. Evans offers insight on how tech can help mediate the damage that fires and other natural disasters cause, and potential ways cultivators and entrepreneurs within the cannabis industry can prepare for increasing climate change.
How do you believe the destruction of cannabis crops will affect the supply chain?
Jay Evans: It’s a little early to tell right now. Some of the crops were damaged by smoke and ash. But because they had encountered smoke and ash earlier in the flowering cycle, some of it may not be as affected. Obviously, with the ones that burnt down, those will definitely be affected.
Will prices go up, how big of a ripple if this devastation going to have on our industry?
Evans: It will keep the prices steady. Normally this time of year, in the fall, prices drop because there’s a flood of crop. I think this year will be a little more stable than normal, because there will be less product on the market. There’s a huge portion of the supply that hits the market this time of year. To be fair, a lot of it also black market, and a lot of it gets shipped back east.
What can cannabis farmers do to mitigate this type of damage in the future?
Evans: So there are no real remediation tools for flower. For cannabis flower, if it’s damaged by smoke, you can remediate the odor and turn it into distillate. You could make concentrates out of the oil.
If your market is cannabis flower, and there’s smoke in it, if there’s ash in it, it’s very hard to remove that with the technology right now. The best way is to prevent it. So we prevent it by using technology like a greenhouse with air filtration. You’d have head filtration, carbon filtration to filter out the smoke in the air and any smell, by the time the air reaches the plants. There are obvious advantages of growing outdoors for cost, but growing outdoors, you’re totally at the mercy of the environment. It’ll happen more and more as the temperatures get higher and higher.
Can disaster be avoided by tech? What is one way business owners and farmers can work around the increasingly damaging fire seasons?
Evans: There are a few solutions. It’s not common sense, but it seems like common sense. Now that we know where fires happen, we know which ways the winds travel, there are areas that are more susceptible to fires. If you’re in an area that has a lot of pine beetle, pine beetle damage, that area is susceptible to fire. If you’re downhill or downwind from that area, then you’re even more at risk. If you’re in an area that used to be a bog or marsh and is now dried out, you’re higher at risk.
There are certain areas that, you can’t predict it, but you can get the idea you’re in a path of a fire zone. One solution is to build outside of those zones. Two is, with technology, use greenhouses with carbon filters. To have filtration, that’s a big advantage. And three, if your crop is damaged, or covered by ash, you can use things like leaf blowers to blow the ash off the plants. But it’s only affective to a certain degree. Four, you can turn everything into concentrates. You remediate the smoke and ash, turn it into a distillate for vape pens.
The technology isn’t there yet, but we can’t wait to develop a technology that will remove the smoke smell from cannabis.
If people want to continue to cultivate outdoors, can tech offer solutions?
Evans: It’s very challenging for us to stop a forest fire, other than maybe, there are ways of warning people. Detecting fires before they happen. Getting out into the forest and monitoring the level of forest fire risk. Once the fire starts, it’s very challenging to mitigate it. With forest fires and high temperatures comes a lack of water. It’s easy to say, spray, but often in that area, there’s not enough water. The biggest thing is to get these grows in areas other than forest fire danger zones.
Another option could initially be to find an area or valley you could dedicate to growing cannabis that wasn’t so exposed. The wineries, a lot of them this year, their grapes are no good because they’re so contaminated by smoke. That’s what is normally great for the wine industry, they aren’t quite as exposed because of their environment. If you can put cannabis in those places, it would help. Quite often, cannabis grows are in very rugged terrain.
The temperatures this year were over 120 degrees in some areas. At that temperature, the terpenes are evaporating off of the plant. Plants don’t like being in that hot of temperature. That in-and-of-itself is damaging the crops, let alone the fires. These high temperatures that keep coming are super hard on cannabis plants.
Can we innovate a longterm solution to the fires? Is it indoor growing, installing fire protection for outdoor growers, or is it a combination?
Evans: It’s a combination of things. Personally, we will develop technology to mitigate the damage. We can’t stop fire. But the damage from smoke and ash, I believe we will be able to develop technology that helps remediate that.
The long term solution is prevention. It’s going to be choosing areas that aren’t fire susceptible. Large greenhouse facilities that have a glass roof, that can protect you from the ash, filter the air, so you have purified air coming inside. You can control the temperature inside better so they’re not exposed to 120 degrees. On top of that, in a greenhouse you can get very good water consumption. Some of the outdoor grows use more water than is necessary, but the indoor grow can capture water from the roof, transfer that to storage, and put it back in the plant. The efficiency of technology in greenhouses is amazing and it’s just going to be getting better. Personally, I think that the solution is greenhouses longterm.
You mention conserving energy. Can the industry conserve energy with supplemental light greenhouses as a piece, to reduce energy impact?
Evans: That’s the other piece, too. With greenhouses, the energy that’s usually used is lighting when there is not enough sunlight. Now with new LED lighting, the technology is so powerful and so efficient, it is getting better all the time. The lighting you need when the sun’s not there isn’t nearly as bad as with the old lights. So, energy efficiency is there for growing indoors, as well.
If you’re talking Colorado, there’s a big snowstorm season. If you’re in California you’re fighting fires, in Colorado you’re getting snowed on. Greenhouses protect you from all of those elements. Not only fire but rain, one of the worst things that can happen to cannabis when it’s at is final flowering stage is getting wet because it turns to mold. We make technology using AI to detect the mold in the plant. The ultimate goal is to make it sustainable and make it consistent. If you want to grow cannabis in certain regions, you need a greenhouse.