Hemp Farming Methods: The Pros and Cons
Hemp plants are living things that are a product of their environment. Those things that matter to CBD customers—cannabinoids, terpenes, the cleanliness and safety of hemp products and so on—are directly influenced by a hemp plant’s growing conditions. Just as the hemp strain matters, so does if a plant was grown indoors, outside, or in a greenhouse.
Hemp growing processes are constantly evolving as the industry expands. The 2018 Farm Bill and state laws across the United States have made hemp farming an accessible opportunity. Many businesses, especially those located in regions with short growing seasons or unpredictable climates, have developed creative ways of growing hemp that conventional wisdom would’ve deemed impossible or inefficient a decade ago.
Currently, hemp is grown on conventional outdoor farms, in greenhouses, and in indoor growing facilities. So, which one is the best?
That, like most things in the hemp world, comes down to personal preference. There are pros and cons to each type of growing operation. Some of those cons are directly noticeable in the product itself, while others aren’t immediately noticeable for a consumer, like sustainability and environmental impact.
Outdoor Hemp Farming: The Pros
Hemp has been grown outdoors for thousands of years. Cannabis sativa is resilient plant that has developed into multiple subspecies suited for climates from hot, humid rainforests to temperate areas with four seasons. Hemp farmers have developed innumerable sophisticated growing techniques to help hemp thrive in almost any environment with the right amount of work and have rigorously documented the ideal schedule from planting seeds to harvest.
Outdoor growing operations have a set of clear advantages over other methods. First, there is the sun. The sun is a natural energy source that won’t burn out in our lifetimes that provides the ideal light for hemp plants to grow under (at least mostly, but we’ll get to that in a second). The sun produces multiple spectrums of light, many of which can’t be replicated with artificial light. Long days with lots of natural light produce a full expression of the plant’s terpene and cannabinoid profile. Outdoor hemp plants soak up nutrients all summer long, grow to massive sizes, and produce rich flowers when the days become shorter.
Outdoor farming is usually the most sustainable option available for farmers. Existing farms in regions with fertile soil can be converted to hemp farms with very little work, which is why many cash crop farmers are getting in on the hemp boom in the Southern United States.
Outdoor Hemp Farming: The Cons
Being outside means plants are exposed to the elements. While some parts of the country provide ideal conditions for hemp plants year-round, others have harsh winters that limit the growing season. About half of the country experiences a change of seasons that brings hemp plant growth to a screeching halt for a few months, making it so many farms can only get one or two harvests a year out of their hemp crop.
Weather is often unpredictable, or in some cases—predictably destructive. A heat wave, drought, flooding, or severe storms like hurricanes can devastate an outdoor hemp farm overnight. That’s without mentioning soil erosion, mold, and natural pests like insects.
Hemp farmers are running into problems when it comes to protecting plants from insects. Currently, the EPA has not cleared any pesticides for use on hemp intended for human consumption. States all have different regulations and guidelines on pesticide use within their borders. Some, like Colorado, have lists of pesticides allowed in cannabis production. This regulatory gray area became apparent after the 2018 Farm Bill opened up the entire country to hemp farming.
Farmers in states without guidelines have to get resourceful in states without regulations until we have a better understanding of safe pesticide use in hemp production—and that goes without mentioning intentionally pesticide-free farms. These operations have to use tactics like crop rotation to combat pests or risk losing their entire harvest. While rotation is a more natural, chemical-free solution to insect infestations, it still is another time and labor cost for farmers.
Lastly, while hemp canbe grown anywhere, it requires some work. Hemp is most successful in loose, well-aerated soil with plenty of organic matter. If farmers are in a region with clay or sandy soil, it will require a lot of work, fertilization, and irrigation. These extra labor and resource costs often offset the financial and environmental pros of outdoor farming.
Greenhouse Hemp: The Pros
Greenhouses are a medium place between indoor and outdoor hemp farming. Greenhouse growing has many of the benefits of both methods, along with some of the drawbacks of each. Farmers have greater control over the environment while still benefitting from exposure to the sun.
Greenhouses allow hemp farmers to produce a steady crop year-round, even in regions with four seasons. For farmers growing CBD flowers,lighting can be controlled to move plants into a vegetative growth cycle in the winter and pruned. The plants then flower throughout the spring and summer, producing massive, terpene-rich flowers.
Farmers growing in greenhouses also have a much easier time managing pests. The covered, controlled environment means far fewer insects, rodents, and birds will have a chance to devour plants. Greenhouses generally use far fewer pesticides than outdoor farms, which is better for the plants, the end user, the environment, and the farmer’s wallet.
Greenhouse Hemp: The Cons
Greenhouses have some of the same drawbacks as a full outdoor farm, namely that they are beholden to the seasons. Greenhouse growing grinds to a halt for a few months in places where temperatures drop dramatically and daylight is limited in the winter. Farmers can fight the elements with heating systems and insulation for plants. Of course, these things drive up energy and infrastructure prices for farmers—noticing a pattern here?
Greenhouses are also cramped: plants are generally much closer together in an enclosure than they would be outdoors. This means diseases can spread much more easily from plant to plant and it is much harder to put a stop to an epidemic once it starts. Inexperienced farmers can easily lose an entire harvest to disease.
Poor climate management can also lead to mold and mildew buildup. Mold thrives in a humid environment, and plants require water to survive. Puddles of excess water and high humidity can turn a greenhouse into a breeding ground for mold overnight. This can cause serious problems for the plants, as well as anyone who has to work in a moldy environment.
Indoor Hemp Farming: The Pros
Indoor hemp farming presents the most controlled environment possible, in which nothing is left to chance. Temperatures, humidity, and exposure to light are meticulously regulated to ensure the best conditions for hemp to thrive. Rain and thunder outside? Doesn’t matter—the hemp plants are basking under lighting rigs and delicate mists from sprinklers on timers meant to keep their moisture levels absolutely perfect.
This perfectly controlled environment makes it so many of the unknown unknowns of outdoor farming aren’t a factor. Even if an outdoor farm is maintained with hyper vigilance it can still fall victim to contaminants due to polluted groundwater, runoff from other farms, poor air quality, or any number of other unforeseeable environmental concerns. Indoor hemp farming allows for the cleanest hemp available, grown without contact with any contaminants, pollutants, or pests.
Indoor farming makes it possible for farmers to operate in any part of the country. These farms make it possible for places with frigid winters to get fresh, locally sourced hemp products every month of the year. Not only does this support local economies, but it also contributes to a smaller ecofootprint over the lifecycle of a hemp product by reducing shipping distances.
This level of control makes it much easier to regulate the amount of light plants can get in a 24-hour period. In their vegetative state, plants do best with 18 hours of light. While flowering, plants need 12 hours of darkness. Like greenhouses, indoor farms make it possible to create these conditions regardless of the season. It’s generally easier to create these lighting changes indoors, though: rather than having to paint over greenhouse windows or pull blackout curtains every day in a greenhouse, indoor farmers can just flip a switch.
Indoor Hemp Farming: The Cons
Of course, all of the environmental control indoor farming operations allow comes at a cost. Lighting rigs, humidity controls, and a massive space large enough to house hundreds of hemp plants don’t come cheap. Indoor farming is cost prohibitive, in most circumstances only available to the largest companies with the deepest pockets.
The operating cost of indoor hemp also continues throughout the life of the hemp farm. Providing photoperiodic lighting to hundreds of plants requires a massive amount of energy. You can expect a substantial electric bill if you’re starting an indoor hemp farm capable of supporting even a modest line of CBD products. These energy costs more often than not mean a more substantial usage of research at indoor farms, making them generally less eco-friendly than outdoor farms, although that can be offset by using renewable energy sources.
Inexperienced farmers also have a lot to look out for with an indoor operation. Controlling the airflow in a hemp facility means keeping a watchful eye on everything that goes in and out of the environment plants are kept in. If toxins and CO2 levels aren’t carefully monitored contaminations and CO2 poisoning can affect the entire crop. The relatively confined space means diseases can spread between plants rapidly and be extremely difficult to contain. It takes a skilled, experienced, and attentive staff to maintain an indoor hemp farm and prevent complications.
Choosing the Best CBD
As we mentioned earlier, many of the pros and cons listed above aren’t immediately obvious to consumers. Some don’t even impact that the final product itself. Some of the variance in price between CBD products may be attributed to the cost of growing hemp, although you’d never know that was the case unless you were the company’s bookkeeper.
One of the many benefits of the booming hemp industry is that there is no shortage of products on the market. If you want non-GMO CBD products, Lazarus Naturals is likely exactly what you’re looking for. Do you want an ultra-clean, indoor grown hemp flower? Apotheca’s house brand of BaOx CBD hemp flower is made for you. Looking for organic hemp? You can find that too.
The variety of hemp and CBD products means you can make decisions based not only on the terpenes, cannabinoids, and method of administration you look for, but also concerns like supporting your local economy, organic growing, and sustainable farming. It may take a little digging to find a product that checks every box, but if it’s out there, we’ll have it in the Apotheca store.