I walk into my favorite cannabis shop (I really don’t have a favorite) to buy a couple of eighths. An eighth costs about $20 a gram (an arbitrary price, but not an uncommon one) so an eighth costs around $70. As I was looking at the buds, I started to think about how much that gram I’m paying $20 actually cost to produce. So how much does it cost to produce cannabis? The answers I found were both surprising and not surprising at the same time.
The Life Cycle of Cannabis
In the “old” days (meaning before 1980 or so) all cannabis was grown outdoors. There were no indoor grow operations like there are now. Maybe someone grew a plant or two in their closet, but that’s not an operation. In it’s initial growth state, cannabis requires a lot of light light. When the buds start to develop, it needs intense light as well, but fewer hours. Think of spring as the days get longer. Cannabis moves into the flower stage as the days grow shorter. The flowering requires a shorter duration than when the plant is in the growth stage. Think of the plant as it grows; the days get longer in the spring…day length peaks on the summer solstice and then the days get shorter. It’s the cycle of nature. Cannabis follows the natural cycle of light during the year.
Natural Sun or “Controlled Sun”?
There are 3 ways to grow cannabis; Full sun, where the plant is grown outside with nothing covering it. Partial sun in a greenhouse or some transparent ‘building’ that allows a grower to modify the natural sun cycle if the structure is covered. And lastly, in a grow room (completely indoors). The differences in cost are astonishing. The differences in quality … that’s really for another story. And there are differences.
The cost for trimmed buds range from about $100 per pound using natural sunlight to $400 per pound when grown in a warehouse (not a greenhouse) where 100% of the light is artificially supplied to the plant. A greenhouse falls somewhere in-between. That’s minimally a 4X greater cost to grow indoors than outdoors. To put it in a little more perspective, that outdoor grown bud costs about 22 cents a gram to grow and the warehouse bud costs just under a dollar to grow. (There are 454 grams in a pound, so the math is pretty easy.) That’s an astonishing difference especially since we buy our flower by the gram and grams cost $15 up to $40 in a retail shop.
Natural sunlight is exactly what it says. You let the plant go for the ‘gold’ by allowing it to grow outside following the natural cycle of sunlight. The amount of sunlight changes incrementally every day. Heck, cannabis has been cultivated this way for the last 15,000 or so years. It works, so what could be wrong with it? A lot. Vermin like insects. Or molds. Or the plant gets too wet and rots. Part of the reason the methods below are popular is because production can be disrupted if there isn’t enough sun or the weather is too cold. Or too rainy./
Different strains have different growth times to flower, but most strains grow between 12 and 16 weeks before flowering. Some strains are completely ripe at 18 weeks and some need another 4 or so weeks to get to full maturity, but generally you’ll have plants ready to harvest at 18 to 20 weeks. The math is simple; the longer the plant takes to get ripe, the fewer harvests you can have in a year. In the northern US, you get one crop per year unless you have a lot of land and can stagger your planting over several weeks. With commercial crops that’s a bit hard to do.
Eighteen weeks is 4 and a half months (give or take) and that means that if you live in Michigan or Wisconsin you’ll only get one crop per year. Winter or weather too cold to grow lasts about 7 or 8 months, so outdoor growing is just not possible to get two crops out of one growing season. There’s also the issue of sun cycles. Cannabis is sensitive to sun cycles. Flowering is dependent on the day length and as days shorten after the summer solstice, the plant flowers. That’s nature. A grower has to be patient and wait for the process to reach its natural conclusion…a plant with lots of buds on it.
One other very important thing; It’s more difficult to stop your plants from being pollinated when you’re growing outside than it is to stop pollination inside. Why is this important? The best cannabis is from plants that have no seeds and outside this is far harder to control.
Controlled Sun/Greenhouse Growing
Some growers might want or need to have more than one crop in a year. They also want more control. They also don’t want to rent, buy or build a warehouse. The middle ground, which uses natural sunlight, but can control other factors is a greenhouse. In a greenhouse you can control the temperature of the air by simply opening up the glass at the top of the greenhouse or running fans. Cannabis is a day length sensitive plant. When the day length drops below a certain number of hours, the plant goes into flower. Auto flowering plants are not day length sensitive as they usually have cannabis ruderalis (a different cultivar) genetics, which doesn’t have the same sensitivity to day length as sativa.
Growing indoors is WAY more expensive than either Outdoor or Greenhouse growing. First there’s the physical plant. An old warehouse or a new warehouse will do fine, thank you. They cost money to build or buy but are fixed expenses depreciated over time. Heat (or cooling), ventilation and odor suppression, are also big costs.
The biggest cost of all is producing light that mimics the sun. The sun puts out somewhere around 10,000 foot-candles (a measurement of the amount of light) falling on the plant on a sunny day. While you can get 10,000 foot candles from HID (high intensity discharge) lamps of many types 0f lamps, including LED lamps, it’s very hard (and expensive) to do unless you’re using a huge number of fixtures. At 1000 watts per square foot or more. It’s still not as much as sunlight, but it is enough to nourish the plants when they’re in flower.
Is There an Effect on Quality?
All these words about the how of growing cannabis hasn’t touched on the ‘quality’ of cannabis. “What is Quality?” is the subject of another story, but when I take a step back, I can see that the argument for growing outdoors naturally without anything artificial, either light, fertilizer, insect repellent, anti-fungal, etc. might be valid. An indoor or greenhouse grow facility has more opportunity for control of the process and in one theory anyway makes for better product. I just don’t know. I’ve had terrific outdoor and terrific indoor weed, so my jury is out for deliberations and further testing.
The Bottom Line
Cannabis costs anywhere from 20 cents to a dollar or 2 per gram to grow, but sells for $15 and up. That’s a huge delta. Where does the money go? Growing is only part of the equation of cost. For an outdoor grow, other costs might be land, fertilizer, an irrigation system (or not for a dry farmer), labor for pruning, labor for after harvest, etc. For greenhouse and indoor grows, there’s the building, lights, HVAC, electricity, labor, etc., so these raw prices really don’t reflect on what it actually costs to deliver a product to a dispensary. After these costs, there’s still transportation to the dispensary, which can be costly in some locations because some states require ‘certified’ transportation for cannabis products.
A Few Final Thoughts
Cannabis is a plant that has been cultivated by humans for over 10,000 years. While there might have been a structure akin to a greenhouse 10,000 years ago, there was no lighting that could be set-up since the only light was the sun, oil lamps and tallow candles (about 2500 years ago). Obviously, cannabis was grown in the sun. Throughout the year day length grows and wanes and it’s different at all latitudes. Cannabis plants go into flower as the day length gets shorter. The varying day length defines the growing ‘season.’ After the summer solstice, the days grow shorter and this is what makes cannabis flower. So why would cannabis be superior if it’s grown inside with completely artificial light? Maybe control? Who knows? I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t believe anyone has an answer for that question. How much does that bud cost to produce? It depends.