The green industry is full of innovators and forward-thinkers who solve problems and create opportunities. This month we’re profiling three nurseries that implemented big ideas, including branding, education and sustainability.
The romance of the quick buck never goes out of style, and the burgeoning cannabis industry is arguably the sexiest get-rich-quick opportunity out there today for people with a couple million dollars to spare. People who are getting out their wallets to buy into that opportunity are “money people,” not cultivators, yet they are confident they can hire someone to grow this plant for them. One of our cultivator friends in the business laughed when we asked a prospect if she “had $2 million for the facility and startup?” Our friend rightly suggested that the right question really was: “Did she have $2 million to lose?”
Don’t let being star struck turn into dumbstruck. Here are some important points you absolutely should consider before you start on your path to cultivation. If you can say you understand them and how you will act on them, you are off to a good start. If, however, these are foreign topics, you would do well to seek help in researching and planning your operation.
Does your team, or prospective team, know how to control the major cannabis pests using only the (very small or non-existent) list of pesticides approved for use in cannabis cultivation in your state, or no pesticides at all? A well thought out pest-management scheme pays dividends every day.
Pressurized rooms are often cited as effective in preventing airborne “bad actors” from entering the grow space. But make sure that the pressurized air does not flow into another cultivation space, contributing to contamination. If you are willing to spend the money on clean room facilities, you may not need to spray pesticides at all.
If not, however, there are a number of important considerations. Pesticide labels often say something like, “Apply before pests appear. Not effective against established populations.” It is imperative growers understand that these pesticides cannot control pests without help and that they must turn to the principles of integrated pest management (IPM). They need to learn to use every tool available to them to keep pests away from their plants and reduce the need for pesticides. This often requires changes to workflows, access points in cultivation spaces and even infrastructure. It is never fun.
A common phrase overheard again and again regarding pesticides is, “Oh, I tried that stuff; it didn’t work.” Close examination of these cases often reveals usage mistakes, or a lack of understanding how the pesticides work. If you’re using a pesticide that only affects developing insects, for example, don’t judge it to be ineffective when it does not kill the adults.
Growth inhibitors slow or arrest the development of young insects. Contact pesticides have various killing effects when they touch the pests, and stomach pesticides must be ingested by the pest to disrupt the pest’s feeding abilities. Knowing which ingredients do what to pests and at what point in their lifecycles is key information for successful operators.
Choosing pesticides is easy compared to getting them applied properly and safely. Spraying often renders a cultivation space “off limits” for hours, so you need to integrate that time into the work schedule. Every operation needs to use a licensed Private Pesticide Applicator to make sure that the pesticides are handled safely and applied for maximum effectiveness, as well as to satisfy local regulations. Operators should check their state’s pesticide regulations to see if they are required to get staff certified as pest applicators. Regardless, it’s a good idea to get your staff certified in pesticide application, as it not difficult, nor expensive, and it focuses your team on safe practices, as well as reduces mistakes.
The Pesticide Applicator addresses such questions as: Does this product label suggest that the pesticide be applied with a specific drop size that might require a different nozzle? Where do I need to spray for different pests? How often? How long? Is the treatment having the desired effect of controlling the pests/disease? Can I mix one product with another, so I can cut down on applications? Spraying requires focus and attention to detail to keep your workers and your customers safe.
Space and money
Some growers like to stuff as many plants under lights as they can (thinking more plants, more yield). But crowded conditions promote pests and disease and, at the same time, make it harder to detect and treat them. Add to that the reality that tests comparing plant yield between high- and low-density plantings confirm that well-spaced plants produce more than crowded plants.
Many people understand the effect spacing can have on yield, but the space in which we ask workers to toil also makes a difference in how well the operations run. And, again, a crowded space with too limited access to plants due to overcrowding is not a good idea. Crowded plants take extra effort just to access them to perform daily tasks.
A question we often ask when reviewing facility layouts is, “Where is your storage?” The answers often indicate storage is an afterthought or that there just was not enough space in the facility to hold everything.
The materials/supplies, tools and equipment used in cultivation all need to be stored so that they are not at risk for contamination or degradation, and do not contribute to cross-contamination when they are accessed for use. Yet, they also must be readily available to workers. The ideal situation is to have all supplies and materials stored inside the facility.
If an employee has to walk outside to get a bale of peat, that is an opportunity for that employee to be contaminated with powdery mildew spores, spider mites or other pests common outdoors. One possible approach, if staff need to bring materials in from outside, is to have them wear disposal garments while they are outside; they would then dispose of the garments outside just before bringing the material into the facility.
If such procedures seem over the top to you, they will seem quite reasonable after you experience your first major pest outbreak that kills all or much of your crop, and interrupts production for months while the production line is reloaded. The money lost will no doubt outweigh the costs of establishing effective procedures.
How does one plan for the unknown? When developing a new operation in a new facility, especially retrofits, what it actually will take to control your environment will not become known until production begins and the systems experience the actual operating conditions. With luck, the new facility operator will find they only need a little tweaking to get things under control, but others may find their systems are inadequate and in need of expensive changes.
When possible, plan the system for the eventuality of the whole array of environmental equipment: HEPA filtering of intake and recirculated air volumes, heaters, chillers, exhausts, dehumidifiers. But letting the “unknowns” determine whether there is sufficient capacity to control the environment within the target ranges and response times could prove that some items may not be necessary.
An example of where you could potentially save money this way is to hold off on buying dehumidifiers until you know whether you can grow the plants powdery-mildew-free within the humidity ranges the system delivers without dehumidification equipment. Growing an open, airflow-friendly canopy can be all that is required to save on dehumidification. However, if you want tighter control of the humidity in the facility, dehumidification may be necessary; in that case, since you planned ahead, installation of dehumidifiers will be easy.
Where are you going to get all of the people to do all of the work—propagating, transplanting, spraying pesticides, harvesting plants and such, and how will you make sure they are not only doing the right things, but doing them effectively? While a lot of the cannabis workforce has grown the plant themselves at one time or another, they seldom have much large-scale work experience, and when you have to explain the importance of hand-washing to people before you can let them into your operation, you begin to understand how much the successful operation needs an effective employee manager/director.
Many operations we have seen have had to invest more than they imagined to get the productivity of their teams up to snuff. This is the result of not knowing things like where to find qualified personnel and how, then, to educate a constantly changing stream of new employees and managers so that the operation does not skip a beat every time personnel changes.
Finding people is a matter of advertising or networking, but educating your staff requires a significant effort; this directly affects your staff’s productivity and, yet, it is seldom considered. A good solution is to create a “How to” reference by documenting every activity that happens in the operation. Documented processes are commonly known as Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs.
State regulation of cannabis production places a unique and heavy responsibility on owners and operators. To avoid the need for a defense lawyer, get good legal counsel upfront and make sure that your operation is compliant with all applicable local, state and federal laws.
This is no business in which to take regulation lightly, and risk management plays a key role in protecting investments. Besides the obvious cannabis regulatory compliance issues, you are building/launching a business in an industrial setting, and worker safety and protection is going to become a part of daily life. Accidents can close an operation as surely as a pest outbreak.
All in all
The lure of big payoffs must be tempered with the realities of stepping into a new and unfamiliar market that warrants due diligence on top of more due diligence before shelling out the cash. Don’t let the fear of the unknown deter you, but know that the devil is indeed in the details, and there are a lot of details out there that can trip you up.
Also know that everyone will have a solution to offer you, and you have to decide who to listen to. A good guideline is to listen to people who focus on cultivation and not technology. Technology guidance can be found by looking for academic and plant industry research (especially from university settings) for information on all the key inputs: light, nutrients, media, plant health care and pest management. Cannabis does not require anything more than any other plant, and the answers about how to properly grow it are already out there.
In short, do your homework, set reasonable expectations, expect pain and trouble like any business, and if you get stuck, get help.
Kerrie and Kurt Badertscher are co-owners of Otoké Horticulture, LLC and authors of “Cannabis for Capitalists.” They have worked with large-scale cannabis producers for more than five years.
This story originally appeared in our sister publication, Cannabis Business Times. For more cannabis production information, visit www.cannabisbusinesstimes.com.
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Horticulture Jobs | @GetHorticulJobs Whether you’re looking for help or you’re in the job market, this source is constantly updated with jobs across the country.
The RHS | @The_RHS The Royal Horticultural Society works hard to enrich the lives of those in the UK through plants and gardening. Garden trends often appear first in Europe, so keep up with what’s happening across the pond.
Tony Avent | @Plant_Delights Plant Delights Nursery is an online plant nursery specializing in unique, exotic and American native perennial plants. Follow for Tony’s daily plant photos – some of which you may have never seen before.
Thomas Rainer @ThomasRainerDC Great Dixter’s meadows- “flower-studded lawns”-blend aesthetics & biodiversity in a yummy way http://goo.gl/lv3F1u
Jimmy Turner | @TexanInOz Jimmy is the director of horticulture at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, Australia. If you’ve been longing to take a trip down under, Jimmy’s amazing photographs will suffice until you get the chance to visit in person.
Maria Zampini | @UpShootHort Maria grew up in the nursery industry, and now runs her own new plant marketing group. You’ll find loads of info on new plants and trends in North America and throughout the world.
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NationalGardenBureau | @NatGardenBureau This organization is pushing out loads of gardening info to consumers. Make sure you know what’s getting out to the folks who will ultimately buy your goods.
Thomas Rainer | @ThomasRainerDC Thomas is an author and speaker who is known as a horticultural futurist. He educates about the role of plants in cities.
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Tom Ranney has an addiction, but not one he wants to kick. He spends his waking hours imagining plants that don’t exist yet, theorycrafting, and developing new strategies and approaches to breeding. When he sleeps, he dreams about it.
Ranney is currently the J.C Raulston Distinguished professor at North Carolina State University, where he’s been a staff member for 27 years. You can find him at his lab within the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research Station, which is where the magic happens. The rush of inventing something completely new is what hooked Ranney on breeding.
“Every cross you make is a genetic roll of the dice,” he says. “You can’t ever completely predict what you’re going to get. It’s science coupled with serendipity, which adds to the intrigue.”
However, he didn’t always know he wanted to be a breeder. While working toward his bachelor’s degree at Ohio State University, Ranney found summer work with a tree service, which exposed him to the world of urban agriculture and municipal forestry. He attended graduate school at Cornell University for horticulture and plant protection. Early on in his faculty career, he began screening plants for better pest resistance and adaptability. From there, the next logical step is figuring out how to combine some of those desirable traits. As Ranney says, that’s basically plant breeding.
Ranney has developed nearly 30 new plant introductions through the Mountain research lab, including Javelin pear, a J. Frank Schmidt introduction known for purple foliage and a tight column, and Invincibelle Spirit, the Hydrangea arborescens introduced through Spring Meadow Nursery and central to a campaign that has raised nearly $1 million for breast cancer research.
One of the many aspects of plant breeding that fascinate Ranney is how it integrates many different disciplines. To be a good breeder, you must know plants inside and out. It involves horticulture, genetics, pathology, entomology, and ecology. A well-rounded skillset is necessary to evaluate the germplasm and genetic diversity of plants you’re researching.
There are several factors that Ranney considers when picking a potential breeding idea. But it always comes back to crop improvement. Sometimes opportunities present themselves through particular diseases or an insect problem – something that can be solved by plant breeding. His work often aims to enhance disease or insect resistance, regional adaptability (like cold-hardiness), or reducing invasiveness or weediness. There are also plenty of commercial angles to breeding, like the potential for making more compact forms, fragrant, or reblooming varieties of popular plants. When picking a breeding target, broad genetic diversity is the No. 1 trait he looks for in a group of plants. That raw genetic material is crucial, and helps with “crossability,” that enables him to create fertile hybrids that can continue to move through generations.
He also solicits input from friends in the nursery industry to help prioritize goals and focus his efforts.
A recent example is the collaboration with fellow North Carolinians John and Jill Hoffman of Hoffman Nursery that led to a seedless miscanthus. Hoffman was interested in improving miscanthus by enhancing ornamental features and reducing weediness. Maiden grass is very common along the roadsides of North Carolina and has been grown in nurseries for more than 100 years. But reseeding had always been a problem. The creation of a highly infertile form was a major development and the project was a major undertaking. Over the course of 10 years, Ranney created triploids over multiple generations. The result of the partnership with Hoffman and Star Roses and Plants is My Fair Maiden, a large, bold, cold-hardy miscanthus that is highly infertile.
As with most of his projects, there is a next step. Variegated patterns, new sizes – just because there is a patent pending does not mean Ranney is by any means “done” with the seedless miscanthus project.
“There is no such thing as a perfect plant, so you always have opportunities to make improvements,” Ranney says. “We’re always prioritizing, strategizing, identifying our objectives. In the short term we may be able to achieve some of those objectives, but some of our breeding strategies might have a 10- to 20-year time horizon.”
New products can be spun off all along that process and timeline. For instance, Ranney’s lab is currently doing a lot of breeding work on magnolias. The opportunities to combine increased cold-hardiness with evergreen traits, different flower colors, or with fragrance, could easily be the endeavor of a lifetime.
“That’s why we have graduate students,” he jokes. “To carry on!”
One of the toughest parts of plant breeding is evaluating your selections. It’s easy to generate lots of plants in a breeding program, but it is complicated and time-consuming to narrow them down to the very best. Ranney starts by selecting as early as possible to reduce numbers, and looks to identify plants that have superior characteristics. The picks begin growing in containers, and the plants that turn out best go to the field for further testing.
In the field, Ranney and his team identifies the plants that are superior as candidates for introduction. From there, the potential introductions are sent to multiple sites throughout the U.S. for evaluation.
Getting input from many sources is important at this point. Ranney often brings in industry experts from North Carolina Nursery & Landscape Association to provide perspective on commercial potential. Then, ultimately, it’s a judgment call. Is the plant unique enough, does it have desirable traits that would make it worthy of a commercial introduction? Think big. Depending on your grower partners, you might want to broaden your target range.
“You might find a plant does really well in Japan, but it might not do well in Oregon,” Ranney says. “It makes it complicated, because you’re working toward evaluating global potential and there are a lot of different environments out there.”
Like many breeders, Ranney is an accomplished plant hunter. He’s worked with nurserymen in Japan, collected with collaborators in China, and has made many trips to Europe to take advantage of the similar climate.
“Our plant collecting is different than others in that we try to network with plant people, arboretums, botanical gardens, and nurseries around the country that might have unique germplasm, plants that have particular traits that could be useful to our breeding efforts,” he says.
For instance, Ranney is working on developing seedless pears trees but also wants to enhance other traits – specifically red flower color.
On one of his trips to Japan, Ranney found a Pyrus pyrifolia called ‘Ohara beni’ that had that elusive red flower.
“It’s got the darkest red color I’ve seen,” he says. “It’s red in bud and does open up to a white flower eventually.”
Getting that tree imported in the U.S. and through quarantine was a long process, but now ‘Ohara beni’ is a parent in several crosses in Ranney’s breeding program.
The future of plant breeding
The Mountain Crop Improvement (MCI) Lab is the home of Ranney’s research, and while product development is a part of what happens there, the education and training of undergraduate and graduate students is another major component of the university breeding program. Ranney works with undergraduate students in the lab’s summer internship program. Students actually do independent research projects in that program. They also get to attend research conferences and interact with graduate students and faculty.
Ranney is very optimistic about the future of his particular niche of the horticulture industry.
“In many regards, we’re in the golden age of plant breeding,” Ranney says. “Never before have we had as many opportunities. Right now, we’ve got access to germplasm we’ve never had from around the world. Never before have we had such an understanding of plant genetics and access to modern tools like tissue culture and molecular markers. There are more people now engaged in plant breeding in university, private and commercial, than ever before. But what’s really exciting to me, is the future is going to keep getting better with the new advanced breeding techniques. Particularly the genome editing technologies that are coming out now are going to revolutionize plant breeding in the future.”
These tools and techniques, often lumped under gene editing technologies, have massive implications for breeders. The CRISPR-Cas system, for example, allows users to either delete or replace segements of DNA very precisely. Ranney says the system is low-cost, effective, and offers the potential to confer virus resistance or create sterile plants by knocking out critical reproductive pathways. It can extend shelf life of flowers by modifying ethylene pathways, or create plants that are more compact or dense, rebloom, or reduce invasiveness.
“We’re in a very good spot right now, but the opportunities are just going to skyrocket in the future.”
Quince, (C. oblonga) is a small tree that grows to about 15 feet tall, and it’s often used as rootstock for dwarf pears. But it has some beautiful and interesting characteristics that, with the right marketing and POP, could make it a specialty crop with a high price point.
As the species matures, it takes on an unusual gnarled form. Foliage is deep green, turning yellow in fall. Fruits are very fragrant — said to have a sweet candy-like scent — and are commonly used to make jelly. Flowers are a lovely blush-pink and attract pollinators.
All varieties are self-pollinating.
C. oblonga can be found in ancient history. Cydonia, is named after the town of Cydon in Crete. Some references believe that the ancient biblical name for quince translates to apple, and could be the fruit tree described in Genesis and the Song of Solomon. In ancient Greece, the quince was a ritual offering at weddings, for it had come from the Levant with Aphrodite and remained sacred to her. Plutarch reported that a Greek bride would nibble a quince to perfume her kiss before entering the bridal chamber, “in order that the first greeting may not be disagreeable nor unpleasant,” according to VanDusen Botanical Garden.
Why grow Cydonia oblonga?
- Delicious fruit, of course.
- Lovely flowers.
- Interesting habit once mature.
- Fascinating history/lore.