Growing pains

Outdoor cannabis operations could be the key to making this energy-intensive industry more sustainable

Hemp or Marijuana plants growing on sunshine at farm field.

Cultivating cannabis is an environmentally dirty business. Indoor grows require immense energy to keep the lights on, the HVAC systems running and the temperature consistent. Cannabis production in Colorado emits more carbon than the state’s mining industry, according to CSU researchers. Researchers in Illinois found that cannabis requires more water than almost any other commodity crop. 

Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division reports more than 1.2 million plants are cultivated monthlystatewide. The cumulative effect on the environment is not insignificant. If it continues at this rate, the consequences will stack up. 

But Eloisa Lewis has a solution: grow outdoors. 

Lewis is the founder of New Climate Science, a consulting company that connects researchers and creatives in search of solutions to reverse global warming.

“We want to help cannabis cultivators and producers and warehouses — everyone in the supply chain — adopt sustainable practices,” she says. 

New Climate Culture works with farmers and agricultural companies across the board, but cannabis cultivators are its bread and butter. Lewis has a soft spot: Cannabis was the first crop she ever farmed. She developed a passion for the plant and a fascination with the most sustainable ways to cultivate it. 

After years of research, working on farms, and learning from masters of regenerative forms of agriculture, Lewis believes there is a clean way of growing cannabis in a circular economy. 

“When you farm something sustainably, it’s going to detox the environment,” Lewis says. “It’s going to pull pollutants out of the air, and return them to the soil. It’s going to help nourish and create more living, robust soil.” 

And it all starts with farming cannabis outdoors instead of indoors. First and foremost, because it makes the plants more resilient to disease and pests. Lewis likens it to a human’s immune system becoming more robust with exposure to pathogens. Indoor-grown plants are raised in a sterile environment that weakens their genetics, making them more prone to disease and pestilence over generations. 

In fact, Lewis has seen the practice in action and knows it improves crops. She works with a farm in Connecticut called The CBG Gurus, run by Shawn Magill. She calls Magill’s acreage a “world-class demonstration site where the best regenerative practices are actively in place.” The operation collects rainwater throughout the year to supplement water usage and insulate against municipal grid shutdowns and natural disasters.

CBG Gurus also practice polyculture, raising chickens and rabbits and growing fungi, radishes, strawberries and fruit trees. The animals spread seeds through excrement and till soil with their beaks and feet. The crops are left unharvested so they can decay into the soil, enriching it. 

Lewis is a huge proponent of both JADAM and KNF farming. These styles of regenerative farming come from Korea and implement organic, Indigenous fertilizer. Farmers take bacterial cultures from the soil and use the natural enzymes present to repel pests. 

It’s also another opportunity to cut costs. Ordering industrial agriculture fertilizers online can cost as much as $30 a gallon, whereas natural enzyme-based pesticides cost as little as $7 a gallon to make, and produce no carbon footprint associated with shipping. 

The same goes for energy usage: Outdoor cultivators won’t be using HVAC systems or artificial lights. On top of that, there’s no need to import fresh soil and growing substrates like rockwool and coco coir.

There are limitations, she admits. Farming outdoors requires more land, and would likely require some kind of subsidy from the state government to encourage these kinds of best practices. But it is possible. 

“It’s not so much about it being more expensive,” Lewis says. “It’s more like, what are we spending our money on? Isn’t the value of a repaired ecosystem and a regenerative farm worth the expense?”