In past blog posts, we have discussed how controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is a viable solution in terms of future food security, environmental justice, and sustainability. Have you ever thought about how it might allow for a better life/work balance as well?
Where's the Balance?
Commercial growers literally cannot afford mistakes that may result in unhealthy crops. They must constantly monitor plants round the clock to insure proper environmental conditions, nutrient balance, soil and water quality, and lighting cycles. For Cannabis growers, there are the additional tasks of trimming and tying plants regularly throughout vegetation in order to maximize harvest. Of course, harvesting and curing also usually require additional (hu)man hours to meticulously hand trim buds for curing and packaging.
I'd imagine there are not too many people out there who enjoy having their daily schedules dictated by the lifecycle of the plants they grow for a living. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the very definition of a poor life/work balance. Sadly, it seems that our contemporary lifestyles have allowed for this line to get rather blurry; yet, this is a great example of and perfect opportunity to demonstrate how humans could benefit from a bit of automation in order to restore that life/work balance. In order to understand where the solutions need to be applied, we should ask ourselves two questions:
- How much labor do you need for conventional commercial Cannabis cultivation?
- How can you combine technology WITH labor to improve efficiency and quality of life for employees?
What Does it Cost to Run an Indoor Food or Cannabis Grow?
Using our own experiences and data that we've collected over the past 2 years, as well as data that is available online, we have estimated the costs in money and (hu)man power to run a medium-scale, commercial, indoor vertical farm setup.
According to one article, "Indoor vertical farms typically spend 56% of their operating budget on labor, roughly $20.78 per square foot.” This is not inclusive of the costs of materials, energy, and nutrients. One can assume that the cost would be even higher for an indoor Cannabis grow, especially when considering the labor requirements at harvest time.
There is also this article from Agfunder that offers an appendix with the cost breakdowns of a vertical farm. According to their research, roughly $1.57 is spent to produce one pound of FOOD in a vertical farm, with $1.10 of that on people hours. Again, increase that bit for Cannabis grows and the return on the investment of time and labor is minimal. Not to mention the workers themselves who have put in endless hours tending to these high maintenance crops, only to find themselves exhausted and without regular financial stability.
When automated systems are introduced to the conventional grow operation, there is a greater possibility of achieving balance in the workplace by improving the systems of production and harvest. The idea is not to replace human beings with machines or eliminate entry-level jobs in the industry. Rather, automation technology exists to improve the efficiency of the workplace, allowing for more efficient time delegation among employees and more productive collaborative work within the team. If it is possible for automation to contribute to the better use and reduced amount of time at the workplace, then perhaps we can say that, for indoor growers, automation is liberation.
What Are the Biggest Challenges for Manual Grow Operations?
Without automation, there are three specific challenges to efficiency and productivity that manual and conventional indoor operations should anticipate. Particularly in a Cannabis grow operation, these are the areas that either require the most manual labor, or are challenges that can actually result from the dependence upon on manual labor.
Tying, Training, and Trimming
Tying and trimming are hugely time consuming tasks that often require the hiring of additional, temporary laborers, or else the burden falls on the existing workers to put in the long days and evenings. The position is demanding and tedious, often resulting in burnout and high turnover rates.
- Of all the folks we spoke to across the country, there is an even split between the number of residential and commercial growers in our survey. Most use screen of green (ScrOG) and a soil planting medium.
- Residential plant growers averaged 8-10 plants in 196 square feet of space, and reported more than 40 hours of tying and training per month
- Commercial plant growers maintained a median of 500 plants in 2,000 square feet of space and reported 120 hours per month or more spent tying and trimming
Plant Health and Care
Another aspect of indoor crop maintenance is monitoring the environment and determining optimal conditions and nutrient requirements. Any change in the environment could lead to setbacks in crop yield. Immediate, real-time climate and nutrient adjustments need to be made in order to keep crops thriving. Lighting schedules are also very specific and will change with the growth stages of the crops.
Likewise, every time plants are touched, trimmed, and tied, they need to exert energy to adapt. Consider that the more you squeeze between your plants to care for them, the greater the risk of introducing biotic and abiotic stressors to a crop that is already trying to adapt to manipulation. Increasing the vulnerability of the plants can certainly damage your future harvest.
Unless you have a crew who is willing to attend to crops round the clock, you are captive to your plants. It will cost you in time, money, or quality of life one way or the other.
When we discuss human error vs. tech issues, we need to realize that nothing is perfect. Humans still need to devise the systems needed to run a grow operation. But choosing not to incorporate automation into these systems means ongoing, manual monitoring of multiple processes. The operation is at a higher risk for information to be misread, misreported, misinterpreted… again jeopardizing the crop yield.
How Can Automation Help?
CEA focuses on the use of technology to automate processes that will lead to thriving indoor crops and maximum yield. As we mentioned in our Guide to Plant and Cannabis Maintenance, there are ways to automate pH, nutrient delivery, lighting schedules, and environmental monitoring. Individual automated systems can remove the burden of constant observation from the workers, reduce the stress on plants that result from constant manipulation, minimize waste and energy usage, and provide consistent and accurate climate readings to be analyzed and adjusted quickly and accordingly.
Compare non-automated Cannabis grow methods and results to an indoor grow using our automated TrellaGro LST™ units with low-stress plant training. With only 12 minutes of labor per day, TrellaGro LST™ can maximize your space and your yield by leaving branches intact. Vegetation is reduced to 2 months, leading to more frequent and robust harvests totaling 4 pounds per plant per year.
You don’t need to be a mathematician to see that you can have a profitable grow operation with less work. It can also result in more frequent and abundant harvests, which is more money in your pocket, more time to spend on your own wellness, and a generally less stressed workforce.
Automated grow technology not only gives us the freedom to grow what we want where we want, but it gifts us with more free time and cash to enjoy reaping what we sow.
If you're interested in learning more about automated plant maintenance and how it can help you to restore some balance in your busy routine, click below:
On a positive note, the days are getting longer so hang in there, start counting off the weeks to spring, and say hi to Team Trella when you are ready to feel the freedom that automation allows. Never forget we are here to help you in any way we can, and love to hear your feedback and questions. Have some thoughts about the technology? Something in a blog post you would like to chat about? Something you would like us to write about? Reach out and let us know you are there! Send us a DM on social media or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keep growing strong. Until next time, Trella Community....
By Sheri Lupoli for Trella Technologies