Nadia Sabeh 2015-12-22 23:39:13
The Cannabis Industry Needs Us Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from folks all over the country asking if I would help design the climate control systems for cannabis cultivation facilities. My education and expertise make me uniquely qualified for these projects. As a PhD candidate, I studied greenhouse cooling systems at the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, and today I work as a mechanical engineer in California, where I established and currently lead our company’s AiCE (Agriculture in Controlled Environments) team. Over the past year, I’ve worked on projects in California, Colorado, Washington, Maine, Massachusetts, and Jamaica. I also helped design two grow facilities that competed for one of the five lucrative licenses in New York State last spring. But these projects are just the tip of the iceberg, as more states are writing legislative guidelines and policies for the cultivation and sale of cannabis and as public opinion shifts toward acceptance in light of new medicinal discoveries and economic opportunities associated with the plant. The challenges faced by cannabis growers are similar to those faced by every farmer, especially those who grow food in greenhouses, vertical farms, and plant factories. Their questions are familiar to all agricultural engineers, whether they specialize in plant facilities, energy systems, natural resources, machinery systems, or sensors and controls. These questions include: • How much water does my crop need? Can I recirculate, reuse, or otherwise minimize water use? • What are the ideal growing conditions for my crop? What level of air temperature, humidity, and light does my crop need at various stages of growth? • What nutrients do I need to give my crop? Should I grow in the soil, with chemical fertilizers, or make an organic tea? • Are LEDs as effective as HID lighting? Will my plants grow best and express more desirable qualities if I expose them to sunlight? • What HVAC systems do I need to control the indoor climate? Should I use mechanical cooling or evaporative cooling? Do I need humidification or dehumidification? • Is there a way to monitor the environment without using pencil and paper? • Should I enrich the environment with carbon dioxide? Is it okay to use the exhaust gases from a gas heater, or should I use a CO2 tank? • What is the most effective method of IPM? How can I eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides, fungicides, and other chemicals? • How can I reduce the labor associated with post-harvest handling? Is there a way to mechanize the trimming, harvesting, and sorting process? Unfortunately, right now these questions are being answered primarily by non-engineers and non-plant scientists posing as “experts” to make a quick buck in this rapidly growing industry. Additionally, little thought has been given to the impact these grow facilities have on regional water systems, utility power consumption, local carbon action plans, and the environment as a whole. I know not everyone is on board with the legalization of cannabis, and I get that. Like many of you, I became an agricultural engineer because I wanted to feed the world, not because I wanted to get it high or medicate it. But I also feel a duty and responsibility as an agricultural engineer to help farmers, of any plant, understand their crop’s needs, increase yields and quality, and use fewer resources with less impact on our planet. Furthermore, I believe that the cannabis industry could help spur new technologies, drive equipment costs down, and maybe even provide a training ground for our next generation of farmers, helping to make controlled environment agriculture a more viable option in the quest to feed nine billion people by 2050. What do you think? Should ASABE and its members be more involved in the cannabis industry? Should we use our knowledge and expertise to help educate cannabis growers, develop new tools and technologies specific to their needs, and seek support from the federal government to fund research? Or should we maintain our distance from this drugproducing plant, a plant that isn’t even a food crop? Regardless of where you stand on the issue, I’d like to hear your thoughts and hope that you’ll join me in a discussion. ASABE member Nadia Sabeh, P.E., Associate and Team Leader of Agriculture in Controlled Environments (AiCE), Guttmann & Blaevoet Consulting Engineers; author of Tomato Greenhouse Roadmap (HortAmericas, 2014); and contributing author to Plant Factory (Elsevier, 2015), Sacramento, Calif., USA, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gb-eng.com. Photo © Valentyn75 | Dreamstime.com
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