A revolution is happening right under our noses, and even many of those who are “in the biz” seem to be sleeping right through it. As the Canadian cannabis market matures, it is becoming clear to many that cannabis is in many ways more like wine or coffee than, say, cucumbers.
Sure, one can appreciate a good cucumber, but cucumbers have not inspired the same type of global obsession to which cultivars of wine or coffee have given rise. There is no shortage of wine or coffee geeks willing to rant about aroma, flavour, “body”, and how the “terroir” becomes reflected in the consumption experience.
But nobody would ever dream of trying to produce the world’s best wine or coffee using hydroponic methods, because that is simply not how the best wine or coffee is made. And today, many of the world’s major cannabis companies are waking up to the fact that cannabis may not be so different.
If you are into hunting for the best cannabis that money can buy, the term organic living soil is probably one that you’ve encountered. Before the late 1980s—when “hydro” became popular in underground growing circles—pretty much all cannabis was grown in organic living soil, but back then we just called it soil. The “living” part refers to the endophytes, or symbiotic life forms, that live in and around plants. Endophytes are much easier to produce and maintain in a stable soil base and are essential to plant health.
But today, feeding plants with hydroponic liquid feed (whether salt-based, synthetic, or organic)—and using pesticides and fungicides and more sterile growing media, like soilless or rock wool—has become the industry standard, because it tends to reliably produce higher plant weight. However, it turns out that bud size is not really all it’s cracked up to be; today’s connoisseur is more focused on aroma, oiliness, and taste.
Beyond this, it is important to remember that basing the success of any crop on how much plant weight is produced is a rookie mistake. Cannabis production should always be quantified in terms of the amount of active ingredients a particular cultivar has produced, as it is actually the quantity of those biochemicals that determines value, not the plant weight itself (so make sure to revise that business plan you have been working on).
Think hothouse hydroponic tomato versus organic-soil grown tomato: hydroponic tomatoes, although typically much larger than organic tomatoes, often compare unfavourably in terms of colour, flavour, and nutritional content to those grown in organic soil. As it turns out, cannabis can be similar in this sense, as beneficial microbes and fungi can play a vital role in producing high-quality buds.
The reason is simple: a healthy colony of the right kinds of microbes and fungi keeps detrimental moulds, bugs, and bacteria away while also breaking down nutrients so they can be more readily ingested by the root system. This tends to boost resin production and maximize the content of terpenes (the compounds that provide aroma).
This realization is a big wake-up call for the Canadian cannabis industry and, in particular, for Health Canada, which has set microbiological-contaminant standards so low that cannabis is essentially treated as a sterile pharma product rather than as a plant. Nevertheless, several licensed producers are making the change despite the difficulty in applying these organic methods under such tight regulation.
Those with foresight know that if Canadian flowers are to compete on the world stage, they need to compete on quality—because our neighbours to the south will most certainly outstrip us in terms of production quantity and, hence, price point.
I want to finish this article with a disclaimer: if you read this and feel that I have not done justice to the value of hydro methods in the cannabis sector, allow me to add that I do believe that producing high-quality buds in hydroponic or soilless-medium systems is possible (as many craft growers have proven). However, the high level of skill and attention required, together with the expense of adding organic liquid additives, means that very few hydro growers can rival the quality produced by a simple soil mix.
My argument is that soil allows farmers to more cheaply and easily produce high-quality cannabis and that this educational and regulative gap is primarily responsible for the quality crisis that our legal sector is experiencing.
Grow any way you want to grow, but keep in mind that without a cultural foundation and laws that support farmers in growing the plant the way it evolved to grow for thousands of years, we will not have a marketplace that boasts the world’s best bud.