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Two plants: Cannabis and Barley have very different growing procedures. In this picture barley is growing in natural sunlight while cannabis grows inside in artificial light

The Very Different Approaches in Barley and Cannabis Cultivation

[vc_row][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_column_text css=”.vc_custom_1506257746044{margin-bottom: 0px !important;}”]In the famous words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from a cornfield.” This statement is both metaphorically spot-on and decidedly humbling as I sit in my office clicking away on the keyboard. The truth is that farming is anything but simple. For starters, every crop is unique in its ability to acclimate to various environmental conditions. On top of this, there are a number of widely accepted agricultural systems used today. Couple these truths with the sheer variety of food, textile, and ornamental crops; and you essentially have an infinite number of possible crop-environment combinations. I consider myself fortunate in that I have had an opportunity to work with both conventional and hydroponic agriculture on a multi-million dollar scale. Looking back on these experiences, I am reminded of the discrete differences between traditional barley cultivation and pharmaceutical hydroponic cannabis cultivation. The most notable contrasting features include regulatory barriers, security measures, and growing methods.

From day one there was an intrinsic regulatory scrutiny in the Nevada medical cannabis industry where I worked. For starters, the licensing application was rigorous. According to the Las Vegas Sun, “The review forms include business plans, financial statements, the location of the proposed business and criminal background checks for owners. Applicants also had to prove they had at least $250,000 in liquid assets.” Cultivation sites were required to be indoor, nursery style grows with no windows whatsoever. Once the operation was active, every plant required a unique 16 digit ID number and inclusion in some form of recordkeeping software. Upon harvest, every plant had to be weighed and recorded individually. Finished product was then tested according to the demanding standards of the Food Safety Modernization Act. Even our disposal methods had to adhere to high standards – no intact stems, leaves, roots, or soil. Essentially, everything had to be mulched before it could be thrown out. After clearing all these hoops, it is finally legal to sell. However, this is only so long as the customer saw a physician, filed the appropriate paperwork, waited 60 days for an acceptance letter, visited a designated MMJ Licensing DMV, and eventually received their ID in the mail. Needless to say, the whole process was laden with speedbumps. Compare that to the Minnesota barley industry with its minimal regulatory barriers, and I would argue you have completely opposite situations. I could plant and cultivate barley in my own backyard if I saw fit. Try doing the same with marijuana and you’re sure to attract some unwanted attention.  This is precisely where another sharp contrast can be drawn between barley and cannabis cultivation.

Securing a field of barley requires little more than a fence to keep 99% of people out. It is not a resource sought after by criminals. Cannabis, on the other hand, requires extensive security consideration due to its value as a street drug and the sociological factors surrounding it. To put it in perspective; the nursery where I worked was outfitted with a keycard operable gate, two man-trap entryways equipped with fingerprint and keycard scanners, five panic buttons throughout the building, and on site security personnel monitoring live action cameras 24/7. Employees were even required to wear a uniform of a specific color to designate what kind of clearance level they had. The potential threat of burglary, from an outside source or from within, was very real. I am thankful to say I never witnessed the facility in a state of crisis. I did; however, have plenty of issues to deal with in the horticultural realm.

After spending two and a half years in a barley breeding program, I had become very well acquainted with the strategies used in traditional cultivation. Little did I know; I would not be able to draw on these skills as cannabis cultivation was drastically different. Take propagation for example. Barley is a self-fertilizing species. These types of organisms generally show very little variation in successive generations because genes become “fixed”. Because of this, seed can be taken directly from a parent and planted to yield nearly identical offspring. It is a beautiful system that allows farmers access to viable seed every season. When it comes to propagating cannabis, there is rarely seed involved. Instead, clones are taken as tip cuttings from a designated mother plant. This gives rise to a population that is genetically identical to its predecessor. Where I had once been sewing a few acres of barley once each growing season, I was now propagating 360 new clones on a weekly basis. It made for a fast-paced, stratified cultivation model powered by comprehensive environmental control.

One of the more obvious contrasts between these two cultivation systems is in the very environmental makeup. Conventional agriculture seeks to sew hardy crops capable of withstanding unpredictable weather patterns, pests, diseases, and varying conditions. The entire system is more responsive to the season’s climate and relies relatively little on the farmer. Hydroponic agriculture differs in that it seeks to imitate ideal environmental parameters with artificial lighting, inert growing medium, climate control, and formulated nutrient sources. Even with automation, there is still a huge need for the farmer’s attention on a daily basis to maintain conditions. Should a single element fail; say, irrigation, the entire crop could be lost within a single day. Hydroponics lacks resilience to environmental disturbances; however, a well-trained grower with quality equipment should see them few and far between. This lack of pliability is not entirely due to the environmental conditions, however.

Of all the stark dissimilarities between barley and cannabis cultivation, I think the most surprising was the quality of commercial varieties in each case. While the top barley breeders had been selecting for high yield, non-shattering, disease resistant varieties with robust growth characteristics; cannabis breeders had been selecting for dwarf varieties with high THC content and strong terpenoid presence. So while most barley strains, whether for animal feed or the brewing industry, were made to be durable; it seemed as though cannabis strains were bred for only flavor and potency. Their growth habit could be described only as timid. To me, this was confusing. There was certainly plenty of diversity in the cannabis genome. An experienced breeder could easily select for non-lodging, high yield crosses with comparable pharmaceutical potency. Granted, within my life, I have only witnessed regulations regarding cannabis cultivation loosen in the United States. Twenty plus years ago, calling yourself a cannabis breeder was essentially a one way ticket to the slammer courtesy of the DEA. Today, it may be the most plausible way to bring cannabis farming up to speed.

When it comes down to it, these farming styles share many of the same intrinsic principles; a need for photosynthetically active light, sufficient water content, and all the macro and micronutrients plants crave. At the same time; they are worlds apart in regards to regulatory scrutiny, security detail, farming methods, and genetic standard. That being said, the times are indeed changing. Soon we might see these two crops grown side by side, unhinged from the political red tape and social ramifications to which they have historically been divided.


Chase Lockbeam: student, farmer, educator and blogger.About: I graduated from the University of Minnesota earning a BS in Applied Plant Science with an emphasis in plant improvement. During my undergrad, I spent 3 years working in a transgenic, small-grains breeding program. The foundation of this experience began with training in effective horticultural principles and plant breeding schemes. From here, I moved up into the laboratory where I worked extensively with tissue sampling, histotechniques, DNA extraction, amplification, isolation and sequencing. Naturally, this work was done in conjunction with the management of various agricultural systems; including transgenic growth chambers, greenhouse, and outdoor growing. I have since worked in pharmaceutical farming management and compliance in the developing cannabis industry.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][mk_custom_sidebar sidebar=”sidebar-1″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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