Cannabis Growers Look To Traditional Farmers For Lessons

March 21, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Well-trained plant breeders can now entertain a new calling: marijuana. Breeding programs, like this one at The Farm in Boulder, Colorado, are becoming a significant commercial enterprise. (Photo by Luke Runyon, Harvest Public Media)

Listen To This Story

Cannabis cultivation is moving from darkened basements into well-lit growhouses and even farm fields. As more states legalize the growth of marijuana or hemp, growers are turning to traditional farmers for help in turning cannabis into the next big American commodity.

The Governor’s Forum on Agriculture in Denver is your typical farm conference. Every year, farmers in denim and bolo ties mingle with ag professionals. The governor himself swings by for a keynote speech. But this year, there was a new addition. There's a panel called "Cannabis: An Emerging Crop of Colorado."

In years past, marijuana growers haven’t been invited to the event. Now, Duane Sinning, the state regulator in charge of industrial hemp is introducing three cannabis company executives.

“There’s an opportunity where traditional agriculture can help an industry emerge in this state,” Sinning said.

Because cannabis is the state’s newest and flashiest cash crop, there’s a focus on finding the best, and most efficient ways to grow it. A focus to turn cannabis into a full blown commodity like wheat or corn. Brooke Gehring sat on the panel. She’s the CEO of a chain of cannabis shops in the Denver metro area called Live Green.

Stephen Lipton runs a two facility research and development program for breeding new strains of cannabis for The Farm in Boulder, Colo.

More than 150 different varieties of cannabis make up Colorado-based The Farm's genetic library.

“Farmers understand scale. They understand hardship. They understand you’re only as good as your last crop," Gehring said.

Stephen Lipton knows those lessons. He’s the cultivation manager at The Farm, a recreational and medical marijuana operation in Boulder, Colorado. Before growing commercial-scale cannabis, Lipton worked as an organic farmer. His research lab is filled with at least 150 different strains of marijuana, planted in small pots.

“Genetics is really the cornerstone of the whole thing," Lipton said. "Without that you really have nothing.”

Just like a plant breeder attempting to make a sweeter apple or a hardier tomato, he crosses strains in search of the perfect variety.

“Plant vigor, smell, aroma, taste, anything that you can imagine really. Yield. Yield is a big one for sure,” Lipton said.

Most of modern agriculture relies heavily on inputs, like fertilizers and pesticides, to keep plants healthy and productive. But for obvious legal reasons, the Monsantos and John Deeres of the world aren’t catering to cannabis growers. That leaves room for start ups.

Colin Bell decided to use his knowledge of soil microbes to serve the marijuana sector. Bell originally developed a soil additive for vegetable crops at Colorado State University, but now sells beneficial bacteria by the gallon to marijuana growers under the brand name Mammoth.

“We hear bigger flowers, we hear denser flowers," Bell said. "And in the end what it translates is to is more yield, right?”

And more yield translates to more money. In Colorado alone, marijuana sales were just shy of a billion dollars in 2015. And more markets are coming online. More than 20 states have laws allowing industrial hemp and medical marijuana, and four states plus Washington D.C. give permission for recreational use of the drug. With a handful of states expected to fully legalize this year, Bell says a lot of farmers want in on the ground floor.

Soil microbiologist Colin Bell developed a mix of helpful bacteria at Colorado State University and now markets his product under the brand name Mammoth P.

“It’s a super exciting opportunity from a business perspective," Bell said. "There hasn’t been a new market in many, many years. And there might not be one again in our lifetime.”

That same excitement is on display back at the Governor’s Forum on Agriculture in Denver. Grant Mattive farms potatoes and barley in the state’s parched San Luis Valley. Last season he gave hemp a try. In a region prone to drought, he likes the crop’s ability to withstand dry conditions.

“To be successful and to get this industry really going on its feet, we need to involve farmers a little bit more, rather than just the basement weed growers,” Mattive said.

At first, Mattive says he was skeptical about jumping onto the bandwagon, in the rush to grow cannabis. Now, he says he just needs to figure out how to run his combine over it.


Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.