Cannabis is no laughing matter in horticulture industry

It seems Laura Drotleff had the same problem I’m having with writing a commentary about a taboo subject.

You want to joke about it.

Laura, the editor of Greenhouse Grower magazine, dedicated her monthly commentary in October to an issue many large-scale greenhouse operations are facing: To grow or not to grow cannabis. It was the wrap-up on a special section the magazine featured on whether this specialty crop could have a place in the industry.

So when you’re faced with the prospect of writing about cannabis as a crop in a relaxed atmosphere (as commentaries tend to be), the 13-year-old inside of you whispers “weed” and starts giggling like you just told your middle school friends you had a crush on someone. Funnily enough, I didn’t have the same problem when I wrote a news article for the same issue. It’s so much easier when you’re bound by journalistic ethics not to stray from facts and are forced to keep it clinical.

However, the matter at hand is a serious one: Could cannabis become a boon for the greenhouse industry, or does the risk outweigh the reward? We wanted to contribute to this special section in Greenhouse Grower because the ramifications go beyond whether a grower has the space in their greenhouse to grow a specialized crop. Because Practical Software Solutions has a solid background working with manufacturing and distribution companies outside of the horticulture world, we knew we could help growers look at this issue across the board.

A quick aside: For the people reading this who are not in the horticulture industry, we’re focusing on the large-scale greenhouse growers — the ones that supply ornamental plants to big-box retailers and larger garden centers. Smaller, independent growers — especially ones that only exist to grow cannabis legally — won’t face many of the same issues I’m mentioning here.

Integration still key for software

Cannabis greenhouse

There are many variables greenhouse growers need to consider before considering adding cannabis to their production.

In my article in Greenhouse Grower, I focused mostly on what software products that can assist growers with cannabis production. The smaller, mom-and-pop growers have several options that can help with the important basics, such as lot traceability and operating a retail or medical facility. However, these software titles do not have native integration with any accounting system.

The same thing we’ve told our ornamental growers from the beginning holds true for specialized crops: Every time you manually transfer data from one system to another, you open the door to introduce errors. Just ask the folks at Young’s Plant Farm or Metrolina Greenhouses about their customer receipt errors at the big-box retailers before we helped develop Scan by Cart.

Those types of errors can put a dent in a grower’s profits. However, if similar errors are made with a highly regulated crop like cannabis, money won’t be the only worry. You can be sure that government regulators won’t ignore missing, incomplete, or incorrect data, even if it was accidental. This has the potential to cost a grower more than just what hits his or her bottom line.

Along the same vein, greenhouse growers would need to focus more on lot traceability for regulatory compliance. An ornamental grower informally may trace lots for their own use to track how well different seeds or cuttings grow (whether its for beauty, propagation rates, plant health, etc.). A more robust system is needed when a grower needs to report their lot tracking to a government agency.

Another part of the software puzzle is the difference between “manufacturing” a plant — as we’ve always told our ornamental growers to think of it — and growing a plant that may become a pill or a liquid. The manufacturing process is completely different. Growing a plant falls under discrete manufacturing (container + growing medium + seed/cutting + grow time = finished good), whereas manufacturing a liquid from a plant is process manufacturing (using formulas, ingredients, weights and measurements instead of putting parts together). A software system a greenhouse grower invests in for cannabis would need to work for both sides of the manufacturing equation.

Employee regulation would increase with cannabis operation

We focused on production software in that article, but as we said before, that’s not the only area of concern. For the past few years, we’ve had conversations with growers about Human Resources compliance. Over the past 15 years, growers have gone from barely on the compliance radar to full-blown audit targets. Now with the Affordable Care act rolling out in earnest and immigration reform in the news, greenhouse growers must have the tools to keep their employee records up to date and in compliance.

If a greenhouse grower decides to add a highly-regulated crop like cannabis, think of how much more scrutiny there would be on tracking employees. Background checks and criminal records would need to be checked on all current and future employees. Specialized training and certifications would need to be tracked. Employee access to certain areas of a greenhouse may need to change.

Heck, I legally take prescription medicine that’s a controlled substance, and I know how much government red tape my doctor’s office and my pharmacy have to go through to just so I can receive one month’s worth of pills. I can only imagine the scrutiny a grower would be for having access to the raw materials to create a controlled substance in their own greenhouse.

We’re available to help, but is the industry ready for cannabis?

I had a conversation this morning with Denise Doyle, who works in the marketing department for Sage HRMS. She was as fascinated about this subject as I was when I wrote the Greenhouse Grower article and started researching the complexity of growing a specialized crop like cannabis. “You’ve already got products that can help these growers,” Denise said. “You’ll be on the ground floor if this takes off.”

If you look at the issue at face value, she’s right. We technically have the software available right now to help large-scale greenhouse growers if they were approved to grow legal cannabis. Sage X3 would be a perfect fit since it features robust discrete and process manufacturing tools and one of the best lot traceability functions in the industry. (See Page 15 of Greenhouse Grower’s October issue. They didn’t post the “7 Products and Services For Cannabis Production Solutions” on their website.) And several of our greenhouse customers already know how powerful of a tool Sage HRMS is when it comes to employee compliance regulations.

However, as of right now, we’re drawing the same conclusion that Laura did in her commentary: There are too many unknowns. Banks are hesitant to fund cannabis operations. Laws are ever-changing. Security becomes a priority instead of a piece of the puzzle. Aside from all this, most greenhouse growers — even the largest ones — are family run businesses. They may not even want to bring a crop with a sordid past into their work environment, even if it is legal to grow.

And because we’re able to talk with greenhouse growers about their businesses as a whole, we would probably advise them to wait until there’s more stability in this industry segment. And as Laura rightly pointed out, that day may never come for greenhouse growers. If and when the time is right, we’ll be there to help them.

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