Has the shine come off outdoor marijuana grows?

A wet summer and early frost dampened this year’s harvest, but with edibles and concentrates about to go on sale industry analysts say there are reasons to be high on the future

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There was a lot of buzz around outdoor growing as legalization entered 2019. Would it work? Would it produce a shelf-ready product? And would the low overhead pose a significant, even existential challenge, to the high-production business model followed by most Licensed Producers?

The year’s harvest might prove to be the canary in the coal mine for some of those questions.

A wet summer and early frost – mixed with growing pains – combined to produce spotty results for outdoor growing pioneers. Companies who invested heavily in large-scale outdoor growing operations were left with a lighter take than they expected.

48North, one of the first major growers to plant outdoors, harvested 12 tonnes. They expected 40. Aleafia planned to harvest 60 tonnes but produced slightly more than 10 tonnes across 12 hectares of outdoor grow space. Meanwhile, WeedMD, one of the country’s biggest operations, reported a yield of eight tonnes.

“It was a tough harvest,” says cannabis industry analyst Scott Willis.

While bad weather doomed projections – 48North had to deploy a helicopter to blow hot air over plants to keep an early frost away – the other reality is that growing outdoors on a large scale isn’t like planting tomatoes in your grandmother’s backyard. It’s serious agriculture that demands serious expertise. And experienced illicit-market growers weren’t exactly banging down the doors of legal pot companies to offer their help.

Still, there are reasons to be forgiving about the results. Delays in getting permits, for one, meant that seed was planted late. Says Willis: “There were a lot of moving parts.”

There were also high expectations. Investors were banking on yields of around 1,000 kilograms per hectare. But Willis suggests 400 kilograms might be a more realistic goal – at least until producers become more experienced with commercial outdoor growing. As an analysis conducted by Grizzle points out: “Outdoor introduces many variables that make growing more of a challenge.” As Connor Whitworth, director of corporate affairs for 48 North, correctly points out, the results were industry-wide and not the fault of individual companies.

But with edibles and concentrates about to go on sale in Canada – both require large amounts of product – there’s still excitement about the business case for outdoor grows.

In fact, some cannabis from outdoor grows was able to make it on to retail shelves. That should quiet the doubters (of which there are a number) who claim that indoor growing is the only way to meet quality assurance standards.

The fact is that outdoor operations are likely to grow a significant part of the cannabis industry for years to come. Producers have an estimated 350 tonnes of cannabis scheduled to be planted in 2020. Growing outdoors also has the added advantage of being less labour-intensive than indoor operations.

“Outdoor is a thing, it’s going to be here,” says Willis. “The cost – you just can’t say no to that.”