From day one, the central mission at Woody Nelson was to grow the best weed in the world with the brightest minds, inventing and deploying extraordinary technology. Through systems like vertical farming and LED lighting we were able to push the boundaries of canopy per square foot, and that was just the beginning. With sensor arrays and our analytics engine, we’re able to observe the plants in a way that makes all sorts of new things possible. As much fun as it is building these technologies around cannabis, we can’t help but think to a future where this knowledge is used to support a more localized approach to our network of food production.
We jokingly call the facility in Nelson our Spaceship which would make our weed… Space Weed! A bit of an inside joke given that Jolyon, who designed our facility, previously worked on agtech research projects like how to grow food in space. Super cool for us because his understanding of the plant was second to none, and he was just as excited about the technology as we were. So, naturally, when we wanted to write a blog about all the cool technology at Woody Nelson, he was our first choice.
Over the years, Jolyon worked on a variety of agriculture technology projects all over the world, partnering with universities and other organizations towards the development of different growing methods. An important part of this work had to do with building large, self-contained habitats with environmental controls that would allow researchers to isolate variables and observe results. This includes variables like air pressure, gravity, radiation, atmosphere, and light – all of which are important considerations when trying to understand how to grow plants outside their natural environment. For example, how does a plant know which way is up?
One cool example of these experiments was something called the Tomatosphere initiative. Researchers wanted to see if seeds exposed to zero gravity and cosmic radiation would be able to germinate like normal, so they sent a bunch of tomato seeds into space. After some time in orbit, these seeds were given to school children to try to grow at home. The end result? A bunch of kids ended up growing space tomatoes in their home gardens.
On another project, the emphasis was on finding ways to automate food production. If we’re talking about a trip to Mars, might be a good idea to set up a farm or two before we arrive. To help explore these fully automated growing systems, Jolyon and his team setup a facility in the remote artic. They even made friends with some local polar bears.
What we’ve learned
One of the most important concepts that Jolyon introduced to the group was biomimetics. It’s the idea that there was a brilliant sense of engineering and purpose behind everything in nature. It helped us appreciate how important it was to understand the plant and what the plant would need from its environment to express the genetic traits we were looking for. Everything in our facility was built with biomimetics in mind and it’s the main reason we use organic living soil.
Plants, like people, are highly adaptable. There’s no such thing as a perfect environment and contrary to what you might think plants need stress to grow. In nature, environmental stress can be created by a variety of conditions, including changes in temperatures, pests, and natural disasters. Assuming the plant has the necessary conditions to overcome these stressors, they help the plant adapt and grow stronger. While we avoid the pests and natural disasters in our habitats, plenty of work goes into making sure our plants grow up healthy, and we still have a few ways we can fine-tune the process.
Through Jolyon’s experience, there were 3 areas we thought deserved our focus: Light, Automation, and Monitoring Plant Health. Let’s take moment to go through each so we can show you how it helped us grow better cannabis.
As Jolyon described it, light is kind of like playing music. Everyone has the same sheet music, but the way the musician interprets and plays that music changes what we hear. Light operates in a similar way where different spectrums can influence the way a plant grows by encouraging the expression of specific genetic traits. For example, using a certain spectrum of light to make the plant’s aroma more pungent.
This is in part due to something called epigenetics, which is the idea that certain genetic features can be turned on, off, or expressed to different levels depending on outside factors. Ultimately, when it comes to plants, this means that by using light correctly, you’re able to bring out different features, make secondary characteristics more prominent, or change the degree to which different characteristics are expressed by the plant.
To further elaborate about how important light is, Jolyon tells the story of a Spanish town that was growing really great tomatoes. With all their tomato-related success, the town was growing and looking to move tomato production to a new location. The farmers were concerned that a change in location would mean different light and this would impact the quality of tomato they were able to produce. The solution was to develop an LED lighting system that was able to reproduce the same lighting conditions from the previous location. While this may have been a radical concept at the time, the idea of creating unique environmental conditions is exactly what Woody Nelson’s habitats were designed to do.
When it comes to agtech, automation is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the conversation. For example, Jolyon told us about Dutch roses and how millions of flowers are being grown with full automation. While the roses still may be cut and hung by hand, everything from growing, analyzing, grading, wrapping, bagging, boxing, and shipping is automated. This is also how a lot of our food is currently being grown unless you’re shopping locally.
The trick to this kind of automation is in consistent and predictable cultivars. Since the Dutch rose has a consistent genetic code, breeding and replication becomes easy, making automation relatively simple. Applying this approach to cannabis may work in theory, but the genetic variety that exists within today’s best cultivars is well beyond what we’re able to automate.
To help navigate this challenge, Woody Nelson committed to growing all our plants in organic living soil. While this wouldn’t qualify as automation in a traditional sense, the plants are in charge of food which means we don’t have to worry about feeding them. We take a similar approach with water, letting them drink when they’re thirsty. Once you put the lights on a timer, it does start to feel like the plants are running the show.
Monitoring Plant Health
While today’s technology falls short of full automation, there are plenty of other tasks it excels at including an improving ability to monitor plant health. For example, we use osmotic pressure sensors that help us monitor how much the plant is eating. High osmotic pressure means the plant is getting enough nutrients, while low pressure means it’s not getting the water it needs.
Another way of monitoring plant health involves the use of light spectrum analyzers. Plants will be put through these special light boxes with sensors that detect which spectrums of light are being reflected off the plant. This can help assess a variety of risks, including diseases, pests, and general plant health faster than most other indicators. These sensors can also be used to observe plant temperature, moisture content, or molds long before they’re visible to the naked eye. The potential of this technology is significant, especially when you consider pairing it with other technologies like augmented reality.
Connecting Back to Cannabis and Woody Nelson
When it comes to Woody Nelson, we aimed to take a lot of this knowledge and tech and incorporate it into our own growing practices. For this, we wanted to create a facility that not only replicates nature, but allows us to control the environment as much as possible. Being able to have control over things like light spectrums, stressors, and air pressure allows us to genetically manipulate plants so they produce the effects we want them to have. This way, we can make sure we’re growing high quality, complex cannabis that we can be proud of – because we love great weed, but also to inspire better and more sustainable growing methods within the industry.
Apart from growing food in space (which is freaking cool), we’d also love to use cannabis to help overhaul our current food and agricultural systems. Cannabis provides a great space to be able to invest in cutting edge science and tech, so hopefully, the things we learn from this experience can be used for other agricultural industries and food sustainability practices into the future. Either way, it’s something we’re excited about.