Challenges, Concerns Surround Rise In Automated Cannabis Cultivation

During the July 31 Democratic presidential debate, candidate Andrew Yang doubled down on his concerns about the effect of automation on American jobs.

Those same concerns are spreading in the cannabis industry.

Some experts and consumers are eyeing automation’s impact on the plant and the cultivation process.

A sharp change has occurred in a short period of time, said Chelsey Moter, the founder and CEO of the cannabis growth marketing company Cannack.

“I remember when I first went to MJBizCon two years ago and saw this nice family-owned business who made trimming scissors to make manual labor more productive. Then last year, I see industrial-scale trimming machines that completely eliminate the need of a physical human,” she said.

Moter also acknowledged the reasons for going with an automated process, including cost effectiveness.

Jill Ellsworth is CEO of Willow Industries, a company specializing in post-harvest microbial decontamination.

Ellsworth sees automation as a “huge step toward more legitimacy” in the cannabis industry.

“When SOPs become automated, that is when we know the industry is growing and achieving market share.”

Automation does create additional challenges, Ellsworth said, singling out cross-contamination prevention at facilities as an example.

For Natura, a cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution platform, the approach to automation revolves around value proposition, said CEO Craig Powell.

“Automation is that vehicle; allowing us to make changes quickly, efficiently and even remotely. The net result is [an] improvement in yield, enhanced quality or, sometimes even more important, risk mitigation.”

Oher areas that benefit from automation include the enaction of best practices, increasing utilization and decreasing manpower requirements, he said.

Both Ellsworth and Powell see automation increasing as the industry further develops.

Concerns from consumers, enthusiasts and experts do exist.

The Human Touch

Moter voiced concerns about “overly processed” cannabis made by machinery, resulting in a decline in taste and experience.

High Times senior Cultivation Editor and cannabis author Danny Danko said larger grow operations rely on automation, and some sites he visited have reached the point where very few human hands touch the plant at all.

The process has benefits that include a reduction in contamination from humans, insects and other factors, he said.

Yet “without that human touch, something in the product is lacking,” Danko said.

The cultivation expert said the best cannabis comes from a hand-grown, sun-grown process. The additional steps that are required are hand trimming, proper curing and not overfeeding the plant — a mistake he said most cultivators make.

In the end, Danko said there will be space for both methods in the market.

“I think the automation is going to be the way that the industrial cannabis is created, mostly for the production of concentrates and things like that. And the craft flower industry is going to stick with human contact on the plants.”