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How the Green Rush Is Accelerating the Revolution In Smart Farming Technologies

The technology used now to grow cannabis year-round will help grow food year-round in the not-too-distant future.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The cannabis industry is experiencing an incredible surge of interest, primarily due to the increasing number of states legalizing marijuana, many of which are now offering varying levels of licensure for medical or recreational use. Many in the cannabis industry are equating this change, from a cultural perspective, to the end of Prohibition.

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From an agricultural tech perspective, this tipping point for cannabis is happening at just the right time.

The revolution in indoor agriculture.

Indoor farming is a growing trend, in no small part thanks to the original outlaw cannabis growers who first went indoors to escape detection. They are coming out of hiding. For decades, these hidden growers had to be creative. They took risks. And they’re bringing the knowledge gained from those risks to the traditional agriculture market as it, too, shifts indoors.

Advances in lighting, HVAC and sensor technologies are accelerating growth in agriculture. Farms are benefiting from innovation in today’s LEDs, CPUs and wireless technologies to fuel a new tech wave. LEDs are already enabling year-round harvests, eliminating concerns around seasonality, increasing plant yields by supplementing sunlight and making it possible for plants to thrive in the dead of winter.

Cannabis demand and new digital technologies are converging at an ideal time, which leads me to make the following prediction: Agriculture will finally move out of its laggard position in adopting digital technologies and will make smart farming a reality. Legalization allows cannabis growers to come out of hiding with knowledge invaluable to the urban farming movement and the creation of vertical farms. Produce and herb farmers are watching the cannabis industry closely, looking to implement technologies that cannabis is investing to more efficiently address their own operations in greenhouses and even outdoor cultivation. For example, cannabis greenhouses are investing in new sensor and monitoring technologies that have the potential to permanently change commercial agriculture by automatically turning off and on lights when a stormfront settles in or supplementing light intermittently as the occasional clouds passes by.

Related: High Tech Is Powerfully Influencing the Future of the Cannabis Industry

Cannabis is driving energy efficiency.

Ten years ago, high-pressure sodium (HPS) lights were the only option cannabis growers had for growing their products indoors, away from the prying eyes of law enforcement. But in recent years, researchers have educated the cannabis industry to help them understand that certain photons of light drive photosynthesis in plants. This type of light is known as Photosynthetically Active Radiation (aka PAR), which is light in the 400 to 700 nanometer wavelength range.

The most important thing to know about PAR -- and the density of photons that hit the top of a plant, a.k.a. Photosynthetic Photon Flux Density -- is someone cannot simply buy lights at a hardware store and expect them to grow plants efficiently, which is exactly what cannabis growers have done for years in illegal closet grows. While HPS had been the only viable option for decades, my company’s research shows LEDs promise to be more energy efficient and effective for plant growth, both of which improve the bottom line for growers. Additionally, LEDs have a beneficial side effect of emitting a negligible amount of heat, which allows growers to “stack plots of land,” which was impossible to do with HPS lighting because the lights would cook any plants placed above them.

A big reason energy efficiency in cannabis lighting needs to be addressed is because a California study from 2012 showed that the illegal cultivation of cannabis indoors with HPS lighting consumed as much energy as 1 million homes, or roughly the number of homes in San Diego. Switching to LEDs can reduce energy consumption from lighting by up to 40 percent, with more energy savings from not requiring nearly much HVAC to get rid of the heat generated by HPS lights.

With legal cannabis cultivation becoming more commonplace, local municipalities are looking to eliminate the use of HPS lighting. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which conducted trials with commercial-scale cannabis grows to better understand how operating cost savings over the course of a few years can more than offset the initial purchase cost of LEDs, as well as explain how to successfully transition to LED lighting. But it’s not just California. Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission has challenged its largest growers to reduce energy usage to 36 watts per square foot of plant canopy, directly recommending LEDs as an option.

To give context on this requirement, Xcel Energy in Colorado has recorded cannabis grows using up to 200 watts per square feet of canopy -- 455 percent more energy usage than what the Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission recommends. Still, it’s much bigger than these two states. Throughout North America, municipalities are seeing an opportunity for the cannabis industry to be more eco-friendly, while allowing growers to increase yields. Many are actively incentivizing growers to switch from HPS lighting to LED lighting.

Related: This Is How Your Cannabis Is Grown

Why efficiency matters for the Green Rush.

Supply has far outstripped demand in Oregon, where the retail price of cannabis has dropped to record lows. Yet, even with these challenges, LED technology is reducing electric demand, water consumption and pesticide use -- none of which is possible with HPS. This efficiency especially matters for countries like Japan, Singapore and United Arab Emirates which lack sufficient arable land for large urban populations and are exploring vertical farms and shipping container farm concepts.

Efficiencies being found by cannabis growers have the potential to change how we grow food in the future. Experts generally agree the economics of running a vertical farm are daunting but we are working rapidly to make the most innovative technologies cost-effective enough to be used on every farm in America. And the amount of innovation and energy stemming from the cannabis industry is fueling an evolution in agriculture from which everyone who consumes a plant will benefit.