The job market is hot for horticulture students. Starting this fall, the University of Guelph is adding a new cannabis specialization to its horticulture certificate program in the hopes of producing graduates for an industry hungry for agricultural talent. The first course, “Cannabis Cultivation,” is being taught by Brandon Yep, a Guelph horticultural science masters student who has worked for Green Relief, an LP in Puslinch, Ont. The course is already full, with 60 students enrolled for the fall semester. Cannabis Professional spoke with Mr. Yep about the course, and the state of horticultural science for cannabis. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Cannabis Professional: What is the demand for a course like this?
Brandon Yep: If you subscribe to any of the cannabis grow magazines, they put out job postings every month, typically broken down into cultivation, quality assurance, corporate, that sort of thing. In almost every section, cultivation has the most job postings: eight or 10. Right now, really other than the Niagara College program, there’s no other education system that can provide individuals with any level of education for cannabis cultivation, so there definitely is a large demand.
CP: How does your course differ from more generalist horticulture courses?
BY: This course is specifically dealing with cannabis, so it takes general concepts learned from horticulture and agriculture science, and applies it specifically to cannabis. Cannabis is an extremely unique crop, it’s just so variable across the cultivars. Right now, with the industry being so new, a lot of cultivators are practicing really odd techniques that aren’t necessarily proven. What this course does is clarify what actually has been proven to work through science, and what are some things that people are just practicing that we don’t necessarily know works.
CP: What are some examples of techniques that are commonly used, but not scientifically proven?
BY: You hear of a lot of things like super-cropping and flushing, which have never been practiced before in any other established greenhouse industry, like tomatoes or cucumbers.
Flushing, for example, is when in the last two weeks of cultivation, cultivators will feed the cannabis root zone essentially just clear water, no nutrients whatsoever. The idea is to flush out all of the salts in the root zone. Now I’m not saying this is necessarily incorrect or wrong, I’m just saying that it’s not proven, we don’t really know if this works or not.
Super-cropping is a method where they bend the branches, they actually almost break them at some point, and it essentially stresses the plant. The idea behind this is that you’ll get growth in new points, and you can also apparently increase the potency of the flower produced. Once again, this is just anecdotal stuff passed along from home growers.
CP: Are there other differences between the cannabis industry and other types of industrial agriculture?
BY: The number one challenge is the cost of labour. A lot of the techniques these [cannabis] home growers use involve people doing the work. Typically in greenhouses like tomato greenhouses, where you have acres upon acres of tomatoes, they’re doing minimal labour; I mean they’re barely touching the plants, and if they are, it’s just for essential pest management. Right now [in the cannabis industry] people are able to do [labour intensive work] just because there’s so much money being invested in the industry, and of course the crop is extremely lucrative. As time goes on we’re likely going to see the cost per gram sold go down, and it will be not as easy to apply all that labour as it is right now.
You could also talk about fertilizers. Right now in the cannabis industry people are applying really high concentrated fertilizer that is not only expensive to apply, but also unnecessary and could also potentially be a hazard to the environment if they’re not recycling it properly. For most crops, there’s a general idea of what [fertilizer amounts] the plant needs. That hasn’t really been well researched or understood in the cannabis industry.
CP: How would you describe the state of scientific knowledge around cannabis horticulture?
BY: I would say there is a minimal amount of science on drug-type cannabis. There is a lot of research on hemp, which is the same species, cannabis sativa. However, all that research does not necessarily apply to [drug-type cannabis], as I would say they are quite different plants. Cannabis has been illegal so it has been very difficult to do any research; most of the research that’s come out has only been in the last couple of years.
CP: Are you ever frustrated by the amount of unscientific information in the industry?
BY: I definitely feel that way, especially when I go to industry-based events. But for the most part I’m dealing with people at the university, who are obviously experienced in the scientific method. If anything, it’s more exciting because the science for cannabis is really taking off. If you look online at the scientific articles published on cannabis, it’s growing at an exponential rate.
CP: Where is most of the research on cannabis agriculture taking place?
BY: Canada is doing a great job, there is a lot of stuff happening here in Guelph. Deron Caplan, who just got his PhD last year from Guelph, is a first in North America to focus his thesis on cannabis production. There’s also stuff coming out of Israel, some stuff from select parts of the United States where they’re using hemp.
CP: I understand disease control is a big issue for cannabis. What are you teaching about this?
BY: We have one unit that is integrated pest management and cannabis diseases, which talks about the main diseases in cannabis: botrytis, powdery mildew, root rot; and pests: aphids, thrips, spider mites, those sort of things. So we do provide a section where you can identify the pests or diseases, and then some basic mitigation techniques you can use for those. It’s tricky because the cannabis industry is extremely regulated by Health Canada, so what you can use to deter or control these pests and diseases really comes down to what Health Canada allows.