Pests and diseases are quickly becoming more common for the cannabis industry. With more states legalizing recreational and medical cannabis, the number of growers in the nation has quadrupled in the last 5 years. As more cannabis growers enter the industry for the first time, a host of pathogens and the need for sustainable and economic pest management solutions are becoming more prevalent as the amount of cannabis being grown increases.
IPM stands for Integrated Pest Management and is a systematic process in which physical, biological, and chemical deterrents are used according to a predetermined plan to protect cultivation facilities, indoor and outdoor, from contamination by pests and pathogens.
IPM is made up of 4 distinct aspects that are all parts of having a well-rounded IPM protocol. These 4 areas, in order of most utilized on a daily basis, are cultural, physical and mechanical, biological, and finally chemical control methods.
Cultural controls are the methods in which we manipulate the culture around how people move and interact with their space; this is the foundation of any sound IPM program. Maintaining a structured culture among your employees can be the best for keeping pathogens from entering your grow. Requiring individuals inside the grow to not wear street clothing, policies for going from one cultivation room to another before decontamination, and more can all be a part of an effective cultural control strategy.
A well-designed indoor grow or even greenhouse should still be designed in a way to make it difficult for your plants to get exposed to infectious agents. Having specific spaces in your facility dedicated to distinct stages of cultivation will make it much harder for pests to become spread through all of your plants. Also, having the ability to lock down each area and essentially quarantine it from the rest of your facility is essential. One major problem I have seen many facilities suffer from is having no dedicated hallways or access to and from specific rooms without having to travel through other adjacent grow rooms to gain access. Implementing physical barriers is a very effective pest control tool, however, it is just one aspect of a robust IPM strategy.
Biological controls, or biocontrols, are important preventative treatments, especially for organic grows, that involve releasing predatory organisms that prey on pests. Planning out your growing year and learning about the specific species of pests that might spike during particular times in your region is critical to understanding what predatory arthropods or nematodes you might need to order in advance during peak season. Biological controls can even encompass growing other species of plants in and around outdoor cannabis grows or even around the edge of a greenhouse to attract local predatory insects into your grow.
These are two-spotted spider [Tetranychus urticae] mites, a pretty common pest for outdoor cannabis growers of the mid and southeast. A common biocontrol for these spider mites is the release of Phytoseiulus persimilis or the predatory mite.
Chemical controls should be used in moderation for any modern disease prevention program. If you have addressed all of the fundamentals of an IPM strategy before a pest becomes a problem, reactionary methods like using ‘hard’ chemicals can be avoided. Additionally, the legality of using certain compounds with cannabis varies from state to state. In general, ‘softer chemistry,’ which is less dangerous and potentially harmful, may need to be applied in specific areas on a regular basis. Dipping new clones that may have come from another grow is always a good idea. What you dip them in to inoculate them from powdery mildew, insects, and other pathogens is a large debate. Many growers use a range of insecticides, fungicides, and products like neem oil. Whether you use any chemical treatments or none at all, they are a tool in the tool belt that should only be used sparingly and when needed.
Prevention is everything when it comes to maintaining a clean and disease-free grow. The core philosophy of any IPM protocol is to catch a problem before it becomes a problem, and this requires constant systematic procedures to prevent an infestation. Integrated pest management differs from conventional, chemical calendar-based pest control programs by also focusing on physical and social controls in the cultivation facility as opposed to just the use of primarily chemical biocides. In organic grows, having and utilizing an effective IPM strategy can be done entirely without the use of harmful synthetic compounds.
Cannabis, unlike many other agricultural crops, has not been cultivated with disease resistance in mind. For years, commercially grown cannabis has experienced extensive hybridization of many cannabis cultivars. These plants are bred for strain potency, taste, and smell. Intense hybridization can lead to weaker plants that are more vulnerable to disease and infestation. Many diseases can be mitigated by picking the right genetics. Powdery mildew, otherwise known as PM, is a great example of genetic predisposition towards disease.
Cannabis plants that are in flower are the oldest, largest, and most stressed vectors to pests and disease in your grow. These plants, and the rooms in which they grow, have the highest likelihood to harbor pests. Maintaining specific flowering rooms and equipment just for your oldest plants is essential for not spreading pests to younger generations.
A river is a great way to visualize people, plants, and equipment as they move through your grow. “Everything travels downstream, NEVER upstream,” is the philosophy you should employ when moving through your grow. Your mother plants hold all of the genetic inheritance for your operation. This is the source of the river. As plants grow and age, they move down the river, from germination to vegetative to flowering. Your plants get “dirtier” as they age. Your mothers and youngest plants, the beginning of the river, should be the cleanest area of your grow. As plants get older, the chances of having pests increase, no matter how careful or advanced your facility is.
Nothing ever goes upstream. Never have plants, personnel, or equipment going from a veg room to a germination room or a flowering room to a veg room. This is the easiest way to introduce pests all over your facility and ruin thousands of dollars worth of potential products. Start in the cleanest rooms and work towards the dirtiest rooms, making sure to never backtrack through rooms you have already been in.
This is a diagram of the classical IPM pyramid, or in this case, funnel. This diagram depicts the level of importance and the type of response each of the 4 management philosophies of how Cultural, Mechanical, Biological, and Chemical controls relate to each other. This diagram also shows the distribution of how some of these control philosophies are more preventative as opposed to reactive.
Don’t grow all of your cannabis in the same room! If you do this, there is literally no way to control the spread of pests to younger plants and even potentially to your mothers. Implementing physical and social controls are a must. Divide your rooms with physical barriers and implement social controls to regulate how and when personnel enters any given room.
Having consistency in your routine is vital. When you are trying to predict and manage pests, you must first have a very repeatable daily process for interacting with and managing your grow. Without consistent methods, there is no baseline from which to draw conclusions and make well-formed decisions on how to address areas of concern in your facility, no matter the scale.
A strong IPM protocol will also take into consideration what you are using your end products for. For instance, if you are growing hemp, many of the common biocides used such as Bifenthrin and pyrethrins, which are not a serious health concern at low levels, can become a much larger problem when the end product is formulated and concentrated.
Through the process of harvesting and extracting the hemp cannabinoids, many trace pesticides can also be extracted along with the target compounds. As this extraction is concentrated by evaporating off the solvents and any other chemicals pulled off the plant, the highly concentrated hemp extractions can include trace pesticides. If the end concentrate is meant for human or pet ingestion, trace pesticides and even heavy metals can be a huge health concern. This is why third-party laboratory testing of the end product is a must in order to ensure that your cannabinoid products are clean and safe. Keep in mind a potency test, which is the only test required by federal law, will not identify contaminants. A strong IPM protocol will be specifically designed with your end product in mind and use strategies that keep your end products as clean and free from contaminants as possible.
Having the right equipment and facilities is only one aspect of having a well-functioning commercial grow. Spending the time and money to invest in your procedures is many times just as critical as the fanciest equipment and gear. A qualified IPM specialist can assess your facility and your needs, take into account your end goals and KPI’s and then draft a strategy for your facility and personnel to work towards. Creating a repeatable and achievable operational plan helps you to make informed decisions about how to adapt and change specific aspects of your facility, personnel training, and procedures. Many of the largest grows in the Montana cannabis industry still do not have specific procedures in place for controlling daily and long-term operations. Even if you have never had a serious infestation, the chances you will experience a systemic pest are very high. An independent poll published in Chemical and Engineering News of 212 professional cannabis growers that were operating commercial facilities in California showed that since 2018, 108 of the 212 master growers had experienced a catastrophic infestation. In fact, it was calculated that 32 million dollars were lost by Californian growers over the year of 2018 due to crop loss. These numbers can be expected to rise nationally as the number of cannabis cultivation facilities rise in more states. Look ahead and avoid infestations by using preventive measures and investing in a rigorous IPM protocol.
Planet-3 can assist you and your cannabis business with assessing your level of risk, building an action plan, and drafting all of your final IPM procedures. We assist with in-person training, planning, and accreditations for cannabis facilities around the Northwest. Our team of industry professionals and experts are ready to help you no matter your size and needs.