Leveraging IPM to Create the World’s Safest Horticulture ProductsAmong the many misconceptions the general public has regarding the Cannabis industry, few could be more inaccurate than the fear of contamination by pesticides and other dangerous chemicals that many falsely believe are used to maximize yields. On the contrary, stringent compliance laws from the states, strong cooperation from the industry to maintain compliance, as well as the advanced strategies used by today's growers actually ensure that Cannabis is among the safest horticultural products in the world.
Due in part to the incipient nature of the industry, today's cultivators have a stronger incentive than most to guarantee the quality and safety of their products. As a result, one can see the most advanced pest management technologies and strategies in action within this burgeoning market. Often referred to as Integrated Pest Management or IPM, this approach borrows heavily from best practices in ornamental horticulture, but has been adapted to the unique needs of the Cannabis industry.
What is IPM?
At its heart, IPM is about leveraging every possible tool in the toolbox in order to combat pests in a way that ensures positive economic and ecological results. These can include chemical solutions such as pesticides (organic and otherwise), mechanical solutions including traps, vacuuming, and other physical approaches, and biological controls including other insects that target pests and mold. Regardless, when IPM is applied in the Cannabis market, the ideal integrated solution eschews conventional pesticides and tracks to deliver outstanding yields with little to no ecological impact. This is critical in an industry where state requirements are changing on a month-by-month basis and a product that is used as medicine.
This image is courtesy of urban-gro.
IPM was initially created post World War II, but truly emerged as a practice around 20 years ago focused on high value plants such as those found in ornamental horticulture and other high return crops. The agriculture industry initially had very little data on using IPM, but universities soon provided best practices for the industry. Simultaneously, as Cannabis grows continued to expand in size and sophistication, cultivators quickly realized the immense benefits of IPM. Not only did IPM’s focus on ecological benefits resonate with the Cannabis industry’s culture, it provided invaluable results in meeting compliance standards while delivering superior quality and quantity in yields.
Compliance with state regulations is particularly critical in an industry as young as Cannabis. Not only do these regulations change often, but also the complexity of solutions used can be daunting for any cultivator. Consider that a product like Eagle 20 is a huge fungicide in ornamental and food production and was thus thought “OK” by many states. However, when you heat this solution, it can produce cyanide gas. As a result, it is perhaps not a great idea for Cannabis!! As a result, states dramatically and quickly changed their regulations. When growers have to navigate this process, it can very challenging due to legalese and odd verbiage that can make cultivators wonder if they’re really compliant.
Creating a True IPM Plan
In practice, the Cannabis industry leverages IPM in a multi-phase process. This process includes the following stages:
- Prevent – Taking steps to keep pests from taking hold in the first place.
- Monitor – A process-oriented program monitors plants for the presence of pests
- Treat – Applying integrated solutions to eliminate pests if found
- Evaluate – Checking the efficacy of the integrated solution on the pest population
These plans are followed to ensure that the Cannabis produced is not tainted with non-compliant chemicals by utilizing the safest products, focusing on systems to ensure control, and utilizing beneficial “Bios” during the flower stage to further eliminate any chance of chemical residue.
By pests, we are referring to a host of different organisms that thrive on Cannabis, including aphids, fungus gnats, thrips, spider mites, nematodes, scale, white flies, and more. These also include molds and fungi of various types that harm Cannabis grows, such as botrytis and powdery mildew.
This image is courtesy of urban-gro.
In general, the key word in mapping out any IPM program is “proactive.” Bring proactive often keeps pests from taking hold in the first place and minimizing their presence throughout the grow itself.
Starting at the earliest “veg” stage, many IPM cultivators use a chemical solution from the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) list to create the cleanest veg. These include solutions such as 25b chemicals like citric acid or fatty acids that are organic in nature. Other solutions include bacteria that attacks powdery mold/fungus material in a Cannabis grow.
As we move into the “flower” stage we turn to one of the cornerstones of Cannabis IPM programs – “Bios” or other organisms that attack pest populations without having any impact on the plants themselves. These include insects and benign nematodes that prey upon Cannabis pests. Bios work best with a very proactive plan to add them in before there is a pest problem.
The other facet that goes into the development of a true IPM plan is looking at chemicals that offer control of pests by interrupting a molting of the insect, cutting through the outer cuticle of the insects skin thereby drying the insect out, the use of soaps and oils that clog spiracles and other openings on the insect which has the final effect of smothering them, and finally introducing parasitic insects that lay their eggs in the insect pest which then start out eating their way out and then if they survive that they meet with insect predators who just straight up eat them. These insects have all been researched and approved for use in the United States by the USDA. They have been found to be unable to survive in our outdoor climates during winter and therefore can't take over the world.
Real World Best Practices
Looking at some real world cultivators, one can see how these IPM plan elements play out. Let’s take a look at some anonymous examples of cultivators that are all working to preemptively eliminate any pest issues with the softest chemical programs and relying on beneficial insects or "Bios" during the flowering phase.
Each has created a tailored program specific to their environmental and compliance needs. For example, one client of ours was one of the very first to pivot to using Bios in the latter half of 2017. They use soil dwelling bios that go after Fungus Gnats and the Pupal stages of thrips, as well as a nematode that infects Fungus Gnats and thrips and then drains them of bodily fluid. This cultivator also uses insect predators such as californicus, swirskii, and persimilus to fight Spider mites and as another mode of attack on adult thrips. These are the bios chosen based on their specific pest pressures. Wisely, this cultivator is specifically electing to go with several modes of attack on each pest to ensure an extreme reduction of pest problems.
We have another client that leverages organic pesticides during the Veg stage but then transitions into Bios in the third week of flower and uses them for the remainder of their flowering cycle. They use persimilis and californicus mites that are natural predators of Spider Mites, which at this point is the only pest they have been fighting.
Finally, our last example uses a similar spray program during veg but also has elected to move away from sprays in week two of flower. However, based on the specifics of their unique grow, they do use Bio safe chemicals for powdery mildew control through week six. One of these is Procidic 2 a citric acid type product exclusive to urban-gro that creates an environment that is not conducive to powdery mildew formation. The bios they use are aimed at controlling thrips and fungus gnats.
Based on these examples it is clear that most IPM programs are designed to treat the problems specific to each facility, which also helps their grow be more economically viable.
All of these companies use programs custom tailored for their specific facilities, but all programs are developed leveraging a partner like urban-gro for our expertise, education, and 40+ combined years of experience in the horticulture industry. Regardless of how you approach it, IPM has clearly established itself as a “must have” for any cultivator that expects to effectively compete in today’s cannabis market.