Alexis Mena first started growing hydroponically when he was 14 years old to participate in a high school science project. He placed the plants in the lid of a box, with the roots growing straight into filtered water.
This first harvest consisted of tomatoes. “But I’ve learned that if you can grow tomatoes, you can probably grow cannabis pretty well,” Mena said.
In his 20s, he says, he installed and advised hydroponic growing systems for cannabis both outdoors and indoors in California, Colorado, and Washington.
Today, 35-year-old Mena is the co-founder of Universe City, an incubator and co-working space in East New York, Brooklyn that also has a hydroponics farm that Mena expects to be producing 3,000 pounds of food a month soon.
With marijuana recently legalized in New York State, Mena now plans to turn Universe City into a resource center for black-owned cannabis companies, offering expertise, indoor growing space, and specialized equipment like lights.
What You Need To Know New York City’s sustainable marijuana industry advocates hope that almost all of the state’s pot is grown outdoors
This vision is at odds with efforts to create urban indoor grow facilities for Black, Spanish, and Indigenous residents
Most agree that the environmental benefits of growing marijuana outdoors are clear
They hope the multi-billion dollar legal marijuana industry can fulfill hopes for climate and racial justice
Mena sees the new cannabis co-operative in line with the spirit of legalization legislation, which included strict provisions to allow minority groups and incarcerated persons incarcerated for crimes related to marijuana use and distribution to the top of business and producer licenses put.
Mena’s focus on urban growth, however, runs counter to the open air vision shared by some proponents of marijuana legalization for the new industry, and shows the complex interplay of great hopes for an industry that has a huge impact on the economy, the environment and racial justice could have.
Indoor growing, some legalization advocates argue, is harmful to the environment, and outdoor farming requires much less funding for emerging businesses: no high urban rents, specialty lighting, or expensive systems for filtering water and air.
“Despite the color of your skin, if you want to grow a crop, I would hope that you move to where you can grow that crop,” said Nicole Ricci, a board member of NY Small Farma, a nonprofit that advertises cannabis growing in the world Outdoors and lobbying for climate-focused provisions of state legalization legislation. “If you want to be a farmer, you should be ready to go to farmland.”
Mena agrees with proponents like Ricci that growing it indoors is unsustainable and misses out on the environmental benefits of growing marijuana outdoors.
“Growing cannabis, when done right, using indigenous techniques, is one of the things we can do to heal this planet,” he said. “Unfortunately, this benefit is lost if you grow hydroponically indoors.”
But he thinks it is “classic” to claim that people marginalized by the cannabis ban should be ready to leave their communities to join the legal marijuana gold rush.
“I work with teens who have never been outside the district they were born into,” Mena said. “You’re going to tell me the same people who have never traveled outside of Brooklyn are now ready to go to Hudson?”
The outdoor case is growing
New York will be the second largest marijuana market in the country after California, with a potential value of $ 4.2 billion.
Proponents of growing marijuana outdoors say the scale of indoor grows likely to come to New York and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions make outdoor growth all the more important.
“There’s massive money in this room,” said Jason Minard, in-house attorney for Hempire State Farms, a collective of organic farms that grow and produce hemp.
Multimillion-dollar interiors supported by large corporations are already advancing in New York. Early investments in medical marijuana facilities could put them on the fast lane for recreational growing licenses.
A major international marijuana player, Green Thumb Industries is expected to begin construction of a $ 155 million medical marijuana facility in Warwick, Orange County, in May. Another cannabis company, Citiva Medical, is developing a 40,000 indoor grow facility next door.
“We are determined to grow outdoors,” said Minard. “It goes against everything we believe grows indoors.”
Growing marijuana indoors requires a significant amount of energy to power high-intensity lightbulbs and for HVAC systems to change the air in a grow room dozens of times a day.
In Colorado, according to a recent study, indoor cultivation contributes 1.3% to greenhouse gas emissions caused by climate change. State coal mining accounts for 1.8% of these emissions.
This study, published last month in the journal Nature Sustainability, suggested that indoor growing in New York City produced relatively few greenhouse gases per kilogram of dried marijuana due to the large amount of clean nuclear and hydropower the city relies on – Flower: more than California, with its abundant sun, but less than Colorado.
Minard, Ricci, and other proponents of outdoor growing praise its benefits. Cannabis plants bind more carbon dioxide in one growing season than some trees do in a full year, which helps mitigate climate change and enrich the soil. Sunlight can also increase the amount of desirable psychoactive chemicals in marijuana flowers, and the soil lends a natural terroir that gives the flowers’ smoke types of tasting notes appreciated by artisanal tobacco smokers and wine lovers.
Hailey Summers, a graduate student at Colorado State University and author of the latest study on indoor emissions, believes that marijuana should be grown outdoors or in greenhouses as much as possible.
However, she admits that indoor growth has business advantages. Some growers offset utility costs by being able to get six harvests per year indoors as opposed to one outdoors. Indoors, you can also produce the Instagram-ready flowers speckled in purples and covered in pollen crystals that consumers crave.
“I don’t think that will be a perfect solution, everyone grows outdoors,” she said. “I don’t think that what companies want, what consumers want is feasible.”
“Express the goodness”
Minard and Ricci argue that outdoor growing might be ideal for the types of growers New York City’s bill seeks to encourage, sometimes avoiding millions in indoor setup costs.
“You don’t have to pay high rents in high-rent counties,” Minard said. “You don’t have to pay for this infrastructure, those high electricity bills.”
Ricci said she is not against “micro-growing” in urban areas and hopes that backcountry farms will have business models that include processors, distribution centers and urban retail stores to create jobs.
She added that there are large Black and Hispanic communities like Syracuse in New York state that have direct access to prime farmland. Hempire State Farms’ year-round workforce is 85 percent Black and Hispanic, according to Minard.
Ricci said she is also pushing for the state to include regulations that provide financial incentives for people planning to grow outdoors.
“I don’t think it’s a choice of one or the other,” she said.
Samir Mahadin, a hemp producer in the Finger Lakes area, agrees and believes the industry can be both sustainable and racially fair. He is the interim Chair of Diversity for the New York Cannabis Growers and Processors Association and hopes to “support” the grow and incubation operations of Universe City.
Half from Jordan and half from Dominicans in New York City, Mahadin said he is “no stranger” when it comes to stopping and searching police policies and the effects of incarceration on minority communities.
“Will Cannabis Change Everything?” he said. “No, but we will do everything we can to squeeze out the goodness for everyone that the police have ostracized.”
Mena said Universe City is partnering with the New York Power Authority and Farm School NYC, an urban and sustainable agricultural education center, to grow crops in a shipping container and monitor energy and water usage. They also want to run their growing business with solar panels and reuse wastewater and organic material to create a “closed” cultivation system.
They are also trying to repair their facility after a fire in February temporarily made it impossible to grow food indoors.
He hopes these changes will help bridge the complex hopes for cannabis as an engine for both environmental and racial justice.
“Is it sustainable? No, “said Mena about growing indoors. “Can it help us develop a sustainable way of doing this? Absolutely.”