Suzie Nowak, Horticulturist and President of Ridgetop Gardens Inc. speaks to us about Ridgetop Gardens switching its focus from the commercial production of edible flowers to Cannabis research. Suzie shares tips for a successful crop such as grow trials and proper lighting, and the role that technology and date play in the future of the Cannabis Industry.

HVJ: How did you get your start in the Cannabis industry?
SN: I got my start through plant science and research of LED lighting.  I’m a horticulturalist specializing in plant science and my husband is an engineer specializing in LED lighting.  We wanted to focus on a project that encompassed something that we were both passionate about so we began working on LED light recipes. That was almost 10 years ago.  He was working for an LED manufacturer and would make different types of lights for my greenhouse.  It was at that point that we started the development of a horticulture LED light.  Since we both knew that one day LED lighting would be efficient enough to replace HPS lamps we started our research early.  It was many years of testing different light spectrum and LED light output and growing all sorts of edible plants, before I entered the Cannabis Industry.  I watched as various states started legalizing Cannabis and knew that we needed to find a way to manage our own Research & Development grow site.  As soon as Tennessee launched the Hemp Pilot Program, I jumped right on it!  What better way to research lighting for Cannabis then to have your own grow.

HVJ: How did you transition from commercial production of microgreens and edible flowers to growing medicinal Cannabis?
SN: It was a major undertaking for Ridgetop Gardens to replace our NFT (Nutrient Film Technique) hydroponic system with containers using Coco Coir potting medium.  The transition could not be completed in stages.  We could not keep the existing crops during the transition, we had to rip off the band-aid and plunge in with both feet.

I currently grow high CBD hemp, as allowed by the state of Tennessee.  Cannabis with a THC level higher than 0.30 is not legal.  All our medicinal grow trials of plants containing high THC levels we remotely monitor and are grown by master growers all over the world, that way we get a vast array of data to compare.

HVJ: What do you do at Ridgetop?
SN: Everything.  Ridgetop Gardens, Inc. is my company.  A few years ago we spun Ridgetop lighting off as their own separate business – that way we could keep the growing separate from the manufacturing.  Ridgetop Lighting is a Canadian Company created by a partnership of three amazing lighting engineers. Together we have engineered, field-tested, manufactured and sold many amazing horticulture lights, along with the grow room recipe I have developed. I give growers that are new to LED the know-how to have a successful grow.

HVJ: What is the biggest challenge you have faced in cultivation so far?  
SN: As a grower, my biggest cultivation challenge is environmental control.   I have three different tests grow sites on my property; a greenhouse, several grow tents and an outside grow area. My grow sites, provide me with constant challenge, it has also provided me with an amazing amount of information, which has helped me to become a better grow consultant.  Learning the pros and cons of grow environments first hand has been my driving force to advocate the use of indoor grow facilities.  As a grow consultant my biggest challenge is getting people to listen to me.  I go into so many different grow sites and within moments I can pinpoint problems that are easily fixable by a grower, but so many growers are set in their ways and don’t want to listen to new ideas.  I recently spoke with a master grower, who never measured EC levels or pH levels of his soil, he bought his soil off the shelf from a big box store.  His plants were experiencing many problems from the beginning till the end of his grow because he refused to accept that his technique was flawed.  Don’t be this grower, it is important that we educate ourselves and listen to each other’s experiences and learn from them.

HVJ: What is your greatest success in cultivation?
SN: Seeing my edible flowers plated at a high-end restaurant was my greatest success so far.  Knowing that I could grow something that people admired and enjoyed eating was pretty awesome.

HVJ: What do you believe are the top things that must be controlled in order to have a successful crop?
SN: Lighting (Spectrum/Power/Hours per Day)
Ventilation/Circulation (Co2/O2 Levels)
Nutrients & H2O (EC level /ph level/Quantity & Frequency)
Grow Medium (EC level/ph level)
Insects & Diseases

HVJ: What is a grow trial and how important is it in having a successful crop?
SN: A grow trial is a test we perform at our facility. We monitor all the data, input and output of variables and record the results.  We repeat the tests over and over making precise adjustments to one variable at a time to see how it affects the final product. Controlling your grow environment and monitoring your data and your results help you to develop a  baseline grow recipe to work from. Grow environments are all different, so there is no cookie-cutter approach to growing. It’s important that all growers are monitoring and collecting data so they can improve their harvest.

HVJ: How important a role does lighting play in having a successful crop? 
SN: Photosynthesis starts when light strikes the plant, so I think it’s safe to say that Lighting plays the most important role in a successful crop.  Without light, the plant cannot absorb CO2.  Without light, the plant cannot uptake or metabolize nutrients.

HVJ: What are the advantages of using LED lighting systems? 
SN: The best LED lighting systems available are broad-spectrum lights, where they provide energy in all colors of the rainbow.  Plants love this broad-spectrum light, it’s what they have been getting under the sun for all of eternity.  LED’s are energy efficient, they consume 40% less energy than HPS or CMH lamps with similar output.  LED’s do not emit radiant waste heat onto the plants, which means you can use smaller air conditioning units in your grow space.  LED’s do not have to have their bulbs changed every year, which saves you time and money in re-lamping.

HVJ: What are some mistakes that some have made when switching to LED lighting systems? 
SN: Changing your lights without making the proper adjustments to other environmental factors is the biggest mistake growers are making.  When switching a grow room from HPS to LED you have to take into consideration that HPS lights produce radiant heat, making your room temperatures hotter and your humidity drier. It is important to watch your ambient and leaf temperatures along with your humidity level or else you will put your plants’ health in jeopardy.  Growing under LED keeps your room cooler with a higher humidity.  Cannabis doesn’t photosynthesis under 72 degrees F. Depending on the climate you’re growing in, your plant may need additional heat to keep healthy.

HVJ: What are the advantages of indoor growing?
SN: Growing indoor with the use of technology is the advantage.  Being able to set and control all of the perimeters for your grow.  It may be a challenge when you start, but once you educate yourselves you can make better-educated decisions and improve not only your harvest yield and quality, but you will become a better grower.  Growing indoor removes the unmanageable control that Mother Nature throws at you, High/Low Temp, Wind damage, Insect and Animal damage.  Also, indoor grows increases security, having your grow behind a locked door so you as a grower have one less thing you need to think about.

HVJ: What are some of the biggest misconceptions regarding indoor growing?
SN: That it‘s too expensive.  Sure, the initial startup of a grow facility is expensive, but the return on investment is great. You will be growing a quality crop that is free from pests & disease if done properly.  You will also have a consistent crop if your room recipe is in the proper zone.

HVJ: Are there any solutions you can offer to growers in markets with high electricity costs when considering indoor growing? 
SN: Use the sunlight as much as possible, by using an insulated greenhouse with light deprivation shades.  Install Low E glass windows that block Infrared energy, it will just get trapped in your environment as waste heat.

Use energy-efficient LED lighting for supplemental light on cloudy days and daylight extension for short day periods.  Try to use exhaust fans instead of air conditioning when possible.
Collect and analyze your environmental data; I have learned quite a bit by looking at data I have collected from the three major grow environments (Indoor, Outdoor and Greenhouse). By comparing the results of grow environments that I have full control over to the ones I have no control over has been so beneficial in making grow environment choices.

Incorporating this kind of knowledge, allows growers with high electricity costs to be selective in consuming energy on things that need to be controlled vs wasting energy on things that you would like to control, but are not essential.  Utilizing materials locally available to you and being creative in building your grow facility is extremely important in keeping costs down.

HVJ: How do you think the cultivation practices of traditional growers need to evolve?
SN: I think the world around us has already evolved how traditional growers cultivate….technology is the next platform for us all to elevate to.  We need to adopt technology as a tool in the agricultural industry, so we can better observe what we are doing.   Collecting data is not a new concept, but utilizing technology such as sensors to accomplish that task is.   Data is just that – data, it requires traditional growers to decipher the information and make sense of it. It’s now time for us to utilize that information and let it tell us how to grow better. The climate around us is changing and we need to properly adjust our grows to align with the environment.  We need to be making better decisions about how are techniques are affecting our environment. Using technology to make educated decisions that are good for our cultivation and for our world.

I do believe a grower’s technique is what makes their products unique.  The traditions and techniques that have been passed down from generations are still present in today’s methods of cultivation. Whether it be the soil they are using or the specialized fertilizer they prepared, don’t change what makes you unique…if we all grew the same way, we’d all end up with the same product and that’s not right. But we all need to be working more efficiently, we all need to use technology as a tool to make better-informed decisions and even help save money.  There are millions of ways to accomplish the same goal and some of the old techniques of growing may work, but are they the best way to cultivate?  We need to keep moving forward.  Taking note of how we are cultivating and whether there is a better way available to us.  By educating ourselves about our environment and about the technologies available, we too are evolving our cultivation techniques.

HVJ: What role does technology play in the advancement of the Cannabis industry?
SN: Technology comes in all forms so it depends on the level of technology you are prepared to use in grow facility. When thinking about using technology in the agricultural industry or specifically the Cannabis industry….it is a train ride that keeps moving.  At first, we were using computers to manually record data. Now, we are using sensors to record the data for us. Sensors can collect room information from lighting, humidity, temperature, CO2, to VPD. Sensors are also available that collect EC level, pH level and temperature from your nutrient solution, H20 and grow medium. The information is collected and compiled into computer software programs that display the data into usable formats for the grower. Growers are now able to set perimeters on their computers to maintain the controls in their room.

All this is technology that is helping us grow and preventing human error, I mean we are still deciding what perimeters the computer is setting all our controls at.   It is really important that growers are equipped with the education they need to utilize these technologies as a tool. A tool to assist us grow better.  Computers can’t look at a plant and know what it needs unless it is a set perimeter by the grower.  By using technology we can set educated perimeters in our room and have consistent grows.  We can also use technology for security, using cameras to watch over our grow and our building will keep us and our plants safe, too!

HVJ: What would you say to a grower who is against modern technology?
SN: Technology is a scary leap for many growers, but once you adopt technology you begin to realize that it’s a tool to help you be a better grower.  You are still making all the decisions about your grow, but with technology as your partner, you will be better prepared to make educated decisions.  Being able to check on your grow through the use of cameras and data acquisition software will help you to keep your grow consistent, and problem-free even when you are away. Time is of the essence; if there is one thing I wish I had more of….so that I could produce a better grow would be time, with the use of technology, I’m able to multi-task…I can keep an eye on and monitor a grow while starting a separate grow.  We shouldn’t be wary of technology we should be accepting it as a new farm tool.

HVJ: What advice do you offer a craft/small farmers who are trying to scale up?
SN: Don’t grow more than you can manage.  Take note of what you’re doing right and evaluate whether that technique can be applied on a larger scale.  Address all problems you’re having with your small scale grow and educate yourself on proper ways to resolve them before you scale up.  Don’t expect it to be easy.

HVJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry in the next five years?
SN: Thriving!  I’m hopeful that with time all growers will be able to access technology.  Growers with true passion for Cannabis will be better educated by the new innovations.

HVJ: What must change in the industry in order to move forward?
SN: Growers’ mindsets, changing the way we grow…. Let’s grow smarter.
Government Regulations
Improved Communications within the Industry as a whole
Education for all within the Industry around the world.

HVJ: If you weren’t growing Cannabis what would you be doing?
SN: I’d be growing something else.  Growing is my passion.