Tech, sustainability meet on the robotic marijuana farm

Earth Day Special Feature 2011: "Big Bud" is a trailer that allows owners to control agricultural processes remotely from their iPhone.
Written by Tuan Nguyen, Contributor

Mr. Greenthumb's latest gardening tool may just be... an iPhone?

Derek Peterson sure hopes that may someday be the case. The 36-year-old former investment banks is CEO of GrowOp, a green tech start-up that has a product line of equipment and mechanical systems for people who are looking to grow crops hydroponically, that is, an artificially-controlled indoor environment that provides lighting, mineral nutrients and water -- but not much else.

Although the company's goal is to develop and offer consumers a more advanced and environmentally friendly way to grow crops in general, the one product that's garnered the most attention (not to mention controversy), is a hi-tech mobile trailer used for cultivating medicinal marijuana. The aptly-named "Big Bud" is a fully functional weed farm that features programmable lights, nutrient injectors and even an app that allows owners to control all these processes remotely from their iPhone.

After posting a revenue of $250,000 in the month of January, the company is preparing to do an IPO within the next few months. Metaphorically speaking, he's betting the farm that the next revolution in agriculture will be more about software and machines than soil and irrigation.

He admits that process has been a challenge. For example, he mentioned that someone broke into the facility a couple weeks ago and cleaned out some of the company's inventory. But he did he took some time out of his hectic schedule to speak to this correspondent about dirt-free farming, wasteful agricultural practices and, of course, cannabis.

So about this trailer designed to grow marijuana, where did the idea come from?

Oddly enough, it's something that's been done for about 30 years. Old school marijuana growers started out planting them in shipping containers and buried the crops in the ground before they eventually switched to using trailers. This is pretty rudimentary, so what we did was just take it to the next level by implementing hydroponic technology and developing it into a full line of trailers for not only the medical marijuana community, but also those with broader agricultural needs. For instance, a lot of our products are used for urban farms. So what started out as a singular product line has expanded to a wider array of applications.

From what I've read, this isn't something that has a tried-and-true business model, so why did you decide to get involved in the legal pot market?

Well the demand is already there. And since technology is much more energy efficient, we think there's a great opportunity to capitalize on this new "green rush." On the non-marijuana agricultural side, there's a need too. California, for example, every year loses some of it's agricultural land to dust bowling and urbanization so more and more growing is going on in indoor farms, which is what's happening a lot in Europe. Over there you'll see a lot of vertical stacked hydroponic systems used to cultivate lettuce, micro-greens, mushrooms and other produce. We actually have a similar kind of mushroom container called the "shroom room."

What's the advantage of an indoor growing environment over outdoors?

Some of the things that indoor growing environments don't have are pests, molds and infections. You can restrict a lot of that with a closed environment and reduce your crop failure, which also means higher yields. And by going vertical you can grow a lot more crops without having to take up so many acres of land.

And this makes it more attractive to growers?

Part of it is less space, reducing our usage of natural resources and now having the ability utilize technology that effectively reuses resources like water instead of letting it go to waste by flushing it down a storm drain. Our systems can re-filter and re-circulate this with additives and nutrients that are beneficial for plant matter.

You mentioned Europe is ahead of the game on hydroponics, why haven't we gotten with the program?

I think Americans tend to do things on massive scale, which is where you get the adage "bigger, faster, better, more." Our approach is different in that it's about less power and more conservation. Currently, much of energy intensive light used to grow cannabis is wasted instead of being absorbed since plants can only photosynthesize so much of it. So it's more about perfecting the indoor growing environment.

What's kind of reactions do you get from people regarding the idea of allowing customers to wheel around their weed supply?

With more and more states allowing the use of medical marijuana, what I'm seeing is broader acceptance of it. The old way of doing it was getting pot from your dealer down the street who maybe got it from a source that grew it in a relatively unsavory environment like a garage where you're dealing with chemicals, molds, mice. I mean think of the actual patient that's using medicinal marijuana; it's probably a cancer or HIV patient that can't hold down food because of the disease's affect on their appetite. The last thing they need to be introducing into their system are extra toxins and parasites. Giving them the marijuana from a sterilized environment like our trailers is a huge benefit to this industry.

So what kind of customers do you get who express interest in owning a "Big Bud" trailer?

I've found that the customer base is a pretty diverse cross-section of this country. You get everyone from ex-mortgage brokers to attorneys and doctors. It's been pretty interesting because it wasn't what I expected the client base to look like. I mean there's white collar folks, blue collar folks to everyone in between. So yeah, definitely not as stereotypical as I thought they was going to be.

Photo: GrowOp Ltd.

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