The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged the cannabis industry in ways that were inconceivable several months ago. These challenges affect every facet of the cannabis business, from retail shopping to international supply chain. Even more, the pandemic has made us reassess the way we do business — especially concerning technology. While the world shares in our newfound reliance on technology for such things as communications, the cannabis industry has taken things even further with the automation of growrooms. However, this cultivation approach did not necessarily begin with COVID-19.

urban-gro is an engineering and design firm dedicated to the modernization of cannabis cultivation. They have gained a reputation as leaders in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) as related to cannabis growing. They help commercial growers design and manage cultivation facilities, while focusing on such things as irrigation, lighting, layout, and environmental controls. Interestingly, urban-gro recently launched a training and management program named “gro-care.” This service is designed specifically to help growers operate, manage, and service horticultural technology.

gro-care is an expansive platform that offers hands-on consulting for today’s grow equipment, including employee training, operations guidance, and phone support.

As COVID-19 forced cultivators to slim down workforces, while simultaneously beefing up automation, gro-care launched when the industry seems to have needed it most.

Read also: The Challenge of Growing Environmentally Responsible Cannabis

To help Maximum Yield's Industry News readers get a better understanding of urban-gro and gro-care, we reached out to their Director of Enterprise Solutions, Colin Ferrian. Here is how the conversation went:

MY: Can you tell us a little bit about how gro-care was formed?

Colin Ferrian: After designing and integrating cultivation equipment for clients, we noticed they continue to follow up with us for support. However, we did not have the resources to be able to answer questions as quickly as we would like. With gro-care, we have addressed growers needs by transforming our support and follow-up into a formal service. As such, urban-gro can now be partners with these growers once they are up and running.

MY: Cannabis dispensaries have been deemed essential in many U.S. States during COVID-19. Can you tell us a bit more about how the pandemic has affected growers?

CF: A lot of growers have actually seen a move in pricing to the upside, which is really nice. This is especially true for legacy states like Colorado, Oregon, or Washington. However, this fact also works against you as a grower, because higher prices also require that you execute on creating consistent and quality products.

Also, because of the COVID-19 health crisis, you are dealing with a reduced workforce and social distancing regulations, to say the least. With fewer employees per shift, limitations in the education and knowledge base of your employees becomes transparent quite quickly. This is where gro-care has really shown its value.

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MY: What is the relationship between gro-care and COVID-19?

CF: The service was not built for COVID-19, but it is timely in that sense. This is because our goal is to help save cultivation managers from the ‘firefighting’ that comes with the job. Given that growers can’t have as many people on the premises (due to the pandemic), they’re figuring out very quickly who doesn’t know how to operate critical cultivation equipment.

Furthermore, gro-care is an opportunity for cultivators to partner with us to alleviate some of those headaches. We will do this by training your staff and making sure that your grow equipment is working properly and can be fixed quickly when it goes down. Concerning COVID-19, we have found that growers are getting even more value out of gro-care today.

MY: Does urban-gro make its own cultivation equipment or does gro-care exclusively cover technology made by other companies?

CF: gro-care advises mostly on partner products. We have found that our clients appreciate more dedicated support than what often comes with native equipment vendors. Also, the value that we provide is the years of experience we have in fixing many types of equipment. So, customers can come to us as a holistic service for their operations.

For example, we digitize and organize equipment manuals, as well as send alerts on critical pieces of equipment such as fertigation systems. Gro-care does all the checking and training that growers usually don’t have the bandwidth to handle.

MY: Are you seeing more cultivation companies interested in automation with the COVID-19 pandemic?

CF: Currently, one of the most requested items we get through gro-care is remote monitoring. In general, the more automation you have, the better, because it focuses largely on tedious and labor-intensive tasks.

But yes, the impact on the workforce cannot be overstated. Just six months ago, some operators were running completely low on bandwidth with 10 employees and now they may only have five. So, simple tasks like putting a maintenance schedule on Excel make a big difference. Similarly, if a grower can monitor fertigation from their phone, it only makes their life easier.

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Conclusion

The business world is very complex, and the cannabis industry is certainly not insulated from this notion. After a challenging year in 2019 — with high-profile layoffs and widespread investor panic — the cannabis industry already entered 2020 in a state of anxiety. However, no one could have predicted the sort challenges waiting just over the horizon with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the best companies can adjust operations to seize opportunities with evolving business climates. It seems urban-gro’s new gro-care platform is rather timely concerning the state-of-affairs in the cannabis industry.

Interestingly, many of the operational issues now arising from COVID-19 are the same that have plagued the cannabis business since the beginning. They are only exacerbated by current staffing shortages. These issues include internal organization, employee training, as well as the ability to effect production ROI. In the end, without an emphasis on these basic elements of a healthy business, the cannabis industry will continue to suffer, with or without a pandemic. gro-care offers a strategic movement towards professionalizing the industry by streamlining the usage of cultivation technology. Perhaps this platform offers a “glimpse of things to come” for an industry that must continuously reinvent itself to survive.