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November 12, 2019
The Complex World of Cultivating Cannabis

BY SARA COUGHLIN

An average day’s work for Jim Hole, vice president of cultivation at Canadian medical cannabis producer Atlas Growers, begins with him taking off his watch. Before he can even enter the rooms that house Atlas’ myriad cannabis cultivars, he must go through an air shower and don a layer of protective equipment, including a hairnet, gown, gloves, and booties — "nothing outdoors comes in here,” he explains.

For Hole, whose passion for and expertise in horticulture is rooted in a thriving family greenhouse business, this process took some getting used to. But, once he’s settled in for the day, inspecting the plants, monitoring their nutrients, lighting, and carbon dioxide, and checking the fertilizer levels, he’s in his element: learning what, in his words, makes this plant tick.

“To me, it’s actually not just another crop,” Hole says. He explains that cannabis isn’t like other types of plants he’s worked with in the past, particularly in terms of the differences he’s observed between its various cultivars, or, as they’re more commonly referred to, strains. Although they’re all growing in the same place, each strain needs different amounts of light, water, fertilizer, and nutrients in order to thrive. It’s these differences, in fact, that guide his day-to-day work in maintaining Atlas’ crops. “You have to look at cannabis not generically as ‘cannabis,’” Hole says. “Different cultivars [have] different growth characteristics; require different environments; and that’s something a lot of people don’t think about.”

Hole’s interest in exploring cannabis’ complexity was partly what compelled him to get involved in the industry. But, the opportunity to further identify the potential medical applications of cannabis played just as big a role in his decision. “What you’re trying to produce is not simply an ornamental plant or an edible plant,” Hole says. “You’re looking at a medicinal plant that has profound impacts on society.”

Hole notes that there is plenty of intriguing—if not downright inspiring—anecdotal evidence of cannabis’ benefits, some of which he’s heard firsthand from consumers. But, he adds, it’s vital that those involved in the field of cannabis botany (including himself) lend scientific weight to these claims. Without adequate research and study, the unknowns and speculation that remain around how, exactly, cannabis works and affects users’ health will persist. Luckily, given Atlas’ recently announced partnership with Harvard Medical School’s International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute, Hole will be in good company working to fill these gaps in knowledge.

Even though this sort of in-depth research will be a long-term project, Hole is already looking forward to how any new findings on cannabis’ benefits will eventually shape his work back in the growing rooms. Namely, how might the cultivation and breeding process change in order to produce more effective crops, ones that are optimized for their medicinal benefits? This question may sound daunting, but, for Hole, it’s pure motivation, to keep working and experimenting with cannabis, and to remember to take his watch off every morning. “This is the kind of stuff that really keeps me going,” he says. “[It] keeps me excited, beyond the cultivation of the crop — just knowing what the end point can be.”

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.
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