Underground in an undisclosed semi-rural location in Canada lays the ultimate medical grow bunker-no this isn’t a government-built facility, rather, this state of the art grow bunker is the work of devoted federally-authorized medical marijuana cultivators. The facility is federally-licensed by the government of Canada for a specific number of plants and amount of dried medical marijuana buds that can be securely stored on site—making it 100 percent legal..
All of the time, investment and know-how that has gone into designing, building and operating this safe, secure and productive bud factory has come from dedicated citizens—not big business, as one might expect looking at this bud-filled super fortress.
From the outside, there isn’t anything that would indicate to visitors of the property that inside and nestled underground is a one-way in-and-out-only medical marijuana factory that is safely walled in with up to 16” thick of engineered concrete, top, bottom and around all sides.
Basically, getting invited for a tour here is like getting invited to stroll through Fort Knox: a rare, fantastic and exciting opportunity. The operator guiding the tour is very professional about the visit, being calm, collected and pleased to share information which is the culmination of years and years of work and problem solving that came together in constructing a grow operation like this one.
Clearly, there is a lot to learn from and to be shared from the work and advancements that have been made here.
As far as build quality goes, the concrete grow bunker is as solid and as well built as an underground parking garage, but it wasn’t designed or built by a contracted group of specialists—instead, the knowledge and engineering skills were developed over time through several related and unrelated projects by a dedicated grower. The operator knows exactly how many cubic meters of concrete were poured, how many feet and what gauge of rebar, even how many feel of armored electrical wired for lamps were used in the construction—all off the top of his head, like I was asking him what he ate for breakfast.
In the highly unlikely event that a problem should occur with equipment, for example an electrical issue, it’s not going to be a panic situation that will grind this medical marijuana factory to a halt. Because the operator has played a strong role in the design and construction, he is intimately familiar with all of the details and how they all play together; making problem solving quick and effective. Mistakes made in construction of projects of this scale would be very costly.
Because the facility is constructed entirely of concrete and steel, it is incredibly safe and secure. The risk of fire or theft are significantly minimized, helping to protect a major investment that the health and well-being of patients with serious illnesses are riding on. Because the concrete can be easily scrubbed or washed, it also helps provide a very hygienic growing environment.
In spite of the fact that at times there are over 150 one thousand-watt lamps running inside, the internal growing temperature inside of the bunker is always maintained at optimal levels. Tucked away from the bunker on the property are at least six 5 tonne air conditioners—serious cooling power for a serious amount of lighting. With this many lights and the fact that the internal growing environment is incredibly well insulated, it makes sense to run it as a CEA (controlled environment agriculture) set-up, whereby the plants are sealed off from the outside and air exchange is minimal. Essentially, all aspects of the growing environment, including air factors like humidity and carbon dioxide, are controlled and manufactured by the operator.
Besides being practical—because fan requirements would be outrageous for an operation of this scale—the tailored and consistent growing environment can yield bigger and stickier buds with better medicinal qualities for patients in need. When plants grow healthy in a tightly sealed and well controlled environment, problems with insects or diseases are very rare, negating the use of any chemical controls that may compromise the quality or effectiveness of the medicinal marijuana being produced.
In some respects, the growing style here is reminiscent of an indoor vineyard of the future. They are even growing a strain called Oregon Grape.
Plants are given plenty of root space in deep beds and are trained to grow vertically, straight up in a vine-like fashion, trained along a series of high-tension support wires that run down the length of the many lengthy beds of soilless mix that are snuggled into the grow bunker. At maturity, the buds are hanging from the support wire in dense clusters of sticky-sweet and potent medicinal buds.
Given the scale of the operation, the design is remarkable in that all the necessary daily duties surrounding the maintenance of a large number of plants, as well as the upkeep and operation of a facility this large, can be accomplished by one individual—with plenty of time left in the day for family and good friends.
Watering is still done by hand via a watering wand, hose and mixing tank with a pump. This helps ensure that plants are getting water only when they need it—excess humidity in such a tightly sealed environment could lead to growing problems, even though the concrete itself is not prone to things like molds or fungus.
The depth of the soilless peat mix coupled with the fact that it acts as one continuous mass for the roots to stretch out through helps to support some very big plants while provides a safety cushion from any problems, for example in the event of an electrical failure. Naturally, they thought of everything, and there are some back-up generators if auxiliary power is needed in the event of a power outage. And YES, they do buy their hydro electricity off the grid. While the power bill is high, it’s clean and reliable and just part of the cost of producing legal medical marijuana.
Every inch of the miles and miles of high voltage wiring here is totally up to code too. The building has been inspected for electrical, engineering, you name it, and they are up to code and signed for here. The ballast room borders on surreal, it’s wall to wall racking of 1000W HID (high intensity discharge) ballast boxes quietly humming away. Here the operator highlighted how what might seem like a quick and easy to fix problem in the average grow can turn into a minor disaster very quickly when producing medical marijuana crops on this scale.
It was noted that a batch of the pre-wired and CSA approved ballast kits were having difficulty turning on the lamps further away from the ballasts room. Closer inspection revealed that the factory had switched the ignitors (versus previous batches), and they were not rated to fire up lamps more than 30 feet away. Most manufacturers aren’t counting on their customers running their lamp cords much longer—a dollar or two of savings for the manufacture can cost the commercial medical grower huge, because it means a qualified person has to open up, replace, test and re-install that ignitor in each and every ballast. And there are LOTS of them here. It also means sourcing a whole lot of ignitors when the plant’s health is going to deteriorate rapidly without adequate crop lighting.
Next round, the bud bunker is going to dedicate a portion of its crop to digital HID lighting. One of the things they have been experimenting with here in the lighting department is “flipping” which lamps are active in the room around during the lights on cycle. Since they are spaced almost every two feet along the length of the plating beds, the plants are never far from a strong and intense source of light during the light part of the photoperiod—rotating which ones are active will cut down on power costs in both cooling and lighting. The digital ballast they are going to try are manually dimmable, so they intend to experiment with different lighting intensities in the different stages of bloom during the next cropping cycle.
Not only is the facility innovative in construction, it is equally innovative in management and operation.
Aside from the changes and methodologies in lighting applications, the raised beds are newly constructed and have been well-thought out. Being raised, in part, off of the ground prevents the plants from getting cold feet, root rot or nutrient lock outs that could otherwise result.
It also affords good drainage, allowing the grower to provide a very thorough flush of the growing medium in the weeks prior to harvest. Not only does proper flushing with lots of fresh water ensure cleaner burning medicine for patients, it also means that the growing beds are washed free of excess fertilizer residues that may have accumulated over the cropping cycle, allowing the growing medium to be re-used, again and again. Replacing and disposing of all this growing medium would involve a dump truck, rather than a garbage bag or two. Floor drains have been cleverly engineered into the building plan, so there is no freestanding water left on the floor at any time.
After each crop, the peat-based soilless growing medium has become acidified, in part because the lime content has been used up by the previous crop. Both prilled/pelleted dolomite and hydrated lime are added back into the growing medium, promoting an optimal and stable pH for better nutrient absorption, as well as providing a continuous release of calcium and magnesium, which are essential elements for hungry fast growing crops.
For a fast change in the pH, before the dolomite breaks down sufficiently, the soilless medium is drenched with one cup of hydrated lime per 50 gallon irrigation barrel, increasing the pH of the peat-based growing medium by almost exactly one point, for example from pH 4.5 up to 5.5.
The crop of Oregon Grape and CannaPharm’d Tuna Kush received a full nine weeks in the bud phase with 12/12 lighting, and the final three weeks were fed with little more than plain water, which by the way, comes from a well and is relatively pure with some level of alkalinity.
The plants are fed with a common three-part nutrient formulation and receive a bloom boosting supplement in the peak bud phase. Part of the goal here is to keep it simple, however, it was noted that production rates could be improved because the rest of the environment has been optimized, although lighting is still undergoing some experimentation.
It’s nearly impossible to capture the scale of the bud bunker operation in a single photograph—just a single row makes anyone in the frame look dwarfed relative to the greenery that surrounds them. If you have ever helped construct a grow room, even a moderately sized one, you can appreciate how much time it takes to put it all together neatly and safely.
Looking at this indoor concrete encased farming facility, and knowing that it was mostly done by one dedicated grower turned underground bunker engineer is inspiring. Obviously, there is a significant investment here. Looking forward, the bunker is also designed to serve other uses post medical pot production. As such, it has been equipped with steel rails overhead, that allow the space to be converted into a heavy engine repair or a machining facility as possibilities.
The take away from the visit, aside from utter awe, was that while governments may have the money, scientists and of course, the ability to produce medical cannabis, it doesn’t seem likely that they could come close to producing as high a quality bud as can be seen here. And this privately operated facility is every bit as secure, safe and efficient—perhaps even more so—than big business or governmental agencies can provide.
The difference? Passion and a genuine belief in the healing powers that different strains of medical marijuana can offer a variety of ailments. Ironically, the operator and brains behind this facility would prefer to be carrying out his cultivation efforts under the open sky—it’s prohibition that necessitates thick-walled concrete encased production; even if it’s federally authorized.
Editor’s Note: This piece ran in the March 2013 Issues of High Times Magazine; however, given the results of Tuesday’s election, we feel like the info provided might prove handy in the near future.
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