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Cannabis in Massachusetts is traditionally grown indoors. and there is skepticism about whether outdoor cultivation is feasible or even possible in the Bay State. Weed thrives in mild, subtropical climates, not the freezing winters, unpredictable storms and increasingly rainy summers here. But a growing group of regional growers are willing to invest in outdoor cultivation because they believe that outdoor-grown cannabis is better for the grower, the consumer and also the environment.

There are now 22 outdoor cannabis farms in the state, including Tree House, up from just one in 2019. According to the Cannabis Control Commission, about two dozen more have received provisional licenses to open in the near future. Today, outdoor cultivation covers nearly 40 percent of the 3.8 million square feet licensed for cannabis cultivation statewide.

To Ture Turnbull, co-owner of Tree House, says the reasons are obvious: Sun-grown weed typically requires less capital investment than indoor cultivation, which benefits independent operators and existing farmers. Turnbull and business partner Wes Ritchie have raised $1.5 million to open the Colrain farm and two dispensaries in Dracut and Pepperell. An indoor cultivation facility “would cost at least three times as much,” Turnbull said.

And growing outdoors is more environmentally friendly in every way. The artificial lighting, humidity control, and indoor hydroponic irrigation systems are energy-intensive, using up to 12 times as much electricity per square foot as schools and restaurants. Indoor cannabis cultivation now accounts for 10 percent of all industrial electricity use in Massachusetts, according to a study by the Northeast Sustainable Cannabis Project.

Outdoors, cannabis requires much less energy, but farmers are exposed to the same hostile climate that apple orchards and dairy farms contend with every day. Turnbull and Ritchie say they lost around 300 cannabis plants to the elements last year, despite and still finished the season with 1,200 pounds of organic buds—proof that growing marijuana outdoors that smokes smoothly and sells well is profitable.

“At the end of the day, we’re farmers. We text about frost and weather forecasts. We’re always talking about when to plant and harvest, when it’s too early and when it’s too late,” Ritchie said. “In New England, people have been growing outdoors forever. We just do it with grass.”

And although the plant thrives in areas like California and Thailand, there are also varieties that are well suited to the Connecticut River Valley.

Matt Allen (left), cultivation manager of Tree House Craft Cannabis, and co-directors Wes Ritchie and Ture Turnbull (center, right) took a tour of their cannabis farm in April. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

As early as the Revolutionary War, the government encouraged farmers in Massachusetts to grow hemp for rope, and some of the most popular black-market strains of the 20th century were grown outdoors in Vermont and the Berkshires. Indoor cultivation didn’t take off until the 1980s, when the war on drugs and a federal crackdown on cannabis forced farmers in California’s “Emerald Triangle” to go underground (or under trees), literally.

In Massachusetts, it was legalization that led to an explosion in indoor cannabis cultivation. The state’s law legalizing medical marijuana in 2012 required indoor cultivation. Four years later, recreational growers simply followed suit after the adult-use cannabis referendum passed.

Companies flocked to indoor cultivation because it is controlled and predictable, said Sage Franetovich, a biology professor at Holyoke Community College who teaches a course on cannabis cultivation. The facilities are typically large, secure and equipped with precise mechanisms to produce as much marijuana as possible, as quickly as possible and as potent as possible. Indoor growers can easily eliminate pests and schedule harvests, which typically occur indoors several times a year.

“Cannabis responds dramatically to change,” Franetovich said. “So when grown indoors, you can almost perfectly adjust all the nutrients that go into the plant.”

Growers across Massachusetts agreed that high-quality marijuana can and is grown indoors, but the unpredictability of nature offers its own rewards.

Plants at Local Roots’ outdoor Barre farm are strengthened by the sun, beneficial microbes in the soil and nutrients from cover crops like cilantro and buckwheat, said retail director Keith Walsh. They can survive in Massachusetts because growers have been carefully blending marijuana plants for decades to create strains that resist mold and mildew spores and grow quickly so plants are ready before winter. Cannabis grown outdoors also has deeper roots, allowing plants to grow twice as large as those grown indoors.

And any stress cannabis endures outdoors only has a positive effect on “the quality of the experience” a plant later provides, Walsh added. The psychoactive elements of weed come from cannabinoids like THC and CBD. But the chemical compounds, terpenes, affect the aroma and color of the flower. And some terpenes protect cannabis plants from the elements, so the more the plant has to contend with – insects and rainstorms, for example – the stronger it grows.

“Think of cannabinoids as the gas and brakes of your car, and your terpenes are the steering wheel,” Walsh said. “Growing outdoors can help us create a balance between the two – how cannabis smells, tastes and feels.”

Employee Wilder Sparks worked in the propagation room at Tree House Craft Cannabis in Colrain.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Still, some people don’t like the smell. Weed brings with it an unavoidable foul smell that can be a point of contention for neighbors and local authorities, even in agricultural towns where homes are separated by vast expanses of land. (Police in Colrain and Barre said they have received few or no complaints about grow sites.)

Chris Roos, founder of High Plains Farm, recalls conducting a daily odor assessment during Plainfield Farm’s first year of operation after November 2020. A neighbor complained every day for months after the farm opened, after which city officials conducted a formal assessment that found no violations.

“The odor problem was the question mark behind everything. It took a while for us to convince the city and the government,” Roos said. “It’s about the fear of the unknown – a ‘not in my backyard’ thing.”

Whether it smells or not, most outdoor growers see sun-grown cannabis as the future of the industry in Massachusetts.

Many cannabis companies in several states have reached the maximum indoor and outdoor growing space allowed by the CCC, but those calculations could change over time. State data show the price of marijuana fell to a record low of $5.32 per gram in February, sparking a “race to the bottom,” said Ted Dobson of Equinox Farm in Sheffield.

“Companies have spent too much money on upgrading their interiors and are not making any profit.”

Dobson grew cannabis outdoors with East Coast giant Theory Wellness for three years before the partnership ended in 2022. The following year, he spent $25,000 to secure a license to grow marijuana on land where he used to grow baby lettuce mix. A barrage of financial hurdles has so far failed to dampen his determination.

Ultimately, he said, growing cannabis outdoors is far less expensive, increasing the chance of making a profit in the future.

“I haven’t been able to raise enough money to get into the market over the last year, and that’s been a little heartbreaking,” Dobson said. “But I do know one thing: the best money is to move cannabis cultivation outdoors.”

Liam Bertrand used a grinder at Tree House Craft Cannabis in Colrain to prepare flowers for pre-rolled cannabis products.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Diti Kohli can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her @ditikohli_.

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