When Jake Van Wingerden launched SunMed Growers’ first cannabis greenhouse in 2017, he brought a lifetime of horticultural experience to the table. A third-generation grower from one of ornamental horticulture’s most-celebrated families, Van Wingerden equipped the 70,000-square-foot Dutch-style greenhouse with supplemental high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting.

Looking back on what’s now known as Phase One, Van Wingerden says budget drove the choice of HPS over light-emitting diode (LED) technology. With a finite amount of cash and a tight schedule, he was focused on meeting the project’s deadline. He recalls, “I honestly didn’t put too much thought into it—HPS or LED—because I wasn’t up to speed on the LED light world.” But his base of lighting knowledge soon changed.

Running Unintentional Lighting Trials

Coming from ornamental bedding plants, Van Wingerden wasn’t accustomed to running a 52-week-a-year crop under supplemental lights. As he puts it, “Maryland has many cloudy days, and wintertime light stinks most of the time.”

When SunMed cultivation launched and electric bills rolled in, lighting got his attention. But utility expenses weren’t the biggest eye opener as months progressed.

“That first year, we saw dramatic differences between our summertime crops and our wintertime crops as far as potencies and yields. So, it was very evident within the first year or year and a half that we needed to put more lights in here,” he recalls. “Go a week with no sun in the wintertime, you’re losing money.”

Van Wingerden soon started analyzing the benefits of LED lighting versus HPS. “It was a clear distinction, specifically in electrical usage,” he says. “Making the decision to go with LED was fairly easy.” Once he decided to supplement SunMed’s existing HPS lighting with LEDs, his vendor search led him to Fluence and a relationship that, like his cultivation facilities, has grown.

As SunMed prospered, Van Wingerden began designing Phase Two to bring his cannabis cultivation facilities up to 250,000 square feet, with 190,000 square feet in canopy. After experiencing the benefits of Fluence LEDs versus HPS lighting firsthand, he chose to go with Fluence again for the expansion.

Completed in 2021, Phase Two of SunMed Growers launched with Fluence LED supplemental top light, the VYPR Series. But more changes were ahead.

Analyzing the Math of Payback

Courtesy of Fluence

SunMed Growers’ Maryland facility.

Shortly after Phase Two launched, Van Wingerden’s advisory team suggested doubling the new greenhouse’s supplemental lighting. Led by his long-time consultant Royal Heins, and including Bruce Bugbee and Mitch Westmoreland from Utah State University’s Crop Physiology Laboratory, the team has been conducting on-site cannabis research with SunMed for about one year.

Van Wingerden recalls when the team shared research showing a linear increase in yield related to increased light intensity. “It was a 45-degree angle. The more light you give, the more yield this plant gets,” he says. Then he saw it on a spreadsheet—the cost of the fixture, the cost of the electricity, and the price per gram he could get. “It was a complete no-brainer decision to increase the light,” he says.

“When you rely on the sun for your primary light source, that sun doesn’t shine its brightest every single day. But the plant itself can absorb the brightest sunlight you can give it every single day,” he says. “When we spreadsheeted it out, I saw what we were losing based on the number of days we’re not getting that ideal light. It was millions of dollars of potential sales we were losing by not having it.”

Van Wingerden stuck with the Fluence horticulture team for the additional lighting. “They’re very customer-oriented and -focused. And that speaks to me because that’s how I try to run my companies,” he says.

The additional lighting gives SunMed the ability to provide plants with enough supplemental light to keep Daily Light Integrals (DLI) at 40 to 50 moles of light per square meter per day, 365 days per year. “It was a multi-million-dollar investment to do that, but we think it pays back within a year with the additional yield that the greenhouse will give us,” Van Wingerden says.

Finding Efficiencies and Balance

SunMed’s newly doubled Phase Two lighting is now installed and functional. But the team is turning it on in phases, taking time to finesse growing practices and other factors to accommodate the effects of increased light intensity in the grow.

“Cannabis is a plant that can absorb a tremendous amount of light. When you first get into this industry, how much it can absorb takes you by surprise. And when you get up to this type of light level, everything else has to accommodate,” Van Wingerden says.

“All of a sudden it’s a different greenhouse and everything else has to catch up,” he explains. “More light means more water, more water is more feed, and you have to make sure everything stays in balance. That’s our work in progress.”

When growing at SunMed’s scale, Van Wingerden says it’s all about that balance between light, irrigation, CO2, feed and plant growth. “It’s all very synergistic. You can’t just turn one on,” he says. “It’s like a lever. You push one lever up, all the others have to adjust as well. And so that takes a little bit to dial in, but we’re getting there.”

Van Wingerden says actual energy savings in the switch to LEDs are hard to quantify: “Since 2017, we’ve been in continuous construction growth mode. I keep adding and building and adding and building.” As the grow expands, so do SunMed’s electrical bills, but Van Wingerden points out that the data on energy savings per watt with LEDs (to the tune of 40% greater efficiency, he says) is clear. And so are the potential gains being turned into profits.

With plans for SunMed’s Phase Three in motion, including a bump to 380,000 square feet of canopy, Van Wingerden is sold on high light intensity, LEDs and the Fluence team. “Really what has kept me a loyal customer is just their level of customer service and the ease to doing business with them,” he says. “They treat us right.”