Hortica takes cannabis to industrial age, food production to future

With a tightly-controlled environment in Tirat Yehuda, the Israeli company ensures near-total control over production and radical cost-saving controls

Cannabis plants grown in the Hortica lab (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cannabis plants grown in the Hortica lab
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Inside the Hortica farm in Tirat Yehuda, the thick smell of cannabis engulfs the senses. A state-of-the-art lab with innovative sensors, it’s a glimpse into how most crops will be grown on Earth in the near future.
Dr. Yaron Penn, 47, co-CEO and chief-scientist, lifts a sativa plant to show the long roots. Plants are kept in tightly controlled environments divided to two sections, roots at the bottom and branches at the top. Roots are sprayed with a fine mist for nourishment and branches receive 60 air replacements per hour, via four filters, and an even electric light to ensure they all grow perfectly.
In a field, some plants get more water, or less sun, or are consumed by bugs. The tightly controlled box means no foreign elements are introduced.
“This makes us beyond organic,” Penn tells The Jerusalem Post, “a California lab we work with finds contamination in 70% of the cannabis they check. We grow plants without pesticide.”
The boxes also mean dozens of different breeds can grow in one location. Rather than grow a crop now, and sell it on the market later, the company can produce crops on-demand for specific needs.
Botanical unit manager Chen Gershberg, wearing a white lab coat, places off-shoots in neatly-cut rockwool as she explains that her role is to “get us to a point where we deliver a universal product in top shape, which we are able to do by using the same genetics [for each plant] and controlling conditions.”

The roots of cannabis plants grown in the Hortica lab. The roots are sprayed with a fine mist for nourishment and growth is monitored at all times. (Credit: Courtesy)

In nature, plants have spontaneous mutations as part of their evolutionary process. At this point, Hortica doesn’t grow genetically modified plants but it could. Just as Prof. Oded Shoseyov founded CollPlant, which produces collagen from modified tobacco plants.
In that sense, the lab doesn’t only protect plants from nature, it also protects nature from the unknown introduction of genetically modified plants.
Currently, all the cannabis plants will be destroyed as per the Health Ministry’s requirements. There’s a control section, meaning cannabis plants grown in pots, and an oven to dry the flowers. When asked why the final product is bagged with the biohazard symbol, Penn laughed and said there is nothing dangerous about it, “this is just what we have lying around.”
He also expressed his gratitude to the Health Ministry’s medical cannabis unit, with which his team was able to have a good working relationship. 
"Hortica’s fast growth during the coronavirus pandemic, could not have been achieved without the support and trust of our core investors", he added, "Mr. Gilad Shabtai  and Mr. Ofer Shabtai."
"Gilad brought business mentoring, years of experience and stability to Hortica when he nominated as director Mr. Ami Erel, former Cellcom chairman." 
For investor and co-CEO Tzvika Klepar, 44, Hortica has a fresh point to make.
Urban consumers place a higher value on obtaining fresh produce, and urban farms offering best cost-effective practices and results are the way of the future, he says.
“We are entering a different world,” he told the Post, “people might think field-grown food is the most natural thing to be doing, but in 2020, the freshness will be a result of how fast you can grow, and deliver.”
Offering the example of ultra-Orthodox consumers who currently adhere to a strict Kashrut principle, but avoid buying costly hydroponic lettuce, Penn suggests that Hortica-type boxes in haredi schools might help them enjoy better food, at a lower price.
“Medical cannabis is a growth engine,” he says, “the future is much bigger.”