At Raw Garden, we have a ‘Farming First’ philosophy because we understand that the process of farming is the process of managing the plant’s life and the management of the land those plants grow on – this is when the plantgets its chance to thrive but requires that it is properly nurtured in order to provide resources such as high-quality terpenes and cannabinoids.
Our cannabis plants are sun-grown in Santa Barbara county soil just like other California crops. From the seed to the shelf, we are vertically integrated and maintain quality control at every step in the process. We grow our own seeds, farm and harvest our own plants, and process our own products while employing sustainable and regenerative farming practices – only organic and natural fertilizers, soil amendments and pest control methods are used on thefarm.
As farmers we have a responsibility to care for the land and the soil to ensure it is fertile and healthy well into the future. We take care of the soil and it takes care of our plants. The result is premium quality products that our customers love and trust. Our success and commitment to quality is proof that the economics of clean, sustainable operations are achievable. We’re farmers and scientists on a mission to make clean, high quality cannabis that is affordable and accessible.
A few of the sustainable agriculture practices we employ at Raw Garden include:
Clean Green Certification – Since our inception, we have been certified and licensed members of Clean Green, the #1 globally-recognized organic and sustainable cannabis certification program. The program was created in 2004 as a way to standardize legal cannabis products and the result was a program to help farms and brands obtain organic-like certification based on the USDA National Organic program. Clean Green-certified growers and processors regularly win awards for their high-quality products, including our award-winning extracts.
Water Conservation – Our farm team waters at the right time of day to reduce evaporative water loss; we also use drip irrigation and mulch to reduce water waste and runoff. Last year, we used about 8,000 gallons of water per acre on average, which is significantly less than standard outdoor grown crops.
Natural Fertilizer and Pest Control – We apply only organic fertilizers and foliar feeds and we spray only organic pathogen-free inoculants to keep our plants healthy and disease-free, which consistently results in high yields. To naturally deter pests, we recruit beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps, in addition to botanical oils and diatomaceous earth.
Precision Agriculture (PA) and Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM) – We utilize technology to manage crops and increase farm efficiency, such as machine learning for fertilizer optimization and digital sensors in the field to monitor crops.
Soil Health and Terroir – Like grapes for wine, cannabis plants grown in the soil have terroir that affects the flower’s qualities, characteristics, terpene profile, aroma and taste, based on temperature, climate, soil composition and topography, as well as other environmental influences. Micro-climates matter – the same strain of cannabis grown along the coast likely has a different taste and potency than one grown inland. We grow in Santa Barbara wine country for the combination of fertile soil, hot sun, and cool nights which yield an incredibly diverse, potent and flavorful crop of cannabis flowers. Between growing seasons, we employ regenerative agriculture by planting cover crops including oat, beans, peas and buckwheat to add nitrogen and organic matter naturally back in the soil. This method of cover crops also helps reduce pests and soil-borne diseases in preparation for the next growing season. We know that an ideal environment in combination with healthy soil and good land management results in healthier, more vigorous plants, which translates to higher-quality products.
As farmers, it is our responsibility to care of the land with good management decisions today so that we grow the best quality products while better preserving the land for the future. It takes careful planning, knowledge of the land, a commitment to sustainable practices and a desire to put farming first.
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Large-scale agricultural practices can take a toll on soil health leading to inefficiencies over the long term. Harvey’s All Naturals is a Colorado-based company specializing in premium farm-to-table full spectrum CBD products. Harvey’s gets all of its hemp from Boot Ranch Farms, an off-grid sustainable hemp farm in Southern Colorado supplied by an artesian well.
We spoke with Harvey Craig, CEO Harvey’s All Naturals and co-founder of Boot Ranch Farms, to learn more about the benefits of regenerative agriculture, how he thinks about soil health, and how they produce their CBD products. Harvey started Boot Ranch Farms in 2014 after the passing of the Farm Bill and Harvey’s All Naturals followed shortly thereafter.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis and hemp industry?
Harvey Craig: I got involved at a very young age, as the youngest of eight kids, seven of which are boys, I was introduced to cannabis on the marijuana side first. As an engineer through the years, I’ve always been involved in creating very efficient growing systems for cannabis.
In the early 2000s, I learned about CBD a little bit through experimenting with marijuana strains to help a friend who had Parkinson’s and also through the research performed by Raphael Mechoulem, an organic chemist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. In 2014, when the Farm Bill made hemp legal, I dropped everything and went into it because I felt “this is what I need to be doing.”
Green: What is sustainable farming mean to you?
Craig: Sustainable farming to me means putting soil health and responsible natural growing practices at the forefront of all agriculture – regenerative processes for soil, in a nutshell. To me, soil health is one of the biggest problems in the United States right now. By regenerating and making our soils living, healthy and with a rich nutrient base we create an ecosystem that is good for human health and health all around.
Green: What do you mean specifically when you say, “soil health?”
Craig: Soil is living. A good natural soil has a living microbiotic structure inside it. There’s a living habitat that forms inside our soil over the years. Large scale agriculture in many cases has depleted or killed this living structure through readily accessible fertilizers and tilling practices.
Farmers understand the soil. There are practices we can undertake that are helping our living soils and helping the microbiotic habitat to thrive. Practices such as no-till technologies, rotating crops, using cover crops, not being a monocrop, responsible water use, healthy fertilizer and pesticide technologies, minimal processing, the list goes on and on…
When we talk about this thing called sustainability, I think it’s very important that we understand there are two sides of cannabis. There’s the marijuana and then there’s the hemp. We can’t put those two together – they’re governed very differently. Hemp became legal through the Farm Bill and is governed by the Department of Agriculture. Hemp is just like any other crop out there really. That means we can mix hemp in with other crops. It’s very much like corn and other crops in how it’s grown on a large scale, industrial basis.
Marijuana on the other hand is governed by each state’s regulatory commission. Those regulations make it very hard to mix in with general agriculture. So, when it comes to the marijuana side, unfortunately, it must be a monocrop. Most marijuana is grown in pots and pots are fine. However, if you are just growing in a pot and then throwing your soil away, that is not very sustainable. As it sits right now, in the marijuana industry there is really no sustainability, unfortunately. The energy use for the lights in indoor grows, for example, creates a huge carbon footprint and load on the electrical grid. I’m not trying to put indoor growing down, but that’s the way it is. The only way I foresee sustainability in the marijuana side of cannabis is to let loose a little bit on regulation and allow it to become a part of normal agricultural processes.
Green: What is it about tilling that degrades the soil quality?
Craig: When we till our soil, we’re turning the organisms in the soil up and we’re allowing the sun to dry them out. If it’s not done properly, you kill that soil structure.
Now, these little microorganisms in our soil create a healthy soil, but it doesn’t happen instantly, this takes years to create. Nobody has the time anymore, everybody’s “go go go” and “make it happen instantly”. So that gets destroyed. Now we have all these dead soils that everybody’s growing in and growers turn to factory-produced fertilizers with readily available nutrients.
When we are talking about cannabis, we can’t just look at monocropping. If you grow one crop in the same soil over and over, the soil is going to get depleted. One of the main things that we deplete is nitrogen and growing other crops, such as clover, can replenish that nitrogen. Growing cover crops protects the soil from the sun, creates nitrogen for the soil, and holds the water within the soil.
Instead of tilling, you can rotate with crops like root vegetables, radishes and other things that have deep root structures. Instead of tearing them up, just let them degrade organically and go back into the soil. Those deep root structures will also help aerate the soil.
Green: What is a farmer’s first approach?
Craig: Farmers want their land to be healthy. True farmers have a oneness with the earth and understand the earth. The farmer’s first approach keeps the farmer involved in creating new technologies for agriculture.
Green: Let’s say you’re a farmer that has land or recently acquired land that’s been industrially grown upon. How would you take that land and start fresh with a regenerative process?
Craig: The first thing you have to do is take soil samples and send them to a lab. That’ll tell you what you’re working with. Also, knowing a little history about the land helps as well. Was it used for grazing? Was it used for growing corn? What was it used for? Were organic practices used?
Then, there are many things you can do to start to regenerate your soil, but it takes time. In many situations, people don’t want to take that time. But what we’re learning is, the people and the farmers that do take that time often take a hit monetarily for the first two or three years. After that, once that structure is maintained, the natural health of the soil can be replenished. Crops will grow better, and they won’t spend as much money on fertilizers and pesticides in the long run because the microbiotic structure in the soil is creating a healthy ecosystem. When we destroy that ecosystem, it doesn’t come back easily or quickly. If there’s a little bit there, it can be regenerated with the right practices.
Green: I understand that the Boot Ranch is an off-the-grid farm. What was your motivation for either going off-grid or remaining off-grid?
Craig: I have a background in alternative energies and engineering, and when creating Boot Ranch Farms there was a lot that went into the sustainability side of it. The farm is extremely far away from the power grid for starters. So, an investment in solar for electricity was money well spent. My thought process was, why would I invest in bringing the wires in when I could actually save money and resources by creating a very efficient solar system and not be tied to the grid? Our farm is self-sustaining without being connected to any grid, which is one of the main reasons for remaining off-grid.
Green: I understand the farm is supplied by an artesian well. How do you monitor your water quality?
Craig: Well, we’re very fortunate. Existing natural water quality is one of the main reasons we decided to grow in the San Luis Valley. When you’re starting something new, you have to look at your financial side of things. Investing in a hemp farm is very different than the marijuana side because you won’t make as much money per pound of product sold. So, you have to watch your budget and not spend too much, or you’re never going to make a profit.
The self-sustaining artisanal well and water rights were existing on the property. There’s no pumping required for it and the water goes into a 10,000-gallon holding tank, where we can monitor and test for water quality. In order to water our plants, we use a pump/drip water system that supplies water to each individual plant. It’s very efficient compared to most watering systems out there, such as flood irrigation or pivots, and really doesn’t use a heck of a lot of water.
Green: Are you growing in open air or greenhouses?
Craig: We grow in two 3,000 square feet industrial-grade greenhouses at Boot Ranch Farms. Greenhouse One has all the bells and whistles including heating, cooling, light deprivation, supplemental lighting, automated controls and more. That greenhouse allows us to mimic Mother Nature a little bit. We can get up to six harvests throughout the course of the year in that greenhouse. However, in reality, we get about four.
In addition, we have a second greenhouse that is set about 100 feet away and set up to keep plants growing on mother nature’s cycle. We can move groups of mature plants to Greenhouse One after each harvest for multiple flowering cycles. Lastly, between greenhouses, we have a 10,000 square foot courtyard that’s protected with shade cloth and other things to help protect those plants from the elements. In late October, all remaining plants in both greenhouses and the courtyard become mature and ready to harvest due to shorter days created by mother nature.
Green: Do you insure your crops?
Craig: We have not. Hemp is a new industry and we have not found good crop insurance.
Green: Do you cultivate your own genetics?
Craig: We work with some other companies here in Colorado to provide genetics. Consistent genetics are extremely important on the hemp side because we need to trust that they are going to keep the THC levels down. On the marijuana side, that part doesn’t matter so much
There are different strains that have been created that I absolutely love, and I’ve tried to stick with them and stay with that seed stock. One of them is called The Wife and the other Cherry Wine. Most of the best hemp I have found is based upon the Cherry strain. People are always looking for high CBD. I’d rather have a lower CBD level in the 8% to 12% range. Something higher in the 14% to 20% range has a higher chance of producing a product with more than the legal amount of THC.
Green: Is Harvey’s All Naturals fully supplied by Boot Ranch Farms?
Craig: Yes, it is. There are a lot of things that go into a quality product and we focus on that at Boot Ranch. We’re small, not trying to compete with the large-scale market. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the products out on the market come from large-scale industrial hemp grows. We focus on long-term medicinal value and grow very high-quality hemp and we try not to degrade it in any way, shape or form throughout processing.
Green: How many square feet or acres is the Boot Ranch Farm?
Craig: Boot Ranch farm is about 260 acres. We only grow on less than three of it.
Green: What’s your extraction process?
Craig: We use cold alcohol extraction. We do not distill to separate our alcohol from the hemp oil. We use what’s called a roto vape. That cold processing preserves our terpenes, it preserves our full-spectrum cannabis oil profile and doesn’t fully decarboxylate our CBDa. We want a large CBDa percentage because there are many things that CBDa is good for when it comes to long term medicinal reasons.
Green: Are you processing your own hemp?
Craig: No, we sub that part of it out. What I’ve learned in this industry is three main parts: 1- the farming; 2- the extraction, and; 3- the product line. Those are three very separate processes and require specialized expertise within themselves. Each is a large investment and it’s very hard to do it all. I decided to work with other people on the extraction part of it. They have the expertise, and we pay them well to do what they do.
Green: Okay, great. And then any final words for Ag Day?
Craig: Support your small farmer in nutrient-rich agricultural products.
Green: Great. That concludes the interview, Harvey!
On January 15, 2021, the USDA published its final rule on US hemp production. The rule, which becomes effective on March 22, 2021, expands and formalizes previous guidance related to waste disposal of noncompliant or “hot” crops (crops with a THC concentration above .3 percent). Importantly for the industry, the new disposal rules remove unduly burdensome DEA oversight and provides for remediation options.
Producers will not be required to use a DEA reverse distributor or law enforcement to dispose of noncompliant plants. Instead, producers will be able to use common on-farm practices for disposal. Some of these disposal options include, but are not limited to, plowing under non-compliant plants, composting into “green manure” for use on the same land, tilling, disking, burial or burning. By eliminating DEA involvement from this process, the USDA rules serve to streamline disposal options for producers of this agricultural commodity.
Alternatively, the final rule permits “remediation” of noncompliant plants. Allowing producers to remove and destroy noncompliant flower material – while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds – is an important crop and cost-saving measure for producers, especially smaller producers. Remediation can also occur by shredding the entire plant to create “biomass” and then re-testing the biomass for compliance. Biomass that fails the retesting is noncompliant hemp and must be destroyed. The USDA has issued an additional guidance document on remediation. Importantly, this guidance advises that lots should be kept separate during the biomass creation process, remediated biomass must be stored and labeled apart from each other and from other compliant hemp lots and seeds removed from non-compliant hemp should not be used for propagative purposes.
The final rules have strict record keeping requirements, such rules ultimately protect producers and should be embraced. For example, producers must document the disposal of all noncompliant plants by completing the “USDA Hemp Plan Producer Disposal Form.” Producers must also maintain records on all remediated plants, including an original copy of the resample test results. Records must be kept for a minimum of three years. While USDA has not yet conducted any random audits, the department may conduct random audits of licensees.
Although this federal guidance brings some clarity to hemp producers, there still remains litigation risks associated with waste disposal. There are unknown environmental impacts from the industry and there is potential tort liability or compliance issues with federal and state regulations. For example, as mentioned above, although burning and composting disposal options for noncompliant plants, the final rule does not address the potential risk for nuisance complaints from smoke or odor associated with these methods.
At the federal level, there could be compliance issues with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and ancillary regulations like Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition to government enforcement under RCRA and CERCLA, these hazardous waste laws also permit private party suits. Although plant material from cultivation is not considered hazardous, process liquids from extraction or distillation (ethanol, acetone, etc.) are hazardous. Under RCRA, an individual can bring an “imminent and substantial endangerment” citizen suit against anyone generating or storing hazardous waste in a way the presents imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Under CERCLA, private parties who incur costs for removal or remediation may sue to recover costs from other responsible parties.
At the state level, there could be issues with state agency guidance and state laws. For example, California has multiple state agencies that oversee cannabis and hemp production and disposal. CA Prop 65 mandates warnings for products with certain chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals and THC. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the evaluation of the environmental impact of runoff or pesticides prior to issuing a cultivation permit. Both environmental impact laws permit a form of private action.
Given the varied and evolving rules and regulation on hemp cultivation, it remains essential for hemp producers to seek guidance and the help of professionals when entering this highly regulated industry.
Plant genetics are an important consideration for cultivators planning to grow cannabis crops. Genetics can affect how well a plant grows in a particular environment under various conditions and have a major impact on the production of cannabinoids, terpenes as well as other molecules and traits expressed by the plant.
Front Range Biosciences is a hemp and cannabis genetics platform company, leveraging proprietary next generation breeding and Clean Stock® tissue culture nursery technologies to develop new varieties for a broad range of product applications in the hemp and cannabis industries. FRB has global reach through facilities in Colorado, California and Wisconsin, and a partnership with the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics in Barcelona, Spain. FRB is headquartered in Lafayette, Colorado.
We spoke with Jonathan Vaught, Ph.D., CEO and co-founder of Front Range Biosciences. Jonathan co-founded Front Range in 2015 after a successful career in the diagnostics and food testing industries.
Jonathan Vaught: This was a collaborative project between the BioServe group at the University of Colorado Boulder, which is a part of their aerospace engineering program. They do research on the International Space Station, and they have for quite some time. We partnered with them and another company, Space Technology Holdings, a group that’s working on applications of space travel and space research. We teamed up to send tissue culture samples to the space station and let them sit in zero gravity at the space station for about a month, and then go through the reentry process and come back to Earth. We brought them back in the lab to perform some genomic analyses and try to understand if there’s any underlying genetic changes in terms of the plants being in that environment. We wanted to know if there was anything interesting that we could learn by putting these plant stem cells and tissue cultures in an extreme environment to look for stress response, and some other possible changes that might occur to the plants by going through those conditions.
Aaron: That’s an interesting project! Are there any trends that you’re following in the industry?
Jon: We’re excited to see ongoing legalization efforts around the world. We’ve seen continued progress here in the United States. We still have a long way to go, but we’re excited to see the additional markets coming onboard and regulations moving in the right direction. Also, we’re excited to see some of the restorative justice programs that have come out.
Aaron: How did you get involved at Front Range Biosciences?
Jon: It really starts with my background and what I was doing before Front Range Biosciences. I’ve spent more than 15 years developing commercializing technologies in human diagnostics, food safety and now agriculture.
I started my career during graduate school in biotech at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I helped develop some of the core technology for a human diagnostic startup company called Somalogic here in Colorado. I went to work for them after finishing my dissertation work and spent about six years there helping them grow that company. We ended up building the world’s largest protein biomarker discovery platform primarily serving pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors, with personalized medicine and lab tests for things like early detection of chronic illness, cancer, heart disease and inflammation.
I then went to another startup company called Beacon Biotech, that was interested in food safety. There I helped develop some similar technologies for detecting food-borne illness — things like salmonella, listeria and E. coli. That was my introduction to big food and big agriculture. From there, I went to help start another company called Velocity Science that was also in the human diagnostic space.
Along the way, I started a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Mountain Flower Goat Dairy, a dairy and educational non-profit that had a community milk-share, which included summer camps and workshops for people to learn about local and sustainable agriculture. I became more and more interested in agriculture and decided to take my career in that path and that’s really what set me up to start Front Range Biosciences.
Aaron: Do you have any co-founders?
Jon: I have two other co-founders. They both played various roles over the last four years. One was another scientist, Chris Zalewski, PhD. He currently works in the R&D department and helps oversee several different parts of the company including pathology and product development. My other co-founder, Nick Hofmeister served as chief strategic officer for the last few years, and has helped raise the majority of our funding. We’ve raised over $45 million dollars, and he played a big role in that.
Aaron: What makes you different from other cannabis seed companies?
John: We’ve built the first true cannabis genetics platform. What I mean by that is we built a platform that allows us to develop and produce new plant varieties that support both the hemp and the cannabis markets. To us, it’s all cannabis. Hemp and cannabis are scientifically the same plant. They just have different regulatory environments, different products and different markets, but we stay focused on the plant. Our platform is built on several different pillars. Genetics are one of the core pieces, and by genetics I mean, everything from molecular based breeding to marker assisted breeding to large germplasm collections. We collect different varieties of germplasm, or seed, from all over the world and use those to mix and match and breed for specific traits. We also have large nursery programs. Another one of our pillars of the platform includes greenhouse nursery production — everything from flowering cannabis plants to producing cannabis seeds to cloning and producing mother plants and rooted cuttings or clones.
Then tissue culture is another part of the platform, it’s basically the laboratory version of a greenhouse nursery. It’s housed in a sterile environment and allows us to produce plants that are clean and healthy. It’s a much more effective, modern way to manage the nursery. It’s part of our clean stock program, where we start clean, stay clean, and you can finish clean. It’s really built on all of those different pieces.
We also have capabilities in analytical chemistry and pathology, that allow us to better understand what drives performance and the plants, and both different regions as well as different cannabinoid products or terpene products. All of the science and capabilities of the platform are what allow us to create new varieties faster, better, stronger.
Aaron: It sounds like you’re vertically integrated on the front-end of cannabis cultivation.
Jon: Absolutely, that’s a great way to think about it.
The last piece I’d say is that we have areas of research and development that cover the full span of multiple product lines. We think about it from an ingredient perspective. Cannabinoids and terpenes are certainly what drive a large part of the cannabis market in terms of edibles, smokable flower, vapes and extracts and the different effects and flavors that you get. We also are looking at other ingredients, like plant-based protein and hemp as a viable protein source and the ability for hemp to produce valuable fiber for textiles, as well as industrial building materials and applications.
Lastly, there are additional small molecules that we’re working on as well from a food ingredients perspective. There are all kinds of interesting compounds. Everybody talks about the cannabinoids and terpenes, but there are also things like flavonoids, and some other very interesting chemistries that we’re working on as well.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Jon: Colorado and California primarily and we have a small R&D partnership in Barcelona.
Aaron: Do you have plans for expansion beyond that?
Jon: Our current headquarters are out of Colorado, and most of our Colorado operations right now are all hemp. Our hemp business is national and international.
We work with a licensed cannabis nursery partner in California which is our primary focus for that market, but we will be expanding the cannabis genetics and nursery program into Colorado next year. From a regulated cannabis perspective, that’s the first move. Beyond that, we’re in conversations with some of the multi-state operators and cannabis brands that are emerging to talk about how to leverage our technology and our genetics platform across some of the other markets.
Aaron: How do you think about genetics in your products?
Jon: Genetics means a lot of things to different folks depending on your vantage point and where you sit in the supply chain. Our business model is based on selling plants and seeds. At the end of the day, we don’t develop oils, extracts and products specifically, but we develop the genetics behind those products.
For us, it’s not only about developing genetics that have the unique qualities or ingredients that a product company might want like CBD, or other minor cannabinoids like THCV for example, but also about making sure that those plants can be produced efficiently and effectively. The first step is to introduce the ingredient to the product. Then the second step is to make sure that growers can grow and produce the plant. That way they can stabilize their supply chain for their product line. Whether it’s for a smokable flower product, or a vape product, or an edible product, it’s really important to make sure that they can reproduce it. That’s really how we think about genetics.
Aaron: What is a smart plant? That’s something I saw on your website.
Jon: It’s really about plants that perform under specific growing regions, or growing conditions. For example, in hemp, it’s one thing to produce CBD or CBG. It’s another thing to be able to produce it efficiently in five different microclimates around the U.S. Growing hemp in Florida or Alabama down on the Gulf Coast versus growing on the Pacific Northwest coast of Washington, or Oregon are two very different growing conditions that require smart plants. Meaning they can grow and thrive in each of those conditions and still produce the intended product. Generally, the different regions don’t overlap. The genetics that you would grow in Pacific Northwest are not going to do as well as some better selected varieties for the South East.
It’s not only different outdoor growing regions, but it’s different production styles too. When you think about regulated cannabis the difference between outdoor and indoor greenhouse is mixed light production. Even with hydroponic type growing methods, there are lots of different ways to grow and produce this plant and it’s not a one size fits all. It’s really about plants that perform well, whether it’s different regions in the United States in outdoor production or different indoor greenhouses with mixed lights and production methods.
Aaron: You market CBG hemp as a product line. What made you start with CBG? Is that a pull from the market or something you guys see trending?
Jon: So I think it’s a little bit of both. We offer CBD dominant varieties and CBG dominant varieties of hemp. We also now have other cannabinoids in the pipeline that we’ll be putting out in different varieties next year. Things like CBC as well as varins, or propyl cannabinoids. Also things like CBDV, CBCV, or CBGV, which are the propylcannabinoid versions of the more familiar compounds.
There was a lot of market demand for CBG. It was a fairly easy cannabinoid to produce as a single dominant cannabinoid similar to CBD or THC. There’s a lot of up-and-coming demand for some of the other minor cannabinoids. Up until a few years ago, CBD was considered a minor cannabinoid. It wasn’t until Charlotte’s Web in the Sanjay Gupta story that it became a major cannabinoid. So I think we see some level of market pull across the category.
On the flip side of that, we have one of the world’s largest R&D teams and consolidated expertise in terms of cannabis. We see the potential for minor cannabinoids, and even terpenes and other compounds like flavonoids to have wide ranging implications in human health. Everything from wellness products, to active pharmaceutical ingredients, to recreational products. From our perspective, that’s the reason why we’re pushing these ingredients. We believe that there are a lot of good products that come out of this work and the genetics that produce these minor cannabinoids.
Aaron: Okay, great. And then last question, is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?
Jon: I think the most exciting thing for me, given my background in clinical diagnostics and human health, is to see more data around how all of these different compounds of the plant can support improved wellness, health and nutrition. I think we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg. This type of research and data collection takes years, even decades, especially to see outcomes over time of people using these products. I’m really excited to see more of that and also hopefully be able to make stronger conclusions about some of the benefits that can be had from this plant.
Aaron: That’s the end of the interview, thanks Jon!
In May 2019, there were 4,400 reports of tornadoes, hail and high winds across the U.S. That’s the highest number of similar weather incidents on record since 2011. This increasing number of weather incidents has a huge effect on the cannabis industry, which has turned more frequently to outdoor cultivation since legalization.
While outdoor cultivation can develop the flavor of the cannabis crop, much like wine, it also brings with it some unique challenges. Each component of the weather – wind, rain, temperature – plays a role in whether a crop succeeds or fails. While conditions one year may easily lead to a bumper crop, the conditions the following year may not be as favorable. And as the weather becomes more volatile due to climate change, growers are ever more at risk, especially when they aren’t insured.
Unfortunately, traditional crop insurance isn’t available for outdoor cannabis cultivators, primarily because of a lack of data on yield performances – and the impact the weather has on yields. Insurance companies don’t create policies until they have the data to back the policy. But meanwhile, the growers are assuming all the risk.
Enter parametric insurance. Parametric insurance is a program that pays out after a certain parameter is met. In the case of cannabis growers, the parameters are weather-related. The policy is triggered when the weather varies from the average – if there is too much rain during a specific period of time, for example, or an occurrence of large hail. Because the policy is related to average weather, it has to be tailored to the specific growing region – which means the parameters for Colorado won’t be the same as a policy for Maine.
For cannabis crops, coverage can be created for the following parameters:
Rain (recorded in inches of rainfall over a period of time)
Wind (recorded in miles per hour)
Early freezing (using recorded temperatures)
Hail (measures intensity and size of the hail)
Drought (for non-irrigated plots)
Once a parameter has been set, the policy starts to pay out at the strike point, or the average measurement specified in the policy. Coverage continues to pay out until the exhaust point, or the entire limit of the coverage is paid out. It works well because it’s straightforward: The further away from the average, the more the likelihood of catastrophic loss.
Parametric insurance isn’t for everyone. It’s a program designed to fill gaps that exist within the traditional insurance system. Nor is it designed to stand alone. But it can protect outdoor cannabis cultivators from weather risks that are truly beyond their control, especially given the hardening property insurance market.
In addition, it works for two simple reasons:
Simplicity: Recorded weather events leave no room for ambiguity or dispute. You don’t even need an adjuster to guide the claims process. The official weather data proves what happened.
Correlation: There is a high degree of correlation between measurable weather events and potential damage to outdoor crops.
Parametric coverage is not widely available. Many insurance professionals may not even know of it. But with the property insurance market hardening and a growing need to protect you and your cannabis business from weather-related disaster, parametric coverage may be your best bet. Make sure you speak to a broker who knows about it.
The future of packaging is ripe for capitalization by the drivers of sustainability culture. With the battle lines drawn and forces at play in motion, change is now inevitable. The question arises: how quickly can the industry grow in the space of the next decade?
With an increasing number of nations banning non-biodegradable and petroleum-based plastics in certain uses, the choices at hand have naturally led to bioplastics. Bioplastics are a major ingredient of the renewable packaging industry. We derive them from various renewable agricultural crops, of which hemp is among the chief examples.
The Change for Hemp
The legal ramifications of the European Green Deal and the American Farm Bill of 2018 have created a microcosm where the sustainability discussion has turned into corporate initiatives for crops like industrial hemp, which are a source for bioplastics and numerous other products. The smaller carbon footprint of industrial hemp plays its role in shaping consumer demands towards a greener future.
Farmers are now able to cultivate the plant in the U.S., due to its removal from the list of controlled substances. Agribusinesses and manufacturers are aware of the plant’s versatility, with uses in packaging, building construction, clothing, medicinal oils, edibles like protein powder and hemp hearts, hemp paper and rope. What was once George Washington’s strong consideration as a cash crop for his estate, may gradually become the world’s cash crop of choice.
Hemp’s Sustainability Beckons
Why is the crop unanimously superior in the aspect of eco-friendliness? Its growing requirements are frugal: water, soil nutrients and pesticides are not needed in large quantities. It absorbs great quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and uses it to create 65-75% cellulose content within its biomass. Cellulose is vital in the manufacture of bioplastics. Hemp is also flexible within crop cycles, due to its small harvesting period of only 4 months.
Thus, farmers use it as a rotational crop, allowing them to also cultivate other crops after its harvest. High-quality crops like cotton, though superior in cellulose content and fibrous softness, require far more water quantities, soil nutrients and pesticides. Farmers face greater difficulties in cultivating cotton as a rotational crop, because it requires far more space and time.
Hemp Bioplastics For Packaging
We manufacture bioplastics from the hurd and cellulose of the hemp plant. Hemp bioplastics are biodegradable, and take up to a maximum of 6 months to completely decompose; by contrast, normal fossil-fuel-based plastic takes up to 1000 years to decompose.
Manufacturers incorporate these ingredients into existing manufacturing processes for regular plastics, such as injection molding. Thus, we can apply bioplastic ingredients to similar plastics applications, such as packaging, paneling, medical equipment and more. New technologies aren’t necessarily needed, so companies and manufacturers do not have any reservations about its viability as an industry.
Here are a few types of bioplastics derived from hemp:
Hemp Cellulose-based Bioplastics
This is a substance found in plant cell walls. We use cellulose to manufacture a broad range of unique plastics, including celluloid, rayon and cellophane. These plastics are usually entirely organic. We mix cellulose and its variations (such as nanocellulose, made from cellulose nanocrystals) with other ingredients, such as camphor, to produce thermoplastics and the like. Using natural polymer, we process a broad range of bioplastics and corresponding polymers. The difference in their chemical properties is down to the nature of the polymer chains and the extent of crystallization.
Composite Hemp-based Bioplastics
Composite plastics comprise organic polymers like hemp cellulose, as well as an addition of synthetic polymers. They also have reinforcement fibers to improve the strength of the bioplastic, which are also either organic or synthetic. Sometimes, we blend hemp cellulose with other organic polymers like shellac and tree resins. Inorganic fillers include fiberglass, talc and mica.
We call any natural polymer, when blended with synthetic polymers, a “bio composite” plastic. We measure and calibrate these ingredients according to the desired stiffness, strength and density of the eventual plastic product. Apart from packaging, manufacturers use these bioplastics for furniture, car panels, building materials and biodegradable bags.
A composite of polypropylene (PP), reinforced with natural hemp fibers, showed that hemp has a tensile strength akin to that of conventional fiberglass composites. Furthermore, malleated polypropylene (MAPP) composites, fortified with hemp fibers, significantly improved stress-enduring properties compared to conventional fiberglass composites.
Pure Organic Bioplastics With Hemp
We have already generated several bioplastics entirely from natural plant substances like hemp. Hemp fibers, when made alkaline with diluted sodium hydroxide in low concentrations, exhibit superior tensile strength. We have produced materials from polylactic acid (PLA) fortified with hemp fibers. These plastic materials showed superior strength than ones containing only PLA. For heavy-duty packaging, manufacturers use hemp fibers reinforced with biopolyhydroxybutyrate (BHP), which are sturdy enough.
With the world in a state of major change due to the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, the focus is back on packaging and delivery. In this volatile area, perhaps the industry can learn a few new tricks, instead of suffocating itself in old traditions and superficial opportunism. The permutations and combinations of bioplastic technology can serve a swath of packaging applications. We must thoroughly explore this technology.
Hemp’s Future in Packaging
Fossil fuel-based plastic polymers are non-renewable, highly pollutive and dangerous to ecosystems, due to their lifespans. They are some of the most destructive inventions of man, but thankfully could be held back by this crop. Industrial hemp upheld countless industries through human history and now is making a comeback. After existing in relative obscurity in the U.S. due to false connotations with the psychoactive properties of its cousin, it is now back in business.
With the American hemp industry on the verge of a revolution, hemp packaging is primed to take over a significant part of the global packaging sector. The political, economic and environmental incentives for companies to adopt bioplastics are legion. Its lower cost lends to its allure as well. Consumers and agribusinesses are following suit, making the choice to be environmentally-conscious. By 2030, it is estimated that 40% of the plastics industry will be bioplastics.
We can only mitigate the plastic pollution in oceans, landfills and elsewhere, with the use of biodegradable bioplastics; otherwise, animals, humans and plants are getting adversely affected by imperceptible microplastics that pervade vast regions of the Earth. With hemp bioplastics, we use the cleaner, renewable matter of plants to conserve the planet’s sanctity. We can expect this new technology to continue to light the way for other nations, societies and companies to build upon this sustainable plan.
Secretary Perdue made the announcement in a YouTube video titled “USDA’s Hemp Policy.” Later in the week, an interim final rule formalizing the program will be published in the Federal Register, according to the USDA’s website. “The rule includes provisions for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to approve hemp production plans developed by states and Indian tribes including: requirements for maintaining information on the land where hemp is produced; testing the levels of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol; disposing of plants not meeting necessary requirements; and licensing requirements,” reads the press release. “It also establishes a federal plan for hemp producers in states or territories of Indian tribes that do not have their own approved hemp production plan.” The interim final rule will go into effect as soon as it is published in the Federal Register, which should be by the end of this week.
You can watch the YouTube video and read the announcement he made below:
Hello everyone, as I travel across this great country of ours, I hear a lot about a strong interest in a new economic opportunity for America’s farmers: the production of hemp. Which is why today I am pleased to announce the USDA has published the rule establishing the US domestic hemp production program. We said we’d get it done in time for producers to make planning decisions for 2020 and we followed through. We have had teams operating with all hands-on-deck to develop a regulatory framework that meets Congressional intent while seeking to provide a fair, consistent and science-based process for states, tribes, and individual producers who want to participate in this program. As mandated by Congress, our program requires all hemp growers to be licensed and includes testing protocols to ensure that hemp grown under this program is hemp and nothing else. The USDA has also worked to provide licensed growers access to loans and risk management products available for other crops. As the interim final rule, the rule becomes effective immediately upon publication in the federal register. But we still want to hear from you. Help us make sure the regulations meet your needs. That’s why the publication of the interim final rule also includes a public comment period continuing a full and transparent rulemaking process that started with a hemp listening session all the way back in March 2019. At USDA, we are always excited when there are new economic opportunities for our farmers and we hope the ability to grow hemp will pave the way for new products and markets. And I encourage all producers to take the time to fully educate themselves on the processes, requirements and risk that come with any market or product before entering this new frontier. The Agricultural Marketing Service will be providing additional information, resources and educational opportunities on the new program. And I encourage you to visit the USDA hemp website for more information. As always, we thank you for your patience and input during this process.
You’re sitting down to dinner at a restaurant about ten minutes from where you work, finally relaxing after a tough day. You’ve set your environmental alerts on your plants; you have that peace of mind that the technology promised and you know that if anything goes wrong you’ll get notified immediately. As you’re looking at the menu, you receive an alert telling you that the temperature in one of your 2,000 square foot grow rooms has gone out of the safe range. Your mind starts to race, “It’s week seven, I’ve got 500 plants one week away from harvest, that’s 200 pounds of cannabis worth about $150,000-$200,000. Oh my God, what am I going to do?”
You’re doing all this at the dinner table and even though you’re not in a state of panic, you are extremely concerned. You need to figure out what’s going on. You check the graphing and see that over the past hour your humidity dropped and your temperature is gradually going up. Within the past ten minutes, the temperature has gone to 90 degrees. Your numbers tell you that the temperature in the room with $200,000 of cannabis is going up about five degrees every three minutes.
“I see this trend and can’t figure it out,” the grower relates. “Normally, the HVAC kicks on and I’d begin to see a downward trend on the graphs. I pre-set my trigger for 90 degrees. But, I’m not seeing that. What I AM seeing is the temperature gradually and consistently getting warmer without the bounce-back that I would expect once the HVAC trigger was hit. All I know is I better find out what’s causing all this and I better find out fast or my entire crop is gone.”
You go through the rest of the checklist from LUNA and you see that the lights are still on. Now, you’re starting to sweat because if the temperature in that room hits 130 and stays there for more than twenty minutes, you’re losing your entire crop. You have to walk in your boss’s office the next day and explain why, after all the time and money you put in over the past seven weeks, not only is all that money gone but so is the $200,000 he is counting on to pay salaries, expenses, and bank loans.
This is something you’ve been working on for seven straight weeks and if you don’t make the right decision, really quickly, when that room hits 130 degrees here’s what happens.
“My equipment starts to fail,” our grower continues. “The crop literally burns as the oils dry up and the crop is worthless. At 130 degrees, my grow lights essentially start to melt. All you can think of is that temperature going up five degrees every three minutes and you’re ten minutes from your facility. I need to leave that restaurant right now, immediately, because even if I get there in ten minutes the temperature is going to be almost 120 degrees while I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out what’s wrong.”
You run out to your car and you speed back to the facility. The grow room is now 125 degrees, you have maybe three or four minutes left to figure things out before you flush $200,000 down the drain. The first thing you do is turn off the grow lights because that’s your primary source of heat. Then, you check your HVAC panel and you realize it malfunctioned and shorted out. There’s the problem.
The real toll is the human cost. Once this happens, no grower ever wants to leave and go home or even go to dinner. It’s a horrible toll. It’s the hidden cost we don’t talk about. The grower opens up with his own personal experience.“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,”
“You think about the burden on the person that you bring in to replace you while you’re out of town and then you think about the burden on you if something goes wrong again. And you decide, it’s not worth it. The anxiety, the fear that it will happen again, it’s not worth it. So, you don’t go. I didn’t even see my sister’s new baby for eight months.”
Your desire to see your family, your desire to have a normal life; all of that goes out the window because of your desire to be successful in your job. It outweighs everything.
This is every grower. It’s why many farmers never leave their property. It just becomes a normal way of living. You just repeat it so much that you don’t even think about it. Why go on vacation if your stress level is higher than it is if you’re home. You’re constantly worried about your farm or your facility. The only way to escape it is to not go away at all.
“This system allows the grower to step back and still feel confident because you’re not leaving your facility to another person,” he tells us. “You don’t realize how stressful a lifestyle you live is until you step back and look at it. Or, if you have an alert system that allows you to pull back. That’s when you realize how difficult your life is. Otherwise, it just seems normal.”
As AI technology expands its footprint into agriculture, there will be more tools to help mediate situations like this; more tools to give you a more normal life. It’s one of the reasons we got into the business in the first place.
This is not a discussion of climate change, it’s a discussion of the impact of weather on the agriculture industry. The question for the cannabis & hemp industry, and basically the entire specialty crop industry, is what will be the impact? According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “Climate disruptions to agriculture have been increasing and are projected to become more severe over this century.” I’m sure that’s not much of a shock to anyone who owns a farm, orchard or greenhouse.
Every national newspaper for the past two weeks has published at least one article a day about the flooding in the Midwest, while industry newsletters and blogs have contained more in-depth stories. The question is, what can agriculture professionals do to mitigate these problems?
Relying on state and national legislators, especially heading into a presidential election year is likely to be frustrating and unrewarding. Governments are excellent at reacting to disasters and not so good at preventing them. In short, if we depend on government to take the lead it’s going to be a long wait.Instead, many farmers are looking at the future costs of outdoor farming and concluding that it’s simply cheaper, more efficient and manageable to farm indoors.
Instead, many farmers are looking at the future costs of outdoor farming and concluding that it’s simply cheaper, more efficient and manageable to farm indoors. Gone are the days when people grew hemp and cannabis indoors in an effort to hide from the police. Pineapple Express was a funny movie but not realistic in today’s environment.
Today’s hemp and cannabis growers are every bit as tech savvy as any other consumer-oriented business and one could argue that given the age of their customers (Statista puts usage by 18-49-year-olds at 40%), distributors must be even more tech savvy to compete effectively. Some estimates put the current split of cultivation at about one-third indoors/two-thirds outdoors. To date, the indoor focus has been on efficiency, quality and basically waiting for regulators to allow shipping across state lines.
A major driver in the indoors/outdoors equation is that as the weather becomes more unfriendly and unpredictable, VC’s are factoring climate disruption into their financial projections. When corn prices drop because of export tariffs, politicians lift the ban on using Ethanol during the summer months. It’s going to be a while before we see vehicles running on a combination of gasoline and CBD.
Leaving aside the case that can be made for efficiency, quality control and tracking of crops, climate change alone is going to force many growers to reassess whether they want to move indoors. And, it’s certainly going to weigh heavily in the plans of growers who are about to launch a cannabis or hemp business. Recently, one investment banker put it to me this way: greenhouses are the ultimate hedge against the weather.
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