When people have to make important decisions, we often consult a third party to increase our knowledge and confidence in a product. For instance, when choosing a car, an individual may weigh heavily on safety ratings and other awards from organizations such as Consumer Reports. These awards are often boasted and a heavy focus in car commercials because it tells the consumer that a third party has deemed their car valuable to own. For more than 100 years, the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC® International) has operated in this exact manner, and has set the bar and guidelines for testing in the cannabis industry through its special program called the Cannabis Analytical Science Program, also known as CASP.
The CASP program is designed to develop standards and validation guidance to evaluate testing methods, as well as the methods’ ability to detect the target organism or compound on the cannabis matrix. With the addition of new states permitting the legal sale of both medical and adult use cannabis and no federal governing body overseeing testing regulations, the value of AOAC cannot be understated, as these guidelines allow cannabis testing laboratories to have their own third-party reference to look to when choosing a compliant testing method to implement in their laboratory.
AOAC was founded in 1884 by the US government as the standard setting body in the country and, in 1991, became an independent association known as AOAC International, with a goal of building a reputation as an international, consensus-based standard-setting body and a conformity assessment organization in analytical sciences. As an independent third-party resource, AOAC has the Performance Tested Methods’ (PTM) and Official Methods of AnalysisSM (OMA) programs for certification of analytical testing methods in both biology and chemistry.
If analytical methods, including proprietary test kits, are deemed acceptable, AOAC provides approved certification, their seal of approval that the method works as designed. Though multiple factors are considered to determine if AOAC approval is given; accuracy and precision of the method are among the most important. For example, when validating a cannabis method for microbiology, AOAC will contract an independent testing facility to conduct a series of tests with known spiked samples to measure the recovery limit of the target microorganism. This allows the organization to determine if the method is sensitive enough to be named an AOAC-approved method through either the PTM or OMA conformity programs. Another way of ensuring the validity of results is by conducting an inclusivity and exclusivity study on a method. In this type of experiment, target organisms are tested while also spiking with non-target organisms to see if there will be a high rate of false positives.
In cannabis, discussions have grown surrounding testing of four strains of Aspergillus, which are A. terreus, A. flavus, A. fumigatus and A. niger. By spiking cannabis with one of the four Aspergillus strains and on a separate sample with a non-target Aspergillus strain such as A. clavatus, it ensures that only the target strains are being recognized and recorded on the method being tested.
This methodology limits the likelihood of unconfirmed positives occurring, ensuring the validity of the results. Of course, when a method is undergoing an actual AOAC evaluation for approval, the testing requirements for both the sensitivity and inclusivity/exclusivity experiments are much more thorough than the explanation above.
Regardless of which AOAC-approved method you select, you can feel confident that most of the “heavy-lifting” is done and that the method is accurate and precise enough to implement in a cannabis testing facility. In turn, the cannabis testing laboratory then only needs to complete their own internal method verification to ensure the method works with their processes, people, environment and product, but on a much smaller scale and aligns with state regulations.
On a consumer safety level, AOAC-approved methods are designed to keep cannabis consumers safe. Whether they are an adult using cannabis or medicinal cannabis patient, the product that is being sold should be held to the highest safety standards. By having a laboratory that is utilizing an independently approved AOAC method, an additional layer of confidence is achieved that the product being consumed is safe. This ultimately limits the number of costly recalls from dispensaries and minimizes risk to consumers. At the end of the day, cannabis testing laboratories want to keep the public safe and it is our job to do so. This means implementing these independently approved methods from agencies such as AOAC at various touch points in the seed to sale cycle to ensure the data is validated and reliable.
Overall, just as it is equally important to get a non-biased and reputable third-party approach to your automobile search, a scientist that is responsible for choosing methods in their cannabis compliance laboratory should also consider these third-party approvals. As a scientist, the goal every day is to report accurate data to help the client and the consumer equally. The cannabis compliance laboratories are the last line of defense in preventing harmful or contaminated products from getting into the marketplace and any extra assurance we have with our testing methodology is always encouraged. Ultimately, AOAC’s work is important and their standard of quality and safety is a must-have in the cannabis laboratory.
Aurum Labs, a cannabis testing laboratory based in Durango, Colorado, announced last week that they have become certified by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for all of the compliance testing required for hemp products. The press release says they are the first independent lab that is actually based in the state to receive the CDPHE certification for every compliance test.
Last year, Colorado rolled out hemp testing regulations that are some of the most comprehensive in the world. The required pesticide screening includes testing for more than 100 different types of pesticides. The new rules, along with the certification requirement, make it difficult for labs to enter the market, with only eleven total labs certified by the CDPHE for various hemp compliance panels and only five certified for every type of test, according to the department’s website.
Most of the companies on that list certified to conduct hemp compliance testing are familiar labs with large footprints, such as Eurofins, Kaycha Labs, Columbia Labs, SC Labs, InfiniteCAL and ACS Labs. Most of these labs are out of state and by the looks of it, only four independent, Colorado-based labs are certified so far: Aurum Labs, Gobi Analytical, Botanacor Labs and Minova Labs. Gobi and Minova, however, are not yet certified for pesticide testing, while Aurum appears to be certified for all compliance testing. Botanacor Labs, based in Denver, was certified back in June of 2021 to every compliance test except for pesticides.
“It’s difficult to compete with these large, private-equity-funded labs, but Aurum is passionate about serving the evolving hemp industry” Liz Mason, director of operations at Aurum Labs, said in a press release. “We are committed to staying on the scientific forefront to give the most comprehensive services to our clients.”
As a business owner, it is imperative to concentrate your time on only the most essential areas of your business. To focus more on revenue generation and growth strategy, outsourcing your accounting is one of the wisest decisions you can make for your cannabis business.
A great accountant will prepare financial statements, manage cash flow and ensure that you remain compliant with your state’s rules and regulations. Your best option is finding an accountant who possesses the required technical and business knowledge and has also navigated the cannabis industry and understands its nuances.
There are a lot of factors to consider when searching for the right accountant and it can be difficult to know what questions you should ask. We’ve put together this list with some important considerations that pertain to accountants in the cannabis industry.
1. Do you have a network of cannabis industry professionals?
One of the greatest perks of partnering with an accountant that’s already established in the cannabis space is that they typically have connections to other industry professionals that might be helpful in the future. For example, suppose you have questions about important legislation or what permits are required for certain operations. It’s beneficial to be connected with people that can answer these questions for you.
Similarly, an accountant well-versed in the industry can notify you of events, conferences and trade shows that may be beneficial to your business. A great indicator that an accountant is well established in the industry is that they’re members of well-known trade associations, for example, the National Cannabis Industry Association.
2. What formal certifications do you hold (enrolled agent, CPA)? Are you familiar with cannabis compliance?
A CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and an Enrolled Agent have passed the IRS’s testing and keep up with continuing education every year. Not only is it necessary that your accountant has all required licensing per Internal Revenue Services (IRS), but it is also crucial to make sure you’re operating in compliance with state laws for cannabis businesses.
Dispensaries and other cannabis businesses are subject to various tax laws across every state, making compliance challenging. The rules and regulations of each state are unique. There is no exact residency requirement for every state, and some states do not apply IRS code 280E.
While an accountant might hold the necessary certifications, they might not have the industry expertise to guide you through any compliance issues you might come across. It’s important that you choose someone who’s both properly certified and well versed in the cannabis space.
3. Are you currently representing cannabis companies? How long have you been in this industry?
There is nothing typical about the cannabis industry, and it operates differently from most other industries. Businesses that have operated in the cannabis space for several years and have a wide range of clients have more experience dealing with the challenges and obstacles that come with running a cannabis business.
Finding a cannabis accountant with experience is particularly important when it comes to compliance as the rules & regulations are constantly evolving. It’s often that compliance issues can lead to hefty fines from the IRS, so choosing someone familiar with the industry will save you from these penalties.
4. What are the advantages of outsourcing accounting rather than doing it myself?
While you can take a DIY approach and purchase software like QuickBooks, there is an inherent risk in tackling all of your accounting initiatives alone. As mentioned above, the industry has its own unique challenges that differ from businesses in other fields and failure to pay close attention to these things can result in serious financial and legal trouble. A great team of accountants has the knowledge to keep you informed on the ever-changing legislation and give you advice on how to avoid costly mistakes.
Similarly, outsourcing your accounting allows you more time to focus on the most critical aspects of your business. Running your own company is in many cases a 24/7 job, with entrepreneurs scrambling to find enough time to complete daily tasks and make efforts to grow their business. An accountant that keeps accurate records of your performance can give you the data needed to identify areas of improvement and increase overall productivity.
5. What are you expecting from me every month?
One of the main reasons why some clients are left dissatisfied by accounting firms is due to miscommunication surrounding each party’s expectations. A good accounting service will establish open communication around their own needs, goals, and objectives. Educating yourself on what an accountant expects from you will enable you to give them the information they need to provide accurate and efficient services.
On the other hand, it’s just as important that you understand what will be delivered by your accountant on a regular basis. Some firms operate on an annual basis and provide one-time bookkeeping or end-of-year tax preparation. Others take a more month-to-month approach, offering continuous business consulting and tailored services unique to your business. It’s helpful to have a checklist that both you and your accountant can reference that ensures you’re staying on the same page.
Why cannabis accountants are important
To meet the growing demand for cannabis, many dispensaries and other cannabis-related businesses are opening across the country.
A company in this sector has tremendous potential for success, but that success is not without risks, especially financial challenges. Throughout the cannabis industry, there is a need for financial professionals who can understand complex laws and regulations in order to make a legal profit from the industry.
Further, business owners require assistance in navigating complicated tax laws and managing primarily cash-based businesses without the support of traditional banks. It is advantageous to have an accounting team that is knowledgeable about all the traditional accounting functions, like financial reporting and bookkeeping.
Additionally, you should find someone who can help you make the right investments and manage the ongoing flow of money into and out of your cannabis business. A great accountant will guide you to the specific tax requirements applicable to your particular legal structure, how to pay taxes owed and if any tax deductions are available despite Internal Revenue Code (IRC) Section 280E.
ACS Laboratory, a cannabis and hemp testing lab based outside of Tampa Bay, Florida, announced the launch of their “Tested Safe Certified Seal” program. The program is designed to help raise standards and put more consumer trust in safe, tested products.
ACS Laboratory is an ISO 17025-accredited and DEA-licensed cannabis testing company founded in 2008. Last year they were certified by the Florida Department of Health to perform cannabis testing for state-licensed cannabis companies. In addition, the company acquired Botanica Testing, Inc. in 2020, adding more than 500 hemp and CBD clients to their portfolio. They now perform hemp testing for clients in more than 44 states.
The “Tested Safe Certified Seal” program allows companies to adorn their products with the trademarked seal following testing, informing consumers that their product has met safety standards and a full panel of compliance tests. “Unlike a mandated QR code that links to a Certificate of Analysis (COA) with detailed test results, the Seal shows visual proof at a glance that consumers can trust a brand,” reads the press release.
The program is also endorsed by the American Cannabinoid Association (ACA). “It is exciting to see our industry legally providing cannabis and cannabis-derived products on a commercial scale,” says Matthew Guenther, founder of the ACA. “As with any consumer product, safety and quality control remain our absolute priority.”
To earn the seal, companies send their products to the ACS lab for a full panel of safety and potency tests. ACS has a scope of services that includes: potency testing for 21 cannabinoids, 38 terpene profiles, 42 residual solvents, screening for 105 pesticides, moisture content, water activity, microbiology panels, heavy metals screening, flavonoid testing for 16 profiles, micronutrient testing, mycotoxins, Vitamin E acetate, shelf life & stability, plant regulators (PGRS), PAH testing and Pharmacokinetic Studies (PK) aka human trials.
What is the role of the Quality Control (QC) Laboratory?
The Quality Control (QC) laboratory serves as one of the most critical functions in consumer product manufacturing. The QC laboratory has the final say on product release based on adherence to established product specifications. Specifications establish a set of criteria to which a product should conform to be considered acceptable for its intended use. Specifications are proposed, justified and approved as part of an overall strategy to ensure the quality, safety, and consistency of consumer products. Subsequently, the quality of consumer products is determined by design, development, Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) controls, product and process validations, and the specifications applied throughout product development and manufacturing. These specifications are specifically the validated test methods and procedures and the established acceptance criteria for product release and throughout shelf life/stability studies.
The Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR Part 211, Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals, provides the minimum requirements for the manufacture of safe products that are consumed by humans or animals. More specifically, 21 CFR Part 211: Subpart I-Laboratory Controls, outlines the requirements and expectations for the quality control laboratory and drug product testing. Additionally, 21 CFR Part 117, Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls states that appropriate QC operations must be implemented to ensure food products are safe for consumption and food packing materials and components are safe and fit for purpose. Both food and drug products must be tested against established specifications to verify quality and safety, and laboratory operations must have the appropriate processes and procedures to support and defend testing results.
ISO/IEC 17025, General Requirements for the Competence of Testing and Calibration Laboratories is used to develop and implement laboratory management systems. Originally known as ISO/IEC Guide 25, first released in 1978, ISO/IEC 17025 was created with the belief that “third party certification systems [for laboratories] should, to the extent possible, be based on internationally agreed standards and procedures”7. National accreditation bodies are responsible for accrediting laboratories to ISO/IEC 17025. Accreditation bodies are responsible for assessing the quality system and technical aspects of a laboratory’s Quality Management System (QMS) to determine compliance to the requirements of ISO/IEC 17025. ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is pursued by many laboratories as a way to set them apart from competitors. In some cannabis markets accreditation to the standard is mandatory.
The approach to ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation is typically summarizing the standard requirements through the use of a checklist. Documentation is requested and reviewed to determine if what is provided satisfies the item listed on the checklist, which correlate directly to the requirements of the standard. ISO/IEC 17025 covers the requirements for both testing and calibration laboratories. Due to the wide range of testing laboratories, the standard cannot and should not be overly specific on how a laboratory would meet defined requirements. The objective of any laboratory seeking accreditation is to demonstrate they have an established QMS. Equally as critical, for product testing laboratories in particular, is the objective to establish GxP, “good practices”, to ensure test methods and laboratory operations verify product safety and quality. ISO/IEC 17025 provides the baseline, but compliance to Good Laboratory Practice (GLP), Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and even Good Safety Practices (GSP) are essential for cannabis testing laboratories to be successful and demonstrate testing data is reliable and accurate.
Where ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation falls short
Adherence to ISO/IEC 17025, and subsequently receiving accreditation, is an excellent way to ensure laboratories have put forth the effort to establish a QMS. However, for product testing laboratories specifically there are a number of “gaps” within the standard and the accreditation process. Below are my “Top Five” that I believe have the greatest impact on a cannabis testing laboratory’s ability to maintain compliance and consistency, verify data integrity and robust testing methods, and ensure the safety of laboratory personnel.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)
The understanding of what qualifies as a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is often misunderstood by cannabis operators. An SOP is a stand-alone set of step-by-step instructions which allow workers to consistently carry out routine operations, and documented training on SOPs confirms an employee’s comprehension of their job tasks. Although not required per the current version of the standard, many laboratories develop a Quality Manual (QM). A QM defines an organization’s Quality Policy, Quality Objectives, QMS, and the procedures which support the QMS. It is not an uncommon practice for cannabis laboratories to use the QM as the repository for their “procedures”. The intent of a QM is to be a high-level operations policy document. The QM is NOT a step-by-step procedure, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Test Method Transfer (TMT)
Some cannabis laboratories develop their own test methods, but a common practice in many cannabis laboratories is to purchase equipment from vendors that provide “validated” test methods. Laboratories purchase equipment, install equipment with pre-loaded methods and jump in to testing products. There is no formal verification (what is known as a Test Method Transfer (TMT)) by the laboratory to demonstrate the method validated by the vendor on the vendor’s equipment, with the vendor’s technicians, using the vendor’s standards and reagents, performs the same and generates “valid” results when the method is run on their own equipment, with their own technician(s), and using their own standards and reagents. When discrepancies or variances in results are identified (most likely the result of an inadequate TMT), changes to test methods may be made with no justification or data to support the change, and the subsequent method becomes the “validated” method used for final release testing. The standard requires the laboratory to utilize “validated” methods. Most laboratories can easily provide documentation to meet that requirement. However, there is no verification that the process of either validating in house methods or transferring methods from a vendor were developed using any standard guidance on test method validation to confirm the methods are accurate, precise, robust and repeatable. Subsequently, there is no requirement to define, document, and justify changes to test methods. These requirements are mentioned in ISO/IEC 17025, Step 7.2.2, Validation of Methods, but they are written as “Notes” and not as actual necessities for accreditation acceptance.
The standard speaks to identifying “changes” in documents and authorizing changes made to software but the standard, and subsequently the accreditation criteria, is loose on the requirement of a Change Control process and procedure as part of the QMS. The laboratory is not offered any clear instruction of how to manage change control, including specific requirements for making changes to procedures and/or test methods, documented justification of those changes, and the identification of individuals authorized to approve those changes.
Out of Specification (OOS) results
The documentation and management of Out of Specification (OOS) testing results is perhaps one of the most critical liabilities witnessed for cannabis testing laboratories. The standard requires a procedure for “Nonconforming Work”. There is no mention of requiring a root cause investigation, no requirement to document actions, and most importantly there is no requirement to document a retesting plan, including justification for retesting. “Testing into compliance”, as this practice is commonly referred to, was ruled unacceptable by the FDA in the highly publicized 1993 court case United States vs. Barr Laboratories.
Safe laboratory practices are not addressed at all in ISO/IEC 17025. A “Culture of Safety” (as defined by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)) is lacking in most cannabis laboratories. Policies and procedures should be established to define required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the safe handling of hazardous materials and spills, and a posted evacuation plan in the event of an emergency. Gas chromatography (GC) is a common test method utilized in an analytical testing laboratory. GC instrumentation requires the use of compressed gas which is commonly supplied in gas cylinders. Proper handling, operation and storage of gas cylinders must be defined. A Preventative Maintenance (PM) schedule should be established for eye wash stations, safety showers and fire extinguishers. Finally, Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) should be printed and maintained as reference for laboratory personnel.
ISO/IEC 17025 accreditation provides an added level of trust, respect and confidence in the eyes of regulators and consumers. However, the current process of accreditation misses the mark on the establishment of GxP, “good practices” into laboratory operations. Based on my experience, there has been some leniency given to cannabis testing laboratories seeking accreditation as they are “new” to standards implementation. In my opinion, this is doing cannabis testing laboratories a disservice and setting them up for failure on future accreditations and potential regulatory inspections. It is essential to provide cannabis testing laboratory owners and operators the proper guidance from the beginning and hold them up to the same rigor and scrutiny as other consumer product testing laboratories. Setting the precedence up front drives uniformity, compliance and standardization into an industry that desperately needs it.
21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 211- Good Manufacturing Practice for Finished Pharmaceuticals.
21 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 117;Current Good Manufacturing Practice, Hazard Analysis, and Risk-Based Preventative Controls for Human Food: Subpart B-Processes and Controls.
ICH Q7 Good Manufacturing Practice Guidance for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients; Laboratory Controls.
World Health Organization (WHO).
International Building Code (IBC).
International Fire Code (IFC).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
Occupational Safety and Health Administration; Laboratories.
ASTM D8244-21; Standard Guide for Analytical Operations Supporting the Cannabis/Hemp Industry.
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.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. 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 navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Maggie’s Farm is an integrated cannabis company based in Southern Colorado. Maggie’s Farm has seven adult-use and medical dispensaries and cultivates the vast majority of their flower on outdoor farms. All Maggie’s Farm products are sun-grown from seed in soil that is 100% custom-mixed onsite as well as spring-watered, slow-cured and hand-trimmed. Maggie’s Farm does not use any synthetic pesticides or growth hormones in its cultivation. In addition, for the past eight years, Maggie’s Farm has recently obtained Clean Green Certified®, a designation certifying organic standards and testing that mirrors the USDA organic certification. Maggie’s Farm was the first cultivator in Colorado to earn the Clean Green certification.
We spoke with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm to learn more about the benefits of outdoor growing, localism and their Clean Green certification. Bill started Maggie’s Farm in 2010 after growing up on cattle ranches and farms in Colorado.
Aaron Green: Bill, thanks for taking the time today. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Bill Conkling: I am a native of southern Colorado. I was a medical caregiver back in the early days of legalization, and I saw an opportunity to vertically align after my first legal crop in 2010. I opened up the store in 2011. I’ve been a lifelong proponent of medical, recreational and adult use of marijuana.
I come from a background of farmers and I had worked on cattle ranches and farms throughout childhood. As soon as I graduated from college, I went back to work on a large cattle ranch in the four corners area [of southern Colorado]. That’s where I started to incorporate my indoor cultivation experience and skills with outdoor.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Bill: I was one of the first medical operators to support legalization, so I have certainly followed legalization trends. I’ve looked at some other states in our region in terms of growth and legalization.
We’re trying to stay a regional supplier and producer so that we are locally grown. We believe the southwest of Colorado is optimal for outdoor cannabis cultivation.
At Maggie’s Farm, we have followed an organic trend from the beginning and I think that’s becoming more of a trend now. We recently received Clean Green certification to that effect. Our goal is to try to provide the healthiest product at a good value to the market.
I believe that all of the products that are made in the cannabis world come from the flower. Downstream products are only as good as their ingredients. It all starts with the flower. So, we focus on producing a clean, top-shelf quality flower that is produced outdoors.
Aaron: How do you define local?
Bill: Local is staying in the climate that is optimal with the least amount of carbon footprint to the earth. That also means trying to operate so that we’re not moving a lot of product across long distances.
We’re trying to set up farms that are in optimal climates. There is a two or three-state region that I believe is the optimal climate for outdoor marijuana cultivation in our country.
Aaron: What states are those specifically?
Bill: I think Colorado and New Mexico, primarily.
Aaron: What geographies is Maggie’s farm currently in?
Bill: We’re in southern Colorado. We don’t go into the plains of Colorado.
Aaron: So Colorado state only right now?
Bill: Yes. The wet mountain range is one of the mountain ranges that we are in. I’ve also cultivated in the La Plata mountain range.
Aaron: What specifically is it about that region that makes it conducive to cannabis growing?
Bill: I think if you get the right elevation and the right microclimates within those elevations, and you have the number of sunny days that Colorado offers in those areas – the intensity of the sunlight, and the cool nights – all those things are factors that coincide in these areas that we like to cultivate in.
Aaron: We’ve been talking about outdoor growth. Does Maggie’s do any indoor?
Bill: No. We’re essentially an outdoor farm. We do a little bit of breeding and we’ve got starter houses, greenhouses and hoop houses for that purpose. We’ve got one greenhouse that we use for some wholesale, but we are primarily outdoors.
Aaron: How do you go about selecting the genetics or evolving the genetics to meet your local environment, given that you’re growing outdoors?
Bill: A lot of it is honestly through testing and experimentation, historically. You just cultivate and harvest and see how the genetics performed, you know? You test, you take test inputs, you take customer reviews, and blind test results from the team and from the customers and you consider all those facts.
Aaron: Do you produce and use your own seeds or are you purchasing those?
Bill: We have done both. I think I’ve probably created somewhere north of 800 different strains at this point. So, we’ve got a huge seed bank. We do also buy from vendors and experiment with some of those genetics as well.
Aaron: Do you market your seeds in Colorado?“I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors.”
Bill: We do not.
Aaron: How did you settle on outdoor-only as the strategy for Maggie’s?
Bill: I believe outdoor is a premium flower. I think it has less impact on the earth. I think that there is a lot less pest mitigation than there is indoors, which makes it a healthier, cleaner product. You don’t have to mitigate the concentration of pests that you get in temperate climates of stagnant corners of greenhouses and buildings that you cultivate indoors. Therefore, you never get into the situations as often or as intensely, where you might have to really work hard at mitigating your pests. You can use the natural predator insects you can introduce and oftentimes they survive and they create their own climates and it’s a more natural, healthier product.
I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors. You just don’t have the value of the sun, which nothing compares to. You can hold up as many high wattage bulbs as you want and you don’t even pale to the sun and the effect that the sun has on the flower.
Aaron: What are some of the challenges of growing outdoors that you see frequently?
Bill: You have to be nimble. You can’t rely completely on a schedule. You’ve got to be able to shift around in your planting days and your harvest dates.
You’ve obviously got to be on your toes all the time for weather changes. Higher humidity years can tend to bring more insects or pests. Some years you’ve got higher winds than other years. This year, we had a snowstorm on September 9, which left nine inches of heavy wet snow on one of our farms. So, you’ve got to be nimble, very proactive and ready for those kinds of weather events that happen in very short notice.
Aaron: We mentioned Clean Green Certified® briefly. Can you explain more about the Clean Green certification and why that’s an important thing for you at Maggie’s?
Bill: The choice to become Clean Green Certified® was really an effort to validate the organic process that we have. We vetted out what we believe was and still is the premier, organic criteria certification endorsement in the market for cannabis. To this day, they really do an ethical, vetting-out process whereby if you fail the parts of any of the soils that are sent to federal-licensed labs, you do not get your endorsement. The owner of Clean Green also had a mother company that was an endorser of other agricultural products such as coffee, wheat and dairy.
Aaron: How would you compare Clean Green Certified® to USDA Organic?
Bill: Identical. When the federal government legalizes, we are poised to automatically convert to a USDA Organic certification and endorsement. The processes the founder and owner of Clean Green uses to test cannabis is the same process used to test other agricultural industries. For plants, he takes random samples of soils throughout a cultivation field and sends them to a federal-licensed lab where they test for impurities.
Aaron: Did you decide to get your Clean Green certification due to pulling from the market, or is this more something you decided to do internally as Maggie’s Farm?
Bill: I decided to do this internally. I wanted to be recognized for all of our organic efforts and I wanted to let people know that we have a safe product that doesn’t have synthetics in it. Even to this day, a lot of people in Colorado unlike the coastal states like maybe California are still pretty unaware of a Clean Green certification or even the fact that there is an organic process for cannabis or marijuana. So, it’s really just to let our customers know that there is value in a safe, healthy choice for them.
Aaron: What kind of products do you create at Maggie’s farm?
Bill: We grow flower. We are also a big producer of a very high-quality pre-roll. We are developing promoted products as well.
Aaron: Do you do fresh frozen?
Bill: We do some, yes.
Aaron: Are you selling direct to the dispensary or to manufacturers?
Bill: We finally had produced some excess. So, we started wholesaling flower this year and lots of high-quality shake for concentrates to concentrate makers. Our customer is typically a little more of a mature customer. I don’t want to say necessarily older, but I think we probably do hit a little bit of a higher, more experienced, health-conscious, connoisseur customer.
Aaron: Can you give me an idea of some of the regulatory challenges in Colorado that you’ve faced in the past or are facing today?
Bill: The perpetual change of regulation has been a challenge. Being a competent operator in cannabis means getting used to the change and having the resources to be nimble with compliance. We haven’t had common problems such as metals, mold or mildew issues. However, we have had some hardware issues, which required us to change cameras along with other technical intricacies.
Aaron: How many acres do you have?
Bill: We have about 30 acres of secured premise cultivation.
Aaron: Is that all managed in-house or sublet?
Bill: It’s all managed and operated exclusively by Maggie’s Farm.
Aaron: What’s next for Maggie’s Farm? What are you excited about?
Bill: We want to continue to put a higher scale of a very healthy, quality, value flower out there and to be able to offer that to more states initially states that are within our region and eventually states across the US. Also, we will continue to do our best to meet the growing demand for healthier choices in general.
Aaron: Lastly, what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Bill: How we can continue to be as earth-conscious as we can be? How we can continue to look for ways to give back to our communities? How we can continue to operate as a view of made in the USA and to try to just support local regional and national products and vendors? Just how to be more aware and always look for opportunities for self-improvement.
Aaron: That concludes the interview, thank you Bill!
The hemp industry is rapidly growing, but it’s no secret that it suffers from a major legitimacy problem. When manufacturers choose to certify their products and processes under a third-party agency, such as the USDA, it is a way for those companies to gain credibility with new customers.
The USDA’s organic certification program is a great way to increase transparency and trust with both ingredients and processes used within the hemp industry. Organic certification is a rigorous audit program to review both manufacturing facility design and production process plans with the ultimate goal of increasing supply chain sustainability.
Investing in organic certification is a smart business decision – especially in today’s competitive CBD market. A recent Bloomberg report has shown that COVID-19 has actually accelerated organic food sales in the US due to increased demand for health-conscious foods and drinks. “Sales of organic food and drinks surged 25% during the 17-week period ended June 27,” according to Nielsen Data.
Organic certification is one way to differentiate between the thousands of seemingly identical CBD products being sold in the marketplace today. From a consumer perspective, organic certification provides both supply chain transparency and increases confidence with brands and products they already love. It also provides a form of quality assurance to skeptical consumers, especially those who avidly read product labels prior to making a purchasing decision. Members of this “label reader” demographic will consistently choose organic products for the quality and transparency it provides with pure and natural ingredients.
Not only does certification support ethical practices, it’s also good for business. According to the USDA, “Food labeling can be confusing and misleading, which is why certified organic is an important choice for consumers. Consumers are willing to pay a premium for food that carries the USDA organic seal, or that contains organic ingredients.”
Organic farming and production processes significantly contribute to increasing sustainability within the CBD industry. In general, organic farming is a growing practice for farmers across the US. According to the Pew Research Center, “There were more than 14,000 certified organic farms in the United States in 2016, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This represents a 56% increase from 2011, the earliest comparable year.” The USDA has found that organic production practices can improve water quality, conserve energy, increase biodiversity and contribute to soil health. In terms of organic farming, soil ecology and water quality are both protected by farmers committing to working within regulated guidelines.
Organic certification ensures transparency and trust with a consumer-friendly approach to ingredient products. This comes on the heels of research showing that the CBD market lacks credibility. Organic CBD should be the next step all brands should take to ensure they’re adapting to changing consumer preferences.
The South African government has taken a leap into the future (ahead also of the expected World Health Organization (WHO) decision on cannabis this December). Namely, it has begun to regulate hemp (more in line with Europe intriguingly, than the U.S.) and attempted to remove the THC part of the equation from a domestic list of plants and drugs with no medical use.
The notice was signed by South African Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize and published a week after a domestic moratorium on CBD expired. The moratorium permitted the sale of some kinds of CBD products.
This is an intriguing new development, although it will also undoubtedly cause headaches for the burgeoning industry in the region.
On The CBD Front…
South Africa’s new hemp guidelines – namely for the amount of THC allowed in legit hemp crops that are also regulated – are that plants contain no more than 0.2% THC. This makes the guidelines absolutely in line with what is generally developing across the EU. And even more intriguingly, below federal guidelines for most U.S. domestic hemp crops (which are 0.3% at a federal level and only differ in a few state cases where the amount is lower by state law).
However, there is also a unique twist to all of this: The South African government has now created a two-pronged regulatory schemata just for CBD. The default approach to the cannabinoid is that it is in fact medication, scheduled under South African internal and global drug guidelines as a “Schedule 4” drug.
The other designation is reserved for CBD packaged in sizes of 600mg or less (and limited by instructions to no more than 20mg a day). This kind of CBD (despite the dubious understanding of cannabinoid science) will henceforth be labelled a “supplement” and on “Schedule 0”.
However, do not be fooled: This is not “descheduling.” This actually means that all CBD has been classified as a medical substance except in packets that are under a certain size, with portion suggestions on the outside of the wrapper or package.
That is hardly scientific. However, what is more burdensome is that any CBD cultivator in South Africa must also be GMP- (or internationally medically) certified (even if bound for the supplement market). By definition, in other words, it will make the cost of production for the supplement (commercial, food and cosmetic) part of the equation as expensive as pharmaceutical production. While from a purist’s point of view, having ultra clean cannabis in any product (at the level of pharmaceutical standards) is a wonderful idea, but this gets ridiculous when it comes to reality, and will ultimately never stand.
This development is also undeniably inconvenient (at minimum) for any who had envisioned outdoor hempires, which most of the cannabis grown in South Africa is. The only people who have the money to build indoor grows, starting with GMP certified greenhouses, are, for the most part, white people, foreigners or those who own property and have access to external, international equity.
The sins of Apartheid, in other words, are being writ large on the entire cannabis industry at present in South Africa. And CBD is contained right in the middle of the mix.
On The THC Front…
There are several interesting aspects to this.
The first is that THC has been removed from the South African “Schedule 7” which is roughly equivalent to the international “Schedule I” that cannabis also resides in until the WHO re- or deschedules the same.
However, this also means that all CBD as well as THC must be produced by those with pharmaceutical-grade facilities – and this of course includes more than just indoor, temperature-controlled greenhouses. It also includes a complex supply chain that is European and Western centric, starting with the requirement to access a rather large amount of capital to construct the same.
Global Re-Alignment Or Stopgap Measure?
This new regulation, in other words, specifically leaves the vast majority of what has already been seeded, or what is most likely to be, in the hands of a few Canadian and other companies who have been moving in this direction for the last several years.
It also implies, intriguingly, that the intra-African cannabis market is low priority at present for those writing the (health) rules. And that also means that eyes are being set more on creating an export market than for treating South African citizens.
It is not an unusual move, rather tragically so far. And almost certainly one that will be challenged, and in several directions, both by events, but also by firms caught up in the mix.
Why? For starters, the South African cannabis market also effectively controls the Lesotho cannabis regulatory scheme (namely all exports from Lesotho, which has seen quite a lot of cannabis investment over the last several years). All such crops must be labelled per South African guidelines if they, literally, can hit a port to be exported.
The vast majority of those grows, even with relatively decent foreign backing, are also outside – and of course as a result ineligible for GMP certification.
Of course given the fact that the UN is likely to clarify both the status of THC and CBD by the end of the year, this current situation in South Africa is also fairly clearly intended to be a stop-gap regulatory measure to last up until at least this time.
Where it may go after that is anyone’s guess. This measure, however, is also clearly being made to protect those who have invested in GMP-grade facilities as opposed to those who have been clearly angling for reform on the CBD front, starting with the beer market. Stay tuned. Interesting developments clearly ahead.
In this article you will learn how to control pests and improve the health of your cannabis plants using integrated pest management, commonly referred to as IPM. This involves a multi-point strategy – there is no quick fix, nor is there one solution that will wipe out all your pest problems. Proper pest management requires patience, consistency and determination.
It is important to understand that not all pesticides are bad. While many are incredibly harmful not only to pests, but also humans, in this article I will educate you about some of the safer alternatives to traditional pesticides. It is possible to safely control unwanted pests in your cannabis garden without harming yourself, your employees or the natural habitat around you.
Every cultivation facility should have a well-thought-out plan for their pest management program. This program should account for the prevention, and if necessary, eradication of: spider mites, russet mites, fungus gnats, root aphids, thrips and caterpillars. These are just a few of the more common pests you’ll find in a cannabis garden. There could also be many other less commonly known bugs, so you have to be vigilant in looking closely at your plants, and the soil, at all times. Complete eradication of a targeted pest can be difficult. Once a pest has established itself, decimating or decreasing the population will require an aggressive regimen that includes spraying daily to control populations and prevent other pests from getting established.
Spraying or applying pesticides to the foliage of plants isn’t the only way to control or eradicate pest populations. There are many other ways that you can minimize the spread of pests without the use of pesticides. In greenhouse and outdoor grows, growing specific types of plants around the cultivation area will attract both beneficial and predator bugs that will naturally control pest populations. Some plants that attract these bugs are: mint, peppers, and marigold. Beneficial and predator bugs, such as ladybugs, predator wasps and predator mites, can control unwanted pest populations in the area before they even have a chance to become a problem in your garden. Plants and flowers that attract bees, birds and insects will also create helpful bio- diversity, making it more difficult for the unwanted pests to thrive.
For indoor cultivation, it is imperative that you have your cultivation facility set up for a proper workflow. If you already have pests, you need to make sure you are not contaminating the rest of your facility when going from one area to the next. Make sure that you only go to contaminated areas at the very end of your day, and when you’re done working in that area, you must immediately exit the building. Do not ever walk back through the uncontaminated parts of your facility or the pests will spread quickly.
When most people think of pests in their cannabis garden they think of the more common varieties: spider mites, russet mites, aphids and thrips. However, there are also soil-dwelling pests that can exist, without your knowledge. These will decrease the health and vigor of your plants, without you even knowing they’re there, if you’re not careful to check for them. Some of the soil dwelling pests that plague cannabis plants are: root aphids, fungus gnat larvae and grubs. It is just as important to control the pests below the soil, feeding on your roots, as it is to control the pests that feed above soil on your plants.
Maintaining healthy plants is essential to controlling pest populations, both on the foliage and below the soil. Healthy plants will have an easier time fighting off pests than unhealthy plants. Plants have immune systems just like humans, and the stronger the plant’s immune system, the more likely it will be able to ward off pests and diseases. Allowing a plant to reach its full potential, by minimizing pests, means your plants will also have a better quality, smell and flavor, not to mention a bigger yield.
Worker Safety, Regulation and REI times
The application of pesticides requires certification from the state agricultural department. In certain situations, depending on the type of pesticide and method of application, a license may even be required. The application of pesticides without proper certification is against the law. Applying pesticides in a manner that is not in accordance with the label and instructions is also a violation of law.
The proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is required for anybody handling, mixing or applying pesticides. Employees can be a liability to your company if they are applying pesticides improperly. Make sure you and your entire staff are well educated about pesticide use requirements and limitations, prior to usage, and that only a properly certified person is handling the mixing and application at your facility.
After a pesticide is applied, you must abide by the re-entry interval (REI). This is the required time period limiting all workers from re-entry into areas where pesticides have been applied. This time period will vary depending on the type of pesticide used and the method of application. In some instances, pesticides applied in the last 30 days may require employee training before work can be done in those areas.
The misuse of or improper handling of pesticides is not only unlawful and dangerous to human health, but can also cause environmental damage to waterways and wildlife. The direct effects of pesticides on wildlife include acute poisoning, immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive failure, altered morphology and growth rates and changes in behavior. Pesticides can indirectly impact wildlife through reduction of food resources and refuses, starvation due to decreased prey availability, hypothermia and secondary poisoning. Section 1602 of the California Fish and Game Code governs requirements for permitting of any project where pesticides will be used, and strictly regulates the disposal of all waste and run-off. It is imperative to know the regulations and to abide by them, or heavy fines will ensue!
Using Pesticides in a Regulated Market
Knowing which pesticides you can’t use, to avoid failing mandatory state testing, is just as important as knowing which ones you can use safely to pass required testing. Most states with regulated markets have strict limitations on the pesticides that can be used in cannabis cultivation. Pesticide use in the cultivation of cannabis is the most strictly regulated in the agriculture industry; the pesticides allowed for use in cannabis cultivation are far more limited than any other crop.
Just because a product is certified organic does not mean that it can be used, or that it is safe to be consumed or ingested. Oftentimes when cannabis flower alone is tested it will not fail or show a detectable amount of pesticides or heavy metals. However, when that flower is turned into concentrates, banned substances are then detected in testing, leading to test failures.
Cannabis cultivation facilities that are located on land that was previously used for conventional agriculture, or located near vineyards or other agricultural crops that are heavily sprayed with harmful pesticides, run a very high-risk failing testing. This is because of either spray drift from nearby agriculture, or residual pesticides and heavy metals left in the soil from previous crops that were using pesticides banned for cannabis cultivation. Accordingly, if you’re going to be growing outdoors or in a greenhouse, it is imperative that you get a soil and water test prior to cultivation, so you can determine if there is any potential for test failures due to pesticides or heavy metals in the soil or water in that area.
Proper Application – Using the Right Tools in the Right Way at the Right Time
One of the most important factors in pest management is proper identification of pests and proper application and coverage of pesticides. It does not require an entomology degree to identify insects, these days there is a lot of information online that can help you identify cannabis pests. Proper identification of insects can make the difference between success and failure. With a good eye and a microscope, if you do your research, you can control most insects in your garden.
In order to control pests in your garden you must get proper coverage of the foliage of the plant when you are applying pesticides. There are different types of equipment that are commonly used to apply pesticides in cannabis cultivation: backpack sprayers, foggers, and airless paint sprayers are the most common. An alternative method involves using an automated dosing system such as a dosatron, which injects fertilizer or pesticides at a specific ratio into your water lines, allowing you to use only the exact amount of pesticide you need. That way you avoid wasting money on unused pesticides. It is also safer for employees because it minimizes employee exposure, since there is no mixing required, and it allows for a large volume to be sprayed, without refilling a tank or a backpack sprayer.
No matter what you are using you must ensure you get the proper coverage on your plants in order to control pests. The temperature and humidity of your cultivation area, as well as the PH and temperature of the pesticide solution, all factor into the success of your IPM. For example, PFR 97 needs to be applied at a higher humidity range, around 70% to be most effective. In some areas this is not possible so repeated applications may be required to ensure the application is effective. A high PH or alkaline PH can cause alkaline hydrolysis which will make your pesticide solution less effective and will dictate how long your pesticides remain effective after they are mixed. It is therefore important to use your pesticide solution as soon as you make it; don’t let it sit around for long periods of time before use or it will be less effective.
In cannabis cultivation there are two different primary growth cycles: vegetative and flower. These cycles require different IPM strategies. In general, during the flowering cycle, pesticides should not be applied after the second week, with some limited exceptions i.e. for outdoor cultivation there is a longer window to spray since the flower set takes longer than a plant being grown inside, or in a light deprivation greenhouse, where there is a 12/12 flowering cycle.
For the vegetative (non-flowering) cycle, a strict rotation of foliage spray applications targeting not only pests, but also molds and pathogens, will be necessary to avoid a quick onset of infestation. Starting with an immaculate vegetation room is crucial to maintaining pest and mold free plants in the flowering cycle. Preventative sprays that are safe for use include: safer soap (contact kill) for soft bodied chewing insects; Regalia (biological control) for powdery mildew; and PFR 97 (biological control) for soft bodied chewing insects. It is also helpful to spray kelp, which strengthens the cell walls of plants, making the plant healthier, and thus enabling the plant to better defend itself from pests and diseases. Also, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is useful to prevent or kill caterpillars.
The best way to control a pest infestation in the flowering cycle is at the very beginning on day one. You must start aggressively, with a three-way control consisting of a contact kill and preventative during days 1-14; preventative and biological control during days 10-18; and then release predator bugs on day 25, for optimal results. Knocking back the population with an effective contact kill pesticide early on is essential to ultimately lowering populations throughout the grow cycle, so that you can spray a biological control to preclude them from returning, before you release the predatory bugs at the end of the cycle.
Biological controls can take anywhere from 3 to 10 days before they are effective. Biological pesticides are selected strains of bacteria or fungus. When the plant tissue is eaten by a targeted pest, the bacteria kills the pest from the inside providing control without having to spray pesticides repeatedly. Predator bugs are the last line of defense, used in late flowering. They can be used indoors, outdoors and in greenhouses. An example of a common predator bug is Amblyseius californicus used to control low populations of spider mites, but there are many different varieties and they are specific depending on the type of pest population you seek to control.
A common concern with the use of predatory bugs, is whether they will be present when the flowers are harvested. However, if there is no food for the bugs (i.e. pests) the predator bugs will leave in search of food elsewhere. Further, indoor predator bugs are usually very small in size and difficult to see to an untrained eye. It is very unlikely to see any signs of predator bugs near the end of the flowering cycle, or in the finished flower product. Even when using bigger predator bugs, the bugs will leave the plants when harvested and dried.
Having pests can be very stressful. It is not uncommon to have bugs, pests, rodents, animals and birds cause damage in cannabis gardens. Making an informed decision based on science and not on unproven assumptions can determine how successful you are at pest management. There are many factors that go into pest management and no one situation is the same. You must be dedicated and consistent; pest management never stops. You will always have something ready to invade your garden. Prepare, plan, prevent and repeat!
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