By Jill Ellsworth MS, RDN, Tess Eidem, Ph.D. No Comments
As an emerging field in cannabis, contaminant testing remains a gray area for many businesses. The vast differences in state-by-state regulations, along with the frequent changes of previously established rules make testing a difficult, time-consuming process. But at its core, the science and reasoning behind why we test cannabis is very clear – consumer safety and quality assurance are key factors in any legal, consumer market. The implications of federal legalization make cannabis testing even more important to the future of the cannabis supply chain. Understanding the types of contaminants, their sources and how to prevent them is essential to avoiding failures, recalls and risking consumer safety.
When talking about cannabis contaminant testing there are four groups of contaminants: pesticides, heavy metals, foreign materials and microbes. The microbes found on cannabis include plant pathogens, post-harvest spoiling microbes, allergens, toxin release and human pathogens. While all of these can be lurking on the surface of cannabis, the specific types that are tested for in each state vary widely. Understanding the full scope of contaminants and looking beyond state-specific compliance requirements, cultivators will be able to prevent these detrimental risks and prepare their business for the future.
Beyond just the health of the plant, both medical patients and adult use consumers can be adversely affected by microbial contaminants. To immunocompromised patients, Aspergillus can be life-threatening and both adult use and medical consumers are susceptible to allergic reactions to moldy flower. But Aspergillus is just one of the many contaminants that are invisible to the human eye and can live on the plant’s surface. Several states have intensive testing regulations when it comes to the full breadth of possible harmful contaminants. Nevada, for example, has strict microbial testing requirements and, in addition to Aspergillus, the state tests for Salmonella, STEC, Enterobacteriaceae, coliforms and total yeast and mold. Over 15 states test for total yeast and mold and the thresholds vary from allowing less than 100,000 colony forming units to allowing less than 1,000 colony forming units. These microbes are not uncommon appearances on cannabis – in fact, they are ever-present – so understanding them as a whole, beyond regulatory standards is a certain way to future-proof a business. With such vast differences in accepted levels of contamination per state, the best preparation for the future and regulations coming down the pipeline is understanding contamination, addressing it at its source and harvesting disease-free cannabis.
The risk of contamination is present at every stage of the cultivation process and encompasses agricultural practices, manufacturing processes and their intersection. From cultivation to manufacturing, there are factors that can introduce contamination throughout the supply chain. A quality control infrastructure should be employed in a facility and checkpoints within the process to ensure aseptic operations.
Cultivators should test their raw materials, including growing substrates and nutrient water to ensure it is free of microbial contamination. Air quality plays an important role in the cultivation and post-harvest processes, especially with mold contamination. Environmental controls are essential to monitor and regulate temperature and humidity and ensure unwanted microbes cannot thrive and decrease the value of the product or make it unsafe for worker handling or consumers. Developing SOPs to validate contact surfaces are clean, using proper PPE and optimizing worker flow can all help to prevent cross-contamination and are part of larger quality assurance measures to prevent microbes from spreading across cultivars and harvests.
Methods of microbial examination include air quality surveillance, ATP surface and water monitoring, raw materials testing, and species identification. Keeping control of the environment that product is coming into contact with and employing best practices throughout will minimize the amount of contamination that is present before testing. The solution to avoiding worst case scenarios following an aseptic, quality controlled process is utilizing a safe, post-harvest kill-step, much like the methods used in the food and beverage industries with the oversight of the FDA.
The goal of the grower should be to grow clean and stay clean throughout the shelf life of the product. In order to do this, it is essential to understand the critical control points within the cultivation and post-harvest processes and implement proper kill-steps. However, if a product is heavily bio-burdened, there are methods to recover contaminated product including decontamination, remediation and destroying the product. These measures come with their own strengths and weaknesses and cannot replace the quality assurance programs developed by the manufacturer.
Dalwhinnie Enterprises is a cannabis brand that started in Ridgeway, Colorado. Based in the San Juan Mountains in Western Colorado, the company includes brands like Dalwhinnie Farms Cannabis, Shift Cannabis, Ridgway Hemp Company and the Dalwhinnie Farms Boutique in Aspen, Colorado.
Brandon Barksdale has about a decade of experience in cannabis. He has worked for small startups and large multi-state operators. Most recently, he has worked with CohnReznick’s Advisory Practice. At CohnReznick, he worked alongside the Dalwhinnie team, helping them launch their boutique in Aspen. Since joining the team as their new CEO, Barksdale has shifted his focus to expansion, scalability and operational excellence, using things like GMPs and other certifications to improve quality and consistency.
We caught up with Barksdale to learn about his experience, his new role, entrepreneurship, social equity and what it means to be a minority leader in the cannabis space.
Cannabis Industry Journal: You have an impressive background before joining the cannabis industry full time. What made you take the leap into this space? Tell us about your background.
Brandon Barksdale: The majority of my background is driven around transforming businesses cross functionally, specifically in operations and finance. When it comes to the cannabis industry, it still lacks maturity; so being able to apply key performance indicators, benchmarking, controls and analytics can drive the industry, and more specifically, our organization, to operational excellence.
While I was in the professional service space, I was an advisory leader within our cannabis industry group. I was able to be involved and work with organizations at differing levels of maturity, guiding corporate strategy and functional and operational improvement before fully jumping in to lead this organization. Dalwhinnie was the perfect opportunity to use my previous experience to instill value to the company as it continues to scale and grow.
CIJ: With a such a big portfolio of cannabis clients, why leave all that behind to take the reins at Dalwhinnie?
Barksdale: Simply put, I was eager to roll up my sleeves and drive a single organization through its growth lifecycle. When you’re working with and cycling through multiple clients, you’re supporting them from a strategic perspective and providing value and direction but the execution is left to the operational teams internally to follow through. No matter how detailed the plan or deeply you are involved you are still third-party. During scope changes and ramping up and down there’s always some momentum that gets lost. I want to focus on one company, to really tie myself to its DNA, so that I can better be in the driving seat toward success and operational excellence.
Dalwhinnie stands out because of their unwavering focus on quality and the integrity of the brand. To that end, I want everyone within the organization to succeed and to nurture a healthy company ecosystem that allows for professional development, training and being an industry leader. We have a really big opportunity here to set the standard for what quality looks like going forward and what it means to really care about the product that you’re putting out into the marketplace.
CIJ: Dalwhinnie Farms has a cool location in Ridgway, Colorado at the base of the San Juan Mountains and sustained by the snowmelt from the Uncompahgre River. How does this make Dalwhinnie cannabis different?
Barksdale: There is no doubt that growing at a high elevation with different seasonalities is a challenge. However, every region on Earth presents its own benefits and challenges as it relates to cultivation. You can use the comparison to different regions of wines. Wine from Bordeaux and wine from Napa are going to have different profiles because of all the unique factors of climate, water, humidity, aging practices, etc.
This is one of the things that will make the future of cannabis very interesting. There are multiple elements and variables that help tell the story of the product through its experience of growth. Just like there are tons of wine regions and varietals, there are hundreds of cannabis strains and exponentially more crosses where one can discuss multiple facets of what makes that particular product unique. It is one of the things that will continue to evolve in the cannabis market and one of the most exciting components—knowing that we are still on the way to creating a unique and original marketplace!
CIJ: The Dalwhinnie Farms retail store in Aspen is a unique cannabis dispensary. What is the retail strategy moving forward?
Barskdale: Every cannabis wholesaler, and most markets, are feeling the pressure of price volatility and retail is one of the best-known ways to help stabilize an organization. Our strategy is to stay as nimble and creative as we can, focusing on continuing to build out the success of our flagship Aspen dispensary as well as partnering and entertaining retail expansion opportunities. Our strategy is not to ignore that fact, but to act as perceptively as we can to broaden our retail footprint.
CIJ: Tell us about your short-term goals for Dalwhinnie.
Barksdale: When I came onboard with Dalwhinnie, I hit the ground running. I had some history with Dalwhinnie and the family of companies so I was lucky to have a head start and insight toward necessary changes. Short term goals included attention to production expansion initiatives, operational changes that moved us closer to excellence, and fine-tuning our GMPs. My eye is also focused on company culture, performance management, and constantly pushing the envelope on quality. While always of importance, we want to continue as a pioneer on cultivation and manufacturing standards as it relates to quality in organics.
CIJ: And what are your long-term goals for the company?
Barksdale: Mentioned as a short-term goal, I want to move toward GMP and GACP manufacturing standards and create a continual cycle of improvement as we move through our expansion and growth plans. In the future, multi-state operations and partnerships are also a big part of our strategic direction. We aim to continue to provide an elevated cannabis retail experience at our flagship location and to expand our retail footprint in the marketplace.
CIJ: There’s been a focus on racial disparities in the cannabis space and the need to improve social equity and opportunities for minorities. How do you hope to support equity and help drive change?
Barksdale: We are at a turning point in the industry where substances are becoming legal, yet so many people are still suffering from nonviolent, non-serious offenses related to cannabis. It is unavoidably apparent and it is something that deserves significant attention and commitment. Every company that is operating in this space should take a level of responsibility to help address or support reparations in some fashion whether that be through jobs, access, and/or partnerships.
There should be an obligation to support some type of social equity improvement project as it relates to the cannabis industry. Some legacy states and now new states coming online, are attempting to course correct by making it a part of the compliance or access components for licenses.
There is still a lot of work to be done. I am working through the strategies that work for us as a company. I am actively exploring how to incorporate opportunities into our operating and business model.
As a women-owned company and myself being a minority leader, it is on the forefront of our priority list to come up with a comprehensive plan and commitment to supporting social and equities in this space.
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!
A number of laws have gone into effect in 2021 which may have a major impact on cannabis industry employers; clearly understanding the changing legal landscape is essential to avoid and limit potential liability in the new year and beyond. Below is a brief summary of some relevant new employment laws in cannabis friendly states:
Expansion of family and medical leave: California has long required employers to provide job protected medical and family leave if an employee worked at a jobsite with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius.
Senate Bill 1383 now requires all employers with five or more employees to provide up to twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees to bond with a new child or to care for themselves or a family member suffering from a serious health condition. To be eligible for the leave, an employee must have at least 12 months of service with the employer and have performed at least 1,250 hours of work in the previous 12-month period. While on leave, employees are entitled to continue to participate in an employer’s health insurance plan and to return to their job or a comparable position at the conclusion of their job-protected leave. Previously exempt small employers should be aware of these obligations moving forward.
Employer Pay Reporting Requirements: Under Senate Bill 973, employers with 100 or more employees that are required to file an annual Employer Information Report, colloquially known as the EEO-1 report, must submit annual information on its employees’ pay data to the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). The report must include the number of the employer’s employees by race, ethnicity and sex in specific job categories and pay ranges and their associated work hours and earnings.
The first report is due on March 31, 2021, and the DFEH has prepared an online portal to assist employers in submitting this information. These reports can be complex and address highly sensitive information, so employers are strongly advised to contact counsel for assistance in preparing and submitting their first report.
Increased pay requirements: Washington’s inflation-based minimum wage system has increased the minimum wage to $13.69 per hour in 2021. Employers with 50 or fewer employees must also pay salaried employees at least $827 per week (or $43,004 per year) and employers with more than 50 employees must pay at least $965 per week (or $50,180 per year) starting January 1st.
Equal Pay for Equal Work Act: Beginning in 2021, all employers with at least one employee must: (1) provide formal notice to Colorado employees of promotional opportunities; and (2) disclose pay rates or ranges in job postings that could be performed in Colorado (this includes virtual or remote work positions).
The Equal Pay for Equal Work Act generally requires employers to take reasonable efforts to promptly announce, post, or otherwise communicate all opportunities to all current employees prior to making a promotion decision. An employer must communicate promotional opportunities when it has or anticipates a vacancy or a new position that could be considered a promotion for current employees in light of pay, benefits, status, duties or further potential promotions.
Under the law, job postings must also include: (1) the rate of pay or pay range for the position; (2) a general description of bonuses, commissions or other forms of compensation offered with the job; and (3) a description of the employment benefits associated with the position.
Cannabis industry employers face a range of new laws, even absent the continued legal burden of managing employees during the COVID 19 pandemic. Employers should consider carefully reviewing all applicable laws and seeking guidance from counsel when needed.
Yesterday, the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division issued a bulletin unveiling their universal symbol for all cannabis products. According to the bulletin, the State Licensing Authority adopts the universal symbol for all packaging, labeling and on-product marking for medical and recreational cannabis products, effective immediately.
“The State Licensing Authority’s adoption of a Single Universal Symbol is intended to further protect public health and safety by enhancing consumers’ ability to identify products containing marijuana,” reads the bulletin, signed by James Burack, director of the Marijuana Enforcement Division. “Further, by eliminating distinctions between Universal Symbols for medical and retail marijuana, the Single Universal Symbol works to simplify and improve compliance regarding packaging, labeling, and product marking requirements.”
On January 1st, 2019, use of the universal symbol on packaging will be mandatory for all products, with a few exceptions for medical center sales with existing inventory. There is an optional use period that lasts until the end of 2018 where producers and retailers can use the previous universal symbols. After July 1st, 2019, every product sold in the state of Colorado must have the updated universal symbols, according to the bulletin.
On packaging and labeling, the red and white symbol is required whereas on single servings, the symbol must be on one side but doesn’t need to have the colors.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.