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Too Many Cannabis Firms Put Sustainability in Last Place

By Mitesh Makwana
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cannabis close up

Cannabis has long been considered a green industry by the masses.

As a standalone item, the cannabis plant is very environmentally friendly. This is particularly true when it comes to hemp, a variety of the cannabis plant with a huge range of environmental benefits. An extremely versatile and robust crop, hemp uses far less land and water than other common crops and even captures carbon dioxide and regenerates soil. Approximately 20,000 products can be made from its seed, fiber and flower, from biodegradable plastics to food supplements, meaning all in all – it is an environmentally and economically sustainable crop

Yet as with most things, when cultivated in mass, the cannabis plant isn’t quite so green anymore. With its high demand for water, land and artificial lighting, cannabis cultivation can actually leave a large environmental footprint (this does however, pale in comparison to the food industry).

What’s more, many firms do not properly understand how to correctly treat and apply chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and use a machine gun approach to growing their crops. This can result in unnecessary bleed waste, which in turn can kill micro-organisms and contaminate soil, water and other vegetation. Packaging has also been cited as particularly environmentally unfriendly in the cannabis industry, with several organizations using single use plastic for their products, due to the strict guidelines attached to packaging products of a medical or pharmaceutical nature.

A field of hemp plants, (Cannabis sativa L.)

So as the CBD, medical and even adult use cannabis industries become increasingly commercialized across the globe, there is risk cannabis might start moving in the wrong direction when it comes to sustainability.

Still relatively new, the cannabis sector is nascent and exciting, with the global cannabis market size valued at $10.60 billion in 2018 and projected to reach $97.35 billion by the end of 2026. Yet as the industry grows, so too will its footprint.

I’ve seen it first-hand. The industry being hugely competitive, so for companies vying for precious investment and fighting for a spot on the stock market, often, sustainability is the last thing on their minds. In my opinion, this is wrong. Not only morally – we all play a part in looking after our planet – but it’s also a poorly calculated business decision.

It’s no secret sustainability and ESG have become a hot topic when it comes to investing. Just yesterday, Credit Suisse told CNBC that the pandemic has accelerated the trend towards sustainable investments. The bank has even introduced an exclusion strategy whereby those investing can actively exclude controversial sectors.

So with the environment firmly on investors’ minds, cannabis firms need to realize that actually, if they want to secure the support of forward-thinking shareholders, they need to consider more than just the bottom line and truly take the sustainability of their operations into account.

photo of outdoor grow operation
Outdoor growing can require less energy inputs

Luckily, there are practices which cannabis cultivators can take on board to reduce their environmental footprint. To start with – growing outdoors. This enables cannabis farmers to harness the sun’s natural power, saving them money on electricity bills and increasing energy efficiency. With cannabis being a rather thirsty plant, water use is also a major concern – although this is nothing compared to the amount of water used by cotton plants. However, it is in fact possible to design indoor operations which recycle close to 100% of the water use, including capturing the perspiration from plants – at AltoVerde this is something we are looking to implement in our upcoming Macedonian sites.

Firms keen to improve on sustainability should also cultivate in a way in which soil is fully replenished and repaired after use – this is called regenerative farming, and it’s extremely effective for maintaining and improving soil quality, biodiversity and crop yields. Another interesting concept is the use of hemp. Some farmers have started using hempcrete – a concrete-like material made from harvested cannabis plants. As if the recycling aspect wasn’t good enough, hempcrete is actually carbon negative, meaning the production of hemp for hempcrete removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.

It’s been incredibly exciting to be a part of the cannabis industry and I am excited to watch its growth in the years to come. It’s taken hard work for the sector to improve its traditionally poor image and to be accepted across the globe, so now, cultivators must lead by example and stop industry from being branded as one which pollutes. By transitioning to more environmentally sustainable practices, firms will be doing their bit for the planet, attracting the investors of tomorrow and ensuring their own success for years to come.

Anthony Franciosi, Honest Marijuana

Essential Elements to Set Up a Green, Zero-Waste Grow Facility

By Anthony Franciosi
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Anthony Franciosi, Honest Marijuana

Clean, ecologically sound production methods are the ideal for any cultivation or farming activity. Taking from the earth only what is needed to grow the crop and leaving behind little in the way of chemicals and land/water loss is the goal; with cannabis grow facilities, it can also be a reality.

This type of production does require some capital investment into state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, with standards that are equal to or even surpass current EPA and USDA regulations. While cannabis growing does not yet have access to the organic certification, that doesn’t mean growers can’t abide by and even go beyond the rules, to grow clean, healthy and environmentally sound cannabis.

There are a few essential elements required to make this kind of operation a reality.

Ecologically advanced use of power

  • For any indoor facility, one of the key elements is lighting. Using as energy efficient a system as possible is key. The best option at the moment is LEC lighting, which provides a spectrum of light that is very close to natural. This makes checking on plant progress more realistic and, with the inclusion of UV-B in the spectrum, can improve yields as well. In addition, the LEC bulbs have a long life—up to 2 years—which means lower maintenance costs as well.
  • The demand for high-quality, organically grown cannabis continues to increase

    Another aspect of growing that tends to use a lot of power is the cooling system. A standard HVAC system will be power intensive, so alternative ones like water chilled climate control systems are just as effective and 30% more power efficient. These systems are also able to reuse wasted power by feeding it back into the system, creating an additional 10% energy reduction. In addition, when the outdoor air temperature dips below 45 degrees, a water chilled system can switch to using the outside air, creating 60—70% in energy savings.

Efficient management of water resources

  • Cultivators depend heavily on water to ensure that the plants are hydrated and able to absorb the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. The result for many however is an excessive waste of water. This is a problem when a grow facility is leveraging municipal water resources. A water meter helps to manage and track usage but to ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible, a “top feeding” method of usage ensures minimal water waste (5% or less).

Effective waste management

  • Wastewater is a byproduct of any water intensive cultivation method but there again, managing the systems to ensure that what water isn’t reused and becomes “gray water” is still as clean as possible is the ideal. A high-quality filtration system keeps sediment, chlorine and other harmful elements out of the water supply — and out of the municipal sewage system. Further, by using organic matter throughout the growing process, the wastewater that is produced will meet every federal standard for organic food production.
  • All plant waste in a grow facility—for example: stems and fan leaves—is disposed of according to state and local laws. With cannabis plants, that requires a certain level of security, including locked dumpsters that are only unlocked and placed outside when the removal trucks arrive on site.

Organic farming practices

  • Using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed soil is an essential part of clean, environmentally friendly growing. To ensure the proper nutrients are available for each harvest, once a crop is gathered, the soil is transferred to a local landscape company to compost and reuse.
  • Pesticides need to obviously be avoided and all fertilizers need to be USDA approved as organic and all nutrients need to be certified by OMRI to ensure they don’t contain any synthetic materials.

Considering all of these aspects is essential to creating an ecologically friendly grow facility with tremendous yields that are clean and safe for the end consumer, as well as minimizing the impact to the earth.

Designing Precision Cannabis Facilities: A Case Study

By Phil Gibson
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With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.

Background

Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.

Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.

Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.

Precision, Quality & Consistency

“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”

At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.

Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.

The Onyx Vision

Andrew Lange, Ascendant Management

Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.

“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”

Her Path to Leadership

Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”

Bailee Syrek, director of operations at Onyx Agronomics

Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.

A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.

What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”

This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.

“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.

At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.

Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe

Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.

Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.

Certified Efficiency is the Message

Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.

Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.

The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.

Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant

From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.

Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).

That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.

Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.

Always Finish with People

Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”

“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.

Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”

National Ag Day: An Interview with Industry Leaders Disrupting Agriculture in Positive Ways

By Aaron Green
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National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.

The ACA believes that every American should:

  • Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
  • Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
  • Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
  • Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.

We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.

Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies

Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?

Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.

Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies

A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.

Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?

McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.

We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.

Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.

Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?

Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.

Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.

With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.

Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?

Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.

Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)

Aaron Green: What motivated you to publish the Cannabis H2O: Water Use and Sustainability in Cultivation report?

Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)

Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.

Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?

Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:

  1. When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
  2. In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
  3. Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
  4. As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.

The Ten Biggest Mistakes When Building a Cultivation Facility

By Michael Burnstein
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As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:

  • Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest? 
  • Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
  • Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
  • Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
  • Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
  • Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
  • Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
  • MedicineManTechGrowPoor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
  • Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
  • Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.
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Reduce Environmental Impact of Cannabinoid Production Through Biosynthesis

By Maxim Mikheev
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Cannabinoids—the molecules found in the cannabis plant—are becoming an immensely popular industry, with applications in pharmaceuticals, food and beverage, cosmetics and more. However, the traditional method of harvesting cannabinoids through plants has a tremendous environmental footprint, with the energy-intensive practices required to produce the cannabis plant costing the U.S. billions of dollars each year 

Fortunately, new innovations have emerged that will make this process require significantly less time, energy and natural resources. This article will explore two methods of rare cannabinoid production—the traditional method of cultivation through plants and the newer method of biosynthesis—and will compare their impact on the environment. 

Natural Cultivation

The companies that use the traditional process of growth, harvest, extraction and purification have a major problem when it comes to harvesting rare cannabinoids. Rare cannabinoids only show up in trace amounts in plants, which means you need to grow vast quantities of plants to harvest just a tiny amount of rare cannabinoids.

Once you factor in the amount of plants that need to be grown, equipment, fuel, fertilizers, water, man hours, harvesting, extraction and purification, the costs are economically unfeasible. This process uses so much energy, natural resources, water and fertilizers that the end product is not affordable for the majority of consumers.

Cultivation through plants requires hundreds of acres of land, thousands of pounds of fertilizer, thousands of gallons of water and thousands of man hours. In addition, this process uses significant amounts of energy to run equipment, in addition to extraction and purification. Plus, the end products can contain contaminants and toxins due to heavy metals, pesticides, pests, mold and more.

Biosynthesis

Biosynthesis is the production of a desired compound through the natural means of an organism’s biological processes. It produces identical compounds to those found in nature, lending itself as the optimal pathway for the manufacture of cannabinoids identical to their naturally occurring counterparts. ​

While cultivation through plants is harmful to the environment, biosynthesis produces a much lower environmental footprint because it requires significantly fewer resources. Biosynthesis requires over 90% less energy, natural resources and man hours, along with zero fertilizers, contaminants and toxins. There also no extraction and purification costs.

Biosynthesis needs only 6,000 square feet to produce the same amount of rare cannabinoids as hundreds of acres of plants. This process produces pharmaceutical-grade, organic, non-GMO products at a 70-90% lower cost than cultivation through plants—resulting in cannabinoid products that are more affordable for the consumer.

With climate change increasingly becoming a concern, it’s crucial for us to rely on more environmentally friendly avenues for cannabinoid production. Biosynthesis provides a method of cannabinoid production that requires significantly less time, energy and natural resources than cultivation through plants—resulting in not only a decreased environmental footprint but also safer and less expensive products.

NCIA Publishes Environmental Sustainability Recommendations

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Earlier this week, the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) published its recommendations for improving environmental sustainability in the cannabis industry. The report, titled Environmental Sustainability in the Cannabis Industry: Impacts, Best Management Practices, and Policy Considerations, was developed by their Policy Council along with experts in the field of environmental sustainability.

The 58-page report is quite comprehensive and covers things like land use, soil health, water, energy, air quality, waste and the negative effects of an unregulated market. While the report goes into great detail on specific environmental policy considerations, like recycling, water usage, energy efficiency and more, it makes a handful of overarching policy recommendations that impact environmental sustainability on a much more macro level.

The report mentions developing a platform for sharing information in the national cannabis industry. The idea here is that information sharing on a national scale for things like energy use can be used as a communication tool for regulators as well as a tool for companies to collaborate and share ideas.

The second more overarching policy recommendation the NCIA makes in this report is “to incorporate environmental best practices and regulatory requirements into existing marijuana licensing and testing processes.” This would help streamline and unify regulations already in place and keeps sustainability in the discussion from the very start.

The last major policy recommendation they make is for incentive programs. They say that governments should incentivize cannabis businesses to operate more sustainably and “prioritize funds provided to businesses where barriers exist to entering the market, such as small- or minority-owned businesses.” The report adds that this could essentially kill two birds with one stone by promoting environmental sustainability and diversity at the same time.

Kaitlin Urso is the lead author of the report and executive project and engagement manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. She says that these policy recommendations were designed to benefit everyone. “A successful, socially responsible cannabis industry will require best practices for environmental sustainability. This paper is a vital first step in that effort,” says Urso. “This is important, ongoing work that will benefit everyone. The NCIA’s paper on environmental sustainability is going to inform how we approach important questions related to the future of the cannabis industry.”

To read the report in its entirety, click here.

Comparable to Organic: How This California Company Aims to Certify Cannabis

By Aaron G. Biros
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Cannabis that contains more than 0.3% THC is not eligible for USDA organic certification, due to the crop’s Schedule I status. While some hemp farmers are currently on the path to obtain a USDA organic certification, the rest of the cannabis industry is left without that ability.

Growers, producers, manufacturers and dispensaries that utilize the same practices as the national organic program should be able to use that to their advantage in their marketing. Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann, wants to help cannabis companies tap into that potential with what he likes to call, “comparable to organic.”

Ian Rice, CEO of Envirocann & co-founder of SC Labs

Rice co-founded SC Laboratories in 2010, one of the first cannabis testing labs in the world, and helped develop the cannabis industry’s first testing standards. In 2016, Rice and his partners at SC Labs launched Envirocann, a third-party certification organization, focused on the quality assurance and quality control of cannabis products. Through on-site inspections and lab testing, Envirocann verifies and subsequently certifies that best practices are used to grow and process cannabis, while confirming environmental sustainability and regulatory compliance.

“Our backyard in Santa Cruz and the central coast is the birthplace of the organic movement,” says Rice. California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF), founded in Santa Cruz more than 40 years ago, was one of the first organizations in the early 1990s that helped write the national organic program.

“What we came to realize in the lab testing space and as the cannabis market grew, was that a lot of cannabis companies were making the organic claims on their products,” says Rice. “At the time, only one or two organizations in the cannabis space were making an attempt to qualify best practices or create an organic-type feel of confidence among consumers.” What Rice saw in their lab was not cannabis that could be considered organic: “We saw products being labeled as organic, or with certain claims of best practices, that were regularly failing tests and testing positive for banned chemicals. That really didn’t sit well with us.”

Coastal Sun Farms, Enviroganic-certified

At the time, there was no real pathway to certify cannabis products and qualify best practices. “We met with a few people at the CCOF that were very encouraging for us to adopt the national organic program’s standards for cannabis. We followed their lead in how to adopt the standards and apply a certification, building a vehicle intended to certify cannabis producers.”

Because of their background in lab testing they added the requirement for every crop that gets certified to undergo a site inspection, sampling, as well as a pesticide residue test to confirm no pesticides were used at all during the production cycle. One of their clients is Coastal Sun Farms, a greenhouse and outdoor cannabis producer. “They grow incredible products at a high-level, commercial scale at the Enviroganic standard,” says Rice. “They have been able to prove that organic cannabis is economically viable.”

The Envirocann certification goes a bit beyond the USDA’s organic program in helping their clients with downstream supply chain risk management tools (SCRM). “Because of the rigorous testing of products to get certified and go to market, we are getting way ahead of supply chain or production issues,” says Rice. “That includes greater oversight and transparency, not just for marketing the final product.”

A good example of using SCRM to a client’s advantage is in the extraction business. A common scenario recently in the cannabis market involves flower or trim passing the pesticide tests at the lab. But when that flower makes it down the supply chain to a manufacturer, the extraction process concentrates chemical levels along with cannabinoid levels that might have previously been acceptable for flower. “I’ve witnessed millions and millions of dollars evaporate because flower passed, but the concentrated final product did not,” says Rice. “We’ve introduced a tool to get ahead of that decision-making process, looking beyond just a pass/fail. With our partner labs, we look at the chromatograms in greater detail beyond regulatory requirements, which gives us information on trace levels of chemicals we may be looking for. It’s a really rigorous audit on these sites and it’s all for the benefit of our clients.”

Envirocann has also recently added a processing certification for the manufacturing sector and a retail certification for dispensaries. That retail certification is intended to provide consumers with transparency, truth in labeling and legitimate education. The retail certification includes an assessment and audit of their management plan, which goes into details like procurement and budtender education, as well as basic considerations like energy usage and waste management.

Fog City Farms, Envirocann-certified

While Envirocann has essentially adopted the USDA’s organic program’s set of standards for what qualifies organic producers, which they call “Enviroganic,” they also certify more conventional producers with their “Envirocann” certification. “While these producers might not be considered organic farmers, they use conventional methods of production that are responsible and deserve recognition,” says Rice. “A great example for that tier would be Fog City Farms: They are growing indoor with LED lighting and have multiple levels in their indoor environment to optimize efficiency and minimize their impact with waste and energy usage, including overall considerations for sustainability in their business.”

Looking to the future, Ian Rice is using the term “comparable to organic” very intentionally, preparing for California’s roll out of their own organic cannabis program. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) is launching the “OCal Comparable-to-Organic Cannabis Program.” Envirocann is obviously using the same language as the CDFA. That’s because Envirocann aims to be one of the verifying agents under the CDFA’s new program. That program will begin on January 1, 2021.

Cannabis Economics & Creating Efficiencies for Profit Margin

By Laura Breit
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News of cannabis glut and falling wholesale prices has been dominating the airwaves of late, despite some recent reports showing that prices are remaining steady. As legalization continues to spread across the nation, the industry is poised to become commoditized, especially in those areas where it has been legal for a longer period of time. Whether specializing in retail cannabis products or industrial hemp, companies in the cannabis industry should be taking note of the sweeping economic implications of a maturing marketplace.

As is true in any industry, rapid growth and significant investments are sometimes followed by a slowdown (think dot-com, but less extreme). There are measures that companies can take in order to avoid negative outcomes, and a step in the right direction includes focusing on the bottom line and planning for future growth. Company leaders need to educate themselves on the competitive landscape and take the long view toward solutions for their operations.

Sounds easy enough, but how do we actually do this? One key step is to pay attention to overall expenses and create efficiencies wherever possible in order to remain competitive. This means that during the facility and systems design phase, all outcomes need to be taken into account. One of the most important – and cost conscious – things to consider is energy usage. Energy Star, the EPA-backed program for energy efficiency, says that facilities can “reduce their energy use by up to 30 percent through low or no-cost measures.” Generally, this means that efficiencies are built-in to the design with energy cost savings and sustainability in mind.

One of the largest energy outputs for a cannabis operation includes the facility’s HVAC and electrical systems. We have found that when clients step back to consider a range of alternatives, they have a more comprehensive base for this important decision. Considering outside factors, such as growth projections and specific goals, cannabis companies can make a more educated decision on the system that will provide the best economic outcome for their business. Often, those that plan ahead and look past the initial system cost, find longer term savings and lower energy usage over time.

A plant in flowering under an LED fixture

As an example, we had a client looking to build an indoor cannabis cultivation operation. They had originally chosen to build their facility with high pressure sodium lighting to save money up front. Because this method of lighting typically has a lower first cost, it appeals to many companies that are starting out and wary of their budget. However, this particular client was poised for growth and looking to make sustainable choices that would impact their bottom line and meet their goals for environmentally sound business practices. We were able to create a model for them to illustrate the long-term benefits of installing LED lighting. This type of lighting allows growers to keep room temperatures higher, without compromising plant health with issues like tip burn. In addition, LED lights are more efficient and reduce the cooling load. This means mechanical systems were able to be downsized reducing first costs, and these systems also consumed less energy, reducing operational costs. Despite a higher first cost of the LED lights, the company ended up saving enough money in the reduced mechanical equipment size, as well as in the reduction of energy use from the lights and the mechanical equipment. The first costs between an HPS system and an LED system were much more comparable than originally expected, and they were able to keep their operational costs to an absolute minimum. This type of scenario has proven true over and over when models are built to show longer-term cost benefits for electrical and HVAC systems, using analysis from an experienced team of designers and engineers.

While the greater economic outlook for the cannabis industry is in flux, a thoughtful approach can help operations avoid negative outcomes. As more and more companies continue to enter the space, investments roll in and supply rises, we will all watch to see if demand will match this growth. Taking note of incremental methods for impacting the bottom line, such as smart HVAC and electrical system selection, can mean the difference between success and failure (and profit margins!) in this turbulent landscape.

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Taking the Guesswork out of Horticultural Lighting

By Leora Radetsky
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With 33 states and the District of Columbia having passed laws legalizing marijuana in some form, cannabis cultivation is quickly becoming a booming new business across much of the US. From an energy standpoint, unfortunately, it’s not easy being “green”.

New Frontier Data’s 2018 Cannabis Energy Report found that legal cannabis cultivation in the US consumes approximately 1.1 million megawatt hours of electricity annually – enough to power 92,500 homes or a community the size of Newark, NJ, and accounts for carbon emissions equivalent to that of 92,600 cars. And that consumption is forecasted to increase 162 percent from 2017 to 2022. The report recommended that the industry “evaluate energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies” to nip this challenge in the bud.

Growers seeking to reduce their electricity usage through more efficient lighting face a confusing landscape of options, however. It can be difficult to know what will save electricity and work well for their operations. Technology is advancing quickly and questions abound, from how long a fixture will last and whether a manufacturer’s claims about efficacy are accurate to the effectiveness of various wavelengths for growing a particular plant.

Here’s the good news: there are reliable, third-party lighting and safety standards to help indoor growers make the leap from old-school lighting to state-of-the-art light-emitting diodes (LEDs) that use a fraction of the electricity and are increasingly effective for growing crops from cannabis to tomatoes. Here’s a closer look:

Most lighting fixtures in the North American market go through rigorous inspection by certified third-party testing labs. The first part of the check is for safety – an official UL safety standard tailored for the unique challenges of the greenhouse environment was recently released (UL 8800, the Standard for Horticultural Lighting Equipment and Systems). This standard and similar safety certifications at other major labs address wiring, environmental conditions, ingress protection and worker safety related to prolonged photobiological exposure to the eyes and skin. Growers should always ask a fixture manufacturer about safety certification specifically targeted for horticultural environments.

Next on the standards checklist for horticultural fixtures is performance testing. This often happens at the same labs that do safety testing, but is designed to verify efficacy, output, spectrum and other important performance variables. Commercial labs are certified for specific standards, so that a test on a fixture is repeatable at any other lab certified to the same standard. This performance testing results in a report summarizing items like photosynthetic photon flux (PPF), input power (watts), photosynthetic flux efficacy (PPE, measured in μmol/J or micromoles of photosynthetic photons per joule of electrical input power), and spectral content (flux per nanometer (nm) between 400 and 700 nm).

Then, there are flux maintenance standards (such as IES LM-80 and IES TM-21) that help make sure the photosynthetic light output of LED products degrades at an acceptable rate to make a grower’s investment worthwhile. The testing and calculation methods that go into these standards were painstakingly developed through a consensus of knowledgeable lighting stakeholders. A key difference between general lighting and plant lighting, however, is how flux maintenance is measured and benchmarked – the bar is significantly higher for plants compared to people since their metabolism and growth are dependent on the light spectrum and amount.

A plant in flowering under an LED fixture

What’s described above just scratches the surface of the detailed testing used to determine and communicate performance features for commercial horticultural lighting fixtures. There’s a lot of important information to know, but it takes an informed reader to analyze this information and use it to select appropriate horticultural lighting. Our organization, the DesignLights Consortium (DLC), strives to make the vetting process easier for everyone, freeing up growers to focus on their core business.

In the early days of LED lighting, electric utilities had to compare these different lighting factors and reports to inform their energy efficiency rebate/incentive programs. The DLC was founded to fill this need, serving as a central clearinghouse for setting energy efficiency and other product performance minimum standards, and to evaluate products against those standards. Then and now, lighting products that pass review qualify for an online qualified products list (QPL) that utilities use to quickly and accurately incentivize high-performing products.

Credit: ProGrowTech

With its new minimum performance standards for horticultural light fixtures, the DLC seeks to accelerate the adoption of new energy-saving LED fixtures in controlled agriculture environments. To be on the new DLC Horticultural QPL, an LED fixture must be at least 10 percent more efficacious than the best non-LED alternative – a 1,000-watt double-ended high-pressure sodium (HPS) fixture. It also must have a Q90 of 36,000 hours (the number of hours before the photon flux output depreciates to 90 percent), and its driver and fan (if included) must have a rated life of at least 50,000 hours.

Most importantly, every product is listed online in a searchable, filterable database to help growers and facility designers quickly narrow their options. For example, in a retrofit, a grower might know what PPF is needed from each fixture but might also need to stay within a power budget to avoid rewiring circuits. The DLC’s Horticultural QPL can be filtered to quickly find and compare conforming products.

When a new technology is introduced, there is always uncertainty about how to optimally apply it. The horticultural world is no different. We look forward to research supporting additional predictive metrics that allow us to take advantage of the full benefits of high-performance LED and controls technologies. In the meantime, the established standards described here allow for energy efficient and safe cultivation facilities where growers can confidently produce more with less.