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Cannabusiness Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability in Cultivation: Part 3

By Carl Silverberg
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Part 1 in this series went into a discussion of resource management for cannabis growers. Part 2 presented the idea of land use and conservation. In Part 3 below, we dive into pesticide use and integrated pest management for growers, through an environmental lens.

Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962, is often credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Ten years later, VP Edmund Muskie elevated the environment to a major issue in his 1972 Presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. 57 years after Ms. Carson’s book, we’re still having the same problems. Over 13,000 lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto and last month a jury in Alameda County ruled that a couple came down with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because of their use of Roundup. The jury awarded them one billion dollars each in punitive damages. Is there a safer alternative?

“Effectively replacing the need for pesticides, we use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which is a proactive program designed to control the population of undesirable pests with the use of natural predators, a system commonly known as “good bugs (such as ladybugs) fighting bad bugs”, states the website of Mucci Farms, a greenhouse grower. While this applies to cannabis as well, there is one major problem with the crop that isn’t faced by other crops.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring- often credited with starting the environmental movement of the 20th century.

While states are moving rapidly to legalize it, the EPA is currently not regulating cannabis. That is in the hands of each state. According to a story in the Denver Post in 2016, “Although pesticides are widely used on crops, their use on cannabis remains problematic and controversial as no safety standards exist.” Keep in mind that it takes a lot more pesticides to keep unwarranted guests off your cannabis plant when it’s outdoors than when it’s in a controlled environment.

We’re accustomed to using endless products under the assumption that a range of governmental acronyms such as NIH, FDA, OSHA, EPA, USDA are protecting us. We don’t even think about looking for their labels because we naturally assume that a product we’re about to ingest has been thoroughly tested, approved and vetted by one of those agencies. But what if it’s not?

Again, cannabis regulation is at the state level and here’s why that’s critical. The budget of the EPA is $6.14 billion while Colorado’s EPA-equivalent agency has a budget of $616 million. According to the federal budget summary, “A major component of our FY 2019 budget request is funding for drinking water and clean water infrastructure as well as for Brownfields and Superfund projects.” In short, federal dollars aren’t going towards pesticide testing and they’re certainly got going towards a product that’s illegal at the federal level. That should make you wonder how effective oversight is at the state level.

What impact does this have on our health and what impact do pesticides have on the environment? A former Dean of Science and Medical School at a major university told me, “Many pesticides are neurotoxins that affect your nervous system and liver. These are drugs. The good news is that they kill insects faster than they kill people.” Quite a sobering thought.

“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”Assuming that he’d be totally supportive of greenhouses, I pushed to see if he agreed. “There’s always a downside with nature. An enclosure helps you monitor access. If you’re growing only one variety, your greenhouse is actually more susceptible to pests because it’s only one variety.” The problem for most growers is that absent some kind of a computer vision system in your greenhouse, usually by the time you realize that you have a problem it’s already taken a toll on your crop.

Following up on the concept of monitoring, I reached out to Dr. Jacques White, the executive director of Long Live the Kings, an organization dedicated to restoring wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Obviously, you can’t monitor access to a river, but you certainly can see the effects of fertilizer runoff, chemicals and pesticides into the areas where fish live and eventually, return to spawn.

“Because salmon travel such extraordinary long distances through rivers, streams, estuaries and into oceans they are one of the best health indicators for people. If salmon aren’t doing well, then we should think about whether people should be drinking or using that same water. The salmon population in the area around Puget Sound is not doing well.”

We talked a bit more about pesticides in general and Dr. White summed up the essence of the entire indoor-outdoor farming and pesticides debate succinctly.

“We have the ability to control what kinds of pesticides we put in our water and how much pesticides we put in our water.”

If you extrapolate that thought, the same applies to agriculture. Greenhouse farming, while subject to some problems not endemic to outdoor farming, quite simply puts a lot fewer chemicals in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.

Cannabusiness Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability in Cultivation: Part 2

By Carl Silverberg
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The first article of this series discussed resource management for cannabis growers. In this second piece of the series on how indoor farming has a reduced impact on the environment, we’re going to look at land use & conservation. There are really two aspects and we have to be up front and acknowledge that while our focus is on legal cannabis farming, there’s a significant illegal industry which exists and is not subject to any environmental regulation.

“Streams in Mendocino run dry during the marijuana growing season impacting Coho salmon and steelhead trout who lay their eggs in the region’s waterways.” One biologist reported seeing “dead steelhead and Coho on a regular basis in late August and September, usually due to water reduction or elimination from extensive marijuana farming.” The quotes are from an extensive article on cannabis land use by Jessica Owley in the U.C. Davis Law Review.The concept that land will stay in its natural state is a mixture of idealism and reality.

This is going to continue until it’s more profitable to go legit. For this article, we’re going to focus on the legitimate cannabis grower. On the land use side, we usually hear four main reasons for indoor growing: remaining land can stay in its natural state, fewer space usually translates to fewer waste, you conserve land and natural resources when you don’t use fossil fuels, greenhouses can be placed anywhere.

The concept that land will stay in its natural state is a mixture of idealism and reality. Just because someone only has to farm five acres of land instead of one hundred acres doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to leave the rest in its pristine natural state. Granted the footprint for automated greenhouses is significantly less but the key is what happens to that extra space. Assuming that it will all be preserved in its natural state isn’t realistic. What is realistic is the fact that a developer may not want to build tract houses abutting a commercial greenhouse operation. If they do, likely there’s going to be more land set aside for green space than if a farm was sold outright and a series of new homes were plunked down as if it were a Monopoly board.

Combined with workforce development program funding, urban indoor farming is getting more attractive every day.That’s not the same kind of issue in urban areas where the situation is different. Despite the economic boom of the past ten years, not every neighborhood benefitted. The smart ones took creative approaches. Gotham Greens started in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and has expanded to Chicago as well. “In early 2014, Gotham Greens opened its second greenhouse, located on the rooftop of Whole Foods Market’s flagship Brooklyn store, which was the first ever commercial scale greenhouse integrated into a supermarket.”

Green City Growers in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood is another example. “Situated on a 10-acre inner-city site that was once urban blight, the greenhouse—with 3.25 acres under glass–now serves as a vibrant anchor for the surrounding neighborhood.”

The beauty of greenhouse systems even those without greenhouse software, is they can be built anywhere because the environmental concerns of potentially contaminated soil don’t exist. The federal government as well as state and local governments offer a myriad of financial assistance programs to encourage growers to develop operations in their areas. Combined with workforce development program funding, urban indoor farming is getting more attractive every day.

As for the argument that greenhouses save energy and fossil fuels, I think we can agree that it’s pretty difficult to operate a thousand-acre farm using solar power. To their credit, last year John Deere unveiled a tractor that will allow farmers to run it as a fully autonomous vehicle to groom their fields while laying out and retracting the 1 kilometer long onboard extension cord along the way. It’s a start although I’ll admit to my own problems operating an electric mower without cutting the power cord.

In a 2017 article, Kurt Benke and Bruce Tomkins stated, “Transportation costs can be eliminated due to proximity to the consumer, all-year-round production can be programmed on a demand basis, and plant-growing conditions can be optimized to maximize yield by fine-tuning temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions. Indoor farming in a controlled environment also requires much less water than outdoor farming because there is recycling of gray water and less evaporation.”

The overall trend on fossil fuel reduction was verified this week when the Department of Energy announced that renewables passed coal for the first time in U.S. history.  And on the water issue, Ms. Owley had a salient point for cannabis growers. “The federal government will not allow federal irrigation water to be used to grow marijuana anywhere, even in states where cultivation is legal.” That’s not a minor detail and it’s why outdoor farming of cannabis is going to be limited in areas where water resources and water rights are hotly debated.

Cannabusiness Sustainability

Environmental Sustainability in Cultivation: Part 1

By Carl Silverberg
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Core values often get wrapped into buzzwords such as sustainability, locally sourced and organic. In the first part of a series of four articles exploring greenhouses and the environment, we’re going to take a look at indoor vs. outdoor farming in terms of resource management.

Full disclosure; I love the fact that I can eat fresh blueberries in February when my bushes outside are just sticks. Is there a better way to do it than trucking the berries from the farm to a distribution plant to the airport, where they’re flown from the airport to a distribution center, to the grocery store and finally to my kitchen table? That’s a lot of trucking and a lot of energy being wasted for my $3.99 pint of blueberries.The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food. 

If those same blueberries were grown at a local greenhouse then trucked from the greenhouse directly to the grocery store, that would save diesel fuel and a lot of carbon emissions. People who can only afford to live near a highway, a port or an airport don’t need to ask a pulmonary specialist why their family has a higher rate of COPD than a family who lives on a cul-de-sac in the suburbs.

Fact: 55% of vegetables in the U.S. are grown under cover. The same energy saving principles apply to indoor cannabis and the reasons are consumer driven and producer driven. The largest generation in the history of the country is demanding more locally grown, sustainable and organic food. They want it for themselves and they want it for their kids.

The rapid proliferation of greenhouses over the past ten years is no coincidence. Millennials are forcing changes: organic fruit and vegetables now account for almost 15% of the produce market. A CNN poll last month revealed that 8 of 10 of registered Democrats listed climate change as a “very important” priority for presidential candidates. The issue is not party I.D.; the issue is that a large chunk of Americans are saying they’re worried about the direct and indirect impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding and wildfires.

So how does the consumer side tie into the cannabis industry? Consumers like doing business with companies who share their values. The hard part is balancing consumer values with investor values, which is why many indoor growers are turning to cultivation management platforms to help them satisfy both constituencies. They get the efficiency and they get to show their customers that they are good stewards of their environment. The goal is to catch things before it’s too late to save the plants. If you do that, you save the labor it costs to fix the problem, the labor and the expense of throwing away plants and you reduce pesticide and chemical usage. When that happens, your greenhouse makes more money and shows your customers you care about their values.

The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.Let’s add some more facts to the indoor-outdoor argument. According to an NCBI study of lettuce growing, “hydroponic lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 20 liters/kg, while conventional lettuce production had an estimated water demand of 250 liters/kg.”  Even if the ratio is only 10:1, that’s a huge impact on a precious resource.

Looking at the pesticide issue, people often forget about the direct impact on people who farm. “Rates in the agricultural industry are the highest of any industrial sector and pesticide-related skin conditions represent between 15 and 25% of pesticide illness reports,” a 2016 article in The Journal of Cogent Medicine states. Given the recent reports about the chemicals in Roundup, do we even need to continue the conversation and talk about the effects of fertilizer?

I’ll finish up with a quote from a former grower. “The estimates I saw were in the range of between 25%-40% of produce being lost with outdoor farming while most greenhouse growers operate with a 10% loss ratio.”

The indoor change is happening rapidly because people realize that technology is driving increased revenue while core consumer values are demanding less water waste, fewer pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Lastly, most Americans simply have a moral aversion to seeing farms throw away food when so many other people are lined up at food banks.

Cannabusiness Sustainability

Climate Change Drives Cannabis Indoors

By Carl Silverberg
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This is not a discussion of climate change, it’s a discussion of the impact of weather on the agriculture industry. The question for the cannabis & hemp industry, and basically the entire specialty crop industry, is what will be the impact? According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “Climate disruptions to agriculture have been increasing and are projected to become more severe over this century.” I’m sure that’s not much of a shock to anyone who owns a farm, orchard or greenhouse.

Every national newspaper for the past two weeks has published at least one article a day about the flooding in the Midwest, while industry newsletters and blogs have contained more in-depth stories. The question is, what can agriculture professionals do to mitigate these problems?

Relying on state and national legislators, especially heading into a presidential election year is likely to be frustrating and unrewarding. Governments are excellent at reacting to disasters and not so good at preventing them. In short, if we depend on government to take the lead it’s going to be a long wait.Instead, many farmers are looking at the future costs of outdoor farming and concluding that it’s simply cheaper, more efficient and manageable to farm indoors.

Instead, many farmers are looking at the future costs of outdoor farming and concluding that it’s simply cheaper, more efficient and manageable to farm indoors. Gone are the days when people grew hemp and cannabis indoors in an effort to hide from the police. Pineapple Express was a funny movie but not realistic in today’s environment.

Today’s hemp and cannabis growers are every bit as tech savvy as any other consumer-oriented business and one could argue that given the age of their customers (Statista puts usage by 18-49-year-olds at 40%), distributors must be even more tech savvy to compete effectively. Some estimates put the current split of cultivation at about one-third indoors/two-thirds outdoors. To date, the indoor focus has been on efficiency, quality and basically waiting for regulators to allow shipping across state lines.

A major driver in the indoors/outdoors equation is that as the weather becomes more unfriendly and unpredictable, VC’s are factoring climate disruption into their financial projections. When corn prices drop because of export tariffs, politicians lift the ban on using Ethanol during the summer months. It’s going to be a while before we see vehicles running on a combination of gasoline and CBD.

Leaving aside the case that can be made for efficiency, quality control and tracking of crops, climate change alone is going to force many growers to reassess whether they want to move indoors. And, it’s certainly going to weigh heavily in the plans of growers who are about to launch a cannabis or hemp business. Recently, one investment banker put it to me this way: greenhouses are the ultimate hedge against the weather.

The Illinois Hemp Industry Is About To Explode

By Aaron G. Biros
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Within two days of announcing the opening of license applications for growing hemp, the Illinois Department of Agriculture received roughly 350 applications. According to the Lincoln Courier, that number has since grown to 575 applications in the past couple weeks. The Illinois Department of Agriculture has already issued 341 licenses for growing and 79 for processing, as of last Friday.

According to Jeff Cox, Chief of the Bureau of Medicinal Plants at the Illinois Department of Agriculture, a lot of this excitement comes from farmers wanting to branch out from the state’s traditional crops, such as corn and soybeans. “Corn and soybean prices have not been the best over the past few years, and so I think they see this as an opportunity to have a different source of income on their farm,” Cox told the Lincoln Courier.

Morgan Booth, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture told the Chicago Tribune that they were expecting this kind of enthusiasm among farmers. “We knew there was a lot of interest in it,” says Booth. “We were very pleasantly surprised.”

Back in late December of 2018, after the Farm Bill was signed into law, the Illinois Department of Agriculture was quick to jump on the hemp train. They announced their intentions to submit plans for a program to the federal Department of Agriculture, opened a 90-day public comment period, and finalized the rules in April. The state’s regulators hoped to expedite the process and have farmers growing hemp by June 1, which appears to be successful. Dozens of hemp farmers throughout the state are anticipating their first crops will be in the soil by the end of the month.

Wyoming Legalizes Hemp, CBD Oil

By Aaron G. Biros
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Governor Mark Gordon signed HB0171/ HEA No. 0110 into law today, officially legalizing the cultivation and sales of hemp and CBD oil in the state of Wyoming. According to Buckrail.com, a Jackson, Wyoming news publication, the bill passed through the state legislature with ease, moving forward in the House on a 56-3 vote and through the Senate with a 26-3 vote.

President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law late in December of 2018, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signing HB0171 means that the state intends to regulate the cultivation and sales of hemp-derived CBD.

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon

Scott McDonald with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture told Wyoming Public Media that once the bill is signed, the state has 30 days to show their plans for regulation to the federal government. “We were kind of hoping to get something in place this spring for this growing season,” McDonald told Wyoming Public Media. “But we’re not sure that’s going to happen or not. There’s some uncertainty there, so it might be next year.”

McDonald also discussed the next steps that the WY Department of Agriculture needs to take to follow through on the bill’s promises, including figuring out a way to distribute licenses to hemp farmers, licensing laboratories to test hemp, insuring it has less than 0.3% THC and implementing a remediation plan for when crops test above that threshold.

According to Charlotte Peyton, a consultant with 30 years of experience in FDA regulations and experience working in the hemp industry, it is important to keep in mind that as soon as products containing hemp-derived CBD are sold across state lines, the FDA maintains regulatory authority. “If you manufacture and sell hemp products inside of a state with a state mandated hemp program, you are legal and protected under state laws, but the minute you sell across state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the federal government and, more specifically, the FDA,” says Peyton.

According to some farmers, this is good news for the local economy. Many say this could be give a much-needed boost to the state’s agricultural economy, citing hemp’s suitability to grow in Wyoming’s climate and a perceived high demand throughout the state.

Cannabis Reform Comes To Africa

By Marguerite Arnold
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For those familiar with the tragic history of apartheid in South Africa up until the end of the 1980’s, Lesotho is a country long associated with terrible political and economic repression. Also known as the “Kingdom in the Sky” because of its stunning geography, the tiny, landlocked country is literally inside and completely surrounded by South Africa. During the apartheid regime, Lesotho was a place where “vice industries” like prostitution and gambling were allowed to flourish by a much more conservative surrounding political regime. Much like Indian reservations in the U.S., in fact.

Even today, diamonds and water are the country’s top exports although tourism, including skiing, is still a major underpinning of the country’s domestic economy.

Moving forward into the 21st century and much like American Indians, the mountainous, impoverished country is looking at the cannabis trade to create a national income of global worth. In 2017, the country became the first on the African continent to actually legalize cultivation for medical purposes, as well as export. Illicit cultivation, mostly bound for the black market, however, has boomed since the end of the apartheid regime.

The country’s high altitude and fertile soils untainted with pesticides, makes Lesotho an ideal place to grow even outdoor crops. And as a result, the country has also begun to attract foreign capital interested in the production and export of finished products rather than the raw plant material. Several big Canadian producers, in fact, have already established commercial operations.

2018 Was The “Year For Cannabis” In South Africa

As a result of Lesotho’s lead, neighboring countries are now also following suit on the legalization front. Zimbabwe, just to the north of South Africa, has also legalized cultivation for medical purposes although local farmers have been slow to seize the opportunity. Malawi is also moving towards some kind of cannabis reform along with NigeriaGhana and Swaziland. And of course, to the north, Morocco, already established globally for illicit cannabis and hashish production (much of it making its way into Europe as it has for literally hundreds of years at this point) is also teetering on some kind of reform.

In South Africa itself, the economic powerhouse of the continent, the personal cultivation and smoking of cannabis (for both medicinal and recreational reasons) was enshrined as a constitutional right as of September 2018. That said, commercial production and sales for recreational use remains illegal. As in other places, the licensing process in South Africa has held up the medicinal and recreational market already on the table if not in the room. And most locals cannot afford the licensing fees.

That said, there is already a commercial cannabis beer brewing company called Durban Poison which rushed into the space as soon as the constitutional question changed in South Africa. The country is the biggest beer market in Africa. And there are competitors already lining up for similar opportunities of both the medical and recreational kind.

Including South Africa, according to estimates, there are already 10,000 tons of product produced (mostly illicitly) across the continent. Much as in other places, this “green gold” has financed many of the regional wars of the last sixty years. For this reason, apart from the economic benefits that legalization brings, it may well be that the first big continental competition on the cannabis front that enters first world markets, will be African rather than Latin American (or even Chinese).

Legalization and regulation will help stamp out the illicit financing of guerrilla wars and devastation, bringing more political and economic stability. It may also provide one of the best regional economic incentives to stop rare wildlife poaching.

Medical and Recreational Opportunities Loom Large- But So Do Liabilities

But for all the potential of the future, now comes the hard part (as in other regions of the world where reform has come). Stamping out the black market and establishing licencing and other regulations (of all kinds, starting with GMP). Plus of course, because this is Africa, attracting capital at reasonable rates, and establishing legitimate distribution domestically, plus trade routes for global export. Including of course, both to Europe and Australia.

Medical research in Africa is also likely to be an interesting question especially given the impact of cannabis on infection. Africa is home to some of the more dire contagious natural diseases known to man. This plant, in other words, produced locally, might also be applied locally to help manage everything from Malaria to Ebola. If not become a staple in the medical kits distributed by foreign aid organizations. That of course, will take reform at the UN level. But even this conversation, at this point, is now moving.

That said, as 2019 gets underway, there is not a single continent of the world, much less a region, where cannabis reform has not touched.

Farm Bill Analysis: Is Hemp Legal Now?

By Aaron G. Biros
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On December 20, President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law, which included an important change to the way federal agencies regulate hemp farming and production. The Farm Bill essentially removes hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. It strips the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA’s) authority from outlawing hemp and gives states the ability to regulate hemp markets on their own, with approval from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

This gives the USDA the authority to regulate hemp farming, providing for things like access to banks, insurance, grants, certifications and gets rid of the need for a pilot program, which was previously the case under the 2014 Farm Bill. It also defines hemp a little better, to include cannabinoids, derivatives and extracts.

According to Aaron Smith, executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), the signing of the Farm Bill is a crucial step towards full legalization. “The lifting of the federal ban on non-psychoactive hemp is a concrete sign that the ‘reefer madness’ which first led to its criminalization is finally coming to an end,” says Smith. “This Farm Bill is a step in the right direction for comprehensive cannabis policy reform and will help fuel discussions in Congress about the best ways to end federal prohibition and create a regulated national cannabis market.”

FDAlogoHowever, one particularly important caveat needs to be mentioned: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still retains regulatory authority over CBD products. In a statement released the same day that the Farm Bill was signed, the FDA addressed their oversight capabilities. “We’ll take enforcement action needed to protect public health against companies illegally selling cannabis and cannabis-derived products that can put consumers at risk and are being marketed in violation of the FDA’s authorities,” reads the FDA statement. “The FDA has sent warning letters in the past to companies illegally selling CBD products that claimed to prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure serious diseases, such as cancer. Some of these products were in further violation of the FD&C Act [Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act] because they were marketed as dietary supplements or because they involved the addition of CBD to food.”

The Farm Bill signing opened the doors for hemp cultivation and production in the United States.What the FDA said in their statement is crucial information for those developing hemp-derived products. They recommend that companies use traditional pathways to get approval from the FDA to market their products, providing the Epidiolex example where the drug manufacturer used clinical studies to prove the drug’s efficacy.

The FDA also notes that there are circumstances “in which certain cannabis-derived compounds might be permitted in a food or dietary supplement.” That means they are exploring opportunities for companies to develop, manufacture and market legal CBD products without going through the extensive drug approval process.States need to establish programs approved by the USDA and companies need to cooperate with the FDA, taking the necessary steps to get their products and marketing approved.

In the food ingredients realm, they have already taken steps to approve hulled hemp seeds, hemp seed protein and hemp seed oil as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). “Therefore, these products can be legally marketed in human foods for these uses without food additive approval, provided they comply with all other requirements and do not make disease treatment claims,” reads the FDA statement.

The Farm Bill signing opened the doors for hemp cultivation and production in the United States. It allows farmers to access the same goods and services extended to other commodities farming, it makes conducting business easier across state lines, it will pave the way for more research into hemp as an effective medicine and helps to end the debate over hemp’s legality. But this doesn’t mean any business can just start producing and selling CBD products. States need to establish programs approved by the USDA and companies need to cooperate with the FDA, taking the necessary steps to get their products and marketing approved.

In the coming months and years, we will see which states decide to develop hemp cultivation programs and how the proliferation of hemp-derived products will evolve under FDA regulatory oversight.

Cannabis and the Connected Indoor Farm

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference Part 3

Cannabis and the Connected Indoor Farm- Technology Spotlight Sponsored by VividGro

By David Friedman, President of VividGro

This presentation discusses:

  • SMAA- Sensing, monitoring, alerting & automating
  • Hardware & software integration
  • Protecting & using your data

autoclave

10 Treatment Methods to Reduce Mold in Cannabis

By Ketch DeGabrielle
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autoclave

As the operations manager at Los Sueños Farms, the largest outdoor cannabis farm in the country, I was tasked with the challenge of finding a yeast and mold remediation treatment method that would ensure safe and healthy cannabis for all of our customers while complying with stringent regulations.

While outdoor cannabis is not inherently moldy, outdoor farms are vulnerable to changing weather conditions. Wind transports spores, which can cause mold. Each spore is a colony forming unit if plated at a lab, even if not germinated in the final product. In other words, perfectly good cannabis can easily fail microbial testing with the presence of benign spores.

Fun Fact: one square centimeter of mold can produce over 2,065,000,000 spores.

If all of those landed on cannabis it would be enough to cause over 450 pounds of cannabis to fail testing, even if those spores remained ungerminated.

Photo credit: Steep Hill- a petri dish of mold growth from tested cannabis

It should also be known that almost every food item purchased in a store goes through some type of remediation method to be considered safe for sale. Cannabis is finally becoming a legitimized industry and we will see regulations that make cannabis production look more like food production each year.

Regulations in Colorado (as well as Nevada and Canada) require cannabis to have a total yeast and mold count (TYMC) of ≤ 10,000 colony forming units per gram. We needed a TYMC treatment method that was safe, reliable, efficient and suitable for a large-scale operation. Our main problem was the presence of fungal spores, not living, growing mold.

Below is a short list of the pros and cons of each treatment method I compiled after two years of research:

Autoclave: This is the same technology used to sterilize tattoo needles and medical equipment. Autoclave uses heat and pressure to kill living things. While extremely effective, readily available and fiscally reasonable, this method is time-consuming and cannot treat large batches. It also utilizes moisture, which increases mold risk. The final product may experience decarboxylation and a change in color, taste and smell.

Dry Heat: Placing cannabis in dry heat is a very inexpensive method that is effective at reducing mold and yeast. However, it totally ruins product unless you plan to extract it.

autoclave
An autoclave
Image: Tom Beatty, Flickr

Gamma Ray Radiation: By applying gamma ray radiation, microbial growth is reduced in plants without affecting potency. This is a very effective, fast and scalable method that doesn’t cause terpene loss or decarboxylation. However, it uses ionizing radiation that can create new chemical compounds not present before, some of which can be cancer-causing. The Department of Homeland Security will never allow U.S. cannabis farmers to use this method, as it relies on a radioactive isotope to create the gamma rays.

Gas Treatment: (Ozone, Propylene Oxide, Ethylene Oxide, Sulfur Dioxide) Treatment with gas is inexpensive, readily available and treats the entire product. Gas treatment is time consuming and must be handled carefully, as all of these gases are toxic to humans. Ozone is challenging to scale while PPO, EO and SO2 are very scalable. Gases require special facilities to apply and it’s important to note that gases such as PPO and EO are carcinogenic. These methods introduce chemicals to cannabis and can affect the end product by reducing terpenes, aroma and flavor.

Hydrogen Peroxide: Spraying cannabis plants with a hydrogen peroxide mixture can reduce yeast and mold. However, moisture is increased, which can cause otherwise benign spores to germinate. This method only treats the surface level of the plant and is not an effective remediation treatment. It also causes extreme oxidation, burning the cannabis and removing terpenes.

Microwave: This method is readily available for small-scale use and is non-chemical based and non-ionizing. However, it causes uneven heating, burning product, which is damaging to terpenes and greatly reduces quality. This method can also result in a loss of moisture. Microwave treatment is difficult to scale and is not optimal for large cultivators.

Radio Frequency: This method is organic, non-toxic, non-ionizing and non-chemical based. It is also scalable and effective; treatment time is very fast and it treats the entire product at once. There is no decarboxylation or potency loss with radio frequency treatment. Minimal moisture loss and terpene loss may result. This method has been proven by a decade of use in the food industry and will probably become the standard in large-scale treatment facilities.

Steam Treatment: Water vapor treatment is effective in other industries, scalable, organic and readily available. This method wets cannabis, introducing further mold risk, and only treats the product surface. It also uses heat, which can cause decarboxylation, and takes a long time to implement. This is not an effective method to reduce TYMC in cannabis, even though it works very well for other agricultural products

extraction equipment
Extraction can be an effective form of remediating contaminated cannabis

Extraction: Using supercritical gas such as butane, heptane, carbon dioxide or hexane in the cannabis extraction process is the only method of remediation approved by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and is guaranteed to kill almost everything. It’s also readily available and easy to access. However, this time-consuming method will change your final product into a concentrate instead of flower and usually constitutes a high profit loss.

UV Light: This is an inexpensive and readily available method that is limited in efficacy. UV light is only effective on certain organisms and does not work well for killing mold spores. It also only kills what the light is touching, unless ozone is captured from photolysis of oxygen near the UV lamp. It is time consuming and very difficult to scale.

After exhaustively testing and researching all treatment methods, we settled on radio frequency treatment as the best option. APEX, a radio frequency treatment machine created by Ziel, allowed us to treat 100 pounds of cannabis in an hour – a critical factor when harvesting 36,000 plants during the October harvest.