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Leaders in Extraction & Manufacturing: Part 5

By Aaron Green
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Cannabis extraction and manufacturing is big business in California with companies expanding brands into additional states as they grow. This is the fifth and final article in a series where we interview leaders in the California extraction and manufacturing industry from some of the biggest and most well-known brands.

In this week’s article, we talk with Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island. Kristen converted her experience in traditional consumer packaged goods to cannabis to help create a brand that is sought after by many. The interview with Kristen was conducted on August 21, 2020.

Aaron Green: Good afternoon Kristen, I am glad we were able to put this interview together. I know you have been very busy!

Kristen Suchanec: I’m so sorry this took so long to actually work! Thank you for bearing with me. I’m happy we are able to talk.

Aaron: Great! I like to start off the conversation with a question that helps our readers get to know you a little better. So, Kristen can you tell me how you got involved at Island?

Kristen Suchanec, VP of Production at Island

Kristen: My background is in manufacturing and planning for consumer packaged goods. I had a friend of a friend and we were just at a happy hour and I asked what he was up to. He was actually our VP of Finance at Island and he handed me a box of pre-rolled joints. They were our Island Minis and I thought it was a great customer experience. I loved the brand and packaging which made it a consumer product versus, you know, this was a few years back where cannabis wasn’t necessarily commoditized or branded. I got really excited about that because I feel like cannabis should be traditional CPG and it should appeal to different people and it should have different brands that appeal to those different groups. So I literally just started a conversation. His brother is our founder and CEO and they needed someone to run production so that was my background and it all kind of lined up and I ended up being employee number five at Island!

Aaron: Wow, employee number five – awesome! OK, great. That is some nice background about how you got involved at the company. The next questions get into product development and manufacturing. The first question is: what’s your decision process for starting a new product?

Kristen: Yea, we are right now owning the lane between cultivation and distribution. So, getting those raw materials for whether it be concentrates or flower and then converting them into that final packaging for everything. So that is what we focus on and spend all of our time with automation and trying to make that process as efficient as possible.

When we’re looking at a new product we’re not necessarily creating a new extraction, we are really looking at the market and the end consumer and what people want. At Island we’ve really focused on vape, pre-roll and packaged flower. Those are the three categories we are working on right now. We are expanding and looking to move more towards vape and live resins and specialty concentrated products that we haven’t really had in our portfolio before. What we would like to do is make sure we have the capability to manufacture that and then take a look at where we think the market is going. We are trying to go in the flower, pre-roll and vape because that is where we spent so much of our time getting pieces of automation so not everything we are bringing in house is manual.

Aaron: Now when you say the capability to manufacture that are you talking about from a packaging perspective or…?

Kristen: Yes, so we won’t do any extraction on site. It’s getting distillate, shatter and flower and then we take that and convert that either into pre-rolled joint, a package of flower or any other final product. So, we are looking at automating that packaging piece.

Aaron: Got it. OK, so the next question — and I think you kind of touched on this as well — are you involved in manufacturing to the extent that you are manufacturing the packaging?

Kristen: Yes absolutely. My whole team’s manufacturing is based out of Oakland. That’s where we do all the conversion of products. I oversee that entire team and have been really involved in a lot of the equipment that we have sourced and iterations that we’ve gone through to make sure that we’re able to automate as much as possible. We’ve really focused on the issue of weighing the material. For our flower line everything is weighed and put into a jar, capped, sealed and labeled for it to come off our lines. We don’t have anyone in packing or anything like that. Our pre-rolls manufacturing is an automated machine where it actually weighs the flower before going into the cone so we’re not having to weigh after the fact and take into account the weight of the cone because that’s so variable so we know that the customer is getting consistency. Then for the vapes, it’ssame thing – the volumetric doses everything.

I have to give my credit to everyone on the floor who is doing the day to day, they find so many new solutions since they are the ones that are hands on.  I am really involved in what new equipment we need, what problems we are looking to solve and what’s causing our bottlenecks so we can continue to improve our process week over week and year over year.

Aaron: We’ll dig into some of those problems in a bit. What is your process for not just starting new product but for developing a new product?

Kristen: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think it’s really interesting to see where the market is going. What’s selling really well and especially over the past year pre rolls have been a huge growth platform for us. And especially now, we’ve seen some changes because of COVID as well. We have single joints. But then we have our Minis, which I’ve mentioned before, which are half gram joints. We’re seeing sales on those actually increased because I think people are sharing joints as people want individual things because of this pandemic.

When we go through this process, we’re really – again – we’re so focused on what the consumer wants, and what we think is going to add to our portfolio. Then when marketing and our product team comes to me, we really focus on our machinery, what we can do with it currently, and if we would need something additional. So,we’re excited about expanding into 510s right now. We’re looking at how we can automate the process of capping – we can fill right now, but not cap. And then we also take a look at packaging.

I think it’s a little different than creating like a whole new product, extraction or anything like that, but we were looking at more sustainable options for packaging for child resistance because we’re trying to move away from barrier bags as much as possible. We’re looking at, okay, how many stickers do we need to put on there? What is the labor time going into each piece of product? And again, how are we eventually going to get some consistency across product lines, etc.

So, it’s really taking all three of those components, making sure we’re getting out the customer that feels like they want. I’m having it either fit into our process or again, then go through and look at what automations meanand automation equipment investment you want to make for long term future investments.

Aaron: Are you developing new products internally, or are you relying on outside manufacturers for that?

Kristen: Not everything we do is internal. We have a big network of, you know, cultivators and extractors we work with, but we’re in the midst of getting our own cultivation and manufacturing in house by working with other companies. So with that we’re doing everything.

Aaron: Do you ever bring in external product development consultants for helping out with your processes?

Kristen: No, we don’t bring in consultants. But we have brought in another brand into our fold via a brand called Neutron Genetics. That is part of our overall portfolio. We work very closely with the founder because he has a lot of trade secrets, a lot of his own processes to make sure you’re getting the best product for that specific brand.

Aaron: In your product development, what does getting stuck look like to you?

Kristen: That’s a good question. I think one of the biggest challenges is working with the plant itself, because it’s not consistent and it’s not homogenous. You could get the same strain from the same cultivator, but it’ll be a different batch. It might be a little stickier or a little larger, etc. When you’re looking at traditional manufacturing and automation, you want consistency, homogenized liquids, same viscosity every time, and we don’t have that because the plant itself is natural and is going to have all these different expressions depending on the batch and how it was grown and how it was trimmed even.“I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team.”

So, getting stuck means finding an off-the-shelf solution that might work for, you know, nuts and bolts or some kind of food production and then you’re going to have to convert it to actually work with the cannabis plant. So that’s what makes it so challenging, but also really exciting. In the bud, humidity and air can really throw off a manufacturing process which is really different than just doing beverages for example.

Getting stuck means really having to work with the plant concentrates specifically if you think about just the nature of those whether it be shatter, distillate or very sticky product. So again, working with machinery isn’t always what goes hand in hand. So, getting stuck is dealing with all those different formats and inconsistency using the same product day after day.

Aaron: It sounds like consistency is kind of a main topic here?

Kristen: Yeah, I think it depends on what product format we have. For example, about a year ago, we launched infused pre-rolls for Neutron where we’re putting flower, kief and shatter into a joint. So that’s going to perform differently on a piece of machinery than just straight flower.

I think it all depends on the product. Usually it happens when it’s in that machine, you’re trying to get a good flow and a good consistency. You want to have time studies, you know how long it takes to make each batch. But if a certain flower mix is performing differently, it’s getting the settings of the machine dialed, right? It’s also properly training personnel so people know how to react when things get going. Sometimes things get physically stuck in the machine as well, so to be able to react on that.

I think it’s really the proper equipment, the proper training and then, again, continuing to evolve as a team. So for our pre-roll machine, we are now on our third version of it, just because we kept running into the same roadblocks and I’m hoping that continues to evolve and we just continue to get better equipment year after year.

Aaron: I see, do you ever hire outside consultants when you do get stuck?

Kristen: We’ve worked closely with vendors. I will say that we’re not a machine shop or engineering firm. So we’re not the ones creating a lot of what we use on the floor. We’ve partnered with various vendors, which has been helpful, but we haven’t used external consultants.“When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see.”

Aaron: Okay, now imagine that you have a magic wand and somebody can come in and help you. What does your magic helper look like?

Kristen: I could probably make a really long list if I’m focusing on just my manufacturing and everything! I think the next thing which we’re already thinking about that magic wand is how to get a perfectly rolled joint without having so much manual human touch to it. And like I said, we’ve really attached to that weighing problem. And we’ve seen solutions out there that you know, claim to twist and have that “perfect roll” and you don’t need to even touch it. But I think the biggest challenge there is it depends how well it’s packed. You know, you don’t want it too tight. You don’t want it too loose for that customer experience. So getting that quality, if I could wave a magic wand where I’m putting in, you know, paper on one side and out comes perfectly rolled joints, that would be my magic wand for sure. Okay, I think there’s a lot of solutions out there but to get that quality and that consumer experience that we want, I haven’t seen working practice yet.

Aaron: Okay, What’s the what’s the most frustrating thing you’re going through with the business right now?

Kristen: Again, that could be a long list! I think from a more macro-level, it’s definitely the competition with the illicit market and just how there’s not enough outlets for legal cannabis right now in the state of California. When you see the huge potential and then see how much is taken out from illegal activity right now, it is frustrating to see. We’re going to get this growth and projection of the right number of dispensary licenses and things like that are definitely a huge frustration as well as with the tax structure right now because it’s obviously contributing to people going to the illicit market.

Aaron: So what are you following in the market? And what do you want to learn more about?

Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think the thing I’m most excited about for the larger population isjust more research to come out about the actual attributes of the plant, or how different cannabinoids react together and can have different effects. How terpenes can affect the high, how things can be used and distantly, recreationally, etc. And really, hopefully evolve and move away from strictly some sativa, hybrid,indica classifications, and really be able to educate the consumer more about the plant so people can have a more a personal relationship to understand how cannabinoids or specific terpenes are going to give them a different effect. And again, I think that’s so interesting because it could be used for therapeutic reasons that people do consume cannabis or it could just make it a better experience for people who want to take this as an escape or a way to relax and everything. So I’m really excited because more research is going to be able to get done and we can really learn more about how all of these things interact in the body and then people can take it to a whole new experience and be more educated all around.

Aaron: Alright that’s the end of the interview Kristen! Nice chatting and meeting you!

Kristen: Alright, thanks Aaron!

The Dawn of Delivery: How This Oregon Company Launched During a Pandemic

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in late 2016, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) legalized delivery for cannabis products. Since then, dispensaries could offer a delivery option for their customers to purchase cannabis products without leaving the comfort of their home. Up until quite recently, that market was dominated by a handful of dispensaries who also conduct business at their physical location, offering delivery as an option while conducting most sales in-person.

Enter Pot Mates. Founded in 2018 by Hammond Potter, the company embarked on the long regulatory road towards licensing and beginning operations. On April 20, 2020, Pot Mates opened for business, starting their engines to take on the fledgling cannabis delivery market in Portland.

Pot Mates is a tech startup through and through. The founders are former Apple employees. Hakon Khajavei, the chief marketing officer at Pot Mates, founded Blackline Collective, a business and marketing consultancy, which is where he joined the Pot Mates team. The other co-founder of Pot Mates and chief technology officer, Jason Hinson, joined after serving in the US Navy as an electronics technician maintaining satellite communications networks.

With the sheer amount of regulations for cannabis businesses, coupled with the new delivery-based business model, Pot Mates had to focus on technology and automation from the get-go.

Not Just an Online Dispensary

For the cannabis companies already offering delivery in the Portland metro area, their websites seem to mimic the in-person dispensary experience. They offer dozens of products for each category, like concentrates, edibles and flower, making a customer pour through options, all at different price points, which can get confusing for the average consumer.

The Pot Mates logo

Pot Mates does things a little differently. “Our start up process was thinking through how do we make this the best experience possible, how do we get rid of the unnecessary junk and how do we do things that only an online dispensary can do,” says Khajavei. They have flat pricing across the board. In each category, almost every product is priced the same, moving away from the common tiered-pricing model. This, Khajavei says, removes the decision barriers customers often face. Instead of choosing the right price point, they can choose the delivery mechanism and effect they desire uninhibited by a difference in cost.

It all comes back to focusing on the simplest way for someone to buy cannabis. “Shopping online is just very different,” says Khajavei. “Our process focuses on the customer journey and limits the number of products we offer. We have a mood system, where we tag our products from reviews to typify moods that you experience with different products.” All of that requires a lot of back-end technology built into their website.

The Long Regulatory Road

Technology has been a strong suit for Pot Mates since they opened their doors, and well before that too. Making the decision to be an online-only delivery cannabis company pushed them to pursue a very unique business model, but regulations dictate a lot of the same requirements that one might see in dispensaries.

Hakon Khajavei, Chief Marketing Officer

The same rules apply to them when Pot Mates submitted their license application. You need to have a signed lease, extreme security measures, detailed business plans, integrated seed-to-sale traceability software (Metrc in Oregon) and much more. “During the months leading up to getting our license, we were able to iron out a lot of the regulatory details ahead of time,” says Khajavei. A lot of that was about security and tracking their products, which is why technology plays such a huge role in their ongoing regulatory compliance efforts. “We built in a lot of automation in our system for regulatory compliance,” says Khajavei. “Because of our technology, we are a lot faster.”

In the end, their licensing process through the state of Oregon as well as the city of Portland took about nine months. Once they had the license, they could finally get down to business and begin the process of building their website, their POS system, their inventory and reaching out to partners, producers, distributors and growers.

For any cannabis company, there are a number of regulations unique to their business. “We need to report every product movement in house through Metrc,” says Khajavei. “Every time something is repackaged it needs to be reported. We focus so much on our technology and automation because these regulations force us to do so.” But delivery companies are required to report even more. Pot Mates needs to report every single movement a product makes until it reaches the customer. Before the delivery can leave the shop, it is reported to Metrc with an intended route, using turn-by-turn directions. It complicates things when you make two or more deliveries in one trip. Reporting a daisy chain of deliveries a vehicle makes with turn-by-turn directions to regulatory authorities can get very tedious.

As far as regulations go for delivery parameters, they can legally deliver anywhere inside Portland city limits. “It is our job to figure that out, not the customer’s job; so we don’t have any distance limits, as long as it is residential,” Khajavei says. “We programmed customized technology that allows us to handle really small orders.” Without a minimum order policy or a distance limit, Pot Mates can reach a much bigger group of consumers.

Launching in the Midst of a Global Pandemic

Chief Technology Officer, Jason Hinson

Luckily, the Pot Mates team received their license just in time. About two weeks after they submitted their application, Oregon put a moratorium on any new dispensaries.

They went forward with their launch on April 20 this year, despite the coronavirus pandemic impacting just about every business in the world, including their marketing efforts tremendously. With cannabis deemed essential by the state, they could operate business as usual, just with some extra precautions. What’s good for PotMates is that they don’t need to worry about keeping social distancing policies for customers or curbside pickup, given the lack of storefront.

They still need to keep their team safe though. The Pot Mates team began 3D printing washable and reusable face masks, getting more gloves for delivery drivers, cleaning their warehouse thoroughly, cleaning vehicles and making sure employees maintained distancing. Pot Mates is even 3D printing enough masks and donating them to local organizations that need access to masks. “As a cannabis company, we always have to handle things with gloves here and take necessary safety precautions anyway, so our response is more about how we can help than what we need to change.”

Advertising Cannabis in a Pandemic is No Easy Task

“The marketing aspect is where covid-19 really hurt us,” says Khajavei. “There are so many regulations for cannabis companies advertising already. Unlike other products, we can’t just put up advertisements anywhere. We have to follow very specific rules.” So, in addition to the normal marketing woes in the cannabis industry, the team then had to deal with a pandemic.

Pot Mates had to scrap their entire marketing strategy for 2020 and redo it. “We wanted to begin with a lot of face-to-face marketing at events, but that didn’t quite work out so well.” Without any concerts, industry events or large gatherings of any kind, Pot Mates had to pivot to digital marketing entirely. They started building their SEO, growing their following on social media, producing content in the form of blogs and education around cannabis and the local laws.

On an Upward Trajectory

Obviously, the short-term problem for a new cannabis company is reaching people, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. “We have a good trajectory though, we know we are growing our business, but we still have a ways to go,” says Khajavei. It doesn’t help that social media companies have nonsensical policies regarding cannabis. Their Facebook page was recently removed too.

Founder & CEO of Pot Mates, Hammond Potter

But the bigger issue here is kind of surprising when you first hear it: “It’s not even a matter of customer preference, a lot of people just have no idea that delivery is even legal.”

It’s pretty evident that cannabis delivery has not really gone mainstream yet. “We’ve told people about our business in the past and a common answer we get is, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even know we could get cannabis delivered.’” It’s never crossed their mind that they can get cannabis delivered to their home. It’s an awareness problem. It’s a marketing problem. But it’s a good problem to have and the solution lies in outreach. Through educational content they post on social media and in their blog, Khajavei wants to spread the word: “Hey, this is a real thing, you can get cannabis delivered.”

As the market develops and as consumers begin to key in on cannabis delivery, there’s nowhere to go but up. Especially in the age of Amazon and COVID-19 where consumers can get literally anything they can dream of delivered to their front door.

Moving forward, Pot Mates has plans to expand as soon as they can. Right now, they’re limited to Portland city limits, but there’s a massive population just outside of Portland in towns like Beaverton, Tigard and Tualatin. “We are so close to these population centers but can’t deliver to them now because of the rules. We want to work with OLCC about this and hopefully change the rules to allow us to deliver outside of the city limits,” says Khajavei. In the long term, they plan to expand out of state, with Washington on their north border being first on the docket.

To the average person, one would think launching a delivery cannabis business in the midst of a global pandemic would be a walk in the park, but Pot Mates proved it’s no easy task. As the market develops and the health crisis continues, it seems the Oregon market will react positively to the nascent delivery market, but first they need to know it is even an option.

The Brand Marketing Byte

Cannabis Brands in Culture: Tyson Ranch

By Cannabis Industry Journal Staff
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The Brand Marketing Byte showcases highlights from Pioneer Intelligence’s Cannabis Brand Marketing Snapshots, featuring data-led case studies covering marketing and business development activities of U.S. licensed cannabis companies.

Here is a data-led, shallow dive on the California brand, Tyson Ranch:

Tyson Ranch – Cannabis Brands in Culture

To just about every American, Mike Tyson is a household name, even after retiring from boxing for more than 15 years. For the uninitiated, Mike Tyson founded Tyson Ranch (TR), his cannabis licensing and branding company, about two years ago. The brand’s flower, extracts and infused products are distributed to dozens of dispensaries throughout California.

Last year, the brand developed plans for a boutique luxury resort outside of Palm Springs. About six months ago, the brand expanded its footprint to another state, with TR cannabis products showing up on dispensary shelves in Nevada.

Last week, Tyson Ranch gained some media attention, but this time not by anything Tyson himself had done. The Simpsons aired a cannabis-focused episode where they featured a character based on Tyson, Drederick Tatum, a former boxer who now resides in Springfield, the fictitious setting of the show. The episode’s storyline gives a major nod to the TR brand with a mention of an upscale luxury resort dedicated to cannabis.

That earned media attention helped Tyson Ranch soar in Pioneer’s weekly index of the hottest U.S. cannabis brands, earning TR the #2 spot. This also ends March with a bang for TR, climbing from the 40th position overall in February to the 28th presently.

The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management

By David Perkins
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Formulating a Plan

In this article you will learn how to control pests and improve the health of your cannabis plants using integrated pest management, commonly referred to as IPM. This involves a multi-point strategy – there is no quick fix, nor is there one solution that will wipe out all your pest problems. Proper pest management requires patience, consistency and determination.

It is important to understand that not all pesticides are bad. While many are incredibly harmful not only to pests, but also humans, in this article I will educate you about some of the safer alternatives to traditional pesticides. It is possible to safely control unwanted pests in your cannabis garden without harming yourself, your employees or the natural habitat around you.

Every cultivation facility should have a well-thought-out plan for their pest management program. This program should account for the prevention, and if necessary, eradication of: spider mites, russet mites, fungus gnats, root aphids, thrips and caterpillars. These are just a few of the more common pests you’ll find in a cannabis garden. There could also be many other less commonly known bugs, so you have to be vigilant in looking closely at your plants, and the soil, at all times. Complete eradication of a targeted pest can be difficult. Once a pest has established itself, decimating or decreasing the population will require an aggressive regimen that includes spraying daily to control populations and prevent other pests from getting established.

Spraying or applying pesticides to the foliage of plants isn’t the only way to control or eradicate pest populations. There are many other ways that you can minimize the spread of pests without the use of pesticides. In greenhouse and outdoor grows, growing specific types of plants around the cultivation area will attract both beneficial and predator bugs that will naturally control pest populations. Some plants that attract these bugs are: mint, peppers, and marigold. Beneficial and predator bugs, such as ladybugs, predator wasps and predator mites, can control unwanted pest populations in the area before they even have a chance to become a problem in your garden. Plants and flowers that attract bees, birds and insects will also create helpful bio- diversity, making it more difficult for the unwanted pests to thrive.

For indoor cultivation, it is imperative that you have your cultivation facility set up for a proper workflow. If you already have pests, you need to make sure you are not contaminating the rest of your facility when going from one area to the next. Make sure that you only go to contaminated areas at the very end of your day, and when you’re done working in that area, you must immediately exit the building. Do not ever walk back through the uncontaminated parts of your facility or the pests will spread quickly.

An aphid on a plant in a greenhouse

When most people think of pests in their cannabis garden they think of the more common varieties: spider mites, russet mites, aphids and thrips. However, there are also soil-dwelling pests that can exist, without your knowledge. These will decrease the health and vigor of your plants, without you even knowing they’re there, if you’re not careful to check for them. Some of the soil dwelling pests that plague cannabis plants are: root aphids, fungus gnat larvae and grubs. It is just as important to control the pests below the soil, feeding on your roots, as it is to control the pests that feed above soil on your plants.

Maintaining healthy plants is essential to controlling pest populations, both on the foliage and below the soil. Healthy plants will have an easier time fighting off pests than unhealthy plants. Plants have immune systems just like humans, and the stronger the plant’s immune system, the more likely it will be able to ward off pests and diseases. Allowing a plant to reach its full potential, by minimizing pests, means your plants will also have a better quality, smell and flavor, not to mention a bigger yield.

Worker Safety, Regulation and REI times

The application of pesticides requires certification from the state agricultural department. In certain situations, depending on the type of pesticide and method of application, a license may even be required. The application of pesticides without proper certification is against the law. Applying pesticides in a manner that is not in accordance with the label and instructions is also a violation of law.

The proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is required for anybody handling, mixing or applying pesticides. Employees can be a liability to your company if they are applying pesticides improperly. Make sure you and your entire staff are well educated about pesticide use requirements and limitations, prior to usage, and that only a properly certified person is handling the mixing and application at your facility.

The author, David Perkins, In his greenhouse after using insect killing soap.

After a pesticide is applied, you must abide by the re-entry interval (REI). This is the required time period limiting all workers from re-entry into areas where pesticides have been applied. This time period will vary depending on the type of pesticide used and the method of application. In some instances, pesticides applied in the last 30 days may require employee training before work can be done in those areas.

The misuse of or improper handling of pesticides is not only unlawful and dangerous to human health, but can also cause environmental damage to waterways and wildlife. The direct effects of pesticides on wildlife include acute poisoning, immunotoxicity, endocrine disruption, reproductive failure, altered morphology and growth rates and changes in behavior. Pesticides can indirectly impact wildlife through reduction of food resources and refuses, starvation due to decreased prey availability, hypothermia and secondary poisoning. Section 1602 of the California Fish and Game Code governs requirements for permitting of any project where pesticides will be used, and strictly regulates the disposal of all waste and run-off. It is imperative to know the regulations and to abide by them, or heavy fines will ensue!

Using Pesticides in a Regulated Market

Knowing which pesticides you can’t use, to avoid failing mandatory state testing, is just as important as knowing which ones you can use safely to pass required testing. Most states with regulated markets have strict limitations on the pesticides that can be used in cannabis cultivation. Pesticide use in the cultivation of cannabis is the most strictly regulated in the agriculture industry; the pesticides allowed for use in cannabis cultivation are far more limited than any other crop.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

Just because a product is certified organic does not mean that it can be used, or that it is safe to be consumed or ingested. Oftentimes when cannabis flower alone is tested it will not fail or show a detectable amount of pesticides or heavy metals. However, when that flower is turned into concentrates, banned substances are then detected in testing, leading to test failures.

Cannabis cultivation facilities that are located on land that was previously used for conventional agriculture, or located near vineyards or other agricultural crops that are heavily sprayed with harmful pesticides, run a very high-risk failing testing. This is because of either spray drift from nearby agriculture, or residual pesticides and heavy metals left in the soil from previous crops that were using pesticides banned for cannabis cultivation. Accordingly, if you’re going to be growing outdoors or in a greenhouse, it is imperative that you get a soil and water test prior to cultivation, so you can determine if there is any potential for test failures due to pesticides or heavy metals in the soil or water in that area. 

Proper Application – Using the Right Tools in the Right Way at the Right Time

One of the most important factors in pest management is proper identification of pests and proper application and coverage of pesticides. It does not require an entomology degree to identify insects, these days there is a lot of information online that can help you identify cannabis pests. Proper identification of insects can make the difference between success and failure. With a good eye and a microscope, if you do your research, you can control most insects in your garden.

In order to control pests in your garden you must get proper coverage of the foliage of the plant when you are applying pesticides. There are different types of equipment that are commonly used to apply pesticides in cannabis cultivation: backpack sprayers, foggers, and airless paint sprayers are the most common. An alternative method involves using an automated dosing system such as a dosatron, which injects fertilizer or pesticides at a specific ratio into your water lines, allowing you to use only the exact amount of pesticide you need. That way you avoid wasting money on unused pesticides. It is also safer for employees because it minimizes employee exposure, since there is no mixing required, and it allows for a large volume to be sprayed, without refilling a tank or a backpack sprayer.

No matter what you are using you must ensure you get the proper coverage on your plants in order to control pests. The temperature and humidity of your cultivation area, as well as the PH and temperature of the pesticide solution, all factor into the success of your IPM. For example, PFR 97 needs to be applied at a higher humidity range, around 70% to be most effective. In some areas this is not possible so repeated applications may be required to ensure the application is effective. A high PH or alkaline PH can cause alkaline hydrolysis which will make your pesticide solution less effective and will dictate how long your pesticides remain effective after they are mixed. It is therefore important to use your pesticide solution as soon as you make it; don’t let it sit around for long periods of time before use or it will be less effective.

In cannabis cultivation there are two different primary growth cycles: vegetative and flower. These cycles require different IPM strategies. In general, during the flowering cycle, pesticides should not be applied after the second week, with some limited exceptions i.e. for outdoor cultivation there is a longer window to spray since the flower set takes longer than a plant being grown inside, or in a light deprivation greenhouse, where there is a 12/12 flowering cycle.

Starting with an immaculate vegetation room is crucial to maintaining pest and mold free plants in the flowering cycle.

For the vegetative (non-flowering) cycle, a strict rotation of foliage spray applications targeting not only pests, but also molds and pathogens, will be necessary to avoid a quick onset of infestation. Starting with an immaculate vegetation room is crucial to maintaining pest and mold free plants in the flowering cycle. Preventative sprays that are safe for use include: safer soap (contact kill) for soft bodied chewing insects; Regalia (biological control) for powdery mildew; and PFR 97 (biological control) for soft bodied chewing insects. It is also helpful to spray kelp, which strengthens the cell walls of plants, making the plant healthier, and thus enabling the plant to better defend itself from pests and diseases. Also, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is useful to prevent or kill caterpillars.

The best way to control a pest infestation in the flowering cycle is at the very beginning on day one. You must start aggressively, with a three-way control consisting of a contact kill and preventative during days 1-14; preventative and biological control during days 10-18; and then release predator bugs on day 25, for optimal results. Knocking back the population with an effective contact kill pesticide early on is essential to ultimately lowering populations throughout the grow cycle, so that you can spray a biological control to preclude them from returning, before you release the predatory bugs at the end of the cycle.

Biological controls can take anywhere from 3 to 10 days before they are effective. Biological pesticides are selected strains of bacteria or fungus. When the plant tissue is eaten by a targeted pest, the bacteria kills the pest from the inside providing control without having to spray pesticides repeatedly. Predator bugs are the last line of defense, used in late flowering. They can be used indoors, outdoors and in greenhouses. An example of a common predator bug is Amblyseius californicus used to control low populations of spider mites, but there are many different varieties and they are specific depending on the type of pest population you seek to control.

A common concern with the use of predatory bugs, is whether they will be present when the flowers are harvested. However, if there is no food for the bugs (i.e. pests) the predator bugs will leave in search of food elsewhere. Further, indoor predator bugs are usually very small in size and difficult to see to an untrained eye. It is very unlikely to see any signs of predator bugs near the end of the flowering cycle, or in the finished flower product. Even when using bigger predator bugs, the bugs will leave the plants when harvested and dried.

Having pests can be very stressful. It is not uncommon to have bugs, pests, rodents, animals and birds cause damage in cannabis gardens. Making an informed decision based on science and not on unproven assumptions can determine how successful you are at pest management. There are many factors that go into pest management and no one situation is the same. You must be dedicated and consistent; pest management never stops. You will always have something ready to invade your garden. Prepare, plan, prevent and repeat!

Top 3 Ways Cultivation Methods Must Change with Regulations

By David Perkins
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There are obvious upsides and downsides to cannabis regulation. Gone are the days when it was a free for all, for outlaws growing in California’s hills, under the limited protections California’s medical cannabis laws provided. While there is no longer the threat of arrest and incarceration, for the most part, there are also a lot of hoops to jump through, and new rules and standards to contend with. This article highlights three areas in which your cultivation plan must necessarily change due to the new regulations.

1. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is limited

In the new regulated market, products that were once widely used are now no longer allowed. Prior to regulation, in the days of Prop 215, you could spray your plants with just about anything, since there was no testing mandated for the products that were being sold. However, people unfortunately got sick and experienced negative reactions, with products like Eagle 20, which contains mycobutinol, and Avid, which contains bifenthrin. Accordingly, under new regulations there are thankfully much more stringent standards dictating what pesticides can be used. It’s ironic that for most of the “medical marijuana” era in California there were no mandatory testing requirements for the THC content of your cannabis, let alone testing for toxins, including pesticides, molds or heavy metals.

You need to have a very thorough pest management plan to make sure your bug populations are always in check. Given that there are a small number of allowable products for pest control in the regulated market, this can be tricky. You need to be extremely familiar with what is and isn’t allowed in today’s regulations. You must also make sure that someone who is certified to apply pesticides is applying them.

Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

As a word of caution, there have been instances where approved pesticides were found to have old unused chemicals (that are not approved for use) from the manufacturing process in them. They may have only occurred in very small amounts, but they are harmful to humans and there is no lawful way to dispose of them.

Further, the presence of these harmful chemicals can cause your finished product to fail when undergoing mandated testing.

Rather than using risky chemicals, the best solution for (early detected) control of pests is the use of beneficial insects. Although they may not be the best solution for an infestation, predator bugs like Neoseiulus Californicus can efficiently control small populations of spider mites while ladybugs are good to limit aphids. Strategic planning of your IPM is one of the best ways to keep pest levels in check.

2. Plant size and plant count matter more than ever

Despite widespread legalization in the past few years for both the medical and recreational markets in the United States, the black market is still rampant and most cannabis is still being produced illegally in the US and internationally.

Maximizing plant canopy space is essential to a profitable business in today’s market

Generally speaking, in the black market, the less plants you have the better, as high plant counts lead to longer sentences of incarceration. With the passage of prop 215 in 1996, many growers, especially outdoor, started growing their plants as big as they possibly could because most limitations were based on plant counts. Some outdoor growers were able to cultivate plants that yielded over 10 pounds per plant. These days regulations are based on canopy measurements, meaning you can grow as many plants as you want within a defined, limited square footage area. This is where “light deprivation,” a method used to force plants into flowering, becomes favorable as it allows 2-4 harvests per year instead of just one. It is a much more intensive way of growing when you have tens of thousands of plants. While it is easier to plant, cultivate and harvest a larger number of smaller plants, it also requires a much more detailed level of planning and organization.

In order to achieve 4 harvests per year, you must have a well thought out cultivation plan and an all-star staff, but if you are able to accomplish this, you can increase your revenue significantly. Maximizing plant canopy space is essential to a profitable business in today’s market, and to do that will require more detailed planning, better organization and proper crop management.

3. How you grow and what equipment you use

With regulation comes liability for defects or injury. It is essential that all equipment used is approved for its intended use. Traditionally, cannabis was cultivated in secrecy in the black market. This led to many unsafe grow rooms being built by people who did not have the proper skills to be undertaking projects such as converting a garage into a grow room or handling the electrical and plumbing running into them. Accordingly, there were many instances of damages to property or injuries to people because of this. Now that counties and states permit cannabis cultivation facilities, the infrastructure and labor that is done must meet regulated building codes and general safety requirements. It is therefore imperative to know the codes and regulations and hire a professional that does, to ensure you meet the standards in order to avoid potential liability.

Larger scale cultivation requires bigger and more expensive equipment. Cultivation facilities are more likely to have sophisticated equipment, such as chiller systems, that are designed to control the grow room environment. While very efficient, some are not intended to be used specifically for cannabis cultivation, and can therefore be difficult to control and maintain. They perform very specific functions, and when not properly tuned to your conditions, can malfunction by prioritizing dehumidification over cooling. This can be a real challenge in warmer climates when temperatures rise, requiring cooling, but also necessitate removal of moisture from the cultivation space.

Larger scale cultivation requires bigger and more expensive equipment.

On the other hand, there is new technology that can make a huge difference in the success of your cultivation. I recently worked with two different companies that specialize in root zone heating systems. One manufactured equipment for root zone heating and cooling of 10k sq ft raised beds that had never been used in California previously. The other company specialized in root zone heating using radiant floor heat. They both worked as intended to maintain a constant root zone temperature, which increased plant health, and ultimately increased yield.

Many counties require data collection from your cultivation, requiring you to track the amount of water and nutrients used. Therefore, another useful tool you can use to increase efficiency, is data collection software that will allow you to collect different information about the amount of water and nutrients used, as well as specific information about the conditions in your grow medium. You can also record and display temperature and humidity readings in your grow room, in real time remotely through Wi-Fi, that you can then access from your phone or computer from anywhere in the world. This can be a useful tool when documenting information that your county, state or investors may require from you. Further, the ability to collect and analyze data will allow you to identify areas of inefficiency in order to correct and optimize your grow room’s potential. While you can achieve these same goals with simple in-line water meters, keeping track of nutrients and pesticides is not as easy. Data collection in the most basic form, using a pen and paper, can be an inaccurate and an inefficient use of time, and can easily be misplaced or ruined. Therefore, simple data software collection programs are the best solution to make the process simple and hassle free.

While it is nice to have state of the art equipment, if it does not work properly, or cannot be easily maintained, it will not be worth it in the long run and you will never see a return on your investment. Innovation comes with a price; using equipment that is cutting edge can be risky, but on the flip side, when done properly it can give you a big advantage over your competitors.

In switching from the black market to the regulated market, these three areas have proven to be the biggest areas of change and have presented the biggest challenges. It is important you consider these necessary changes, and make a solid plan before you begin your cultivation. This is where a cultivation consultant can help.

dry cannabis plants

How to Grow Cannabis Plants for Concentrate Production

By Andrew Myers
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dry cannabis plants

While flower is still the most popular way to consume cannabis, the concentrates market is booming. Some predict concentrates will be nearly as popular as flower by 2022, with an estimated $8.5 billion in retail sales. That’s a lot of concentrates and, chances are, cannabis producers are already feeling the pressure to keep up.

Concentrates refer to products made from processing cannabis – often resulting in much higher THC or CBD percentages. The category includes oils, wax, dabs, shatter, live resin and hash. Consumers are increasingly drawn to these cannabis products for their near-immediate and intense effects. They’re often consumed through vaporization, dabbing or sublingual absorption and are sometimes favored by those who want to avoid smoking. Cannabis growers who have traditionally focused on flower yields may decide to prioritize quality and potency levels in order to tap into these changing consumer tastes.

What Growers Should Focus on to Produce High Quality Concentrates
We’ll let you in on a little secret: making good concentrates starts with good flower. If you’re starting with low-quality flower, it’s impossible to create a high-quality concentrate. Whatever qualities inherent to the flower you’re starting with will be amplified post-processing. So, really, the concentrate-making process starts at the seedling level, requiring the right care and attention to coax out the results you’re looking for.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), just one of hundreds of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

But what makes good flower? While this can be a subjective question, those producing concentrates generally look for flowers with big, abundant trichomes. Trichomes are the small, dewy structures found across the cannabis plant on buds, leaves and even the stem. They’re responsible for producing the plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes – the chemical compounds that give a strain its unique benefits, aroma and taste. Evolutionarily, trichomes attract pollinators, deter hungry herbivores and provide some defense against wind, cold and UV radiation.

Generally, trichomes indicate how potent the flower is. Plus, what we’re most often looking for when making concentrates is higher cannabinoid and terpene profiles, while also ensuring absolute safety.

What measures can growers take to produce crops that are ideal for concentrate production? Start with the following:

Avoiding Contaminants
Just like you would wash your fruits and vegetables before consumption, consumers want to be sure there’s no dangerous residuals in the concentrate they are ingesting. Growers can avoid any post-process residuals by taking a few key steps, including:

  • Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

    Cutting out the pesticides. Any pesticides that are on your flowers before they go through processing will show up in your concentrates, often even more – you guessed it – concentrated. This is a serious health concern for consumers who might be sensitive to certain chemicals or have compromised immune systems. It’s dangerous to healthy consumers, too. Rather than spraying hazardous chemicals, growers could consider integrated pest management techniques, such as releasing predatory insects.

  • Limiting foliar spraying. Some growers will use foliar spraying to address nutrient deficiency or pest-related issues through delivering nutrients straight to the leaves. However, this can also result in contaminated concentrates. If you really need to spray, do it during the vegetative stage or investigate organic options.
  • Taking the time to flush the crop. This is a critical step in reducing potential contaminants in your concentrate, especially if you’re using a non-organic nutrient solution or fertilizer. Flushing simply means only giving your plants water during the final two weeks of flowering before harvest, resulting in a cleaner, non-contaminated flower and therefore a cleaner concentrate.

Perfecting the Indoor Environment
When cultivating cannabis indoors, growers are given ultimate control over their crop. They control how much light the plants receive, the lighting schedule, temperature and humidity levels. Creating the ideal environment for your cannabis crop is the number one way to ensure healthy plants and quality concentrates. There are many factors to consider when maintaining an indoor grow:

  • Temperature regulation. Trichomes are sensitive to temperature changes and start to degrade if they’re too hot or too cold. To maintain the best trichome structure, you’ll want to maintain an ideal temperature – for most strains, this falls between an idyllic 68 and 77 degrees.
  • Adequate light. For plants to perform photosynthesis indoors, they’ll need an appropriate light source – preferably one that is full-spectrum. Full-spectrum LEDs are able to closely replicate the sun and provide ample, uniform light to your crop. Another selling point for LEDs is their low heat output, making it much easier for growers to regulate ambient heat.

    dry cannabis plants
    Rows of cannabis plants drying and curing following harvest
  • CO2. Another necessary ingredient for photosynthesis is CO2. Providing your indoor crops with CO2 can boost plant size and yields and, therefore, provides more surface area for trichomes to develop and thrive.
  • Cold snap prior to harvest. Some growers rely on this age-old tactic for one last push before harvest – lowering their temperature for a few days right at the end of the flower cycle. They believe this puts the plants into a defense mode and will produce more trichomes in order to protect themselves.

Following Best Practices Post-Harvest
You made it to harvest – you’re almost done!

When harvesting and storing your plants, handle them with care to reduce damage to trichomes. If you’re planning on immediately making concentrates, you can move forward to the drying and curing process. If you’re going to wait a few weeks before processing, freeze your plants. This will preserve the cannabinoid and terpene profiles at their peak.

As the cannabis industry continues to expand, more consumers are likely to reach for concentrates at their local dispensaries. It makes sense that businesses want to diversify their offerings to satisfy customers looking for the most effective way to consume cannabis. As with any cannabis-derived product, producers will want to prioritize quality and safety – especially in the concentrate market.

Soapbox

Increase Density in your Canopy

By Carl Silverberg
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One goal all growers seem to agree on is the need to increase density in their houses. How that gets done, well, there are a variety of ways and here’s one way a grower chose to do it:

With 45,000 square feet of greenhouse space, Nathan Fumia, a cannabis grower and consultant for a commercial operation in California, wasn’t pleased with what he was seeing. “If I put my hand inside the canopy and I can see sunlight on it, I’m losing money,” was how he described the situation. Unfortunately, the operators and staff of the greenhouse disagreed. They thought increasing density would rob the leaves of needed light.

He chose to test his theory by increasing the number of plants on one of his benches from 140 to 150 plants. To ensure the validity of the research, Nathan grew the same strain on Bench 1 as Bench 2, and to make sure all the metrics were equal, he even processed the crops separately. After weighing, Bench 2 (his research bench) showed an 8% higher yield than Bench 1.

“The post-harvest data from the weight, yield confirmed my decision to maximize density by increasing the total number of plants per bench,” says Fumia. “Whenever I saw red on the canopy heat map from LUNA, I knew there was room for improvement and I knew that I wasn’t making the money that I should have from those areas.”

His next challenge was where to place the extra ten plants? Did it make a difference or could he just shove 150 plants in a space that was originally planned for 140? Again, his greenhouse system was able to pinpoint the best sub-sections on the benches and Nathan was able to see exactly which plants were growing the fastest. That also gave him the ability to understand why certain quadrants of the bench were doing better than others.

“We were able to determine which quadrant on which bench was already at 100% density, and determine which quadrant wasn’t. Without that data, it would have been pure guesswork.”

He dialed down even further to find out which cultivars grew the best on a particular bench in the greenhouse. “Some cannabis cultivars need more light, some need less, some need warmer climates, and some need cooler climates,” Fumia noted. “Additionally, in order to increase the density of flowering points/buds, we began focusing on better pruning techniques in the vegetative phase, directly increasing branches for flowering.”

With optimization even more important now than it was 12-18 months ago, Nathan summed up the impact on his bottom line. “With a crop cycle averaging just over six a year, at that time we were averaging $600-$800 a pound depending on the strain. Some were even more. Ten extra plants per bench per cycle was a nice bounce for us.”

Obviously, this isn’t the only way to increase density. What’s your suggestion? Share your ideas with the rest of us by posting your comments below.

dry cannabis plants

Moisture Matters: Why Humidity Can Make or Break a Cannabis Cultivator’s Bottom Line

By Sean Knutsen
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dry cannabis plants

Vintners have known for centuries that every step in the winemaking process—from cultivation and harvest techniques to fermentation, aging and bottling—has immense impact on the quality and value of the final product.

And that same level of scrutiny is now being applied to cannabis production.

As someone who has worked in the consumer-packaged goods (CPG) space for decades, I’ve been interested in finding out how post-harvest storage and packaging affect the quality and value of cannabis flower. After digging into the issue some more, storage conditions and humidity levels have indeed come into focus as major factors, beyond just the challenges of preventing mold.

Weighty Matters

I enlisted my research team at Boveda, which has studied moisture control in all manner of manufactured and natural CPG products, to look closer at what’s happening with cannabis once it leaves the cultivation room. There’s not a lot of research on cannabis storage—we checked—and so we explored this aspect further. We were frankly surprised by what a big effect evaporation has on quality and how this is playing out on the retail level.

We suspected moisture loss could affect the bottom line too, and so we did some number-crunching.

It’s well understood that the weight of cannabis flower directly correlates with its profitability—the heavier the yield, the higher the market value. Here’s what our analysis found: A mere 5% dip below the optimal relative humidity (RH) storage environment eliminates six pounds per every 1,000 pounds of cannabis flower. At $5 per gram wholesale, that works out to upwards of $13,500 in lost revenue—and that’s with just a 5% drop in RH below the target range of 55-65% established by ASTM International, an independent industry standards organization.

We also purchased flower at retailers in multiple state markets and commissioned a lab to test the samples, which revealed that most strains sold today are well below the optimal RH range (55-65%). Regardless of fluctuating wholesale prices, when you do the math it’s clear that tens of thousands of dollars in revenue are simply evaporating into thin air.

Why So Dry?

Historically, cultivators, processors and packagers have emphasized keeping flower below a particular humidity “ceiling” for a reason: Flower that’s too moist is prone to hazardous mold and microbial growth, so it’s understandable that many operators err on the side of being overly dry.

The misconception that cannabis flower can be “rehydrated” is another cause of dryness damage. But this method irrevocably damages the quality of the flower through trichome damage.

trichome close up
The fine outgrowths, referred to as trichomes, house the majority of the plant’s resin

Those delicate plant structures that house the all-important cannabinoids and terpenes become brittle and fragile when stored in an overly dry environment, and are prone to breaking off from the flower; they cannot not be recovered even if the flower is later rehydrated.

When trichomes are compromised, terpenes responsible for the aroma, taste and scent of cannabis also can evaporate. Overly dried-out cannabis doesn’t just lose weight and efficacy—it loses shelf appeal, which is particularly risky in today’s market.

Today’s consumers have an appreciation for how premium flower should look, smell and taste. Rehydration cannot put terpenes back in the flower, nor can it re-attach trichomes to the flower, which is why preservation of these elements is so key.

Cannabis Humidity Control

Cured cannabis flower can remain in storage potentially for months prior to sale or consumption. By the time it reaches the end consumer, much of the cannabis sold in regulated environments in the U.S. and Canada has suffered from dry damage.

dry cannabis plants
Rows of cannabis plants drying and curing following harvest

There are various humidity controls available for cannabis cultivators: desiccants that absorb water vapor; mechanical equipment that alters RH on a larger scale; or two-way humidity-control packets designed for storage containers.

In the CPG sector, with other moisture-sensitive products such as foods and electronics, we’ve seen that employing humidity controls will preserve quality, and cannabis flower is no different.

Saltwater-based humidity control solutions with two-way vapor-phase osmosis technology automatically add or remove water vapor as needed to maintain a constant, predetermined RH level and ensures a consistent level of moisture weight inside the cannabis flower.

Here’s one more notable finding we discovered in our storage research: Third-party lab tests commissioned by Boveda showed cannabis stored with humidity control had terpene and cannabinoid levels that were 15% higher than cannabis stored without.

Cannabis stored within the optimal humidity range maximizes all the qualities that attract and retain customers. Similar to wine-making, when cannabis cultivators focus on quality control they need to look beyond the harvest.

Fungal Monitoring: An Upstream Approach to Testing Requirements

By Bernie Lorenz, PhD
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Mold is ubiquitous in nature and can be found everywhere.1 Cannabis growers know this all too well – the cannabis plant, by nature, is an extremely mold-susceptible crop, and growers battle it constantly.

Of course, managing mold doesn’t mean eradicating mold entirely – that’s impossible. Instead, cultivation professionals must work to minimize the amount of mold to the point where plants can thrive, and finished products are safe for consumption.

Let’s begin with that end in mind – a healthy plant, grown, cured and packaged for sale. In a growing number of states, there’s a hurdle to clear before the product can be sold to consumers – state-mandated testing.

So how do you ensure that the product clears the testing process within guidelines for mold? And what tools can be employed in biological warfare?

Mold: At Home in Cannabis Plants

It helps to first understand how the cannabis plant becomes an optimal environment.

The cannabis flower was designed to capture pollen floating in the air or brought by a pollinating insect.

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

Once a mold spore has landed in a flower, the spore will begin to grow. The flower will continue to grow as well, and eventually, encapsulate the mold. Once the mold is growing in the middle of the flower, there is no way to get rid of it without damaging the flower.

A Name with Many Varieties

The types of spores found in or around a plant can make or break whether mold will end with bad product.

Aspergillus for example, is a mold that can produce mycotoxins, which are toxic to humans2. For this reason, California has mandatory testing3for certain aspergillus molds.

Another example, Basidiospores, are found outside, in the air. These are spores released from mushrooms and have no adverse effects on cannabis or a cannabis cultivation facility.

Fungi like powdery mildew and botrytis (PM and Bud Rot) typically release spores in the air before they are physically noticed on plants. Mold spores like these can survive from one harvest to the next – they can be suspended in the air for hours and be viable for years.

How Mold Travels

Different types of spores – the reproductive parts of mold – get released from different types of mold. Similar to plants and animals, mold reproduces when resources are deemed sufficient.

The opposite is also true that if the mold is under enough stress, such as a depleting nutrient source, it can be forced into reproduction to save itself.4

In the end, mold spores are released naturally into the air for many reasons, including physical manipulation of a plant, which, of course, is an unavoidable task in a cultivation facility.5

Trimming Areas: A Grow’s Highest Risk for Mold

Because of the almost-constant physical manipulation of plants that happen inside its walls, a grow’s trimming areas typically have the highest spore counts. Even the cleanest of plants will release spores during trimming.

Best practices include quality control protocols while trimming

These rooms also have the highest risk for cross contamination, since frequently, growers dry flower in the same room as they trim. Plus, because trimming can be labor intensive, with a large number of people entering and leaving the space regularly, spores are brought in and pushed out and into another space.

The Battle Against Mold

The prevalence and ubiquitous nature of mold in a cannabis facility means that the fight against it must be smart, and it must be thorough.

By incorporating an upstream approach to facility biosecurity, cultivators can protect themselves against testing failures and profit losses.

Biosecurity must be all encompassing, including everything from standard operating procedures and proper environmental controls, to fresh air exchange and surface sanitation/disinfection.

One of the most effective tactics in an upstream biosecurity effort is fungal monitoring.

Ways to Monitor Mold

Determining the load or amount of mold that is in a facility is and always will be common practice. This occurs in a few ways.

Post-harvest testing is in place to ensure the safety of consumers, but during the growing process, is typically done using “scouting reports.” A scouting report is a human report: when personnel physically inspect all or a portion of the crop. A human report, unfortunately, can lead to human error, and this often doesn’t give a robust view of the facility mold picture.

Another tool is agar plates. These petri dishes can be opened and set in areas suspected to have mold. Air moves past the plate and the mold spores that are viable land on the dishes. However, this process is time intensive, and still doesn’t give a complete picture.

Alternatively, growers can use spore traps to monitor for mold.

Spore traps draw a known volume of air through a cassette.The inside of the cassette is designed to force the air toward a sticky surface, which is capable of capturing spores and other materials. The cassette is sent to a laboratory for analysis, where they will physically count and identify what was captured using a microscope.

Spore trap results can show the entire picture of a facility’s mold concerns. This tool is also fast, able to be read on your own or sent to a third party for quick and unbiased review. The information yielded is a useful indicator for mold load and which types are prevalent in the facility.

Spore Trap Results: A Story Told

What’s going on inside of a facility has a direct correlation to what’s happening outside, since facility air comes infromthe outside. Thus, spore traps are most effective when you compare a trap inside with one set outside.

When comparing the two, you can see what the plants are doing, view propagating mold, and understand which of the spore types are only found inside.

Similar to its use in homes and businesses for human health purposes, monitoring can indicate the location of mold growth in a particular area within a facility.

These counts can be used to determine the efficacy of cleaning and disinfecting a space, or to find water leaks or areas that are consistently wet (mold will grow quickly and produce spores in these areas).

Using Spore Traps to See Seasonality Changes, Learn CCPs

Utilizing spore traps for regular, facility-wide mold monitoring is advantageous for many reasons.

One example: Traps can help determine critical control points (CCP) for mold.

What does this look like? If the spore count is two times higher than usual, mitigating action needs to take place. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies like cleaning and disinfecting the space, or spraying a fungicide, are needed to bring the spore count down to its baseline.

For example, most facilities will see a spike in spore counts during the times of initial flower production/formation (weeks two to three of the flower cycle).

Seasonal trends can be determined, as well, since summer heat and rain will increase the mold load while winter cold may minimize it.

Using Fungal Monitoring in an IPM Strategy

Fungal monitoring – especially using a spore trap – is a critical upstream step in a successful IPM strategy. But it’s not the only step. In fact, there are five:

  • Identify/Monitor… Using a spore trap.
  • Evaluate…Spore trap results will indicate if an action is needed. Elevated spore counts will be the action threshold, but it can also depend on the type of spores found.
  • Prevention…Avoiding mold on plants using quality disinfection protocols as often as possible.
  • Action…What will be done to remedy the presence of mold? Examples include adding disinfection protocols, applying a fungicide, increasing air exchanges, and adding a HEPA filter.
  • Monitor…Constant monitoring is key. More eyes monitoring is better, and will help find Critical Control Points.

Each step must be followed to succeed in the battle against mold.

Of course, in the battle, there may be losses. If you experience a failed mandatory product testing result, use the data from the failure to fix your facility and improve for the future.

The data can be used to determine efficacy of standard operating procedures, action thresholds, and other appropriate actions. Plus, you can add a spore trap analysis for pre- and post- disinfection protocols, showing whether the space was really cleaned and disinfected after application. This will also tell you whether your products are working.

Leveraging all of the tools available will ensure a safe, clean cannabis product for consumers.


References

  1. ASTM D8219-2019: Standard Guide for Cleaning and Disinfection at a Cannabis Cultivation Center (B. Lorenz): http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/resolver.cgi?D8219-19
  2. Mycotoxin, Aspergillus: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mycotoxins
  3. State of California Cannabis Regulations: https://cannabis.ca.gov/cannabis-regulations/
  4. Asexual Sporulation in Aspergillus nidulans (Thomas H. Adams,* Jenny K. Wieser, and Jae-Hyuk Yu):  https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7eb1/05e73d77ef251f44a2ae91d0595e85c3445e.pdf?_ga=2.38699363.1960083875.1568395121-721294556.1562683339
  5. ASTM standard “Assessment of fungal growth in buildings” Miller, J. D., et al., “Air Sampling Results in Relation to Extent of Fungal Colonization of Building Materials in Some Water Damaged Buildings,” Indoor Air, Vol 10, 2000, pp. 146–151.
  6. Zefon Air O Cell Cassettes: https://www.zefon.com/iaq-sampling-cassettes

Why the Central Chiller Isn’t So Central to Grow Room HVAC

By Geoff Brown
1 Comment

There’s a better way to design HVAC for cannabis grow rooms, and it may seem a little odd at first.

Central chillers are a tried-and-true solution for projects requiring large refrigeration capacity. They’re found in college campuses, hospitals, office buildings and other big facilities.

While central chillers are a good default for most large-scale applications, they fall short in this industry. Grow rooms, with their need for tight, variable conditions and scalable, redundant infrastructure, have HVAC requirements that the central chiller model simply can’t deliver on.

Let’s unpack the shortcomings with the central chiller in this niche and explore some possible solutions.

What’s Wrong With Chillers?

Building a scalable HVAC system is essential for the cannabis industry as it continues to ramp up production in the U.S. and Canada.

Many growers are building their large facilities in phases. In Canada, this is common because growers must have two harvests before they can receive a production permit, so they build just one phase to satisfy this requirement and then build out the facility after the government’s approval.

This strategy of building out is less feasible with a central chiller.

solsticegrowop_feb
Indoor cultivator facilities use high powered lights that give off heat, requiring an efficient air cooling system.

A chiller and its supporting infrastructure are impractical to expand, which means it and the rest of the facility needs to be built to full size for day one, even though the facility will be in partial occupancy for a long time. This results in high upfront capital costs.

If the facility needs to expand later down the road, to meet market demand for example, that will be difficult because, as mentioned, it’s expensive to add capacity to a central chiller.

Additionally, the chiller creates a central point of failure for the facility. When it goes down, crops in every room are at risk of potentially devastating loss. Grow rooms are unusual because of their requirement for strict conditions and even a slight change could have big impact on the crop. Losing control due to mechanical failure could spell disaster.

One Southern Ontario cannabis grower met with some of these issues after constructing their facility, which uses a central chiller for cooling and dehumidification. The chiller was built for full size, but the results were disappointing as early as phase one of cultivation. While sensible demands in the space are being easily met, humidity levels are out of control – flowering rooms are up to 75% RH.

Humidity is one of the most important control aspects to growers. Without a handle on it, growers risk losing their entire crop either because there’s not enough and the plants dry out, or there’s too much and the plants get mold disease. This facility has fortunately not yet reported serious crop issues but is mindful of the potential impact on harvest quality.

By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.If tight control over humidity is what you need, then a chilled water system needs very careful consideration. That’s because typical chiller system designs get the coils cold enough to lower the air temperature, but not cold enough to condense water out of the air as effectively as a properly designed dehumidifier coil.

A chilled water system capable of achieving the coil temperatures needed for adequate dehumidification in a typical flower room will also require full-time reheat to ensure that air delivered to the plants isn’t shockingly cold — either stunting their growth or killing them altogether. This reheat source adds complexity, cost and inefficiency which does not serve growers well, many of whom are under pressure from both utilities and their management to minimize their energy usage.

How Do Unitary Systems Solve These Problems?

Compared to central chillers, a unitary setup is more agile.

A facility can commence with the minimum capacity it needs for start-up and then add more units in the future as required. They’re usually cheaper to install than a central system and offer several reliability and efficiency benefits as well.

The real business advantage to this approach is to open up the grower’s cash flow by spreading out their costs over time, rather than a large, immediate cost to construct the entire facility and chiller for day one. By going unitary, capital costs scale on a linear basis.

Talltrees
One of the flowering rooms in an indoor set up (Image: Tall Trees LED Company)

Growers can have more control over their crop by installing multiple units to provide varying conditions, room-by-room, instead of a single system that can only provide one condition.

For example, flowering rooms that each have different strains of crop may require different conditions – so they can be served by their own unit to provide variability. Or, rooms that need uniform conditions could just be served by one common unit. The flexibility that growers can enjoy with this approach is nearly unlimited.

Some growers have opted for multiple units installed for the same room, which maximizes redundancy in case one unit fails.

A cannabis facility in the Montreal area went this direction when building their HVAC system. Rather than build everything in one shot, this facility selected a unitary design that had flowering rooms served independently by a series of units, while vegetation rooms shared one. The units were sized to provide more capacity than currently required in each room, which allows the grower to add more plants and lighting in the future if they choose.

This facility expects to build more grow rooms in a future phase, so it was important to have an intelligent system that could accommodate that by being easy to add capacity to. This is accomplished by simply adding more units.Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment.

The grower, after making a significant investment in this facility, was also averse to the risk of losing crop due to mechanical failure, which is why they were happy to go with a system of independent grow room control.

Multiple, small systems also have a better return-on-investment. Not only are they easier to maintain (parts are easier to switch out and downtime for maintenance is minimal) but they can actually be more efficient than a large, central system.

Some units include heat recovery, which recycles the heat created by the dehumidification process to efficiently reheat the unit’s cold discharge air and keep the space temperature consistent, without needing expensive supplementary heaters. There’s also economizer cooling, which can be used to reduce or even eliminate compressor usage during winter by running the unit on dry outside air only.

Demand for cannabis continues to increase and many growers are looking to expand their businesses by adding new facilities or augmenting existing ones. Faced with the limitations of the traditional chiller system, like the lack of flexibility, scalability and redundancy, they’re looking for an intelligent alternative and the unitary approach is earning their trust. It’s expected this option will soon become the leading one across North America.