There are a lot of risks throughout the entire supply chain in the cannabis and hemp markets. Legal and regulatory issues, quality control reliability, security problems, product safety, potency, and constantly changing supply and demand are just a few major risks cannabis operators must stay on top of. A lot of companies mitigate these risks by implementing programs to find the source and figure out what actions could alleviate it. Those actions can look like reviewing testing or certification reports, auditing supplier facilities, and much more.
Jennifer Lott, AMAS Service Delivery Director for the standards certification body, BSI, has over 25 years of experience in quality, safety, lab management, consulting, packaging, and systems development. She’s an expert in GMP, ISO 22716, 21 CFR 117, 21 CFR 111, 21 CFR 210-111, ICH Q7, WHO GDP, RSPO, food safety, GMP/HACCP and much more.
She is a panelist for an upcoming webinar, Supply Chain Risks in Hemp and Cannabis June 27, 2023. During that webinar, she’ll join other experts where they’ll discuss some of the supply chain risks cannabis companies face and what they can do to mitigate those risks.
Ahead of her webinar, where she’ll take a deep dive into supply chain risks, we sat down with Lott to get a preview for what she’ll talk about.
Q: What are the major supply chain issues faced by the cannabis and hemp markets currently?
Jennifer Lott: The U.S. market remains highly complicated for cannabis companies and investors. Fewer than half of U.S. states and territories have legalized recreational cannabis use as of Nov. 2022.
To this day, cannabis is still a Schedule one substance under the Controlled Substances Act, alongside drugs like heroin, LSD and ecstasy – an issue that has led to several regulatory and fiduciary challenges for growers, processors, and distributors of cannabis/hemp.
Legal concerns aside, cannabis companies operate much like other businesses and face almost the same exposures that most enterprises do. Here are the top risks cannabis businesses encounter, according to experts.
Distribution – Current regulations prevent products from one state to be transported to another state.
Natural disasters – including wildfires, storms, and flooding, can easily damage crops
Cybersecurity – Because of the type of information that cannabis companies handle, they can also become a prime target for hackers.
Despite the supply chain challenges mentioned above, the cannabis industry is growing, and its use is becoming more accepted in society, but still faces major challenges. These trends also will create a volatile and fast-changing environment cannabis companies in 2023. The big challenge will be deciding which of the scores of startups, IPOs and established cannabis companies can surmount the upheaval and succeed long term.
Q: How are companies mitigating risks and what tools are at its disposal?
Lott: Anyone involved in the cannabis/hemp business knows they need to manage their risk with a solid risk management plan.
The three biggest risks facing cannabis/hemp businesses aside from the supply chain issues mentioned above, include:
Employee theft – employees have easy access to the product, run cash registers at dispensaries, and generally know a lot about the inner workings of the company. Protecting against insider theft is critical for the business.
Product tampering – this can happen at any stage in the supply chain. Businesses whose products cause harm could be liable for injury and damages.
Compliance regulations – compliance varies from state to state and laws are frequently changing.
Thanks to regulatory uncertainty and limited access to tools other industries have access to, the cannabis industry likely will have an increased risk profile for the foreseeable future. This heightens the need for a structured, risk management approach. However, even with so many external factors out of its control, cannabis companies still can dramatically decrease risks by addressing internal strategies and processes.
Cannabis companies with effective, relevant, and well-documented risk management practices can better positioned to create and preserve capital, attract investment, and achieve long-term sustainable growth.
Jennifer Lott is speaking at the Supply Chain Risks in Hemp and Cannabis Webinar, taking place June 27 at 11:00 am EST. Click here to register.
About Jennifer Lott
Jennifer Lott is the AMAS Service Delivery Director for the internationally recognized standards certification body, BSI. Jennifer currently supports the quality and integrity of food and fast-moving consumer products. She is an accredited Lead Auditor and Trainer with over 25 years of experience in quality and safety, management system development, consulting, packaging, and laboratory management. Jennifer’s expertise includes GMP, ISO 22716, 21 CFR 117, 21 CFR 111, 21 CFR 210-111, ICH Q7, BRC GS Consumer Products, WHO GDP, EudraLex, BRC GS Storage & Distribution, BRC GS Packaging, BRC GS Agents & Brokers, RSPO, Food Safety, and GMP/HACCP.
Every objective has to have a vision and a vector of where you want to go and what you want to achieve. “Winging it” is okay for an innovative artistic endeavor where creativity is spontaneous and one-of-a-kind art is produced. Unfortunately, that is not how one creates a top-quality cultivation operation.
Customers expect guarantees of consistency; quality assurance means a purchase is safe to consume. Medicinal products around the world require Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification. These are really just SOPs that document repeatable procedures to guarantee that the most recent batch offers the same results as the first certified effort. This brief covers the importance of documented operating procedures for a successful grow business with high quality customer results.
Almost nobody gets excited about discussing quality, but experienced manufacturers know that quality control reduces waste and improves operations. Everyone learns that they have to implement feedback, improvement and quality control procedures to guarantee profitability and longevity in any business.
So, what is an SOP? A standard operating procedure defines ‘a task’ to be performed ‘at a location by a person or a role on a specific schedule.’ These definitions will include role definition, responsibilities, personnel training, equipment & service procedures, material handling, quality assurance controls, record keeping, approved procedures & instructions, documentation, references and appendices, all of which define your business and how it is to operate.
Now, you might ask, we are just growing plants, is all this really necessary? The short answer is, it depends. If you expect to export globally, do business in Europe and other markets, get licensed by Health Canada or some day be approved to ship to other States, then yes. If you are a regional craft cannabis supplier, maybe not, but there are many tasks that are required to grow where a better documented process can benefit your operation and the quality of the product delivered to your consumers.
We provide a bulleted list of recommendations in the full white paper but to touch on a few highlights that every operator should keep in mind, SOPs define the following structures for your business.
Personnel training is done for ‘this task, in this way’ & ‘this role is responsible’
Job descriptions reduce misunderstandings and increase worker ownership in your facility. Documenting your activities minimizes task overlap and conflicts that can lead to no one executing on something that may be important but not urgent. You want to eliminate employees thinking “I didn’t know it was my responsibility.”
Consultants or visitors must be aware of and follow the same requirements as your employees if you are to maintain the quality of your grow. Specific training should be given to anyone that handles or works around toxic chemicals. Safety sheets are not just paper; They keep people alive.
Equipment & Service Procedures
Be direct and specific in your task definitions, i.e., “Use 5ml of soap, clean until no plant matter or debris remains.”
Ideally, grow facilities, equipment and access will be designed with cleaning in mind from the start. This is not always possible but it is the mark of successful manufacturing or production companies.
Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning: think sterile, food safety and consumer consumption protections. SOPs should define cleaning methods and materials. This cleaning is done on schedule and aligned to your preventative maintenance and calibration requirements. Precise results require precise structure for any long-term operation.
We recommend that you integrate pictures and videos in the instructions for your procedures and training so that nothing is left to chance or misinterpreted.
Material Handling, Containers, Labels, Quality Assurance
Personnel contamination/cross-contamination are the death of any grow operation. Do everything you can to limit stray or wandering plant material, dust or debris from migrating from one grow room or area to another. Isolation is a good way to limit outbreaks to a specific room to minimize losses.
If something nasty happens to one of your rooms. Good labeling enforced by your quality assurance team is a simple way to increase the likelihood that employees will do a task as intended. This adds to your repeatability as people change jobs or roles are redefined.
Approved Procedures & Instructions
Quality assurance is all about repeatability and intended outcomes. Documenting procedures and intended use enables every new employee to follow the experience of the masters and duplicate their success. Testing, sampling and logging your results along the way enables you to know that you are on schedule and on process, so you can predict your results every time.
Part of your continuous improvement approach will be to deal with exceptions that are not covered by your procedures. Learning about those exceptions and capturing your experience with an improved method will lead to better outcomes the next time around.
Documentation, References, Appendices
You’ve done all of this hard work to capture your operation, so you need a complete library of your reference work and approach that employees can access. It does your operation no good if you capture your methods and no one ever looks at them again. Training cycles and reviewing your defined procedures is key to a consistent high-quality result.
Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Good Manufacturing Procedures (GMP) and Good Agricultural & Collection Practices (GACP), are all terms that will become more familiar as cannabis production joins into one global market. Professional results will be required and national or international certifications will be the guarantees that any global customer can trust that a product meets the standards they expect.
We have many customers in North America and around the world. but DanCann Pharma is the most aggressive when it comes to meeting international standards and results. Producing flower that is so pure that no irradiation is required for export, the DanCann operation is fully certified for production throughout Europe and they are sold-out of capacity for the coming year. They are currently expanding their operations in Denmark and are a solid example to follow for a well-defined repeatable operation. FarmaGrowers in South Africa is a close second in this race with multiple export certifications of their own. The future looks bright for both of these global operations.
The success of reputable cannabis and CBD brands has inspired an influx of inexperienced and disreputable competitors in the market. These so-called “bad actors” in CBD advertise products that are not manufactured under current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP), which help to ensure that all products are consistently produced and controlled according to specified quality standards. cGMP helps guard against risks of adulteration, cross-contamination and mislabeling to guarantee product quality, safety and efficacy.
CBD products without cGMP regulations are often inaccurately labeled and deceiving to consumers. In fact, in a test of over 100 CBD products available online and at retail locations, Johns Hopkins Medicine found significant evidence of inaccurate, misleading labeling of CBD content. The prevalence of such brands not only reduces consumer confidence in CBD but also limits the growth of the sector as a whole. Fortunately, CBD consumers and retailers can easily discriminate between a well-tested, reputable brand and inferior bad actors with a few straightforward, minimum requirements to look out for when selecting a product.
Why are “bad actors” a problem for consumers and the industry?
Bad actors in CBD sell products that are not produced under cGMP conditions and are typically not tested by third-party laboratories to ensure identity, purity, quality, strength and composition. This means they are not verified for contaminants, impurities, label claims and product specifications. This frequently results in misleading advertising with inaccurate levels of cannabinoids or traces of compounds not found on the label, like THC. To combat this, the FDA issues warning letters to actors that market products allegedly containing CBD—many of which are found not to contain the claimed levels of CBD and are not approved for the treatment of any medical condition. Still, bad actors manage to slip through the cracks and deceive consumers.
Bad actors that put anything in a bottle and make unsubstantiated medical claims hurt the reputable operators that strive to create safe and high-quality products. It is easy for consumers to be drawn to CBD products with big medical claims and lower prices, only to be disappointed when the product does not produce the advertised results. Inaccurately labeled products may contain unexpected levels of cannabinoids, including ingredients that consumers may not intend to ingest, like Delta-9 or Delta-8 THC. Along with unexpected levels of THC, many CBD products available now are not as pure as advertised, with one in four products going untested for contaminants like microbial content, pesticides, or heavy metals.
Further, inaccurate labeling of products and their compounds also prevents consumers from establishing a baseline impact of CBD on their bodies, leaving them vulnerable to inconsistent future experiences. Such a poor experience can turn consumers off to the category as a whole, drawing their trust away from not only the bad actors but also the reliable, reputable brands on the market. The saturation of the market with these disreputable brands delegitimizes a category that has only just begun to break down the stigmas, creating stagnation rather than growth as consumers remain wary of low-quality products.
How can consumers identify bad actors in CBD?
There are several simple ways to identify a bad actor among CBD products and make certain that both consumers and retailers purchase quality, reliable and safe brands in legitimate sales channels. To start, consumers should avoid all CBD products that are marketed with unsubstantiated medical claims. This is a significant area of abuse, as brands that relate any form of CBD product to a disease state, like cancer, should not be trusted. The science to support such medical claims has not been completed, yet, product marketing is years ahead of the evidence to support such claims. Unsupported medical claims could also mislead consumers that may need more serious medical intervention.
Additionally, consumers must review the packaging, which should include nutrition information in the form of a supplement fact label. The label should include the serving size, number of servings per container, a list of all dietary ingredients in the product and the amount per serving of each ingredient. All labels should include a net quantity of contents, lot number or batch ID, the name and address of the manufacturer, and an expiration or manufacturing date. These signs of a reputable brand are easy to look for and can save consumers from the trouble of selecting the wrong CBD product.
What to look for when selecting a CBD product
With this in mind, products from reputable, tested brands can be identified by a few key factors. Reputable CBD companies are already compliant with the FDA regulations on nutritional supplements, including a nutritional or supplement fact panel on the packaging—just like vitamins. The information in this panel should include all the active cannabinoids in the product, both per serving and package. Clear potency labeling allows consumers to confidently select products that suit their needs and understand the baseline impact of CBD concentration on their bodies, thus helping them to tailor their experience with thoughtful product selection.
Reputable brands also include a convenient QR code on the packaging, linking the product to a certificate of analysis that details the testing results to demonstrate compliance with product standards and label claims. In terms of specific ingredients, consumers should be skeptical of high concentration levels of “flavor of the month” minor cannabinoids, which are often associated with unsubstantiated medical claims. Current scientific research has set its focus on major cannabinoids like CBD and Delta-9 THC, leaving additional research necessary for understanding minor cannabinoids. Minor cannabinoids are typically included in full spectrum products at concentrations found naturally in the cannabis plant, which is a safer approach to consuming CBD until more research is completed.
Consumers should not let the existence of unreliable, untrustworthy brands curtail their confidence in the CBD sector—there are many high-quality, safe and trusted brands on the market. With a knowledgeable and discerning eye, consumers and retailers can easily select top-quality CBD products that millions of consumers have found to improve many aspects of their health and well-being. Looking ahead, clear federal regulations for CBD products that require mandatory product registration, compliance with product labeling, packaging and cGMP will be crucial in weeding out bad actors and will allow compliant companies to gain consumer trust and responsibly grow the CBD category.
The global vitamin supplement market is projected to grow at 6.2% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) to $71.37 billion by 2028 with the most rapid growth now occurring in the gummy vitamin segment. Gummy supplements are expected to have the fastest CAGR at 12.6% to exceed $33 billion by 2028. Initially developed for youths, gummies are now preferred by all age segments as an alternative to tablets, capsules and pills.
As one might expect, cannabidiol (CBD) gummies are also projected to grow rapidly at a 30.7% CAGR to $13.9 billion by 2028. In terms of actual number of CBD gummies produced last year, a rough estimate would be at least 1.7 billion. For perspective that equates to 53 gummies produced every second, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. One might reasonably ask, “So where do all these gummies come from?” and “Who makes them and under what conditions and quality assurance standards?”
There is no short answer to these questions nor confidence that all cannabinoid gummies are manufactured with adherence to a minimum set of safety and quality standards. Gummy recipes and ingredients are readily available online and there is no shortage of hobbyists who make small batches for family, friends and to sell at retail pop-ups and farmers’ markets. There are a number of well-known brands that started out in home kitchens and garages. In terms of production scale, on the other end of the spectrum are companies like Bloomios, Inc. (OTCQB: BLMS), that operates a 51,000-square-foot Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) compliant facility in Florida.
For the hobbyist producer, they often begin to scale out of their home kitchen and take over part of their garage or basement and while the entrepreneurial spirit is admirable, most consumers wouldn’t be comfortable with their pharmaceuticals, supplements or even grocery items being manufactured under these conditions which often lack:
Rigorous sanitary practices
Measures to mitigate contaminants entering the production areas
Quarantine, chain-of-custody audit and testing of active ingredients used in production
Standardized and rigorous quality assurance testing of finished product
Certificate of Analysis (COA) for active ingredients in finished product for certainty of dosage levels
Labeling and packaging standards to ensure product information and volumes are correct
Batch record data collection, retention and audit procedures.
However, the hobbyists constitute only a very small fraction of gummy production today, and they typically take great pride in their work and show a high degree of care in production practices. Thus, when demand begins to outpace the artisanal home production capacity, many growing brands turn to contract manufacturers to assist with scaling the production side while the brand focuses on the sales, marketing and distribution side of the business. This is an ideal solution as high quality product can be produced at volume in cGMP facilities which enhances the consumer experience, confidence in the product and further grows brand value. This is a best-case scenario of small emerging brands that care deeply about their reputations and their customers’ experience scaling production and growing responsibly.
The real underbelly of commercial gummy production is characterized by the pure profit seeking producers that set up semi-permanent production lines in flex-industrial spaces not suitable for food handling, with limited buildout for isolation of each production stage. This process includes: materials storage, weight/measures prep, ingredient mixing, molding, dehydration, coating, sorting and filling, labeling and finish packaging. Lacking cGMP compliant facilities and practices, they neglect or fail entirely to maintain batch records, COAs or chain-of-custody practices and have limited ability to address defective product once in the stream of commerce. Let’s refer to these manufacturers as the “Opportunists.”
Opportunists see the current cannabinoid gummy market for what it is. It is an emerging market really taking form only since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp derived cannabinoids. As such it is very much in its “gold rush” phase with many of the participants having just entered the sector. Many participants have adopted ad hoc practices with no standardization and no explicit federal oversight because the FDA has yet to acknowledge any cannabinoids under its generally regarded as safe (GRAS) standard.
In addition, the FDA has excluded CBD products from the dietary supplement definition of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics (FD&C) Act. Under the FD&C Act, if a substance is an active ingredient in a drug product that has been approved or has been authorized for investigation as a new drug, then products containing said substance are excluded from the definition of dietary supplement. So far cannabinoid gummy demand has continually outstripped supply supporting attractive margins and with little oversight. The Opportunist mindset has focused on maximizing profits while they can before regulation increases costs, compresses margins and reduces profits.
The Opportunists have more cover to seek profit maximization as opposed to incurring the cost of setting up cGMP facilities and adhering to rigorous standards due to the fact that the brands consumers recognize are often manufactured by one or more third-party contract manufacturers. Some brands also want to maximize near-term profits and manufacturers with a lower cost structure can more effectively compete on price as opposed to quality.
As demand surges, some brands will supplement their third-party cGMP produced product with additional product sourced from Opportunists and “recycle” the valid COAs from their cGMP product without the cGMP manufacturer or consumers even knowing. With lax regulatory oversight, these brands are inclined to look the other way on their contract manufacturer’s production practices so long as the large volume orders are delivered on time and at lower cost.
For gummies produced by Opportunists, if there are product defect issues, the consumers likely won’t be able to rely on the batch record data and purported COAs linked to/from QR codes on the container, many of these COAs have been recycled from legitimate batches or simply doctored up and reproduced rather than generated on a per batch basis. There is limited to no audit trail and recalls are unlikely to be effective, if even initiated. A refund is the most likely solution a consumer has which leaves perhaps a much larger run of defective product in the market still unaddressed. Moreover, brands that suffer reputational harm due to quality issues can simply launch a substitute brand with a similar look through its same distribution channels and maintain much of its market share.
If today’s CBD gold rush sounds much like the Wild West, you would be correct. However, as more consumers become aware of cannabinoids’ health and wellness benefits in addition to the recreational uses, this larger and more diverse consumer base is raising the bar and demanding more transparency and certainty on manufacturing practices than ever before.
How are the leading cannabinoid nutraceutical manufacturers proactively addressing consumers’ desire for high quality, rigorously tested products manufactured in accordance with standards already imposed on mainstream nutritional supplement and prepared food manufacturers? Although the answer may be simple, the implementation and ongoing compliance is not.
The answer is voluntary adoption and compliance with the same regulations applicable to non-cannabinoid dietary supplement manufacturers. Given that the FDA has not recognized cannabinoids as dietary supplements quite yet, certain aspects of dietary supplement regulation can’t be adhered to such as notifying the FDA of structure/function claims as new products are brought to market or notice of new dietary ingredients. On the other hand, many of the regulations can and should be adhered to by cannabinoid nutraceutical manufacturers to ensure its safe, transparent orderly growth.
Chief among the FDA requirements that Bloomios and other leading manufacturers adhere to are:
Register with the FDA as a food handling and production facility.
Adopt Current Good Manufacturing Practices for dietary supplements which establishes uniform standards needed to ensure quality throughout the manufacturing process and verification of the identity, purity, strength and composition of their products.
Undertake at least annually an independent third-party cGMP audit of their facility and procedures.
Comply with Code of Federal Regulations (21 CFR 101.36) supplement label requirements to ensure that the ingredients list is accurate, and the content matches the amount declared on the label among other disclosures.
The most significant challenge in adopting all of the above best practices is cGMP facility qualification and ongoing compliance. The cGMP standards require specific facility build-out features, equipment, and of course standard operating procedures. There are significant additional costs to bring a cGMP facility on-line, additional time and required experienced personnel that can implement the operating procedures and recertification every time a production line’s configuration is changed or augmented with additional equipment.
Bloomios annual cGMP audit was conducted in August and over 130 specific requirements were evaluated and graded. While Bloomios passed the audit and evaluation, what is of far greater significance is that cGMP practices become part of a company’s culture so that these high standards are maintained year-round and not rushed into practice just for the audit.
At first glance, the layout of a grow room and a factory production line might seem to have little in common. But whether a facility is producing plants or parts, adopting good manufacturing practices (GMP) can benefit plant quality, harvest consistency and production economics.
What is GMP?
Simply defined, GMP refers to a production system made up of processes, standards and safeguards designed to consistently meet a defined quality standard. In the grow house, establishing, documenting and implementing GMPs can help guard against problems ranging from plant contamination to inconsistent harvests. GMPs can be organized into five key categories, each which contribute to cultivation:
People: The people working in the grow house understand their responsibilities
Processes: Production processes are clearly documented and consistent across harvests
Procedures: Guidelines are documented and communicated to all employees
Premises: Grow rooms and equipment are clean and maintained
Products: Materials used in cultivation (fertilizers, lighting, growing media, etc.) are assessed
Optimizing each of these five P’s in production can help cultivators protect their business and their margins even as flower prices in both legacy and emerging states continue to trend downward. Below, we look at four GMP insights that can help cultivators coordinate the five Ps to achieve quality, consistency and economic objectives harvest after harvest, without massive investments in capital, even during turbulent market conditions.
#1 Know your numbers and their value
Avoid the temptation to lump production costs into very broad categories, i.e., “cost of goods.” Understanding the exact cost of all inputs that go into a grow is a precedent to cost-effective production. The price of the plant material, energy consumed, labor, nutrients, fertigation and other inputs involved in the grow should be calculated to determine the actual cost of a grow room. If rooms are set up consistently, you can multiply to get an aggregate production cost across the facility.
Look beyond the price tag when calculating costs and consider the value each input brings to the grow. Nutrition is a good example. Understanding the concentration of specific nutrients in a product can be a better way of evaluating its value than simply looking at the cost of the goods. And consider whether added nutrients are actually adding value to the product produced. More isn’t always more. In most cases, simple salts will supply the plant with what it needs to grow.
Growing media is another opportunity to evaluate the cost/benefit of cultivation inputs. How much yield can be achieved with a particular medium compared to a different choice? For example, a bag of coco may initially appear to be the low-cost choice for cultivation. Upon a deeper evaluation, though, the cost per plant of coco is generally higher when you factor in the amount of media used for each plant (and that doesn’t even factor in the labor to fill the pots).
# 2 Reduce time waste
Among the various inputs in each growing cycle, labor represents a significant cost. Are labor hours being put to the best use and not wasted? American industrialist and innovator in mass production Henry Ford stated, “Time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage. The easiest of all wastes and the hardest to correct is the waste of time, because wasted time does not litter the floor like wasted material.”
One way to see the cost of wasted labor dollars is to set up a camera and record a day of activity in the grow room during each step of a grow cycle. Or simply observe the responsibilities that are requiring workers’ time on a typical day. Watching employees’ work in the grow room may reveal how a room’s set-up is contributing to or hindering production. Are employees spending their time on tactics that add value or are they being slowed down by manual processes, such as filling containers, watering and relocating plants in the facility? Are there steps and process that could be automated, such as fertigation? Seeing how employees’ time is being used can identify opportunities to direct efforts toward functions that add value or cut costs. What would be the economic benefit of reducing a half-day of set-up time in the grow house or automating some processes?
Beyond better allocation of human capital, understanding how time is used in the growing operation can suggest changes to materials used in the grow. For example, selecting a growing media that comes in plugs and blocks with pre-drilled holes for efficiently dropping in new plants can reduce time spent filling pots or configuring containers. Automating functions like fertigation and watering can not only reduce labor time but increase the precision of delivery when it comes to water and nutrients.
#3 Introduce incremental improvements
Many manufacturers rely on pilot plants to mitigate risk before process scale-up takes place across an enterprise. The same approach can benefit the grow house. Resist the temptation to overhaul the system and instead focus on introducing one change at a time. This disciplined approach will allow you to evaluate if a change is actually delivering value and should be applied more broadly. The wisdom of a cautious approach to improvements is reflected in a quote by innovation magnate Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. Observing that not every innovation will be a win, Jobs stated, “Sometimes when you innovate you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly and get on with improving your other innovations.”
When introducing a new element into the grow, pilot it in one “sample” area before adding it to the entire operation. Then give the innovation time to be evaluated before deploying it more widely. This measured approach can help reduce the risk that accompanies making a change to processes and will allow you to evaluate the relative benefit of any change or innovation. And as changes are introduced one at a time, it is easier to determine which changes are contributing value.
#4 Satisfy the market, not just the spec
Regulatory bodies set the compliance criteria for purity or quality standards in manufacturing, but the ultimate mark of approval is awarded by customers in the marketplace. A harvest may meet all of the quality specs, but if customers don’t want to buy it, achieving GMP metrics is a moot effort. The marketplace will always have the final say on a product’s commercial viability.
Understand what the market wants and be able to replicate it consistently harvest after harvest. Manufacturing a product that meets the market’s desired performance attributes is essential to sustaining and growing operations. Production quality is only as good as the last harvest and any degradation in product quality will diminish buyers’ trust. History shows that the challenge of achieving consistent production quality and reliability isn’t just a problem for cultivators. Among several factors that doomed the short-lived Edsel sedan introduced in 1957 were problems arising from assembly workers having to use different tools and techniques. A lack of consistency in producing cars or cultivars can turn off customers and profitability.
A tension exists between achieving production consistency and the opportunity to introduce changes that improve the grow. By integrating improvements into the production system one measured change at a time, cultivators can assess which improvements to continue and what needs to be tweaked. But as manufacturing has long demonstrated, continuous improvement is an ongoing journey.
As cultivators consider the 5 Ps of people, processes, procedures, premises and products, applying these four GMP insights can help growers in emerging and legacy markets navigate changing market conditions and drive continuous improvement.
Aurora Cannabis announced today that they will be launching a new product line for patients in the United Kingdom. The Berlin-based company says they are debuting new cannabis extracts for the United Kingdom that meet EU GMP standards and are developed using, “a new extraction process has been developed to ensure the terpene profile of its products consistently remains at a high level,” according to the press release.
The new product line comes from Aurora Nordic, their facility located in Odense, Denmark. While the press release does not disclose exactly what kind of extraction technology and post-processing methods are involved, they claim their processes result in consistent concentrations of cannabinoids and rich terpene profiles.
Back in 2019, the UK loosened their rules around medical cannabis and allowed a handful of cannabis-derived drugs to be prescribed. Shortly after the British government began loosening restrictions around hemp-derived CBD and medical cannabis, Aurora made its first foray into the UK market. Still, only a small number of patients actually get medical cannabis prescriptions and accessibility is still a hot button issue in the country.
Trisha Cassidy, managing director for Aurora Cannabis in the UK & Ireland, says they are still trying to get into the market further, working on accessibility, advocacy and reimbursement issues through the NHS. “We are dedicated to helping improve access to medical education for healthcare professionals and are happy to share our medicinal cannabis knowledge and expertise,” says Cassidy. “The effectiveness and tolerability of medical cannabis has already been shown in several clinical studies and even more data from 20,000 UK patients will become available once the first patient registry for medical cannabis in Europe is completed. The UK market is still young and much work needs to be done to dismantle the obstacles that continue to prevent patients from receiving the treatment they need. Aurora is committed to these patients and will continue its dedicated work in the UK.”
Dalwhinnie Enterprises is a cannabis brand that started in Ridgeway, Colorado. Based in the San Juan Mountains in Western Colorado, the company includes brands like Dalwhinnie Farms Cannabis, Shift Cannabis, Ridgway Hemp Company and the Dalwhinnie Farms Boutique in Aspen, Colorado.
Brandon Barksdale has about a decade of experience in cannabis. He has worked for small startups and large multi-state operators. Most recently, he has worked with CohnReznick’s Advisory Practice. At CohnReznick, he worked alongside the Dalwhinnie team, helping them launch their boutique in Aspen. Since joining the team as their new CEO, Barksdale has shifted his focus to expansion, scalability and operational excellence, using things like GMPs and other certifications to improve quality and consistency.
We caught up with Barksdale to learn about his experience, his new role, entrepreneurship, social equity and what it means to be a minority leader in the cannabis space.
Cannabis Industry Journal: You have an impressive background before joining the cannabis industry full time. What made you take the leap into this space? Tell us about your background.
Brandon Barksdale: The majority of my background is driven around transforming businesses cross functionally, specifically in operations and finance. When it comes to the cannabis industry, it still lacks maturity; so being able to apply key performance indicators, benchmarking, controls and analytics can drive the industry, and more specifically, our organization, to operational excellence.
While I was in the professional service space, I was an advisory leader within our cannabis industry group. I was able to be involved and work with organizations at differing levels of maturity, guiding corporate strategy and functional and operational improvement before fully jumping in to lead this organization. Dalwhinnie was the perfect opportunity to use my previous experience to instill value to the company as it continues to scale and grow.
CIJ: With a such a big portfolio of cannabis clients, why leave all that behind to take the reins at Dalwhinnie?
Barksdale: Simply put, I was eager to roll up my sleeves and drive a single organization through its growth lifecycle. When you’re working with and cycling through multiple clients, you’re supporting them from a strategic perspective and providing value and direction but the execution is left to the operational teams internally to follow through. No matter how detailed the plan or deeply you are involved you are still third-party. During scope changes and ramping up and down there’s always some momentum that gets lost. I want to focus on one company, to really tie myself to its DNA, so that I can better be in the driving seat toward success and operational excellence.
Dalwhinnie stands out because of their unwavering focus on quality and the integrity of the brand. To that end, I want everyone within the organization to succeed and to nurture a healthy company ecosystem that allows for professional development, training and being an industry leader. We have a really big opportunity here to set the standard for what quality looks like going forward and what it means to really care about the product that you’re putting out into the marketplace.
CIJ: Dalwhinnie Farms has a cool location in Ridgway, Colorado at the base of the San Juan Mountains and sustained by the snowmelt from the Uncompahgre River. How does this make Dalwhinnie cannabis different?
Barksdale: There is no doubt that growing at a high elevation with different seasonalities is a challenge. However, every region on Earth presents its own benefits and challenges as it relates to cultivation. You can use the comparison to different regions of wines. Wine from Bordeaux and wine from Napa are going to have different profiles because of all the unique factors of climate, water, humidity, aging practices, etc.
This is one of the things that will make the future of cannabis very interesting. There are multiple elements and variables that help tell the story of the product through its experience of growth. Just like there are tons of wine regions and varietals, there are hundreds of cannabis strains and exponentially more crosses where one can discuss multiple facets of what makes that particular product unique. It is one of the things that will continue to evolve in the cannabis market and one of the most exciting components—knowing that we are still on the way to creating a unique and original marketplace!
CIJ: The Dalwhinnie Farms retail store in Aspen is a unique cannabis dispensary. What is the retail strategy moving forward?
Barskdale: Every cannabis wholesaler, and most markets, are feeling the pressure of price volatility and retail is one of the best-known ways to help stabilize an organization. Our strategy is to stay as nimble and creative as we can, focusing on continuing to build out the success of our flagship Aspen dispensary as well as partnering and entertaining retail expansion opportunities. Our strategy is not to ignore that fact, but to act as perceptively as we can to broaden our retail footprint.
CIJ: Tell us about your short-term goals for Dalwhinnie.
Barksdale: When I came onboard with Dalwhinnie, I hit the ground running. I had some history with Dalwhinnie and the family of companies so I was lucky to have a head start and insight toward necessary changes. Short term goals included attention to production expansion initiatives, operational changes that moved us closer to excellence, and fine-tuning our GMPs. My eye is also focused on company culture, performance management, and constantly pushing the envelope on quality. While always of importance, we want to continue as a pioneer on cultivation and manufacturing standards as it relates to quality in organics.
CIJ: And what are your long-term goals for the company?
Barksdale: Mentioned as a short-term goal, I want to move toward GMP and GACP manufacturing standards and create a continual cycle of improvement as we move through our expansion and growth plans. In the future, multi-state operations and partnerships are also a big part of our strategic direction. We aim to continue to provide an elevated cannabis retail experience at our flagship location and to expand our retail footprint in the marketplace.
CIJ: There’s been a focus on racial disparities in the cannabis space and the need to improve social equity and opportunities for minorities. How do you hope to support equity and help drive change?
Barksdale: We are at a turning point in the industry where substances are becoming legal, yet so many people are still suffering from nonviolent, non-serious offenses related to cannabis. It is unavoidably apparent and it is something that deserves significant attention and commitment. Every company that is operating in this space should take a level of responsibility to help address or support reparations in some fashion whether that be through jobs, access, and/or partnerships.
There should be an obligation to support some type of social equity improvement project as it relates to the cannabis industry. Some legacy states and now new states coming online, are attempting to course correct by making it a part of the compliance or access components for licenses.
There is still a lot of work to be done. I am working through the strategies that work for us as a company. I am actively exploring how to incorporate opportunities into our operating and business model.
As a women-owned company and myself being a minority leader, it is on the forefront of our priority list to come up with a comprehensive plan and commitment to supporting social and equities in this space.
The supply chain for consumer cannabis products is complex, involving cultivation, extraction, manufacturing and packaging. While global best practices exist for Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs), the certifications are not tailored to the cannabis industry.
CSQ has developed tailored standards for the cannabis industry to assist cannabis companies in improving their quality. As a division of ASI, a woman-owned business that’s provided safety solutions to the food industry since the 1940s, the CSQ standards were built in 2020 to meet ISO requirements, GFSI requirements and regulatory cannabis requirements from seed-to-sale. CSQ is the first cannabis certification program to meet the GFSI Benchmarking Requirements with plans to be benchmarked in 2022.
We interviewed Tyler Williams, CTO and founder of CSQ. Tyler founded CSQ after working at ASI – a family-owned food safety company in St. Louis.
Aaron Green: Nice to meet you, Tyler. How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Tyler Williams: It’s kind of a long story, but it’s a good story. My mom worked for ASI for 15+ years. That company has been around since the 1940s and is one of the oldest food safety companies in the world. The owners were ready to sell about five or six years ago, and my mom ended up using a small business loan to purchase the company. That’s how I got started in a food safety and dietary supplement space.
About three to four years ago, we started getting inquiries from cannabis companies asking about GMP audits and certification and different things. We started doing certifications to our GMP food processing standard or dietary supplements depending on what they wanted but realized that there were a lot of things that weren’t applicable to cannabis companies or there were extra things needed for cannabis companies. That’s how I started working with cannabis companies to start developing the CSQ certification program and it has just kind of grown over the years.
We currently have four standards at the CSQ level. CSQ plans on being benchmarked to GFSI which stands for Global Food Safety Initiative. We plan on going through that process to get the benchmark next year. There are four standards underneath CSQ: one for growing and cultivation; one for extraction; one for food and beverage edibles; and then cannabis dietary supplements. We’re looking to add standards for cosmetics, cannabis contact packaging materials, retail and consumption lounges.
Last year, when we were doing our pilot audits, we realized that the CSQ standard was great for medium to big sizedMSOs because they’re already doing these best practices. It’s easier for them to, you know, implement a few things, and then get certified, whereas for the smaller guys who might be coming from the illicit market, it’s a lot harder – it’s a lot bigger jump from them to go from zero to 100. Last month, we released our unaccredited cGMP, cGMP+, cGAP and cGAP+ standards. The difference between the regular and the plus is that the plus has HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) and then it also includes a recall module where the site must do a mock recall while the auditor is on-site.
CSQ doesn’t perform the audits. We license the use of our standard to accredited certification bodies and then they must get accredited to be able to certify companies under the CSQ name.
Green: Can you tell me a bit about the genesis of CSQ and the structure of the organization?
Williams: We’re a for-profit company. We thought about going the non-profit route but it’s a lot more intricate and a lot more people involved when you go that route. Our parent company is ASI, and we are under the ASI global standards division which is responsible for developing standards. So, CSQ is one of those standards under that brand and that’s kind of the foundation of it. We have two licensed certification bodies right now. ASI has a certification body, and they are one of our licensed CBs and then WQS, who’s based out of North Carolina and has a big presence in South America which is great because we’re starting to get inquiries from companies in South America as well.
Green: How do you go about building industry awareness and acceptance of the standard?
Williams: Building awareness really started with going out to the medium- to large-sized companies and saying, “Will you open your doors and let us come and basically do all these audits for free at your facility just so we can kind of get a baseline across the industry?” So, that started the conversation with industry. The MSOs in the medium- to large-sized companies, are more ready to go through the certification process because they know that federal legalization is around the corner. They know these things are going to have to be in place already so they’re just doing it as preparation. There isn’t much demand for retailers right now like there is in the food and or dietary supplement space. So that’s where the demand is really coming from – wanting to self-regulate in preparation for federal legalization.
Most of our outreach is education-based. We speak at a lot of conferences. We host a lot of webinars and free events and things like that, just to get the word out about CSQ. A lot of people know what GMPs are, or know that they should be following GMPs, but they don’t necessarily know how to get from point A to point B. Our job is to educate them that it’s not as hard as they think it is and it’s not as expensive as they think it is. The cost of an audit is relatively inexpensive. What I always tell people is the sooner you start preparing, the cheaper the whole process is. What happens a lot of times is a facility will not build out their facility to GMP specifications, and then they want to get GMP certified so they must move the hand washing station from the back of their facility to the front where the employee entrance is or things like that. The sooner these companies start thinking about it, the better and that’s basically what we’re trying to do is just educate the industry about that kind of preparation.
Green: cGMP and cGAP are perhaps more broadly accepted outside of the cannabis industry. Do cGMP and cGAP fall under the CSQ certification?
Williams: There are four ingredients that make up the CSQ standard. There are industry best practices, which are specific to just the cannabis industry. There are good manufacturing practices, or good agricultural practices, that are just accepted globally. Then we look at the Codex Alimentarius, which is the global food code. Every country mustwrite their federal rules on food based off this standard. We use the Codex when we’re talking about edibles and things like that. And then the last aspect of CSQ is the GFSI benchmarking requirements. So that’s kind of the basis of our program, making sure that the auditors have certain amount of audit hours, and we have training and processes in place for that. That’s where the GFSI benchmarks are coming out. So, all those four things kind of really create the CSQ standard.
Green: There are clear internal benefits to a company for holding to a quality standard. What are the downstream benefits to the companies that have CSQ? How do the end-users know about it?
Williams: I come from the food industry and if you go to the grocery store, you just assume that everything’s safe.Consumers don’t even think about the certifications that those companies must get to even be able to sell their product in retail stores. They don’t necessarily put those certifications on the packaging material, because as a consumer “SQF” means nothing to most consumers, right? It would only mean something if you’re in the industry.We’re trying to be different with CSQ and get more consumers aware of it. One of the things that we have is a database of certified facilities. Consumers will be able to say, “Okay, maybe I’m interested in this new brand. Are they certified to this program or not?” and be able to see that. We’re also trying to get companies to put the CSQ logo once they’re certified on their marketing materials.
Now, one thing that we cannot do yet is put the logo on the finished product packaging, because we don’t have a testing addendum, but we’re working on that. There’s not a lot of demand for it right now and it’s more expensive audit costs, where you’re talking about lab tests, and things like that. So, it’s something that we’re working on, but we haven’t fully developed yet.
Green: Next question is around d-8 THC and federal regulations. What’s your position on d-8 and how are you thinking about d-8 trends in the future?
Williams: d-8 THC itself as a product, I think it’s fine. I think if it’s made safely, we know all the components I think it’s fine from that aspect. The problem that we have right now is it’s not regulated. That’s where I think we need to have these states that have legalized THC or hemp to then implement rules and regulations and bring d-8 THC into those rules and regulations. And so maybe then it’s only those licensed facilities that are inspected by the state that are producing those products and not just some guy out of his garage. I think a lot of people right now are just wanting to ban it completely and I don’t think that’s the best approach. There’s nothing wrong with the product itself, it’s just how it’s being produced right now in the gray area where no one’s regulated.
Green: What in your personal life or in cannabis are you most interested in learning about?
Williams: I love what I do. I’m always looking at and reading regulations and then trying to learn something new. I’ve been going through organic certification training right now. At some point, CSQ will probably go down the route of having some sort of organic certification. So that’s been kind of what I’ve been working on and learning right now. But I’m a sponge and I like to absorb new information about the industry.
Green: Thanks Tyler, that concludes the interview!
No business is perfect, especially when humans are part of the equation. But, how do you tackle fixing quality issues as they arise? The goal of this article is to shed some light on the value of a CAPA program and why many states are making them mandatory for cannabis businesses.
Let’s consider the following situations:
Analytical lab results for a production batch test above the limit for a banned pesticide or microbial contamination
You open a case of tincture bottles and some are broken
A customer returns a vape pen because it is leaking or ‘just doesn’t work’
Document the issue?
Perform some sort of an investigation, asking questions of the people involved?
Ask for a retest? Then, if the test comes back positive, move on?
Let’s go through each one of these and understand why the suboptimal answer could be costing your business money:
You don’t document the issue
I hear excuses for skipping on documentation all the time.
“It’s not a big deal”
“It was a one off”
“The glasses probably broke in transit”
“They are cheap and easily replaceable”
“It’s not worth the time”
In the situation of a couple of broken bottles in a shipment, what if it was the seventh time in the last two months? If you haven’t been documenting and tracking the issue, you have no way of knowing if it was a single occurrence. Remember when you were surprised that your filling team did not have enough bottles? Those broken bottles add up. Without documenting the incident, you will never know if it was truly a one-time mistake or the sign of a deeper issue. The reality is, it could be sloppy handling on the production line, issues with the shipper or even a sign of poor quality coming from the supplier.
Have you ever compared the number of fills vs the number of bottles ordered? How much money have you already lost due to those broken bottles adding up? Do you have the ability to answer this question?
You perform an investigation
Let’s say a customer returns a leaky vape pen. You perform an investigation by asking the production workers what they think went wrong. They say that it’s very difficult to get the seal for the cartridge into place. Their supervisor tells them to try harder, refunds the customer and moves on. But, why is it difficult to get the seal into place? Is it a design flaw? Should a special tool be used to assemble the cartridge properly? Without getting to the root cause of why the seals are leading to leaking cartridges, you are doomed to have repeat issues. Numerous studies have found that less than one in twenty dissatisfied customers will complain, and that approximately one in ten will simply leave for another brand or provider. How much is this unresolved issue truly costing your business?
Asking for a retest and if it passes, releasing the product and moving on.
Suppose a major producer of cereal received test results for its most popular cereal that were positive for levels of heavy metals that research has shown to be linked to cancer or developmental issues in children. Now, suppose the company stated that it was an isolated incident and a retest showed that the product met acceptable limits. Further investigation showed no paperwork, save for a couple of emails and a phone call between the lab and the producer. Would that give you peace of mind? This is known as “testing into compliance” and was the subject of a landmark lawsuit in 1993 that Barr Laboratories lost.
For many the answer would be a hard NO. But this happens every day. In Colorado, 12.5% of cannabis batches failed final product testing in 2018 and 2019. That’s one in eight batches! What happened to those products? Good question.
Enter: CAPA (Corrective Action and Preventive Action) programs! For people with a background in quality and GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices), CAPA is a household name. And, it’s quickly becoming a requirement that cannabis regulatory bodies are looking at. Colorado was the first state to explicitly require CAPA programs for all license holders effective January of this year and has provided a free resource for them. But, for the large majority of people, including those in the cannabis industry, it’s just another acronym.
What does a CAPA program do?
The benefits are numerous but two major ones are:
An effective tool for investigating the true root cause
First of all, a CAPA program provides the framework for a tool for investigation – as Murphy’s Law posits – things go wrong all of the time. Whether you have a manual, labor-intensive process or a highly automated operation, the equipment is programmed, maintained and monitored by humans. The logical sequence of problem solving within a CAPA program allows you to thoroughly investigate and determine the root cause of the issue. With a complete understanding of root cause, you are then able to eliminate it and prevent future occurrences – not just in the one area investigated, but in all similar situations throughout the company.
System for continuous improvement
Anyone who is in the market for a new car lately can appreciate the technological advances. In the 1980s, it was air bags and ABS brakes (those of you that drive in snowy climates and remember having to pump your brakes can appreciate technological advancements). Bluetooth technology for hands-free communication and radio control is another example of continuous improvement in cars.
This is one of the biggest predictors and differentiators between profitable and successful companies with satisfied clients and one that is barely scraping by. The cost of poor quality adds up!
Key inputs in a CAPA system
If the output is an improved system and lower cost of quality, we need to make sure we’re considering the potential inputs.
Information that feeds into your CAPA system:
Every complaint must be recorded. Gather as much information as possible, but at a minimum: the product type/SKU, the customer name and date of purchase. If possible, the batch or product ID.
This is not necessarily to identify products for a recall, but to prevent…
Laboratory test results
This should not be restricted to final product testing, but include any in-process inspections. Say you have a product repeatedly failing final testing, what if it’s actually been consistently failing or very close to failing at the very first in-process inspection? It’s also important to work with your laboratory to understand their method validation process, including the accuracy, precision, robustness, etc.
Most people consider “environmental controls” to be things like temperature and humidity control. While that is true, it can also include pest and contamination control. Poorly designed infrastructure layouts are major contributors to product cross contamination as well.
Undetected supply chain issues (remember the broken bottles?) can add up fast! CAPAs for suppliers cannot just include supplier monitoring, but improvement in how you communicate your needs to your suppliers. It’s easy to overlook non-cannabis raw materials as sources of microbiological and chemical contamination. Conduct a risk assessment based on the type of contact with your product and the types of contamination possible and adjust your supplier qualification program accordingly.
Are you ready to recognize the benefits of a CAPA program?
One more major benefit of CAPA programs to mention before we go is … Preventive via predictive analytics.
In Colorado, 15% of the final tested cannabis flower products continue to fail, mostly due to mold and mildew. A quality system, with effective data capture that is funneled into a CAPA program can easily reduce this by 75%. For even a small business doing $2M per year in revenue, that equates to a revenue increase of nearly $200,000 with no additional expenses.
Whether you are operating in the State of Colorado or elsewhere, a CAPA and Recall program will provide immense value. In the best case, it will uncover systemic issues; worst case, it forces you to fix mild errors. What are you waiting for?
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
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