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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s no denying that the cannabis industry is experiencing a boom. While it feels a bit like the wild west, many organizations are riding a wave of (mostly) positive publicity as opportunities increase for cannabis products and distribution.
From a public relations standpoint, relying on this initial excitement, however, is shortsighted at best. As regulations allow for increased competition in many markets such as cannabis dispensaries, manufacturers and distributors, we must find new ways to creatively garner positive attention while staying compliant with regulations.
But what do you do after the initial excitement fades? How do you individualize your company to make it stand out and sustain within the market? For many, the solution is held within a strategic community relations program.
No matter the size or reach of the organization, we encourage many of our clients, especially those in the cannabis industry, to engage with their immediate communities. Not only does this demonstrate that you’re invested in the well-being of your neighbors, but can provide long-term benefits, such as brand loyalty and improved public image.
Here are four reasons why businesses in the cannabis industry should be investing in community relations outreach:
1. Initial Publicity Only Lasts So Long
Like the gold rush, businesses are looking to help themselves to a slice of the cannabis pie. And understandably so. In 2018, the industry earned nearly $10 billion in the U.S. last year, creating 64,389 jobs, according to CNBC. With the newness of the industry comes a lot of excitement and media attention. While this attention is great for those first-to-market trailblazers, as competition increases, the newsworthiness will dwindle.So, what’s the best way to gain awareness without blatantly advertising? The answer is giving back.
For examples of this, look no further than the tech industry. Remember when apps (or websites if you want to go way back) used to be a big deal? In order to stand out in a crowded marketplace you must be different and have a story to tell. Making a meaningful connection through outreach will help you succeed long after the first wave of publicity fades away.
2. Regulations Rule
In many ways, your hands are tied when it comes to advertising or promoting a cannabis business versus a traditional retail product or location. In some states, it’s almost entirely off the table. So, what’s the best way to gain awareness without blatantly advertising? The answer is giving back. Community outreach programs through philanthropic efforts will help build your business, create brand awareness and bring people together. Community relations is a critical part of getting the word out even in the face of strict regulatory guidelines. And the best part – it can be inexpensive to do. As an added bonus, you make friends and create advocates in the process.
3. Combat the Stigma
In some states and communities, cannabis still faces a bad rap. Currently only 33 states have legalized medical cannabis, while 11 states have legalized cannabis recreationally. And even with growing legalization and acceptance, the industry must still combat outdated stigmas and misgivings. By making your business a reputable part of the community you will build trust and loyalty. Take this as an opportunity to educate the community about the facility and meet staff members.
4. Stay in Good Graces
Community relations is a great way to create ambassadors out of community leaders and influencers. Simply put, people are more interested in supporting an organization that supports them in return. Show that you’re invested in your neighbors and ingrained in the success of the local business community. As an added bonus, community involvement will also help boost public image and build the morale of employees. This is important for long-term success of your company as well as employee retention.
No matter what your reason for implementing a community relations initiative, you’ll find it to be a great addition to your public relations strategy.
The best part- community outreach doesn’t have to be extravagant, either. Coat drives, food drives or volunteering time with local events are all great ways to show your support for the community while raising your own profile.
As the cannabis industry continues to grow and competition increases, you’ll feel good about setting the bar high as a responsible and thoughtful invested member of your local business community.
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