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Flower-Side Chats Part 2: A Q&A with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm

By Aaron Green
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Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.

Maggie’s Farm is an integrated cannabis company based in Southern Colorado. Maggie’s Farm has seven adult-use and medical dispensaries and cultivates the vast majority of their flower on outdoor farms. All Maggie’s Farm products are sun-grown from seed in soil that is 100% custom-mixed onsite as well as spring-watered, slow-cured and hand-trimmed. Maggie’s Farm does not use any synthetic pesticides or growth hormones in its cultivation. In addition, for the past eight years, Maggie’s Farm has recently obtained Clean Green Certified®, a designation certifying organic standards and testing that mirrors the USDA organic certification. Maggie’s Farm was the first cultivator in Colorado to earn the Clean Green certification.

We spoke with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm to learn more about the benefits of outdoor growing, localism and their Clean Green certification. Bill started Maggie’s Farm in 2010 after growing up on cattle ranches and farms in Colorado.

Aaron Green: Bill, thanks for taking the time today. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in the cannabis industry.

Bill Conkling: I am a native of southern Colorado. I was a medical caregiver back in the early days of legalization, and I saw an opportunity to vertically align after my first legal crop in 2010. I opened up the store in 2011. I’ve been a lifelong proponent of medical, recreational and adult use of marijuana.

I come from a background of farmers and I had worked on cattle ranches and farms throughout childhood. As soon as I graduated from college, I went back to work on a large cattle ranch in the four corners area [of southern Colorado]. That’s where I started to incorporate my indoor cultivation experience and skills with outdoor.

Aaron: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?

Bill: I was one of the first medical operators to support legalization, so I have certainly followed legalization trends. I’ve looked at some other states in our region in terms of growth and legalization.

Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm

We’re trying to stay a regional supplier and producer so that we are locally grown. We believe the southwest of Colorado is optimal for outdoor cannabis cultivation.

At Maggie’s Farm, we have followed an organic trend from the beginning and I think that’s becoming more of a trend now. We recently received Clean Green certification to that effect. Our goal is to try to provide the healthiest product at a good value to the market.

I believe that all of the products that are made in the cannabis world come from the flower. Downstream products are only as good as their ingredients. It all starts with the flower. So, we focus on producing a clean, top-shelf quality flower that is produced outdoors.

Aaron: How do you define local?

Bill: Local is staying in the climate that is optimal with the least amount of carbon footprint to the earth. That also means trying to operate so that we’re not moving a lot of product across long distances.

We’re trying to set up farms that are in optimal climates. There is a two or three-state region that I believe is the optimal climate for outdoor marijuana cultivation in our country.

Aaron: What states are those specifically?

Bill: I think Colorado and New Mexico, primarily.

Aaron: What geographies is Maggie’s farm currently in?

Bill: We’re in southern Colorado. We don’t go into the plains of Colorado.

Aaron: So Colorado state only right now?

Bill: Yes. The wet mountain range is one of the mountain ranges that we are in. I’ve also cultivated in the La Plata mountain range.

Aaron: What specifically is it about that region that makes it conducive to cannabis growing?

Bill: I think if you get the right elevation and the right microclimates within those elevations, and you have the number of sunny days that Colorado offers in those areas – the intensity of the sunlight, and the cool nights – all those things are factors that coincide in these areas that we like to cultivate in.

Aaron: We’ve been talking about outdoor growth. Does Maggie’s do any indoor?

Bill: No. We’re essentially an outdoor farm. We do a little bit of breeding and we’ve got starter houses, greenhouses and hoop houses for that purpose. We’ve got one greenhouse that we use for some wholesale, but we are primarily outdoors.

Aaron: How do you go about selecting the genetics or evolving the genetics to meet your local environment, given that you’re growing outdoors?

Bill: A lot of it is honestly through testing and experimentation, historically. You just cultivate and harvest and see how the genetics performed, you know? You test, you take test inputs, you take customer reviews, and blind test results from the team and from the customers and you consider all those facts.

Aaron: Do you produce and use your own seeds or are you purchasing those?

Bill: We have done both. I think I’ve probably created somewhere north of 800 different strains at this point. So, we’ve got a huge seed bank. We do also buy from vendors and experiment with some of those genetics as well.

Aaron: Do you market your seeds in Colorado?“I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors.”

Bill: We do not.

Aaron: How did you settle on outdoor-only as the strategy for Maggie’s?

Bill: I believe outdoor is a premium flower. I think it has less impact on the earth. I think that there is a lot less pest mitigation than there is indoors, which makes it a healthier, cleaner product. You don’t have to mitigate the concentration of pests that you get in temperate climates of stagnant corners of greenhouses and buildings that you cultivate indoors. Therefore, you never get into the situations as often or as intensely, where you might have to really work hard at mitigating your pests. You can use the natural predator insects you can introduce and oftentimes they survive and they create their own climates and it’s a more natural, healthier product.

I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors. You just don’t have the value of the sun, which nothing compares to. You can hold up as many high wattage bulbs as you want and you don’t even pale to the sun and the effect that the sun has on the flower.

Aaron: What are some of the challenges of growing outdoors that you see frequently?

Bill: You have to be nimble. You can’t rely completely on a schedule. You’ve got to be able to shift around in your planting days and your harvest dates.

You’ve obviously got to be on your toes all the time for weather changes. Higher humidity years can tend to bring more insects or pests. Some years you’ve got higher winds than other years. This year, we had a snowstorm on September 9, which left nine inches of heavy wet snow on one of our farms. So, you’ve got to be nimble, very proactive and ready for those kinds of weather events that happen in very short notice.

Aaron: We mentioned Clean Green Certified® briefly. Can you explain more about the Clean Green certification and why that’s an important thing for you at Maggie’s?

Bill: The choice to become Clean Green Certified® was really an effort to validate the organic process that we have. We vetted out what we believe was and still is the premier, organic criteria certification endorsement in the market for cannabis. To this day, they really do an ethical, vetting-out process whereby if you fail the parts of any of the soils that are sent to federal-licensed labs, you do not get your endorsement. The owner of Clean Green also had a mother company that was an endorser of other agricultural products such as coffee, wheat and dairy.

Aaron: How would you compare Clean Green Certified® to USDA Organic?

Bill: Identical. When the federal government legalizes, we are poised to automatically convert to a USDA Organic certification and endorsement. The processes the founder and owner of Clean Green uses to test cannabis is the same process used to test other agricultural industries. For plants, he takes random samples of soils throughout a cultivation field and sends them to a federal-licensed lab where they test for impurities.

Aaron: Did you decide to get your Clean Green certification due to pulling from the market, or is this more something you decided to do internally as Maggie’s Farm?

Bill: I decided to do this internally. I wanted to be recognized for all of our organic efforts and I wanted to let people know that we have a safe product that doesn’t have synthetics in it. Even to this day, a lot of people in Colorado unlike the coastal states like maybe California are still pretty unaware of a Clean Green certification or even the fact that there is an organic process for cannabis or marijuana. So, it’s really just to let our customers know that there is value in a safe, healthy choice for them.

Aaron: What kind of products do you create at Maggie’s farm?

Bill: We grow flower. We are also a big producer of a very high-quality pre-roll. We are developing promoted products as well.

Aaron: Do you do fresh frozen?

Bill: We do some, yes.

Aaron: Are you selling direct to the dispensary or to manufacturers?

Bill: We finally had produced some excess. So, we started wholesaling flower this year and lots of high-quality shake for concentrates to concentrate makers. Our customer is typically a little more of a mature customer. I don’t want to say necessarily older, but I think we probably do hit a little bit of a higher, more experienced, health-conscious, connoisseur customer.

Aaron: Can you give me an idea of some of the regulatory challenges in Colorado that you’ve faced in the past or are facing today?

Bill: The perpetual change of regulation has been a challenge. Being a competent operator in cannabis means getting used to the change and having the resources to be nimble with compliance. We haven’t had common problems such as metals, mold or mildew issues. However, we have had some hardware issues, which required us to change cameras along with other technical intricacies.

Aaron: How many acres do you have?

Bill: We have about 30 acres of secured premise cultivation.

Aaron: Is that all managed in-house or sublet?

Bill: It’s all managed and operated exclusively by Maggie’s Farm.

Aaron: What’s next for Maggie’s Farm? What are you excited about?

Bill:  We want to continue to put a higher scale of a very healthy, quality, value flower out there and to be able to offer that to more states initially states that are within our region and eventually states across the US. Also, we will continue to do our best to meet the growing demand for healthier choices in general.

Aaron: Lastly, what are you personally interested in learning more about?

Bill: How we can continue to be as earth-conscious as we can be? How we can continue to look for ways to give back to our communities? How we can continue to operate as a view of made in the USA and to try to just support local regional and national products and vendors? Just how to be more aware and always look for opportunities for self-improvement.

Aaron: That concludes the interview, thank you Bill!

german flag

A Snapshot of The German Cannabis Market: Year 3

By Marguerite Arnold
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german flag

Despite the limitations and privations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s market is “up” in terms of sales and overall insurance approvals. For all the victories however, there are still many kinks along the way. That is of course, not just on the medical front (where flower is yet again in short supply this summer), but also in the CBD space.

There is also clearly a drumbeat for more reform afoot in a country which has bested the COVID-19 pandemic like few others in the world. And like France as well as other countries in Europe, the conversation across the region has turned to including cannabis in recovery efforts, and in multiple ways. That includes not only relying on a new crop and industry for economic revitalization, but also of course, on the topic of further reform.

A Brief Overview Of The “Modern” German Cannabis Market
Germany kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in a big way in Europe in the first quarter of 2017. The government got sued by patients and changed the law mandating that public insurers had to reimburse the drug. They also kicked off a cultivation tender bid which promptly became mired in several rounds of lawsuits and squabbles. The first German grown cannabis will hit pharmacies this fall, but it is not clear when, and the unofficial rumour is that the pandemic will delay distribution. The German distribution tender has been delayed three times so far this year.

In the meantime, the German market has developed into the world’s most lucrative target for global exporters, particularly (but not limited) to GMP and other certifiable high-grade cannabis (and in all its forms).

The German Parliament Building

Other Issues, Problems and Wrinkles

Nothing about cannabis legalization is ever going to be easy, and Germany has been no exception.

The first problem on the ground is that the supply chain here has had several major hits, from the beginning. This is even though the supply has come from ostensibly otherwise reliable sources. Companies in Canada and in Holland have all had different kinds of problems with delivery (for different reasons) throughout this period.

Right now, there is a major reorganization afoot in Holland which may also be affecting the recent decision on the Dutch side to reorganize how the government picks (private) German narcotics distributors. Aurora also had product pulled last fall because of labelling and processing issues. But these, no matter how momentous momentarily, are also just waves in a cannabis ocean that is still choppy. Domestic sales continue to expand and foreign producers can still find a foothold in a still fairly open market.

As a result, even with a new dronabinol competitor, Israel, Australia and South Africa as well as multiple European countries now in advanced export schemes, the supply problem is still a thorny one, but not quite as thorny as it used to be.

However, On The CBD Front…

Things have gotten even more complicated since the repeated decisions on Novel Food at the EU level. Namely, last year’s decision that the only CBD extract that is not “Novel” is extracted from seeds, has thrown the entire industry into a major fluff. Especially when such decisions begin to filter down via a federal and regional approach. This has begun to happen. Indeed, the city of Cologne, in Germany’s most populous state just banned all CBD that is not labelled per an EU (although admittedly) non-binding resolution on the issue.

This in turn is leading to a renewed push for the obvious: recreational cannabis.

Where Is the Recreational Discussion Auf Deutschland?
The recreational movement, generally, has been handed several black eyes for the last three years. Namely, that greater reform was not preserved in the first cannabis legalization that passed, albeit unanimously, in the German Parliament in 2017. However, as many recognized, the first, most important hurdle had just been broached. And indeed, that cautious strategy has created a steadily increasing, high quality (at least for the most part) medical market that is unmatched anywhere in the world except perhaps Israel.

german flag
Photo: Ian McWilliams, Flickr

Now, however, there are other issues in the room. The CBD discussion is mired in endless hypocrisy and meddling at both the state country level and the EU. There are many Germans who are keen to try cannabis beyond any idea of cannabis as therapy. Remember that Germany has largely managed to contain the outbreak, despite the emergence of several recent but isolated hotspots of late. In Frankfurt, for example, with the exception of more people on kurzarbeit (which is not visible), most street traffic proceeds apace these days with masks on, but with that exception or two, feels pretty much back to “normal.” And of course, economic development in the form of exports is one of Germany’s favorite pastimes.

Beyond that, the needle has absolutely moved across Europe. Several countries, including Greece and Portugal as well as the UK’s Channel Islands, have already jumped on the cannabis economic development bandwagon, and this is only going to encourage the Germans as well as other similar conversations across the region. It has even showed up in France.

And of course, it is not like the implications of Luxembourg and Switzerland as well as recent efforts in Holland to better regulate the recreational industry there, have not been blatantly obvious to those in Europe’s largest medical market.

Look for new shoots and leaves, in other words of the next stage of cannabis reform to take hold auf Deutschland. And soon. It is inevitable.

Fungal Monitoring: An Upstream Approach to Testing Requirements

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

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

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

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

Mold: At Home in Cannabis Plants

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

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

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

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

A Name with Many Varieties

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

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

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

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

How Mold Travels

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

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

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

Trimming Areas: A Grow’s Highest Risk for Mold

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

Best practices include quality control protocols while trimming

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

The Battle Against Mold

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

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

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

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

Ways to Monitor Mold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spore Trap Results: A Story Told

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

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

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

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

Using Spore Traps to See Seasonality Changes, Learn CCPs

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

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

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

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

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

Using Fungal Monitoring in an IPM Strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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


References

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

Environmental Sustainability in Cultivation: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Total Yeast & Mold Count: What Cultivators & Business Owners Need to Know

By Parastoo Yaghmaee, PhD
2 Comments

Editor’s note: This article should serve as a foundation of knowledge for yeast and mold in cannabis. Beginning in January 2018, we will publish a series of articles focused entirely on yeast and mold, discussing topics such as TYMC testing, preventing yeast and mold in cultivation and treatment methods to reduce yeast and mold.


Cannabis stakeholders, including cultivators, extractors, brokers, distributors and consumers, have been active in the shadows for decades. With the legalization of recreational adult use in several states, and more on the way, safety of the distributed product is one of the main concerns for regulators and the public. Currently, Colorado1, Nevada and Canada2 require total yeast and mold count (TYMC) compliance testing to evaluate whether or not cannabis is safe for human consumption. As the cannabis industry matures, it is likely that TYMC or other stringent testing for yeast and mold will be adopted in the increasingly regulated medical and recreational markets.

The goal of this article is to provide general information on yeast and mold, and to explain why TYMC is an important indicator in determining cannabis safety.

Yeast & Mold

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

Yeast and mold are members of the fungi family. Fungus, widespread in nature, can be found in the air, water, soil, vegetation and in decaying matter. The types of fungus found in different geographic regions vary based upon humidity, soil and other environmental conditions. In general, fungi can grow in a wide range of pH environments and temperatures, and can survive in harsh conditions that bacteria cannot. They are not able to produce their own food like plants, and survive by breaking down material from their surroundings into nutrients. Mold cannot thrive in an environment with limited oxygen, while yeast is able to grow with or without oxygen. Most molds, if grown for a long enough period, can be detected visually, while yeast growth is usually detected by off-flavor and fermentation.

Due to their versatility, it is rare to find a place or surface that is naturally free of fungi or their spores. Damp conditions, poor air quality and darker areas are inviting environments for yeast and mold growth.

Cannabis plants are grown in both indoor and outdoor conditions. Plants grown outdoors are exposed to wider ranges and larger populations of fungal species compared to indoor plants. However, factors such as improper watering, the type of soil and fertilizer and poor air circulation can all increase the chance of mold growth in indoor environments. Moreover, secondary contamination is a prevalent risk from human handling during harvest and trimming for both indoor and outdoor-grown cannabis. If humidity and temperature levels of drying and curing rooms are not carefully controlled, the final product could also easily develop fungi or their growth by-product.

 What is TYMC?

TYMC, or total yeast and mold count, is the number of colony forming units present per gram of product (CFU/g). A colony forming unit is the scientific means of counting and reporting the population of live bacteria or yeast and mold in a product. To determine the count, the cannabis sample is plated on a petri dish which is then incubated at a specific temperature for three to five days. During this time, the yeast and mold present will grow and reproduce. Each colony, which represents an individual or a group of yeast and mold, produces one spot on the petri dish. Each spot is considered one colony forming unit.

Why is TYMC Measured?

TYMC is an indicator of the overall cleanliness of the product’s life cycle: growing environment, processing conditions, material handling and storage facilities. Mold by itself is not considered “bad,” but having a high mold count, as measured by TYMC, is alarming and could be detrimental to both consumers and cultivators. 

Aspergillus species niger
Photo: Carlos de Paz, Flickr

The vast majority of mold and yeast present in the environment are indeed harmless, and even useful to humans. Some fungi are used commercially in production of fermented food, industrial alcohol, biodegradation of waste material and the production of antibiotics and enzymes, such as penicillin and proteases. However, certain fungi cause food spoilage and the production of mycotoxin, a fungal growth by-product that is toxic to humans and animals. Humans absorb mycotoxins through inhalation, skin contact and ingestion. Unfortunately, mycotoxins are very stable and withstand both freezing and cooking temperatures. One way to reduce mycotoxin levels in a product is to have a low TYMC.

Aspergillus flavus on culture.
Photo: Iqbal Osman, Flickr

Yeast and mold have been found to be prevalent in cannabis in both current and previous case studies. In a 2017 UC Davis study, 20 marijuana samples obtained from Northern California dispensaries were found to contain several yeast and mold species, including Cryptococcus, Mucor, Aspergillus fumigatus, Aspergillus niger, and Aspergillus flavus.3 The same results were reported in 1983, when marijuana samples collected from 14 cannabis smokers were analyzed. All of the above mold species in the 2017 study were present in 13 out of 14 marijuana samples.4

Aspergillus species niger, flavus, and fumigatus are known for aflatoxin production, a type of dangerous mycotoxin that can be lethal.5 Once a patient smokes and/or ingests cannabis with mold, the toxins and/or spores can thrive inside the lungs and body.6, 7 There are documented fatalities and complications in immunocompromised patients smoking cannabis with mold, including patients with HIV and other autoimmune diseases, as well as the elderly.8, 9, 10, 11

For this reason, regulations exist to limit the allowable TYMC counts for purposes of protecting consumer safety. At the time of writing this article, the acceptable limit for TYMC in cannabis plant material in Colorado, Nevada and Canada is ≤10,000 CFU/g. Washington state requires a mycotoxin test.12 California is looking into testing for specific Aspergillus species as a part of their requirement. As the cannabis industry continues to grow and advance, it is likely that additional states will adopt some form of TYMC testing into their regulatory testing requirements.

References:

  1. https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Complete%20Retail%20Marijuana%20Rules%20as%20of%20April%2014%202017.pdf
  2. http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/f-27/
  3. https://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/publish/news/newsroom/11791
  4. Kagen SL, Kurup VP, Sohnle PG, Fink JN. 1983. Marijuana smoking and fungal sensitization. Journal of Allergy & Clinical Immunology. 71(4): 389-393.
  5. Centre for Disease control and prevention. 2004 Outbreak of Aflatoxin Poisoning – Eastern and central provinces, Kenya, Jan – July 2004. Morbidity and mortality weekly report.. Sep 3, 2004: 53(34): 790-793
  6. Cescon DW, Page AV, Richardson S, Moore MJ, Boerner S, Gold WL. 2008. Invasive pulmonary Aspergillosis associated with marijuana use in a man with colorectal cancer. Diagnosis in Oncology. 26(13): 2214-2215.
  7. Szyper-Kravits M, Lang R, Manor Y, Lahav M. 2001 Early invasive pulmonary aspergillosis in a leukemia patient linked to aspergillus contaminated marijuana smoking. Leukemia Lymphoma 42(6): 1433 – 1437.
  8. Verweii PE, Kerremans JJ, Voss A, F.G. Meis M. 2000. Fungal contamination of Tobacco and Marijuana. JAMA 2000 284(22): 2875.
  9. Ruchlemer R, Amit-Kohn M, Raveh D, Hanus L. 2015. Inhaled medicinal cannabis and the immunocompromised patient. Support Care Cancer. 23(3):819-822.
  10. McPartland JM, Pruitt PL. 1997. Medical Marijuana and its use by the immunocompromised. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 3 (3): 39-45.
  11. Hamadeh R, Ardehali A, Locksley RM, York MK. 1983. Fatal aspergillosis associated with smoking contaminated marijuana, in a marrow transplant recipient. Chest. 94(2): 432-433.
  12. http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=314-55-102

Digipath Expands To California

By Aaron G. Biros
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In July, we sat down with the folks at Digipath, Inc. when they received their testing license in Nevada for the adult use market. In that conversation, they mentioned they were looking to expand into California.

According to a press release published September 25th, DigiPath, Inc. has entered a joint venture to establish their first cannabis-testing lab in California. They will be working with Don Ashley, an experienced real estate developer and cannabis entrepreneur, to launch Humboldt Botanical, LLC, conducting business under the name “Digipath Botanical Testing”.

Ashley says they expect to be fully operational by Q1 of 2018. “We expect to break ground on this project in the next few weeks and hope to be operational in early Q1 2018 just after the state-wide adult-use market is expected to launch, as we have already obtained approval from the local planning authorities for the entire complex,” says Ashley.

Todd Denkin, founder and president of Digipath

Todd Denkin, president of Digipath, is optimistic for California’s market and the coming regulations. “The state of California is estimated to be the single largest cannabis market in the U.S. Adult-use cannabis legislation was approved by California residents last November, and we expect these new regulations to be implemented in 2018,” says Denkin. “The good news for the industry is that the requirements for cannabis testing will be significant, and we are excited to partner with Don and his team to pursue this opportunity in Humboldt County.”

Ashley is contributing roughly $2 million to build and equip the lab with instrumentation, while Digipath Labs will manage and supervise operations at the lab. According to the press release, Digipath will provide a non-exclusive license to use its intellectual property for the operation of the lab. Digipath Labs will retain rights over all the scientific data generated in the lab.

Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath

According to Cindy Orser, PhD., chief science officer at Digipath, that data will be put to good use. “Digipath Labs has developed an algorithm for use in strain authentication based largely on terpene profiling from our testing lab in Nevada and we are eager to further test our hypothesis with an expanded dataset from cannabis grown in Northern California,” says Orser.

While testing labs are primarily seen as safeguards for public health and safety, using data to correctly identify strains is a relatively new concept. “Digipath Labs is all about public health and safety through testing for adulterants,” says Orser. “Another component to quality is having confidence in product authenticity at the dispensary level. Not only is the consumer buying quality assured products but truth in advertising when it comes to strain nomenclature.”

Denkin says they were proactive in working toward getting the license early on. “Our partners have been dealing with the local regulators while we have been providing the proper SOP’s for the local government in order to receive the proper licensure in the area,” says Denkin. Taking their experience from Nevada to California, Orser says they have been asked to present to the California Toxicology Association on their experience with cannabis testing in the highly regulated marketplace of Nevada.

The laboratory in Humboldt is going to be part of a “cannabis industrial park,” alongside an R&D facility, oils/concentrate manufacturing center, health and wellness center, distribution and processing facility, tissue culture nursery, hemp clothing outlet, and coffee bistro, according to the press release.

Looking forward to growing their business, Denkin says they hope to launch a lab in Southern California. “We do expect to have a larger footprint in California because of the size of the market and are looking for locations in Southern California as well,” says Denkin. When asked about any new plans to expand elsewhere, Denkin says they’ll let us know. “We are continuing with our business plan and actively seeking the right mergers and acquisitions. Stay tuned.”