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dry cannabis plants

How to Grow Cannabis Plants for Concentrate Production

By Andrew Myers
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dry cannabis plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Microbiology 101 Part Two

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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Microbiology 101 Part One introduced the reader to the science of microbiology and sources of microbes. In Part Two, we discuss the control of microorganisms in your products.

Part 2

The cannabis industry is probably more informed about patients and consumers of their products than the general food industry. In addition to routine illness and stress in the population, cannabis consumers are fighting cancer, HIV/AIDS and other immune disorders. Consumers who are already ill are immunocompromised. Transplant recipients purposely have their immune system suppressed in the process of a successful transplant. These consumers have pre-existing conditions where the immune system is weakened. If the immunocompromised consumer is exposed to viral or bacterial pathogens through cannabis products, the consumer is more likely to suffer from a viral infection or foodborne illness as a secondary illness to the primary illness. In the case of consumers with weakened immune systems, it could literally kill them.Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments.

The cannabis industry shoulders great responsibility in both the medical and adult use markets. In addition to avoiding chemical hazards and determining the potency of the product, the cannabis industry must manufacture products safe for consumption. There are three ways to control pathogens and ensure a safe product: prevent them from entering, kill them and control their growth.

Prevent microorganisms from getting in

Think about everything that is outdoors that will physically come in a door to your facility. Control the quality of ingredients, packaging, equipment lubricants, cleaning agents and sanitizers. Monitor employee hygiene. Next, you control everything within your walls: employees, materials, supplies, equipment and the environment. You control receiving, employee entrance, storage, manufacturing, packaging and distribution. At every step in the process, your job is to prevent the transfer of pathogens into the product from these sources.

Kill microorganisms

Colorized low-temperature electron micrograph of a cluster of E. coli bacteria.
Image courtesy of USDA ARS & Eric Erbe

The combination of raw materials to manufacture your product is likely to include naturally occurring pathogens. Traditional heat methods like roasting and baking will kill most pathogens. Remember, sterility is not the goal. The concern is that a manufacturer uses heat to achieve organoleptic qualities like color and texture, but the combination of time and temperature may not achieve safety. It is only with a validated process that safety is confirmed. If we model safety after what is required of food manufacturers by the Food and Drug Administration, validation of processes that control pathogens is required. In addition to traditional heat methods, non-thermal methods for control of pathogens includes irradiation and high pressure processing and are appropriate for highly priced goods, e.g. juice. Killing is achieved in the manufacturing environment and on processing equipment surfaces after cleaning and by sanitizing.

If you have done everything reasonable to stop microorganisms from getting in the product and you have a validated step to kill pathogens, you may still have spoilage microorganisms in the product. It is important that all pathogens have been eliminated. Examples of pathogens include Salmonella, pathogenic Escherichia coli, also called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) and Listeria monocytogenes. These three common pathogens are easily destroyed by proper heat methods. Despite steps taken to kill pathogens, it is theoretically possible a pathogen is reintroduced after the kill step and before packaging is sealed at very low numbers in the product. Doctors do not know how many cells are required for a consumer to get ill, and the immunocompromised consumer is more susceptible to illness. Lab methods for the three pathogens mentioned are designed to detect very low cell numbers. Packaging and control of growth factors will stop pathogens from growing in the product, if present.

Control the growth of microorganisms

These growth factors will control the growth of pathogens, and you can use the factors to control spoilage microbes as well. To grow, microbes need the same things we do: a comfortable temperature, water, nutrients (food), oxygen, and a comfortable level of acid. In the lab, we want to find the pathogen, so we optimize these factors for growth. When you control growth in your product, one hurdle may be enough to stop growth; sometimes multiple hurdles are needed in combination. Bacteria, yeast, and mold are present in all environments. They are at the bottom of the ocean under pressure. They are in hot springs at the temperature of boiling water. The diversity is immense. Luckily, we can focus on the growth factors for human pathogens, like Salmonella, pathogenic E. coli, and Listeria monocytogenes.

The petri dishes show sterilization effects of negative air ionization on a chamber aerosolized with Salmonella enteritidis. The left sample is untreated; the right, treated. Photo courtesy of USDA ARS & Ken Hammond

Temperature. Human pathogens prefer to grow at the temperature of the human body. In manufacture, keep the time a product is in the range of 40oF to 140oF as short as possible. You control pathogens when your product is at very hot or very cold temperatures. Once the product cools after a kill step in manufacturing, it is critical to not reintroduce a pathogen from the environment or personnel. Clean equipment and packaging play key roles in preventing re-contamination of the product.

Water. At high temperatures as in baking or roasting, there is killing, but there is also the removal of water. In the drying process that is not at high temperature, water is removed to stop the growth of mold. This one hurdle is all that is needed. Even before mold is controlled, bacterial and yeast growth will stop. Many cannabis candies are safe, because water is not available for pathogen growth. Packaging is key to keep moisture out of the product.

Nutrients. In general, nutrients are going to be available for pathogen growth and cannot be controlled. In most products nutrients cannot be removed, however, recipes can be adjusted. Recipes for processed food add preservatives to control growth. In cannabis as in many plants, there may be natural compounds which act as preservatives.

Oxygen. With the great diversity of bacteria, there are bacteria that require the same oxygen we breathe, and mold only grows in oxygen. There are bacteria that only grow in the absence of oxygen, e.g. the bacteria responsible for botulism. And then there are the bacteria and yeast in between, growing with or without oxygen. Unfortunately, most human pathogens will grow with or without oxygen, but slowly without oxygen. The latter describes the growth of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. While a package seals out air, the growth is very slow. Once a package is opened and the product is exposed to air, growth accelerates.

Acid. Fermented or acidified products have a higher level of acid than non-acid products; the acid acts as a natural preservative. The more acid, the more growth is inhibited. Generally, acid is a hurdle to growth, however and because of diversity, some bacteria prefer acid, like probiotics which are non-pathogenic. Some pathogens, like E. coli, have been found to grow in low acid foods, e.g. juice, even though the preference is for non-acidic environments.

Each facility is unique to its materials, people, equipment and product. A safe product is made by following Good Agricultural Practices for the cannabis, by following Good Manufacturing Practices and by suppressing pathogens by preventing them coming in, killing them and controlling their growth factors. Future articles will cover Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) and food safety in more detail.