Cannabis cultivators across the U.S. are confronting plummeting wholesale prices and tighter profit margins. Operators in Pennsylvania say flower prices have fallen from around $4,000 a pound to around $3,000, on average, and prices in the more mature markets of California, Oregon and Colorado have experienced extreme volatility. Prices in those states are averaging around $700 per pound but of course, that’s an average. There are whispers that prices are as low as $150, revealing how bad the situation really is.
Oversaturation of legal cannabis affects commercial growers everywhere. For example, when Oklahoma opened its free-wheeling medical cannabis program with unlimited business licenses, the pipeline of cannabis from legacy markets in California was disrupted and a glut of flower from the gray market began to influence pricing within the state’s legal market. Although cannabis is not federally legal and interstate commerce is banned, what happens in one state definitely affects what happens in another.
Competition in legal markets has also increased dramatically in recent years as multistate operators expand their footprint and consolidation proliferates. Vertically integrated cultivation, manufacturing and retail is becoming unsustainable for many mom-and-pop businesses, while MSOs can leverage their cash and resources to weather the current storm.
Economic Viability Meets High Quality Production
All of this news is not necessarily negative, but it’s a definite cautionary tale: Being complacent opens opportunities for others. Growing cannabis is complex. It is working with a living and breathing machine. Some businesses fail because operators are not able to find the perfect blend of horticulture, plant science and manufacturing efficiency necessary for success. Some see it simply as a manufacturing concern, others a scientific endeavor, and still others as an artform. An understanding of growing cannabis as a blend of all three is paramount.
Squeezing more high-quality product out of existing facilities is essential. Costs for labor and electricity are relatively fixed, so operators must turn to technology to improve yield, quality, consistency and plant health without increasing operating expenses.
Over the years, growers have often resisted change surrounding what they view as “the way” or “the best,” but with the industry in such distress, the time is now to address facility inefficiencies.
Much like the evolution of LED use, there might be an initial skepticism at the cost and real value of new cultivation technology, but the economics are too compelling to ignore. The majority of all indoor grows now use LED. The progression from single-ended bulbs, to double-ended HPS, to LED is analogous to plants on the floor of a grow facility, to rolltop benches, and now to vertical farming using racks.
Vertical Cultivation Science
Crop steering applies plant science directly to commercial production. The methodology is based on the idea that plants can be manipulated to grow and perform a certain way. For cannabis plants, the science really comes into play with inter-canopy airflow.
When airflow occurs under the surface of the leaf of the plant, the stomata opens and gas exchange increases as water vapor and oxygen are released and carbon dioxide is absorbed. The micro-barrier of air trapped against the leaves is broken and the exchange of gasses and energy in the cultivation environment is improved, enabling the entire grow to increase its yield. And while CO2 supplementation is widely used and has been for years with positive effect, the under-canopy airflow provides greater efficiency relative to the operating expense of pumping CO2 into the grow room. Money can be saved by applying science to encourage the plant to uptake the extra CO2 that has been naturally released.
Proper Drainage Is Also Key
Drainage issues like the puddling of water in vertical farming are detrimental to the efficiency of a cultivation facility. Even when growers use precision irrigation techniques to give the plants pinpointed irrigation volumes over different time periods, rack systems can still suffer from drainage issues. That means that affected plants are not receiving the precision irrigation strategy and the entire purpose of the scientific application is defeated.
Precise drainage is critical because standing water opens the door to root born disease, pests, and microbial issues. Spray regimes can address this problem, but they cost money. The key is to reduce dependency on mitigation efforts by better controlling the agricultural space and improving outcomes with a scientifically approached plan.
Greenhouses, warehouses and vertical farming facilities all have potential environmental issues that reduce their economic viability, but with proper vertical air movement, drainage equipment and an understanding of microclimates and how to address them scientifically, efficiency and product quality are enhanced.
Time to Embrace Change
As with any industry, there is resistance to adopting new technology in cannabis cultivation. The original and legacy players will always claim they know how to best grow their plants, but the reality is that the business needs must be addressed.
As canopies increase within a facility, advancements like robotics, LEDs and advanced airflow technology define how the industry operates and continues to improve. Efficiency keeps business alive—cannabis growers must continually assess their operations and make the capital investments that will pay off as wholesale prices continue to decline.
Having a well-built grow room with adequate lighting, the ability to properly control the environment, proper nutrient feedings, a good pest management plan, well trained employees and an experienced cultivation manager are very important to the overall output of cannabis plants. However, even if you have all those measures in place, there’s no guarantee of success. One factor that is often overlooked is how many harvests you can get per year, as clearly the more harvests you can get in a given time period, the more likely your chances of success are in this competitive industry. This is why having a good cultivation plan in place, with proper foresight and planning, is so essential to success.
Increasing yield or production output in a cannabis cultivation facility can often be as simple as having the right cultivation plan in place to ensure that you are harvesting the maximum number of times per year. All it requires is a well thought out plan, and best of all, that does not cost any money if you have someone with enough cultivation experience assisting you and will earn back more than the cost of paying a consultant to get such a plan in place.
In this article I will explain why changing nutrients, grow media or even a cultivation manager may not necessarily increase yield, quality or your chance of success. What you should be focusing on is your cultivation plan and the scheduling of your cultivation cycles.
Why changing nutrient companies may not necessarily increase your yield
For the most part, nutrient companies use the same ingredients in their product lines and often buy them from the same source, but they combine them in different forms and ratios to create their “unique” product. You can go to a grow store, pick five different nutrient products, read the labels and compare the different nutrients in each one. You will find for the most part that they are very similar. Generally speaking, you could pick any one of those five nutrient companies and have great results. Mixing nutrients into a nutrient tank needs to be done precisely and if your employees are not doing it properly this can lead to plant health issues. In larger cultivation facilities, often nutrient dosers are used to inject fertilizer into the irrigation lines without having to mix nutrients. However, if the dosers are not set to the proper ratios, this can also lead to plant health issues.
There are a few companies that I really like that have a different approach to plant nutrition, which saves time and can prevent human error associated with mixing and applying liquid nutrients. Soilscape solutions, Organics Alive and Beanstock Agriculture all have nutrient lines that are intended to be used with soil or soilless media that can be amended into the soil which provide a slow steady release of nutrients that the plants can uptake as needed. This avoids the risk of human error in repeatedly applying liquid nutrients to the plants.
Why changing grow medium and nutrients will not necessarily improve your yield but may increase yourquality
Whether it is rock wool, coco fiber, a soilless mix or living soil, everything has a limit. Giving your plants the proper amount of water and the frequency at which you water, along with having sufficient room for the roots to grow are key factors to ensuring plant health. If your plants aren’t getting watered properly, no matter what media you are growing in, you will be having problems. Changing things like grow media won’t result in instant success, as there will always be a learning curve when making changes to your cultivation. If you cannot adapt quickly enough, you can quickly create major problems.
You would be better off to master the grow media you are currently working; you will have more chance of success making slight alterations to your current media than you will if you switch your grow media altogether. There are so many different nutrient lines, soil companies, coco coir companies and the truth is any of them can lead to success.
Changing grow media and nutrients do play a large role in quality though. With cannabis being legalized in many states, the overall quality of cultivation inputs have increased, especially nutrients. However, in general, with some exceptions, the quality of cannabis has not necessarily increased along with the increase in quality of nutrients. One exception: I would argue that switching from salt nutrients and rock wool, to organic living soil will result in an improvement to the flavor, quality and terpenes of the cannabis.
A lot of people use rock wool with salts because it’s easier to scale up than if you are growing in soil, but some quality is also sacrificed. Soil is heavy and messy and most people throw their soil away which takes a lot of money and labor to do. Reusing your soil is one of the best ways to save time, money and increase quality. I had a friend that grew the same variety, same lights, same ventilation but grew hydroponically with salt-based nutrients and he would always say the cannabis I grew, organically, tasted better. The same was true when we grew the same variety outdoors. He used salt-based fertilizer, I used amended soil with water. There wasn’t really a comparison in flavor and the yield was not compromised either! This was his opinion not mine.
I think the vast majority of consumers have not seen the type of quality that someone in Northern California who has been smoking and growing for 20 plus years has seen. Quality is relative to what you have been able to acquire. Most people especially nowadays will never see the quality that used to be common when we didn’t treat the sacred herb like a commodity. When you do it for the love of the plant it shows. Remember, quality is relative to your experience and if salty weed is all you know, you are probably missing out.
Why changing your Cultivation manager may not necessarily increase your yield
Every cultivation facility should have an experienced cultivation manager who is knowledgeable in the areas of nutrient requirements, pest management, environmental requirements, managing employees and overall facilities operations. If a grow room cannot sustain the proper environmental set points, blaming the problems and issues that arise on the cultivation manager is not fair. It is a common problem in the cannabis industry – the owners of a company are not seeing the results that they want and think that by replacing the cultivation manager it will solve all their problems. In reality, often the problem results from upper management or owners of the company not providing the cultivation manager the tools necessary to perform their job at the highest level. Another common problem is when owners fire the cultivation manager and replace them with lower-level employees to manage the facility. The problem with this is those employees do not have enough experience nor the attention to detail to successfully run a cultivation facility. The result is that yield and quality suffer tremendously.
You should be harvesting every 60-70 days
The reality is there is no one specific thing you can try or buy that will result in success. It is everything combined, the HVAC system, lights, genetics being grown, water quality, air quality, root zone temperature, ability to control environment, having a clean facility, disease free plants, knowledgeable cultivation manager etc. that are required to operate a successful cultivation.
But all of that is less important to yield than a good cultivation plan. Cultivation methods directly tie into the overall production of a facility. But, regardless of whether you’re growing in soil, hydroponics, using LED or HPS, have low or high plant counts, if you don’t have the ability to harvest a grow room, clean and replant within a very short amount of time (ideally one or two days) then you’re going to be losing out on profit.
If you’re cultivating strains that finish flowering in under 60 days you should be getting six harvests per year. If you are cultivating strains that finish flowering in 60 to 70 days you should be getting five harvests per year. To do this, you will need to have the appropriate amount of plants that are ready to be flowered to refill your grow room or greenhouse ready to flower. With a little bit of planning and foresight you will be able to do this, and you will be on your way to producing your highest yield potential.
If you are struggling to have enough plants that are ready to flower once you are done harvesting and cleaning your grow room, having trouble planning your cultivation schedule to maximize production, or struggling to maintain a mother and clone room to supply your own plants or planning for the appropriate amount of labor, contact Floresco Consulting and talk with one of our cultivation advisors to get you back on track. We can guide you to ensure you are harvesting, cleaning and replanting every 60 days. Contact us today to get your facility producing at its maximum potential.
By Dr. Markus Roggen, Amanda Assen, Dr. Eric Janusson No Comments
Many people associate cannabis with eco-friendly, counter-cultural movements, but we know the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry are significant. Given the climate crisis, cannabis production companies have a responsibility to ensure future demands of the industry are met in an environmentally sustainable way. We also know that as the world is seeing the impacts of climate change, consumers are changing their spending habits 1. As a result, companies also have the financial incentive to seriously consider implementing more environmental policies, to align their interests with the interests of consumers. Unfortunately, restrictions on cannabis research and the legal industry create barriers to implementing many environmentally friendly alternatives in production. However, this does not give us an excuse to do nothing while we wait – there are many steps that can be taken while we work to overcome these barriers. Our team at Delic Labs aims to help companies ensure the environmental and economic sustainability of the cannabis industry. So, we did some research and developed the Cannabis Better Future (CBF) concept, a guide that considers the impacts of cannabis cultivation and processing on the environment. The pillars of CBF are:
Use of renewable/recyclable materials in production
The packaging used for legal cannabis products is infamously excessive. A standard 3.5-grams of dried cannabis is estimated to come packaged in more than 70 grams of plastic. This seemingly redundant packaging is done to meet regulations surrounding cannabis packaging that often require single-use plastic with labels and warnings at specific sizes 2. Despite this, there is work being done to get biodegradable packaging approved in the industry.
More companies, such as Knot Plastic, are using plant-based materials to provide medical-grade biodegradable alternatives to single-use plastic 3. As members of the industry, we should support these companies and call for regulations to approve biodegradable packaging. As for immediate actions that can be taken, we can turn to companies that reduce the amount of plastic from the industry that ends up in landfills. The Tweed x TerraCycle Cannabis Packaging Recycling Program accepts all cannabis containers from licensed producers in Canada – free of charge – and melts down the plastic to create new products 4. This includes tins, plastic bags, tubes and bottles with child-proof caps. The program has saved more than 165,000 containers from ending up in landfills.
Upcycle biomass waste
It is estimated that for every pound of cannabis harvested, up to 4.5 pounds of plant waste is generated 5. Cannabis biomass waste can be discarded in four different ways: via landfill, composting, in-vessel digestion or incineration 6. Cannabis bio-waste usually ends up in landfills because this is the cheapest method. However, landfill disposal represents a missed opportunity for companies to use biomass waste for economic and environmentally-friendly uses.
To reduce landfill waste, some companies are looking at sustainable bio-circular solutions, where cannabis biomass is converted into something of industrial use such as compost, bio-plastics and paper packaging for cannabis products 7. The easiest way to reuse cannabis biomass with current regulations in place is to upcycle it to produce compost and greywater that can be used for industrial cultivation 8. Currently, bleach is commonly used to remove THC from biomass, making it unfit to be used for these purposes 6. However, Micron Waste Technologies Inc. have shown enzymatic denaturation can be adopted on the industrial scale to remove THC from the biomass, resulting in reusable water and compostable matter 8. Turning to this alternative method would also reduce the amount of required fertilizer and replace bleach with a more environmentally-friendly solution.
Recycle production side streams
Terpenes are the compounds in cannabis that give it distinctive aromas and flavors sought after by consumers.During the cannabis drying stage, over 30% of terpenes can be lost along with the water phase from the product 9. This terpene-containing water phase gets trapped in drying rooms and decarboxylation ovens and is usually thrown out. To reintroduce the terpenes in their products, companies usually purchase them 10.However, they instead could be recapturing terpenes that are otherwise going to waste, and re-introducing them into their products. Recapturing terpenes would not only reduce the production and shipment energy that goes along with purchased terpenes, but also the costs of buying them.
There are many other wasted by-products that can be recycled. Ethanol that has been used as extraction solvent can be reused as cleaning solvent, reducing the need to purchase ethanol separately for cleaning purposes. Further, the condensation caught in HVACs can be recycled to water plants.
Optimize production energy efficiency
A study by Summers et al. 11 found that from producing one kilogram of dried cannabis flower, the emitted greenhouse gasses emissions range from 2,283 to 5,184 kg of CO2. Electricity used for indoor cultivation is the major culprit in producing these emissions. In fact, over $6 billion is spent annually to power industrial cannabis growth facilities in the U.S. alone12. Growing outdoors is significantly more energy efficient; however, non-auto flowering, high-THC cannabis plants depend on the specific timing of daylight (and darkness) to grow properly 13. Optimal conditions for these plants are not always achievable in outdoor setting. Meanwhile, auto-flowering plants that are hearty outdoors are generally lower in THC content 14. Promoting research into generating more stabilized cannabis cultivars may help outdoor growing be a more feasible solution. Given the recent work being done with genetically modified and transgenic plants, upregulating THC production in cannabis and increasing the heartiness in different climates is well within the realm of possibility 15–17.
In the meantime, cultivation facilities can do their part to maintain a controlled growth environment with reduced energy waste. Companies that are still using high-intensity sodium lights should consider switching to high-efficiency LED bulbs 12. These are a good alternative option as they produce less heat, and as a result, require less mechanical cooling. It has been shown that many plants, including cannabis, might even do better under blue-red LED lights 18,19. Growth under these conditions correlated with an increase in THC and CBD levels, and overall larger plants 18. In addition to low energy consumption, LED lamps have flexible mobility and a tunable spectrum range. This makes it possible to mediate the spectrum specifically for cannabis crops by controlling each spectral range and manipulating spectral quality and light intensity precisely. Finally, lights can also be brought closer to plants, to further reduce the amount of mechanical cooling needed.
Utilize high-precision processes
Reducing energy use while maintaining production rates can only be done if the process is optimized. Our own research improves process optimization in the cannabis industry. A key component of industrial optimization is reducing wasted time on various machines. For cannabis producers, this machine “junk time” can accumulate when the instrumentation is not progressing the reaction.
Reducing energy use in this case means ensuring machines are not in operation if they are not progressing the reaction. For example, many companies spend approximately two hours on the decarboxylation step because decarboxylation is always complete after two hours 20; however, decarboxylations are often complete in as little as thirty minutes 21. Companies can save energy by installing a monitor on decarboxylation systems to stop reactions once they are complete.
Reducing the environmental impacts of the cannabis industry is crucial to combat the developing climate crisis. While lifting restrictions on cannabis research and mitigating stigmas surrounding the legal industry will be what ultimately paves the way for meaningful changes toward a sustainable industry, cannabis companies cannot wait for regulatory changes to occur before considering eco-friendly practices. As outlined by CBF, there are existing actions which all companies can take to reduce their carbon footprint immediately. Delic Labs, and many other companies we have noted, aim to support companies in making these decisions for a better future for cannabis.
For the uninitiated, delta-8 THC is a cannabinoid that can be synthesized from cannabidiol (CBD) derived from hemp. It is an isomer of delta-9 THC, the more commonly known psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis. Delta-8 THC does produce psychoactive effects, though not quite as much as its better-known cousin, delta-9 THC.
Due to loopholes in federal and state laws, namely the 2018 Farm Bill specifying that hemp must contain less than 0.3% Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC is technically legal across the country. It grew in popularity across the United States very quickly over the past year, largely due to online sales.
Following the surge in sales, a number of states including Colorado, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington have implemented some form of regulation or outright ban on products containing delta-8 THC. Christopher Hudalla, president and chief scientific officer of ProVerde Laboratories, told Chemical & Engineering News that he has a lot of safety concerns about the whole delta-8 THC craze. Hudalla says he’s more concerned about the processing involved to produce it in large quantities. “These are pretty aggressive synthetic conditions that use strong acids,” Hudalla says. “They might be using strong bases to neutralize. They can use metal catalysts. I hear different people doing it different ways.”
The FDA shares similar concerns. Their fourth point in the consumer update mentions that delta-8 THC products “often involve use of potentially harmful chemicals” in its production. They even claim that some manufacturers might be using unsafe household chemicals to synthesize delta-8 THC. “The final delta-8 THC product may have potentially harmful by-products (contaminants) due to the chemicals used in the process, and there is uncertainty with respect to other potential contaminants that may be present or produced depending on the composition of the starting raw material,” reads the FDA report.
In their consumer update, they note that between December 2020 and July 2021, they received 22 adverse event reports. Of the 22 reports, 14 were hospitalized following ingesting a delta-8 THC product. Notably, those reports included reactions consistent with symptoms from overconsumption of delta-9 THC, such as vomiting, hallucinations, trouble standing, and loss of consciousness.
The FDA says that national poison control centers received 661 cases of delta-8 THC products, with 41% being unintentional exposure, 39% involved pediatric patients and 18% required hospitalization.
In the consumer update, they tell the public that delta-8 THC products have not been evaluated by the FDA and that they “may be marketed in ways that put the public health at risk.” This includes marketing it as a hemp product, which it is. Still though, many consumers associate hemp products with somewhat innocuous things, like CBD oil, which is mostly harmless.
The FDA also mentions in the update that delta-8 THC does have psychoactive and intoxicating effects. The FDA says they are notifying the public about the delta-8 THC due to an uptick in adverse event reports, marketing that is appealing to children and concerns regarding manufacturing with unsafe chemicals and contaminants.
Change control, when it comes to quality management systems in manufacturing, processing and producing products such as cannabis edibles or vape pens, is a process where changes to a product or production line are introduced in a controlled and coordinated manner. The purpose of change control process management is to reduce the possibility of unneeded changes disrupting a system, introducing errors or increasing costs unnecessarily.
ASTM International, the international standards development organization, is developing a new standard guide that will cover change control process management for the cannabis and hemp market. The guide is being developed through the D37 cannabis committee.
The WK77590 guide will establish a standardized method for change control process management for cannabis companies so that they can document and track important decisions in manufacturing and quality systems.
For example, an edibles manufacturer would utilize change control process management if they want to use a different type of processing equipment or introduce a new shape or design of their product. Without change control process management, that edibles producer might switch to a new piece of processing equipment without knowing that it requires more energy or uses different raw materials, thus making production unexpectedly more expensive.
While that’s a very cursory example, the premise is simple: Before you undergo a change to your process, plan it out, analyze it, review it, test it out, implement it and make sure it works.
Change control process management can often be summarized in six steps:
Maribel Colón, quality assurance consultant and vice chair of the ASTM subcommittee on cannabis quality management systems, says producers and testing labs will benefit the most from the guide. “As the cannabis industry grows, the quality, expectations, and control challenges grow within,” says Colón. “The creation and implementation of this standard guide will increase cannabis business efficiency and minimize risk, time, and potential cost of poorly managed changes.”
According to a press release, ASTM International is open to collaboration on this as well. Specifically, they are looking for professionals with change control who might be interested in helping advance and develop this guide.
The word “audit” evokes various emotions depending on your role in an organization and the context of the audit. While most are familiar with and loathe the IRS’s potential for a tax audit, the audits we are going to discuss today are (or should be) welcomed – proactive internal quality audits. A softer term that is also acceptable is “self-assessment.” These are independent assessments conducted to determine how effective an organization’s risk management, processes and general governance is.
“How do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” – Maya Angelou
Internal quality audits are critical to ensuring the safety of products, workers, consumers and the environment. When planned and performed periodically, these audits provide credible, consistent and objective evidence to inform the organization of its risks, weaknesses and opportunities for improvement. Ask yourself the question: do your clients/vendors rely on you to produce reliable, consistent and safe products? Assuming the answer is yes, what confidence do you have, and where is the documented evidence to support it?
Compliance units within cannabis businesses are typically responsible for ensuring a business stays legally compliant with state and federal regulations. This level of minimum compliance is critical to prevent fines and ensure licenses are not revoked. However, compliance audits rarely include fundamental components that leave cannabis operators exposed to many unnecessary risks.
As a producer of medical and adult-use products that are ingested, inhaled or consumed in other forms by our friends, family and neighbors, how can you be sure that these products are produced safely and consistently? Are you confident that the legal requirements mandated by your state cannabis control board are sufficient? Judging by the number of recalls and frustrations voiced by the industry regarding the myriad of regulations, I would bet the answer is no.
What questions do internal audits address? Some examples include:
Are you operating as management intends?
How effective is your system in meeting specified objectives? These objectives could include quality metrics of your products, on-time delivery rates and other client/customer satisfaction metrics.
Are there opportunities to improve?
Are you doing what you say you do (in your SOPs), and do you have the recorded evidence (records) to prove it?
Are you meeting the requirements of all applicable government regulations?
There are potential drawbacks to internal audits. For one, as impartiality is essential in internal audits, it may be challenging to identify an impartial internal auditor in a small operation. If your team always feels like it is in firefighting mode, it may feel like a luxury to take the time to pull members out of their day-to-day duties and disrupt ongoing operations for an audit. Some fear that as internal assessments are meant to be more thorough than external assessments, a laundry list of to-do items may be uncovered due to the audit. But, these self-assessments often uncover issues that have resulted in operational efficiencies in the first place. This resulting “laundry list” then affords a proactive tool to implement corrective actions in an organized manner that can prevent the recurrence of major issues, as well as prevent new issues. The benefits of internal audits outweigh the drawbacks; not to mention, conducting internal audits is required by nearly every globally-recognized program, both voluntary (e.g. ISO 9001 or ASTM Internationals’s Cannabis Certification Program) and government required programs such as 21 CFR 211 for Pharmaceuticals.
Internal Auditing is a catalyst for improving an organization’s effectiveness and efficiency by providing insight and recommendations based on analyses and assessments of data and business processes. Additional benefits of internal audits include giving your organization the means to:
Ensure compliance to the requirements of internal, international and industry standards as well as regulations and customer requirements
Determine the effectiveness of the implemented system in meeting specified objectives (quality, environmental, financial)
Explore opportunities for improvement
Meet statutory and regulatory requirements
Provide feedback to Top Management
Lower the cost of poor quality
Findings from all audits must be addressed. This is typically done in accordance with a CAPA (Corrective Action Preventive Action) program. To many unfamiliar with Quality Management Systems, this may be a new term. As of Jan 1, 2021, this is now a requirement for all cannabis licensed operators in Colorado. Many other states require a CAPA program or similar. Continuing education units (CEUs) are available through ASTM International’s CAPA training program, which was developed specifically for the cannabis industry.
Examples of common audit findings that require CAPAs include:
Calibration – Production and test equipment must be calibrated to ensure they provide accurate and repeatable results.
Document and record control – Documents and records need to be readily accessible but protected from unintended use.
Supplier management – Most standards have various requirements for supplier management that may include auditing suppliers, monitoring supplier performance, only using suppliers certified to specific standards, etc.
Internal audits – Believe it or not, since internal audits are required by many programs, it’s not uncommon to have a finding related to internal audits! Findings from an internal audit can include not conducting audits on schedule, not addressing audit findings or not having a properly qualified internal auditor. Are you looking for more guidance? Last year, members of ASTM International’s D37 Committee on Cannabis approved a Standard Guide for Cannabis and Hemp Operation Compliance Audits, ASTM D8308-21.
If you are still on the fence about the value of an internal audit, given the option of an inspector uncovering a non-conformance or your own team discovering and then correcting it, which would you prefer? With fines easily exceeding $100,000 by many cannabis enforcement units, the answer should be clear. Internal audits are a valuable tool that should not be feared.
There are many factors that can lead to the challenges people face when scaling up their processes. These challenges are not unique to the cannabis/hemp industry, but they are exacerbated by the consequences generated from decades of Reefer Madness. In my time operating in the cannabis/hemp space, 15+ years, I have seen established equipment vendors and sellers of laboratory supplies, like Sigma-Aldrich (now Millipore-Sigma), Fisher-Scientific, Cerilliant, Agilent, and others, go from reporting individuals inquiring about certified reference materials to setting up entire divisions of their companies to service the needs of the industry. Progress. But we are still a fledgling marketplace facing many challenges. Let’s look at a few specific to process scale up.
Darwin Millard will deliver a presentation on this topic during the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29. Click here to learn more.Equipment Availability: Lack of available equipment at larger and larger process scales can severely impact project timelines. Making not only equipment acquisition difficult, but also limiting the number of reputable equipment manufacturers you can work with.
Non-Linear Expansion: NEVER assume your process scales linearly. Perhaps one of the most avoidable mistakes during process scale up. You will quickly find that for many processes you cannot just put in a larger unit and expect a proportional increase in output. This is because as process equipment increases so to must utilities and other supporting infrastructure, but not only that, process vessel geometry, proportions, and design are contributing factors to process efficiency as your scale of operations increases.
Hazardous Material Quantities: Just as important to the process as the equipment are the solvents and reagents used. As your scale of operations increases so does your demand and production of hazardous materials; solvents including carbon dioxide (CO2), ethanol, and liquid petroleum gases (LPG) like Butane and Propane are obvious hazards, but so too are the refrigerants used in the chillers, fuels used to power generators, steam created to heat critical systems, and effluents and wastewater discharged from the process and supporting systems. Not every municipality wants thousands of gallons of flammable substances and hazardous waste being generated in their backyard…
Contractor/Vendor Misrepresentation: Finding out in the middle of you project that your contractor or equipment vendor has never set up a system at this scale before is never a good feeling. Unfortunately, contractor and vendor misrepresentation of qualifications is a common occurrence in the cannabis/hemp space.
If all this was not bad enough, all too often the consequences of improper planning and execution are not felt until your project is delayed or jeopardized due to misallocation of funds or undercapitalization. This is especially true when scaling up your production capacity. Now let’s look at some ways to avoid these mistakes.
The Rule of 10
When scaling up your process, NEVER assume that a simple linear expansion of your process train will be sufficient. It is often the case that process scale up is non-linear. Using the Rule of 10 is one way of scaling up your process through a stepwise iterative approach. The Rule of 10 is best explained through an example: Say you are performing a bench-top extraction of a few grams and want to scale that up to a few thousand kilograms. Before jumping all the way to your final process scale, start by taking a smaller jump and only increase your bench-top process by a factor of 10 at a time. So, if you were happy and confident with your results at the tens of grams scale, perform the same process at the hundreds of grams scale, then the thousands of grams scale, tens of kilograms scale, and so forth until you have validated your process at the scale of operations you want to achieve. By using the Rule of 10 you can be assured that your process will achieve the same yields/results at larger and larger scales of operation.
Scaling up your process through an iterative approach allows you to identify process issues that otherwise would not have been identified. These can include (but by no means should be considered an exhaustive list) improper heat transfer as process vessels increase in size, the inability to maintain process parameters due to inadequately sized utilities and/or supporting infrastructure, and lower yields than expected even though previous iterations were successful. However, this type of approach can be expensive, especially when considering custom process equipment, and not every processor in the cannabis/hemp space is going to be in the position to use tools like the Rule of 10 and instead must rely on claims made by the equipment vendor or manufacture when scaling up their process.
The Cannabis/Hemp Specific Process Equipment Trap
How many times have you heard this one before: “We have a piece of process equipment tailor-made to perform X,Y,Z task.”? If you have been around as long as I have in the cannabis/hemp space, probably quite a few times. A huge red flag when considering equipment for your expansion project!
Unless the equipment manufacturer is directly working with cannabis/hemp raw materials, or with partners who process these items, during product development, there is no way they could have verified the equipment will work for its purported use.
A good example of this are ethanol evaporation systems. Most manufacturers of evaporators do not work with the volumes of ethanol they claim their systems can recover. So how did they come up with the evaporation rate? Short answer – Thermodynamics, Heat Transfer, and Fluid Mechanics. They modeled it. This much surface area, plus this much heat/energy, with this much pressure (or lack thereof), using this type of fluid, moving through this type of material, at this rate of speed, gets you a 1000-gal/hr evaporator or some other theoretical value. But what is the real rate once an ethanol and cannabis/hemp solution is running through the system?
For a straight ethanol system, the theoretical models and experimental models are pretty similar – namely because humans like alcohol – extensive real-world data for ethanol systems exist for reference in designing ethanol evaporators (more accurately described as distillation systems, i.e. stills). The same cannot be said for ethanol and cannabis/hemp extract systems. While it is true that many botanical and ethanol systems have been modeled, both theoretically and experimentally, due to prohibition, data for cannabis/hemp and ethanol systems are lacking and the data that do exist are primarily limited to bench-top and laboratory scale scenarios.
So, will that 1000-gal/hr evaporator hit 1000-gal/hr once it is running under load? That’s the real question and why utilizing equipment with established performance qualifications is critical to a successful process scale up when having to rely on the claims of a vendor or equipment manufacturer. Except this is yet another “catch 22”, since the installation, operational, and performance qualification process is an expensive endeavor only a few equipment manufacturers servicing the cannabis/hemp market have done. I am not saying there aren’t any reputable equipment vendors out there; there are, but always ask for data validating their claims and perform a vendor qualification before you drop seven figures on a piece of process equipment on the word of a salesperson.
Improper design and insufficient data regarding process efficiencies on larger and larger scales of manufacturing can lead to costly mistakes which can prevent projects from ever getting off the ground.
Each aspect of the manufacturing process must be considered individually when scaling your process train because each element will contribute to the system’s output, either in a limiting or expansive capacity.
I go further into this topic in my presentation: Challenges with Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry, later this month during Cannabis Industry Journal’s Extraction Virtual Conference on June 29th, 2021. Here I will provide real-world examples of the consequences of improper process scale up and the significance of equipment specifications, certifications, and inspections, and the importance of vendor qualifications and the true cost of improper design specifications. I hope to see you all there.
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.”
Freya Farm, a pesticide-free cannabis producer and processor located in Conway, Wash., was recently forced to issue a recall after the chemical o-Phenylphenol, listed under CA Prop 65, was found on its products. Testing traced the antimicrobial compound, known to cause cancer, back to the FDA-compliant food grade gloves used by Freya during packaging.
The reason this could happen with FDA-compliant, food grade gloves needs urgent attention. The production and manufacturing of food contact gloves is largely unsupervised, with limited and infrequent checks on gloves imported into the US. After initial approvals, non-sterile, FDA-compliant food grade gloves are not subject to ongoing controls. This may lead to lower grade and cheap raw materials being used in sub-standard production facilities and processes.
Why “Food Safe” Gloves Aren’t Always Safe
The quality and safety of disposable gloves are limited to Letters of Compliance and Guarantee on the general make and model of the glove, not necessarily the glove you are holding in your hand. There are few controls on the consistency of raw materials, manufacturing processes and factory compliance for both food contact and medical examination grade gloves. Therefore, the opportunity exists for deliberate or accidental contamination within the process of which the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) may not be aware.
In the words of Freya Farm, “Nothing ruins your day like testing your product, confident it will be clean, only to find it contaminated with some crazy, toxic chemical.” In tracing the issue, the gloves were the last thing Freya Farm tested, as they never suspected something sold as food safe could be the culprit.
A recall of this type can be expensive, as fines range up to $200,000. Since this incident, Freya Farm has implemented a responsible sourcing policy for gloves using supplier Eagle Protect to protect its products, people and brand reputation.
Eagle Protect, a global supplier of PPE to the food and medical sectors, is currently implementing a unique proprietary third-party glove analysis to ensure a range of their gloves are regularly checked for harmful contaminants, toxins and pathogens. This Fingerprint Glove Analysis mitigates the risk of intentional or accidental physical, chemical or microbiological glove contamination by inspecting five factors: the use of safe ingredients, cross-contamination potential, cleanliness, structural integrity and dermal compatibility.
Harmful toxins and contaminants in gloves have been identified in many peer reviewed scientific studies. This is now a real issue for companies producing consumer products, especially in industries such as organics and cannabis whose products must be handled by gloves and test clean.
Three key areas that can be tested for in a glove analysis to ensure safe product handling include:
Dermal compatibility tests for toxins and chemicals will flag any toxic chemical, such as o-Phenylphenol
GCMS testing for consistent quality and safety of glove raw materials
Cleanliness tests for pathogens inside and outside the surfaces of gloves – particularly pathogens also required in cannabis testing, such as E. coli and Salmonella, mold and fungus and pesticides.
For cannabis producers responsible glove sourcing is vital, especially as the COVID-related demand for single-use gloves exceeds supply, with poor quality, counterfeit and even reused gloves flooding the market. For producers with a product that rests very much on its quality, it’s important to focus on quality and not just cost when procuring gloves.
On January 15, 2021, the USDA published its final rule on US hemp production. The rule, which becomes effective on March 22, 2021, expands and formalizes previous guidance related to waste disposal of noncompliant or “hot” crops (crops with a THC concentration above .3 percent). Importantly for the industry, the new disposal rules remove unduly burdensome DEA oversight and provides for remediation options.
Producers will not be required to use a DEA reverse distributor or law enforcement to dispose of noncompliant plants. Instead, producers will be able to use common on-farm practices for disposal. Some of these disposal options include, but are not limited to, plowing under non-compliant plants, composting into “green manure” for use on the same land, tilling, disking, burial or burning. By eliminating DEA involvement from this process, the USDA rules serve to streamline disposal options for producers of this agricultural commodity.
Alternatively, the final rule permits “remediation” of noncompliant plants. Allowing producers to remove and destroy noncompliant flower material – while retaining stalk, stems, leaf material and seeds – is an important crop and cost-saving measure for producers, especially smaller producers. Remediation can also occur by shredding the entire plant to create “biomass” and then re-testing the biomass for compliance. Biomass that fails the retesting is noncompliant hemp and must be destroyed. The USDA has issued an additional guidance document on remediation. Importantly, this guidance advises that lots should be kept separate during the biomass creation process, remediated biomass must be stored and labeled apart from each other and from other compliant hemp lots and seeds removed from non-compliant hemp should not be used for propagative purposes.
The final rules have strict record keeping requirements, such rules ultimately protect producers and should be embraced. For example, producers must document the disposal of all noncompliant plants by completing the “USDA Hemp Plan Producer Disposal Form.” Producers must also maintain records on all remediated plants, including an original copy of the resample test results. Records must be kept for a minimum of three years. While USDA has not yet conducted any random audits, the department may conduct random audits of licensees.
Although this federal guidance brings some clarity to hemp producers, there still remains litigation risks associated with waste disposal. There are unknown environmental impacts from the industry and there is potential tort liability or compliance issues with federal and state regulations. For example, as mentioned above, although burning and composting disposal options for noncompliant plants, the final rule does not address the potential risk for nuisance complaints from smoke or odor associated with these methods.
At the federal level, there could be compliance issues with the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and ancillary regulations like Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). In addition to government enforcement under RCRA and CERCLA, these hazardous waste laws also permit private party suits. Although plant material from cultivation is not considered hazardous, process liquids from extraction or distillation (ethanol, acetone, etc.) are hazardous. Under RCRA, an individual can bring an “imminent and substantial endangerment” citizen suit against anyone generating or storing hazardous waste in a way the presents imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment. Under CERCLA, private parties who incur costs for removal or remediation may sue to recover costs from other responsible parties.
At the state level, there could be issues with state agency guidance and state laws. For example, California has multiple state agencies that oversee cannabis and hemp production and disposal. CA Prop 65 mandates warnings for products with certain chemicals, including pesticides, heavy metals and THC. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires the evaluation of the environmental impact of runoff or pesticides prior to issuing a cultivation permit. Both environmental impact laws permit a form of private action.
Given the varied and evolving rules and regulation on hemp cultivation, it remains essential for hemp producers to seek guidance and the help of professionals when entering this highly regulated industry.
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