It takes a lot to hack it in the wild world of cannabis.
To dip your toes in this game and open your own business, it could cost you between a quarter to three-quarters of a million dollars after licensure and other start-up expenses – and the battle doesn’t end there. Recent data supports that the turnover rate for the cannabis industry at large is extremely high when compared to other industries, coming in at a whopping 40-60% within the first 2 months.
Oh, and let’s not forget: we’re not living in the easiest of times in general. The Bureau of Labor Statistics now reports that inflation has hit 9.1 percent, the highest ever recorded level of inflation since records began. We know that people are struggling all over the place – and those struggles are even more amplified for cannabis operators and business owners. It’s no secret that amid these struggles, many legacy operators, MSOs and mom-and-pop brands alike are making the tough decision to take on costly loans, seek funding or even ultimately close their doors.
But, in times like these, you have to remember what brought you to the table to begin with. The cannabis industry is still projected to hit a valuation of over $33B by the end of 2022 and despite the blood in the water that we’ve seen lately, operators of all sizes are still getting wins and making a profit. So, do you throw the towel in and give up on your dreams? Should you just accept that all hope is lost?
If you’re a cannabis operator who is struggling, you aren’t alone – and more importantly, you aren’t out of options yet. Not ready to go down with the ship just yet? We didn’t think so.
Here are five, expert-approved tips to create an influx of cash for your cannabis business without significantly increasing spending:
‘Trim the Fat’ of Your Business by Cutting Lean Costs
While it may seem obvious, many cannabis operators forget that “nice to have” is not the same thing as a “must have” when it comes to keeping your doors open and your bottom line healthy. Take an eagle-eyed second look at your budget and cut back as much as possible on areas that aren’t boosting revenue. Reconsider the “extras” – like software solutions, hiring non-essential staff and slow-moving inventory – and focus your attention on the products that contribute the most to your bottom line.
Make Your Customers a Priority
One of the biggest mistakes that cannabis brands make is throwing so much of their marketing budget into getting new customers through the door while neglecting to show existing customers the attention they deserve for their loyalty. In today’s market, cannabis consumers have more options than ever. Why should they keep choosing you? Happy customers are customers that will weather the storm with you. Honing in on targeted ads and marketing efforts geared toward existing customers, in combination with loyalty perks, VIP deals and more is a great way to ensure your business is truly unforgettable in the eyes of the customers that keep your doors open. Looking for an extra leg up? Here’s an insider pro tip: refer-a-friend programs are a great way to get the best of both worlds and help those marketing dollars stretch a little further.
SOS: Save Our Shopping Carts
Shopping cart abandonment is a serious problem for cannabis retailers – and it happens all the time. For mobile users, it can creep as high as 85%. Shopping cart abandonment happens when a potential customer visits your site, builds an order in the cart and then either forgets to check out or chose not to execute the purchase. Every time a customer abandons their cart, your business is leaving money on the table. Fight back against shopping cart abandonment by providing clear calls to action through the shopping and checkout process and targeting customers with emails or SMS messages that include discount offers or reminders to check out.
Pump Up Your Payment Solutions
It’s like Canadian rapper and singer-songwriter, Drake, said in his hit song, “Omerta”, “I don’t carry cash ‘cause the money is digital.”
Let’s be honest, it’s 2022 – not a lot of people love carrying around cash. If your cannabis business is cash-only, you could be missing out on extra revenue from card and mobile payment-loving customers. On average, mobile payment users, on average, spend approximately twice as much through all digital channels as those not using mobile payments. Cash-only retailers also miss out on upsell opportunities by limiting themselves – let’s say a customer comes in with $40 in cash, they won’t be able to pick up that extra pack of cones or the grinder they were eyeing up at the checkout if they’re limited to cash-only transactions.
In addition, retailers who patronize payment solutions via debit card providers or online ACH can benefit from payment kickbacks as an additional stream of income, as these payment providers often give back a portion of transaction fees to business owners.
Don’t Forget About Employee Retention Credit (ERC)
If you haven’t heard of ERC – you could be leaving as much as $26,000 per employee on the table. Many cannabis business owners would be surprised to learn that they can still take advantage of the employee retention credit program that started during the pandemic.
The program was launched in March 2020 as a way to help offset the financial struggles of business owners during COVID-19. But, even this year, cannabis business owners can seek cash relief through ERC – employers can retroactively claim the ERC based on financial struggles they experienced during 2020 and the first three quarters of 2021.
Started your cannabis business after February 2020? You still may qualify under specific ERC provisions that can provide up to $100,000 in refundable credits.
At MJstack, we understand the trials and tribulations that cannabis professionals go through every day because we’re right here working alongside you.
Our team of professionals is familiar with cannabis and what it takes to make the cut in this world. Ready to boost your business and safeguard your investments against whatever comes next? Contact us today to learn more and book your FREE consultation.
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.”
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
Communication is key for efficient interaction between cultivation and business functions at any cannabis operator. So, what are the top four things cultivation directors should be discussing with their operations manager right now, as we face an uncertain Summer 2020 and unique COVID-related challenges (product demand uncertainty, reduced workforce, and immediate response to problems and issues):
Operators should be discussing “Who, and what, do I need to operate this facility and how do I make operations more streamlined without diminishing quality, consistency, and yield?”
Efficient operations should focus on labor workflow and circulation and document a clear understanding of how employees will move through the spaces while doing their jobs.
Having a “less labor” philosophy and understanding—a ‘first in and first out’ mentality—drives down cost of production.
By limiting employees’ need to cross paths and segregating processes (e.g. harvest, distro, packaging) in a facility, you can maintain biosecurity and limit the risks of cross-contamination
When working with fewer staff members, everyone should be trained to:
Operate all necessary equipment
Perform keys tasks like nutrient deliver or preventative maintenance
What sort of products do I use to cultivate, process, distribute and how will potential shortages affect my use/cost related to these?
Consider products and supplies that you can order in bulk
Examine and update your chemical regime to focus on products that are cheaper to freight ship, and located within the US or even your state
Mitigate the risk of availability by using products that are have no shelf-life or expiration issues, and those where the supply chain has not yet had disruptions
Automation and technology
What’s the availability to allow for remote monitoring and controls?
Cultivators can take some of the load off the reduced staff by automating critical tasks
Remote monitoring solutions will also allow for faster notification of crop issues
Integrating preventative maintenance tasks like equipment schedules and maintenance can increase efficiency
Ensure that conversations on yield expectations are as transparent as possible and set realistic and achievable goals
Build business models based on the correct numbers that take into account productions numbers on ‘high yield’ genetics versus lower-yielding plants (yield versus price)
Ensure you have a detailed plan that combines both plant density and production goals
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.
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.
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.6 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.
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.
According to a press release issued on Friday, September 22nd, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), along with the Colorado Department of Revenue (DOR) and the Colorado Department of Agriculture (CDA), issued a public health and safety advisory for cannabis products tainted with pesticide residue.
The advisory was issued after the detection of pesticide residues on retail cannabis plant material and products with cannabis grown by RK Enterprises LTD, doing business as Rocky Mountain Remedies. The CDA confirmed that they detected the pesticide, Avermectin, an insecticide with a relatively high acute toxicity.
When pesticides like this are not on the list approved for use in cannabis cultivation, it is considered an off-label use. According to the press release, some of the products affected include flower, trim, concentrates and infused-products.
Consumers are advised to look at the label of their products and check to see if it matches the license number 403R-00180 and harvest batch numbers r206goldenkush9.11.17 and m206larryog9.11.17. Consumers are told to either dispose of the product properly or bring it back to the retail store where they purchased it.
When a grower harvests their cannabis plants, they process it by drying, curing and trimming the plant material. Dried cannabis ready for the consumer can often sit on retail shelves for months before it is purchased. According to the Cannabis Safety Institute, trimming is the processing stage with the highest level of human handling, and thus presents the most significant opportunities for microbiological contamination.
The Cannabis Safety Institute recommends workers handling dry cannabis wash their hands periodically, generally conform to food safety rules and wear gloves at all times. In addition to these tips, looking at relative humidity is a good tool to mitigate contamination concerns like the growth of yeast and mold spores. Mold spores can grow quickly when there is enough moisture, but if the cannabis is dry enough, mold spores cannot develop.
Growers controlling the relative humidity of their finished product in the past often placed an orange peel or a wet cotton ball in a jar with dried cannabis to retain the weight from water and keep it from over-drying. Those tactics have since been improved upon using modern technology.
Water activity is a measure of the relative humidity immediately adjacent to the product, according to Bob Esse, vice president of research at Boveda. “Cannabis’ relative humidity will reach equilibrium with the surrounding environment over time, which is why it is so critical to manage this adjacent atmosphere,” says Esse. “Moisture content is the total water present in the product and is a variable that changes in its relationship to water activity from one strain or type of product to the next.”
Back in 1997, Boveda first patented two-way humidity control. For the last 20 years, that company has made humidity control products for packaging in a variety of industries, like wooden musical instruments, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, electronics, tobacco, photos and documents and perhaps most notably for keeping cigars at the right humidity level in a humidor. According to Charles Rutherford, business development director at Boveda, he saw people buying their products meant for cigars, but using them with cannabis. About six years ago, they started developing a product specifically for the cannabis market.
The science behind it is relatively simple, says Rutherford. “Certain salts saturated in water can naturally regulate humidity- we just developed a cannabis-specific humidity level and patented the packaging around it that purifies the water and can come in direct contact with cannabis,” says Rutherford. “Using water activity meters and a moisture isotherm test, we determined the most appropriate range of humidity levels that cannabis will remain stable.” That range turned out to be between 59% and 63% humidity level for the properties in dried cannabis to stay the same.
According to Rutherford, it is a little more complex than just a range to stay in. “There are different humidity levels that certain strains prefer, but there are personal preferences, regions and other factors to consider when determining the levels of humidity ideal for cannabis,” says Rutherford. “We wanted to understand what people consider to be perfect.” In their research they found that depending on the region of the country, that humidity level varies considerably. “Using a water activity meter we could tell exactly what people prefer,” says Rutherford. Colorado, for example, prefers significantly drier cannabis than the Pacific Northwest, according to their findings.
Right now, Boveda has two-way humidity controllers set at 62%, 58% and soon they will have an under 50% option (appealing to the Colorado market). Using a device to accurately control the humidity level in cannabis can help growers and retailers prevent contamination from the biggest source of concern: water. “There is a ton of talk about pesticide contamination, but the reality is even if the flower is grown organically, you can still encounter safety problems when the moisture level is off,” says Rutherford. From a medical perspective, keeping dried cannabis at an ideal humidity level helps stabilize the properties of it, maintaining the medical efficacy. “If this is something people use for a medicine, it should be at an ideal condition,” says Rutherford. “Quantifying and understanding what humidity level is right is what we are helping accomplish.” For patients with compromised immune systems that need safe, consumable cannabis, a humidity control device can help prevent contamination and ensure a certain degree of safety in their medicine.
On a retail level, the packaging insert can extend the shelf life of products and maintain the quality. “The world has known for decades that 70% humidity level for cigars is ideal,” says Rutherford. “The cannabis world hasn’t had a moisture standard or understanding of what is proper until very recently.” That 62% humidity level determined after commissioned testing is a good standard to reference when determining your own ideal humidity level.
Growers also recognize the value in keeping their cannabis at the right humidity level beyond the obvious safety concerns. “As cannabis dries out and loses its humidity, the overall weight is reduced,” says Rutherford. “Precision humidity control gives a uniform humidity throughout the flower, leaving out the mystery for growers and maintaining weight, meeting the nexus between quality and weight.” According to Rutherford, growers have an incentive to package their cannabis a little on the wet side. “Because it weighs the most when wet, it is sold by weight and it will lose moisture over time, the incentive to deliver product that will dry out over time- that can create a lot of problems by having high moisture content.” For the first time ever, people can dramatically extend the shelf life of dried cannabis, instead of letting products naturally deteriorate and go bad over time. “For the first time ever, it allows you to extend the shelf life of dried cannabis for aging cannabis like wine and cigars,” says Rutherford.
The data from that Cannabis Safety Institute report, collected by AquaLab and CannaSafe Analytics using a vapor sorption analyzer, shows a cutoff of 65% relative humidity. These findings give the industry a lot of guidance in working to reduce the amount of yeast and mold contamination, says Bob Esse. “If your dried cannabis is above 65% relative humidity and you are a retailer, you should send that product back to the grower because it wasn’t dried properly, is vulnerable to mold and yeast spores and thus not safe for the consumer,” says Esse.
Pointing to the report, Esse says foods with high moisture content are able to support robust microbial population growth, which can lead to bacterial and fungal infections. “Water activity is what impacts whether microorganisms can grow or not.” By using two-way humidity control technology, growers and retailers can mitigate risks of contamination, improve quality and extend the shelf life of their products.
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