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.
Aeroponic & hydroponic systems grow plants at a highly accelerated rate. A “clean room” type of construction approach is the best way to manage this type of grow operation. Starting with a facility that is completely void of any kind of wood or materials that are porous is a good start. Cellulose materials collect moisture and encourage mold and mildew formation no matter how good the sealant.
We have seen cultivation spaces built out of dry wall over wooden post construction and studs that look sealed and solid on the outside of walls but when repaired for plumbing or other expansion work, they are black inside and covered with nasty mold that no one wants near their grow space.
Panel construction over steel frames or steel studs with skins is a safer, more sterile approach than retrofitting a wooden structure. Panel construction offers the added benefit of rapid assembly and minimal labor costs. We have seen 300 light rooms assembled in a few days so it is both very cost effective and safely sealed for protected growth.
Room Sizes & Count
If you have unlimited space, temperature and humidity management should determine the room sizes in your facility. Room sizes that are square in dimensions tend to be easier to maintain from an environmental standpoint. Long narrow rooms are good for fan airflow but tend to be more expensive from a cooling and dehumidification point of view. The larger the room, the more likely that you will get “microclimates” within the room which can challenge yield optimization.
Now, of course, many grows are retrofits of existing structures so compromises can be necessary. We have found that cultivators that have both very large and mid-size rooms in the same facility (200 lights versus 70 lights) are consistently more successful in the 70 light rooms. These “smaller rooms (~1,500 ft2) out-yielded and out-performed the larger rooms using the same genetics and grow plans. Compartmentalization also minimizes the risk in the case that a calamity (i.e. pest infestation) strikes the room. In a large room scenario, the losses can damage your operation. For this reason, we recommend 70-100 light/tub rooms as a standard.
Rooms should also follow your nursery economics. Structuring your nursery to produce just enough clones/veg plants for your next flower room avoids wasted plant material and resources. Breaking a larger space down into individual rooms means that you need fewer veg plants to fill your flower room that week. The best way to optimize this is to have a number of rooms that are symmetrical with the number 8 (typical 8-week cycle genetics).
With 8 rooms running flower, you are able to plant one room per week for 8 weeks. In the 9th week, you start over on room 1. This continuous harvest process is highly efficient from a labor standpoint and it minimizes the size of your mothers room (cost center). Additional space can be applied to your flower rooms. If you do not have infinite space, even divisors work just as well; 2 or 4 rooms can be planted in sequence for the same optimization (for 2-room structures, harvest and replant 1 room every 4 weeks for example). The optimal structure (8, 16, 24, or more rooms) enables you to optimize your profitability. If any of this needs further explanation, please just ask.
Within your room choice, movable rows or columns of tubs/lights also provides optimal yields. Tubs/plants can be moved together for light usage efficiency and one 3-foot aisle can be opened for plant maintenance. Racking systems or movable trays/tubs make this convenient nowadays.
Concrete floors offer pockets for bacteria to collect and smolder. As such, they have to be sealed. Proper application of your sealant choice is required so that it does not peal up or crack after sealing. There are many benefits to sealed floors that is discussed in the white paper. Floor drains are the equivalent of a portal to Hell for a sterile grow operation. Avoid them at all costs.
Tuning or optimizing you grow rooms for ideal flowering operation depends on your location. Our advice is that you build and optimize your facility in phases with the expectation that nothing is perfect and you will learn improvements in every phase of expansion. The immediate benefit is production that you can promote to your sales channels and revenue that starts as soon as possible to improve your profitability. This is also an excellent learning curve to apply to subsequent rooms. Our happiest customers are those that learned construction improvements in early rooms that were able to be applied to following rooms without headache. The ability to focus on one or two rooms also allows you to get the recipe correct rather than just relying on “winging it”.
Don’t Be In A Rush To Go Green
Validate your water supplies and their stability. Verify that the water in your aeroponic or hydroponic feeds that get to your plants are clean and sterile. This is much easier in a step-by-step fashion than in a crisis debug mode once production is in progress. Be very cautious about incoming clone supplies. We will talk about this more in the next chapter on Integrated Pest Management but incoming clones are a top pest vector that can contaminate your entire facility.
Warehouse Versus Greenhouse Cultivation Spaces
As we started out, controlling your environment is your most important concern. We have seen success in both indoor rooms and greenhouses. The defining success factor is controlling humidity and temperature. Modern sealed controlled environment (CEA) greenhouses do this well and CEA is somewhat of a given for indoor grows. More details on this in the white paper.
Packaging these recommendations gets you to the perfect body for your Formula 1 race car. Now, you are ready to look at some of the mechanics of protecting your operation from pesky little critters and biologicals that can derail your operation and weaken your engine.
Before we sign off this week, I wanted to highlight the ultimate build-out that we have seen so far. Of course, there are many challengers that have done this well but at this point, FarmaGrowers in South Africa has the best thought out facility we have seen. They acquired Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) & Good Agricultural & Collection Practice (GACP) certification early in their operations due to very well-thought-out designs. They are exporting to global markets without irradiation today. Certainly, many successful customers have beautifully thought-out operations and there are several upcoming facilities that offer amazing planning that will challenge for this crown, but for now. FarmaGrowers leads the pack in this aspect. See here for a walkthrough.
This is Part 2 in The 3-Legged Stool of Successful Grow Operations series. Click here to read Part 1 and stay tuned for Part 3 coming next week.
Aeroponic and hydroponic systems use zero-soil, so water is effectively our media and our transport mechanism for nutrition. Ideally, you start with clean, fresh water with “nothing” in it. Nothing in this case means no heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria or pathogens. There are some scary words in there so let’s talk through the best ways to get to “nothing.”
The first place to start is by testing your source water, whether it is surface, well or municipal water. This will give you an initial idea of how “empty” your water is. Water supplies shift over time, so it is also a very important input to monitor over time with annual or bi-annual testing. Clean water is the essence of success for aeroponics and a great way to lower your cost of production. With proper design and management, you can recycle and reuse 95%+ of the water you draw into your facility.
Reverse Osmosis (RO)
RO is the most common way to clear your incoming water. The process uses pressure filtration by forcing your water through a series of filters or meshes that block or extract large particles, organics and metals. Normally this is 98%-99% efficient. These systems do require attention and maintenance as they do have filters that are required to be changed regularly depending on the clarity of your original water source and the type of material filtered. This accomplishes a lot of your water clearing process to empty the balloon, but it does not clear the pesky biologicals or pathogens. RO is covered in detail in our “You are what you drink” webinar so look that over for a deeper explanation. There are a wide range of relatively low-cost suppliers based on capacity and filtration efficiency. From an operations standpoint, the key is to understand the filter replacement cycle and cost of replacement.
Ultraviolet Light (UV)
UV light can be used to clear organics and pathogens from water. The primary use is to clear origin water but it is also especially important for recovered water that you save from the humidity in your grow rooms. More on this below. One has to be cautious about the use of UV light. It will cause sunburn and eye damage with exposure so handle this resource with care. After RO & UV treatment, input water should be an empty balloon ready for the addition of your perfect nutrient salt recipe. There are a wide range of low-cost UV lighting solution suppliers from which to choose and they are easy to find.
Dehumidification & Recovery (DEHU)
The number one way to conserve water in an accelerated growth aeroponic grow room is to recapture the humidity that is transpired into the air as the plants grow. While DEHU water is effectively distilled water (or clear of particulates), it can be full of healthy little bacteria or pathogens than may be transported through air or residing in the equipment filters. Clearing these with UV light normally makes this water directly reusable in your fertigation systems. Not all dehumidifiers are perfect. Some metals used in their construction can leach into the recovered water, so this is worth a deeper look as you create your complete water system. Air treatment suppliers are covered in Part 1 of this series.
Used Fertigation Water, or “Flush”
At the start of the flower cycle, take your clean water (the empty balloon) and add your perfect nutrient salt flower recipe and deliver it to your plants. Over the grow cycle from flower to harvest, your plants will use portions of your nutrients and your balloon contents will drift from your target recipe you’re your desired cycle, clear or flush your reservoirs and reset your recipe by refilling your balloon to your exact targets. The exiting nutrient-rich “flush” water can also be recycled into your source water feed since the salts and metals present can be cleared from the mixture through the same RO process that your source water goes through. The end result is perfectly good recycled water savings.
Oxygen Reduction Potential (ORP)
ORP is a measurement of an oxidizing agent. Oxidizing solutions are a common and inexpensive method of disinfecting water before and during use in hydroponic systems. Oxidizers can be used to monitor and deal with the “cleanliness” of a nutrient water solution while it is in use. Several oxidizing agents exist with the most common being: hydrogen peroxide, chlorine, ozone and chlorine dioxide. The characteristics of each of these agents and how they interact with the organic matter in solutions is different. The ideal concentrations to use in each situation to kill or control pathogens is unique and one of the topics covered by our “Letters from the AEssenseGrows plant science team” on our website. That deep dive is the subject of another paper.
When you take all of these subjects together and they are done right, you should be able to recycle 95% of your source water with a professional water treatment & recycling system.
Here, I would like highlight the ultimate water hero: Ashley Hubbard, director of cultivation at RAIR Cannabis. For a quick tour of her water treatment and recovery room, see here. No one that I know manages water better than RAIR Cannabis and Ashley leads the team there.
Ideal cannabis profits come from high demand/high selling prices and low production costs. The spread between those two, or margin, can determine the life or death of your business. We want to share this series of articles so that your next investment can be highly successful and high margin out-of-the-box.
Regardless of the grow method (soil, coco, rockwool, hydro or aero), every plant performs best in its own ideal environmental conditions. Experienced growers gained success through hard work, and just that, experience. Many have tried more advanced grow technologies, but shied away due to early trial failures or the complexity of maintaining chemistry across a grow facility. The wonderful thing now is that precision sensors and software controls eliminate the risk to robust healthy plants and harvest success. Growers are now able to both manage production while performing research in line with their operations.
We have learned a great deal working with our grow partners over the last 6 years. Every grow facility and location are different due to local weather, business environment and scale. This series of articles and guide, authored by our expert, Christopher Wrenn, will include recommendations of the most successful approaches we have seen here in North America and all over the world.
Building top-quality cultivation facilities is no simple task. Cultivators are also looking for new help as they shift from older soil or media approaches to more efficient grow methods. One powerful method is aeroponics, which is very good at growing any type of plant in air in a sterile environment, with labor, nutrient and water savings.
Where possible, we will share key vendors that support healthy grow operations and (since it is World Series Time), customer examples that are knocking it out of the park. In today’s competitive business environment, it is critical to do what we can to increase profitability and survival in the face of steep headwinds. We want you to crush it and be “the last man standing.”
So, let’s get to it.
Climate: Environmental Control
We begin with a critical leg in your environment. The process of photosynthesis is more than just light, plant and moisture. We want to do more than just grow plants. We want to grow highly profitable plants. That means we have to accelerate photosynthesis so we are growing faster, bigger and more potent than our competitors.
The Vapor Pressure Deficit (VPD) is the amount of “drying power” available in the air surrounding your plants. This is a useful way to understand the amount of moisture your atmosphere can remove from your plants as they digest carbon dioxide and aspirate water and oxygen into the air around your plants. A higher vapor deficit is a good thing for growth; It is also a measurement of how much nutrient you can uptake into the plant roots and convert into size and potency in the canopy. We recommend that you have resources in your grow rooms to maintain your environment to within 5% of both your humidity and temperature targets for ideal results.
In our Top Quality Cultivation Facilitywhite paper, we review environmental settings for temperature and humidity for mother, clone/veg and flower rooms for day and night light cycles from early cuttings through to end of harvest flush. Day temperatures can be up to 20% higher than night temperatures for example.
Managing temperature may seem straight-forward but the heat generated by LED lights, HPS lights or the sun will vary across rooms, time exposure and with the distance of the light source from the plants. Measurement sensors should be distributed across rooms to monitor and trigger temperature resources.
This is a topic that can be underappreciated by cultivators. It is important to slowly transition humidity as you move plants from cuttings to clones, to veg and to flower. Beginning in a very humid stage to motivate root start, humidity will be stepped down from an opening near 90% down to an arid 50% in your end of flush flower rooms. We detail the transitions in 5% increments in the white paper.
Relative Humidity (RH) and the related VPD are the key metrics to accelerating growth throughout the stages. Not sizing dehumidifiers correctly is one of the most common mistakes our grow partners learn about as they move to full production. In the first phase of turning cuttings from healthy mothers into rooted clones, hitting your target VPD to motivate root growth is the number one success factor. This will require the addition of humidity into your clone room. It is also typical to require raise the humidity of your flower rooms when you transition clone/veg plants from the high humidity clone/veg room into an initially dry flower room, otherwise the plants may go into shock as a result of the dramatic change.
As flowering begins, if humidity remains high, and the VPD is below target, the plants will not be moving nutrients and transpiring moisture. We have seen lowering the humidity from 70% in a flower room down to 50%, results in a yield increase from 50 grams to 90 grams of dry trim bud per plant, so a smooth transition can both accelerate growth and have a big impact on your margins and profitability.
Plants in aeroponics can truly have explosive growth. This means that they will also transpire moisture at an accelerated rate. Fast automated growth in aeroponics means increased humidity output. Sizing these critical systems for humidification/dehumidification are a critical part of the design process.
Fans combined with your cooling/heating/humidity/dehu systems need to mix the air in a room to break the boundary layer at the leaf surface for transpiration. As we covered, VPD is critical to growth success. A dry surface motivates the plants to transpire moisture. We recommend flow rates across the canopy in a 0.5-1.5 meter/second rate to align to your genetics and where you are in the flowering process.
Airflow and flowering means rich beautiful aromas are generated. Every facility has to consider odor control. If you are in a populated area, you will have ordinances and neighbors to satisfy. The best way to do this is to minimize the amount of air that exits a facility. This is also the cheapest approach.
Sterile HEPA filters and scrubbing systems clean air of pathogens and odor but they also need to circulate and “condition” air to the correct temperature and humidity levels before it can be recirculated into a room. Oftentimes, this is a good place to also recapture humidity and reinject it into your pure water cleaning systems.
Key vendors to talk to about sizing air treatment systems are SURNA, Quest, Desert Aire and AGS. Each of these vendors have specialties and tend to be superior partners in different regions of the world. We would be happy to introduce you to excellent support resources for air management systems.
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.
The adult beverage industry, like any other category of consumer branded products, is driven by trends. If you’re old enough to remember Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers, you probably also remember Zima and Smirnoff Ice, and more recently “healthy” options like Skinny Girl and Michelob Ultra. The sensation that was craft beer saw many brands being acquired by Big Alcohol so that while the brands remain, ownership and production have changed significantly. Gin, tequila and vodka have had their moments in the sun and the current market is undeniably saturated with what is probably the largest current trend – hard seltzers. However, with the seltzer craze waning, many are wondering what’s next. And with the growing sober/California sober trends, some are betting it is cannabis-infused beverages.
Cannabis-infused beverages offer both an alternative method of consumption of cannabis and are also an attractive alternative to alcohol. Infused beverages are more appealing to the new demographic of casually curious cannabis consumers. i.e., consumers that may not be interested in smoking a joint or vaping, but are comfortable micro-dosing from a can or bottle, as they would a seltzer or beer. The same type of consumer may be moving away from alcohol consumption to eliminate hangovers or other negative health effects.
The emerging market and curious consumer group present an enormous opportunity right now for cannabis-infused beverage brands. Of course, with opportunity and growth come challenges. And while cannabis-infused beverages face a host of legal and regulatory challenges relative to sourcing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, shipping, marketing, distribution and sale, one of the most critically important business assets to address at inception is the brand.
Lines are Blurring, Gaps are Being Bridged
The U.S. cannabis market is currently a geographic hamburger. Hear me out: Geographically, you have a relatively mature market out west and a relatively new and growing market along the east coast. These are the buns. You have a mixed bag in between, with some states coming online and allowing medical or adult use cannabis use and others that have not yet embraced any form of legalization. The landscape has lent itself to the development of regional brands, such that brands that are so similar they might otherwise confuse consumers, have been able to co-exist in different regions without issue, or because there is little to no trade channel or market overlap. Similarly, adult beverages and cannabis have historically been separate verticals, with an arguably low likelihood that a consumer would assume a particular cannabis product and adult beverage product emanate from the same source.
However, lines are blurring and gaps are being bridged. Walls are breaking down. The increasing number of states coming online with legalized cannabis, and the proliferation of multi-state operators (MSOs), means that cannabis brands can grow to be more than siloed regional brands. This will inevitably lead to brands that previously co-existed bumping into one another and there’s bound to be some pushing and shoving. The advent of infused beverages likewise bridges the gap between cannabis products and alcoholic beverages. While the respective industries were not historically per se related, competing, or overlapping, now you’ve got infused beverages that bridge the gap between the two, and traditional alcohol brands (e.g., Boston Beer Company, Molson Coors, Lagunitas, Pabst.) entering the market (albeit under different brands). This makes a strong argument that cannabis and alcohol (or, more generally, adult beverages) are within each other’s logical zones of expansion, for purposes of a likelihood of confusion analysis.
The growing pains infused beverage brands will experience are analogous to those craft beers saw in the 2000 – 2010s. Many craft brewers had catchy, cheeky names and brands that contributed to their ability to engage consumers and develop a following, but failure to clear and protect the brands prior to launch detracted from the brands’ market values. Localized use prior to expansion also led to many brands bumping into one another and stepping on each other’s trademark toes. This was significant as the brands sought investment dollars or an exit strategy, making clear that the brand itself contributed heavily to valuation.
Mitigating Risks and Overcoming Challenges: Search and Protect
The risks and challenges can be significantly mitigated and/or overcome with proper preliminary clearance searching and assessments, and by seeking and obtaining state or federal protection for the brand or brands, to the extent possible.
Of course, clearance searches and assessments come with their own challenges, as does federal protection. With respect to clearance searches, these typically look at U.S. federal and state trademark databases. These resources are not sufficient for purposes of clearing a proposed cannabis brand. Many brands are not recorded at the federal or state level and indeed may not even show up in a basic search engine. An appropriate search looks at social media resources like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and known cannabis resources like Leafly and Weedmaps. Additionally, the scope of the search should exceed cannabis products and services and at least look at alcohol and merchandise. Adoption and use of a brand for a cannabis-infused beverage is high risk if that brand is similar to a prior existing alcohol brand. A current example is Cointreau’s taking aim at Canopy’s adoption and use of QUATREAU for an infused beverage.
A U.S. federal trademark registration presents its own unique challenges, but is incredibly valuable and beneficial to a brand since it provides the owner with a nationwide presumption of ownership and validity in a trademark, and can also secure priority for the owner with a constructive first use in commerce date that is years before actual use of a mark begins. The U.S. Trademark Office categorically denies protection of brands that violate its “lawful use” rule, and will treat as per se unlawful any applied for mark that covers marijuana, or that covers foods, beverages or pharmaceuticals that contain CBD. With respect to brands that cover products containing THC, since it is federally scheduled, use of the brand would violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). With respect to brands that cover CBD or products containing CBD, these may be lawful pursuant to the Farm Bill and the U.S. Trademark Office’s subsequent allowance of marks that claim CBD “solely derived from hemp with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis,” however under the Food Drug Cosmetics Act (FDCA) it is currently federally unlawful to introduce CBD – even if it fits the definition above – into foods or beverages.
Even if cannabis is not specifically claimed in a trademark application, cannabis brands have a natural gravitation toward names and logos that can do some of their marketing for them, and announce to the world they cover cannabis. This increases the chances that a trademark application for the brand will get push-back from the U.S. Trademark Office, and if not at the initial review stage, then at the point in time when the brand must submit to the U.S. Trademark Office a sample of (lawful) use of the applied-for mark. While this all sounds like bad news for cannabis-infused beverages, all is not lost.
There are typically ancillary and federally lawful products and services cannabis companies offer under their brands that can be covered in a U.S. federal trademark application, and arguments to be made that registered protection of a brand for the ancillary items should be sufficient to enforce against third parties using the same or confusingly similar brands in their space. Some cannabis brands’ lawful ancillary products are actually product lines (e.g., beverages) offered under the same brand that contain no cannabis. Others may be more causally related, like online forums and blogs. The former is closer to the actual product, and the latter would be more beneficial to a brand that is inherently stronger and more distinctive. One note of caution: A trademark application and eventual registration that expressly disclaim cannabis (THC or CBD) may be difficult to enforce against a third party using the same or a similar mark on and in connection with cannabis. So, while there is a natural inclination to follow a U.S. Trademark Office request to disclaim coverage of cannabis, there may be enforcement consequences down the road.
The cannabis-infused beverage market is poised for explosive growth. The brands that survive – and succeed – will be those that position themselves for growth by clearing and buttoning up their brands as early as possible. The market leaders will be those that select strong and distinctive brands, with geographic and market space around them for growth and expansion; and those that protect and enforce their brands, to the extent possible, at the federal and/or state levels.
In the cannabis industry, it’s crucial to be able to predict the future, to adapt and survive in a competitive industry that is arguably regulated more closely than any other.
From licensing to buildout, there are a growing number of barriers to entering the cannabis industry as a cultivator. Those who are lucky to successfully establish a grow operation are well aware that one of the crucial hurdles is managing space to maximize facility efficiency and capacity.
To stay profitable, the more plants you can grow and harvest at a time in a continuous cycle, the better. From an economic and environmental perspective, managing cost, space and time comes down to automation and efficiencies. One of the most efficient ways we optimize is through the practice of vertical farming.
Vertical farming maximizes canopy square footage while minimizing Cost of Goods Sold (COGs) to produce high-quality cannabis at scale year-round, and the industry is slowly finding that this method is an incredibly efficient and profitable way to maximize cannabis output.
Yellow Dream Farm is our family-owned cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and distribution company based in San Bernardino County, California, often known as the Silicon Valley of cannabis. Our craft, boutique-style cannabis is grown from floor to ceiling in the 30,000-square-foot facility. We’re using cutting-edge technology that’s only come to market in the last five years and using a variety of sustainable practices. With environmental and feeding efficiencies, we’re able to harvest 300 pounds per week when compared to 150 pounds per week from a facility of the same size.
Vertical Farming for Space Optimization
Like any medical field, cannabis has seen large numbers of outside investments into the space, bringing ideologies and efficiencies from other time-tested industries. One such efficiency is vertical farming – a practice already seen in large-scale agriculture.
We choose vertical farming to maximize our canopy square footage and minimize COGs to produce high-quality cannabis at scale. The barrier to entry into the cannabis industry is expensive, and you must utilize every square inch to stay profitable. We believe vertical farming is the most efficient and most profitable way to maximize output and our numbers can back that up; for example, we can produce double the amount of flower than the average single-tier room with the same square footage, without doubling the cost.
Our rooms contain double stacks to double room capacity by using ceiling heights instead of square footage. Even though vertical farming has larger start-up costs, we can maximize square footage and output, allowing us to get a better and faster ROI. Vertical farming can be done in many different ways but the way we built our facility was always with a sustainable outlook. We also look to improve and remove human error; with full irrigation control and crop steering technologies, we can recalibrate sensors, irrigation media and environmental sensors when needed based on successes, challenges or environmental constraints. Additionally, we have a few other sustainable practices that make a difference.
Water Conservation, Lighting and Automation
Being a California-based grower, water conservation is a key part of our operations. With San Bernardino County being located in the heart of the high desert, conserving water is not only a requirement but a competitive advantage. Our practices provide cost savings which we then pass along to our customers. Each cannabis plant on average requires between a half gallon and one gallon of water per day, which we then recirculate through condensate water from our A/C and dehumidifiers. All runoff nutrient water is re-filtered and reused to get the most out of our nutrients before discarding waste. Our freezer panel walls hold temperatures at consistent rates, and we have a fully automated system to dial in specific needs at any given time.
Lighting is another major environmental and capital cost. Our primary lighting system is LED technology, and we use LED spectrums to find which spectrum benefits the plant most. With LEDs, our energy consumption is 30 percent less.
Vertical Farming Is the Future of Cannabis and Agriculture
Vertical farming has been hailed as the future of many agricultural industries and cannabis is no different. We already see large vertical farms in most legal states, but surprisingly it’s still not a common style of growing. As the price per pound steadily declines in California, being able to keep COGs down will allow vertical farmers to sustain and thrive in this volatile industry.
In order to adapt, grow and leave a positive mark on the industry, we must pave the way for new styles of growing and utilizing new technology and science that was not available to growers in the past. We can use these advanced new technologies to make real-time changes to each sector of our facility and optimize both people power, and energy efficiency. And most importantly, we’ll be able to produce top-quality cannabis for adults to enjoy at affordable prices.
Natural cannabinoid distillates and isolates are hydrophobic oils and solids, meaning that they do not mix well with water and are poorly absorbed in the human body after consumption. Cannabinoid oils can be formulated into emulsions to form a fine suspension in water to modulate bioavailability, stability and flavor.
Happy Chance is a cannabis infused products company offering better-for-you products to their customers. Happy Chance recently launched a low-glycemic index fruit bite line made from fresh ingredients, distinguishing them from traditional gummies. Splash Nano is a cannabis infused products ingredients company specializing in nano emulsions. Happy Chance utilizes Splash Nano technology in their fruit bites formulations.
We spoke with Katherine Knowlton, founder of Happy Chance, and Kalon Baird, co-founder and CTO of Splash Nano to learn more about their products and how they came to do business together. Prior to Happy Chance, Knowlton worked as a chef. Prior to Splash Nano, Baird was a consultant to the cannabis industry.
Aaron Green: Katherine, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Katherine Knowlton: I am a chef by trade. I went to culinary school in 2015. My partner also got into the cannabis space in 2017, which was right around the time when adult use cannabis became legal in California. As a chef, I am very passionate about cooking for optimal health and well-being. I noticed right away the abundance of candy- and sugar-laden products on the market. I set out to create a wellness driven product blending healthy, whole foods with a better value proposition, better-for-you and better-for-the-planet.
Green: Okay, great. Kalon, same question: how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Kalon Baird: I left a corporate job in 2011 and started cultivating in Southern California. I started to develop techniques for horticulture and developed a connection with the plant. I was a consultant for many years, and then decided to take a different path when legalization happened and got into the regulated manufacturing space. My goal was to bring new products to market to help satiate the demand for the infused category, the non-smokeable categories and to pursue niche product development.
Green: Tell me about your recent product development interests?
Baird: We’re interested in the research that comes out regarding cannabis minor constituents. We work with other research labs doing two-dimensional chromatography. We’re trying to figure out what compounds exist in the plant that aren’t just the major cannabinoids, and how to work with them in a pharmacological context so that they can be standardized and replicated at scale.
So, it’s not just about making a sugary THC gummy, it’s about seeing what minor cannabinoids, what minor terpenoids and what other unknown compounds can we explore, and then put back into products.
Green: That’s 2D GC-mass spec?
Baird: Yeah, it’s GC-by-GC and tandem mass spec. There are only a couple people that make that piece of equipment. The lab that we work with on that project is called Veda scientific. They’re one of the only people in the cannabis space that uses that machine. And they’re right in our backyard. The tech enables us to further quantify terpene profiles and helps to differentiate our products.
Green: I’d like to focus first on the Splash Nano technology and then we’ll dig into how you got to know each other, and then we’ll finish off with learning more about Happy Chance. So Kalon, tell me more about Splash Nano.
Baird: We employ nano emulsion technology. It’s essentially the science of making oil and water compatible and suspended in a way that reduces droplet size. With nano emulsions, you create an interfacial layer that enhances absorption and solves technical problems like being able to make cannabis oil compatible in water-based matrices, and sometimes in non-water-based matrices. The idea is that as we spread out the particles and as we change attributes of how they’re coated, they’re more bioavailable, and you get a more consistent and faster onset experience like you would in the pharmaceutical or alcohol industry. It’s bringing the industry standard up to the consumer package level and the pharmaceutical level, so that people aren’t waiting the typical hour-long timeframe to absorb that first dose.
Green: Tell me about your business model.
Baird: When we started out in 2018, we were going for a manufacturing license. In the meantime, we saw the drink category evolving and we wanted to be a part of that conversation in that ecosystem. We started developing our own nano emulsions that we knew would be useful when we got our license. We knew that we would sell the base material to co-packers who would put them into beverages. We didn’t want to co-pack the beverages ourselves. So, we developed a drink additive that was our proof of concept that had legs for the technology so that we could show people how to use it. That proof of concept spun off and became its own product and now it’s in the market under the brand name Splash Nano and comes in four distinct product SKUS using minor cannabinoids as differentiators.
Meanwhile, our bread-and-butter business was working with smaller brands, like Happy Chance that needed a path to market but couldn’t get the license or couldn’t go through that whole rigmarole of a two-year waiting period and a half a million dollars and all the other stuff. So, we started taking on all these smaller brands effectively licensing their brand IP and their ideas. In the process, we ended up learning a ton about product development and it became kind of a passion.
We have three core revenue streams. One of them is contract manufacturing, or private labeling. The other one is our own product Splash Nano which is a drink additive. And then the last is we open sourced the technology and sell that as a business-to-business platform so that people can infuse their own products with our fast-acting emulsions. We’re working on a licensing model that will allow other states to create that same consistency, where we send a black box model out to them, and then they infuse the cannabis and then turn that into a product.
Green: Moving on to Katherine here. Tell me about Happy Chance, and how you came up with the brand concept and the product idea.
Knowlton: Going back to what I touched on earlier, many traditional edibles in the space are brownies, cookies and candy type of products that do not contribute to wellness. I wanted to give the wellness driven consumer an option in cannabis. I wanted to create a powerhouse edible that was not only functional and complete but that elevated the consumer’s experience as a whole because of the ingredients we choose and the whole cannabis we source.
I’m someone who values better-for-you products that contribute to optimal health and well-being. So, I set out to make something. I didn’t really know what I wanted to make in the beginning. I bought a dehydrator and a food processor, and I started messing around with different applications in my kitchen. Over 100 variations later, the fruit bite was born.
The fruit bite is made with dates – a natural sugar that delivers nutritional power: a low glycemic index and high in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A sweet you can feel great about. And we use pumpkin seeds which have a lot of great protein. We are working with a company in California that takes imperfect fruits and vegetables and upcycles that back into the food supply chain. We utilize the whole fruits and vegetables as a dried intermediate, capturing all the flavor of nutrients. No added natural flavors and nothing from concentrate.
Green: How does the consistency differ from a gummy?
Knowlton: The consistency is similar to a Lara bar or an Rx bar. Essentially, it’s that same consistency in a bite form and so it’s very different than a gummy. It’s a low dose, low sugar alternative to the modern-day gummy.
Green: So, you’ve got this healthy concept for the fruit bite. You’re looking at suppliers and technologies to infuse the product. How did you finally decide on Splash Nano?
Knowlton: I watched my partner lose his company a few years ago to a larger vertically integrated company. The MSO promised the moon and the stars, and they got lost in the weeds of their eco-system, ultimately losing their company. That said, I was very sensitive when I first started on this journey. I even took on my own partners who didn’t work out either. I spoke with a lot of manufacturers in the selection process. Splash Nano was the tenth manufacturer I spoke with.
It was a very organic way of meeting. I am also based in Santa Barbara where Splash Nano is located. My partner’s brother shared an office space with Kalon, so we met through that connection. I learned right away that Splash was founded on wellness, much like Happy Chance. It was important to source clean cannabis, an aspect that Kalon and his team take pride in. We quickly discovered that Kalon’s Splash Nano technology was going to work in my product. Happy Chance immediately found a home, and it has been an organic evolution of realistic business and friendship.
Green: Kalon, I’d love to get your perspective as well. How do you think about partnering with brands?
Baird: Because of our contract manufacturing experience, we’ve been able to touch approximately 50 brands over our three-year tenure in this space. We’ve seen kind of everything from the multi-state operator to the owner-operator and everything in between. I developed a passion for working with these smaller brands for a lot of different reasons. This industry is built on the success of small mom and pops. Yes, the multi-state operators do have a place and they absolutely add a lot of value. But at the same time, they have their own natural challenges. You have essentially a culture of employees versus a business owner that’s making a lot of their own decisions.
There are advantages to somebody like Katherine, who’s in the trenches of business, and understands the ebbs and flows and ups and downs of this industry and be able to get through some of those challenges a lot more organically and a lot more sustainably. Katherine has such a deep pulse on her business and on her customer and on her own money. She tends to make a lot more calculated decisions, and I really appreciate that.
There’s a lot of waste that gets accumulated in this industry through packaging, through bad decisions, and over extensions of capital. It’s sad to watch and you see these people that have great potential, but it’s kind of lost in this sort of the framework of a large organization. Again, I like multi-state operators, they’re great. There’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s just a different flavor. I’m trying to highlight the fact that working with somebody that has a pulse on her business, and the passion for what she’s doing is wonderful. It’s not just about making money; it’s about adding value.
Green: Katherine, talk to me about sustainability and how you’ve woven that into your product.
Knowlton: We’re dedicated to supporting Product, People and Planet. That’s the whole mission and ethos of Happy Chance. As a chef, I wanted to be intentional about where our ingredients come from. We only source organic and upcycled ingredients – an essential recipe in sustaining a healthy, eco-friendly plant. Intention and integrity are always at the forefront of our products. We prioritize partnering with more transparent supply chains. We want to show the world how cannabis can promote positive lifestyle changes that support living more actively and consciously.
To reiterate, we are also not using anything from concentrate. We are using the entire strawberry, the entire blueberry and so it encapsulates all the flavor and all the nutrition that you would have from a fresh fruit into our products.
Green: How do you think about sustainability in product packaging?
Knowlton: As far as packaging goes in this industry, we’re very limited in what we can do. Compostable packaging isn’t really available, but we have partnered with a packaging company that definitely has mindfulness at the core of their mission. They have established their entire supply chain to ensure they are focusing on green practices and reducing waste each step of the way. Their energy efficient machinery creates a zero-waste manufacturing process to reduce their carbon footprint and they utilize soy and vegan inks to help reduce air pollution by minimizing toxic emissions in the air. My hope for the industry is that as it continues to evolve, we can become less wasteful as far as packaging goes.
Green: Rapid fire questions for both of you: What trends are you following in the industry right now?
Knowlton: As a chef and coming from the CPG world, I’m passionate about health and wellness. I think that it’s important to stay on trend with what we’re seeing in CPG. There’s definitely a market as far as people wanting these better-for-you products. I want to bring that into the cannabis space.
Baird: We’re seeing the inclusion of minor cannabinoids, terpenoids, standardized recipes and faster- or slower-acting delivery systems. So, I’m following trends in advanced drug delivery systems paired with minor cannabinoids.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Knowlton: I’m most interested in how I can take what I’ve learned in the food space and help bring that into the world of cannabis through Happy Chance. Ultimately cannabis is plant medicine. So, how can we educate people that the ingredients we choose to make products should be good for us too. I think that there’s a lot that can be done with it from a from a health and wellness standpoint.
Baird: I’m interested in learning more about the analytical overlay between quantifying and standardizing entheogens and plant medicines like cannabis into the product development process in CPG. I’m thinking of ways to blend the two worlds of traditional science and New Age medicine.
Green: Awesome, that concludes the interview. Thank you both, Katherine and Kalon.
Facility layout and design are important components of overall operations, both in terms of maximizing the effectiveness and efficiency of the process(es) executed in a facility, and in meeting the needs of personnel. Prior to the purchase of an existing building or investing in new construction, the activities and processes that will be conducted in a facility must be mapped out and evaluated to determine the appropriate infrastructure and flow of processes and materials. In cannabis markets where vertical integration is the required business model, multiple product and process flows must be incorporated into the design and construction. Materials of construction and critical utilities are essential considerations if there is the desire to meet Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) compliance or to process in an ISO certified cleanroom. Regardless of what type of facility is needed or desired, applicable local, federal and international regulations and standards must be reviewed to ensure proper design, construction and operation, as well as to guarantee safety of employees.
Materials of Construction
The materials of construction for interior work surfaces, walls, floors and ceilings should be fabricated of non-porous, smooth and corrosive resistant surfaces that are easily cleanable to prevent harboring of microorganisms and damage from chemical residues. Flooring should also provide wear resistance, stain and chemical resistance for high traffic applications. ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces22 provides a method for evaluating the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastics, and other non-porous, surfaces of products (including intermediate products). Interior and exterior (including the roof) materials of construction should meet the requirements of ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Covering7, UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings 8, the International Building Code (IBC) 9, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other applicable building and safety standards, particularly when the use, storage, filling, and handling of hazardous materials occurs in the facility.
Critical and non-critical utilities need to be considered in the initial planning phase of a facility build out. Critical utilities are the utilities that when used have the potential to impact product quality. These utilities include water systems, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), compressed air and pure steam. Non-critical utilities may not present a direct risk to product quality, but are necessary to support the successful, compliant and safe operations of a facility. These utilities include electrical infrastructure, lighting, fire detection and suppression systems, gas detection and sewage.
Water quality, both chemical and microbial, is a fundamental and often overlooked critical parameter in the design phase of cannabis operations. Water is used to irrigate plants, for personnel handwashing, potentially as a component in compounding/formulation of finished goods and for cleaning activities. The United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter 1231, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes 2, provides extensive guidance on the design, operation, and monitoring of water systems. Water quality should be tested and monitored to ensure compliance to microbiological and chemical specifications based on the chosen water type, the intended use of the water, and the environment in which the water is used. Microbial monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 61, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests3and Chapter 62, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms 4, and chemical monitoring methods are described in USP Chapter 643, Total Organic Carbon 5, and Chapter 645, Water Conductivity6.Overall water usage must be considered during the facility design phase. In addition to utilizing water for irrigation, cleaning, product processing, and personal hygiene, water is used for heating and cooling of the HVAC system, fogging in pest control procedures and in wastewater treatment procedures A facility’s water system must be capable of managing the amount of water required for the entire operation. Water usage and drainage must meet environmental protection standards. State and local municipalities may have water usage limits, capture and reuse requirements and regulations regarding runoff and erosion control that must also be considered as part of the water system design.
Lighting considerations for a cultivation facility are a balance between energy efficiency and what is optimal for plant growth. The preferred lighting choice has typically been High Intensity Discharge (HID) lighting, which includes metal halide (MH) and high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs. However, as of late, light-emitting diodes (LED) systems are gaining popularity due to increased energy saving possibilities and innovative technologies. Adequate lighting is critical for ensuring employees can effectively and safely perform their job functions. Many tasks performed on the production floor or in the laboratory require great attention to detail. Therefore, proper lighting is a significant consideration when designing a facility.
Environmental factors, such as temperature, relative humidity (RH), airflow and air quality play a significant role in maintaining and controlling cannabis operations. A facility’s HVAC system has a direct impact on cultivation and manufacturing environments, and HVAC performance may make or break the success of an operation. Sensible heat ratios (SHRs) may be impacted by lighting usage and RH levels may be impacted by the water usage/irrigation schedule in a cultivation facility. Dehumidification considerations as described in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification 26 are critical to support plant growth and vitality, minimize microbial proliferation in the work environment and to sustain product shelf-life/stability. All of these factors must be evaluated when commissioning an HVAC system. HVAC systems with monitoring sensors (temperature, RH and pressure) should be considered. Proper placement of sensors allows for real-time monitoring and a proactive approach to addressing excursions that could negatively impact the work environment.
Compressed air is another, often overlooked, critical component in cannabis operations. Compressed air may be used for a number of applications, including blowing off and drying work surfaces and bottles/containers prior to filling operations, and providing air for pneumatically controlled valves and cylinders. Common contaminants in compressed air are nonviable particles, water, oil, and viable microorganisms. Contaminants should be controlled with the use appropriate in-line filtration. Compressed air application that could impact final product quality and safety requires routine monitoring and testing. ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications 21, separates air quality levels into classes to help differentiate air requirements based on facility type.
Facilities should be designed to meet the electrical demands of equipment operation, lighting, and accurate functionality of HVAC systems. Processes and procedures should be designed according to the requirements outlined in the National Electrical Code (NEC) 12, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 13, National Electrical Safety Code (NESC) 14, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) 15 and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ).
Fire Detection and Suppression
“Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs.”Proper fire detection and suppression systems should be installed and maintained per the guidelines of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 11, International Building Code (IBC) 9, International Fire Code (IFC) 10, and any other relevant standards dictated by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Facilities should provide standard symbols to communicate fire safety, emergency and associated hazards information as defined in NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols27.
Processes that utilize flammable gasses and solvents should have a continuous gas detection system as required per the IBC, Chapter 39, Section 3905 9. The gas detection should not be greater than 25 percent of the lower explosive limit/lower flammability limit (LEL/LFL) of the materials. Gas detection systems should be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems16 and/or UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems 17 and UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors18.
Product and Process Flow
Product and process flow considerations include flow of materials as well as personnel. The classic product and process flow of a facility is unidirectional where raw materials enter on one end and finished goods exit at the other. This design minimizes the risk of commingling unapproved and approved raw materials, components and finished goods. Facility space utilization is optimized by providing a more streamlined, efficient and effective process from batch production to final product release with minimal risk of errors. Additionally, efficient flow reduces safety risks to employees and an overall financial risk to the organization as a result of costly injuries. A continuous flow of raw materials and components ensures that supplies are available when needed and they are assessable with no obstructions that could present a potential safety hazard to employees. Proper training and education of personnel on general safety principles, defined work practices, equipment and controls can help reduce workplace accidents involving the moving, handling, and storing of materials.
Facilities management includes the processes and procedures required for the overall maintenance and security of a cannabis operation. Facilities management considerations during the design phase include pest control, preventative maintenance of critical utilities, and security.
A Pest Control Program (PCP) ensures that pest and vermin control is carried out to eliminate health risks from pests and vermin, and to maintain the standards of hygiene necessary for the operation. Shipping and receiving areas are common entryways for pests. The type of dock and dock lever used could be a welcome mat or a blockade for rodents, birds, insects, and other vermin. Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should define the procedure and responsibility for PCP planning, implementation and monitoring.
Routine preventative maintenance (PM) on critical utilities should be conducted to maintain optimal performance and prevent microbial and/or particulate ingress into the work environment. Scheduled PMs may include filter replacement, leak and velocity testing, cleaning and sanitization, adjustment of airflow, the inspection of the air intake, fans, bearings and belts and the calibration of monitoring sensors.
In most medical cannabis markets, an established Security Program is a requirement as part of the licensing process. ASTM International standards: D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System 23, D8217 Guide for Access Control System, and D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS) 25 provide guidance on how to set up a suitable facility security system and program. Facilities should be equipped with security cameras. The number and location of the security cameras should be based on the size, design and layout of the facility. Additional cameras may be required for larger facilities to ensure all “blind spots” are addressed. The facility security system should be monitored by an alarm system with 24/7 tracking. Retention of surveillance data should be defined in an SOP per the AHJ. Motion detectors, if utilized, should be linked to the alarm system, automatic lighting, and automatic notification reporting. The roof area should be monitored by motion sensors to prevent cut-and-drop intrusion. Daily and annual checks should be conducted on the alarm system to ensure proper operation. Physical barriers such as fencing, locked gates, secure doors, window protection, automatic access systems should be used to prevent unauthorized access to the facility. Security barriers must comply with local security, fire safety and zoning regulations. High security locks should be installed on all doors and gates. Facility access should be controlled via Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) access cards, biometric entry systems, keys, locks or codes. All areas where cannabis raw material or cannabis-derived products are processed or stored should be controlled, locked and access restricted to authorized personnel. These areas should be properly designated “Restricted Area – Authorized Personnel Only”.
The thought of expansion in the beginning stages of facility design is probably the last thing on the mind of the business owner(s) as they are trying to get the operation up and running, but it is likely the first thing on the mind of investors, if they happen to be involved in the business venture. Facilities should be designed so that they can be easily expanded or adjusted to meet changing production and market needs. Thought must be given to how critical systems and product and process flows may be impacted if future expansion is anticipated. The goal should be to minimize down time while maximizing space and production output. Therefore, proper up-front planning regarding future growth is imperative for the operation to be successful and maintain productivity while navigating through those changes.
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <1231>, Water for Pharmaceutical Purposes.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <61>, Testing: Microbial Enumeration Tests.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <62>, Testing: Tests for Specified Microorganisms.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <643>, Total Organic Carbon.
United States Pharmacopeia (USP) Chapter <645>, Water Conductivity.
ASTM E108 -11, Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
UL 790, Standard for Standard Test Methods for Fire Tests of Roof Coverings.
International Building Code (IBC).
International Fire Code (IFC).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
National Electrical Code (NEC).
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
National Electrical Safety Code (NESC).
International Energy Conservation Code (IECC).
UL 864, Standard for Control Units and Accessories for Fire Alarm Systems.
UL 2017, Standard for General-Purpose Signaling Devices and Systems.
UL 2075, Standard for Gas and Vapor Detectors and Sensors.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Good Practice Guide.
International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers (ISPE) Guide Water and Steam Systems.
ISO 8573:2010, Compressed Air Specifications.
ISO 22196:2011, Measurement Of Antibacterial Activity On Plastics And Other Non-Porous Surfaces.
D8205 Guide for Video Surveillance System.
D8217 Guide for Access Control Syst
D8218 Guide for Intrusion Detection System (IDS).
National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA): Committee Blog: An Introduction to HVACD for Indoor Plant Environments – Why We Should Include a “D” for Dehumidification.
NFPA 170, Standard for Fire Safety and Emergency Symbols.
Clean, ecologically sound production methods are the ideal for any cultivation or farming activity. Taking from the earth only what is needed to grow the crop and leaving behind little in the way of chemicals and land/water loss is the goal; with cannabis grow facilities, it can also be a reality.
This type of production does require some capital investment into state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, with standards that are equal to or even surpass current EPA and USDA regulations. While cannabis growing does not yet have access to the organic certification, that doesn’t mean growers can’t abide by and even go beyond the rules, to grow clean, healthy and environmentally sound cannabis.
There are a few essential elements required to make this kind of operation a reality.
Ecologically advanced use of power
For any indoor facility, one of the key elements is lighting. Using as energy efficient a system as possible is key. The best option at the moment is LEC lighting, which provides a spectrum of light that is very close to natural. This makes checking on plant progress more realistic and, with the inclusion of UV-B in the spectrum, can improve yields as well. In addition, the LEC bulbs have a long life—up to 2 years—which means lower maintenance costs as well.
Another aspect of growing that tends to use a lot of power is the cooling system. A standard HVAC system will be power intensive, so alternative ones like water chilled climate control systems are just as effective and 30% more power efficient. These systems are also able to reuse wasted power by feeding it back into the system, creating an additional 10% energy reduction. In addition, when the outdoor air temperature dips below 45 degrees, a water chilled system can switch to using the outside air, creating 60—70% in energy savings.
Efficient management of water resources
Cultivators depend heavily on water to ensure that the plants are hydrated and able to absorb the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. The result for many however is an excessive waste of water. This is a problem when a grow facility is leveraging municipal water resources. A water meter helps to manage and track usage but to ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible, a “top feeding” method of usage ensures minimal water waste (5% or less).
Effective waste management
Wastewater is a byproduct of any water intensive cultivation method but there again, managing the systems to ensure that what water isn’t reused and becomes “gray water” is still as clean as possible is the ideal. A high-quality filtration system keeps sediment, chlorine and other harmful elements out of the water supply — and out of the municipal sewage system. Further, by using organic matter throughout the growing process, the wastewater that is produced will meet every federal standard for organic food production.
All plant waste in a grow facility—for example: stems and fan leaves—is disposed of according to state and local laws. With cannabis plants, that requires a certain level of security, including locked dumpsters that are only unlocked and placed outside when the removal trucks arrive on site.
Organic farming practices
Using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed soil is an essential part of clean, environmentally friendly growing. To ensure the proper nutrients are available for each harvest, once a crop is gathered, the soil is transferred to a local landscape company to compost and reuse.
Pesticides need to obviously be avoided and all fertilizers need to be USDA approved as organic and all nutrients need to be certified by OMRI to ensure they don’t contain any synthetic materials.
Considering all of these aspects is essential to creating an ecologically friendly grow facility with tremendous yields that are clean and safe for the end consumer, as well as minimizing the impact to the earth.
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