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dry cannabis plants

How to Grow Cannabis Plants for Concentrate Production

By Andrew Myers
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dry cannabis plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AOCS Highlights Cannabis Lab Standards, Extraction Technology

By Aaron G. Biros
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The American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) held its annual conference in Salt Lake City this week, with a track focused on cannabis testing and technology. Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at AOCS and member of the advisory panel to The Emerald Test, hosted the two-day event dedicated to all things extraction technology and analytical testing of cannabis.

Highlights in the discussion surrounding extraction technologies for the production of cannabis concentrates included the diversity of concentrate products, solvent selection for different extraction techniques and the need for cleaning validation in extraction equipment. Jerry King, Ph.D., research professor at the University of Arkansas, began the event with a brief history of cannabis processing, describing the physical morphologies in different types of extraction processes.

J. Michael McCutcheon presents a history of cannabis in medicine
J. Michael McCutcheon presents a history of cannabis in medicine

Michael McCutcheon, research scientist at Eden Labs, laid out a broad comparison of different extraction techniques and solvents in use currently. “Butane is a great solvent; it’s extremely effective at extracting active compounds from cannabis, but it poses considerable health, safety and environmental concerns largely due to its flammability,” says McCutcheon. He noted it is also very difficult to get USP-grade butane solvents so the quality can be lacking. “As a solvent, supercritical carbon dioxide can be better because it is nontoxic, nonflammable, readily available, inexpensive and much safer.” The major benefit of using supercritical carbon dioxide, according to McCutcheon, is its ability for fine-tuning, allowing the extractor to be more selective and produce a wider range of product types. “By changing the temperature or pressure, we can change the density of the solvent and thus the solubility of the many different compounds in cannabis.” He also noted that, supercritical carbon dioxide exerts tremendous pressure, as compared to hydrocarbon solvents, so the extraction equipment needs to be rated to a higher working pressure and is generally more expensive.

John A. Mackay, Ph.D., left at the podium and Jerry King, Ph.D., on the right
John A. Mackay, Ph.D., left at the podium and Jerry King, Ph.D., on the right

John A. Mackay, Ph.D., senior director of strategic technologies at Waters Corporation, believes that cannabis processors using extraction equipment need to implement cleaning SOPs to prevent contamination. “There is currently nothing in the cannabis industry like the FDA CMC draft for the botanical industry,” says Mackay. “If you are giving a child a high-CBD extract and it was produced in equipment that was previously used for another strain that contains other compounds, such as CBG, CBD or even traces of THC extract, there is a high probability that it will still contain these compounds as well as possibly other contaminants unless it was properly cleaned.” Mackay’s discussion highlighted the importance of safety and health for workers throughout the workflow as well as the end consumer.

Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, examined different testing methodologies for different applications, including potency analyses with liquid chromatography. His presentation was markedly unique in proposing a solution to the currently inconsistent classification system for cannabis strains. “We really do not know what strains cause what physiological responses,” says Raber. “We need a better classification system based on chemical fingerprints, not on baseless names.” Raber suggests using a chemotaxonomic system to identify physiological responses in strains, noting that terpenes could be the key to these responses.

Cynthia Ludwig welcomes attendees to the event.
Cynthia Ludwig welcomes attendees to the event.

Dylan Wilks, chief scientific officer at Orange Photonics, discussed the various needs in sample preparation for a wide range of products. He focused on sample prep and variation for on-site potency analysis, which could give edibles manufacturers crucial quality assurance tools in process control. Susan Audino, Ph.D., chemist and A2LA assessor, echoed Wilks’ concerns over sample collection methods. “Sampling can be the most critical part of the analysis and the sample size needs to be representative of the batch, which is currently a major issue in the cannabis industry,” says Audino. “I believe that the consumer has a right to know that what they are ingesting is safe.” Many seemed to share her sentiment about the current state of the cannabis testing industry. “Inadequate testing is worse than no testing at all and we need to educate the legislators about the importance of consumer safety.”

46 cannabis laboratories participated in The Emerald Test’s latest round of proficiency testing for potency and residual solvents. Cynthia Ludwig sits on the advisory panel to give direction and industry insights, addressing specific needs for cannabis laboratories. Kirsten Blake, director of sales at Emerald Scientific, believes that proficiency testing is the first step in bringing consistency to cannabis analytics. “The goal is to create some level of industry standards for testing,” says Blake. Participants in the program will be given data sets, judged by a consensus mean, so labs can see their score compared to the rest of the cannabis testing industry. Proficiency tests like The Emerald Test give labs the ability to view how consistent their results are compared to the industry’s results overall. According to Ludwig, the results were pleasantly surprising. “The results were better than expected across the board; the vast majority of labs were within the acceptable range,” says Ludwig. The test is anonymous so individual labs can participate freely.

The AOCS cannabis working groups and expert panels are collaborating with Emerald Scientific to provide data analytics reports compliant with ISO 13528. “In the absence of a federal program, we are trying to provide consistency in cannabis testing to protect consumer safety,” says Ludwig. At the AOCS annual meeting, many echoed those concerns of consumer safety, proposing solutions to the current inconsistencies in testing standards.