Whether you’re addressing deficiencies or toxicities, or determining delivery frequencies or water quality, this advice can help you develop a successful cannabis nutrient management protocol.
Much of the indoor production of Cannabis sativa relies upon a hydroponic (non-soil) growing system. This means that a full complement of nutrients in a balanced formulation must be provided to the plants. Other factors, such as pH and electrical conductivity (EC), should also be tracked to ensure the plants have adequate nutrient availability.
While managing all these factors may seem daunting, commercial floriculture production has been executing this level of management successfully for the past 40 years. The challenge for cannabis growers is the lack of scientific research to back up production recommendations. With cannabis production legalized in many states and in Canada, research into sound nutrient practices is now possible. These 10 tips for plant nutrition are built on the pillars of the ongoing research studies we are conducting at North Carolina State University (NCSU), observations made while working with cannabis and floriculture growers, and years of greenhouse production research. These recommendations are the foundation of nutrition in controlled-environment-grown plants in a soilless substrate, and many of the tips apply to other types of hydroponic growing, too.
Two parameters—pH and electrical conductivity—hold the key to your crop’s nutritional status. The substrate pH affects nutrient availability (see Fig. 1 below). If the pH is too low (more acid), micronutrients-nutrient availability will increase and, in many cases, will accumulate to toxic levels (micronutrients-nutrient toxicities) in the plant. Iron (Fe) and manganese (Mn) are the two main elements that will reach toxic levels in plants at low pH levels.
If the pH becomes too high (more alkaline), micronutrients-nutrient deficiency becomes the concern. The primary elements that risk being deficient are Fe, Mn, and boron (B). When substrate pH is greater than 6.5, these elements’ chemical interactions in the fertilizer solution are altered, and they can become “tied up” in the solution—making them less available to the plant. (See tip No. 6 for an explanation of EC.)
A wide assortment of meters are available on the market. Some growers will purchase separate pH and EC meters. For the past 20 years, NCSU has been recommending combination pH and EC meters. It is far easier to conduct in-house testing with only one piece of equipment. Most growers we work with purchase a unit that costs less than $200. Two widely used units growers purchase are the Hanna 9813-6 combination meter or the Milwaukee Instruments MW802. Both are low cost and provide invaluable information about your crop’s nutrient status.
After purchasing a combination pH and EC meter, start using it. The majority of the commercial floriculture greenhouse industry relies upon the non-destructive PourThru monitoring method to test pH and EC. In this method, a small amount of clear water is poured into the top of the container to push the nutrient solution to the bottom of the pot. Growers can then collect and test that leachate.
Weekly or biweekly sampling is the key to ensuring your pH and EC levels are on track. While cannabis-specific recommendations have not been published, guidelines for sampling can be found at the nutrient-monitoring website: fertdirtandsquirt.com.
It is always good to know what you are adding to your crop from your irrigation supply. A water test will provide you with a baseline set of numbers about both macronutrients and micronutrients supplied by your irrigation water. Labs also test for the pH, EC and alkalinity (carbonate and bicarbonate) levels. This information will help you formulate a fertilizer program so that adequate nutrient levels are provided to your plants. It can also be used to help you potentially avoid toxic conditions caused by adding too much of a specific element already supplied in sufficient quantities by your irrigation water.
The recommended substrate pH for cannabis growing varies widely. A recommended substrate pH of 6.0 to 6.5 is often provided as the standard. During visits to commercial greenhouses growing cannabis, we have seen low pH ranges between 4 and 5, or higher levels slightly greater than 7. Plants grown at the lower pH appear to have normal growth and lack the toxicity symptomology of lower leaf blacking or bronzing that is typically observed with other greenhouse species at this low pH. We have rarely seen interveinal chlorosis of the upper (youngest) leaves on cannabis plants, a common symptom of greenhouse crops grown at high pH. The preliminary results of a follow-up research study at NCSU that focused on higher pH levels show that iron chlorosis did appear on plants grown at pH 7.9.
Based on the preliminary results of research conducted at NCSU, data implies that vegetative stock plants of cannabis have a wide substrate pH range in which the plants will optimally grow. That range appears to be as wide as pH 5.0 to 7.0. Based on experiences with other species, a narrower range of 5.5 to 6.5 may be more appropriate to target with cannabis, as this will allow growers to make adjustments as pH approaches the ends of the targeted range. For growers, adapting these pH values to a monitoring system implies that the safe pH zone to target would be a narrower 5.8 to 6.2. (see Fig. 1 above). If the pH drops below 5.8, corrective procedures should begin to slightly increase the pH back into the 5.8-to-6.2 range. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the substrate pH increases to above 6.2, corrective procedures should begin to slightly decrease the pH back into the 5.8-to-6.2 range. By monitoring the substrate pH over time, you can assure that the plants are within the optimal range.
Similar to humans over their life spans, plants’ nutrient demands change over time. Young plants, like babies, need less food. As plants grow and bulk up, like teenagers, the amount of food they need increases. When the photoperiod changes and flower formation begins, the plants, at that point, have set the number of leaf nodes and flower nodes. This terminal inflorescence determines how much more growth will occur. The amount of vegetative mass that the plant adds during this growth stage is less, and energy and resources go to the developing buds. With this vegetative slowdown, the nutrient demands change. Given the scenario of plant growth, it comes as no surprise that nutrient delivery needs to be customized to meet the changing demands of the crop throughout its different growth stages. For guidelines about fertility levels based on plant development stage, see Fig. 2.
The EC is an indirect measure of the fertilizer salts contained in the substrate. By starting an in-house nutrient monitoring program as suggested in tip No. 2, you can measure the EC to ensure that sufficient levels of fertility are available to the plants. Fig. 3 contains recommended EC levels as measured by the PourThru method.
If the levels are lower than the recommended range, this implies the plant’s nutrient demand is higher than what is being supplied. In this case, you should increase the fertilizer rate. If the EC is increasing over time, this indicates the fertilizer is accumulating in the pot and the rate is higher than the demand by the plant. Dialing back the fertilizer rate will help avoid the accumulation of toxic levels of fertilizers and help save money by not wasting fertilizer solution.
After obtaining your water test, you can start building a fertilizer program. Soilless substrates provide little nutrients. You must provide them; however, those rates will vary depending on your water test, fertility program and plant growth stage. A standard fertilization practice used with floriculture production is to provide the following ratios: 10 parts Nitrogen (N); 1 to 2 parts Phosphorus (P); 10 parts Potassium (K); 5 parts Calcium (Ca); 2 to 3 parts Magnesium (Mg); 1 to 3 parts Sulfur (S), plus a complete set of micronutrients if needed (based on your irrigation water report). The nitrogen should be mainly in the nitrate form (see tip No. 8), and supplemental Mg may be needed (see tip No. 10).
Nitrogen form significantly influences plant growth. The three primary forms of nitrogen provided to plants are nitrate- nitrogen (NO3-N), ammoniacal-nitrogen (NH4-N) and urea-nitrogen. Nitrate- nitrogen provides more compact and controlled growth. More extensive leaf and stem growth occurs with ammoniacal-nitrogen and urea-nitrogen. In general, to avoid excessive stretching and oversized leaves, more than 60 percent of the nitrogen provided to plants should be in the nitrate-nitrogen form. Ideally, it should be 70 percent to 80 percent. This will provide a moderate growth response with cannabis plants and avoid overly large plants.
Phosphorus (P) is an essential element for plant growth. It plays a critical part in energy transfer within the plant, flowering enhancement and stem elongation. At NCSU, we have been focusing our research on the role of P in plant growth in greenhouse floriculture production. For most floriculture species, growth is maximized when 10 ppm to 15 ppm P is provided. Levels below that (~5 ppm to 10 ppm) are useful for controlling excessive plant growth. This may be a production option for cannabis growers who want to manage excessive plant growth, as no plant growth regulators (PGRs) are registered for cannabis, and two of the most common PGRs, paclobutrazol and daminozide, may be part of the chemical contamination screening program and would make your cannabis unsellable. Providing no P, or too little, will lead to a P deficiency, in which plants will be stunted and flower production will be negatively impacted.
Optimal P levels have not been determined for cannabis through scientific studies. As stated, most floriculture species have maximum growth with 10 ppm to 15 ppm P. Levels above that typically are not beneficial, and you are wasting your money. But with cannabis’s response to P fertilization currently uncertain, a more generous amount of 15 ppm to 25 ppm P is suggested as the target range at this time.
Cannabis plants often develop interveinal chlorosis (yellowing) on the lower leaves (Fig. 4). Over time, necrotic (brown) spotting also occurs (Fig. 5). These symptoms are associated with a magnesium (Mg) deficiency. Symptoms have been observed in greenhouses in locations without Mg in the irrigation water supply, as one would expect, but it is not uncommon to also observe symptomology in areas with moderate levels of Mg in the water. This leads to the conclusion that cannabis, similar to tomatoes and poinsettias, has a higher demand for Mg than most plant species.
Fixing a Mg deficiency is easy. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can be applied at the rate of 2 pounds per 100 gallons of water (2.4 kg/1,000L). Apply this solution as a 10-percent flow-through leaching irrigation. This will stop the progression of symptoms and provide adequate Mg to the plant, but will not reverse any interveinal leaf chlorosis or necrotic spotting. For areas that lack sufficient Mg in their irrigation water and Mg is not part of the regular fertilization program (e.g., 20-10-20 pre-mixes do not contain Mg), monthly applications of Epsom salts at the rate of 1 pound per 100 gallons of water (1.2 kg/1,000L) is the common production practice to green up plants and avoid deficiencies.
These 10 tips help form your basic building blocks of plant nutrition to avoid problems and ensure your plants are on track for healthy growth. Knowing the facts is the only way to build a fundamentally sound fertility plan.
Brian Whipker is a professor of floriculture at North Carolina State University specializing in plant nutrition, plant growth regulators and diagnostics. During the past two years, he co-authored eight scientific journal articles on the impact of fertilization with greenhouse species and three disorder diagnostic guides. Dr. Whipker has more than 28 years of greenhouse experience working with growers.
Turner Smith is a graduate student in substrate science at North Carolina State University and can be reached at email@example.com.
Paul Cockson is a research assistant and undergraduate at North Carolina State University. He has a background in communications and plant science. His degree will be in plant and soil sciences with a concentration in agroecology. For the past two years, he has worked in the plant nutrition lab at NCSU with Dr. Whipker.
Hunter Landis is an agronomist at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He works with growers using plant tissue analysis to monitor plant nutrition and diagnose plant nutrient disorders. Landis’ research experience is focused on plant nutrition of greenhouse crops.
How Andy Rayburn, co-founder and CEO of Ohio’s Buckeye Relief, and his team developed the state’s top-ranked application and built a state-of-the-art cultivation facility in record time.
Editor’s note: This is Part I of a three-part series that follows Buckeye Relief, a 25,000-square-foot indoor cultivation facility in Eastlake, Ohio, from its license application and buildout through its first harvest.
Andy Rayburn, Buckeye Relief’s co-founder and CEO, has a familiar cannabis story: About four years ago, a friend battling late-stage cancer called Rayburn to recount his first medical cannabis experience from the night before. For the first time in two years, he slept through the night and woke up refreshed.
What makes Rayburn’s cannabis story different from many is that he was able to act upon his emotional response. Having sold his first company (an industrial distribution company that he grew from 20 employees in two cities to 385 employees in 13 cities) in 2000, Rayburn possessed the business acumen and capital to launch himself into the cannabis industry. (Rayburn is also a part-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA franchise.)
Rayburn saw his opportunity in 2016 when the state legislature was looking to legalize medical cannabis. He partnered with longtime friend Scott Halloran, now Buckeye Relief’s chief operating officer (COO), to create the company in early 2016. On June 8 of that year, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed into law the medical cannabis bill, and Rayburn was ready to find his place in the Buckeye State’s new medical program.
Rayburn and Halloran’s first task in launching a cannabis cultivation company was to learn what others were doing. “The first thing I did, with Scott alongside, was start to put together pieces of a team that would … give us a victory on our application,” the CEO says.
The duo spent the first half of 2016 traveling the country, visiting multiple operators in various states (including Colorado and California) that had legalized cannabis and also meeting with different consultants, legal experts, contractors and manufacturers.
“We wanted people that were experienced in the cannabis industry, experienced in multiple states’ application processes,” Rayburn explains, “but not tied down to traditional operating approaches from the cannabis industry. In other words, people that were open to … new technologies and new ideas about how to operate a cannabis business.”
Buckeye selected Denver-based law firm Vicente Sederberg to coordinate the application process. During the application writing phase, “we didn’t focus so much on cultivation techniques and that kind of stuff. That’s what our consultants did,” Halloran says. Instead, “we spent a fair bit of time finding our location.”
Rayburn and Halloran visited more than 20 towns in their quest to find a home for Buckeye Relief, all of them in or around Northeast Ohio. “We wanted to be able to run a business that was close enough to our homes and community and neighborhoods that we knew,” Halloran says.
Eastlake, a small town less than 20 miles from downtown Cleveland, was one of the few communities that seemed open to Buckeye building its home there. “Once they understood the business that we were going to be bringing to the city, they couldn’t have been more supportive,” Halloran says. Rayburn and Halloran started developing strong ties to Eastlake, meeting with the mayor and his staff, the city council, the police chief and concerned residents.
Those efforts paid dividends when the co-founders discovered Buckeye’s original site location was not going to work due to wetland restrictions. As a solution, the city offered Buckeye a 10-acre parcel of land that had gone unused for more than 20 years. In a demonstration of good faith to the community, Buckeye purchased the property at the full-appraised value.
Next, the team secured engineer-approved architectural drawings, even before it had submitted its application to state evaluators. Having approved architectural drawings and starting on-site preparation were obvious risks for the co-founders, but those risks were calculated.
“We showed [the state] … we already had approved drawings. We had a maximum price bid from our contractor. We showed an escrow account with that amount of money in it so that we could tell the story to the state, ‘If you give us a license, we’re ready to start building the very next day,” Halloran explains.
On Nov. 30, 2017, Buckeye received the news: It scored top marks for a cultivator application from the state of Ohio, 179.28 out of a possible 200 points. Rayburn congratulated his team, popped a bottle of Dom Pérignon and kept his company’s promise to the state by beginning construction the following day.
Breaking ground in the winter is rarely an easy feat. Buckeye’s task was made more difficult by freezes and quick thaws that left the ground either unworkable or soggy. “We ended up having to spend a fairly good-size, six-figure [sum thawing] and then scraping out the [area for] the building a couple of times, sort of to de-muck it, just so that we [could] pour our foundation,” Halloran says.
Buckeye relied once again on good relationships, this time with its contractors, to work through those issues. “They didn’t miss a minute of time, no matter how cold or miserable it was here through December, January, February,” Rayburn says. In fact, the local union workers Buckeye hired worked overtime to keep the project on schedule.
Buckeye made its first major cultivation hires in February 2018. Jeremy Shechter, Buckeye’s cultivation technology director, joined the team on the ground floor, so to speak. “We were two months into construction at that point [in February 2018]. … The outside frame was up, and it wasn’t until about three weeks [after] I started that we even had a floor,” he says.
Matt Kispert, Buckeye’s cultivation director, joined the team in May 2018. “They were putting up the drywall,” by the time he joined, Kispert says.
Shechter and Kispert fit Rayburn’s ideal-employee mold. As a former aquaponics manager at FarmTek, Shechter had experience working with traditional and cannabis crops as well as aquaponics and hydroponics. He also holds a degree in food, agricultural and biological engineering from Ohio State University. Kispert was a greenhouse manager and consultant for CropKing, an Ohio-based greenhouse manufacturing company. Previously, he worked with Shechter at FarmTek, also as a consultant, advising on cannabis and traditional grow operations.
1. Go the extra mile. “To do the extra wherever possible … is very helpful in the application process. In our case [that involved] having included stamped, approved building drawings with our application.” –Andy Rayburn, co-founder & CEO
2. Develop a great relationship with your local government. “[One of the keys] for us [is] the unbelievable relationship that we’ve been able to forge with the city of Eastlake, with the mayor being our biggest champion in the community because he understands the economic impact we’re going to have [on] a relatively small town that can certainly use additional revenue.” –Scott Halloran, co-founder & COO
3. Waterproof your cultivation areas. “If left unchecked, a contractor is not going to do anything to waterproof the walls between rooms. Every single room needs to have the ability to be sprayed down, power washed, flooded. … But water cannot flow between rooms. Make sure that the bottom of the walls are waterproofed.” –Jeremy Shechter, cultivation technology director
4. Keep your facility clean and avoid having to clean up messes. “We grow in rockwool, and when we’re moving plants around … there’s a good amount of water that’s pouring off those. And the very first transplant we did, we made a mess. We had to stop constantly and mop; we had the fear of people slipping. So we got these mortuary tables, and now we can have the drain go to a bucket that hangs underneath the table. They’re all stainless, so they’re easy to clean.” –Matt Kispert, director of cultivation
Both men were given the same initial task—review the plan in Buckeye’s application and ensure that it made logical and agronomical sense. “During the application phase, our consultants put together a pretty good, high-level view of what they first [imagined things] … to be like,” Shechter says. “Like the racking and the lighting and the irrigation and the water room.”
Shechter’s next task was to turn those high-level plans into reality. For example, in the water room, the application consultants “basically just wanted to see some kind of dosing machine, an RO [reverse osmosis] system and some storage tanks” without any further specifications, he says. “And I kind of just ran with that.”
However, not everything translates well from theory to practice. Case in point: Buckeye’s initial plan to recirculate and filter leachate. “Originally we hoped to capture our runoff … from our fertigation, and then clean it and reuse it. The issue [is that] all of our leachate goes into floor drains,” Halloran says. Those floor drains collect everything from nutrient runoff [to] spills and pesticides (all allowed by the state and used as a last resort, says Halloran), and that mix is difficult to purify. Any misfire in the purification process could leave nutrient solution or pesticides in the recirculated water and place plants at risk.
This shift toward a drain-to-waste system doesn’t preclude the company from returning to its original plan, should it find a way of ensuring clean water. All necessary plumbing for a recirculation system is already installed. “The hardware’s there; the drains all go to a sump, and we have the capabilities of pumping out of that sump into whatever sort of future filtration system we are to install to re-utilize that water,” Kispert says. Shechter adds that having “a straight drain-to-waste system kind of simplifies the operations in a time where there’s a lot going on” during construction.
Resource conservation remains a priority at Buckeye, though. The Buckeye team decided that since it wasn’t going to recirculate waste-water, it could recapture the condensate from its HVAC units. “At full capacity, we will be using around 10,000 gallons of water a day,” Halloran says, “but recapturing around 6,000 of that out of the air, cleaning it and recirculating it.”
The CO2 system also had to be redesigned from the original plan. “We had initially planned for a self-generating CO2 system, but we decided to go with a more conventional CO2 bulk-tank distribution manifold system that’s directly injected into our HVAC system,” Shechter says. “It was just something that was much simpler, cost effective, [and] worry free.”
Most of the deviations were minor in the grand scheme of things, Rayburn says. “Because of all that early planning, the construction process was really as smooth as a construction could be.”
The Buckeye team’s goal was to begin planting seeds by Aug. 1. However, in May, many cultivation rooms remained under construction. The nursery, for instance, was mostly bare when Kispert joined the team. “I actually personally wound up building most of the stuff in the nursery,” he says.
Because of his prior relationship with CropKing, Kispert decided to use his former employer’s vertical racks and fertigation system for Buckeye’s upstart plants. The fertigation system is called a fertroller, which is “like a peristaltic-based nutrient delivery system that does all the watering, fertilizer [and] dosing,” Kispert says.
Biggest challenge in caring for cannabis: “Balancing being proactive and reactive. We grew from seed, so we have to react quickly to the plants’ needs instead of being able to anticipate and plan ahead for water, nutrients and pruning.
“Scheduling, time-management and organization. We are getting better and more efficient each time we perform a task, flip a room, etc.
“[Also,] lack of support from established university plant disease and diagnostic clinics that other horticulturists would readily have access to.”
Something people don’t realize about operating a cultivation operation: “That it most closely resembles operating a pharmaceutical company.”
What helps you sleep at night: “Knowing we are on our way to being one of the best cannabis facilities in the state and achieving some of the very high goals we set for ourselves two years ago.”
Ridder environmental control systems (ECS) control the rest of the cultivation areas. Buckeye chose Ridder for a variety of reasons: The ECS company was the friendliest during talks, its system was the most customizable, in Shechter’s view, and its North America headquarters is 30 minutes from Buckeye’s facility, enabling Ridder to send techs rapidly should problems arise, Shechter says.
One design aspect that didn’t change was the mineral salt fertilizer system. Using a hydroponic mineral salt system allows Buckeye to dial in milligrams of nutrients per liter of water. That, in combination with a rockwool growing media, gives Buckeye full control of the fertigation process, Shechter says. “Rockwool doesn’t really have any kind of ion exchange capacity. It’s kind of a total inert blank slate.”
Working with a hydroponic system in an indoor cultivation environment leaves little room for error. “It’s a wonderful thing that we’re controlling everything that the plant gets,” Shechter says. “But it’s also a scary thing … because if a piece of equipment goes out, like the lighting or the HVAC units or the CO2 or the irrigation, and it doesn’t receive that part of the pie, then the plants can really suffer for it.”
To avoid catastrophe (such as losing an entire flower room to a mechanical issue), Buckeye integrated an alarm into its ECS. The ECS knows the amount of CO2, water and nutrients that need to be pumped into each room and flower bed. If one aspect of the system fails, like a plugged emitter or a closed valve, and the computer can’t disperse the needed nutrient, the cultivation team receives a notification on their computers and mobile devices. “You just cannot run an indoor grow without a sophisticated alarm package or you’re asking for a lot of issues,” Shechter says.
The watering system also has a redundancy: a duplex pumping system. If one pump burns out, the other can keep water circulating while the team fixes or replaces the defective pump.
Rayburn spared no expense in designing and building his facility. “If there was an option that would allow us to grow better, higher-quality plants—for example … a new system to control rooms … or a new lighting option, a new rack option—we went for the highest technology, the most efficient equipment that we could get,” Rayburn says.
“We weren’t looking at this as an investment” with a quick return, Halloran says. “We were looking at this as a business.”
That time, energy and financial investment allowed Buckeye Relief’s team to finish construction one day ahead of schedule and plant its first seeds July 30, 2018.
Editor’s note: Read part-II of this series, documenting Buckeye Relief’s first crop and harvest, in the January 2019 issue of Cannabis Business Times.
The best fertilizer and pesticide is the gardener’s shadow, and that is especially true where pesticide use on cannabis is tightly restricted or prohibited. Good cultivation directors develop pest management programs that allocate a significant amount of time into staff scouting in order to catch outbreaks before they become disasters. The key to effective scouting, it turns out, is just a little SOAP.
Whether performed by a lone grower or many hands in a commercial facility, pest management boils down to obtaining information, followed by understanding and acting on that information. This is how most process-management systems are structured. The acronym “SOAP” is a simple way to remember what a pest scouting program should look like.
Before Kerrie was a horticulturist and CBT columnist, she was a nurse. It was as a nurse that she was introduced to a human diagnostic protocol called SOAP, which stands for: Subjective, Objective, Assessment and Planning.
In nursing, SOAP is aimed at helping students diagnose and react to human maladies. Kerrie recognized the principle could be applied to cultivation to not only teach new hires to become effective scouts, but also to form the core of the pest management programs we designed for our clients when regulated cannabis came around.
S – Subjective symptoms provide clues to what problem is being observed. The clues may be weak (“There’s a discoloration”) or strong (“This frass proves pests are present”), but they do not allow for definitive pest identification. Plant growth issues can be difficult to diagnose, given that numerous problems produce similar symptoms, and an under-fed plant can be symptom-free, yet still not produce the desired yield. Pictures are the best way to capture visually noticeable subjective symptoms. They can be shared so that multiple people can help with identification, if necessary.
O – Objective symptoms are definite. When a pest is seen that matches the description for twospotted spider mites, for example, that is an objective observation. Measurements and locations are also objective. The infected area where pests were found can be indicated on a scouting map. Subjective and objective symptoms together provide a pest-pressure snapshot, and that picture is what is used to determine if action is required to keep pests and diseases within operational limits.
Scouts need pest identification training, but they don’t need to be entomologists to be good at spotting and identifying pests and diseases. However, an operation does need to provide staff with reference material so that everyone consistently receives the same training. After identification, the pests’ location and infestation’s extent should be documented to make a pest-pressure assessment.
When this data is gathered over time, it paints a dynamic picture. By capturing data daily, the speed at which pests go from unseen to uncontrollable becomes breathtakingly clear and will prove how important intensive daily scouting is to keep pests at bay.
Operation managers ask daily questions about pest pressures such as, “How much of it is there? Is it spreading? Where did it come from?” Subjective and objective symptoms serve as the primary answers to these questions. To acquire that data, someone must spend time with the plants and document what he or she finds.
A – Assessment of symptoms can be performed by scouts or by the head grower, as long as the assessment outcome is communicated appropriately throughout the organization. Smaller producers don’t have four levels of management and a staff of 50, so one person is responsible for pest management and he or she must conduct the assessment. Large-scale producers have multiple scouts feeding them information, so the assessment process needs more structure to aggregate the inputs for inspection and analysis.
A post-scouting team meeting where all scouts share what they have encountered is the easiest form of assessment. The assessment is made there and then by whomever or whatever group has responsibility. More detailed assessment processes can be implemented when required, but assessment slows response time, so keep the process dynamic.
Assessment is where scouting data is weighed to determine the level of exposure to the company and what, if anything, needs to be done to reduce that exposure. This is where having experience with different problems helps growers anticipate whether a problem is getting worse or better.
At Otoké Horticulture, we develop our tools and they evolve over time. The following link shows an early version of a SOAP chart we had developed, as well as a history of SOAP charting: bit.ly/otoke-resources.
Data means nothing without a reference, whether that reference is research-driven or anecdotal. An outbreak that covers 5 percent of the canopy may be a manageable incident if experience has shown that treatments at this infestation level have been proven generally effective. On the other hand, if 5-percent infestations have been seen before and the results were negative, then the team is looking at a time-sensitive (and potentially huge) problem. Assessment is where the grower’s experience pays dividends.
The best example of that payoff is when botrytis is found. Botrytis spreads so fast that the response to it must be automatic. Botrytis demands careful and immediate removal of obvious infected plants, and the remaining crop must be harvested quickly and brought under quarantine into a dry environment until it is cleared of any further infection. Botrytis doesn’t respect growing schedules. Expect to lose yield because to cut losses, the crop is coming down before it can finish.
Experience informs growers on what pest population levels can be present without posing a threat to supply or quality. That level may be different from operation to operation. Flower production demands the lowest pest levels, as appearance is a key quality metric in that market segment. Plants headed to extraction can tolerate higher infestation levels, as appearance is less important. In extraction, the limiting factor may be more of question of: At what infestation level does a powdery mildew outbreak create contamination issues in extracted product?
P – Planning is the final step in the protocol. At this stage, managers ensure that any deviation from normal control practice is properly planned and communicated before it is executed. If a new knockdown pesticide is to be tried on an outbreak, all responsible parties—from operations, cultivation, safety and compliance—must have a say. The idea behind including so many people is to leverage everyone’s experience and to instill a feeling of part ownership of managing the operation. The planning process itself can be evaluated by keeping track of mistakes made during planned production changes and emergency actions.
Regardless of implementation—whether it be a piece of paper, white board or software application—the SOAP protocol captures data about what is seen on the production floor. Scouts need to be educated in what they are looking for before they can begin scouting. That education should be part of the operation’s new staff onboarding program.
Intensive scouting requires scouts to be able to quickly and easily document what they see and where. The basic documentation consists of a map on which the scout indicates the area of infestation found and the pests or symptoms observed. Supporting that mapping is a cheat-sheet with pests, diseases and symptoms.
Scouting a cannabis room is a lot like searching for a needle in a haystack; finding pests before they can damage the crop requires laser focus. If a scout always walks through a room in one direction, he or she sees only one angle of the crop and can miss symptoms that might be seen if walking the other way. We suggest alternating directions to give scouts that much more of a chance of catching outbreaks earlier.
Time also influences a scout’s effectiveness. If a scout is pressed for time, there is a good chance he or she might rush the scouting process in order to complete other tasks by day’s end. Symptoms cannot be seen if the scout doesn’t look, so time is gold in scouting. Pest management education is the best way to equip staff with the background needed to perform stellar scouting before turning them loose.
Getting pests and diseases under control is hard work. When clients have shown us bad outbreaks, our first question is always, “How did they let that get out of control?” The answer almost always has been, “We didn’t see them,” or, “We didn’t realize how bad it was.” In cultivation, those are unacceptable answers—especially when all it might take to clean up pest problems is a little SOAP.
Kerrie & Kurt Badertscher are co-owners of Otoké Horticulture, LLC and authors of “Cannabis for Capitalists.” firstname.lastname@example.org
Cannabis Business Times’ new recurring series catches up with past cover story subjects about their businesses today, lessons learned and market trends that are impacting and exciting cultivators most.
Formerly the CEO of Illinois-based Revolution Enterprises (and cover subject of CBT’s November/December 2016 issue), Tim McGraw left the Midwest to pursue real estate opportunities in cannabis’ biggest market: California. In this quick-paced interview, McGraw shares insight into how he created his newest venture, Canna-Hub (a cannabis-zoned real estate development company housing a variety of cannabis businesses), offers tips on how growers should approach and negotiate real estate licenses and identifies pitfalls to avoid when purchasing property.
Tim McGraw: The rebranding part wasn’t that difficult: Once I identified the biggest opportunity in the U.S. cannabis market for my particular skill set, I created the company and the brand, found the money, and here I am. Fortunately over the years I have become fairly well-known in the industry, which opens a lot of doors and smoothed the transition. The Canna-Hub model is a natural progression of my involvement in the cannabis industry based on my experience in real estate, finance and cannabis operations. I saw an opportunity to apply my expertise in a large and explosive market here in California, and my early assumptions have proven out.
McGraw: [When] you can build a community with shared interests, you are stronger together. In addition to saving our operators millions, due to a 0-percent [municipal] revenue tax [negotiated by Canna-Hub prior to construction] and the efficiency of dozens of operators in one location, we are excited about the collaboration that will happen in our communities. When you bring together some of the brightest minds in the industry, innovation happens. Canna-Hub campuses will be occupied by dozens of top-tier brands that, through competition and collaboration, will advance the science and social impact of cannabis. Steel sharpens steel, and competition is healthy.
McGraw: First things first—build a support team that covers all your bases, including legal, construction, finance, etc., and be well prepared. Demonstrating how the community will benefit, what you have done to minimize any perceived negative impacts and why your group is the right partner are imperative. Be able to demonstrate that you have done your due diligence, and the community can be confident you won’t make it look bad. Also, don’t overlook optics. How you present yourself is important. Many cities or counties equate cannabis with “stoners” or “burnouts.” Professional presentations, blueprints, renderings and appearance will help to defeat the stoner stereotype that unfortunately still exists. Obviously, don’t go to a city council meeting stoned, wearing flip flops and tie-dye.
McGraw: High taxes and councils that aren’t fully on board. You also need to closely evaluate things like infrastructure, environmental reports and additional local regulations. Do your research: power, water, data, sewer, environmental concerns, fine print in the local ordinance. Before you sign on the line, you need clarity on how much all of it will cost you on scale and how long the time line is. All these issues can be terminal to your project. If you don’t identify issues and create solutions early on, you can waste months or years and lots of money.
The Farm’s head of cultivation sheds light on the future of craft producers as well as the company’s organic practices.
The Farm is Boulder’s best recreational dispensary, at least according to Boulder Weekly’s “Best of Boulder,” which has ranked The Farm as the city’s top marijuana shop every year since 2015. Having a caring, attentive staff and a clean, safe environment can (and does) help create loyal dispensary customers and generate positive press; but at the end of the day, product quality is what ultimately keeps people from seeking greener pastures.
This fact is not lost on The Farm, which is why the vertically integrated craft cannabis company chooses to grow its own flower and goes to great lengths to ensure it is producing exceptional cannabis. The Farm uses multiple small bloom rooms, keeps growers assigned to the same rooms throughout the entire flower cycle, applies only organic pesticides and fungicides, and treats drying and curing as an art form.
Head of Cultivation John Billings oversees the company’s two 10,000-square-foot indoor grow facilities. He spoke with Cannabis Business Times about The Farm’s hybrid hydroponic growing techniques, how not being able to label products “organic” hurts marketing efforts, the ways in which the dispensary and grow cooperate, and much more in this quick look behind the scenes at The Farm.
John Billings: We grow in [Royal Gold] Tupur, which is ground coconut husk with forest humus mixed in, and it is a very simple mix—it’s already premixed. We like this mixture because it allows for frequent watering feedings, increases the oxygen flow around the rhizosphere (the region of soil in the vicinity of plant roots in which the chemistry and microbiology is influenced by their growth, respiration and nutrient exchange), and a more complex flavor profile to the end product.
Products Produced: Craft flower, seeds, live resin, CO2 hash oil, CO2 and distillate hash oil Airo Pro cartridges
Billings: Due to the local regulations at the time, a cannabis grow facility couldn’t be over 10,000 square feet. This is the reason for having two 10,000-square-[foot] facilities next to one another. That said, we didn’t have the funds to construct the buildings from scratch; therefore, we were forced to find space for lease. It’s hard because the facility can’t have a bank loan. Most banks don’t allow landlords to rent to the cannabis industry because cannabis is federally illegal. Also, we wanted the facility, ideally, to be freestanding with no other tenants due to possible smell penetration in adjacent units. We found this facility, which is owned outright by the landlord, is freestanding, and it was the size needed to supply pretty much 100 percent of our flower that we sell at The Farm, thus satisfying all our criteria.
Billings: With any design, it definitely takes some creativity, and you have to forecast for the future. The amount of bloom rooms was determined by a ratio of bloom to vegetative and mother stock grow space, and trying to section that out appropriately. Along with that, there were optimal efficiencies such as labor, utility usage and growth cycle length scheduling that went into consideration. If you are strict about a nine-week growth cycle, which is pretty much what it takes [to complete the flowering cycle], and [you want an additional] week for harvest, you would build a facility with 10 rooms.
This facility—although split into two sides—acts as one, and it has eight bloom rooms—four on each side. Having eight rooms gives us the flexibility with some strains needing shorter and longer growth cycles to grow each strain to its optimal state of maturity. But having multiple rooms also allows for full-time employment of a specifically designated crew. We have an entire team designated to the grow department. We also have a whole crew that is just the harvest department that assures that the product is handled with care.
Our rooms are, on average, about 700 square feet and hold around 130 plants. There are many factors that decide the actual plant count in these grow rooms. Some of these factors might be type of strain, growth pattern, size of plants in relation to growth cycle. Other factors might be environmental controls, lighting needs of the strains and even nutrients, or a combination.
Billings: Having just a grow department and just a few people designated to certain sides of the facility or certain rooms actually makes staffing easier because growers are designated to certain rooms and areas, and that allows for more consistent overall care for each batch that we grow.
Also, we try to keep the same strains in each room, and this allows for that grower to know how each strain grows and what the plant likes or doesn’t like, and identify issues quicker.
Since opening operations, all our cultivation department does is cultivate. We have been working together for years. I’ve worked with some of these guys six, eight, going on nine years. This has allowed for us to grow together (figuratively and literally) and help each other not lose sight of our craft and our culture. We all carry a great amount of passion for what we do. Scheduling is not an issue when you have the level of dedication that we have created here.
Billings: The use of organic pesticides and biocontrols, which are predator insects—they’re also referred to as “bene bugs” or beneficial insects—that’s the vital core of our integrated pest management, or IPM. By following a strict IPM regimen, we’ve greatly reduced the number of pathogens and issues in our cultivation facilities.
Billings: Having SOPs is great, but if you do not have the personnel that can execute these practices, they’re useless. So, it starts with the personnel because growing cannabis is a craft, and each strain is unique and requires skill to grow it well. Once you have the personnel, the SOPs help with growing each strain well and consistently every time, so you have that level of consistency that is apparent.
Billings: All our flowers are dried and cured in a specifically designed temperature- and humidity-controlled room. First, the plant is dried. Once dried, the flower is placed into curing containers where it will slowly be breathed (by allowing air to enter the containers for brief periods throughout the day) for four to six weeks, which is the measurement of “slow cured.” Once cured, the flower is packed into sealed bags until shipped to the store. Each strain cures until both smell and moisture levels reach standards set internally. These are documented practices that have been created over time through experience with quality and compliance in mind to help produce only the best cured flower possible. We do use a moisture meter to ensure accuracy. We take this step seriously and believe it is one of the main reasons for our product’s quality.
Billings: Sales drive cultivation here at The Farm. From a grower’s standpoint, it sure would be easier just to grow what we want, but what we think everybody wants, really isn’t what everybody wants. We’ve had that free rein before in the past, and it doesn’t work like that. At The Farm, about every eight weeks the menu changes because of rotational strain production. The mainstays—Alpha Blue, Super Lemon Haze, Starfighter and Ghost Trainwreck Haze 9— stay on the menu, and new alternate strains are available for purchase. Based on sales, these rotational strains can become mainstays. The mainstays are where the demand is. The mainstays are our most popular and what we grow the most of. So, The Farm’s flower menu is used to create a production plan. The production plan designates strains to a specific room and a specific number of tables.
We started that a few years ago. We started really paying attention to sales at the retail location, getting feedback and eliminating low yielders and low-sellers. We started really focusing on what the consumer wants, and that’s where we’ve found greater success.
For genetics or strains, our main data points are yield, potency, issue history and sale. They’re all related in some way. For instance, if a strain yields high, but has a low potency, it will most likely have poor sales. Another example would be if sales are great, but the yield is low, that will most likely have a high cost to grow, so we wouldn’t do that.
Billings: It’s kind of like craft beer; I think there will always be a place for small-batch cannabis.
The market will inevitably evolve, as all markets do, and depending on the direction the federal government takes, as well as big players like Canada, we’ll have to make sure we stay relevant and highlight the quality and care that we take with our methods, genetics and products. Although it will always come down to price and quality, it will be up to us to figure out where craft exists in this equation and how to differentiate ourselves.
Billings: Absolutely. Although the regulatory framework allows for some freedom in marketing, it is in a very limiting way, especially in Boulder, where we are. The fact that this is still a federally illegal product taints the ability to express our methods and care in a way that could drive attention and sales. Although we only use organic practices when it comes to our integrated pest management, it’s a challenge to explain what we do in a digestible way. Other industries just say they’re organic, and the consumer base understands at a certain level what that means. Other producers could use a multitude of other techniques and potentially harmful chemicals, and our marketing could appear very similar.
The Farm has continuously provided clean, safe cannabis for Boulder for the last nine years. We have always tried to stay true to our culture, and we plan to continue that tradition by finding creative ways to educate and share that with the public.
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