Diary of a visitor: experiencing the seed-to-sale process, step-by-step

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Cannabis is big business, but it is also a step-by-step process. And that process of taking a single seed to growing it into the plant that will land in retail stores or online, is in-depth. All this is fairly new, at least on the commercial level.

“If you were to hire a consultant who grew tomatoes, he would say, ‘This is the plant food we’ve had the best results with, this is the operating temperature and this is the way to grow a great crop of tomatoes,’” says Edwin Jewell, president of PEI-based grower, FIGR.

“We’ve been growing cannabis commercially for such a short period of time [for the industry, commercial growing didn’t begin until 2013] that I don’t think anyone can say definitively that we’ve got this nailed down. In addition to that, different licensed producers (LPs) can have different styles of growing and you both can have a great crop,” Jewell says.

So while LPs are still growing in size—many are concurrently building larger facilities—they’re working through the kinks as they go along. But what is good to know is there are fairly strict standards in place at each facility—whether put there by Health Canada, which is not against carrying out random, unannounced stop-ins at facilities, or by the brands themselves. These stringent regulations are there to ensure the quality of the cannabis is where Health Canada and the LPs want it to be.

The seed-to-sale process, reflecting requirements and best practices, helps to ensure that goal is achieved. Here’s what everyone should know about the process.

The licence requirements

At this point, most people know that they need a licence to grow cannabis in Canada. But what most may not know is that to grow commercially, several licences are required. An applicant must go through Health Canada to obtain separate permits to grow cannabis, sell cannabis, extract from the cannabis plant and then to sell those extracts. That makes four licences in all.

The grow facility

Depending on the scale of the facility, the number of staff and the LP’s operating procedures, each complex may look similar, but be quite different. At 7ACRES, based in Kincardine, Ont., the company currently employs about 350 people—with plans to expand to more than 500 when construction on the facility wraps, expected later in 2019—and each person entering the facility is subject to strict procedures to help prevent any type of contamination inside.

In line with industry practices, these measures include washing shoes before entering, exchanging street clothes for freshly laundered uniforms and wearing hair (and beard) nets, protective glasses, shoe covers and gloves (if touching any plants). That sort of strict adherence is unlikely anything new to 7ACRES’ general manager, in essence the head of operations, who served as manager of the Bruce Power nuclear generating station for about 30 years until 2016.

“We have implemented many procedures that go above and beyond Health Canada’s requirements in order to mitigate potential contamination of plants and avoid potential biosecurity risks,” says John Fowler, president and founder of Supreme Cannabis, 7ACRES’ parent company. “The creation of zonal boundaries and additional personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements are unique to 7ACRES, along with daily issued uniforms and safety shoes,” Fowler reports.

BuddingPlant 534x306 Diary of a visitor: experiencing the seed to sale process, step by step

Budding cannabis plant; Photo courtesy of FIGR

At FIGR’s Charlottetown-based plant—also partially under construction, with plans to add about 200 employees to its current roster of 38 when the facility is at full capacity in 2019—security measures are just as strict, but feel a bit more relaxed. Like 7ACRES, there are cameras on either side of every door, a visitor’s pass is needed to get anywhere in the building and the pass must be swiped to enter or exit every room. Booties are also required, but plastic coveralls rather than a complete change of clothes, are acceptable.

Inside both facilities, it feels like a cross between walking through a car production plant and a state-of-the-art greenhouse; with employees seeming genuinely happy and good vibes all around.

The birthing ritual

GettyImages 901526688 534x306 Diary of a visitor: experiencing the seed to sale process, step by step

LPs will select and nurture the particular plant that will become the mother plant OlegMalyshev / iStock / Getty Images Plus

LPs start growing their plants from seeds, where they select and nurture the particular plant that will become the mother plant, also known as propagation. From there, they take what is called clippings from the mother to begin cultivating multiples. The mother plant serves as the beginning of each batch of cannabis, which ensures each brand’s strains remain consistent.

Each mother will last about six months to a year, allowing LPs time to gather and store back-up seeds for when they need to create new mother plants. Those clones will then go through a few more key steps, as below, before making it to the packaging stage.

The germination, flowering and more

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Cannabis leaf in front on many plants; Photo courtesy of FIGR

Once plants have been clipped or cloned, they’re brought into a germination or tissue room. They are replanted into test tubes, a sugar, salt and charcoal jelly—used to help them stand up and take root, although this depends on the preference of each LP’s vegetation specialist—or the like, where the plants start showing their roots. They stay for a little more than a week, depending on how quickly each plant takes to root (usually about 11 to 14 days). Once roots form, the baby plants are transferred into what is called a vegetative room, where they are nurtured into more mature plants for another two to three weeks.

“After about four weeks in the vegetative stage, the plants are then exposed to a unique light cycle—what we call the flowering stage,” Blake Fischer, head grower at Aphria, explained in an email response to The GrowthOp. “At this stage in the process, the modified lighting regime combined with regular watering triggers the plant’s natural flowering cycle and it begins to produce ‘flowers’, also known as buds.” In the vegetative room, plants are exposed to 18 hours of light each day, but once in the flowering room, are treated to 12 hours a day.

Throughout both processes, each room is kept at a base temperature—usually about 24 C—with specified humidity and C02 (carbon dioxide) levels. These vary in line with the conditions of each grow facility, but generally stay the same so the plant can achieve optimal growth.

At 7ACRES, the company currently has 11 flowering rooms, each measuring 10,000 sq ft. The total will expand to 30-plus flowering rooms later in 2019.

The LP also has one room dedicated to its mother plant—Fowler estimates there are 1,000-plus mother plants growing in a 10,000 sq. foot room—to ensure there will be enough clippings to keep the supply chain going. “We keep our production mothers for 112 days, taking three production crops off and clip new mother lots off of them,” Fowler explains.

It is similar at other LPs in that 7ACRES will have multiple mother plants growing at any given time to satisfy the company’s needs. The plants remain in the flowering rooms for approximately eight to 12 weeks—again, this varies by LP—until they are ready to be harvested.

With Health Canada’s introduction of nursery licences in the Cannabis Act, in future, clones and mother plants could move out of LP’s facilities and, instead, be supplied by nurseries, thereby allowing LP’s related square footage to be repurposed for growing.

The harvesting and packaging

When the plants are ready to be harvested, they are moved to another room where the buds are trimmed by hand. After being removed from their stalks and cleaned up, the buds are then dried. At 7ACRES, there is a hang drying system that fills a 10,000 sq ft room, while at FIGR, cannabis is dried in perforated trays for approximately four days.

At this point, most of the cannabis is vacuum-sealed in large bags and stored in an environmentally stable room—takes into account factors such as temperature, humidity and light—until an order is received. This is unlikely to take very long, especially given demand.

Once the order is processed, the buds are brought into another room to be prepped for packaging, where they’re placed inside plastic bottles or containers and sealed with a government-issued stamp. Depending on the order size, packaging typically takes two to four days, the delivery is put onto a truck and, last, is sent to the corresponding provincial depot.

The sustainability

GettyImages 176995890 534x306 Diary of a visitor: experiencing the seed to sale process, step by step

Most cannabis is vacuum-sealed in large bags and stored in an environmentally stable room until an order is received rubenkh / iStock / Getty Images Plus

“If you look at the regulations that all of us, as LPs, operate under, even though, some, perhaps, couldn’t say they were organic, you can’t really use any traditional pesticides,” Jewell says. “The fungicides that we would use to combat mildew are things like ground-up garlic, or potassium sulphate, or things that are organic in nature—they’re bio-fungicides. For pest control, we use beneficial insects, where you put a little pooch on the plant and the good insects crawl out and establish themselves, so if the bad guys show up, the good guys are there first and they have a population built up to attack the pests. That’s about as organic as you can get in terms of looking after powdery mildew, the main concern when it comes to cannabis.”

Beneficial insects are also in play at 7ACRES, and each LP has other ways it likes to work sustainably. “We have to put a great product to market, and we have to be compliant [with Health Canada],” says Fowler, adding that the environment is a major priority for the brand. “The reason we chose to grow in coco coir, for example, rather than rockwool, is that it’s a more sustainable resource and it’s compostable. We were able to find plastic bands that went around the coco coir that are recyclable, so we worked through stuff like that.”

As the company grows, Fowler says one of the goals is to keep its energy consumption levels the same as they are now, even with the higher volume of production.

Over at Aphria’s plant in Leamington, Ont., the LP will grow 98 percent of its cannabis on site at its state-of-the-art greenhouse, which the company reports uses about one-twelfth the energy as standard grow facilities.

Aphria does not run lights every day of the year. In fact, for most of the sunny summer months, lights may not run at all, with the exception of flowering, vegetative lights running at some part of everyday, the company reports.  In an indoor grow facility, the lights produce a significant amount of heat, which requires cooling to control and stabilize the growing environment, contributing to increased energy usage, the information adds.

The company captures and cleans out any CO2 that would make it into the environment and reuses it in the growing process. Also, like 7ACRES and FIGR, it composts all of its plant waste.

One thing that is clear is along with the strict rules the federal government has in place, when it comes to the mass production of this once-prohibited plant, most LPs are willing and able to go above and beyond these restrictions, adopting their own rules to help distinguish them from the next guy.

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