New principles of greenhouse crop management have emerged from Dutch horticulture industry experts and scientists from Wageningen University, a Netherlands institution recognized for its agricultural science program. Hundreds of Dutch growers have been trained in greenhouse climate control practices called Growing by Plant Empowerment (GPE), fundamentals of which have been outlined in a 2018 book, “Plant Empowerment” and in related online tools at Letsgrow.com.
The methods presented in the book diverge from our understanding of greenhouse climate control. They remind us that plants are physical objects subject to the laws of thermodynamics in addition to being biological organisms. Rather than focus climate control on static air temperature and humidity or vapor pressure deficit (VPD) targets, GPE controls the growth and flowering processes based on three balances: the energy balance, the water balance and the assimilates balance. Assimilates are the sugars made during photosynthesis that are used for growth. The three balances are managed simultaneously and kept in equilibrium by the tiny pores in leaves called stomata that allow water vapor to be evaporated and carbon dioxide to be absorbed. In effect, GPE is about managing the stomata rather than the environment per se, keeping the pores in open position to maximize photosynthesis and evaporation.
Though developed for greenhouse vegetable and flower growers in drier northern climates not found in much of the U.S., some controlled environment ag experts agree that GPE may be well-suited for U.S. cannabis production. Cannabis responds very well to greenhouse tomato temperature and nutrient protocols and can be illuminated similar to roses grown for cut flowers, which have a thick canopy of petals, according to an article in Greenhouse Management magazine (CBT’s sister publication). Routinely, news stories highlight large-scale greenhouses being built or converted for cannabis in North America. A 2019 CBT study found that 43% of cultivators who participated in the research plan to build greenhouses in the next two years. Yet many growers have privately told me they struggle with product uniformity and quality control when comparing their greenhouse operations to their indoor grows.
GPE emphasizes plant health, fruit or flower quality and resistance to stress and disease. This results in predictable yields despite the dynamic nature of greenhouse environments. Energy savings may also be possible but are considered a bonus.
GPE in a Nutshell
Greenhouse control is based on supporting the three plant balances rather than conditioning the air to certain setpoints. Instead of a fixed temperature regime, setpoints are adjusted according to predicted daily light integral (DLI) to create a more constant ratio of temperature to radiation in order to balance growth. The emphasis is placed on growing at warmer temperatures. During sunny periods, rather than increasing ventilation or mechanical cooling, temperature and humidity are allowed to increase in the greenhouse to keep stomata open for CO2 absorption, maximizing photosynthesis. Under high light and enriched CO2, most plants’ optimum temperature is 86 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the white paper “Next Generation Growing: Plant empowerment and plant balances.”
The “Plant Empowerment” book’s authors use the term evaporation to encompass both water transpiring from stomata and evaporating from micropores in the leaves, and the GPE methods seek to avoid interruptions in this flow of water vapor from the plant. Heating pipes or warm air currents are used in the absence of light at night. To keep up with water demand, irrigation is triggered based on all energy flows (light, heat, convection, evaporation) rather than just light. This emphasis on evaporation is to keep water and mobile nutrients such as calcium flowing to the plants’ growing points.
The authors also state that without night ventilation, plant cells can be damaged by root pressure (water turgor) building up, creating sites for possible fungal infection. Diseases seldom occur due to poor climate conditions exclusively, they report, but rather because the sub-optimal conditions combined with disturbances in the plant balances lead to lower resiliency. For example, disease is prevented by avoiding condensation that occurs when leaf temperature drops below dew point. This is accomplished with thermal screens to block radiation of heat energy from the plant to a colder object, such as the greenhouse roof. This method is based on the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy can’t be created or destroyed. It can only be converted into another form of energy.
Maintaining a balance of photosynthetic assimilates in the plant is paramount in the GPE methodology. Photosynthesis increases along with light radiation up to a point called the light saturation point. Cannabis has a light saturation point of 1500 µmol/m2/s, according to multiple reports, but can be as high as 2000. (Even a greenhouse in summer sunlight is unlikely to reach this point, so light stress should not be a concern.) Under these high-light conditions, photosynthesis can be enhanced by increasing humidity to keep stomata open for CO2 absorption. According to GPE, rather than cooling the greenhouse, temperature should be allowed to rise to speed the biochemical reactions of photosynthesis, as long as water stress can be avoided.
But this is only one half of the balance. Now that the plant is maximizing creation of assimilates, the goal is to use these sugars immediately for growth, flowering or root production, rather than convert them to starch for storage. Accumulation of starch in the leaves can slow photosynthesis by regulating enzymes. Some sugars might also be converted to cellulose for heavier stems and leaves, which provide no value.
In essence, GPE calls for the use of light to make sugar and heat to forge that sugar into new material. On the other hand, growers don’t want this high-temperature regimen during dim conditions, as the plant may need more assimilates for “everyday maintenance” of the leaves and cellular apparatus than the plant can make under low light, resulting in cessation of growth and lack of resilience.
Given the dynamic nature of greenhouse environments, how do growers balance the production and usage of assimilates? Cultivators have traditionally observed their crops and lowered light or nitrogen to stop excessive vegetative growth, and lowered temperature for excessive flowering. These reactive measures are a poor way to steer a crop toward a successful yield. GPE provides proactive methods that render more predictable, uniform yields by maintaining a more constant ratio of temperature to radiation. First, environmental control systems with photosynthetically active radiation, or PAR, sensors can track and estimate DLI, and growers can program temperatures to then increase with increasing predicted DLI. Additionally, night temperatures can be adjusted to dial in the proper 24-hour temperature once that day’s DLI has been locked in. Determining the target temperature follows the formula: Target Temperature = 18 + (2 x DLI/10) with 18 being the base temperature in Celsius for a dark day. A more typical DLI of 40 for cannabis would have a temperature of 26 degrees Celsius (78.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The GPE authors give examples of when to adjust this formula for challenging conditions. For example, in very hot climates or seasons, the baseline temperature of 18 degrees Celsius could be shifted upward to 20 degrees Celsius to account for the difficulty of cooling the greenhouse environment and to lessen fluctuations when cooling cycles on and off. (Note: This same formula might prove useful for determining DLI targets as you lower temperatures near harvest.)
It is also important to consider the plant load, which, in the case of cannabis, is defined as the number of plants per square meter and the number of flowers per plant. Can the assimilates the plants are producing actually sustain the number of flowers you hope to yield? Though no recommendations have been devised for cannabis, GPE principles suggest that it is best to use low plant loads with high temperature regimes to maximize quality and produce predictable, uniform yields. Higher plant loads would require lower temperatures, negating the benefits of the higher temperatures described previously. If both plant load (flower canopy) and temperatures are high, growth and flower yield may be diminished due to competition for assimilates for maintenance.
As far as equipment, assimilates production also can be improved by increasing light or light interception, using more lights, intracanopy lighting, light-diffusing roof and wall panels, or light-diffusing shade screens inside the structure. Diffusing light improves penetration into the lower foliage, according to a 2015 research paper published by Frontiers in Plant Science. This prevents lower leaves from turning from sources of photosynthetic assimilates to “sinks” (organs that use them up).
The “Plant Empowerment” authors also discuss “energy balance,” which refers to the four different types of energy flows: light, heat, convection by air currents and evaporation. These four energy flows can be measured, and their values must add up to zero, according to the law of conservation of energy. Plants can’t make their own light (that we can observe easily) or heat, so these can only be energy inputs toward the plant.
A key insight of GPE is that water evaporation through micropores in the leaf and through stomata themselves occurs at night and should be encouraged. The authors cite data that a full-grown tomato crop evaporates 25 g/m² of water overnight, and American Society of Plant Biologists research shows transpiration via stomata can be up to 30% of daytime rates, though the function of this water loss is still unknown. As much as this nocturnal evaporation challenges conventional wisdom—and as troubling as this sounds for humidity control concerns—that evaporative flow is bringing water and nutrients, particularly calcium, to the tips of the plant. It also relieves root pressure that results in cell damage to the edges of young leaves and guttation droplets—a recipe for possible fungal infection. But it requires energy to perform. Evaporation of water requires 2.3 megajoules (MJ)/kilo of energy, according to data from the Engineering ToolBox. Without light, plants need energy from other sources to evaporate. Convection currents occur from heat rising off heating pipes or tubes or from heated air moving through the greenhouse. If the temperature of this convective air flow is warmer than the plants, that energy can be absorbed and used for evaporation.
Heat emission is when one body radiates infrared radiation to a cooler body until they are both in equilibrium. Plants emit heat toward a cooler greenhouse roof or light deprivation curtain at night, losing energy that could otherwise be used to sustain evaporative flow. Furthermore, heat emission can cause the plant to cool, possibly below the dew point of the greenhouse air, allowing condensation to form on the leaf surfaces. Preventing heat emission involves closing energy curtains to create a barrier between the roof and the plants or the surrounding light deprivation cloth. The book authors cite a study indicating the decisive factor for botrytis infection of greenhouse gerbera daisies was heat emission and lack of movement under the light-deprivation screen, rather than high relative humidity. Could this be the case in flowering cannabis?
Loss by heat emission also can be notable during early morning and evening in a greenhouse when the roof temperature is cool. Growers should open energy curtains long after sunrise and close them long before sunset. Just exactly when to open/close them would require measurements that can’t be made from the typical aspirated sensor box hanging in a greenhouse. The authors recommend a sensor called a pyrgeometer for outdoor weather stations and a net radiation sensor inside, which both measure heat emission. For tall crops, they recommend thermographic cameras that would “heat map” and quantify leaf surface temperatures along the length of the plant. Tops of the plant are often cooler due to heat emission and more likely to stop evaporating and form condensation, something to consider with tall strains. Detailed control advice for curtains and heating is provided in the “Plant Empowerment” book.
Water uptake must be balanced against evaporation to prevent drought stress and linked not only to sunlight but to other energy flows. These flows of light, heat, convection and evaporation can be accumulated in an energy sum to refine irrigation triggering, particularly by accounting for the night environment. Additionally, irrigation can be triggered by gravimetrics, or weight scales. For rockwool production, each day is divided into four periods with different objectives:
- Period 1 to refill the rockwool block or slab from overnight decrease
- Period 2 to maintain the volumetric water content and electrical conductivity (EC), dependent on the stage of growth
- Period 3 to maintain water content and control EC rise especially in bright afternoon light
- Period 4 to allow the water content to drop to night target level
“Plant Empowerment” and Letsgrow.com have detailed, real-world greenhouse climate graphs, thermographic diagrams of greenhouses to describe energy flows, design advice, plain-language summaries and chapters for getting started in small steps. Free online interactive tools show how changes in indoor or outdoor conditions impact the balances. Experts endorse the work, including a foreword by Gene Giacomelli of the University of Arizona’s Controlled Environment Agriculture Center. I am particularly intrigued by the capability of growing crops at high temperatures, as many cannabis fungal diseases are not infectious above 82 degrees Fahrenheit.
Many GPE concepts are geared toward massive, naturally ventilated greenhouses in The Netherlands, making translating to smaller, mechanically cooled greenhouses challenging and a potential shortcoming, though the authors state the concepts could be used for nearly any greenhouse and even for indoor vertical farms. Whether the principles work in more humid climates will also need to be investigated.
Robert Eddy is director of Ag Projects for Core Cannabis in East Lansing, Mich.
A good lighting system will result in both higher yields and lower energy consumption. But what’s good for one business may not be good for another—and a plethora of options can make selecting the right lighting system for your cannabis operation confusing.
For example, the right lighting design depends on factors such as the desired light intensity level, the layout of a cultivation environment, the available height and the light distribution of the luminaires. What's more, almost all horticulture lighting companies will provide light plans—but not all know or follow good design principles.
So, if you plan to rely on the recommendations of a lighting company, or if you want to start from scratch yourself, it’s valuable to familiarize yourself with some basic lighting principles. Here are eight principles to get you started.
1. Determine your target-level light intensity.
The optimal target level will depend on the growing strategy, plant stage, cultivar and electricity prices. Our research, as well as research conducted by the industry, suggests that level may be more than twice the light provided by a double-ended, 1,000W HPS fixture. So, if you’re growing in a greenhouse in the U.S. or Canada, odds are that the sun isn’t providing enough light to grow cannabis optimally most of the year. You should determine what the lighting deficit is in January, the darkest month. You’ll need to install enough lights to compensate for that deficit—unless you are willing to sacrifice yields during periods of the year with lower natural light levels.
2. Position lights to maintain even intensity across the canopy.
Place lights at heights and in locations relative to one another so that you provide, on average, your target light intensity to the canopy while minimizing variation in that light intensity. To clarify, imagine each of your lights is a showerhead that sprays water (i.e., light) onto your plants. When sprays (i.e., beams of light) from multiple showerheads cross each other, more water hits those spots. Your goal is to place those showerheads such that each plant receives close to your target level. Of course, some plants will get hit by more water, but you can place the showerheads such that those differences are minimized.
3. Buy a quantum sensor.
You can only evaluate a lighting system’s design and improve upon it if you can measure the amount of light the system delivers to your canopy. Quantum sensors allow you to measure the number of photons that fall on a particular location each second and that are within the wavelength range that plants use for photosynthesis. The unit of measurement of light intensity is called photosynthetic photon flux density (PPFD). Lux, lumens and foot candles are misleading metrics when dealing with plants because they are measures based on what a human eye sees, which is not the same spectrum range that plants use for photosynthesis.
4. The shape of your growing space matters.
For instance, plant lighting research from Cornell University has shown that if your growing space is shaped like a rectangle, staggering your lights is more likely to improve the distribution of light—but that's not the case for square-shaped grow spaces, which, research has shown, are more likely to benefit from lining lights up in rows.
5. Don’t underestimate the cost of obstructions.
Think carefully about the placement of fans, crossbeams, ventilation socks and other potential lighting obstructions. Their shadows, which are almost unperceivable to the eye, can reduce light intensity by nearly 10 percent at specific locations. A general rule of thumb is that a 1-percent decrease in intensity equates to a 1-percent decrease in yields.
6. Light-intensity variation is often lower toward the center of a room and increases as you move toward the perimeter.
One way to increase uniformity at the edges of your grow space is to reduce the distance between lights—or increase their intensity—around the perimeter. In fact, light distribution and energy efficiency can be improved by placing lower-wattage lights toward the center of the room and higher-wattage lights toward the perimeter.
7. Understand that the plants will do some work for you.
Inevitably, when designing a room or imagining improvements—at some point, additional improvements to light distribution will become very expensive. But plants will always do some of the work for you. For example, plants will change the morphology and angle of individual leaves to use available light more efficiently, but it is difficult to notice that plants are doing that. So when you are considering more complex changes to your room design in order to improve light distribution (e.g., making lights movable), ask yourself if that investment will add enough improvement above what the plants will do themselves to make the investment worth it.
8. Understand the Inverse Square Law.
You can increase light-intensity uniformity by increasing the distance between the plants and the lights—but because of the Inverse Square Law, small changes in distance will have a big impact on average light intensity. Think about the showerhead example. As you increase the distance between the showerhead and a bucket on the floor, you decrease the amount of water that falls inside the bucket and increase what lands outside of it. The photons produced by your light behave in a similar way, to a degree that depends on the shape of the light’s lens. As you increase the distance between the lights and the plants, you increase the amount of light that spreads out and hits things like aisles and walls. So, there is the ability to increase PPFD and energy savings by moving lights closer to plants. One of the primary benefits of light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures is that you can move them closer to plants because an LED’s light beam spreads less and it produces far less radiant heat. At the same time, as you move the lights closer to the plants, you increase variability of light intensity across the room. Imagine moving all the showerheads 2 inches from the floor. Some spots would receive a lot of water while others would receive none. Finding the optimal point in that trade-off is perhaps the most central element of an optimal lighting design.
James Eaves, Ph.D., is an agricultural economist and professor at Université Laval. He is also the Head of Innovation at GreenSeal Cannabis Company, which uses advanced vertical farming methods to grow cannabis in Stratford, Ontario.
Vape cartridges are rapidly growing more popular with new cannabis consumers, and it’s not difficult to fathom why: They are portable, discreet and usually less pungent than flower. During the first four months of 2018, Californians purchased $165 million worth of vape carts, Coloradans shelled out $62.4 million for them and Oregonians spent $31 million, according to data from BDS Analytics, making cartridges the top-selling product in all three states. Given the hype, let’s examine both cartridges and their contents, as there is a wide range of quality on the market.
While there might be exceptions, cartridges (the vessels holding the cannabis extracts) can largely be categorized as high or low quality.
Typically, low-quality cartridges:
- are made of plastic (terpenes can penetrate plastic, and plastic can potentially leach chemicals from the oil),
- have poor-quality or ill-fitting O-rings that leak; and
- have pre-moistened wicks primed with glycerin or propylene glycol that can cause allergic reactions in some people.
Low-quality cartridges will have a higher customer return rate (if a return policy exists) and will drive away customers who become frustrated with the lackluster experience.
High-quality cartridges typically:
- are made of premium materials, such as glass, metal and ceramic;
- have properly-sized O-rings; and
- have sealed joints that prevent contact between the air and cartridge contents.
Choose your cartridges wisely and always examine the cartridge’s quality. A low-cost cartridge is not necessarily better for your business, and it alerts the customer that the contents might be poor-quality, too.
As consumers become more educated about their options, it is likely they will begin to examine your cartridge’s stated ingredients, the same as they do for food ingredients, ultimately affecting how dispensary purchasing managers approach you. Whether you are vertically integrated or working with a third-party extractor, it’s crucial you know everything about your product. Do you claim to use organic practices or to be chemical free? Do you have certifications proving it? Does your product contain cannabis-derived terpenes, artificial flavors or terpenes derived from other sources? What terpene-isolation method was utilized? If non-cannabis-derived terpenes or artificial flavors were used, what are they, and from where were they sourced? If a purchasing manager asks a question about your product that you cannot answer, you’re in trouble.
Here is a rundown of contents found in typical vape cartridges:
1. Cannabis-derived terpenes: Cannabis terpenes sourced from cannabis.
Full-spectrum in composition, products made with these terpenes contain a high percentage of monoterpenes that have not been oxidized or degraded by heat application.
2. Steam-distilled terpenes: Softer in taste than extracted terpenes that have been isolated without utilizing heat, many steam-distilled terpenes are lost in the water used to produce steam, aka “pot water.”
3. Hydrosols: Hydrosols are a byproduct of steam distillation and low-heat distillations. They are classified as floral waters (i.e., essential oils) and contain only small percentages of actual terpenes. Heat is utilized and degrades the terpenes, too.
4. Non-cannabis-derived terpenes: Terpenes sourced directly from plant leaves, fruits or other organic sources, rather than from cannabis. It is impossible to recreate the aroma or flavor of the original plant/cultivar utilizing terpenes from non-cannabis plants, but a gross approximation can be achieved.
5. Artificial flavors: Typically, the artificial flavors found in cannabis cartridges are sourced from the e-cigarette industry. There are thousands of flavors, but their safety is in question (e.g., diacetyl causing “popcorn lung”).
6. HTFSE (High-Terpene Full-Spectrum Extract): Made from hydrocarbon extraction, there has been a recent trend of producing these products from pressed rosin. Also called sauce, HTFSE has high terpene content and is aromatic and flavorful.
7. CO2 Extracted: Some CO2 extractors collect a few available terpenes from CO2 extraction, but, more often than not, the cannabis product utilized to extract is dried, thus much of the available monoterpenes are lost in the drying process. This will result in a terpene composition that is mostly comprised of basic primary terpenes and low percentages of available monoterpenes. Therefore, both the final aroma and flavor are not as strong as HTFSEs, or if you had utilized a no-heat methodology of terpene isolation.
Beyond customers and purchasing managers, an important production-related detail to keep in mind is whether the stated THC percentage is measured before or after viscosity adjustment (fine-tuning the oil’s density) with glycerin, glycol and hydrosols. If any of these products were added after lab testing, the stated THC percentage is higher than what the product actually contains, making the stated percentage erroneous and potentially opening you to a lawsuit.
Most quality cartridges contain either CO2, hydrocarbon or distilled extracts, or a combination thereof, and most have flavor added. Some add cannabis-derived terpenes to a distillate to approximate the original characteristics of the plant/cultivar from which it came. This is typically accomplished by adding a fresh-frozen, terpene-rich hydrocarbon extract to a distillate. The resulting extract is flavorful and has a preferred viscosity.
Some utilize steam-distilled cannabis terpenes and hydrosols (a type of floral water), but these often lack monoterpenes (e.g., geraniol, terpineol, limonene, myrcene, linalool, pinene, etc.), which are responsible for the differentiation between cultivars. Some companies claim to re-infuse cannabis terpenes in their products, but said terpenes are often manufactured via low-heat steam distillation (utilizing distilled water and ethanol, or a variation thereof). The oxygen- and water-exposure results in a product with few of the original terpenes.
How to Decide
All extracts, isolates and compounds mentioned can be added to a flavorless or close-to-flavorless distillate or extract to increase aroma and flavor. This endless supply of cannabinoid cocktails has led to a great disparity in overall quality with respect to the desirable traits of the original cultivar. What looks low-quality and what is low-quality can be difficult to distinguish.
Some customers choose the clear oil over the dark oil, thinking it is purer and superior; this is generally a good rule of thumb to follow, as a dark oil typically indicates excessive amounts of lipids, fats, wax, or pigments in the product, or improper storage of extract material leading to exposure to air (oxidization), heat (decarboxylation) or a multitude of other factors.
That does not mean all darker colored extracts are inferior. Case in point: If one were to add a HTFSE to a water-clear distillate, it would inevitably add color. The more HTFSE added, the darker the distillate will become. Pressed rosin will impart undesired darker color when added to a clear distillate, yet the flavor profiles it imparts are strong when the rosin is produced at low temperatures (which preserves the available terpenes).
Cannabinoid content is another factor that can be misleading. If a distillate is made up of 95-percent cannabinoids, it contains 5-percent non-cannabinoid content, which can be terpenes, wax, pigments, flavonoids, etc. If a distillate is made up of 99-percent cannabinoids, it obviously has fewer of these non-cannabinoid compounds. While it might sound appealing to the unwitting consumer, a vape pen cartridge that contains 99-percent cannabinoids may not be pleasant to consume because terpenes are what add flavor and aroma.
Having the most potent cartridge at the expense of other desirable attributes may eventually work as a disadvantage for the cartridge producer. A vape cartridge should contain a perfect balance of both cannabinoids and terpenes. Within that larger scope, manufacturers can formulate specific cannabinoid and terpene ratios to cater to customer desires or requests. If a group of customers only wants CBD distillate at 80-percent cannabinoid, 20-percent terpene ratio, with no THC, you will be able to formulate that. If another desires an 80-percent THC cartridge combined with 20 percent terpenes, you can do that too.
As we develop new products and formulations within this space, we will also have to wrestle with health and safety concerns. I’ll be the first to admit that there are a lot of unknowns with cannabis. For starters: How much is too much? It’s a simple question, yet there is certainly no easy answer given the vast number of terpenes in cannabis and how they interact with different metabolisms, different body weights and a whole host of other factors that determine what thresholds of terpenes are healthy (or perhaps detrimental) to an individual.
There are even more unanswered questions regarding the medical applications of cannabinoids. What is it about the synergistic effects of cannabinoids, terpenes and the specific blending of the two that can produce the pharmaceuticals of the future? What combinations of cannabinoids and terpenes treat which types of cancer? What combination can be used as a neuroprotectant? Given the worldwide cancer rate, and the worldwide need for neuroprotectants for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, I believe there is great monetization incentive to develop these drugs.
(11/8/2019) Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity. While David Bernard-Perron's living soil recipe at Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp. (WMMC) was certified organic in 2014, WMMC received its first organic certification in 2013, the year before Bernard-Perron joined the company.
On paper, it’s hard to understand the scale at which The Green Organic Dutchman plans to operate. What does nearly 4 acres (or 1.5 hectares) of cannabis grown under a glass roof look like? What about just under 20 acres, which equates to roughly 8 hectares? How much soil does an organic farm of that size require? What precautions must be taken and what tools implemented to ensure a consistently healthy crop while still maintaining a living soil?
Seeing that scale in person is dizzying: row after row of mobile racks topped with custom-made pots filled with a house-made living soil—a mixture of rich earth, molasses, beneficial microbes, bacteria, fungi, insects, nematodes—masterminded by David Bernard-Perron, the company’s vice president of cultivation operations.
After obtaining his master’s in agriculture from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, in 2015, Bernard-Perron moved to the Canadian West Coast and launched his career in the cannabis industry as the head agrologist for Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp., a licensed medical cannabis operation in British Columbia. There, he developed and refined the company’s indoor living soil program.
TGOD, as his current employer is known, hopes to replicate the success Bernard-Perron found in Whistler’s 15,000-square-foot operation, first with the company’s 160,000-square-foot Ancaster, Ontario, facility, then again in its 1.3 million-square-foot behemoth in Valleyfield, Quebec.
Getting to scale has definitely not been easy, and recent headlines about the company losing the funding it needed to complete construction at both sites certainly have complicated matters, but executives remain confident that the setbacks are setting the company up for an even better launch forward.
The company headquarters—half a floor at a nondescript office building above a bank near the Toronto International Airport in Mississauga—belies the company’s vision: to be the world’s largest organic cannabis producer. The space doesn’t quite fit the team’s administrative and executive divisions, but no one complains; they know making that organic vision a reality requires time and sacrifice.
“It’s a culture of entrepreneurs that are here from various backgrounds, various industries to create something great that’s long-lasting,” says Drew Campbell, TGOD’s head of marketing. (The company’s headquarters isn’t a Silicon Valley garage, either, which also helps ease cramped tensions.)
Instead of office space, the bulk of the company’s funds have gone into completing construction of its hybrid glass-roof facilities, which, once completed, will officially make TGOD the world’s largest organic cannabis producer with a footprint of more than 1.4 million square feet in Canada alone.
That scale is the major differentiator between TGOD and any other producer in the world, says Brian Athaide, the company’s CEO. “There are ... other organic producers, but they tend to be more craft. We’re the only ones doing organic at scale that nobody’s ever done before.”
Building a facility with the automation and environmental control needed to produce a profitable crop at scale while maintaining organic standards was no easy task. TGOD went through several redesigns that delayed its market launch and increased costs. But Athaide says while those delays prevented the company from enjoying first-mover advantage, they allowed it to learn from others’ mistakes. For example, TGOD tripled its HVAC capacity after seeing reports of other licensed producers (LPs) struggling with humidity control. The Mississauga company also almost doubled the size of its processing facilities to accommodate the volume of flower it will be producing after seeing market bottlenecks in that area.
“So, we added more capital, we pushed back our timings, and I think that’s part of the … second-mover advantage because we were able to learn from everyone else,” Athaide says. “On the other hand, we haven’t really lost anything by not having that first-mover advantage on flower and oil because the rules around packaging are very strict. … So no one’s really built a brand of significance at this point yet.”
Feed the Soil, Not the Plants
The company’s Valleyfield facility, its flagship, was still in the first construction phase before the company announced financial restructuring plans on Oct. 18. The Ancaster facility received final production approval from Health Canada on Oct. 16, allowing TGOD to move plants from the nursery/vegetation space into the hybrid greenhouses for full flowering. (TGOD had been using a few of those vegetation rooms to flower crops for its medical patients and to supply the Ontario Cannabis Store (OCS) with organic product.)
A room without plants, however, is the best way for visitors to grasp the intricacies of scaling organic cannabis. “Our facilities are purpose-built,” Athaide says.
Take the containers in which flowering plants will sit: Each room houses 1,450 pots filled with Bernard-Perron’s living soil blend. The pots had to be custom-made to fit perfectly in the company’s mobile tables, another custom-designed piece of equipment. Those two features combined allow TGOD to grow 5,800 plants in a single room, Bernard-Perron says.
The team took an unconventional approach to controlling how air circulates in those rooms. Instead of having fans above the canopy pushing air across the tops of its crops, “we have an air-vent system that will blow air from underneath and then that air moves through the canopy of the plant and then cools the leaf surface from underneath,” Bernard-Perron says. This system also allows the cultivation team to supplement with CO2 near the root zone and carry away excess moisture from deep within the canopy. “Then we exhaust it through the centralized air filtration system and then outside. So we get rid of the smell, and it’s the most efficient way to cool our product,” he adds.
Managing temperatures in a greenhouse with such a heat-sensitive crop is a significant challenge during Canadian summers, when outdoor temperatures can spike well above average to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Operating at such a northern latitude also means TGOD needs supplemental lights to cultivate year-round. To solve the latter problem without exacerbating the former one, the company opted for LEDs. “Those lights are actually the closest spectrum we can find to natural sunlight,” Bernard-Perron explains, “and we have a better penetration inside a canopy, we use less energy, [so] we don’t have to cool as much to be able to have our target light level on our crop.” The company is studying how those fixtures affect the crops’ phytochemistry and yield and hopes to have results in 2020.
More important than lighting is the company’s living soil program. A living soil, Bernard-Perron describes, is “soil in which we have brought back the natural process that you can find in nature. … We’re using a lot of beneficial microbes, bacteria, fungi, beneficial insects, nematodes, that all work together to transform the organic fertilizer we’re putting into the soil into living nutrients and to plant-available forms. So, we’re basically feeding the soil that then feeds the plants.”
“What the plants do in exchange for the soil is take CO2 from the air, use the sunlight to photosynthesize and transform that into sugar that they then push back into the soil,” Bernard-Perron says. “The plant is basically sweating sugar into the soil that feeds those beneficial micro-organisms. So, you have this awesome, built-in feedback loop that is your living soil system.”
In addition to lighting, the company is also studying how its organic cultivation approach impacts yields and plant chemistry. (Although more studies are needed, early data shows higher cannabinoid and terpene content, says Bernard-Perron.)
That soil’s microbiological diversity is also the company’s first line of defense in its integrated pest management (IPM) program. “Every handful of soil that we pick up [has] literally tens of thousands of kilometers of fungal network, fungal ivy, that are connecting the soil, the bacteria, and the plants and acting as a line of defense against other [predatory] micro-organisms,” Bernard-Perron says. “There’s so many good micro-organisms that are competing with everything and want to keep the plant healthy because the plants are giving them sugar. So they have to keep up their wall and keep pathogens outside.”
Communicating these organic concepts to consumers is easier said than done, says TGOD’s head of marketing. But the slower market rollout gave the company more time to build its identity—or, as Campbell puts it, find its “story.” And that story is rooted in organics itself.
“Organic isn’t an adjective,” Campbell explains. “Organic is a fundamentally different consumer habit, [where] people now want to have transparency about where their products are coming from and what goes into [them].”
The Canadian market is fairly knowledgeable about what an organic certification means, and a large segment seeks out that certification in their produce, Athaide says. “Half of Canadian consumers buy something organic on a weekly basis, about 30% try to buy organic or kind of healthier products whenever they can,” he says. “[Public relations firm] Hill+Knowlton did a study earlier this year and found that 61% of medical patients and 50% of recreational consumers would prefer organic cannabis.”
While awaiting further test results on the effect the organic program has on TGOD’s yields and phytochemistry, education is focused on making the connection between cannabis and things people know: soil-grown, organic nutrients, no pesticides. That messaging gets out mainly through budtender education.
“We’ve launched a proprietary organic certification program for budtenders, educating [them] exactly on what is the difference between organic and non-organic growing,” Campbell says. “We want the first question for a budtender to ask when somebody goes in-store to be, ‘Would you prefer organic?’ If that is a starting point for our conversation, to make people aware that there is a difference between organic and non-organic cannabis, that’s a great differentiator for us and for a budtender to guide somebody towards our brand.”
TGOD’s sustainability initiatives also play a big part in the company’s identity and messaging.
“Our tagline of ‘making life better’ might sound simple, but that’s really what we’re doing,” Campbell says. “On the consumer end, we’re delivering a certified organic product to individuals. … [But] making life better is, beyond just cannabis, how are we improving things? … Improving our legacy on our neighbors, our friends and our generations to come is something we take extremely seriously.”
Being as sustainable as possible permeates nearly every decision the company makes. For example, TGOD packaging is mostly glass. Not only is glass packaging 100% recyclable and avoids static cling (which can cause trichomes to stick to the sides of plastic containers), TGOD also uses its containers as marketing tools by posting videos on how to reuse them to grow herbs or repurpose them as organizational tools. In addition to the original content, that sustainability angle “gives us a bit of a leg up on some of the competition because we can talk about all those things that we are doing for the environment,” Campbell says.
Those environmental initiatives aren’t limited to containers. The company designed both of its facilities to be LEED-certified by the Canada Green Building Council pending finalization of construction and operations. LEED stands for leadership in energy and environmental design. It’s a widely known rating system for green buildings around the world, says Karine Cousineau, TGOD’s director of government relations and sustainability.
In addition to the sustainable materials used to build the facilities, the Ancaster site is decked with solar panels and a co-generation system that produces electricity to reduce the company’s load on the local power grid. The natural gas system also serves as a CO2 generator for the greenhouses and a heating source during the winter to keep the open-air rainwater basin from freezing. Any excess heat can also be shared with neighboring farms.
The TGOD team also collects an impressive amount of data, all processed by a centralized artificial intelligence system that will find efficiencies. Once fully built out, “there’ll be thousands, if not tens of thousands, of different sensors within these facilities that will track everything from external weather and environmental conditions to the movement of the plants internally to the soil conditions, the humidity, the lighting, and things that are happening down at a leaf level of a plant [through hyperspectral imagery],” says Geoff Riggs, TGOD’s chief information officer.“All of that will be synthesized together into a very sophisticated data management platform, which then yields very novel and unique analytical insights,” he adds. It’s hard for Riggs to point to any one particular data set he’s eager to examine because, he says, “it’s not necessarily one set of data that’s most exciting—it’s the ability to combine all those different data sets to produce very interesting analytical observations.”
While some individuals and companies may look at sustainability from a purely environmental perspective, TGOD sees it as much more than that. “It’s also the whole social side of things and governance,” Cousineau says. To that end, she and her team are working on a survey “where basically we work with our stakeholders to determine: What should be the most important for TGOD? What should we track? What kind of KPIs [key performance indicators] should we put in place?” And at TGOD, stakeholder is a broadly inclusive term. The company not only sends surveys to management, “but also every stakeholder we have, from neighbors, employees, legislators, customers, consumers,” she continues, the goal being to have everyone “be part of what we’re building.”
Striving for Long-Term Stability
Despite the company’s best efforts, slow retail licensing has dampened the legal market and kept the illicit market alive and well, according to Athaide. This caused market investors to pull investments across the board, sending cannabis stocks tumbling and shrinking the ability for cannabis companies to raise capital. TGOD announced a review of alternative financing options on Oct. 9, following a change of terms from banking partners. TGOD’s shares went into a tailspin. As of Oct. 22, the company’s stock was trading at CA$1.09 on the Toronto Stock Exchange, down from its September 2018 high of CA$8.25.
Despite TGOD receiving final approval from Health Canada to commence full cultivation operations in the Ancaster facility, the company decided to scale back its production, citing those market forces out of its control. Ancaster’s production goal for 2020 is 12,000 kilograms (~26,455 lbs.) of cannabis (slightly below its full capacity of 17,500 kg (~38,580 lbs.)) as part of the company’s financial restructuring to maintain profitability by Q2 2020, the company said in an Oct. 18 release.
The Valleyfield buildout also is ramping down; the company expects to produce 10,000 kg (~22,046 lbs.)—Phase 1A originally was slated to yield 65,000 kg of cannabis annually, with Phase 1B doubling that capacity. The site’s processing facility also is on hold, and all product from Valleyfield will be processed and packaged at Ancaster. The company estimates that it will need $70 million to $80 million by the end of Q2 2020 to undertake the plan and reach positive operational cash flow, it said in the same release.
“With the current Canadian legal market being smaller than initially anticipated, mainly due to a slow rollout of retail locations in key provinces, we believe that our revised plan will allow TGOD to right size its production to capture the organic segment, while maintaining optionality to quickly accelerate and expand as more retail locations begin to open,” added Athaide in the statement.
To avoid being at the mercy of a single market’s shifts and woes, Athaide has an eye on a future where TGOD is in multiple markets. “Our vision is to be the largest organic cannabis and hemp brand globally,” he says. “Our strategy is not to be fully vertically integrated into everything. We are doing the organic cultivation in Canada. We have developed the IP, but as we go international, we’re finding great partners. … Like, for instance, in Poland ... we’re buying third-party organic hemp [for our hemp business] where we’re then drying it, extracting it, creating it into oil.”
Along with Poland, TGOD has operations or agreements with groups in the U.S., Jamaica, Denmark and Mexico. In each of those, “we’ve chosen those parts of the value chain that we believe we can uniquely own and add and do better than anybody else,” Athaide says. “You can be good at a lot of things, you can’t be great at everything. So we’re focusing on those parts that we can be great at and finding great partners for the rest.”
That said, the company’s financial struggles make it difficult for TGOD to focus on international expansion—it doesn’t make sense to spend capital on satellites when the core business isn’t as solidified as it should be. But Cannabis 2.0, Canada’s legal launch of extracted products, has the CEO hopeful. “We have a best-in-class science team that is not only looking at clinical research, but also applied science to help differentiate our products. They have been instrumental in developing our product portfolio for Cannabis 2.0, working closely with other teams on formulations. I am excited about the upcoming launch of our organic teas, infusers and vapes in mid-December,” Athaide says.
Brian MacIver is senior editor for Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary magazines.
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