Ryan Aubin has been experimenting with growing cannabis for decades; however, it wasn’t until he discovered caregiving that he was able to convert his passion into a full-time career. As the “master grower” of his own caregiving service, Aubin is advancing his business to a leadership position in Maine’s medical marijuana community by producing an array of consistent, high-quality strains that serve the needs of his diverse patient group. Here, Cannabis Business Times contributor Anne-Marie Hardie talks with Aubin about his operation, and how he is strategizing for an expansion into the newly legal recreational market-which voters approved in November 2016, but legislators are still debating regulatory intricacies.
Anne-Marie Hardie: What initially drew you to the cannabis industry and inspired you to become a caregiver?
Ryan Aubin: After I graduated from college [from Central Florida in 2003], I traveled around the country as a sound engineer, eventually landing in Hawaii. It was there that I first became a caregiver. Being a caregiver in Hawaii was both inspiring and challenging. I never wanted to be a part of the marijuana black market. I wanted to obtain marijuana in the legal form while also helping people that needed medicine.
Being a caregiver goes beyond supplying cannabis to my patients; it has helped me understand the needs of my patients more. There is one gentleman that I’ve cared for who has Lyme disease. The disease had progressed to his brain, and he began suffering from very severe, debilitating, constant tremors. I’ve been able to help him and see firsthand how cannabis has improved his quality of life.
Hardie: What motivated the move from Hawaii to Maine?
Aubin: Being a caregiver in Hawaii is fairly limiting, and so [I] began to look at other opportunities within the [mainland]. I’m originally from Maine, so it was natural to look here. When I looked at its cannabis landscape, I wanted to see [if] I could expand on what we were already doing in Hawaii. Maine provided an opportunity to connect with additional patients and expand a growing operation. [I] initially [leased] a small farmhouse [in Hermon, in 2013] in which [I] dabbled with 16 LED lights from China to explore if converting to LED lighting would have a positive impact on the plant.
Hardie: Over the years, you’ve experimented with a variety of lighting. In fact, even today, you continue to use both high-pressure sodium (HPS) and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. What factors are important to consider when choosing lighting?
Aubin: Like most growers in the industry, I started off with high-pressure sodium lighting; however, the possibilities that LED lighting could provide in the flowering room piqued my curiosity. And so, I started to implement the initial LED lighting in the final growth stages of the plant. Eventually, these LED lights that we were using started to fail. In fact, I learned a lot more about LED lighting because of the failures that I experienced. The reality is the lights from China were not from bad companies, but it was a challenge to have to send the lights back to them to be replaced. And so, I began looking for LED light[s] that were more stable and [had] a good warranty.
I discovered my current LED vendor—Heliospectra—at my first cannabis conference. … I liked the style, output and the fact that they offered a full spectrum.
Today, we continue to use [T5] lighting during the initial vegetation stages; however, as the plant gets closer to flowering, we make the shift to LED lighting.
Hardie: What were the reasons that you added in LED lighting during the flowering stage?
Aubin: ... I converted to LEDs during the flowering stage to provide the consistent, high-quality plants that [my operation] is known for. Our focus is not to grow monster plants and achieve better yields. If that was the case, we would have stuck with high-pressure sodium lights throughout the grow process. In fact, the largest pot that we grow our plants in is 3 gallons. Instead, [I strive] for controlled, quality growth, which is easily achieved with LED lighting. Even though the yields are slightly less, the plants are so much more dense. But that’s not all—comparing strains with fellow caregivers] confirm[ed] that the plants themselves have a higher level of THC than when grown with high-pressure sodium lights.
When converting to LED lights, it is important to find the right light height. A lot of people in the industry are unaware that LEDs can produce huge flowers because the lights are too far away from the plant.
Hardie: What are the parameters for being a caregiver in Maine?
Aubin: In Maine, you can have one employee per caregiver. This means one person on staff that helps to maintain the business, but not an additional caregiver on staff. We can have six patients in total, however, I often keep the sixth space open in case I find someone that really needs our assistance.
Hardie: You recently relocated to a larger facility. What were the main drivers for moving the business?
Aubin: The commercial building [I chose is] a perfect fit for growing cannabis. It was previously a meat-packing building, and all the rooms were sprayable coolers. This made it extremely easy to complete a thorough cleaning.
[My grow] is still in the medicinal market, [so] I wanted the additional space to expand into if the recreational market opens in Maine. I moved my business to the new location [in central Maine]. The new building is 20,000 square feet, and with the conversion to vertical growing, this space expands to approximately 30,000 [square] feet. ... I bought this building as a medicinal grower today, but my hopes are that with the passing of additional legislation, the operation can grow outwards and upwards.
The property also includes 9 acres, [on] which I would eventually like to include greenhouses as part of [my] operation. There is nothing better than growing plants in the full sunlight.
Hardie: What does it mean to have a quality facility? What aspects of your operation set you apart from the other caregivers in the region?
Aubin: When I was still new to the medicinal industry, I was lucky enough to have been brought through The Grove in Vegas. I was immediately impressed [with] how clean the facility was, so if there was a problem, you could immediately get to the root of it. Our plants are all grown hydroponically in LECA [lightweight expanded clay aggregate] and are equipped with ebb and flow feed systems. Everything is automated, keeping both quality, and health and safety, top of mind.
Hardie: With the amount of available cultivars out there, how do you determine which ones to grow in your operation?
Aubin: Over the years, [I have] tested a lot of strains to see what fits well with the needs of the business. I’m constantly monitoring the growth of the plant and asking a variety of questions including: Is the plant resilient? Does it look great? Does it smoke well?
That being said, [the] strain choices always start with [my] patients. I find myself constantly considering: What do they need? What are they looking for? I’m currently growing a S.A.G.E. [Sativa Afghani Genetic Equilibrium] plant for one of [my] clients. It has an extremely low THC content, but it is what [the] patient requested.
There are a few strains that we continue to grow year after year. We’ve been growing Northern Lights for about four years and LA Cheese for about three. I feel that we will grow Lemon Haze forever. It is the most resilient plant that I’ve ever seen. The core strains that I’ve been growing for years will always be a part of [the] operation. However, [I am] always on the lookout for better strains, newer strains, and ideally those with 30-plus-[percent] THC properties.
Hardie: What strategies do you use to help prevent pests and disease?
Aubin: At the moment, you can only use neem oil in the State of Maine, and there is no anti-fungal that is able to be used. This is why it’s important to know about the strains’ genetics and to actively seek out plants that are resilient, [and] in particular, those that are resistant to powdery mildew. Our highly controlled environment, including fully sealed rooms, helps to keep out any unwanted disease or pests. However, it only takes one employee to bring in what you don’t want.
[I] have HEPA filters throughout the grow rooms, a couple of carbon [scrubbers] running, and ozone generated in the change room that is constantly cleaning [our] jackets and shoes. Before entering the growing area, [my employee and I] change our shoes and clothes to ensure that no contaminants are inadvertently carried into the space. We also maintain extremely stable conditions, which go above and beyond with both the HVAC system and dehumidification. In fact, we have two Quest 255 dehumidifiers for rooms that would typically only need one.
When we do harvest, we can clean everything in the room. And if there are any problems, [the] new facility makes it easy to power-wash the space to ensure that the contaminants are not carried throughout the building.
Hardie: What is the role of sustainability in your current grow facility?
Aubin: [I strive] to be extremely future-forward, ensuring that everything [I] use is either recyclable or reusable. Even [the] grow medium gets recycled. In fact, the only waste that was thrown away was the root mass. But even that doesn’t get thrown away now; it is recycled by one of our local farmers who wanted the root zone for compost. My hope is to eventually integrate solar panels into the grow facility.
Anne-Marie Hardie is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Ornamental Breeder, Greenhouse Management, Tea and Coffee Trade Journal, GrowerTalks/Green Profit, among others.
Poll any group of cannabis cultivators across the country about their biggest challenges of running their businesses and odds are, most of them will tell you staying on top of state regulations keeps them up at night.
Cannabis regulations are abundant. Case in point: California’s proposed regulations for its recently overhauled cannabis program (MAUCRSA) came in at a whopping 148 pages—single-spaced to boot. That’s without considering the further tweaking and updating that will happen as California’s new adult-use program matures and new research findings on consumer safety and environmental impacts are made public, all of which will keep growers on their toes.
There are hundreds of ways cultivators can be noncompliant from the state’s perspective. Growers are most often preoccupied by the obvious issues such as avoiding banned pesticides and facility design problems. However, smaller violations are much more common, according to various state regulatory agencies.
For example, one of the most common violations in Arizona’s medical-only program comes from cannabis businesses not having appropriate bathrooms, a representative from the state’s Department of Health (DOH) told Cannabis Business Times. The DOH has cited cannabis facilities for issues seemingly minor, such as not having “mounted paper towels or toilet paper” and dirty handwashing sinks.
Other issues not on every grower’s radar that Arizona authorities commonly come across include (in no particular order): Grow room cameras not adjusted to consider growth of plants; cleanliness of equipment and floors; dispensary agents not in immediate possession of agent cards; allowing non-card holders into facilities; incomplete disposal records; and no start or end time on delivery trip plans.
In these type of cases, the Arizona DOH will try to work with the licensees, the DOH spokesperson said, and “set-up a provider meeting with the licensee to discuss the deficiencies and how/when the deficiencies will be corrected.” However, the department does reserve the right to deny or revoke a license for compliance issues.
All health and safety issues need to be addressed immediately, but solutions for smaller issues, such as toilet paper rack installation, can be communicated to the DOH within 20 working days. A plan of correction “should list the date the correction was made, as well as how he deficiency was corrected. This may include pictures, receipts or other mechanisms to verify compliance,” according to the department.
In Connecticut, response time varies based on the issue the facility faces, a spokesperson for the state’s Drug Control Division said. “For example … taking an ad off of Facebook can be done more quickly than updating a security system or managing a product recall.”
Connecticut treats its medical cannabis businesses as a pharmaceutical industry, providing clear guidelines on various processes and leaving very little room for interpretation in its regulations. The most common infractions come from companies improperly marketing or branding their products.
In Oregon’s medical market, state officials regularly see that growers have challenges with the Cannabis Tracking System (CTS) and maintaining records. A spokesperson for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) also noted that certain businesses violate state regulations by “exercising non-existent privileges.” For example, a producer selling an extract to a retailer is not allowed, due to producers not being licensed for concentrates. Rather, concentrate transactions need to happen between manufacturers and retailers.
Work With Regulators
Staying on top of regulatory changes is crucial to avoiding any compliance issues that could delay, suspend or shutter your business. Arizona officials noted that some licensees “offer ongoing training to ensure the staff is aware of the regulations. Ongoing training, which may include consultants, typically helps minimize non-compliance.”
All regulatory agencies CBT spoke with agreed that the best way to avoid and address any compliance issues is to simply be proactive and give the regulators a call if there is any uncertainty.
Communication is important for another reason: It can enact regulatory change. For example, the OLCC made a change to its surveillance video-backup requirements due in part to feedback from cultivators who operated in remote locations without affordable and reliable internet service.
“We realized it was a lot of data that had to go the cloud, or be backed up offsite,” an OLCC spokesperson said. “So we reduced that to 30-day backup of the camera that captures activity around where the on-site hard drive activity is.”
Simply put: Asking if you’re compliant is better than being told you aren’t.
If you’re looking to implement multiple tiers of growing in your indoor cultivation facility, follow these pointers to ensure you’re properly set up for vertical farming success.
1. Use LED lights that cover the entire plant canopy evenly, at close range. (Other light types would burn the plants at close range.) Many LED lights have much narrower physical dimensions than a typical 4-foot by 4-foot grow-tray footprint. This means they must have 12 to 24 inches of clearance above the plants to light the canopy evenly, corner to corner. In a vertical setup, that's a lot of unnecessarily wasted space. It's more convenient to access each tier when the tiers are closer together. Easier access means better plant care, and thus improved quantity and quality.
2. Beware of implementing more than two tiers when first beginning. When you have two tiers, you can easily stay within local code compliance requirements when it comes to the structural stability of mobile racking systems, as well as the rules for worker safety. Unless the tiers are very tightly packed, the line between a second and third tier is the line between ease and difficulty-both in terms of design and functionality. With two tiers of 4 feet to 5 feet each, and the lowest tier raised 1 foot off the ground, access to the second tier can be accomplished with a rolling ladder, whereas three tiers would require a scissor lift. Further, the stratification of temperatures with three tiers starts to require a much more advanced (and costly) cooling and air-movement design.
3. Leave enough space around racks for plumbing, air movement and worker access. Growers and investors often want to maximize yields, so they pack plant rooms beyond what's reasonable. But doing so could compromise the space's healthy functionality, both for plants and workers. Remember that the grow trays in the racks will need to periodically be removed, cleaned and/or replaced. If the aisle space is too narrow, this process could be frustratingly inconvenient.
4. In the early design phase, plan how to manage wastewater. Each municipality differs regarding what nutrient waste can go down the drain. Floor drains are the most convenient and inexpensive method of discarding water, but some localities require the nutrient-rich water be treated prior to discarding. This will require pumps and holding tanks for runoff. With vertical mobile racking systems, drainage collection is more complicated than with single-tier systems. Get an experienced plumber involved in the design process. Wastewater management is often-overlooked and potentially costly.
5. Choose short-growing, non-stretchy strains suited toward vertical growing, so plants don't overgrow the space per tier. These strains should be flowered before they grow too tall during the vegetative stage, and height should no more than double during the first three weeks of flowering. Choose strains that are also disease resistant. Vertical farms are designed to maximize total canopy, but when half of the canopy is above head level, careful-examination time may be reduced. This could increase the chance of unnoticed mold and mildew outbreaks.
Jennifer Martin is an award-winning cultivator who specializes in indoor vertical LED system designs (MarijuanaPropagation.com).
For most cannabis consumers who enjoyed the plant prior to the recent waves of legalization, it came in limited forms: flower or hash. Only the most dedicated enthusiasts turned their ounces into trays of brownies, and relatively high-tech concentrates like shatter and wax were rare.
Cannabis pills? As a practical matter, they did not exist.
As legalization continues across the country, however, laboratories from California to Massachusetts are manufacturing THC pills, and the once-unfamiliar vehicles for cannabis consumption are rising in popularity.
In fact, pills were one of the fastest-growing categories in Colorado between January and October 2017, according to data from cannabis market research firm BDS Analytics. Sales during the 10-month period were 74-percent higher than the same period in 2016, making pills an especially fast-growing subcategory
Demand for pills is also spiking in Oregon and Washington. Sales rose by 87 percent in Oregon from January through October 2017, and by 54 percent in Washington from January through September 2017.
Companies that make pills in Colorado say increased consumer attention toward their products is derived from shoppers who are looking for lifestyle enhancements rather than ways to get higher.
“Our tablets are something everybody is familiar with-they don’t scare people off, like dabbing might. They are willing to try it,” says Charlotte Peyton, one of the owners of Stratos, a leading THC-pill manufacturer in Colorado.
Another rising pill manufacturer in The Centennial State, Altus Labs, revolves its product line around wellness, rather than getting “stoned.”
A benefit of a properly manufactured tablet is the ability to cut it into smaller pieces and trust, for example, that half of a 10-mg tablet contains 5 mg of THC, says Josh Richman, Altus Labs’ senior vice president for sales and marketing. Altus’ pills already fall into the rough definition of a “microdose,” with 5 mg of THC per tablet.
Stratos and Altus now offer CBD tablets as
Much of the overall cannabis marketing and product-development energy since legalization in Colorado has targeted the 21-to-34 age bracket, with an emphasis on males, says Richman. “Forty-four percent of the cannabis market is between the ages of 35 and 64. That represents a lot of people [consuming] cannabis on a regular basis who don’t fit into the more high-profile, younger demographic,” he says. “I think the growth of the tablet market is representative of the average age of cannabis users rising as well.”
Douglas Brown is the owner of Contact High Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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