Cannabis Trimming: Hand Vs. Automation

Special Report - State of the Trimming Market

Oklahoma-based Primal Cannabis moves toward mostly mechanical harvesting, bucking, and trimming to scale its commercial cultivation operation.

August 6, 2021

Primal will dedicate 10% of this year’s harvest, or about 6,000 to 10,000 pounds, to whole flower, which is machine trimmed.
Photos courtesy of Primal Cannabis

As one of the largest outdoor cannabis grows in Oklahoma, Primal Cannabis cultivates 90 acres just outside of Enid, where the family-owned operation has been farming for five generations. Now in its third season of producing medical cannabis, Primal is automating more of its harvest as the vertically-integrated operation continues to grow.

“From day one, we knew that we were too large of a facility to even attempt hand harvesting,” says Joanna Hamrick, sales manager at Primal, who advises the operation’s grow and harvest techniques. “We hand bucked and machine trimmed for the first two seasons, but our bucking and trimming will be automated this season due to us scaling up this year.”

After cultivating 50,000 plants last year, Primal tightened its crop spacing and reoriented its rows—more than doubling its production to 103,000 plants. To get all this flower from the field to the dry-and-cure room more efficiently and cost-effectively, Hamrick says, “we’re going into full automation.”

Controlling Post- Production Costs

So far, Primal has been using a mix of manual labor and machines to harvest cannabis. But as the operation grows, it’s difficult to bring in enough hands to buck, which involves removing usable biomass from the stalk.

“For the first two seasons, we had to rent an entire hotel for approximately 120 employees to come in for harvest,” Hamrick says. “It was very labor-intensive.”

In addition to the cost of compensating seasonal workers, Primal also had to coordinate housing, transportation, and meals for the duration of the temporary employees’ 45-day contracts—which added up to about $1.8 million.

“After looking at what it cost us to bring in seasonal workers, switching over to automated bucking seemed like a no-brainer,” says Hamrick, who is also a board member for the Oklahoma Cannabis Industry Association. “We decided we’d rather invest in the asset and not the yearly labor costs.”

Although Hamrick won’t know the return on Primal’s automation investments until this season plays out, she says the company expects to see significant savings of at least $1.3 million. “We thoroughly believe that automation will greatly reduce our labor costs,” she says, “which will help bring down our cost of production.”

Streamlining the Harvest

This season, Primal’s year-round crew of a dozen employees will run a fully mechanical harvest, using a modified combine harvester, bucking machines, and wet trimmers to get flower to the drying rooms as soon as one day after plants leave the field.

Hamrick and her team expect this automation to significantly streamline their harvest. “We’re still planning on the same six- to eight-week harvest time,” Hamrick says. “But instead of working around the clock, we’ll be harvesting batches once a week, so we should be able to do it without seasonal employees.”

One potential implication of automation could be harvesting so quickly that you run out of room to dry it all, Hamrick says. Down the road, Primal may consider increasing its drying space—which currently consists of 10,000 square feet, plus an additional 20,000 square feet for a temporary, 14-day dry after harvest, which is half the company’s typical drying time. In the meantime, Primal is staggering harvests by growing 22 different cultivars, with maturity dates that range between seven to 11 weeks.

“If we can stagger it successfully, like we plan to do this year,” Hamrick says, “then why spend the money expanding the dry space?”

Left: While Primal is mostly automating the outdoor harvest, cannabis grown indoors will still be harvested by hand. Right: An overview of the Primal Cannabis property, which includes 90 cultivated acres near Enid, Okla.

Dried Flower vs. Extraction

Even at an automated operation like Primal, hand trimming still has a place in cannabis cultivation—especially “if the flower is the end product that you’re selling to dispensaries,” Hamrick says. In fact, a big factor in Primal’s decision to move toward full automation was the simultaneous decision to focus on extraction rather than dried flower—a balance that the company is constantly tweaking.

When Oklahoma launched its medical marijuana program in 2019, Primal devoted 80% of its cultivation to dried flower because, Hamrick says, “pound price is higher in the first year of a new cannabis market.” The other 20% of Primal’s initial cannabis product underwent CO2 extraction in its processing facility to produce full-spectrum oils.

In 2020, that product mix veered to a 50/50 split of flower and extract. This year, Primal plans to shift the balance toward extraction—nearly 90% of its harvest is headed to the processing facility. Hamrick says they’re venturing into butane hash oil (BHO) extraction this year to make high-potency distillate and concentrate waxes like sugar, diamonds, and batter, and also “working on solventless products with a rosin press.”

The other 10% of cannabis, which is destined for dried flower sales, will get some special treatment. Before the combine goes through the field, Hamrick says, “We will take the top colas via hand harvesting, which we have not done before.” After the colas run through the trimming machines, Hamrick says the team will touch up the buds with hand trimming, if necessary. The company has 30 trimming machines on site, and Hamrick says automating that step has been “way more efficient” and makes sense for an operation of Primal’s size.

Additionally, Primal recently converted a propagation building into a 30,000-square-foot indoor grow. “We have only pulled down one harvest so far,” Hamrick says, explaining that manual harvest was the only choice indoors, because the field harvesting machine, which is roughly 14 feet by 16 feet, doesn’t fit inside. “We hand harvested and machine trimmed that crop, with plans to do touch-up hand trimming after the dry-and-cure phase we’re currently in.”

Seasonal Changes

Hamrick says that the result of this season’s hand-harvesting experiment will inform Primal’s decisions in future—like whether to increase indoor cultivation space or further shift its product mix.

“It costs a lot more to hand harvest because it’s way more labor-intensive,” Hamrick says. “So, we’ll see, when this product hits the market, if we can get the dollar amount that we need out of it. If it seems worthwhile to hand-harvest, then we’ll have to increase our manpower.”

The balance between manual labor and automation is constantly shifting as Primal scales its operation. With the goal of controlling costs and maintaining quality as the company grows, Primal’s cultivation team continues to adjust every season to maximize efficiency.

“It’s a major investment, even for experienced agriculturalists like Primal, to go all in on automation over manual without knowing for sure how it will turn out and which technologies will work best,” Hamrick says. “As with most cultivators in Oklahoma, we’re learning as we go, and we’re excited to see the outcome.”

“For the first two seasons, we had to rent an entire hotel for approximately 120 employees to come in for harvest.”

- Joanna Hamrick, Sales Manager, Primal Cannabis

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