[Editor’s note: Read Part I of this series in Cannabis Business Times’ December 2018 issue or online: bit.ly/buckeye-buildout.]
Cannabis cultivators—from home-growers to large-scale producers—may experience exhilaration and worry during their first grow, wondering if they have what it takes to produce a quality plant. For Buckeye Relief, an Ohio-based cannabis cultivation company, its first grow was also a test of its 25,000-square-foot facility’s design and processes.
“This has been one of the most exciting events that I’ve ever been involved with,” says company co-founder and CEO Andy Rayburn of the company’s first crop, which was harvested Dec. 6, 2018.Buckeye’s first harvest “came out pretty much according to plan in terms of the quality of product that we cut down [and] the volume we were able to get out of our first harvest,” Rayburn says, adding that he was impressed with the “really incredible efficiency of the system that my team has in place for harvesting the full room and processing product into our drying room in less than three days.”
Here, Rayburn and members of Buckeye’s cultivation and post-harvest teams bestow insights and lessons learned throughout the company’s first grow cycle.
Propagation (July 30)
After Buckeye completed construction of its Eastlake facility, the state of Ohio granted the company its certificate of operation July 30, 2018. The following day, cultivation team members were sowing seeds.
Carmen Fultz, the assistant cultivation director who joined Buckeye Relief only four weeks before the company was certified to cultivate, recalls palpable energy during those first few days. “It was all hands on deck,” she says. “The coolest thing about it was seeing people from the front office coming back and helping us in cultivation.”
Buckeye planted roughly 5,000 seeds, leaving more than enough to have a large first harvest and properly pheno-hunt after males are culled and unhealthy-looking plants are removed, Rayburn says.Each seed also underwent a bleach wash before being placed in propagation trays to ensure that no pathogens entered the cultivation areas. Once in the propagation trays, seedlings sat beneath LEDs before being transferred to the cultivation room.
Vegetation (August 20)
On Aug. 20, after propagating for three weeks, the team transferred the seedlings to rockwool cubes and placed them on movable racks in Buckeye’s cultivation room to vegetate. That’s when the real work began.
The team’s biggest challenge was, and remains, finding the “Goldilocks zone” of cultivation, “that perfect area that we want to be idling in and then perpetually getting better from there,” Fultz says. As an indoor facility, Buckeye has many variables to control, which makes finding that perfect idling zone even tougher.
For example, Buckeye found a 4-degrees- Celsius difference between ambient room temperature (26oC) and leaf surface temperature (22oC). “We were actually panicking about that in the beginning,” says Jeremy Shechter, Buckeye Relief’s cultivation technology director.
The cultivation team consulted with outside experts and considered every possible solution, including “jacking up the room temperature really high,” Shechter says. Eventually, the problem was identified: an air movement issue.
“When we have really dense canopies like we do here, we really just have to up our air movement game,” Shechter says. (Warm air rises toward the ceiling and amasses there; cool air hangs closer to the floor.) As a short-term fix, the company is employing barrel fans to increase air circulation while it searches for a permanent solution that includes mixing air vertically.
As Shechter worked to improve air circulation, Fultz and her team sorted through the plants to remove males, which comprised roughly half of Buckeye’s initial 5,000-plant crop. That first crop’s size was reduced by another 25-percent when Fultz’s team removed hermaphroditic plants.
On Sept. 11, Fultz and her team began preparing the crop to transition into flowering by taking two clone samples from every plant in the room “to be assured that we have the genetics that we want and to make sure that we had enough plants for our first round of clones,” she says.
Flowering (September 12)
After the team took the clone samples, those 1,300 plants transitioned into flowering Sept. 12, three and a half weeks after leaving propagation. However, because Buckeye started from seed, Fultz’s team found a few hermaphroditic plants well into weeks six and seven of the plants’ life cycle.
Most cultivation businesses destroy those plants, but Bryan Procuk, Buckeye’s post cultivation director, saw in them an opportunity for his trimmers to gain experience before 1,800 pounds (wet weight) of cannabis came to them in December.
At that time, Procuk only had one employee: his METRC operator, Ben Begley. Procuk was teaching Begley how to process the harvest in the tracking system. “We were three rounds into getting 30 to 40 [hermaphroditic] plants at a time that [were] about six weeks into flower and I was like, ‘Why am I just hypothetically telling you this? Why don’t we trim it down and do it?’” As Procuk’s post-harvest team grew to 24 members over the following weeks, Fultz’s team was culling hermaphrodites nearly daily, giving team members time to hone their skills ahead of the actual harvest.
The remaining female plants spent 12 weeks beneath Fluence Bioengineering LED lights. The fixtures are adjustable up to 1,000 µmol PPFD, but Shechter doesn’t anticipate having to turn those lights on full-blast.
“Our first harvest was pretty much above what we expected, and I never went above … 600 or 700 micromoles during the whole time,” Shechter says, adding that most cultivators are probably in the same situation. “That might go up a little bit as we start dialing in our irrigation, altering our VPD [vapor pressure deficit] and fertigation slightly to maximize the amount of water with lower EC [electrical conductivity] and maximize that nutrient uptake, but I don’t see us going much higher than that.”
The financial benefit of not setting lights at 100-percent cannot be understated. Shechter says the company’s electric bill will be roughly one-third of what was budgeted thanks to the dimming controls.
Buckeye’s energy savings will most likely be diverted to emergency repairs for damages sustained during its first grow cycle. One day during Week 3 of flower, Shechter noticed a water bubble on the ceiling: The rooftop HVAC unit sitting above the occupied flower room was leaking. The resulting pool of water completely ruined the drywall, Shechter says.
While Buckeye’s team was able to clean up most of the damage themselves (which included drying and disinfecting around the leak to prevent mold growth), the company had to hire contractors to replace the drywall and the fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) panels. Repairs took one week, delaying Buckeye’s harvest schedule for the year by the same amount of time. “It’s just part of the game,” Shechter says.
Part of the game is also trying to work around issues such as water-logged drywall. While Shechter dealt with the ceiling damage, Matt Kispert, Buckeye’s head of cultivation, spent time scouting plants and pheno-hunting varieties that seemed to be thriving in Buckeye’s environment. He bases his evaluations on four main criteria:
- Physiology: If the plant has a good branch pattern that is easy to work with and manage, as well as a well-formed root system, it has a higher chance of being selected as a viable mother, Kispert says.
- Shape of buds: Beyond aesthetics, Kispert is looking for bud structures and densities that are easy for trimmers to handle and process efficiently. While football-sized buds might look cool, they are more difficult for trimmers to break down and package, and they have a higher risk of botrytis, he adds.
- “Frostiness”: Kispert also looks at resin gland heads and uses those as a gauge for a plant’s potency. More “frost” equals more cannabinoids and terpenes.
- Data: Any plants that meet Kispert’s standards in the above criteria get earmarked for in-house lab testing, where quantitative data is analyzed and factored into the mother selection process.
On Dec. 5, the night before Buckeye’s first harvest and the plants’ last night in the flower room, Rayburn gave the crop a special treatment. He played the Grateful Dead’s legendary 1977 concert at Cornell University’s Barton Hall over the PA system, making sure the plants had a “good last evening,” Rayburn says.
Harvest (December 6)
Buckeye’s first harvest began on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. True to his nature, Rayburn marked the milestone with a team celebration: a good ol’ fashioned breakfast made by Buckeye’s Chief Technical Officer and another staff member who is also a chef.
Three to five cultivation team members (the number fluctuated depending on scheduling needs) spent 110 man-hours over four days tearing down Buckeye’s first crop. The harvest itself was fairly straightforward, albeit grueling, Fultz says. “It was just a matter of getting the work done.”
Thanks to the practice sessions, Procuk’s 24-person post-harvest team was ready for the challenge as fresh-cut plants quickly came in waves.
(Procuk prefers to wet-trim and only dries the actual flower instead of hang-drying branches and trimming later.)
Buckeye’s post-harvest team consisted mostly of interns from the Cleveland School of Cannabis through a partnership the post-harvest director developed.
Procuk, an 11-year veteran of the cannabis industry, had difficulty finding experienced help in Ohio, so when he heard about the local cannabis college, he saw an opportunity to give those students practical experience working in a cultivation business while accessing a workforce with higher cannabis knowledge. “The whole idea is I pay them enough, but not as much as the full-time employees, so it gives them the incentive to move up and not be complacent as just a trimmer,” Procuk says.
Buckeye executives also use the trimming program as extended interviews and offer permanent positions to trimmers they think can be beneficial in other areas of the business. The company reimburses the cost of the state cannabis employee badge (which Ohio only offers if a badge applicant has a job offer) for all of the interns it hires in full-time roles. Students not selected to continue with Buckeye can still leverage the workplace experience when applying for jobs at other facilities in the state.
Thanks to the early test runs with the hermaphroditic plants, Procuk was able to streamline post-harvest workflow to make the process smooth. For example, during the dry runs, Procuk noticed a lot of movement in the trim room as trimmers would drop off empty trays and grab new ones filled with branches that needed trimming.
To reduce foot-traffic and keep the process running smoothly during the real harvest period, Procuk designates one trimmer per shift as a “runner” whose main responsibility is to answer other trimmers’ calls for help. A trimmer yells “runner!” Procuk says, and the designated team member drops what she is doing and gets whatever that trimmer needs, whether it’s clean scissors, new gloves or a new tray of cannabis.
“We had 24 people that got to experience actual harvesting with a small amount of plants at a time and then when it came time on Dec. 6, we just crushed the harvest,” Procuk says. “I’ve actually never seen a crew work as well as those guys who were relatively inexperienced.”
On Dec. 9, 2018, 131 days after Buckeye planted its 5,000 seeds, Buckeye Relief’s first harvest was in the books, and Rayburn is thrilled with his team’s performance. “The way that everybody has been working together is essential to how well this first cycle went, and I expect it to go better and better every cycle,” he says. “The dynamic of watching that come together, to me, was really rewarding.”