Tag Archives: efficient

Operational Inefficiencies in Commercial Cannabis Cultivation

By Drew Plebani
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From the perspective of sustainable cannabis cultivation models, it seems clear that outside of the particular cultivation methodology adopted, that operational efficiency and the implementation of lean manufacturing principles will be necessary for successful and truly “sustainable” businesses, in the current, ever growing, cannabis space.

Implementing lean manufacturing principles as an integral part of the cannabis cultivation facility just makes sense- it is a manufacturing operation after all. From a lean perspective, doing away with the non-value-added costs in the supply chain and production model are quite important.

Let’s look at this case study as evidence for the necessity of operational efficiency:

A 300-light flowering, indoor cultivation facility in Colorado.

The system was purchased with ongoing pest/disease issues, recent updates to Colorado’s approved pesticide list, had prompted the implementation of an updated integrated pest management (IPM) program, which had been moderately successful in developing an albeit short-term solution to keeping ongoing root aphids, powdery mildew, and botrytis, to name a few, at bay.

This existing facility was producing roughly 60 pounds of trimmed cannabis per week, equivalent to almost $6M annual gross, however they were losing a percentage of their yields to product that did not pass Colorado’s contaminant testing requirements.

It is important to note that any deviation from the existing manufacturing schedule and system would create a change to the potential productivity of the system, for better or worse.

At the most basic level, one would hope that a new operator taking over an existing facility would analyze the system and implement incremental or perhaps major changes to create more efficient and profitable outcomes. That being said, currently the average grower likely doesn’t have much understanding of the lean manufacturing process. That will undoubtedly change.

When we look at basic manufacturing facility operations, on an annual gross potential basis, each daily task not completed on the existing manufacturing timeline is, at least, a 0.3% (1/365) loss in potential productivity. In monetary terms, for this particular facility, each 0.3% equates to a potential $18,000 in lost productivity.

The information that follows is taken from observations during the first week of this facility ownership transition and below is a generalized outline representing just one aspect of the operational inefficiencies (created or existing) that were observed :

  • Plant group A put into flowering 4 days behind schedule (4 days x 0.3%) =1.2%
  • Plant group B transplanted 3 days behind =0.9%
  • Plant group C transplanted 7 days behind =2.1%
  • Plant group D (clones) taken 7 days behind =2.1%
  • IPM applications not completed for 7+ days

That equals a 6.3% loss in potential annual productivity, which translates into a rough estimate of up to $378,000 in lost revenue.

Changes to the nutrient program in the midst of the plant’s life cycle had created nutrient deficient plants in all stages of vegetative and flowering growth, coupled with changes to the existing IPM program, all add to the potential losses incurred. Deviations in the plant nutrition program and IPM scheduling are hard to quantify mid-cycle, but will certainly be quantifiable when the hard numbers come home to roost.

These inefficiencies, once compounded, could potentially equal more than a 20% loss in potential productivity during the subsequent 3.5 month plant cycle. The current 60 pounds-per-week would likely be reduced for the next 2 months, down to roughly 50 pounds, or even much less, per-week. This could become a loss upwards of $500,000 in annual potential revenue in the first quarter of operation alone.

These seemingly small and incremental delays in the plant production cycle are all greatly compounded. The end result is that each subsequent cycle of plants is slightly smaller due to delays in transplanting and less days at maximized vegetative growth, etc. Undoubtedly, the cumulative effect of these operational inefficiencies creates a significant drop in the existing level of productivity, with the end result being a significant, undesired loss of revenue.

The sum of the lessons learned from this cultivation facility, is this: a sustainable operation, in the most pragmatic sense, is an efficient one both in terms of productivity and in terms of the carbon footprint and waste generated. The more streamlined and successful the operations are, the greater likelihood of success. Perhaps all of this is to say don’t forget about all the little parts that make up the whole, and strive to create a work environment/corporate culture that empowers your employees, your managers and all involved to participate and contribute to the process of improving the operations for mutual benefit.

Lessons learned from the aerospace manufacturing industry: Even the smallest zip tie on a spaceship matters! Some food for thought: If it’s truly beneficial it should stick around… If it is beneficial and it’s not sticking around, then there are limiting factors in the system that need to be addressed.

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Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part II

By Aaron G. Biros
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In the second part of this series, I speak with Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, to find out what particular solutions growers can use to increase efficiency. Last month, I introduced the challenge of growing cannabis more sustainably. To recap, I raised the issue of sustainability as an economic, social and environmental problem and referenced recent pesticide issues in Colorado and carbon footprint estimates of growing cannabis.

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The growers at Solstice put their plants under a trellis net to increase yield.

Alex Cooley is the vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business based in Washington. Solstice is at the forefront of the industry for innovating in energy, water and raw materials efficiency. I sat down with Cooley to discuss exactly what you can do to grow cannabis sustainably.

“Switching to outdoors or greenhouse will always be more sustainable than indoor, but depending on the type of facility, energy efficiency and specifically lighting should be at top of mind,” says Cooley. “Just looking at your bottom line, it is cheaper to use energy efficient lighting sources such as plasma or LED lighting, which will reduce your need for air conditioning and your overall energy consumption.”

Looking into sustainable technologies is one of the quicker ways to improve your overall efficiency. “We are big believers in VRF [variable refrigerant flow] HVAC systems because it is one of the most energy efficient ways to cool a large space in the world,” adds Cooley. “Use a smart water filtration system that gets away from wasting water by catching condensate off AC and dehumidifiers, filtering and then reusing that water.”

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Indoor cultivator facilities use high powered lights that give off heat, requiring an efficient air cooling system like VRF HVAC.

Utilizing your waste streams is another relatively simple and cost effective practice to grow cannabis sustainably. “Our soil and biomass goes through a composting company, we recapture any of our waste fertilizer and runoff for reuse,” says Cooley. “We try to use post-consumer or fully recyclable packaging to reduce what would go into the waste streams.”

So some of the low hanging fruit to improve your bottom line and overall sustainability, according to Alex Cooley, include things like reusing materials, composting, increasing energy efficiency and saving water. These are some of the easily implementable standard operating procedures that directly address inefficiency in your operation.

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The tops of plants are beginning to flower in this Solstice indoor facility.

In the next part of this series, I will discuss Terra Tech’s approach to sustainable cultivation, which utilizes the “Dutch hydroponic greenhouse model” on a large scale growing produce such as thyme and basil, but are now taking their technologies and expertise to the cannabis industry. I will also discuss the benefits of using a third party certification, Clean Green Certified, to not only help grow cannabis more ecofriendly, but also market your final product as such. Stay tuned for more in Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part III.

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Biros' Blog

Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016, Part I

By Aaron G. Biros
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A few weeks ago, it was that time of the year when people set new year’s resolutions hoping to accomplish a set of goals or somehow better themselves. More often than not, those expectations never get met and those resolutions remain unfulfilled, lofty ambitions.

The cultivation of cannabis is a production process that is notoriously inefficient and energy-intensive. Indoor growing requires a very large carbon footprint. In 2015, we saw the country’s cannabis market grow to roughly $2.7 billion. Looking forward to 2016, we can expect more growth with multiple states voting on recreational sales including California and Nevada, leading to more growers and a higher volume of cannabis production across the nation.

I am suggesting a resolution for cultivators to adopt: Grow your cannabis more sustainably. This might seem unattainable, but the key to a good resolution is a force of habit, setting small goals to improve your production process and make your operation more efficient, ultimately saving you money and reducing your carbon footprint. This series will delve into some of the tools cultivators can use to grow cannabis more sustainably.

Environmental, social and economic sustainability are the three pillars of sustainability to keep in mind. Many describe it in terms of people, planet and profit in reference to the Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business. Essentially, cultivators should adjust their standard operating procedures and business model to include their responsibility to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

The challenge of growing cannabis efficiently is understandably daunting. A research study published in the journal, Energy Policy, suggests, “One average kilogram of final product [dried flower marijuana] is associated with 4600 kg of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere.” That translates to an enormous carbon footprint, the equivalent of roughly three million cars.

The use of pesticides is also a tangible social and environmental issue of sustainability because of the potentially harmful effects on the cultivation environment and the consumer. Just last week, Denver recalled almost 100,000 edibles due to concerns of dangerous pesticide residue. Growing pesticide-free marijuana is more sustainable across the board for obvious reasons; it is safe for the consumer, less harmful to the environment and more marketable as a clean and safe product.

There are a lot of tools in the cultivator’s arsenal they can use to work toward a more sustainable operation. Some of these include more energy efficient technology, like LED lighting and efficient HVAC systems. Some tools require more effort to implement like moving toward greenhouse growing, using post-consumer products, support fields, composting and others.

In this series, we will hear from growers offering advice on some of the steps you can take to grow your cannabis with sustainability at top of mind. Alex Cooley, vice president of Solstice, a cultivation and processing business in Washington, will share some insights on the sustainable technologies you can implement to improve efficiency in your grow operation. Stay tuned for Part II of Sustainability of Cultivation in 2016.

From Produce to Cannabis: The Future of Indoor Agriculture

By Aaron G. Biros
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Throughout the United States, a majority of cannabis for medical and adult use is grown indoors, which requires a tremendous amount of energy and is generally inefficient. State regulators and cultivators alike are beginning to notice the benefits of greenhouse and outdoor-grown cannabis, primarily for energy efficiency and environmental sustainability.

Basil plants ready for packaging and shipping at the Edible Garden facility in Belvidere, New jersey
Basil plants ready for packaging and shipping at the Edible Garden facility in Belvidere, New jersey

Terra Tech, a publicly traded company, cultivates environmentally sustainable produce through its subsidiary, Edible Garden, in Belvidere, New Jersey. Utilizing Dutch hydroponic cultivation methods, integrated pest management and computer-controlled automation, Edible Garden grows certified organic herbs such as thyme and basil in their greenhouses in New Jersey.

Poinsettias ready for distribution at Edible Garden facility in Belvidere, New Jersey
Poinsettias ready for distribution at Edible Garden facility in Belvidere, New Jersey

Edible Garden is certified by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), which provides internationally recognized benchmarks and guidance for managing food safety and meeting standards. According to Ken VandeVrede, chief operating officer of Terra Tech, the company plans to take these cutting-edge practices and standards from cultivating produce to the cannabis industry to grow quality, sustainable and safe cannabis in states where it is currently legal.

The company is actively making its operations more environmentally sustainable via greenhouse cultivation, Dutch style hydroponics, shipping locally, and integrated pest management. “We plan on implementing guidance from our two years of GFSI certification and our organic certification along with all of our practices from the food side and bring them to cannabis; for us, it is just another plant,” says VandeVrede. With the help of computer automation, he says they can cultivate cannabis at the commercial scale, creating more homogeneity by removing human elements and utilizing environmental controls. Through computer automated blackout curtains in their greenhouses, they plan to minimize energy usage by using natural sunlight when possible.

“The procedures are very similar across industries so we are creating our own internal standards for cannabis cultivation,” says VandeVrede. “We are trying to be at the forefront of the industry and set the standard for growing cannabis, because right now, there are no standards in place.”

Mint plants ready for harvest at the Edible Garden greenhouse
Mint plants ready for harvest at the Edible Garden greenhouse

Terra Tech has already started its move into the cannabis industry via its subsidiary, IVXX LLC, which makes medical cannabis extracts for dispensaries in California. The company has also broken ground on cultivation and production facilities in Nevada and dispensaries in California, and submitted an application for licenses in Maryland. “Terra Tech is doing everything with vertical integration in mind; we will control the cultivation, bringing experience from our agricultural background to cultivate high quality and high yield cannabis, making oil and extracts with it to sell in our dispensaries,” adds VandeVrede.

Looking to the future of cannabis cultivation, Terra Tech’s plan is to keep environmental sustainability at top of mind. “As a company we are growing indoor, but moving toward greenhouse cultivation across the board”, says VandeVrede. “Our focus on expansion will be [include] greenhouse-grown cannabis, which is a lot more efficient, saving us money but more importantly reducing our overall carbon footprint.” With more companies adopting these sustainable farming practices, the industry might soon usher in a new era of environmentally friendly cannabis cultivation.