As the operations manager at Los Sueños Farms, the largest outdoor cannabis farm in the country, I was tasked with the challenge of finding a yeast and mold remediation treatment method that would ensure safe and healthy cannabis for all of our customers while complying with stringent regulations.
While outdoor cannabis is not inherently moldy, outdoor farms are vulnerable to changing weather conditions. Wind transports spores, which can cause mold. Each spore is a colony forming unit if plated at a lab, even if not germinated in the final product. In other words, perfectly good cannabis can easily fail microbial testing with the presence of benign spores.
If all of those landed on cannabis it would be enough to cause over 450 pounds of cannabis to fail testing, even if those spores remained ungerminated.
It should also be known that almost every food item purchased in a store goes through some type of remediation method to be considered safe for sale. Cannabis is finally becoming a legitimized industry and we will see regulations that make cannabis production look more like food production each year.
Regulations in Colorado (as well as Nevada and Canada) require cannabis to have a total yeast and mold count (TYMC) of ≤ 10,000 colony forming units per gram. We needed a TYMC treatment method that was safe, reliable, efficient and suitable for a large-scale operation. Our main problem was the presence of fungal spores, not living, growing mold.
Below is a short list of the pros and cons of each treatment method I compiled after two years of research:
Autoclave: This is the same technology used to sterilize tattoo needles and medical equipment. Autoclave uses heat and pressure to kill living things. While extremely effective, readily available and fiscally reasonable, this method is time-consuming and cannot treat large batches. It also utilizes moisture, which increases mold risk. The final product may experience decarboxylation and a change in color, taste and smell.
Dry Heat: Placing cannabis in dry heat is a very inexpensive method that is effective at reducing mold and yeast. However, it totally ruins product unless you plan to extract it.
Gamma Ray Radiation: By applying gamma ray radiation, microbial growth is reduced in plants without affecting potency. This is a very effective, fast and scalable method that doesn’t cause terpene loss or decarboxylation. However, it uses ionizing radiation that can create new chemical compounds not present before, some of which can be cancer-causing. The Department of Homeland Security will never allow U.S. cannabis farmers to use this method, as it relies on a radioactive isotope to create the gamma rays.
Gas Treatment: (Ozone, Propylene Oxide, Ethylene Oxide, Sulfur Dioxide) Treatment with gas is inexpensive, readily available and treats the entire product. Gas treatment is time consuming and must be handled carefully, as all of these gases are toxic to humans. Ozone is challenging to scale while PPO, EO and SO2 are very scalable. Gases require special facilities to apply and it’s important to note that gases such as PPO and EO are carcinogenic. These methods introduce chemicals to cannabis and can affect the end product by reducing terpenes, aroma and flavor.
Hydrogen Peroxide: Spraying cannabis plants with a hydrogen peroxide mixture can reduce yeast and mold. However, moisture is increased, which can cause otherwise benign spores to germinate. This method only treats the surface level of the plant and is not an effective remediation treatment. It also causes extreme oxidation, burning the cannabis and removing terpenes.
Microwave: This method is readily available for small-scale use and is non-chemical based and non-ionizing. However, it causes uneven heating, burning product, which is damaging to terpenes and greatly reduces quality. This method can also result in a loss of moisture. Microwave treatment is difficult to scale and is not optimal for large cultivators.
Radio Frequency: This method is organic, non-toxic, non-ionizing and non-chemical based. It is also scalable and effective; treatment time is very fast and it treats the entire product at once. There is no decarboxylation or potency loss with radio frequency treatment. Minimal moisture loss and terpene loss may result. This method has been proven by a decade of use in the food industry and will probably become the standard in large-scale treatment facilities.
Steam Treatment: Water vapor treatment is effective in other industries, scalable, organic and readily available. This method wets cannabis, introducing further mold risk, and only treats the product surface. It also uses heat, which can cause decarboxylation, and takes a long time to implement. This is not an effective method to reduce TYMC in cannabis, even though it works very well for other agricultural products
Extraction: Using supercritical gas such as butane, heptane, carbon dioxide or hexane in the cannabis extraction process is the only method of remediation approved by the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division and is guaranteed to kill almost everything. It’s also readily available and easy to access. However, this time-consuming method will change your final product into a concentrate instead of flower and usually constitutes a high profit loss.
UV Light: This is an inexpensive and readily available method that is limited in efficacy. UV light is only effective on certain organisms and does not work well for killing mold spores. It also only kills what the light is touching, unless ozone is captured from photolysis of oxygen near the UV lamp. It is time consuming and very difficult to scale.
After exhaustively testing and researching all treatment methods, we settled on radio frequency treatment as the best option. APEX, a radio frequency treatment machine created by Ziel, allowed us to treat 100 pounds of cannabis in an hour – a critical factor when harvesting 36,000 plants during the October harvest.
Controlling your grow environment doesn’t start when you germinate your first seeds, it starts before you build your grow. There are steps you can take that will have a significant impact on mold growth and contamination, and these will vary based on the grow environment you choose.
Below is a roadmap to where each grow environment stands in terms of mold and contamination risk, and simple steps you can take to mitigate these factors.
The benefits of an outdoor grow are significant – using natural sunlight to grow plants is both inexpensive and environmentally sound. However, it allows the least amount of control and makes plants susceptible to weather conditions and outdoor contaminants including dust, wind, rain and insects. Depending on humidity and precipitation levels, mold can be a big issue as well.
When selecting an outdoor area for a cannabis farm, there are two important factors to consider: location and neighboring farmland. Geographical environments and sub-climates vary and once you have purchased land, you are committed, so be sure to consider these factors prior to purchase.
While arid desert climates have abundant sunlight and long growing seasons, flat, dry lands are subject to dust-storms, flash floods and exceedingly high winds that can damage crops. Conversely, more protected areas often have high humidity and rainfall late in the season, which can create huge issues with bud rot and mold. Neighboring farms also have an impact on your grow, so be sure to find out what they cultivate, what they spray, their harvest schedule and how they run their operation. Large farming equipment kicks up a lot of contaminant-laden dust and can damage crops by displacing insects to your farm if they harvest before you. Pesticide drift is also a major issue as even tiny amounts from a neighbor’s farm can cause your crops to fail testing, depending on what state you are in.
With outdoor grow environments always at the mercy of Mother Nature, any cultivator is wise to control contamination potential on the ground. Cover soil and protect your crop by planting cover crops and laying plastic mulch on as much ground as reasonable. In many cases it makes sense to irrigate uncultivated parts of your farm just to keep dust down.
Greenhouses are the future of cannabis cultivation. They allow growers to capture the full spectrum and power of the sun while lessening environmental impact and operating expenses, while still being able to precisely control the environment to grow great cannabis. With recent advancements in greenhouse technology such as automated control systems, positive pressure, geothermal heating or cooling and LED supplemental lighting, greenhouses are the future. However, older or economy greenhouses that take in unfiltered air from outside still have a medium amount of mold and contamination risk.
Before building your greenhouse, study the area while taking into account climate, weather conditions and sun exposure. Excessively windy areas can blow in contaminants, and extremely hot climates make cooling the greenhouse interior a challenging and costly endeavor.
There are several simple operational tactics to reduce contaminants in a greenhouse. Add a thrip screen to keep insects out, thoroughly clean pad walls with an oxidizing agent after each cycle, and keep plants at least 10 feet from pad walls. Plan to flip the entire greenhouse at once so that you can clean the greenhouse top to bottom before your next crop. A continuous harvest in your greenhouse allows contaminants to jump from one plant to the next and reduces the ability to control your environment and eliminate problems at the end of a cycle. Lastly, open shade curtains slowly in the morning. This prevents temperature inversion and condensation, which can cause water drops to fall from the ceiling and transfer contaminants onto plants below.
An indoor environment offers ultimate control to any grow operation. Cultivators can grow high-quality cannabis with the smallest potential for yeast and mold growth. Unfortunately, indoor environments are extremely expensive, inefficient and environmentally costly.
With indoor grow environments, keeping mold and contaminants at bay comes down to following a regimented plan that keeps all grow aspects clean and in order. To keep your grow environment clean, change HVAC filters multiple times a month. It’s also important to install HEPA filters and UV lights in HVAC systems to further reduce contamination threats. Clearly mark air returns if they are near the ground and keep those areas free of clutter. They are the lungs of your grow. Also, stop using brooms in the grow space. They stir up a lot of contaminants that have settled to the floor. Instead, use HEPA filter backpack vacuums or install a central vacuum system. Set up a “dirty room” for anything messy on a separate HVAC system, and be sure to thoroughly clean pots after every harvest cycle.
Adam Jacques and his team officially launched the newest arm of their business last week, Sproutly, a dispensary located in Eugene, Oregon. “This is an extension of what the Grower’s Guild Gardens does and what the Microgrower’s Guild was,” says Jacques. The Grower’s Guild Gardens, Jacques’ award-winning cultivation business, is known for their high-CBD genetics and patient-focused work, most notably with Leni Young, which helped lead to the passing of legislation in Alabama called Leni’s Law, decriminalizing the possession of cannabis oil for patients in the state.
Sproutly is a medical and recreational dispensary that boasts a wide variety of high-CBD strains, a reflection of the team’s focus in the past. “We are extremely medically focused with a variety of unique CBD strains in stock,” says Jacques. “First and foremost are the patients, but entering the recreational market means we will be carrying a wider variety.” The opening of the dispensary is well timed as the team received their Tier II cultivation license, allowing them to grow cannabis up to 20,000 square feet in an outdoor space and 5,000 square feet indoor. So in addition to the handful of brands they carry, including Lunchbox Alchemy edibles, Northwest Kind and Marley Naturals, they also carry over 75 strains from their own Grower’s Guild Gardens.
Adam and Debra Jacques pride themselves in rigid standards for quality in sourcing, so it should be no surprise that they plan on supplying their dispensary with over 150 strains coming from more than 1,200 plants on their farm. “We really only take products from people we know and trust,” says Jacques. “That is why most of the flower in the dispensary is coming from our farm, so we know exactly what is going into it.” Jacques points to third-party certifications such as Clean Green, for other vendors to find reputable growers. “I need to know where it is coming from and that requires a personal relationship to trust the quality of their products.” The value of trust and personal relationships is also why they go through extensive training of their staff, using their own expertise for in-house training.
The team includes Chris West, Elton Prince and John De Kluyver, all of whom have a decade or more of experience cultivating cannabis and working with patients. “We take our bud tenders through training classes, they get tested on their knowledge of products and the science of cannabinoids and terpenes and how the combinations affect people differently,” says Jacques. By leveraging that high level of in-house expertise, the team prides themselves on customer service, helping patients and customers find the right strain or product that suits them best.
In the front of the dispensary, a receptionist greets patients or customers, checking identification and showing you to a bud tender. As you walk into the retail space, you immediately notice the professionalism of the staff, taking time to personalize each customer’s experience without making him or her feel rushed. The clean aesthetics, product selection and knowledgeable staff provide for a friendly retail culture without the common ‘stoner culture’ that usually follows.
Jacques and his team will not be trading in their overalls and work boots just yet as they are inching toward harvesting their 1,200 outdoor cannabis plants soon. Grinning ear-to-ear, Jacques showed off his Tier II cultivation license on the farm, and with it came a glimpse into their exciting growth.
Walking into one of the grow rooms on Adam Jacques’ farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, you will find dozens of cannabis plants and a whiteboard on the wall with the note “Do it for Frank” across the top. This is a reminder of why Jacques and his team are growing medical marijuana: To help people.
Frank Leeds, one of Jacques’ cannabis patients, lost his battle with cancer in early January.
Jacques was working with Frank for the past five years to develop “Frank’s Gift,” a high-cannabidiol (CBD) strain with a slew of potential medical benefits. Deeply saddened by the loss of his patient and close friend, Jacques continues to run his grow operation, Grower’s Guild Gardens, where he and his wife, Debra, work to get high-quality, safe medicine to their patients.
On their farm, strain testing is currently underway for the upcoming changes in the recreational program in Oregon. “With the way the medical laws are now, I have 48 plants for my patients, including multiple high-CBD genetics, and any excess flower will be sold to recreational dispensaries to cover our overhead costs,” says Jacques. When the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) grants them their recreational grow license, he will take some of those trial strains to an outdoor crop estimated to be in the thousands of plants on his 42-acre farm.
Presenting at the Dispensary Next Conference a few weeks ago, Jacques said to a crowded room of industry professionals: “The biggest reward is helping people.” Jacques and his team’s work exemplifies the good that smaller grow operations can do for the industry.
Jacques’ recent work has taken him to help Leni Young, a four-year-old girl originally from Alabama who suffers from debilitating seizures. Her parents became medical refugees when she was not selected for an Alabama study involving cannabis oil. As a result, the Young’s took their daughter to Eugene, where with the help of Jacques and his team, they could get her customized cannabis oil with high doses of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THC-A) that could help treat her seizures.
The cannabis oil that Jacques created has brought Young’s seizures down from multiple occurring every day to just one every six weeks. “One-strain solutions like ‘Charlotte’s Web’ are no longer the answer for treating medical conditions,” says Jacques. “We create something custom designed for individual patients, and it is working.” CBD and THC-A, the main active ingredients in Leni’s medicine, are two of the non-psychoactive compounds in cannabis believed to have extraordinary medical benefits.
Less than three weeks ago, a bill was introduced to the Alabama legislature that would decriminalize the possession of and allow patients to get high-CBD oil. The bill is called “Leni’s Law.”
Jacques’ goal in the long term is to get clinical trials with peer-reviewed studies to connect the dots between his patients, cannabis and evidence-based medicine. “I am working with a laboratory in Arizona and a doctor from Israel to perform a peer-reviewed study,” he adds. “Getting peer-reviewed will allow me to provide legitimate scientific evidence for my claims and get the knowledge into the hands of my patients.”
Looking into the immediate future, Jacques is wary of different regulations coming to Oregon. “Once you go recreational with your business, you lose the ability to provide any sort of a medical recommendation,” says Jacques. “I do not want to see the recreational program and the desire for profits push out our ability to help patients.”
Jacques and his team represent the idea that embodies the cannabis legalization movement, which is to help people get the medicine they need. “The money is not really important any more,” says Jacques.
His company, Green Man Cannabis, has won the Cannabis Cup four times and he has been a partner at five dispensaries and six grow operations. He is currently a partner at two dispensaries and two grow operations and he is a founding partner of a medical research group in Israel. Christian Hageseth has years of experience working with cannabis in a number of capacities that has culminated in a keen eye for understanding the cannabis industry. We sat down with Hageseth to learn more about some of his expectations for the industry’s future.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Can you discuss why you decided to take your research group to Israel?
Christian Hageseth: Obviously the United States has barriers to medical research on the plant, so it is seriously lacking the ability to discover more about the plant. We know the NIH [National Institutes of Health] has been helping Dr. Raphael Mechoulam in Israel to study cannabis and THC for the past 35 years, even though this is not permitted in the United States. Israel is willing to allow the research in an open format. We will be able to get an independent review board and the ability to work with institutions in Israel.
CIJ: What kind of research are you looking to accomplish?
Christian: We are researching what cannabis formulation and delivery mechanism would work better than what is available for certain ailments. The research should initiate in March with the goal of reaching clinical trials in the future. We are looking to study the treatment of five ailments with cannabis: migraines, joint pain, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis.
CIJ: How do you think your research will help people?
Christian: I own dispensaries, and I see people come in and ask for advice on how to treat their insomnia or migraines all the time. We want to be able to recommend something that will accurately treat them. Simply recommending an indica or sativa strain is such a hollow answer for people that are actually in physical pain and need precise treatment. We want to be able to provide the real answers to people seeking help.
CIJ: Switching gears a little, how is progress on the Colorado Cannabis Ranch?
Christian: We are ready to break ground on the Colorado Cannabis Ranch (the Weedery) in the beginning of March this year. We expect greenhouses at the Ranch to be operational by July along with a summer concert series a little later.
CIJ: Looking at the cannabis industry as a whole, where do you think innovation will come from in the near future?
Christian: Emerging medical technologies will have the greatest impact on the industry. Nanoparticle delivery systems for sublingual drug delivery are one example of biotechnology that I foresee having a major impact. I can expect some major innovations in some of the process technology around extraction. The technology around extracting specific and separate cannabinoids in particular will get refined more and more. The industry as a whole and market expansion will be driven by product development.
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