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Steven Burton

3 Ways The Cannabis Industry Can Benefit By Adopting IoT Tech

By Steven Burton
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Steven Burton

The cannabis industry of the United States is unlike other horticulture markets in the country. It’s younger, less traditional and with roots in a black market, it’s no surprise that its forerunners aren’t afraid to experiment with new approaches and technology.

The rapid adoption of IoT (Internet of Things) technology is one way in particular that this new generation of producers is stepping up, and they’re beginning to reap the rewards. But to better demonstrate how significant the implementation of IoT tech can be, we’ll peek over the fence at other craft-oriented food industries—namely wine and chocolate—to discover how effective they can be long-term for serious players in the cannabis industry.

The results, as you can probably guess, are astounding.

Farm Productivity and Precision is on the Rise

IoT tech isn’t just a cool new thing for experimental growers – it’s as necessary as air in the 21st century. New and veteran farms alike are discovering ways to streamline production and enhance the quality of their crops. One of the most common implementations of IoT tech in agriculture is the installation of smart measurement tools. Remote sensors can monitor soil acidity, humidity, salt concentrations, temperature and a variety of other metrics, automating the collection of data and providing a clear picture of plant health. For many farms, like E. & J. Gallo Winery, this is a game-changer.By installing hundreds of sensors per block and upgrading to a more precise irrigation system, Gallo was able to connect moisture measurements to a central system

Before placing sensors in over 250 acres of their vineyard, Gallo could only make irrigation adjustments at the large block level. Even with careful monitoring of moisture levels, the grape yield was inconsistent in size and flavor. By installing hundreds of sensors per block and upgrading to a more precise irrigation system, Gallo was able to connect moisture measurements to a central system. The system collects the data, considers the weather forecast, and automatically irrigates small areas of the vineyard as needed to ensure all plants are optimally watered. This resulted in a more uniform crop, less water waste and more desirable grapes.

Cannabis farms are starting to pick up on this simple approach as well. Organigram, one of Canada’s leading Cannabis producers, is well aware of the benefits of this kind of automation and data collection. “All our grow rooms are helping us learn all the time,” says Matt Rogers, head of production at Organigram. “With 20 grow rooms going, we can gather as much information about these plants as you would get in a century of summers.”

Automation and precision have enabled by Gallo and Organigram to improve yield and increase precision, which has helped them achieve their well-respected status in the wine and cannabis industries.

The Supply Chain is Becoming More Transparent

As much as we would like the industry to be free of scams and crooks, there’s more than a few producers stretching the truth when it comes to labeling product. MyDx, a cannabis chemical analyzer, recently revealed that the label on the package often does not totally coincide with the product within.Protecting your brand’s reputation is a necessity and IoT tech is helping some pioneering industries do that.

For example, the most frequently tested cannabis strain, “Blue Dream”, averages a 64% difference in chemical makeup from sample to sample. Similarly, “Gorilla Glue” and “Green Crack” show as much as 83% variation from sample to sample—largely because there’s no regulation of these names.

While variation is inevitable from grower to grower, plant to plant, and even between different parts of the same plant, misleading labels and the addition of ‘fillers’ is a growing issue for edible cannabis producers, and the threat it poses to your brand isn’t minor. Protecting your brand’s reputation is a necessity and IoT tech is helping some pioneering industries do that.

Wine in China is a powerful example of how improved traceability can reduce large-scale mislabeling. Brand-name winemakers in the country face a massive problem: 70% of imported wines are counterfeits. To combat this, winemakers are attaching near-field communication (NFC) labels to imported and domestic bottles. It’s a dramatic solution, but one that’s protecting the brand of winemakers dedicated to quality and transparency.

As the legalization of cannabis spreads and coveted strains emerge, so will the availability of counterfeits—or, at the very least, less-than-truthful labeling. This has proven to be true in almost every specialty market, and adopting improved traceability tech will defend your brand and reputation from the consequences of selling a product that’s discovered to be more ‘filler’ than cannabis.

Compliance is Easily Achieved

The conversation of cannabis regulation generally revolves around age restrictions and driving while impaired, but government compliance is far more complicated – especially for facilities that create cannabis-infused food products. And here’s the frustrating part for those who must (and should) maintain a food safety plan: every time a regulation is adjusted (or every time a new variation is added in another state), facilities must be able to document changes in procedures, recipes and hazard controls. It gets complicated quickly, especially if all the documentation is kept manually.

There’s a lot to be gained by connecting your systems and products to the Internet of ThingsA central, connected system is the best way for food manufacturers to streamline and automate a variety of documentation and food safety tasks, which can mean thousands of dollars saved over months or years. Using software like Icicle, facilities can create a comprehensive data environment that’s dynamic and accessible from anywhere. Incoming measurements from connected equipment and employee records are collected and an admin dashboard allows you to see what food safety systems are thriving and which need revisiting. The records – transformed into a compliant food safety plan – can then be pulled up during audits and inspections on the spot, saving the months that companies usually spend preparing documentation.

According to Mitchell Pugh of Chewter’s Chocolates, their system “gives me a great peace of mind in the sense to know we have all our information prepared and anything that an inspector is going to ask for – whether they’re looking for one product, a general system, a certain hazard, or a bill of ingredients or materials or an allergen – is easy for us to search for it, pull it up, and find exactly what they’re looking for.”

Considering that most food manufacturers still record measurements and create food safety plans manually, this is an area where progressive companies can quickly outpace their non-automated rivals.

Whether you’re a grower, dispensary, food producer, or some other kind of cannabis professional, there’s a lot to be gained by connecting your systems and products to the Internet of Things. Which direction will you take?

HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) for the Cannabis Industry: Part 1

By Kathy Knutson, Ph.D.
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HACCP

Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) Defined

Farm-to-fork is a concept to describe the control of food safety starting in the fields of a farm and ending with deliciousness in my mouth. The more that is optimized at every step, the more food safety and quality are realized. Farm-to-fork is not a concept reserved for foodies or “eat local” food campaigns and applies to all scales of food manufacture. HACCP is like putting the last piece of a huge puzzle in the middle and seeing the whole picture develop. HACCP is a program to control food safety at the step of food processing. In states where cannabis is legal, the state department of public health or state department of agriculture may require food manufacturers to have a HACCP plan. The HACCP plan is a written document identifying food safety hazards and how those hazards are controlled by the manufacturer. While there are many resources available for writing a HACCP plan, like solving that puzzle, it is a do-it-yourself project. You can’t use someone else’s “puzzle,” and you can’t put the box on a shelf and say you have a “puzzle.”

HACCP is pronounced “ha” as in “hat” plus “sip.”

(Say it aloud.)

3-2-1 We have liftoff.

The history of HACCP starts not with Adam eating in the garden of Eden but with the development of manned missions to the moon, the race to space in the 1950s. Sorry to be gross, but imagine an astronaut with vomiting and diarrhea as a result of foodborne illness. In the 1950s, the food industry relied on finished product testing to determine safety. Testing is destructive of product, and there is no amount of finished product testing that will determine food is safe enough for astronauts. Instead, the food industry built safety into the process. Temperature was monitored and recorded. Acidity measured by pH is an easy test. Rather than waiting to test the finished product in its sealed package, the food industry writes specifications for ingredients, ensures equipment is clean and sanitized, and monitors processing and packaging. HACCP was born first for astronauts and now for everyone.HACCP

HACCP is not the only food safety program.

If you are just learning about HACCP, it is a great place to start! There is a big world of food safety programs. HACCP is required by the United States Department of Agriculture for meat processors. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires HACCP for seafood processing and 100% juice manufacture. For all foods beyond meat, seafood and juice, FDA has the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to enforce food safety. FSMA was signed in 2011 and became enforceable for companies with more than 500 employees in September of 2016; all food companies are under enforcement in September 2018. FSMA requires all food companies with an annual revenue greater than $1 million to follow a written food safety plan. Both FDA inspectors and industry professionals are working to meet the requirements of FSMA. There are also national and international guidelines for food safety with elements of HACCP which do not carry the letter of law.

The first step in HACCP is a hazard analysis.

Traditionally HACCP has focused on processing and packaging. Your organization may call that manufacturing or operations. In a large facility there is metering of ingredients by weight or volume and mixing. A recipe or batch sheet is followed. Most, but not all, products have a kill step where high heat is applied through roasting, baking, frying or canning. The food is sealed in packaging, labeled, boxed and heads out for distribution. For your hazard analysis, you identify the potential hazards that could cause injury or illness, if not controlled during processing. Think about all the potential hazards:

  • Biological: What pathogens are you killing in the kill step? What pathogens could get in to the product before packaging is sealed?
  • Chemical: Pesticides, industrial chemicals, mycotoxins and allergens are concerns.
  • Physical: Evaluate the potential for choking hazards and glass, wood, hard plastic and metal.

The hazards analysis drives everything you do for food safety.

I cannot emphasize too much the importance of the hazard analysis. Every food safety decision is grounded in the hazard analysis. Procedures will be developed and capital will be purchased based on the hazard analysis and control of food safety in your product. There is no one form for the completion of a hazard analysis.

HACCP risk matrix
A risk severity matrix. Many HACCP training programs have these.

So where do you start? Create a flow diagram naming all the steps in processing and packaging. If your flow diagram starts with Receiving of ingredients, then the next step is Storage of ingredients; include packaging with Receiving and Storage. From Storage, ingredients and packaging are gathered for a batch. Draw out the processing steps in order and through to Packaging. After Packaging, there is finished product Storage and Distribution. Remember HACCP focuses on the processing and packaging steps. It is not necessary to detail each step on the flow diagram, just name the step, e.g. Mixing, Filling, Baking, etc. Other supporting documents have the details of each step.

For every step on the flow diagram, identify hazards.

Transfer the name of the step to the hazard analysis form of your choice. Focus on one step at a time. Identify biological, chemical and physical hazards, if any, at that step. The next part is tricky. For each hazard identified, determine the probability of the hazard occurring and severity of illness or injury. Some hazards are easy like allergens. If you have an ingredient that contains an allergen, the probability is high. Because people can die from ingestion of allergens when allergic, the severity is high. Allergens are a hazard you must control. What about pesticides? What is the probability and severity? I can hear you say that you are going to control pesticides through your purchasing agreements. Great! Pesticides are still a hazard to identify in your hazard analysis. What you do about the hazard is up to you.

How To Select The Best Monitoring System For Your Cannabis Greenhouses

By Rob Fusco
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Maintaining an environment that supports cultivation and keeps plants healthy is not an easy task. In cannabis growing, there are a variety of factors that greenhouse managers and personnel must monitor to ensure that their plants are in a healthy environment that fosters growth and development. Temperature, humidity, lighting and CO2 levels are a few of the conditions that need to be tailored to each cannabis greenhouse operation. However, it can be difficult to constantly monitor the status of your equipment and the greenhouse environment, especially after hours or during the off-season.

A remote monitoring system that’s properly selected and installed can help greenhouse managers keep their cannabis plants healthy, multiply their yields and increase return on investment. This type of system also helps operators identify patterns and trends in environmental conditions and get insight into larger issues that can prevent problems before they arise.

Cloud-based monitoring system base unit in weatherproof enclosure

Here are some tips on key conditions to monitor and what you need to consider when selecting a monitoring system for your cannabis greenhouse operation:

Temperature

Temperature plays a crucial role in any cannabis grow operation. The climate in your greenhouse must be warm enough to nurture photosynthesis and the growth of cannabis plants. Setting the incorrect temperature will significantly impact the potential yield of the plant and the rate at which it develops. A temperature too low will slow the growth of the cannabis, but too hot can lead to heat stress for your plants. The ideal temperature for a standard greenhouse is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. However, depending on the stage of plant and desired growth densities, the temperature of the greenhouse needs to be adjusted accordingly.

Humidity Levels

Humidity directly affects plant photosynthesis and transpiration, so controlling humidity is vital in greenhouse growing. The ideal relative humidity (RH) for cannabis growth is around 60%. A low humidity level can cause water to evaporate too quickly for photosynthesis, while a humidity level that is too high can cause poor growth and possible mold and fungal disease. Monitoring the moisture content in the air of your greenhouse will help the plants during the transpiration process, increasing absorption of nutrients and overall health of the cannabis. 

Lighting

Your cannabis may be getting an abundance of natural light during the summer months, but maintaining adequate sunlight during the winter months can be a challenge. As a solution to this, many greenhouse managers equip their facilities with additional lights to supplement natural light during off-seasons or off-hours. To achieve the best possible yield, a cannabis plant in the budding stage should receive twelve hours of light each day, while other stages could require additional lighting. For example, the growth stage could require your cannabis to be exposed to sunlight for up to eighteen hours a day.

CO2 Levels

Like any other plant, cannabis requires CO2 to breathe. Greenhouse managers must set and monitor the CO2 levels in their facility to make sure that there is an adequate amount for the plants to develop, grow and be healthy. The amount of carbon dioxide required for your cannabis depends of the size of the facility and the amount of light the plants are receiving. However, a standard grow area for cannabis can maintain a CO2 range from 1000 to 1500 parts per million (PPM). A level below that threshold can result in slower growth of the plants, while a level above would lead to unused and wasted CO2.

Soil moisture sensor

Irrigation and Soil Moisture

One way to ensure a good yield from your cannabis is to water it regularly and monitor your soil moisture. Overwatering your plants can have the same effect, if not worse, than letting the soil become too dry. Plants’ roots need oxygen to survive, unlike leaves that breathe CO2, and when the soil is waterlogged the roots can’t provide their function. The lack of oxygen interferes with the roots’ nutrient uptake and photosynthesis causing the cannabis plant to wilt. The exact moisture content of the soil depends on the size of your greenhouse, temperature and humidity. Whether you hand water or are using a drip irrigation system, being aware of your soil moisture is vital to the long-term health of your cannabis.

Air Circulation

Your greenhouse environment should mimic the ideal conditions in which cannabis plants flourish. With an indoor facility, you have the ability to control air circulation by venting hot air out and blowing fresh air in. Creating a circulation of air inside your greenhouse will increase your cannabis plant’s growth speed and yield. Additionally, an exhaust system helps control the temperature and humidity, while also preventing the invasion of mold and pests that thrive in hot, stagnant air.

Greenhouse Security

When growing something of value, like cannabis, there will always be a threat of intruders. Whether your greenhouse is in a populated area or around hungry wildlife, any intruder could be detrimental to your overall yields and profit. Remote monitoring systems can give you peace of mind and instantly alert you when there is an unwanted presence in your greenhouse.

Knowing all the possible threats to your cannabis greenhouse helps you evaluate your specific needs, and ultimately identify the proper remote monitoring system.

Selecting the Right Monitoring System

Other factors to consider when choosing a monitoring system right for your operation include:

  • Base unit and sensors
  • Wireless or hardwired sensors
  • Communications to your site (Phone, cellular, Wi-Fi, etc.)
  • Alarm notification
  • Programming and status checks
  • Data logging
  • Return on investment

Base Units and Sensors

Each condition in your greenhouse that you want to monitor requires its own input on the base unit of the monitoring system. You must match your needs with the number of inputs available. A good fit for a smaller cannabis greenhouse may be a lower-cost, non-expandable monitoring system. However, larger facilities have many monitoring points and more people to alert when there’s a problem. If your cannabis operation is poised for growth, purchasing an expandable system could add value to the initial purchase because you wouldn’t have to replace your entire system in the future.

Your monitoring system should also have an internal rechargeable battery backup to ensure continuous monitoring and alerts in the event of a power outage. It is also recommended to have each base unit in a sheltered enclosure to protect it from moisture, dirt and other hazards.

Placement of sensors is also crucial. For example, temperature sensors in your greenhouse should be placed throughout the facility. They should be next to your thermostat and in the center of your greenhouse, preferably away from direct sunlight.

Wireless or Hardwired Sensors

Remote monitoring systems offer the option to have sensors hardwired directly to the base unit or sensors wirelessly connected. A hardwired monitoring system connects the sensors to the base device with wires. Generally, trenching long distances for wires is time consuming and costly. So alternatively, a wireless system uses built-in radio transmitters to communicate with the base unit. Some monitoring systems can accommodate a combination of hardwired and wireless sensors.

Communications to Your Site

Monitoring devices that use cellular communications must be registered on a wireless network (like Verizon or AT&T) before you can send or receive messages. Because cellular devices perform all communications over a wireless network, it is important that there be sufficient signal strength at the greenhouse. It is a good idea to check the signal quality in the area before purchasing a cellular product. If the cellular network has less than desirable coverage, it is possible to install an external antenna to help increase cellular signal.

Alarm Notifications

When monitoring systems identify a change in status, they immediately send alerts to people on the contact list. If you don’t want all of your personnel to receive notifications at the same time, certain devices can be programmed to send alerts in a tiered fashion. It is important to consider the reach of the communications, so that you’ll be notified regardless of your locations. Multiple communications methods like phone, email and text provide extra assurance that you’ll get the alert. Also, note of the number of people the system can reach and if the system automatically cycles through the contact list until someone responds. Make sure the system allows for flexible scheduling so that it doesn’t send alarms to off-duty personnel.

Programming and Status Check

If you’re responsible for maintaining a commercial greenhouse facility, you want a system that will provide real-time status of all monitored conditions on demand. There are a few different ways to access your sensor readings. Options include calling to check status, viewing a web page, either on a local network or on the cloud, or accessing the information via an app on your mobile device. With a cloud-based system, the devices supervise themselves. This means if the internet or cellular connection goes down, the device will send an alarm to alert the appropriate personnel.

If you don’t select a cloud-based system, you will be limited to logging in through a local area network, which will allow you to make programming changes, access status conditions and review data logs. If internet connectivity is not available at your location, you will want to choose a cellular or phone system rather than Ethernet-based option.

Data Logging

Sample greenhouse monitoring data log

Data history is valuable in identifying patterns and trends in your cannabis greenhouse conditions. Manually monitoring and recording environmental parameters takes a significant amount of personnel time and detracts from other important workplace demands. However, many monitoring systems automatically save information, recording tens of thousands of data points, dates and times. Cloud-based logging provides an unlimited number of records for users to view, graph, print and export data trends.

Analyzing data samples may lend insight to larger issues and prevent problems before they arise. For example, if the data log shows power fluctuations occurring at a regular time, it could be indicative of a more serious problem. Or, if the data shows signs of a ventilation fan or supplementary lighting beginning to malfunction, they can be repaired or replaced before total failure occurs.

Return On Investment

When deciding how much you should pay for a remote monitoring system, tally up the entire cost, fully installed with additional peripherals and sensors and any labor fees for installation. Then consider the value of your cannabis plant inventory and greenhouse equipment. Finally, factor in the cost of downtime, should an environmental event shut down your operation for a period of time.

Final Thoughts

Choosing the right greenhouse monitoring system and sensors could mean the difference between life and death for your cannabis plants. Understanding the conditions you need to watch and monitoring systems’ capabilities are they best way to protect your investment.