If the past few months have been any indication, cannabis prices are dropping fast, and they don’t appear to be rising anytime soon. In Oregon, for example, the overwhelming influx of farmers into the recreational market has created an unprecedented supply surplus, bringing prices to an all-time low. This “price correction” is unsavory news for business owners and their investors who have created their business plans based upon bygone pricing models. To make matters worse, the decline in cannabis pricing has been accompanied by a simultaneous rise in production and administrative costs, including electricity, nutrients, testing, permitting and more. In order to remain competitive, producers are faced with the challenge of finding ways to decrease spending while increasing production.
One possible approach to this challenge is the employment of effective canopy-management techniques. Executed correctly, these techniques will maximize the efficiency of your grow space without sacrificing the quality of your finished product. Proper implementation will lead to a reduction in labor and increased output, offering you a competitive advantage that will help you remain profitable in this rapidly growing and increasingly competitive industry. Since most grows are licensed by canopy area, accomplishing maximum output from each available square foot of growing space is of the utmost importance.
Canopy management is the collective term for the sum of techniques and considerations designed to maximize the efficiency of your grow space. A well-managed canopy will consist of properly trained and pruned plants that are uniformly spaced and positioned in a manner that makes each one easily accessible. Successful canopy management can reduce the amount of time spent per plant and lead to increases in yield not previously thought possible. Here are the most significant aspects of proper management: knowing your strains, training your plants, and maintaining the canopy during the flower cycle.
The first consideration of canopy management is strain selection. It is crucial that you begin with a strain with which you are well acquainted. Don’t fill a room with an untested, unverified plant in hopes of keeping up with trends, and make sure to do at least one test run with every new strain to learn the plant’s characteristics and make note of its growing patterns and finishing time. This is by no means a waste of time; the knowledge and familiarity that you acquire during this process will more than make up for any perceived time loss.
Ideally, you will have only one strain at a time present in each flowering area. You need them to finish or ripen at the same time to complete harvest and cycle in another crop. Leaving a grow space half-empty while waiting for the rest of the crop to finish is very costly because it leads to more downtime than necessary.
Furthermore, when plants approach maturity, they begin to emit ethylene gas that accelerates the ripening of other plants around them—which can prevent strains with later finishing times from reaching their full potential. Mismatched strains can thwart your best efforts at maintaining a uniform canopy. The most common problem arises among plants with variable growth patterns, causing larger plants to tower over and shade out the smaller ones. If you must have more than one strain flowering in the same grow space, make sure they share the same nutrient needs, growth patterns and finishing times. This is precisely the kind of knowledge one acquires through a practical familiarity with the strains before beginning large-scale production.
Before you can expect to interfere with the plant’s natural inclinations, you need to understand how and why cannabis plants behave like they do. Fortunately, this is fairly straightforward. A female cannabis plant’s goal in life is to get pollinated, become fertilized and produce seeds that will sow new generations. Cannabis plants are acutely aware of their surroundings and of themselves in relation to these surroundings. As they begin to grow, they can identify their highest elevated branch and send the most growth hormones to it, ensuring that it remains the most prominent.
In nature, this awareness is crucial to the plant’s reproduction. As a general rule, the tallest budding plants will receive the greatest share of wind-borne pollen, allowing them to become fertilized, thus fulfilling their life’s purpose. Without training, a standard cannabis plant will grow one large cola at the top and several smaller branches below. However, by preventing the plant from giving preference to a certain branch, therefore preventing one to grow higher than the others, it will be “tricked” into sending an equal amount of growth hormone to each branch. This leads to the creation of multiple uniform colas that produce the most desirable flower, drastically increasing yield and eliminating the less-desirable, underdeveloped smaller flowers that would have otherwise sapped energy from the more desirable buds.
The training process begins in the vegetative cycle with the “topping” of the newly transplanted clones. Topping the plant will promote the growth of the lower branches that will make up the main structure of the plant. Early-stage topping will slow the vertical growth of the plant’s main stalk, resulting in a shorter, thicker and stronger stalk, that will be more structurally sound and better prepared to support a heavy yield.
To achieve the desired result from topping, first remove the top of the plant directly above the sixth node (branch site), leaving six remaining branch sites. Next, remove the two lowest branches. This will create a more workable space between the foliage and growing medium and will enable better airflow below the canopy. The remaining nodes will soon grow into the four main branches and will become the focus of the training.
The secondary branches are those that grow out of the main branches. These need to be treated just like the main branches, never allowing one to grow higher than another. You can achieve this with the use of training wires and also by gently bending the branches down by hand. As you bend down the secondary branches, they will begin to fill in the void spaces between the four main branches.
Once the secondary branches are well established (3 to 4 inches long) and level with each other, as well as with the tips of the main branches (like little Bonsai trees), they will be ready to be transferred into the flowering cycle.
The SCROG method is a canopy management technique that can be deployed once the plants enter the flowering cycle. SCROG stands for “screen of green” and refers to the trellis or “SCROG netting” that is used. It’s a multi-functional tool that allows you to evenly position all the branches in the canopy while also offering support for the branches and developing flowers. Additionally, it acts as a grid that will show you where to direct the growth in order to achieve a full canopy without any void spaces.
Once introduced into the 12/12 photoperiod (12 hours of light/12 hours of darkness) of the flowering cycle, most plants will hit a structural growth spurt and double to triple in size over the following three weeks. During this period, it is necessary to remove any unwanted growth as soon as it appears, as doing so will direct the plant to delegate that energy to the more valuable branches. We understand “unwanted growth” to be any branch or node that has no chance of catching up to the others. Eliminating unwanted growth will not only promote more beneficial growth in other parts of the plant, it will also tremendously reduce the amount of time required for trimming, thereby reducing labor and, ultimately, the cost of production.
Using a SCROG net will require the plants to be arranged in rows. Each plant must be allowed at least 4 square feet of space or, in other words, 16 spaces on a typical 8-foot by 36-foot grid. Once the plants are correctly aligned and spaced, the netting can be applied directly above them. As the plants grow taller, the SCROG netting will be used to maintain the level canopy by allowing you to weave the branches through the different openings as you direct them to fill each space. Once the grid is filled, another layer of netting is installed over the first. The second netting serves to evenly distribute the branches and hold them upright, preventing them from collapsing under their own weight. The goal is to get as many branches to grow into each opening of the grid as possible without leaving any of them empty.
Manipulating the plants in this fashion allows you to intentionally direct growth to specific branches to create the perfect specimens for your grow space, which is the primary goal of canopy management. You must be able to artfully conceptualize what the finished plant will look like and then sculpt it over time. In my opinion, the ability to do this on a large scale, repeatedly and consistently, is a requisite skill for being considered a master grower. Employing the techniques mentioned above will undoubtedly increase your yields and reduce your overall cost of production, giving you a competitive advantage.
Dru WEst is a cannabis cultivation consultant and author of “Secrets of the West Coast Masters: Uncover the Ultimate Techniques for Growing Medical Marijuana.”
A properly designed grow facility is critical to success, and proper light design is a crucial component of that design. Properly designed lighting systems will evenly deliver the right amount of light to your garden.
Many grows utilize a lighting system that was thoughtfully designed and carefully put together to optimize light delivery to the garden. Others appear as if the lights where placed where they could easily be hung, not where they should be placed for maximum canopy coverage. Other grows pull too much power by installing too many lights, or their electrical load is not balanced properly across the electrical circuits within the facility. Grow light maintenance is often performed infrequently, if at all.
Here are some of the basic, and not-so-basic, considerations when planning your lighting systems to avoid common mistakes.
Far too often, conversations about lighting start with the same question: “How many of these lights do I need for an X-sized grow?” This is the wrong question to ask, as it does not address how much PPFD is required. (See below for an explanation of PPFD.) The proper question is, “How many of these lights do I need to achieve X PPFD in a Y-sized grow?”
When it comes to how much light you need, most cannabis growers believe the sweet spot is approximately 1,000 PPFD to 1,200 PPFD for high light-tolerant cannabis plants in full flower—meaning this is likely strain specific—though research into this topic is far from complete. Early discoveries are also finding that some strains need much lower light levels, as little as 500 PPFD to 600 PPFD in some cases, so experimentation is required.
You also need to properly measure the photon output of the grow lights you plan to implement to ensure they are appropriate for your operation. The correct way to measure light output is with a quantum sensor/meter. There are several commercially available quantum meters with different sensitivity ranges, but some cut off at 660 nanometers (nm), thus missing the upper part of the PAR range (400 nm to 700 nm). Make sure the meter you select covers the entire PAR spectrum.
Once you’ve determined what light levels you need, then you can determine the number of fixtures and mounting heights. These calculations are performed with the aid of a lighting design application and an IES (Illuminating Engineering Society) photometric file. IES files are created for lighting fixtures and are used to predict where every emitted photon will land. The exact room dimensions, bench heights and other components can be drawn in the application along with the light locations and heights to create a very informative “light map” of the grow space. Any good grow light manufacturer can help generate these light maps.
A clever lighting design is to deploy mobile benches even if your grow is a single level. If you were to take a quantum sensor/meter and measure the light levels in a typical grow facility’s aisles, you may find a lot of light is spilled onto the floor instead of being delivered to the plants. By deploying mobile growing benches and proper light design from your light map, you can produce an even and intense plane of light over the entire canopy when the benches are pulled together.
Whatever you do, never believe that power equals penetration. I hear it all the time: a 1,000-watt HID supposedly penetrates deeper into a plant’s canopy than a 600-watt HID, or an LED grow light with 5-watt emitters will penetrate deeper than one with 1-watt emitters. Unfortunately, this is not true.
Along with proper pruning/training techniques, light design will dictate penetration potential, not watts. Most of the photons that are exposed to leaf surfaces are absorbed; some go on to drive photosynthesis; others are quenched through various de-excitation techniques, such as being released as heat or fluorescence. This is why we see shadows of leaves on the ground regardless of lamp/emitter strength: It’s not the fixture directly overhead that “penetrates,” it’s the adjacent ones emitting at low-incident angles that make their way between the branches, deep into the plants.
PPFD is defined as the quantity of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) photons delivered to a specific area and time, with the measurement unit of micromoles per square meter per second (µmol/m²·s).
With respect to greenhouse fixture design, I, too, used to fall for the idea that a perfect greenhouse fixture had to have the smallest possible physical footprint to minimize blocking sunlight. Greenhouses, especially in extreme northerly or southernly latitudes where they are often found, don’t suffer from having larger fixtures as much as you might think. In the winter, when the sun’s rays are low, sunlight can pass under the fixtures without leaving a shadow. These extreme latitudes also have intense summer light and heat loads that might potentially require shading or blocking for some portions of the day. Although it would take a very large fixture to block as much light as a cover, it does drive home the point not to worry too much about physical size and to focus on performance instead.
In every grow, monitor light levels at the end of rows. It’s common to see consistent light levels in the middle of the rows and see them drop off at the ends since there is no nearby fixture to add additional photons. To improve lighting at row ends, try lowering the end lighting fixtures or installing extra ones.
If you’re designing a new grow facility, work with an electrician to discover how much power you actually have entering the building. Adding additional power to a facility can be a very costly venture and, in some cases, cannot be done at all.
When your grow light design is mapped out and all the variables are known, add in estimated watts for other electrical equipment such as HVAC, inrush current (the surge of electricity consumed when an appliance is first turned on), general lighting and other equipment—including in the office—to know how much total energy you need.
Inrush current must be properly managed by either using one of many commercially available solutions to stagger the lights turning on, or by providing enough electricity for the peak (which is usually a more expensive solution). If you’re growing with dimmable power supplies (found in many LED grow lights) you might be able to use the dimming function to help mitigate large inrush currents by ramping the power to 100 percent over seconds to minutes.
Remember the 80/20 rule: Never exceed 80 percent of the total capacity of a circuit. For example, if you have a 20-amp circuit, don’t draw more than 16-amps on it. This simple concept can keep you from popping breakers, or worse, putting your facility at risk of an electrical fire.
The type of the power service matters too. A 240-volt dual (split) phase, the common power service in North American homes, might supply enough current to a small indoor grow/greenhouse, but 480-volt 3-phase, commonly used in industrial manufacturing facilities in North America, is needed to deliver the high-power demands of larger cultivation facilities. A 480-volt 3-phase provides more power with the same current because of its greater power density.
Personal story: I worked at a grow that had problems after an external transformer failed and took out some of the relays in one of the internal electrical panels. The electrician mentioned that room was pulling too much electricity, and that’s what likely caused the relays to fail. (There were no failures in the other rooms that were drawing the correct amount of power.) This caused several banks of lights to remain on 24 hours a day for several days. The problem was only discovered when the electrician entered the grow a few hours before the lights should have turned on to do some repairs. Thankfully the plants in that grow room were not negatively affected since they were within one to two weeks from being harvested. If this happened in a room that was early into the flowering phase, the results might have been quite different.
Just like everything in a grow facility, maintenance of your lights is required. Keeping your lights clean is the No. 1 maintenance task. It’s surprising how little build-up on a lamp/emitter can cause a measurable loss in light output. While you’re at it, make sure to clean your drivers or ballasts, especially any external heat sinks. Keeping them clean will help to keep them operating cooler, reducing the heat load in your rooms.
HID growers should have a lamp replacement schedule—somewhere between six months and a year, depending on lamp type and strategy. If a lamp fails and is replaced between scheduled replacements, make sure to track when and where it was changed. When you re-lamp the facility or an individual room, save any working bulbs. They can be used as spares in the next cycle. Murphy’s Law predicts that something will fail the evening before a long holiday weekend. Keeping spare ballasts, bulbs, drivers and/or arrays available can turn a stressful weekend into just a bit more work before leaving for the day.
Christopher Sloper is the CEO of Technical Gardener Inc., a full-service horticultural consulting firm and the author of “The LED Grow Book,” now in its second edition.
Quality assessment of biological control agents (aka natural enemies) is important in a successful biological control program implementation. The success of any biological control program is contingent on receiving functional natural enemies capable of locating and killing a target host (prey). Natural enemy quality is dependent on numerous factors, including: rearing conditions, packaging, transit survival and handling by the end-user (the cultivator).
In general, natural enemies are reared in large quantities as colonies (populations of individuals) under laboratory conditions where they feed on a food source, such as a sugar-water solution (honey-water), prey that are feeding on plants or both. Natural enemies are collected from established rearing colonies and then shipped to the end-user. Biological control companies generally produce, supply and distribute natural enemies. These may be producers/suppliers, distributors or both. Distributors typically do not rear their own natural enemies; they order natural enemies from a producer/supplier. Producers maintain facilities where they rear one or multiple types of natural enemies, which are sent to distributors upon request.
Differences between laboratory and cultivation environments may cause substantial natural enemy variability. Rearing natural enemies under laboratory conditions is ideal in terms of space, ability and consistency, due to the capacity to control environmental conditions, such as temperature, relative humidity and photoperiod. However, problems with natural enemy effectiveness may arise when they’re released in cultivation environments, due to the wide variability in conditions compared to the constant laboratory environment. For example, natural enemy-searching efficiency and dispersal may be negatively affected from rearing under laboratory conditions.
Aphidius colemani, Aphidius ervi: species of tiny parasitic wasps that inject their eggs into aphids. When the egg hatches, the larvae begin to consume the aphids/pest from inside. The resulting wasp then emerges from the rear of the dead aphid to seek out other prey. (Source: Planet Natural Research Center)
Encarsia formosa: a biocontrol agent of whiteflies. (Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information)
Eretmocerus eremicus: a tiny parasitic wasp (~1 mm in length) that is indigenous to the southern desert areas of California and Arizona (Rose and Zolnerowich, 1997) and is an important parasitoid of whiteflies. (Source: “A Guide to Natural Enemies in North America,” Anthony Shelton, Ph.D., professor of entomology, Cornell University)
Parasitoid: an insect and especially a wasp that completes its larval development within the body of another insect eventually killing it and is free-living as an adult. (Source: Merriam-Webster)
Phytoseiulus persimilis: a predatory mite that in absence of vision relies on the detection of herbivore-induced plant odors to locate its prey, the two-spotted spider-mite Tetranychus urticae. (Source: National Center for Biotechnology Information)
Pupa: (plural: pupae) an intermediate, usually quiescent stage of a metamorphic insect (such as a bee, moth or beetle) that occurs between the larva and the imago. It is usually enclosed in a cocoon or protective covering, and undergoes internal changes by which larval structures are replaced by those typical of the imago. (Source: Merriam-Webster)
Even though natural enemies may leave a producer/supplier (or insectary) in “good” condition, inappropriate shipping and/or handling procedures by distributors or cultivators may result in a decrease in natural-enemy quality, based on the number of functional individuals (capable of flying and/or searching for a host or prey) prior to release. For instance, improper handling or exposure to extremes in hot (>90ºF or 32ºC) or cold (
Natural enemies should be delivered in a sturdy container packed with either Styrofoam peanuts or newspaper to minimize movement during transit. In addition, an ice pack should be placed in the container to keep the natural enemies cool.
Understanding your pest, its life cycle, how fast it multiplies and what environmental conditions it likes, all give you an advantage in your quest to conquer pest management.
Not all insects thrive in the same environments-and this especially goes for beneficial insects. Identifying your problem becomes a crucial part of choosing which predatory insect to use. Going a bit further into insect ID will make all the difference. For example, if you have an aphid problem, identify which aphid it is. If it is a thrips infestation, which type of thrips? The same with mites: Which mite do you have? Biological controls are very target-specific; therefore, attention to detail in what you’re dealing with, along with proper climate control, will play a significant role in your success.
Not all predatory insects play nice with each other. These insects are highly aggressive. When their favorite food source starts to disappear, some predators will begin eating what’s available-that could be another one of your prized predators that is keeping a different pest problem in check. This could be a major issue.
In some instances, some predatory mites will start to cannibalize when their food source runs out. A few predatory mites may even eat other’s predators, regardless if their favorite prey is absent or not. It is important to keep a lookout for these feisty ones.
The second component is your photoperiod. Short light cycles induce diapause (hibernation) in some predatory insects, rendering them ineffective. By short light cycle, I mean flowering cycle (12-hour daylight period, 12-hour blackout period).
Identifying the severity of your infestation will be crucial when scheduling release rates on your crop. Many biologicals have different release rates-especially if you have a problem and you are using them for more than prevention. Staying on schedule with your shipments will take a bit of coordination and planning. Using a calendar can be helpful.
Always order your insects one week before you want them to arrive. Many of your biological controls are coming from Europe and Canada. Some take a full week to reach you. Others coming from within the U.S. may arrive in a matter of days. Know which ones take longer than others and where they are coming from.
All these things become important when you are forecasting your harvest rotations, especially if you are implementing knock-down pesticide spray schedules. Why is timing so important? Your beneficials will not live on your canopy if you sprayed recently. In many instances, a heavy infestation will require mechanical controls before biologicals can be released and be effective. One of the most important things to take away about timing is the fact that you must get ahead of the game with your biocontrols during the vegetative stage first. This is crucial. If your population of predators is going into diapause and your flowers are starting to get sticky, you will have fewer insects around to cover a very sticky (difficult-to-migrate) area.
Over the years, I have noticed that some insectaries will have problems with their insects. If you think about it, it makes sense: These are living things that are affected by other living things, and we must respect that. In my experience, it has never happened to the insectary/manufacturer’s entire line of products, just a specific insect.
There have been shortages or decreased activity among the insect populations inside the sachets. Therefore, I always recommend having relationships with many manufacturers and distributors, and switch up which ones you use. Over time, you will find a specific insect that you feel is more effective when you buy it through a certain insectary. Using one manufacturer consistently is fine, just be sure to have a back-up plan in case things change, and always inspect your bugs! Make sure you see a lot of activity.
When shortages arise, you will be ready to bring in your beneficials from another insectary without a delay. If delays become a problem due to shortages, starting to order that specific insect at least two weeks in advance is a good idea. This will ensure you are on the top of a distributor’s list as a small amount of shipments come in.
Casey Connell is the founder of Contender Gardens LLC (firstname.lastname@example.org), a regulated I-502 producer/processor in Spokane, Wash. He speaks frequently about IPM.
During shipment, many natural enemies do not have an abundant food source, and some may be shipped with no supplemental food source, which can decrease survival rates. Natural enemies must be shipped by a reliable carrier for delivery within a one- to two-day period. An extended shipping time may cause high mortality rates or a reduced number of functional individuals, reducing the natural enemies’ effectiveness in sufficiently regulating insect or mite pest populations. Any delays during transit can lead to mortality due to cannibalism (eating each other) or desiccation (drying up). For example, when shipped or packed in granular carriers, populations of the predatory mite Phytoseiulus persimilis are susceptible to cannibalism or desiccation when shipping is delayed.
Once received, shipments of parasitoids or predators should be stored for a minimal period (no more than seven days) to avoid negatively affecting their fitness and foraging ability. In general, natural enemies should be released immediately upon delivery.
Before releasing them, always check to make certain they are alive. Various methods can be used to assess the shipment’s quality. For instance, for predatory mites that are shipped in containers consisting of bran or vermiculite carriers, a small carrier sample can be placed on a white sheet of paper—8.5 inches by 11 inches (22 cm by 28 cm)—and checked with a 10X hand lens to determine whether or not the mites are active.
Natural enemies shipped as eggs or pupae can be evaluated differently. For example, the quality of whitefly parasitoids, such as Encarsia formosa or Eretmocerus eremicus, that are shipped on release cards containing “mummified” parasitized whitefly pupae or aphid parasitoids (including: Aphidius colemani and Aphidius ervi (both parasitic wasps)) in plastic containers can be assessed by placing a sample release card or a plastic container of “mummified” aphids inside a glass Mason jar with a lid. Next, affix a yellow sticky card to the bottom of the lid. The jar should be regularly monitored and the yellow sticky card checked to ensure that adults are emerging from the pupae or from “mummified” aphids. The actual number of potential functional parasitoids that emerged from pupae or “mummified” aphids can be determined afterward when all the parasitoids have died in the jar. This experiment will provide an estimate of the quality of the rest of the containers.
Raymond Cloyd is a professor and extension specialist in horticultural entomology/plant protection in the Department of Entomology at Kansas State University.
Priscilla Vilchis, owner and CEO of Premium Produce, has gained acclaim during her fast ascent through the cannabis ranks and is building her brand around her strongest asset: herself.
Even in a room filled with spine specialists and neurosurgeons, Priscilla Vilchis never feels out of place.
In her 20s, Vilchis managed some of Southern California’s top physicians, helping them navigate regulations and negotiate with insurance companies as a medical practice consultant. She credits that experience for providing her the self-assurance and the know-how to participate in the cannabis industry.
“I looked at myself like an equal, if not better, every time I sat at the table,” Vilchis says. “Everything I said I would do, I executed... [It’s] imperative that everyone delivers with everything that they say. I think that’s a huge part of gaining respect.”
Now 31, Vilchis is the owner and CEO of Premium Produce, a medical and recreational cultivation and processing company with operations in Las Vegas, Nev., and Lynwood, Calif., and additional delivery and distribution licenses in California.
Her seemingly rapid rise to industry notability (she was the first licensed female minority in L.A. County as well as the youngest female minority to be licensed in Nevada) has earned her the monikers “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” in Nevada and “The Hollyweed Queen” in California. Asked how each of those nicknames captures her character, Vilchis has her answer ready. “Well, that’s simple,” she says. “I’m a queen.”
Vilchis exudes a regal confidence. She speaks in a soft, but assertive tone, her voice passionate yet composed. She clearly expresses her objectives and details exactly how she is going to complete them. It’s no wonder that one of her greatest strengths is lobbying for herself.
She is skilled at persuading county boards and city councils to trust her with cannabis business licenses, so much so that they have, in turn, asked for her help in convincing skeptical community members. Vilchis comes in to talk to them knowing that by the end of her time, she will have convinced those community members to believe in cannabis, and in her.
She’s especially effective in majority minority-communities, like Lynwood. She has a special connection to these communities because her mother raised her the same way many of the parents she addresses raise their children, she says: by telling them that if they try marijuana, even once, they would die.
Vilchis says most children from minority communities, especially Latino communities, are raised with that fatalistic mentality on marijuana. Many of those parents and community members don’t know about the plant’s medical benefits. “A lot of them don’t understand that CBD is being given to kids with epilepsy, and it’s helping them operate on a day-to-day basis,” she says.
And Vilchis’ persuasiveness is also what convinced Premium Produce’s lead cultivation consultant, Nathan Race, that joining Vilchis’ project was the right decision. “She is a fierce woman, and she knows how to get things done,” he says.
Race, a British Columbia native with more than 15 years of experience in the medical cannabis space, has known Vilchis for many years, thanks to mutual friends—Vilchis even attended Race’s engagement. When they reconnected years later, Vilchis shared her plan with him.
“She let me know what her aspirations were in the industry, and I let her know that I would be very happy to lend her my expertise,” he says. Race does not regret the offer.
“Working for her has been an everlasting experience of how to operate. I have sat and watched other people in other industries and also in the cannabis industry, both in the United States and Canada, and she has a particular gusto to get things done.”
That gusto was absolutely vital because Vilchis’ project almost never became reality. Had it not been for a phone call and quick decision made when she was in Italy, the Queen of the Desert may never have been crowned.
Biggest challenge in launching or maintaining a cultivation operation: “There are so many hidden costs with construction and design when building out a cannabis operation. To date, I’ve already paid $1 million in change orders.”
Something people don’t realize about running a cannabis operation: “Any bank can drop you as soon as they find out you’re in the cannabis industry. You become a high-risk client even if you don’t deposit money from your cannabis operation into the bank system. My bank of many years just asked me to leave because they saw me on the news representing the cannabis industry and being a big player in the field.”
Some lessons learned: “Always plan ahead and expect the unexpected when it comes to this industry.”
What keeps you awake at night: “Knowing I’m making history and paving the way for future female cannabis entrepreneurs everywhere.”
Advice for other cultivators: “Make sure you enter this industry with the best team, from everyone on your legal staff to the people on the front lines of your operation in the grow.”
Vilchis filed her application for her Las Vegas cultivation and production center well before the May 31, 2017, deadline: She began the process in 2014, a few months after the state rolled out regulations covering the sale and distribution of medical marijuana.
Over the next three years, she made all the right moves, including making arrangements with the bank to close on what she calls the “perfect” property, and instructing her team on how to handle the next steps of the process. Thinking everything was under control, she headed to Italy for a well-deserved vacation in the middle of May 2017.
Her lawyer called in the middle of the night, waking her from sleep. “We have an oversight,” he said.
“I mean, there are no banks that are going to finance a marijuana company. You’re going to have to buy the building and close escrow in 15 days to qualify for this license that you’re applying for,” he replied.
With both time and distance against her, Vilchis was left with only one option: to buy the building herself. Cash. “I call that the $2 million day,” she says with a laugh.
As frustrating and stressful as that situation was, Vilchis views it as a crash course on the complexities of the marijuana business. “This goes to show how new our industry is. It was something that I think no one really could have prepared for.”
It was also a lesson in one of the basic principles of real estate: Buying is almost always better than leasing.
“Our intention was to try and get [the property] leased. I’m now happy that I didn’t do that. … The property value now went up to, I believe, $5.56 million.”
In addition to her $2 million Las Vegas property investment, Premium Produce put forth an $8 million investment for the Nevada facility. And what does $8 million get you in Nevada? “A state-of-the-art facility,” Vilchis says.
Premium Produce’s facilities feature a custom-made Link4 environmental control system. The system for the Las Vegas facility, which is more than twice the square footage of the Lynwood site, cost the company more than $1 million to purchase and install.
“Each panel has been tailored for the size and the square footage [of canopy] of each room and what we intend to do in it,” Race explains. In addition to standard controls, such as temperature and humidity, the system utilizes automated louvers to control airflow; monitors the irrigation system to warn staff when parts per million (ppm) levels are too high and when filters need to be changed; and plugs into light sensors, alerting the team when a light bulb needs to be changed before grow room light levels become uneven.
The company’s lighting is set on a variable ballast system. This allows Race to ramp up the lights slowly to avoid creating large electricity spikes. He can also lower light levels during the vegetation period, again saving on operating costs. The hybrid high-pressure sodium (HPS) and metal halide (MH) lamps (manufactured by the Canada-based P.L. Light Systems) are set at 1,000 watts during flowering. As Race explains, “We dial our ballast down to 600 watts during vegetation periods to save energy. … We’ve done tests where we’ve put it at 1,000 watts the whole time, and there was really no benefit in growth.”
A point of pride for Race is the company’s CO2 system. Race has consulted on several large-scale grows throughout North America and has seen less-than-ideal CO2 system setups, including some where high-pressure CO2 bottles were simply tied to racks in high-traffic hallways.
“We have one of the most failsafe CO2 delivery systems known to man,” he says. “It’s all electronically controlled. It monitors the amount of CO2 that is being provided to the plants and adjusts accordingly.” As for safety features, “We’ve got an actual air gas cylinder that’s monitored remotely for pressure and how much it contains.”
Race says Vilchis differed from most other CEOs he’s worked with in that she worked closely with him to understand the intricacies of the cultivation business. “Priscilla makes that time,” he says. “And that’s very rare, to see a CEO wanting to know what plastics you’re using.”
Having a long-term focus is another factor differentiating Vilchis from other cannabis cultivation business owners Race has encountered—especially when it comes to environmental sustainability. “Everything that Priscilla has put toward her environmental controls is environmentally responsible,” he explains. For example, a state-of-the-art reverse osmosis water filtration system grants Premium Produce the ability to condense the water from air conditioners and air handlers and reuse that water in the grow. As Race puts it, “At the end of the day, we’re growing marijuana in the desert, and every drop of water is precious.”
Another example of the company’s long-term focus is its in-house testing protocol, which allows the company to test its products for potency and contamination. That testing program, which Race pitched and developed “essentially costs me more money,” Vilchis says, and it is not a requirement from the state. But she is OK with the investment: The last thing Vilchis wants is to have a failed test on her record.
Despite a nearly $2 million investment in automated control systems for both facilities, large swaths of the production process, such as watering, are done by hand. Race believes there’s a risk with automated feedings and waterings, namely system errors or failures, and workers who neglect system maintenance tasks.
“What our [employees] do is … hand-water the plant every day,” Race details. “They inspect the plant every day, and they chart that plant every day, and that way we can tell if there’s been any hermaphrodite weird anomalies, any kind of pests or deficiencies that the plant has, and we can address it right away.”
Currently, the Las Vegas location has three, full-time cultivation employees covering roughly 5,000 square feet of canopy space: Race; a cultivation manager; and an organic cultivation specialist, who, in addition to helping with daily watering and feedings, is tasked with developing the company’s organics program.
Priscilla Vilchis is an expert at working with communities to bring the (financial and medical) benefits of cannabis to everyone, not just the stakeholders. Here’s how she approaches those situations:
Vilchis’ first step whenever she talks with a new person, group or community, is to establish a personal connection. For her, this means talking about her experience with her family.
“I spoke to everyone like [they were] my parents,” she says. “I believe that the fact that I was able to relate to them allowed me to get through to them, and then be open to the idea of granting these licenses in the City of Lynwood.”
Next, Vilchis will educate the group on the medical benefits of cannabis. Her background in healthcare taught her how to talk properly about medical treatments to skeptical people, especially parents.
“I show them the slides and videos of children that started taking [cannabis] as infants and now are 4 to 5 years old, and parents are thanking marijuana for existing because they were able to meet their kid for the first time. They were able to see them stop having seizures.”
Vilchis will often get people warmed up to the idea of medical cannabis before recreational cannabis. That’s when she starts talking numbers.
“A lot of them had concerns. … [But by] the time I was through talking to them, a lot of them were eager because I told them about how much money it would create for the community, how many more jobs we would be able to bring if everyone got on board.”
The company is still weighing whether to convert to all- organic inputs, Race says, “but at this time, there are specific strains that are more receptive to organic grow [inputs], such as Silver Haze, Sour Diesel, and the Blue Cherry Diesel.” The company is currently studying its strain offerings and testing different inputs to maximize both yield and flavor.
Race compares the needs of different cannabis varieties to different human dietary preferences. In his experience, he says, he’s found that “some strains just don’t like organic food.”
Research isn’t limited to the cultivation rooms. Most of Premium Produce’s research and development takes place on the business’s production side. For example, Race is exploring new formulations for vape cartridges without “glycerins and oils, and things that are not natural to the plant.” In the company’s soon-to-be-released vape line, only cannabis profile-matching terpenes are used.
“This way, we’re not putting anything into the vape juice that is not already found in the plant,” Race explains.
Both facilities focus on different products. For example, the Las Vegas market is still fairly new to cannabis, and flower makes up a large chunk of the retail market. However, Vilchis says the Lynwood facility is much more focused on the production of vape products and edibles. (Editor’s note: For more information on the state of California’s recreational market, see Sales Trends on p. 14.)
Vilchis plans on carrying over some of her products from the Nevada market, especially her Queen of the Desert edible line; however, in California, the line will be branded under her California moniker, Hollyweed Queen. Vilchis decided to use different branding in both states in which she operates to capitalize on the momentum and media recognition she has gained in each state.
By focusing on the local brands, Vilchis is betting that she will be able to reach more customers and patients in each market. She predicts what will keep those customers and patients locked into the brand is the quality and variety of products each banner will offer, and loyal customers are more likely to know about the company’s other brands and go out of their way to stay loyal when out of state.
“If anything, people are curious to try both. It gives them an opportunity,” Vilchis says. That said, top-selling and unique products will be carried in both California and Nevada under one brand name. For example, “We’ve got a very extravagant lubricant coming out, and we’re still working on the branding, but it is going to be able to relate with both markets,” she adds.
Ultimately, Vilchis is the face of her company. In fact, she has become one of the most prominent new figures in the cannabis industry, especially considering the headlines she’s made in the past few months in publications like LA Weekly, Crain’s or Bloomberg, and she is not shying away from the attention.
“It’s very flattering,” she says. “The fact that I’ve been almost branded as the female face of cannabis, and people tend to just refer to me as the ‘Queen of Cannabis,’ … I am humbled.”
“As long as I deliver, as long as I follow through with everything that I say, I have no fear,” she says. “I genuinely feel we are going to be able to put up the best product out there.”
Kind Love’s chief cultivation officer shares details of the Colorado-based company’s comprehensive IPM strategy, how it uses consumer data to influence growing decisions, as well as his best advice for other growers.
As chief cultivation officer of the Denver-based, vertically integrated cannabis company Kind Love, Idan Spitz jokes that his daily responsibilities consist of “walking around and putting out fires.” Joking aside, though, Spitz has his hands full running an 80,000-square-foot indoor cultivation facility that houses two medical licenses and one recreational license—not to mention overseeing a 20,000-square-foot nursery expansion that, once complete, will be able to produce anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 clones monthly.
Spitz is pulled in many directions by having to work daily with his growers, Kind Love’s dispensary team and wholesale buyers. As such, any product delay due to growing complications can be detrimental to the operation, especially considering Kind Love owns a large share of Colorado’s clone market, according to Spitz. To help ensure that Kind Love operates smoothly, Spitz has implemented a comprehensive integrated pest management (IPM) program, pours over compliance documentation in his spare time and constantly plans for the future.
Here, Spitz talks with Cannabis Business Times' senior editor Scott Guthrie about Kind Love’s approach to IPM, how the team develops its nutrient mix, why he relies on consumer data so heavily, and more.
Idan Spitz: We finished construction [on our current facility] at the end of 2014, and started producing at the beginning of 2015, just a few months before I came to work for the company. So, more or less, our facility is brand new. We have automation in terms of our temperature, our humidity control. [In] each one of our cultivation rooms and our drying and curing rooms, we have complete climate control in terms of CO2, temperature and relative humidity. We have a pretty comprehensive program to control the dynamic range of those variables in those rooms. We really try to cater the environmental conditions to provide the optimal product.
Spitz: For the air coming in, we have air filtration sequence in our HVACs. So, for each [cultivation] room, the air that is going into the room gets either dehumidified or humidified, or heated or cooled. And that [air] goes through a series of filters before entering the [cultivation] room. That reduces fungus, bacteria and pollen that might potentially go into the room.
We really tried to set ourselves up to succeed [with this system], and we’ve stuck with it. One thing that I’ve learned is if you’re going to implement a change, you better be damn sure that it’s going to work because to make changes, it’s a nightmare. You have to go through the city, you have to go through zoning, you’ve got to get stamped and approved by the chemical engineers and the electrical engineers. Jumping through all the hoops is just a nightmare, so usually we will make a change and stick with it.
Our filtration is pretty good right now. We don’t experience too many problems in terms of pests or diseases. We don’t really see a lot of pollination, so we really haven’t had the need to update our filtration system.
Spitz: I have a Master of Science in plant biology, so actually I come from the biofuels world. I was working with biofuel grasses, the physiology of biofuel grasses and doing pre-breeding work, so I focused a lot on that. I focused a lot on the requirements per grow stage in terms of each nutrient and micro-nutrient, and then I took quite a few different products and broke them down by nutrient and tailored it specifically to what I need. Then I did a lot, a lot, a lot of R&D [research and development] using the scientific method to find what gives me the optimal yields, optimal potency and optimal production. So, a short answer is I use a mishmash of six or seven different companies. I kind of make my own little line that I use for my specific needs.
Spitz: We have a very comprehensive IPM [program]. Part of that is identifying problems before they occur-training employees to look at plants to see if something is starting to get a disease, if there is starting to be a pre-infestation. We do spray on a weekly basis up to the second week of flower. So, we spray through the cloning procedure, through the vegetative phase, and up to two weeks of flower. Once the plant starts to develop flowers, we don’t spray anymore. But, we use a comprehensive approach. I do a foliar spray once a week, I do a root soak once every few weeks. We use beneficial organisms like good fungus and good bacteria that gets rid of things like powdery mildew and other insects. We use organic oils to kill insects and bacterial spores.
We really haven’t had any problems with pests or rot or bacterial infections [in general]. Every now and again, you have a little outbreak, but for the most part we’ve stayed really clean, and that’s a big focus of ours. A lot of weed in Colorado is just infested with russet mites, and a lot of plants get really bad root aphids. A lot of plants [also] get really bad powdery mildew, so we’re really trying to avoid that. Because of our comprehensive IPM program, we do not have any such infestations at our grow. A big chunk of my effort is to supply our customers and medical patients with clean, adulterant-free cannabis.
Spitz: [Spring] and the beginning of winter are the worst times of year because [all the insects are] waking up. Around now when [the temperature fluctuates between cold-hot and hot-cold, insects] are waking up, but [then] it gets cold [again]. This is when you really see a lot of problems, so around this time of year is really when we are most careful. All our employees go through a decontamination process. They come in, they scrub down, we give them booties. My cultivators actually have to take showers before they can go into any cultivation rooms.
Spitz: When we have a problem, we just slash and burn. The way that this facility is set up, we have relatively small cultivation rooms. Each cultivation room holds about 250 plants, and so once we identify a problem, if it’s late enough in the grow cycle that it’s not going to harm the product, when we see a problem, we just deal with it the best we can. Sometimes we’ll get a little botrytis-it’s a little gray mold-and we deal with that in post-harvest processing to make sure none of that gets to the client. If it’s early in the cycle, then we just slash and burn whatever is in there to make sure that it doesn’t spread to other compartments.
So that’s the really nice thing about having our set-up as is. I know a lot of grows just have one major, open warehouse that’s constantly being harvested, so it’s never empty. So, you never get to decontaminate the entire space.
Spitz: I can’t say how much water each plant gets, that’s kind of proprietary information/trade secret. The end-of-flower soil flush is a common cultivation technique with growers that specialize in hydro and semi-hydro cultivation systems. It strips the grow medium of residual nutrients, ions and salts that have accumulated throughout the grow cycle. However, the plant still needs many of these micro- and macro-nutrients in order to sustain its metabolic processes, so it starts to slowly metabolize its own cellular structures to shuffle these nutrients from within. This decreases the abundance of chlorophyll and other cell wall components that are thought to create a "harsh" smoke. It also causes the plant to produce purple coloration and increase trichome metabolites to avoid stress. With this technique, we fool the plant into ending its life cycle quicker, while producing a more desirable end product.
Spitz: I read a lot of rules, a lot of regulations. Just recently in January, I read 600 pages of re-edited rules in cannabis production by the [Colorado] Marijuana Enforcement Division. For my portion of the company, I make sure that we are compliant with everything that we do. We follow all the rules. We also have a manager of operations, and she makes sure that we are totally compliant in terms of how we sell things, how we package things, how things are transported, everything that [is involved] once it’s packaged. She deals with that, and I make sure we are compliant with everything else, and that really involves just a lot of in-depth training and great communication with my managers and employees.
Spitz: Months ahead, we know what we are going to plant. Even more granular, we’re actually looking at what portions of each plant can be used for what. Some portion can go to extraction, some to wholesale, some can be sold as premium product at the store. So, we plan this months in advance. But you know with nature, a lot of times there are problems-pests and fungus and things not growing as well as they should. So it’s all about making sure that: one, we have a plan and that we follow through with it; and two, we have a back-up plan. So if plan No. 1 didn’t work, we can always go through other avenues to make sure that we optimize our crop for profit.
Our supply chain manager and I work very, very closely. We look at consumer trends over the last several years. Additionally, we look at what trends have been popular in months [leading] up to today to see how they have been changing this year. We also try to forecast what the consumer trends are going to be in upcoming months. It’s all about producing the optimal product, so if no one wants to buy Blue Dream, what’s the point in producing it? If I plant a clone today, I’m not going to be able to sell it for half a year because it has to root, grow vegetatively, flower, get harvested, dry, cure and get packaged. [It] takes about six months to produce a final product from a cut un-rooted clone.
Spitz: Happy cultivators grow happy plants. It’s all about making sure everyone is happy and doing what they love. Keep staying positive and having fun. It’s really just a lot of learning how a plant works. I have my education to fall back on, so a lot of these molecular processes are kind of understood from my studies. Besides that, I have about 50 different species of plants in my house. I’ve always had a green thumb and liked to grow things, so advice I could give to other cultivators would be: Don’t only grow weed, grow a variety of other plants. You can really understand plants a lot better if you understand how many plants work, instead of just one.
Cannabis Business Times’ interactive legislative map is another tool to help cultivators quickly navigate state cannabis laws and find news relevant to their markets. View More
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