Regardless of the facility, efficient work flow can vastly improve a grower’s success
By Garrett Rudolph
When Matt Cohen got his start in the cannabis industry, nobody was buying sun-grown marijuana and nobody was investing much money into grow operations that could be raided and shut down at any moment.
But times change, and in the cannabis space, changes tend to happen rapidly.
The trend of legalization in the United States is bringing about a new era in cultivation, but it’s also creating a new set of challenges. Commercial growers face less risk of raids and prosecution, thereby opening the door for more permanent facilities and allowing cultivators to take advantage of economies of scale.
But the rapid rise of state-legal marijuana has put a dent in wholesale prices, making it more of a challenge for growers to stay profitable compared to the black market heyday. Marijuana is becoming a commodity product. Business-savvy growers are keeping an eye on their initial start-up costs, but also turning more of their attention toward the cost of production.
Because of these factors, Cohen believes cannabis-specific, high-tech greenhouses will be key to the future of the industry.
Of course, Cohen is a biased source. He’s now CEO of TriQ Systems, which has partnered with several top greenhouse manufacturers and outfitters to offer turn-key solutions for the cannabis industry, as well as a variety of equipment and product lines for growers. TriQ’s facilities aren’t designed for smaller, boutique growers. The smallest facility it will do is 60,000 square feet, which is about a 10,000-pound annual production grow, Cohen said. TriQ has contracts for greenhouses up to 12 acres, he says.
But regardless of whether growers are utilizing simple indoor warehouses or expensive, custom greenhouses, they all have the same question in mind: What is the most efficient way to grow the best crop possible? Cohen says one of the big keys is setting up a cannabis-specific facility.
While the procedures of cultivation remain largely similar from one crop to the next, whether it’s cannabis or tomatoes, there’s more to marijuana than the average vegetable or ornamental flower.
Unlike tomatoes, which can be picked off the vine and sent straight to the dinner table, cannabis needs time to dry and cure. One of the common mistakes Cohen sees with marijuana grow facilities, particularly with operations that started small and went through several expansions, is not enough room devoted to drying.
“Once you harvest cannabis, you need to deal with that appropriately, immediately,” Cohen says. “It needs to dry uniformly, it needs to cure uniformly. It needs to not get contaminated along the way. Most companies are doing extremely laborious post-harvest processes and not realizing they can lean up those processes with different technologies.”
Cohen recalls one facility he visited that had thousands of lights, but wasn’t getting the consistency the growers wanted.
“They invested so much money into the best lights, and the best fertigation system and they were growing excellent cannabis, and I really had nothing to say about how they were growing pre-harvest,” Cohen remembers.
But when it came to post-harvest, Cohen says the final product smelled musty and he was shocked to see how small the company’s drying room was. Not only that, but the company’s process was one of the biggest shortcomings.
Workers were cutting plants down and laying them directly on top of each other on pallet jacks, creating a major contamination problem. Then, due to poor facility design, they were moving the harvested plants through corridors in the grow, directly past the mother room.
“If there’s any powdery mildew or other maladies, it’s contaminating the entire mother room,” Cohen says.
Finally, buds were being processed wet and thrown on tightly-packed cookie sheets and rolled into a cramped drying room.
Cohen says he realized the company had to be using a common pesticide that is not designed for consumable products.
“It’s the norm for non-sophisticated growers who are scaling up and running into problems with pests,” Cohen says, pointing out that the facility’s obvious flaws were allowing pest problems to fester and spread.
Looking at this particular facility, Cohen says only a complete redesign — or an entirely new facility — would alleviate the problems.
“The point is that you know these guys started with 50 lights at one point,” Cohen says.
The drying area needed to be “about 20 times bigger,” Cohen says, in addition to a vast overhaul of bio-security measures, work flow and inventory controls, which often plague other facilities.
Controls to prevent contamination are vital for the success of a large-scale commercial operation. That means systems designed to prevent the back-flow of air from one room to the next, as well as alarms set up to detect unwanted changes in humidity, air flow, etc.
TriQ has been a proponent of the concept of lean manufacturing, a tactic that has been championed by Toyota to increase efficiency in its manufacturing plants.
“You really want your product life-cycle to be like a U shape,” Cohen says. “Imagine a square. Raw materials come in from the southwest corner, flows up, down and around and out the southeast corner.”
In turn, plants continually travel forward through the cultivation process, from tissue culture through veg, flowering, harvest, drying, curing and processing, before leaving the facility for its retail destination.
Not only does this improve the flow of labor and product, but it also ensure that “new things never touch old things,” Cohen says.
Cohen was right in the thick of the California cannabis industry when sun-grown marijuana underwent a cosmetic makeover and began to gain recognition as a potential top-shelf product.
For years, a stigma of “cheap” surrounded outdoor cannabis. It was considered a budget item. Cohen worked with Harborside Health in the process of rebranding sun-grown and educating consumers about the benefits and potential of outdoor marijuana. At the time, Cohen was CEO of Northstone Organics, which started producing one big sun-grown crop per year, packaging it in nitrogen-filled glass jars, refrigerating it and delivering it direct to patients throughout the year.
“We exploded on the scene, and then we got raided by the federal government,” Cohen says.
However, his experience as a cultivator dealing with bottle-necks in the supply chain led him to start developing the innovations that would become core to TriQ Systems years later, such as drying technology and storage carts. The company originally launched in California, but later shifted operations to Bend, Oregon, but Cohen remains “bullish” about the future of greenhouses in the cannabis space.
Not only does he view it as a better method for cultivation, but also envisions the potential for marketing opportunities, such as bio-secure catwalks.
“You can’t really market your beautiful warehouse,” Cohen says.