Invite five cannabis lovers to a garden party. Ask them: “What is the most important factor in producing superb pot?” Witness the rousing debate.
It’s genetics. It’s the importance of sunlight. It’s soil. The conversation might pivot to concentrates and dive deep into extraction technologies.
All of the above matter, but chances are, several important contributors to creating a successful cannabis product will get overlooked in the discussion: bucking, trimming and sorting.
After all, cannabis is not a sturdy vegetable like zucchini that can be roughly harvested, tossed into the backs of trucks, sent to warehouses and piled onto store shelves — while maintaining outstanding quality. With cannabis, much revolves around the integrity of the trichomes, the fragile, crystal-like hairs that cover the buds and are swollen with cannabinoids and terpenes. Simply harvesting cannabis plants and stripping them of their buds will destroy many of the trichomes — and eliminate some of the profit that truly premium cannabis can generate.
Many cannabis operations rely entirely upon human labor to perform all of the work from harvest through sorting. For many years it was the only option; equipment designed explicitly for harvesting, trimming and sorting cannabis did not exist. But today, hand-trimming is simply not an option for any cultivator operating at a large, commercial-scale. An examination of Aurora Sky’s 800,000-square-foot greenhouse facility in Edmonton, Canada, showed that labor salary costs alone exceeded $56,000 per day when operating at full capacity. This does not even include costs for human resources, equipment and any benefits package offered.
Widespread cannabis legalization — and the investments into every sector of the industry that followed — changed everything. Now, growers can turn to new, gentle technologies for the key post-harvest steps.
For those that want to scale, fresh technologies make it much more cost-effective. Relying on human labor for every step can be financially punishing, restricting a company’s ability to scale and creating enormous human resources challenges.
The development of machine solutions to manage the process occurred just in time.
Once plants are liberated from soil, it is time to introduce them to a new world of machines that turn broad, leafy plants supported by stout stems into nothing more than trichome-sheathed buds.
The first step is bucking — stripping leaves and buds from stems. Done manually, bucking is time-consuming, but machines perform the tedious task rapidly. People feed the cut sides of stems into holes that roughly match their diameters. Then, machines quickly grab the stems and pull them through the hole; buds get released and collected.
Among the latest crop of buckers, some are designed for enormous harvests — up to 1,000 pounds of cannabis per hour — while others are aimed more squarely at more typical harvests. The market supports a wide range of updated bucking machines, all of which help growers simultaneously scale and save capital.
Bucking separates flowers from stems. But those bucked buds still contain a lot of small, extraneous leaves that detract from the flavor and potency of the final product. For generations, trimming was performed by hand. Today, more and more growers are replacing hand-trimmers with machines. Machine trimmers of the past often were too turbulent; conscientious growers always gravitated toward hand-trimming because the machines let those glittering trichomes drift away. But this has changed in recent years, thanks to technological advances, and modern industrial bud trimmers can replace as many as 150 workers or even more.
Today’s industrial trimmers hold bucked buds in a perforated, rotating cylinder. Immediately beyond the perforations are blades. As the cylinder spins, the buds make contact with the blades, which cut leaves from the buds. Some trimmers can process up to 19 pounds of dry cannabis in an hour or 100-plus pounds wet. Alternatively, a hand trimmer can trim a pound or two of dry buds in four to six hours. Among commercial trimmers, brands like Centurion, Mobius, Triminator, TrimPro and Twister offer broad choices of styles.
Automated trimming seems aggressive — the sight of buds spinning in a blade-sheathed cylinder can give the most committed cultivator pause — but the best new machines yield leaf-free buds spangled with crystalline trichomes.
Some growers end their post-harvest processing with trimming. But growers that bypass sorting might ultimately lose out because their deliveries lack consistency. An eighth could be a single bud, a scattering of medium buds or a mix of medium and small buds, plus shake. As the legal commercial cannabis market matures, dispensaries and consumers have less patience for inconsistencies like this.
Today’s automated sorters largely depend on two styles. One common sorter involves a round vessel, often about the size of a car tire, that supports a range of plates with different-sized holes. The sorter vibrates, causing the buds that fit through each plate’s holes to fall through. By the time the sorter is finished, each plate contains different sized buds.
Another style of sorter involves a triangle shaped configuration of industrial plastic bands. As the buds enter the sorting area, the strips are close together, so only shake can fall between them. As they travel down the belt, the distance between the strips widens; as the triangle widens, incrementally larger buds fall into collection vessels, which enables the buds to be sorted by size. By the time a pound of cannabis has gone through the sorter, one bin will hold shake and each of the others will contain buds of uniform sizes.
After sorting, the cannabis is nearly ready for shipping to dispensaries, and sale.
Thanks to the revolutionary technological advances brought about by automation, the industry no longer needs human hands to perform every task. Today’s innovations let growers process cannabis far more efficiently than in the past, while preserving the flowers’ glorious trichome integrity.
Brett Layne is a technical specialist with Mobius, which engineers and manufactures technology for use in cannabis agriculture. For more information, visit www.mobiustrimmer.com.