Some Canadian cannabis companies have a master grower, but others such as Organigram in Moncton, N.B., do not.
“We have developed a team of experts as we have evolved from only being a plant-focused operation to a production operation,” explains CEO Greg Engel, who has worked in biotech his entire career. “Yes, you need a very specific horticultural approach with people who specialize in that, but you must have a focus on the production aspects as well.”
Like others, Organigram began its enterprise with smaller growing operations. Although Engel says it’s not that difficult to grow cannabis in a small scale, there are big challenges in scaling up. “The environmental conditions have a huge impact on quality and there is also much more automation,” he explains. “We have 23 new production rooms holding 1,560 plants each in addition to our original 13 rooms that each hold 1,200 plants. We chose to do all indoor cultivation because it provides a higher degree of environmental control where higher levels of cannabinoids can be consistently and reliably achieved.”
Because cannabis plants transpire at a very high rate and can release up to 90 per cent of the water they’ve been given within the first one or two hours, dehumidification is one area of environmental control that has evolved significantly at Organigram, Engel notes. “We’ve also learned you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, and we’ve gained a lot of experience over time adjusting conditions for various strains. Some are eight weeks or 10 weeks in flower, and so on.”
Engel believes that going forward, there will be more industry innovation and change in downstream production processes rather than in the growing process.
“‘We’ve come a long way and feel very confident in our current growing and production processes, but we’re also very aggressive in determining new techniques and innovations within the industry,” he explains. “Under the ACMPR, we can access genetics through other licensed producers, but starting plants from other sources is quite a lengthy process. It takes about nine months to do sexing and see which offspring really produce.”
Organigram holds genetics for about 55 different strains, with a core production group of about 12 strains that address various medication conditions. It cycles another 12 or so seasonally. Part of the firm’s decisionmaking about which strains to grow has been a focus on end products, but also on production traits such as, cultivation consistency and disease resistance.
Toronto-based Supreme Pharmaceuticals — with its cultivation operation, 7ACRES, located in Kincardine, Ont. — does not have a master grower either, and its CEO, John Fowler says “our biggest accomplishment has been moving from a ‘master grower’ organization with a skilled technician at the centre, to a learning organization where skills and expertise are distributed across a diverse labour pool.”
Fowler started out in the cannabis sector as a cultivator, then as a patients’ rights advocate and later as an attorney. In terms of what he sees as the biggest changes in the Canadian cannabis-growing industry, he notes: “It was a big transition to learn to [grow ‘good’ cannabis] in a highly-regulated environment where you have to be forward thinking rather than reactive to ensure compliance with standard operating procedures.”
He also lists scaling up as an industry-wide cultivation challenge, one that requires “dozens or hundreds of people to work as one.” For Fowler, the industry has come to realize that use and cultivation of cannabis is thousands of years old, and “conceptualizing our market in a more holistic view, rather than having a myopic focus on the legal medical market as it stands today, has helped us shape a company set up for long-term success in Canada and abroad.”
The biggest change at Supreme/7 ACRES, in Fowler’s view, is the injection of capital and non-cannabis expertise. “If you told me a decade ago we’d be raising nearly $100 million to grow cannabis and building a team that includes not just cannabis growers but multiple PhDs and Master’s degrees in horticulture and related fields, I would not have believed it.
“This allows us,” adds Fowler, “to take our output to the next level in terms of quality, consistency and efficiency. The techniques themselves have not changed in concept, but have been improved to reflect better facilities and a scaled approach to cultivation.”
To Fowler, the future of cultivation will likely be influenced greatly by market segmentation: commoditized-cannabinoids for input material into various products and high-end flower for direct consumption. “We are focusing on the latter, as our systems and expertise allow us to maintain craft quality at scale,” he says. “From a grower’s perspective, understanding this segmentation is essential to market positioning. If, like us, the focus is on quality, then the key factor for success will be maintaining that quality as output scales. Those looking at cannabis as a commodity likely have different factors for success, primarily cost control.”
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Cremona, Alberta-based Aurora Cannabis does have a vice-president of of production and chief cultivator who leads a cultivation team, and executive vice-president Cam Battley says “we’re literally learning new things on each grow cycle for each strain, with respect to how subtle adjustments to lighting, HVAC, CO2, nutrients and growth medium pH balance can enhance yields and cannabinoid levels.”
Battley, who has years of experience in the international biotech/pharmaceutical sector, notes that growing techniques have been significantly impacted by the availability of advanced technology.
“Some of the technology and automation we’re employing at our new 800,000 square-foot ‘Aurora Sky’ facility at Edmonton International Airport has never been used before anywhere – not just in cannabis, but in agriculture,” he reports. “We’re driving the science of cultivation and production, and defining a new state of the art.”
For example, with the establishment of the firm’s Plant Tissue Culture lab, Battley says Aurora is now among a handful of producers capable of using micropropagation for plant replication, which offers many advantages over traditional cloning, particularly for cultivation on the scale of Aurora Sky.
“Also, the days of growing large ‘trees’ are long gone,” he adds. “Factors like production cost per gram, risk management, and growing and producing under ‘Good Agricultural and Collection Practices’ and ‘Good Manufacturing Practices’ conditions have taught us that smaller plants with higher densities and shorter production cycles provide significant advantages in these three areas.”
Innovation is critical at Aurora, and Battley says its cultivation team will continue to push the boundaries in terms of optimizing plant health, yields and cannabinoid levels.
“They’ll continue to explore concepts such as interplant signaling, and gain additional understanding on how best to cultivate very large numbers of plants in a controlled space,” he proudly notes. “What we hope to achieve is multiple advancements of the art and science of cannabis cultivation that deliver sustainable enhancements in quality to the benefit of patients and consumers, while at the same time further reducing per gram costs of production.”