A uniformed jungle of cannabis plants sway like heavy pendulums in an airlocked grow room where everything – from light, to heat, to humidity – is measured, tightly controlled down to fractions of degrees.
“Look at the size of this one,” says Organigram’s head of production, Matt Rogers, gently cradling one of the massive, dense buds with a gloved hand. “It’s got to be at least 12 grams on its own.”
And even by the medical cannabis producer’s standards, where indoor growing has become something of a fine science, this crop of CBD Shark (or as Organigram has dubbed it, Baleen) is going to yield impressive top colas. The flowers are so heavy that had the stems not been fortified solid by an even, steady breeze over the past nine weeks, they may well have broken under the weight.
“Baleen is a high-yielding plant by nature, but we’ve never really seen anything quite like this from it before,” Rogers continued. “My team is set to harvest these plants next week, and I’m certain they’re going to clip colas the size of my forearm.”
With the steady growth of the medical marketplace and with preparations for the fast-approaching adult recreational market well underway, the cannabis industry in Canada is growing at a staggering pace. Organigram is one of eighty-some licensed producers (some of whom are already selling to medical patients, while the majority aren’t yet permitted to sell the cannabis they grow) preparing for the recreational market. In a medical market where new LPs are onboarded by Health Canada weekly in an attempt to keep pace with the impending recreational demand, Organigram has an inarguable advantage over its up-and-coming competitors. Though the company received its license to grow and sell medical cannabis to patients in March 2014, in an industry that’s still in its infancy, four years of experience growing cannabis in an indoor environment are worth their weight in Acapulco Gold.
And in a cultivation landscape where sungrown setups and million-square-foot greenhouse facilities offer elements for impressive headlines, drone videos and Instagram posts, the New Brunswick-based producer viewed the future of high-calibre growing through another lens.
Today, Organigram is poised to become one of the largest indoor producers in the country, and proof of the high-quality cannabis that’s attainable through a tightly controlled, indoor production model is sprouting in massive, terpene-rich flowers by the kilo.
“From day one, we knew we needed to be different,” said the company’s chief commercial officer Ray Gracewood. “Geographically, we’re on a bit of an island – in terms of cannabis production in Canada – to start with. Being located in the heart of Atlantic Canada, our winters aren’t always the gentlest. Production licenses are tied to physical addresses, and we didn’t have hundreds of acres of land to use. So, we wondered how we could grow the best possible plants in artificial conditions and close quarters?”
The answer? Control every element of the plant’s growth – from cloning, to growing, to curing – as precisely as possible, and use every single square inch of available growing space.
“We stack our plants three-high,” Gracewood explained of Organigram’s tiered growing system. “We knew we didn’t have an abundance of floor space, so we looked up and realized we had triple the growing space at our disposable that was, essentially, going to waste in similar indoor facilities.”
Indoor production is repeatable, consistent and, once growers come to know the tendencies of individual strains, yields (from cannabinoids and terpenes to the size of the buds) are reasonably predictable.
The company invested upwards of $20-million into mechanics designed to control elements including humidity, temperature, CO2, airflow and light to fractions of degrees.
“It’s incredibly precise,” Rogers says. “If we want to increase humidity, we can choose the size of the water droplets that we want to shower them with.”
The ability to apply precision matters in mass production of commercial cannabis. The stakes are high – the potential loss or underperformance of a crop can cost large-scale producers hundreds of thousands. The costs of building and outfitting a facility (from simple greenhouses to state-of-the-art indoor operations) can vary greatly, and the final products those facilities pump out is a direct reflection of that investment.
While greenhouse setups may incur reduced operating costs, the risk of threat to crops is higher, Rogers explains. Greenhouses are heavily influenced by the elements, and while some argue there’s no comparable replacement for the light of the sun, it’s an unreliable engine by which to power a commercial grow in certain regions. Supplemental lighting used to replace the sun in shadier periods can mean crops perform differently and unpredictably from season-to-season. Further, greenhouses require venting if the outdoor climate renders growing conditions too hot or humid, which can expose plants to pests or unwanted particle elements from the outside world.
“Your operation is somewhat at the mercy of the outside world – not as much as a full outdoor grow, where any number of threats can easily and quickly wipe a crop out – but there’s far less control. We mitigate threats to our plants as much as possible,” Rogers explained.
The process isn’t perfect, though, Rogers acknowledged, explaining it’s one reason why Organigram’s plants are grouped by strain in individual grow rooms, rather than all together in a massive space where infection can spread quickly. Should the plants be exposed to any risks, those risks stay contained in one room.
Housing strains separately offers the opportunity to create micro-climates tailored according to the unique needs of a particular plant. Organigram’s growers have come to know their plants – a variety of CBD-dominant, indicas and sativas – well. So well, they’ve come to understand that each plant requires its own cocktail of light, heat, humidity and airflow.
“At the end of the day, we can better predict how much we’ll produce, the terpenes and cannabinoids. it results in a consistent product for our patients,” Rogers said.
Proof of the quality possible with a finely tuned growing model was realized in November, when Organigram’s Wabanaki was awarded the coveted award for Top Sativa at the Canadian Cannabis Awards. From the first dense, pinene-rich crop harvested in early 2017, growers knew they had something special and focused extra attention on getting the conditions just right for the strain.
“Stepping into a Wabanaki grow room and closing your eyes is a wild sensory experience. The aroma is so earthy and so piney, that it’s almost like standing in the forest,” Rogers said.
Every 10 weeks or so (roughly the time it takes to grow and harvest a crop of medical cannabis), rooms are stripped, sanitized, recalibrated and prepped to house another new crop. It gives growers the opportunity to analyze results, examined what worked, and what may need to be fine-tuned.
“We get the chance to grow five crops in each room per year. In outdoor grow terms – where growers only get one, or maybe two (if they’re lucky) crops per year – we get five years of knowledge about a strain in one year in one grow room. With our aggregated system, that’s well over 100 years of learning in one year,” Rogers explained. “It’s allowed us to gather a lot of data for strain profiling. We now understand our genetics much better and what’s in their nature.”
With a greater understanding of their plants, the company has come to look at the post-harvest product in a different light, too. Flowers boast varying cannabinoid and terpene levels depending on where they grow on the plant. Partitioning those flowers and devoting them to different products (from conservatively sized ‘Minis’ to premium, hand-trimmed ‘Edison Project’ top colas) accommodate patients with varying needs.
“From the value-conscious to those real cannabis connoisseurs, we’re able to offer a product for everyone,” says Gracewood. “Cannabis consumers can’t all be put in the same box – everyone is unique, so that variety of offering is really necessary to serve everyone across the spectrum.”
While much has come to light in the cultivation community about best practices and optimizing production in recent years, the biggest mistake a grower can make is thinking he or she has learned everything there is to know about cannabis, Rogers says. Because a sophisticated indoor system allows for infinite customization and data capture, the Organigram team can endlessly fine-tune the process; the belief that the next crop can always be better than the last keeps growers humble and continually improving and innovating.
“That humility, that culture of always striving for better and refusing to think that we’re the best we’ll ever be has made it possible for our teams to achieve the kinds of yields we’re seeing today,” Gracewood said, bending down to inspect a Baleen top cola more closely. These flowers are destined for the Edison Project – if they’ll fit inside the jars. “That concept of never settling actually inspired our premium line; it’s proof about what’s possible when you believe in the potential of this remarkable plant.”