To those who argue cannabis plants cannot be treated like widgets on a factory assembly line, Jeff Purcell would respectfully disagree.
“The key for us is standardization,” Mr. Purcell, senior vice-president of operational services at Organigram, explained during a three-hour tour of the company’s facility in Moncton, New Brunswick. “We quickly pivoted from a grow op [mentality] to a manufacturing facility mentality when [CEO] Greg Engel came [in 2017]. All the key principles that we use to run the business are manufacturing principles, not cannabis-growing principles.”
That mentality starts at the very beginning of the cultivation process, said Mr. Purcell, a veteran of the food industry who spent 17 years at McCain Foods. Two clone rooms, each containing roughly 25,000 cannabis seedlings at any given time, are maintained with specific environmental controls to maximize the similarities between each plant.
“In order to be completely standardized, before we move a plant to the next cycle we will cut the roots [to a standard length] so everything can become super-standardized,” Mr. Purcell said. “Every plant will have four nodes, four main branches and the same kind of root system.”
Organigram does not use mother plants – usually very large plants where cuttings can be taken regularly – for its clones. Instead, it uses a percentage of the clones themselves for propagation, which Mr. Purcell says provides for better root growth.
After three weeks in the clone room, plants are potted in soil containing shredded coconut shell husks using a standard horticultural potting machine. However, Organigram also worked with the New Brunswick Research and Productivity Council – a provincial crown corporation – to custom-build a tamping machine.
“If you do any gardening at all you know that tamping the soil down is one of the critical steps,” Mr. Purcell said. “You need to get that soil density just right so there is enough air that the water can drain, the roots can grow but still be tight enough for the nutrients to stay in there long enough to be absorbed by the roots.”
“We used to have people on both sides of the table patting down, but coming from the manufacturing world I saw it as a variable that was causing us to be inconsistent, so this was how we were able to make it consistent [because] this machine is calibrated to compact the soil at the exact same rate every time,” he said. “We went from maybe 15 people working in [the potting room] to maybe two.”
Once in pots, the plants spend three more weeks in a vegetative room before being relocated to a flowering room for roughly 10 weeks prior to harvest (give or take a week or two depending on the variety and strain). The facility has 99 growing rooms in total – including both vegetative and flowering – with each measuring 1,500 square feet and holding exactly 1,080 plants.
Harvesting a single room used to take a couple of days, but Mr. Purcell says the company has increased the efficiency of the process such that harvesting all 1,080 plants in a room can be done in exactly 10.7 hours.
The entire process is done indoors, which Mr. Purcell acknowledges is expensive. Electricity alone for the entire facility cost $610,000 last month alone and he expects the monthly power bill to surpass $1-million once the facility is fully built out to its full capacity of 113,000 kg of dried flower per year (as of today that capacity is roughly 76,000 kg/yr).
Before the end of 2019, Mr. Purcell expects to install a water recycling system that will allow the company to reuse up to 70 per cent of its water, or roughly 1,200 litres per room per day. He also applied a novel solution to what has long been a logistical nightmare for LPs: affixing excise stamps.
The stamps are delivered in stacks of 500 with no adhesive. The company sends them to a third party that adds adhesive and puts them on a roll that can be inserted into another custom-built machine that adds all the labels to each container as the final step before packaging and shipping.
“This machine was custom-designed and built in Italy,” explained Mr. Purcell while noting Organigram sought specific approval from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) to affix excise stamps horizontally rather than vertically. “That is just where I had to go to find what I needed.”