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Experiment with plenty of strains; make sure your drying facilities are licensed ahead of harvest time; take proactive steps to deal with contaminants.

These are a few of the lessons learned in the first year of legal outdoor cannabis cultivation.

Although crops were not as large as expected for the handful of LPs that planted outdoors this past summer, there were plenty of things the companies learned in year one. Cannabis Professional spoke with the chief executives of WeedMD, 48North and Aleafia to hear takeaways from their first attempt at growing pot outdoors at scale.

Keith Merker, CEO of WeedMD

WeedMD harvested 17,000 kilograms of biomass from its fields in Strathroy, Ont. This translated to 8,000 kilograms of “saleable cannabinoid-rich cannabis,” the company said. While the harvest fell short of the company’s projected 25,000 kilogram harvest, Mr. Merker said it was a successful first year, with many of the harvested flowers showing comparable THC content to plants grown indoors. The cost to produce a gram was $0.16.

Experiment with genetics

WeedMD took an experimental approach to genetics in year one, planting 37 different strains, including eight of the company’s legacy strains, to see which ones would produce the best outdoor yields.

"Our strains, generally speaking at WeedMD, lean a bit more to the Sativa side than most growers. We found that a lot of those did really well outside: they really got tall, they really did what those more Sativa leaning strains are supposed to do, and they were quite successful. That's our Wine Gums, our Sweet Sativa strain, our Ghost Train Haze, the Ultra Sour was a great one,” Mr. Merker said.

"We also had a large number of more experimental strains. Some of which did really well, and were good surprises, and some of which didn’t really do well at all. That’s kind of the nature of the beast, and that feeds into the yield discussion. But I think more importantly over the long term, it gives us the knowledge base on the strain side."

More labour intensive than other agriculture

In many ways, cannabis is like other field crops. However, Health Canada rules around contaminants add a number challenges that make the crop more labour intensive to produce.

“Things like how you deal with weeds. If left up to their own devices, you get weeds growing everywhere and you can't spray Roundup,” Mr. Merker said.

“Nor were we allowed to use much in the way of anything that was powered by fossil fuels in the field. There was concern around potential heavy metal contamination and such from exhaust fumes, so again the process was largely manual. We’re looking for solutions to make it more efficient next year.”

The ideal planting time

"By the time we got everything in it was mid-June. I think that at least two weeks earlier is ideal,” Mr. Merker said. “The earlier the better, weather permitting.”

Don’t make promises to the market

Amid the stock market sell-off, cannabis executives have been criticized for making promises they can’t keep. Mr. Merker said he made that mistake with WeedMD’s outdoor crop.

"The biggest failure this year was not anything but the fact that I came out and represented numbers to the market. That’s my biggest regret. Because this was a success. It’s easy to forget this was a success. No one has done this before. We did this at scale, we did it compliant, and we got some great yields and it’s a good return on investment.”

Alison Gordon, CEO of 48North

48North harvested 12,000 kilograms or cannabis at its Good:Farm site near Brantford Ont. The harvest fell short of the expected 40,000 kilograms, largely due to problems obtaining licences for drying facilities, according to Ms. Gordon. The quality of the product is also not yet clear: “there is still uncertainty as to the THC and/or CBD levels of the harvested crop, the allocation between dried flower and extraction grade cannabis and the selling price per gram,” the company noted in its Nov. 25 MD&A. Total cash cost per gram of production was $0.25.

Full mechanization is unlikely

48North used some mechanized equipment for both planting and harvesting, notably a tobacco planting machine, which had to be adjusted to account for differences between tobacco and marijuana plants.

“We were adapting for size and width, and width of the mounds we were planting in, and all of that stuff. The spacing is different from tobacco, between the plants,” Ms. Gordon said.

48North mostly relied on manual labour to harvest the plants, although it did experiment with combine harvesters. The company is still crunching data to figure out how much quality was lost by using combines, and whether the loss was balanced by improved efficiency, Ms. Gordon said.

“A lot of it is dependent on what you’re growing, what you’re growing it for, where you’re growing it. That’s going to impact how you’re going to harvest it, and whether you would want to do a manual harvest or a combine harvest,” she said.

Ms. Gordon expects to use more farm machines next year. But she does not think outdoor cannabis cultivation will ever become as mechanized as other field crops.

“The plant’s value is mainly in the resin content. That’s quite sticky, and you want to maintain the trichomes, so in many ways there’s only so much that you want to do from a mechanical basis,” she said.

Licencing troubles

The company’s biggest problem this year had to do with not having enough drying space licensed by harvest time, Ms. Gordon said. The company built three hoop houses for drying, but only one was licensed.

“A lot of people don't understand and they think, well you must have known you didn't have the drying space. No, the drying space was built, we were waiting on licensing and I wouldn't give up until the very last minute: so fingers crossed on additional licensing, right up until three weeks ago.”

The lack of drying and processing space forced the company to focus on harvesting only the highest yield portions of the plants.

“At that point it was like let's prioritize the top colas and get those off the field,” she said.

Autoflowering plants

48North tried planting nine different strains this year. Most performed well, said Ms. Gordon, but not the autoflowering strains. (An autoflowering strain automatically switches from the vegetative stage to the flowering stage based on time, regardless of changes in light).

“The idea of trying the autos was really if they had worked, then you're harvesting them a lot earlier, you could have had another run at planting another round of autos,” Ms. Gordon said.

“They didn’t do that well in our soil. Some say autos can work outdoors ... but the autos did not perform well in terms of size and scope. But that’s ok, that was the point of year one, to learn all of these things," she said.

Geoff Benic, CEO of Aleafia

Aleafia harvested 10,300 kilograms of dried flower at its site in Port Perry, Ont. The company announced this week that it has sold 2,840 kilograms of that crop to another LP for $2.50 per gram. Aleafia’s outdoor all-in cash cost per gram to harvest was $0.10.

Finding labour

Finding farm labour to help with planting and harvesting proved to be a challenge.

“Port Perry, as much as people think it's an agricultural mecca, it really isn’t; for some reason it's just a lot of hobby farmers. So the challenge was being able to find good quality reliable labour, that meets all of our Health Canada requirements,” Mr. Benic said.

Aleafia did have success sourcing labour from agricultural colleges, including Niagara College, which have cannabis cultivation programs.

"We're going to continue that as long as they're of age, and obviously we think we're contributing to those colleges and helping folks become cultivators," Mr. Benic said.

The ideal planting time

Aleafia didn’t get its first zone licensed until early June, and didn’t get plants into the ground until mid-June. Zone Two was not licensed and planted until the end of June. The company still managed to achieve reasonably high yields, with THC levels roughly 75 per cent compared to the levels found in the same strains when grown indoors.

The yields will get better next year, due to earlier planting, Mr. Benic said. "Everyone says it's the May 24 weekend – that is the benchmark."

Be proactive about potential contaminants

One of the main concerns with outdoor cultivation is contamination: that nearby hemp could pollinate the female cannabis plants or pesticides from nearby farms could get onto the crops. Mr. Benic said Aleafia took a proactive approach to contamination control.

“We were really aggressive on soil sampling, so we were looking at heavy metals in the soil, heavy metals in the water, we did put an irrigation system in there," he said.

“You can do everything right, and still have bad luck. You can have a hemp farm a kilometre away from you, and you don’t even know it. But the engineering team went out and did big aerial views through google maps, and were looking at the fields, trying to make sure there were no hemp farms around, trying to make sure that there were field crops being grown, whether that’s wheat or soybeans, or anything like that. In Port Perry, it was optimal, because there’s no farming going on, so we’re not worried about any cross contamination by other crops that are spraying.”

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