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Report on Business Cannabis Professional What Aurora wants to know as it starts growing outdoors: Q&A with Jonathan Page

On Friday, Health Canada gave Aurora Cannabis Inc. the green light to grow in two outdoor facilities: a half-acre field in Lachute, Que and a massive 207-acre facility near the central British Columbia town of Westwold, between Kamloops and Vernon.

Health Canada also awarded outdoor growing licences to Emerald Health Therapeutics Inc. (12 acres in Metro Vancouver) and The Flowr Corp. (3.5-acres of outdoor cultivation space and 42 low-tech greenhouses in Kelowna, B.C.) on Friday. Meanwhile, federal regulators amended Aleafia Health Inc.’s license, bringing the licensed outdoor growing space at its Port Perry, Ont. facility up to 25-acres.

Flowr, Emerald and Aleafia are all starting commercial production immediately, planting outdoor crops that they hope will provide biomass for the value-added extract products that will be legal later this year. Aurora, by contrast, is taking a slower approach, using the rest of this shortened outdoor growing season – perhaps even next growing season as well – to focus on research and development.

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Cannabis Professional spoke to Aurora’s chief science officer Jonathan Page to get a sense of what Aurora is hoping to learn before going into full outdoor commercial production. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Cannabis Professional: Why focus on R&D to begin with rather than commercial production?

Jonathan Page: It’s all about Aurora’s strategy of trying to get it right the first time, before we go for production. There are a lot of challenges around scaling outdoors. Canadian Farmers have grown hemp for decades now, and there has been outdoor cannabis cultivation in places like Colorado. But in Canadian climates and under Canadian conditions, we haven’t seen a lot of large-scale cultivation, black market excepted – and who knows how big those guys were.

So it’s things like getting the genetics right – cultivars that will finish in time in the shorter Canadian growing season – getting all the agronomic, agricultural practices right around irrigation, making observations around pest control, or pest infestation. We've seen in Washington State there's insects that attack cannabis outdoors. Will that be a problem in Canada?

CP: What are you looking for in terms of genetics?

JP: One of the major concerns is flowering time. When you’re indoor, say in Edmonton in our big facility there, you can push the plants with day length, because you just control the lighting, whether it’s using blackout curtains or turning the lights on and off at a certain time. Outdoor, of course, you cannot change the sun. One of the things is making sure that we have genetics that will produce and mature in the growing season that we have at our Quebec site and our B.C. site, so we will be evaluating different cultivars and genotypes for that.

There are sort of two types of cannabis: there is a so-called day-neutral or auto-flowering type, which are plants that will flower irrespective of the length of the day, versus photo-period sensitive plants that will flower based on short days. One of our main goals research-wise in the next two cultivation seasons is to look at the different capabilities of those two types for our outdoor cultivation set-up, and see if auto-flowering or day-neutral types are going to be more productive based on that shorter seasonality we have. We're not Northern California and we're not Mexico: places where outdoor has been very successful.

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CP: In a normal season, when would you plant an outdoor crop?

JP: I would say mid- to late-May would be our target date. This is based on when hemp goes in in Canada as well.

CP: When would you expect to harvest?

JP: That is latitude dependent. Further north you’re going to get shorter days earlier, so that will push the plants faster; but then further north also means earlier frost. So I’m going to say very late August, into September is when I’d be expecting.

Genetics-wise there’s such a variability in flowering time. Seed types that have parents or ancestors from tropical regions will never finish flowering in Canada anywhere; if we had sun until December, they wouldn’t do it. So it sort of depends on the genetics that people are planting. But let’s say early September, Labour Day potentially, into September.

Sometimes outdoor people, and I'm speaking more on the personal garden-level, have reported that they'll be going as late as Thanksgiving if the weather is good.

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CP: While Aurora doesn’t plan to commercialize its outdoor crop this summer, other companies that were only just licensed are aiming to produce a sellable crop this season. Is it realistic to think a company could plant in mid-July and get a harvest?

JP: It’s potentially realistic if they prepared for their license. Many people will be planting from clones, we are as well, to accelerate things. If their clones are a reasonable size and they have pushed the plants towards flowering even before going into the ground in the outdoor facility, that would be an indication that maybe they’d be getting a harvestable crop.

CP: Most of the research that has been done on cannabis in recent years has focused on indoor growing. How would you describe the state of scientific and agricultural management knowledge for outdoor cultivation?

JP: It is limited, although there is a caveat that we have grown hemp legally, which is cannabis after all, since 1998. Canadian farmers have grown lots of hemp in those years, and there is knowledge around things like fertilizer applications and soil types, all that kind of stuff. And we can look towards the knowledge that has come from the U.S. states that have allowed outdoor cultivation at scale. People have obviously been scouting those locations, learning lots of things, so knowledge is not zero. But these are fairly large-scale cultivation set-ups, and that’s really new in Canada.

Also, we think about cultivation as the goal, but harvest and post-harvest are other areas that need significant development of expertise and know-how and technology development. Things like drying, which is obviously an issue, how you harvest and trim. I think a lot of production is about biomass for extraction, and less about high-quality flower. That biomass suggests large scale, so you’ve got to dry things quickly and harvest them quickly. There’s automation and farm equipment, so it’s a fairly challenging step to go large-scale outdoor.

CP: My understanding is you cannot use a lot of industrial farm equipment, such as combines, to harvest fields of cannabis, because you risk damaging trichomes on the plants. Is that correct?

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JP: Whether it’s for THC or CBD production, you have to really work hard to preserve those fragile trichomes. So I don’t see us combining. There will be other, probably relatively labour-intensive methods for getting the flower heads off the fields and into dryers. But it will not be a combine process. Lots of farm machinery and tractors to get that done, but it’s not going to be like a big prairie hemp crop. What we’re investing in there is obviously cannabinoids and terpenes and other metabolites, and anything that damages those, releases those, leaves them on the field because they’re broken off, is going to reduce production.

CP: Where are your outdoor genetics coming from?

JP: We have a huge catalogue of germplasms, genetics that have come in through the Aurora system, and we acquired MedReleaf and CanniMed and Whistler, so we have lots of stuff to try. Some of it would be indoor genetics. The fact is until we’ve tried something outdoor, we don’t really know how it will perform, and it might be very suitable. The other thing we have through all of those companies, they have banks of seeds in the fridge. We might sort of trial them a little bit more indoor over the winter, and then we can have them fully tested out next season as well.

CP: Do you expect to go into outdoor commercial production next season?

JP: Our plan is to go two seasons, and then evaluate the production scale models after that, once we have the data. That’s partly because the season is quite abbreviated and we need a full season next year to gather our data. Partly it’s because, maybe more so than others, we’re heavy into R&D and we want to get it right, and we want to have a system and match genetics to that system. I think R&D is the best way to do that, rather than jumping in and aiming for production next year.

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