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Data Analytics Help Cultivators Optimize Environmental Conditions

Last updated: 03-16-2020

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Data Analytics Help Cultivators Optimize Environmental Conditions

Cannabis Business Times
Data Analytics Help Cultivators Optimize Environmental Conditions
Features - Business
Integrated data analytics platform helps Planet 13 monitor grow-room conditions in real time to improve efficiencies and harvest quality.
Jolene Hansen & Patrick Williams
Visual Generation | Adobe Stock
When building a grow, cultivators need to control “earth, air, wind and fire,” says Chris Wren, VP of operations at Planet 13. The company cultivates cannabis for the medical and adult-use markets within a 12,000-square-foot Las Vegas facility that includes about 2,700 square feet of indoor canopy operated under the name Medizin, in addition to growing in a separate, smaller facility in Beatty, Nev., that has two roughly 10-foot-by-10-foot grow rooms. According to Wren, optimal heating, cooling, dehumidification, fogging, lighting, circulation and ventilation are make-or-break conditions for a successful grow.
It’s all part of how the Nevada-based vertically integrated company provides product to its roughly 40,000-square-foot Las Vegas SuperStore, located in an entertainment complex that includes a café and bar. These attractions are co-located with Planet 13’s 15,000-square-foot customer-facing production facility.
What customers may not know about the company is that since it opened Medizin March 1, 2016, it has accumulated 71 gigabytes of environmental data. Every 15 seconds, Planet 13 tracks the environmental parameters of light, humidity, CO2, pH, air temperature, water temperature and electrical conductivity. In addition, it measures outputs from when the system measured the conditions—for example, if the dehumidifier was on.
“Basically, the whole purpose of a successful grow is being able to control, monitor and optimize those environmental conditions,” Wren says. “You've got your genetics, and you've got the environment, and that's really 90% of the job.”
Moving From ‘Feel’ to Integrated Technology
When John Dol entered commercial cannabis cultivation in 2015, he brought decades of high-tech commercial greenhouse growing and data analytics experience to the industry. Now owner of CannabiDol Consulting, Dol encourages cannabis growers to embrace available analytics technologies to optimize their grows.
Where everything—in traditional greenhouse ag and cannabis—once relied on the “feel” of the grower, a shift has occurred. “We've learned over time that the human body is the worst barometer for sensing what's actually going on with temperature and humidity. The plant experiences climate much differently than we do,” Dol says.
“Climate controls became a tool to tell us what was really going on with the crop. Every few years, there was another step forward in looking at the climate as a whole and not just individual pieces,” Dol says. Tools like integrated data analytics have been part of the industry’s forward movement.
In traditional, commercial greenhouse production, large-scale growers have relied on centralized environmental/climate control analytics systems that continue to improve, Dol says. He notes that many growers who haven’t been exposed to that technology have struggled with individual pieces of equipment all working on their own accord.
“With an integrated climate control system, you are controlling everything that's happening to the climate from one central brain, which then optimizes what happens in your crop,” he says. By having data from disparate systems integrated into one analytics interface, you can see how your systems are all working together as a whole.
Dol expects environmental data analytics technologies to increase. “It’s just starting to get more popular with [artificial intelligence],” he says. “It's a tool that's going to be able to tell the growers quicker what's going on and what needs to be rectified. I think long term it's going to just rectify it on its own. I think that’s going to be the next level of growing.”
Dol is quick to add that this doesn’t mean growers will be obsolete. Like car mechanics that moved from carburetors to fuel injection, growers will develop expertise in these new growing technologies.
Learning from the Analytics
Every stage of a plant’s life cycle requires different environmental conditions, Wren says.
“There are plenty of times that I add humidity to a space, and then five weeks later, I'm pulling humidity out of that space,” he says. “I have to be able to read those parameters and then subsequently control them, because just knowing the data doesn't do you any good if you can't react to it.”
Wren equates maximizing conditions for a plant to shooting a bow and arrow; you can’t adjust the arrow if it’s already missed the target. “You need to provide it the optimal environmental conditions to maximize photosynthesis and respiration in the times it needs it and then steer that crop into the developed expression that you want,” Wren says.
Wren admits that poring through environmental data and noticing trends has been a challenge, but imperatively, Planet 13 has that information in case it needs to adjust course.
More cultivators are starting to come around and utilize analytics, Dol says. “I think people are starting to understand that analytics is a tool—a helpful tool—and if you don't have that tool, you're going to get behind.”
Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer specializing in the cannabis and horticulture industries. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com .
Patrick Williams is senior editor of Cannabis Business Times and sister publication Cannabis Dispensary.
Locations: Headquarters in Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Cultivation in Kelowna, British Columbia, Portugal and soon Australia
Type: Indoor cultivation with highly controlled, small-room environments
Greenhouse (low-CapEx poly-film houses) and outdoor cultivation
Size: Kelowna 1 indoor: 85,000 sq. ft. with 20 rooms
Flowr Forest greenhouse: 189,000 sq. ft. (42 houses at 4,500 sq. ft. each)
Flowr Forest outdoor: 150,000 sq. ft.; potential expansion to 310,000 sq. ft.
Portugal indoor: 3 rooms completed; 6 rooms totaling 9,235 sq. ft. planned
Portugal outdoor: 100,000 sq. ft. planted; potential expansion to 7 million sq. ft.
Employees: 300 across operations
Products produced: Dried flower. A live resin vape pen is planned for the second half of 2020, along with a line of shatters, waxes and concentrates.
Hansen: How did your partnership with Hawthorne Canada come about, and what do both companies gain?
Tolia: Hawthorne is essentially paying for a [50,000-square-foot] R&D facility to be built on our campus in Kelowna. Because they’re a publicly listed company in the U.S., they can’t touch the plant. They needed to do testing on their products, so they needed a Canadian partner to do this with. What this does for us is not only strengthen our partnership with Scotts [Miracle-Gro, Hawthorne’s parent company] and allow us to potentially work on other exciting things with them, but it allows us to have an R&D facility on our campus and allows us to really stay at the cutting edge of cultivation technology and IP (intellectual property).
Hansen: The Holigen acquisition extends your reach into Portugal and Australia. What are your plans there?
Tolia: We’re super excited about that. Just to back up, there are different product requirements for different markets. What I explained earlier is our Canadian recreational focus with the premium flower for the rec market. But when you go to Europe or ... Australia, that’s a medical-only market. [Editor’s note: Sydney passed a measure in September 2019 to legalize adult-use possession.]
The great thing about Holigen is they are essentially set up as a pharmaceutical company. They have a deep knowledge in GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) and construction, and they have a ton of pharma knowledge. What they didn’t have was that cannabis cultivation knowledge. So, this was a partnership very much like 1+1=3.
Our license in Portugal … is product that will be destined for extraction that will be grown very efficiently. [It’s a] 7-million-square-foot outdoor cultivation license in an agricultural region in Portugal. We’ll be able to grow product very, very efficiently, extract it right into oils, and send it to the medicinal markets in Europe and Australia. We feel that with our cultivation IP and knowledge, and these assets and this team, we’ll be able to supply each of those markets with the ideal product.
[In Australia,] we have a facility that’s already GMP-licensed, and we’re hoping to have plants growing there in the next year. In Portugal, the facilities are already up and running, and [had initial harvests out of both Sintra (indoor) and Aljustrel (outdoor) in late 2019].
Hansen: We hear a lot about Portugal. How does it compare to other European countries? Is the market more advanced?
Tolia: When it comes to the actual size of the [Portugal] market internally, no. ... But the government body there has been really forward-looking, and they’ve been setting themselves up as a hub for all of Europe. The nice thing about the EU is once you’re in the EU, you can move around the EU countries basically frictionless. (Editor’s note: In a follow-up email, Thierry Elmaleh, Flowr’s head of capital markets, clarified that once Flowr has GMP certification, the company will be in position to export to other EU countries where medical cannabis is legal). For example, if you want to sell a product into Germany, you don’t have to be in Germany. You can be anywhere in the EU and get product in there. Now, who knows what the future holds. If countries want to get protectionist, they can do that, but they can’t get protectionist with other countries in the EU.
Hansen: As you move into these markets, what are some of the greatest challenges you see associated with international expansion?
Tolia: There are a lot of regulatory hurdles. Each market is highly individualized, highly tailored to whatever that specific market needs. A big part of it is just educating the market. We’re going into these markets in Europe and Australia that are really just getting started. A big part of selling product there is educating patients and educating doctors. There’s a ton of challenges, but I would say just the regulatory, distribution and education are the biggest.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.
Jolene Hansen is a freelance writer specializing in the cannabis and horticulture industries. Reach her at jolene@lovesgarden.com.
Mojave Richmond & Robert C. Clarke
Photos by Robert C. Clarke
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of Cannabis Business Times. Robert C. Clarke and Mojave Richmond are recognized as leaders in the study of cannabis. This article examines the evolution of indigenous cannabis varieties, or "landraces," and how breeding practices have affected genetic diversity.
Cannabis plants have coevolved with humans for millennia, and our intimate relationship continues today. From ancient times to the present, we have carried Cannabis seeds around the globe, into geographically diverse ecosystems inhabited by traditional cultures, each with its own specific demands for the plant in terms of food, fiber and medicine. Exposed to a new environment, the genetic diversity within each plant population responded to natural selective pressures, directed by local farmers’ and consumers’ requirements.
Traditional farmer “landrace varieties” evolved under localized selective pressures and flourished within a geographically limited area.
Farmers collected seeds from their best plants and saved them for sowing the following year. Traditional farmer varieties are known as “landrace varieties” or simply “landraces.” Each landrace evolved under localized selective pressures and flourished within a geographically limited area.
This scenario was repeated many times as the Cannabis genus spread around the globe. Over time, new landraces, expressing a multitude of traits, would become established and provide the basic breeding stock for all plant-improvement programs.
Landrace genomes (complete sets of genetic material within each organism and population) were selected within a localized set and setting, and their genes were variously expressed depending on local conditions. But in addition to adapting to a certain environment, a functional genome must also be dynamic and contain sufficient genetic diversity to allow for continuing adaptability to changing selective pressures.
‘Wind-Blown Free Love’ and Genomic Diversity
In many plants, both male and female sexual organs are present within each flower, and seeds are produced by self-fertilization or “selfing”-both the male pollen and the female ovule coming from a single plant.
Individual Cannabis plants, however, are generally either male or female in an approximately equal ratio, so two different plants are required to make a seed-a male plant supplying pollen and a female to bear the seed-and selfing is not possible. Pollen is carried from males to females by the wind. Each male fertilizes many females, and each female is pollinated by many males. This results in open pollinations and obligate outcrossing, which promote genetic variability by combining genomes from many individuals in the following generation. Wind-blown free love begot the genomic diversity of landrace Cannabis we see today.
The true tragedy is not just the loss of unique landraces, but also the erosion of the traditional farming cultures that created these landraces.
Open pollination within geographically isolated areas allowed for the evolution of diversity in different landrace populations, as well as the accentuation of specific traits that differentiate one landrace from another. Sexual reproduction promotes variability and evolutionary change, while asexual reproduction fixes one set of genes (genotype) and traits (phenotype) and stops evolution in its tracks. Hybrid seeds, and clones of their offspring, are now available internationally, but although we are spreading and sharing genetically different varieties worldwide, we are not expanding the Cannabis gene pool.
Through the movements of humans and the exchange of seeds, the genomes of landrace populations came to contain a plethora of potentially favorable traits. As early Western sinsemilla farmers/breeders procured seeds of landrace varieties from around the world-most often contained within illicit marijuana flowers smuggled from such far-flung places as Afghanistan, Thailand, Colombia, Jamaica and Mexico-they selected the most favorable traits from the populations they grew, and thereby exerted new evolutionary pressures. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, some sinsemilla breeders across North America were essentially creating their own “landraces” adapted to local outdoor conditions. It is largely from these basic building blocks that the multi-hybrid seeds and clone-only varieties of today were built.
Before the emergence of Dutch seed companies in the late 1980s, clandestine growers either sourced their seeds from local farmer/breeders or from imported drug cannabis. While sinsemilla seed varieties began to be sold worldwide, cannabis-exporting nations saw many of their traditional cannabis-producing communities impacted by prohibition. The War on Drugs created too much risk for traditional family farmers, and over time, the illicit drug trade took over. As production expanded, every seed was sown, and there were no longer the traditional human selections of the best plants that focused the desirable traits of each landrace genome. The result was production of huge amounts of low-quality, commercial cannabis intended for export, and the spread of these unselected seeds ultimately supplanted many regional landrace varieties.
Industrial hemp varieties are grown from seed, are relatively “true breeding” and produce a relatively uniform and consistent crop each time they are sown. Few, if any, sinsemilla seed varieties are as consistent in the field as hemp cultivars. This is because most present-day sinsemilla plants were not selected directly from within a landrace population-almost all are hybrids between genomes of at least two different landrace origins-and these differing genetic contributions are expressed in various combinations of traits.
This presents Cannabis breeders the challenge of creating new varieties that are recognizably different from others and express specific favorable and reproducible traits while maintaining a dynamic genome that may be expressed differently from year to year.
The Problem With Reduced Genetic Diversity
True-breeding sinsemilla varieties are difficult to establish. As a consequence, present-day commercial marijuana crops are most often grown from cuttings instead of seeds, and they are increasingly cultivated indoors under artificial light rather than under the sun. Varieties are selected to grow under conditions quite apart from nature’s selective forces, and are chosen to perform well under artificial conditions. In today’s global market, “clone-only” sinsemilla varieties carpet the world, thereby spreading a lack of genetic diversity while engendering a myriad of potential agricultural problems in terms of susceptibility to disease and intolerance to imposed environmental stresses.
The majority of industrial hemp cultivars are monoecious (male and female flowers are born on the same plant, allowing inbreeding), and they share a very limited number of founding ancestors, often just a single monoecious plant. Most asexually reproduced commercial sinsemilla varieties contain elements of the Afghan hashish plant genomes. Reduced genetic diversity and mono-cropping of asexually reproduced clones invite the possibility of blights and numerous other widespread calamities. Extensive cultivation of clonal cultivars with shared susceptibility to pests and diseases led to the catastrophic Irish Potato Famine (1845-1849), the Great French Wine Blight (1850s), the Southern Corn Blight (1970) and Panama disease in bananas (1950s and present day).
Environmental intolerance and susceptibility to pests and pathogens are all issues impacting various regions around the world where Cannabis is grown commercially. Many modern sinsemilla varieties are susceptible to molds and mildews that spread rapidly through crops of genetically identical plants. So far, Cannabis populations have proven to be resilient to widespread crop failure, but it remains to be seen what will happen as cannabis agriculture intensifies.
Today’s Genetic Selection
For the foreseeable future, asexually propagated “clone-only” varieties will present the most economically feasible strategy for growing consistent large-scale flower crops, while seed varieties will be sown in the field for production of concentrates and extracts. Eventually, medicinal and adult-use drug cannabis agriculture may follow all the other horticultural industries and adopt sterile in vitro plants as their production supply-no more maintaining mother plants, just pest- and pathogen-free clones shipped to the grower’s door.
Asexual propagation and genetically identical clonal crops are opposing forces to sexual reproduction and genomic diversity. Profitable agriculture presents an ever-changing challenge for commercial growers, who require access to a range of specialized traits within each variety in order to provide the adaptability necessary to cope with ever-changing environmental demands and markets. Plant improvements can only be achieved by unlocking the potential within existing varieties through sexual reproduction, proper selection and breeding.
From traditional landraces, through the industrial hemp cultivars, and on to the poly-hybrid drug varieties of today, stretches a common thread connecting genetic diversity to a multitude of potential societal applications for this multi-use plant. The interconnectivity of our global world coupled with the mass dispersal of limited gene pools have clearly decimated the localized combinations of genetic diversity once present in the global Cannabis landrace gene pool. However, the genes contained in the original landraces still hide within today’s varieties, and given the chance, they may be coaxed out and recombined so their unique genetic traits may again be expressed.
The true tragedy is not just the loss of unique landraces, but also the erosion of the traditional farming cultures that created these landraces. We owe it to those who collectively selected these amazing and diverse landraces to protect and multiply those that remain and allow them to once again see the light of day. At the very least, we should pay homage to the farmers of the past for their contributions to our present-day agricultural economy.
Robert C. Clarke is a freelance writer, photographer, ethnobotanist, plant breeder, textile collector and co-founder of BioAgronmics Group Consultants, specializing in smoothing the transition to a wholly legal and normalized cannabis market.
Mojave Richmond is the developer of many award-winning varieties such as S.A.G.E., which served as a springboard for creating many notable cultivars. Richmond is a founding member of the international consulting company BioAgronomics Group.

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