Design, Operate, and Succeed: Cannabis Cultivation Lessons

Written by Lance Griffin

Once upon a time, cannabis growers coaxed magic from plants in clandestine basements. They rigged old-school technology and mastered their craft harvest by harvest. Intuition and pioneering marked these early days; the size and smell of buds was evidence enough.

Cannabis cultivation has entered a new era. Legalization, investment, and engineering have transformed the old ways. Trusting a “master grower” no longer appeals; instead, contemporary cannabis companies stand on data and revenue. Designing and operating a cutting-edge cultivation facility hinges on expert consultants and driven professionals.

No one understands this better than Andrew Lange, president of Ascendant Management, and Bailee Syrek, director of operations at Onyx Agronomics. Andrew has designed 1.5 million square feet of cultivation space across North America and Europe. This includes Onyx Agronomics, the state-of-the-art aeroponics facility (built with AEssenceGrows) in Washington. Bailee manages 8,000 square feet of canopy at the Onyx facility to produce 9,000 pounds of dry trim per year. Onyx is efficient and profitable, the keystones to contemporary cannabis cultivation.


Plan the Facility for Production

It’s tempting to plan around the size of a building. But this often proves disastrous. “We want people to have revenue goals in mind—how much production they need to have, or at least have an idea. That’s where I think you should start,” explains Andrew.

Buildings are envelopes. If prioritized above all else, they become limitations. “The envelope is the cheapest thing you can buy when we’re talking about grow equipment and everything else that all cost more than the actual envelope of the building.” When a building size can’t fit production goals, vertical growing may be proposed. But this pushes costs 25-30% higher per square foot. “A building on average costs about $55 per square foot to build. If you’re going into a vertical orientation, you’re going to pay 130% more for mechanical per square foot.”

On the other hand, local markets may not require large facilities. This depends on the demand and maturity of the specific market. “If you want to put out 20,000 pounds a year and you want to put that facility in Missouri [a new medical-only state], you’re only going to sell 10,000. So, maybe we don’t look at a facility quite that large. Instead of looking at square footage, we want to look at output.” Overall, it’s easier to build what you need rather than trying to fit production into existing square footage.

Knowing output goals also facilitates smooth expansion. Bailee explains that “We have always been in the process of expanding, and we have always known what size the facility would eventually be. Even when we only had one room up, we started building all our processes as if we were fully built out. This has made expanding and adding more employees and rooms very simple because we have already accounted for it.”


Consider Infrastructure and Wastewater

Don’t underestimate infrastructure requirements. Consult power companies. “Clients guesstimate instead of actually doing power calculations,” notes Andrew. This can lead to drastic increases in cost that put the brakes on a budding facility.

Another critical infrastructure oversight regards wastewater. Wastewater can be considered hazardous waste depending on the municipality and if they view nutrated water as contaminated.

“A lot of people have facilities that are on septic. This is a massive problem because you’re generally not allowed to discharge nutrient water into a septic tank. Even if you are—there are jurisdictions that will allow it—generally, your septic system is not designed for the volumes that we have.”

Even small grows of 20,000 square feet can discharge up to 7,000 gallons per day. “A septic field isn’t designed to do that. That becomes a big upfront cost that you didn’t account for.” Andrew cites $0.20 per gallon for removal. “The cost just skyrockets.”

Without storage areas, the wastewater can be treated with gas-fired evaporators. Pump-and-haul tanks are more common. “I have a client here in Washington who has a farmer pick up the wastewater to use on his fields. It’s amazing for agriculture.” In warmer climates, Andrew suggests ponds with agitation to evaporate the water. The solids are then scraped from the bottom and disposed.

Water reclamation is more sustainable. It’s also the most expensive option. Reverse osmosis systems commonly operate at 60-80% efficiency; the cost increases exponentially to drive the efficiency further. “We try to couple the efficiency technologies like that with water reclamation systems so that we’re able to reclaim as much water as possible and it’s economical at the same time.”


Choose a Grow Medium

Andrew has worked with all cultivation mediums, from aeroponics to organic soil.

“My preference is aeroponics. There’s just a ton of potential there. It’s the most water efficient—the most efficient overall. It gives you the most control and the highest amount of growth. It’s also scalable.”

Bailee’s aeroponics operation at Onyx produces 2.7 grams per watt, higher than the industry average, which Andrew cites at 1.8 grams per watt (using LEDs).

Andrew clarifies that at very large scales with lower capital expenditures, rockwool is excellent. This hydroponic growing medium affords some automation. “I think that the industry is going to move away from large soil grows. Rockwool is going to be the dominant media and grow style in the industry moving forward if it isn’t already.”


Identify Top Technology

Cannabis grows under lights. Andrew highlights that light-emitting diodes (LEDs) win out on operation costs, lifespan, and maintenance costs. “I don’t know how anyone will be able to grow with anything but LEDs in five years. In a world where we’re attempting to lower carbon emissions and power usage, we can’t just keep building incredibly power-hungry facilities.”

Facilities also require extensive heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC). Water has a higher specific heat capacity than air, which Andrew harnesses with chilled water loops.

“We like to use centralized chiller plants that then distribute cooled glycol or coolant to air handling units inside the facility. This allows us to do a couple things. One, we’re not moving air outside into an air handler going through a coil. This reduces our risk of cross-contamination. Two, we’re not having to blend a bunch of different rooms together. This allows a much higher energy efficiency.”

Industrial units are a must. Andrew recollects that in the past, “People were using residential or commercial units. Commercial units aren’t designed to cool 24 hours a day. In the cannabis industry, we’re running these things non-stop.” That said, building management systems with sophisticated controls boost efficiency. “We’re taking waste heat and using it to dehumidify instead of just trying to cool and also run dehumidifiers.” Desiccant for dehumidification is also efficient and plays into economies of scale.


Mitigate Odor

Odor is often an afterthought, but it can lead to complete shut-down.

“The number one way to get shut down is to anger your local government,” Andrew warns. “The way to anger the local government is to anger the people around you and then they call the local government and complain that their house smells like cannabis, or every time they drive down this road it smells like cannabis.”

The aforementioned water-to-air chillers tackle this problem perfectly. “We’re not exhausting air from the rooms like you would see with a typical mechanical system. We’re creating sealed rooms.” Negative pressure, hallways, and exhaust systems fill in the gaps. Andrew frequently deploys industrial ozone and carbon filtration. He notes that many companies overlook proper exhaust at the outset, and add-on retrofits are never as effective.

“Don’t get into this mentality that ‘Oh, I’m in an industrial park, nobody’s going to complain.’ Or, ‘I’m outside city limits, nobody’s going to complain.’ In a lot of states, there are environmental laws that state that you cannot emit odors. Even if no one complains, a state agency can still show up, say that you are emitting odors, and give you big fines.”


Collect Data

Andrew sees data collection as the main innovation driving industry progress. “Without data collection, you can’t become consistent. We can’t make informed decisions.”

Bailee emphasizes that her team “uses data to make all our decisions. We monitor canopy growth, nutrient uptake, light output, energy usage, and water usage to make sure we standardize across the canopy level. This ensures that we are growing consistent product across all 8,000 square feet of canopy throughout multiple rooms with different employees.”

This consistency is critical for customer satisfaction. Bailee continues, “It is so hard to find consistent flower in the cannabis industry. A huge part of our success is that our product is not only clean, but it is extremely consistent. Customers know when they buy Koffee Breath from our farm, it will be the same as the last time they bought it.”

At Onyx, data collection extends to tracking labor metrics. “By setting performance metrics for individual tasks, you are able to more closely monitor and evaluate performance,” Bailee clarifies. “Through that, I have been able to identify many tasks that had varying output metrics based on the day or time, which is common with human employees versus machinery. By instituting performance metrics based on task, we have been able to drive down labor.”

Bailee notes that they track things as small as washing totes to ensure the company does not waste time and labor on any tasks.


Stay Compliant

Legalization and cannabis regulation unfold day by day. This requires rigorous understanding of local and state laws. “Compliance is obviously a huge part of the entire operation. We must factor it into everything we do. I build our processes and standard operating procedures in the facility around compliance,” admits Bailee.


Train and Motivate Employees

Onyx promotes from within. “Every manager here started at an entry-level position and worked their way up, myself included. That makes it easy for employees to be motivated and take pride in their rooms. They know if they work hard, they can be in a lead or management position,” says Bailee.

Cannabis cultivation requires hands-on physical labor. Many prospective employees may not realize the repetitive nature of the work, causing high turnover. But Bailee sets Onyx above and beyond with ergonomic design.

“For the processes we can’t automate, we work to make them easy and comfortable for employees so they can focus on the plants and work at a consistent pace throughout the day. We use anti-fatigue mats in our processing department for harvest days that allow employees to stand comfortably for longer. We place all work surfaces at working height so employees aren’t constantly bending over, hunching their backs, or lifting things over their heads. Even in cultivation, all our tables are right below standard counter height, so the canopy is right around counter height, which makes it easier for people to work without back issues. Doing things like this around the facility makes sure employees are comfortable. When employees are comfortable, it allows for a higher output for a longer period of time. This increases profitability and employee satisfaction.”


Track Industry Trends

Andrew has found that, across multiple markets, customers gravitate away from tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and toward terpenes.  “After a couple of years as the market matures, THC is no longer as important. Early on, you have the high-THC mentality. But keep an eye on the future. Develop cultivars that have a great taste, a good flavor profile, and a nice aroma. The market will move that way. You want to be on the forefront of that.”

Federal legalization is another expected game changer. Dedicated, licensed retail stores may give way to standard interstate commerce. “Imagine if you could buy cannabis at a gas station. There’s literally no difference in the sale requirement than there is in alcohol or tobacco,” notes Andrew. Bailee also anticipates this shift. “Hopefully, legalization brings states to lessen the restrictions of only selling in retail shops.”


Consult Experts

Ultimately, the value of consulting professionals shouldn’t be underestimated. If you can’t hire a consultant, Andrew recommends simply talking with successful operators. “The number one way to fail is to assume that you can just guess. Save a lot of money, a lot of time, and a lot of hassle buy working with people with experience.”

Andrew Lange has been in the commercial cannabis industry since 2012. Through his consulting firm Ascendant, he has designed over 2,000,000 square ft of indoor cultivation across seven countries. Specializing in aeroponics, Andrew also owns and manages several aeroponic facilities around the United States.

Bailee Syrek graduated from Washington State University in 2017 and started in the cannabis industry immediately after. She specializes in compliance and operations management, creating work flows that maximize efficiency and production while adhering to all LCB requirements. Bailee is the current operations manager of Onyx Agronomics, a tier 3 producer/processor.


About the author

Lance Griffin


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