Outdoor cultivation: Three cannabis CEOs on what they learned after the first harvest

The Globe & Mail | Report on Business Cannabis Professional
Mark Rendell | Cannabis Professional Reporter
December 6, 2019 | View article (subscription required)

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.”

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