On November 4, 2018 TheCannalysts toured Aphria Diamond and Aphria1.
Other than touring Broken Coast Cannabis for the “Boots on the Ground” documentary, this was the first time that all three Cannalysts have done a tour together.
What follows is each of our perspectives on the tour.
Unlike my compatriots, I haven’t toured a large-scale formal greenhouse before.
I’ve been confined to the pristine shoals of immaculate control: indoor only.
So, being introduced to how professional agriculture approaches growing and processing and packaging…..and the logistics of it all at scale….it takes some adjustment in approach.
It’s the difference between the hand-hewn craftsman of the indoor grower – versus the broad automation and technology that drives scale in greenhouses.
The hardest part is separating the different facets in growing, trying to hold them constant, and then looking at the grow for quality within their respective methods.
It’s not that simple first time around.
Contagion is present wherever nature is. Companies claiming zero bio-vectors present is pretty silly. One may have a relatively good space, but unless hermetically sealed, wherever you have nature, you have bugs. They go together like ham and cheese on a sandwich.
Greenhouses have more critters. It’s a function of the nature of the grow and recognizes that an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) plan is more responsive, fulsome, and containment focused in greenhouses than indoor. Biological containment vectors (the beneficial critters that eat the non-beneficial critters) are deployed aggressively and continuously throughout the stages of production.
Another difference is in lighting – where control is more dependent on mother nature. An ‘average’ number of hours per sun is exactly that – an average. So those 12 hours of sun per day may look very different in exposure to moles. A raincloud, or shade event impacts the lighting, and indeed, over a particular amount of lighting – the plant cannot fully utilize what’s it is receiving.
In contrast with indoor – where events are set to a fixed amount – automation and technology are used to control and supplement what’s available, with as little labour and inputs as possible.
So, let’s begin there at Double Diamond And put this into perspective from the 4 vectors of growing:
- Human/Plant interaction
Double Diamond & Aphria are situated in Leamington. By design or by cock up – the area is constrained by capacity. That means there is more power able to be off taken than is supplied by OPG/OntHydro. Without getting into the gory details, it’s a constraint. And the growers there have adapted by installing their own cogens. 5 units at Double Diamond, 3 at Aphria. Each capable of running their respective operations up to being independent of the grid.
Heated water (energy storage btw) is captured for use in infloor heating, and chillers uses in summer to act as ‘air conditioning’ for temperature control. Fully integrated, and relatively high efficiency – these power plants were designed for use.
Temperature and Humidity
Control of these is required due to the variance of temperatures in the region, and that glass is a pretty crappy insulator. Hence, the infloor heating/cooling and ability to manage airflow through venting and recirculation. All done at the level of automated controls, off gassing of heat and CO2 management is part of an integrated system.
Challenges exist in the plant’s nature – nothing like this has been done at this scale in the region with cannabis previously.
This is truly advanced manufacturing. It isn’t a greenhouse with a tray system. It isn’t simply robotics that load peat pellets. It isn’t that 5,000 plants/hr of loading that can be done. It’s more than having automated sensors doing QA on the individual plants at critical moments of the grow cycle. It is all of that at the same time, fully integrated and using a platform that’s already in use for other crop production. This is proven, native technology (native to the Dutch at any rate) that’s been tested and is in production.
Those familiar with ‘buy vs build’ decisions will know exactly what I am referring to.
I’ve also been curious: when foreign teams are brought in, there’s some novel aspects about installation. I’ve been in those situations – where a vendor brings in its own implementation team and performs set up. How well does the knowledge transference happen?
How does one get a warranty on that shiny new multi-million dollar greenhouse number you’ve just had set up?
Testing and configuration is extremely rigorous, and the buyer has to do as much work as the vendor. The timing this takes varies by implementation, and by manufacturer. It is critical path (as far as projects go), because this permits the grow to go into full production. I know some numbers (and have imputed those around Sky), but I had estimated this time to be 8-10 weeks previously. Let’s just say I was on the low side.
A grower needs to be able to compartmentalize risk. If there is problems in one area, they’ll need to be able to isolate and excise it. Or, that compartmentalization will be needed to support various stages of plant growth or cultivars. In the case of Double Diamond, they have areas of 5 acres in which to do that. With all of the automation and infrared optical sensors and such, 5 acres appears not as large as one might think with a high level of technology deployed.
For all of the different issues a greenhouse brings with plant propagation versus indoors – I couldn’t imagine attempting large scale build outs without first having agricultural depth, knowledge of the underlying systems, being vertical in power requirements, and experience and confidence in execution.
That’s much of what I saw at Aphria Double Diamond.
Aphria’s home base build is somewhat more ‘organic’ – because of the phases of build out they’ve gone through. But the automation is laid in, and about to be deployed. Seeing this is the norm for any build older than 2 years, as the shape and form of facilities grows around a central core. That is, Aphria’s space has areas of ‘part 1’, ‘part 2’ – but their last expansion in Aphria Phase IV (PIV) is scale to optimize automation and robotics. Which, is something else to look at.
PIV is all of the spaceship, and in final testing of automation. Unlike Double Diamond, PIV is a few months ahead, and pretty close to going ‘live’.
With new plantings every week, they’ve planned for 8 rolling crops for continuous production. The power plant is purpose fit, and I was lucky enough to learn how many horsepower it takes to push a gallon of fluid through the in-floor heating system.
I was surprised about the level of in-house talent they have across operations. The people I met and spoke with are completely comfortable in the subject matter and intricacies of their responsibilities. I can’t emphasize how often I’ve seen firms across my career where this hasn’t been the case, and how disappointing it can be. Really, one doesn’t need to be a horse breeder to be a jockey, but intimately knowing one’s way around horses, is requisite.
Everyone in leadership I spoke with at Aphria – as far as I could tell – could have been born in a greenhouse. It’s a feature of the region.
The challenges these greenhouses face are unlike many of the indoor growers, and even unlike many of the smaller scale greenhouses out there. This is what I see as the largest operational concerns go-forward:
- Genetics – there’s enough here for a book. Likely biggest risk vector.
- Seasonality – There’s going to be good years, and not so good years. Despite having some 53,000 (at Double Diamond) of the best COBs on the market supplementing lighting requirements, there is reliance on the region’s HDD/CDD and total availability of insolation day over day. The percentage of that impact will bear out over time. I wouldn’t be surprised at a 10-15% delta on yield between crops.
- Initial runs are virgin earth for cannabis going to scale. Despite the tech being known, the entire operation remains an unknown. Lessons learned at Aphria thus far – in tandem with the tech teams and umpteen generations of farming knowledge behind it will mitigate. But….nothing to point to yet in cannabis has been done like this to my knowledge.
- Remaining Variables. These run the gamut from nutrient selection and uptake, to plant’s reactivity to environmental conditions. Remember, the variability in greenhouse versus indoor is *massive* in plant terms. The time it takes to get to a stabilized production platform – and much needed early wins in finding points of success is critical in provision of quality.
Whether rock wool or dirt or nutes or critters or seasonality or extreme weather events: greenhouse is a very different grow platform, that’s not simply a flavour of production – it’s an entirely different animal.
If a cannabis company is doing greenhouse, they’d best have people who know exactly what they’re doing in one.
After touring Aphria One and Double Diamond what struck me the most is the automation. At the end of the tour I asked them what parts in the grow process do humans come into contact with the plants. Currently humans are only involved with pruning plants and trimming harvests, with trimming being a temporary measure as their automation is being tweaked.
Pests are managed using biological controls, like insects that eat common cannabis pests. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a LP use living organisms manage other, undesirable, living organisms.
The most intriguing part of their process to me was the ‘pizza ovens’ [think pizzas placed on a moving conveyor track oven] where clones cut from the mother plants are first grown in. These two sets of five story, vertically stacked, enclosed rows of grow space start the clone off in high humidity conditions with low light [the clones are in trays on a table/bench that is automatically fed into the pizza oven]. Over a period of ~10 days the humidity is gradually dropped as the light is increased to acclimatize the seedlings from preferred early growing conditions to conditions they’ll experience in the greenhouse. It’s important to acclimatize the plants before they leave these pizza ovens, rapidly changing growth conditions of a plant will cause it a lot of stress.
After the pizza oven the seedlings are sorted into different grades based on their root, shoot and leaf dimensions by an automated optical sensor system. This helps cluster the plants based similar physical characteristics to help keep consistency across canopy in growing across groupings.
For extraction Aphria has two 90L CO2 extraction units, one high pressure the other low pressure. The different pressures produce different extraction products in different amounts of time. The low pressure producing a fuller cannabinoid/terpene spectrum with a 6-hour runtime and the high pressure producing a ‘cruder’ extract in 2 hours. The crude extract contains more undesirable plant material that can be removed with further processing. They have a distillation apparatus and a rotovap to process the crude into a refined product for experimentation. Next to the extraction lab is a fully equip kitchen, one of the different types of uses for this refined product.
Unlike my colleagues, I have been through Aphria1 three times in the last six months and twice through Diamond.
Since my last trip through Diamond they have installed a double gutter system in the Greenhouse, poured concrete in 2 of 10 areas for the floor for early vegetation area, and added the co gen stations mentioned by Molly. If you have seen “TheCannalysts Cardio” video with Molly, you will get an idea of how many gutters Diamond has [and Molly started his cardio from the midpoint in the facility. Next year we will have him run the entire length]. All that remains to be done pre-cultivation license was a complete facility wash down including replacing all the plastic sheeting beneath the gutters.
When entering Diamond there is an area which will house 10 production lines for post harvest. They indicated that they will be going to hand trimming from the stalk for flower sales, as their inhouse designed “debudder” is a little too aggressive and is damaging buds. For extracts they will continue to use the debudder.
Entering the Greenhouse at Diamond it is easy to see the differences between Aphria1 and Diamond. Only the early vegetation area has fully concrete floors, whereas Aphria1 is full concrete floors. The other 8 zones have suspended dual gutters, with heating rails [think railway tracks] that serve the dual purpose of getting heat below the plant, and the avenue which the carts and workers move down to layout the rockwool blocks [Aph1 uses soil] with plants, insert the dripper/feeding tubes, and for later trimming. There are concrete pathways that provide access around the facility, but the areas between the pathway [where the gutters and rail systems are located] are plastic covering dirt.
The clones arrive from Aphria1 [post “pizza oven” treatment] by climate-controlled truck for offloading. The clones are placed in the early veg area that has fully concrete heated floors and suspended and adjustable heating tubes/lines that can be adjusted to reflect current plant height.
Aphria’s VP of Operations Bob Ondejko provided me the following videos of the type of automation that Diamond will be deploying to move plants during early veg out of [1 bay of 40 bays of the 1 zone] and into flowering [1 of 5 zones].
“Once veg plants are picked up back to conveyor system, plants are graded, placed into trays by persons, and trays are automatically loaded on racks and pulled to location [in one of the 5 zones] in groups of 6 where a person then sends the cart down the pipe rails and places the plant on the gutter by hand as well places the dripper in.”, Bob Ondejko.
Each zone is massive at 5 acres with glass walls sectioning them off [you can see the blue doors in Molly’s video, that were raised at the time, showing the sections.]. Multiple strains will be grown in each zone yet each trough will carry same strain.
If memory serves, the zones will be planted every 10 days, with full loads ramped up on a sixteen-week schedule.
Aphria 1 is a different beast.
I have been through the original facility and PI, PII and PIII a few times now. PV, which I have not yet gone through, is similar in construction to Diamond, which explains how it was erected so quickly in comparison to PIII and PIV.
PIV is a space ship. I have yet to see any automation on this scale at any of the other LP’s we have toured to date. It reminded me of sections of vehicle and autoparts assembly facilities.
The original section of Aphria houses Mothers, which I understand will be moved to PV when complete. PI and PII are areas where Aphria does considerable testing of various strains and growing techniques [soil compositions, rockwool, nutrients, troughs, tables,…] . There are still plenty of crops rolling through these older lower roof/gutter facilities and the staff indicate that the yields and quality are very favourable.
Omni present are the yellow sticky pest strips and ladybugs. Pest management is just that “management”.
Production plants in PI-PIII do sit on the heated floors and PI-PIII have supplemental heating tubes that can be raised and lowered as needed. Plans are for the tray table automation in PIV to be replicated in PIII when opportunity presents.
The tray/table automated washing bay is fed by an overhead crane “spider like” system [Note: These “spiders” are only in areas with no plants underneath them, as Aphria wants to limit any instances of detritus falling from the transport systems into the plants.] Once clean, the tables are loaded with trays of small rockwool plugs and then pass through the three robotic planting stations that dip a cut clone into rooting solution and then stick them in small rockwool plugs. The system can “stick” 240,000-250,000 clones a week, sufficient quantity post cull to plant Aphria1 and Diamond. [Up to a 70% post cull rate was indicated dependant on strain]
From the time the clones are put in the rockwool plugs they are tracked throughout their life.
After exiting the pizza ovens the maturing plants are sent through an automated optical system that uses infra red technology to check their root mass, leaf density, internodal spacing… which is all logged in per plant into Aphria’s tracking system. Some of these clones will be shipped to Diamond while others move to the next phase to be potted for deployment within Aphria1 campus.
Post early veg and sorting…. The potting process is also automated, with each pot stamped with a dot sized tracking ID. Plants are routinely sorted by height and placed with other similar sized plants on the tables. The tables have raised areas so the pots sit firmly in the table, and the raised area then reduces the amount of irrigation each table receives.
For plants sent out to PIV their interaction with humans will be very limited. The tables are on an automated rolling system that sends the tables out to the floor and moves them around as needed. There are various automated stations that will add beneficial bugs to each plant as they travel to and from their destinations.
Air circulation is under the tables in PIV, CO2 is pumped in below plants through the circulation system so CO2 [derived from co gen] isn’t vented off if the rooftop vents are opened.
Plants returning for trimming and harvesting are also met with automation. The pots are put into pucks to travel through the various inspection stations. All human decisions as to plant quality also have a computer infrared system reviewing the plants as a full backstop.
Plants to be harvested are automatically loaded on a track, are tilted against a moving back stop and are automatically cut off above soil level. Pots are consolidated and then dumped in sets for reuse.
I have to say… that I really need to see the systems in operation to get a better flavour for what each station does.
Post harvest the plants are debudded, inspected and trimmed and bud and trim are sorted into drying racks. Drying racks are placed in laminar drying rooms where air is circulated over once a minute.
We also saw a number of new automated packaging systems that were being installed. I look forward to seeing these operations in motion the next time I am invited to tour.
Much of PIV vault space [now no longer needed at that security level] was being refitted with sprinkler systems necessary to get appropriate insurance levels, as they will house considerable $ amount of finished product.
PIV will also be planted over a 16 week cycle to full ramp up. PIV was very close to being ready for cultivation license inspection.
Speaking with Cole, he is genuine about the fact that ramp up will not be without bumps. It will take time to optimize and dial in the facilities.
I am hoping next time I visit I’ll be able to see the automation in action