(This story appears in the March issue of MJBizMagazine.)
One of the challenges facing multistate marijuana operators is creating standardized operating procedures for cultivation facilities in various markets.
Such was the case with Massachusetts-based Curaleaf Holdings in November 2020, when the company hired Matthew Indest, a plant breeding and development expert, for a newly created role: technical director of agronomy and plant improvement.
At the time Indest joined Curaleaf Holdings, the company was operating in 19 states.
“With our expansion and acquisitions, there were a lot of things done a lot of different ways,” said Indest, who is a horticultural scientist.
“When I came in, there were a lot of different names and lineages and breeders that were used, all with varying success.”
How did Indest herd his disparate cultivation charges?
“We had to go through a lot of R&D relating to cultivation to identify what our best practices should be and migrate teams over to that harmonization standard,” Indest said.
The process involved partnering with the individual grow sites and supplying them with specific project and research plans, identifying the personnel who will be responsible for implementing those plans and supporting them through the implementation.
Bringing uniformity to unsynchronized operations around the country takes time – and, in Curaleaf’s case, it remains a work in progress.
“In an ideal situation, there would be a centralized cultivation R&D space. And for the time being, things are somewhat fragmented,” Indest said.
“We do have an R&D room in New York that’s been very helpful in doing fertility trials and media trials, in different treatments related to the root zone.”
The efforts have resulted in more uniform breeding and cultivation practices for the MSO, and they should make launching operations in new states run smoother and faster going forward, Indest said.
“What we’ve learned from one site can now be applied to other sites. That really accelerates our launching process,” he said.
Finding breeder matches
When looking to launch or reset in a state, it’s important to find breeders whose practices and standards are consistent with those of your business.
When Indest set out to improve Curaleaf’s cultivation operations in Florida, for example, he began with the breeders.
“One of the first projects was to identify breeding partners who could get us genetics that met our breeding goals,” Indest said.
Those goals had to do with production schedule and performance metrics as well as disease and pest resistance.
“It’s that whole process of identifying the vetted breeder who’s able to deliver something unique, that fits those goals, and then going through that pheno-hunt process,” Indest said.
“We’ve seen breeders that have seeds that, on paper, look great, and then you get them into the greenhouse or the indoor grow, and you’re seeing hermaphrodites (female plants that produce male pollen) all over the place.
“And now you’ve got to scrap that and start over again.”
After identifying and vetting a breeder, Curaleaf gets the genetic material and begins the pheno hunting and cloning process.
Curaleaf relies primarily on clones for propagation, but those clones usually begin with seeds that are selected based on strains the company would like to grow.
Indest and his team get the seeds, grow the plants and carry out pheno hunts for three or more cycles before determining a winner that becomes the mother plant producing future clones.
It typically takes nine to 12 months to go from a group of seeds to a winner that then gets scaled into production. In that nine- to 12-month period, there are usually three or four growth cycles.
“That pipeline involves multiple data points that relate to what our commercial needs are. That’s the first step,” Indest said.
“From there, on the breeding side, I look at the best performers and combine those in novel ways to improve on their performance characteristics.
“It’s a very inefficient process.”
Indest said he is using “molecular tools” to reduce both the time and space needed to carry out pheno hunts.
How long it takes also depends on whether they grow the plants all the way to flower and if that flower is processed into products such as concentrates and vape oils to examine the outcomes.
“It depends also on how far down the supply chain we want to look,” Indest said.
“Are we taking this all the way from flower to finished products, like through a live rosin or hashing step? Those add to the timeline and can (provide) valuable information as we decide what varieties we may want to grow.”
Indest said some of the most critical data points that Curaleaf tracks include plant vigor, yield, potency, processability and how flower handles the company’s harvest and dry-trimming processes.
He noted that Curaleaf uses machine trimmers that can knock trichomes off less resilient flower strains and degrade the product in other ways.
“It’s important that the flower can withstand those touches. It’s really identifying how it fits into the operational flow,” Indest said.
Another example is hermaphrodism, or when a female plant creates male pollen.
“That’s another reason why we want to put it through multiple test environments and cycles, to potentially stress that plant to make sure that it doesn’t have that characteristic,” Indest said.
“If you select off of a single run, then it’s possible that you didn’t see it. And then when you grow it at the 1,000-plant scale, you’ll start to see male flowers popping up, and now you’ve got seeded flower, and that’s not good for anybody.”
While characteristics such as resiliency and yield are priorities for most growers, it’s important not to lose sight of consumer trends and preferences.
“We are working on unique and desirable sensory profiles to create new flavors, create new user experiences,” Indest said.
“While we are focused on the agronomic traits that lead to operational efficiencies, we’re also very attentive to menu diversity and maintaining stuff that’s exciting and new and fresh.”
Strains that have done well include PB Soufflé, Lady Madonna, Modified Muffins and Ice Cream Haze, he said.
“They test well, they handle our processing and they’re starting to put out some very nice extract products like live rosin that’s been launched in Florida,” Indest said.
Curaleaf’s cultivation teams also reject strains that meet some criteria – such as aroma or visual appeal – but fall short in other ways, including bud density.
Strains that Indest and his team liked but ultimately didn’t make the Curaleaf roster included Panama and Trainwreck.
“They didn’t fill out on the density side. And when they went through the trimming process, the flower was very loose,” Indest said.
“But what was really the nail in the coffin is that even though they smelled great, the flowers were loose and they really didn’t end up in the jar very well.
“As a breeder, you’re typically throwing out more than you’re keeping. It’s a numbers game, and you’re quickly trying to go from maybe 100 individuals to the top 10%.”
Omar Sacirbey, senior writer for MJBizMagazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.