For most of its modern history as a medicine and recreational consumable, Cannabis remained shrouded in mystery. Patients and stoners alike found vague answers to prying questions: What strain is this? Not sure – the guy called it Purple Princess. How high will this brownie get me? One will get you pretty high, two will get you really high. Where did this come from? BC, I think. Wait, no – Humboldt?
Every step from behind Prohibition’s curtain offers clearer answers. Now, with two thirds of the United States employing some form of legalization or decriminalization, tracking systems and testing requirements have made it possible to follow – and track – a product from the geneticist who bred the seed all the way to the joint in a patient’s hand.
For more than a year, our editorial staff has been working closely with Oregon breeder Hermetic Genetics, cultivator Urban Pharms and distributor The Sweet Life, in order to track a locally bred strain from seed to consumption. It has taken a monumental amount of work and logistical wizardry to bring you the story package you see here. So heat up your banger, pop your gummy or spark up your joint, and give some love to the people that make it all possible.
PROPAGATION & PLANTING
Our story begins with seeds bred by Oregon-based breeder Hermetic Genetics and popped by Seth Marsh, President and Co-Founder of Urban Pharms. The seeds spend 12-24 hours in a high moisture environment – wet paper towels in plastic bags in this case – which cracks the seeds open and begins the life cycle for the plant. The seed and its protruding taproot are then gently placed into four inch soil plugs, where they’ll reside for their infancy and toddler stages of life. Once they’re a few weeks old and about six inches tall, the plugs are removed from trays, planted into one gallon pots and transferred to the greenhouse to grow. After a couple weeks vegging in the greenhouse, they spend about a week living outside the greenhouse to begin becoming acclimated to the outdoor environment before being transplanted into custom made, 360 gallon pots for later vegging and flower.
Upkeep and maintenance are absolutely critical to growing a successful crop. There are dozens of different techniques, but clipping fan leaves and interior nodes, and supporting a plant with trellis netting are two of the most widely practiced forms of maintenance. Clipping fan leaves and interior nodes promotes airflow and helps defend against the development of powdery mildew. Plant upkeep has less agreed upon methodology, with essentially every grower implementing a slightly different strategy to keep their plants healthy and happy. These days, one of the most commonly practiced forms of plant upkeep is integrated pest management, which is the practice of implementing human-safe and ecosystem-friendly methods of pest prevention, instead of using off-the-shelf pesticides. Ladybugs are natural predators that feed on both aphids and mites – two pests that love to munch Cannabis.
During Fall harvest season, when the leaves are changing and the Cannabis flowers have ripened into plump, chunky buds, life on the farm buzzes with an energy that can be best described as organized chaos. Dozens of seasonal workers descend on the property, where towering 12- to-16-foot Cannabis trees are chopped down, deleafed, quartered, bucked and prepped to be hung to dry. It’s a sight to behold – the hum of activity, the positive energy and the exhilarating rush of bringing down thousands of pounds of flower as part of a well-oiled operational machine. At Urban Pharms, the teams constantly move the plants from one stage to another assembly line style, each step in the process fitting together efficiently like the gears of a clock. Harvest is, by far, the most labor-intensive stage in the life cycle of a Cannabis plant, and everything needs to happen within a narrow window of time to ensure peak quality for the resulting product.
DRYING & CURING
Executing a proper dry and cure might be the most important step in growing a Cannabis plant. Dry too fast and your volatile (and highly desirable) terpenes dissipate, leaving you with buds that smell like hay. Beginning your cure with too much moisture left in the buds can cause mold and ruin a perfectly good harvest. Most commonly after harvest, branches are chopped from the plants and hung in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for 7-10 days before being moved into the curing steps of the process. Urban Pharms built a brand new 8,000 square foot drying and curing facility in 2019 – no small investment and a testament to the importance of this step in the process. During the curing process, bags are ‘burped’ in order to release evaporating moisture and off-gas CO2. This step is one of the keys to finishing quality flower.
Trimming generally occurs twice for outdoor plants. First, immediately at harvest, large fan leaves are removed either by hand or by machine – depending on the size of the crop. Then, after drying, the plants are ready to be more finely manicured and are cleaned up with more precise trim machines, by hand, and sometimes both. Generally speaking on scaled farms, the second step occurs only for buds headed to market and not destined for pre-rolls or processing, as the cost of trimming is a significant portion of a farm’s annual overhead. This important step helps bridge the gap between a plant in a field and a finely manicured, purchase-ready product at a dispensary.
Generating thousands of prerolls per day for statewide distribution takes a lot more than a Diamond hand grinder and a pack of RAW king size papers. Flower is milled to a fine grind – often using industrial machinery – before being loaded into joint-packing equipment. The industry standard cone-filler is the Futurola Knockbox – some of which can handle up to 300 pre-rolls at a time. One of the biggest challenges of this step in the process is ensuring that operators successfully fill each cone precisely to the desired level. At this scale, being a fraction of a gram off the mark adds up quickly.
BHO & CO2 EXTRACTION
The art of solvent based extraction has come a long way since backyard blasting, but the end goal and fundamentals of the procedure remain the same: to extract the highly valued cannabinoids and terpenoids using a combination of precisely dialed pressure and temperature. In solvent based extraction, such as butane (BHO) and supercritical CO2 methods, a solvent is put in contact with the flower, drawing out the beneficial compounds. The resulting oil can be further refined using ethanol distillation and is often clarified through winterization, during which fats and waxes are removed using a combination of ethanol and sub-zero temperatures. Cartridge manufacturers have traditionally favored refined solvent based extraction, as it often results in clearer oils, which offer ‘shelf appeal’ for case-cruising consumers.
Solventless extraction relies on purely mechanical methods. Rosin, hash, dry sift – these comprise the old school. They keep more of the plant’s overall profile intact, as they’re not winterized or distilled – the fats and waxes stay in the mix. Current trends in developed markets are showing that what’s old is new again – connoisseurs increasingly prefer solventless to solvent based extracts.
Differing types of extracts are added to edibles at various stages of production, depending on the product. Some manufacturers use ethanol extracted FECO – which contains a significant amount of plant matter, and offers an extremely strong flavor profile and heavy, medicated effects. Most edible producers currently serving the market use nearly pure cannabinoid distillate or isolate, as these showcase little to no flavor or aroma – though they sacrifice full spectrum efficacy in the process. Dialing in the process of adding extract to edibles is of paramount importance – batches undergo rigorous testing to ensure that each serving is dosed properly. Just a fraction of a milligram off, and a producer can lose hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars to product loss.
TESTING THE PRODUCTS
After cultivation and before consumption comes the most intricate and expensive stage in the entire process: testing. This is the step that separates the pro from the amateur, in terms of consumer confidence. Samples are sent to testing labs after any stage in the process where the product may end up in a consumer’s hand: after cultivation, after extraction and after extract is added to edibles. Each stage gets a separate test, which is undoubtedly costly. At the lab, scientists employ methods such as high-performance liquid chromatography to identify and measure the compounds in the plant or product’s chemical composition. This tells producers, regulators and consumers exactly what is in the product. All legal states require cannabinoid, pesticide and moisture testing. Some states also require terpene and heavy metals testing at an additional expense. Savvy producers in states where this additional testing is optional often choose to add these tests for greater transparency and marketability.
PACKAGING & FULFILLMENT
Product is packaged and custom printed batch specific labels are affixed to each sales unit before the products are locked in the vault to await delivery. Each product can be traced all the way back to the seed using the state’s tracking system. Next, inventory managers update the state tracking system as products are secured for delivery to retailers. One of the keys to a robust market is a well maintained relationship between the sales representatives, drivers and retailers. This relationship determines the product mix available to customers, and if the brands and retailers aren’t talking to one another, consumers miss out.
EDUCATION & CONSUMPTION
Budtenders spend time educating their customers, finding the best products to suit each individual situation. Like the distributor-retailer dynamic, the budtender-customer relationship determines the quality of the overall experience. So, now you’ve purchased your Cannabis – the best part. After arriving safely home, you open the childproof packaging. Whether you’re binge-watching Netflix, recording the next great album or tending to your own garden, one thing’s for sure – it took an army of people and a mountain of effort to bring you this experience. Savor the moment. And tip your budtender.
STORY by TOM BOWERS @PROPAGATECONSULTANTS & NATE WILLIAMS @NATEW415