Four cultivators share their best data-tracking lessons

Features - 2018 Cannabis Cultivation Guide

July 30, 2018

A close-up of Veritas’ Bubba Berry strain, a cross between Pre ’98 Bubba Kush and DJ Short’s Blueberry
Photo by Brian Kraft

Unlike in other industries, the cannabis industry — in general — is a little behind the tracking times. (See below for more on that.) But as the industry matures, cultivators are more often embracing data collection and find that it has some big business benefits. With that in mind, Greenhouse Management sister publication Cannabis Business Times spoke with four cultivators to find out the best data-tracking lessons they’ve learned — and to get their top tips for others who want to start collecting or better managing their data.

A Pipeline Hashplant from AlpinStash. Danny Sloat, the company’s owner, advises other cultivators use data to become more objective.
Photo and headshot courtesy of AlpinStash

ONE. Scott Hunter, Manager, and Ira Gingrich, Master grower, Aeriz

Biggest data lesson: Continuous data monitoring produces the best plants.

At Aeriz, cannabis plants are grown aeroponically. “Every grow table that we have has its own water and nutrient tank,” says Scott Hunter, manager of Aeriz in Arizona, Illinois. Each table — which has anywhere from 12 to 24 plants — also has its own computer-monitoring system that records everything from the time the plants were last fed to the water temperature. Those pieces of data are recorded hourly, says Ira Gingrich, master grower at Aeriz’s Illinois facility, “which allows us to isolate, improve, replicate or prevent [things] as each table of plants is monitored in multiple verticals of methods.” Data recorded that often — and that extensively — has a big benefit, Hunter says: With a bevy of near-constant data, “we’re able to quickly isolate our mistakes and success.”

Gingrich adds that “continuous monitoring of temperature, humidity, nutrient levels, leaf color and root color provides us with an opportunity to make changes to the aeroponics system as necessary.” What’s more, by producing cannabis aeroponically, the plants respond to those changes quickly. So, “when we detect signs of distress [in the plants], we can make the adjustments necessary to produce healthy plants” before too much damage is done, he explains. “Strong, healthy plants always require a little TLC,” Gingrich adds, “which gives us the opportunity to identify small problems [with data] before they become larger.”

Data-tracking tip: Don’t discount an old-fashioned visual inspection of plants.

Even though Aeriz’s computer-monitoring system collects plenty of data on each table of plants, Gingrich and his team still collect data in what he’s dubbed the “old-fashioned way,” which is by visual inspection. “Spending time observing the plants and their condition remains a reliable data-collection method to this day,” Gingrich says, adding that “working with the plants has been our best method to detect problems.” He recommends other cultivators do the same.

When we detect signs of distress [in the plants], we can make the adjustments necessary to produce healthy plants.” – Scott Hunter

TWO. Mike Leibowitz, Partner, Veritas

Biggest data lesson: Tracking data can save your plants — and your finances.

Located in Colorado, Veritas has 10 grow rooms, and each room’s plants are grown on a custom-automation grow system — a fully digital system that not only controls everything from the temperature to the humidity of the rooms, but it also shoots data directly to the Veritas team’s phones, explains Mike Leibowitz, a partner at Veritas. “It automatically tracks all of the important factors — heat, humidity, CO2, the lighting, the airflow — for us, and we can study that data over a period of time,” Leibowitz says. So, after one flowering cycle — which lasts about nine weeks — “we can say: Look at the end result of this product,” he adds. “For example, one strain grew better at 83 degrees, not 73 degrees — or the strain grew better at 60-percent humidity, not 50-percent. We can review everything from grow cycles.”

That kind of data tracking — sent right to their phones — has saved Veritas a lot of trouble and money, Leibowitz says. Take the temperature of the rooms for example: “In growing commercial cannabis, we produce a lot of heat,” he says. “We have tens of thousands of watts from lighting in a single room. Before we tracked our data digitally, we would have to manually check the room temperatures, over 24 hours, to make sure the AC [air conditioning] was still working. Now, we get alerts on our cell phones if our rooms hit certain temperatures and then, we can go on our phones and turn off some of the lights. It can cost a lot of money and a lot of time if a room gets to 100 degrees for even an hour. Everything in that room is going to die. And if an air conditioner breaks, it won’t take long for that room to get to 100 degrees.”

Data-tracking tip: Track data digitally if you can.

The system Veritas uses to track data (and control the settings in each grow room) is only a few years old, Leibowitz says. “Before, we data-tracked by hand as best as we could — and we made a lot of mistakes in not accurately recording where levels were,” he admits. “In the beginning of growing commercial [cannabis], we did not realize how important certain factors were, such as CO2, humidity, temperature.”

Now, he says, “everyone is getting on board with the importance of analytics in our business. Our data has to be replicable, [and so,] everyone is kind of stepping up and knowing that we need to have metric data for what we do if we plan on growing our businesses. As this industry grows — as people want to expand their business — they have to recognize these plants are very special, and we need this [accurate] data.” One way to get more accurate data — and make that data replicable and shareable with other growers — is to use digital-tracking systems if possible, Leibowitz says.

Pixie Dust by Esensia Farms
Photo courtesy of Esensia Farms

THREE. Danny Sloat, Owner/master grower, AlpinStash

Biggest data Lesson: Collect more data than you think you’ll need.

The team at AlpinStash in Colorado began collecting data because the state requires cannabis growers to do so. “We track things like phase dates — when the plants have changed from flower to vegetation — our yields or harvest batches, when something was cloned, when a seed has sprouted, when packages were made and sold — useful things like that,” explains Danny Sloat, owner and master grower of AlpinStash.

While AlpinStash began tracking data because the state compelled it to do so, the team quickly came to see the value of data tracking. For example, when AlpinStash began tracking data, it was “playing around with various pot sizes — 5, 7, 10, 15, 20 gallons,” Sloat says. “But with data, we were able to see what the best pot size in general was and at what point there are diminishing returns. It’s also been really helpful [that] we started collecting parts-per-million [PPM] strength of the soil that we use on a daily basis to see whether or not we need to feed the plants. That was a huge thing for us — it definitely saves a lot of money — and as it turns out, we didn’t need to feed as often as we were feeding the plants.”

We need to bridge the gap and have the cannabis industry catch up to what not only other agricultural businesses, but all businesses are doing.” – Marley Lovell, co-owner, and cultivator, Esensia Farms

Sloat continues, “My biggest mistake was not tracking enough data. At first, we didn’t track things like PPM and the pH of the soil [because the state didn’t require it]. But once we started [tracking] that data, we had a huge improvement,” he says.

If you’re not tracking data now, Sloat says it might be easy to think you don’t need to do so. “But even if you don’t think it will be useful right up front — if you’re new to the business or the industry — it will prove useful over time,” Sloat stresses. “In your day-to-day, any questions you have you can track back to data. Just collect that data and set it aside, and you’ll be surprised the questions it can help you answer.”

Overlooking an AlpinStash grow room in late flower. AlpinStash collects as much data as it can, from yields to when plants change phases.
Photo courtesy of AlpinStash
Data-tracking tip: Let data tracking make you more objective about your grow.

Sloat points out that as cannabis growers, “it’s very easy to be subjective, relying on … what you think is going on, and not be as objective as you should be. But the more data you collect — especially over time — the better your operations will be from a grow standpoint and business standpoint. Data helps us know how much effort we put in and how much it yields over time.”

FOUR. Ben Blake and Marley Lovell, Co-owners/cultivators, Esensia Farms

Biggest data lesson: Data can help you plan for the future.

Data collection at Esensia Farms, an outdoor farm in California, is a little different than data collection at an indoor or greenhouse cannabis cultivation facility — after all, an outdoor grower can’t track (or change) the temperature of the room. But as Ben Blake explains, Esensia Farms still tracks a lot of data. “We basically have a giant spreadsheet,” he describes. “On the Y axis, we have all the different strains we grow, and on the X axis, we input all these things for each strain over the course of the season. We mark when they get planted, when they are given nutrients and what nutrients they’re given, take notes on recipes, note when they’re pruned, when we support a plant, when things are harvested. We’ve been doing that for years, and it’s allowed us to see … a profile — or like a graph — that can be attributed to each strain.”

Perhaps most importantly, he explains, those charts allow Esensia Farms to “do projections and planning for future years — and that plays a big role in what strains we plant, how many we plant — and we try to design the whole grow so that when it comes down to harvest, we’re harvesting about 10 percent of the garden in late August, and 10 percent the first week of September, and another 10 percent the second week of September, so that we can have everything take place in an organized fashion. That wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have all this data from our past experiences with the plants.”

Data tracking tip: Don’t be afraid to collect and share your data.

For Blake and Lovell, it took a while to get comfortable keeping data. “Previously, it was kind of incriminating,” Lovell says bluntly. But Blake and Lovell think that the cannabis industry has suffered because people weren’t willing to collect and share their data, and so they’d encourage others to warm up to the idea. “[As an industry], we couldn’t talk nitty-gritty details,” Lovell says. “As the cannabis industry comes into the light, it’s going to catch up. Data collection is a huge part of any kind of business. We need to bridge the gap and have the cannabis industry catch up to what not only other agricultural businesses, but all businesses are doing.”

Jillian is a New York City-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the online or print versions of Glamour, Food & Wine, SELF, The Wall Street Journal, and more.