The gram tour: Cannabis grower Delta 9 opens its doors

Delta 9 has made recreational cannabis production high tech and highly efficient

It smells great. Not skunky or sour, but floral, citrusy — in some corridors, a little spicy.

The walls are blazing white. A few employees, nearing the end of their shift, slip past in colour-coded scrubs.

Delta 9 CEO John Arbuthnot swipes a key card and opens the door to a shipping container room where 150 cannabis plants sway in a gentle breeze.

It’s easy to forget that each room is actually a refurbished shipping container — now a proprietary growing “pod.” Among the pristine pods, stacked two high, and white floors, the effect is that of a pharmaceutical facility.

That’s what Delta 9 was going for. The company, which began growing medical cannabis in 2013, has taken a manufacturing mindset instead of operating like a greenhouse.

Arbuthnot showed a tour group of farm writers how the plants begin their lives. Instead of seeds, they’re grown from clippings from the “mother plants.” A batch of about 1,500 clippings are given a rooting hormone, put in covered trays and placed in a high-humidity pod.

Cannabis seedlings in a high-humidity nursery pod.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Seven to 14 days of 24-hour light later, they’re ready to transplant into production. A group of eight or nine pods holds one “batch.”

Two weeks later, the plants are nearing a foot high and reaching toward a support mesh above them. They’re growing in a cycle of 12-hour days and 12-hour nights now. The cycle will induce the plants to start flowering.

A breeze from the air-handler ruffles the green leaves. The wind strengthens the plants, and distributes the carbon dioxide that’s “seeded” into each pod to create optimal growing conditions.

Evolution

This looks quite different from when Arbuthnot and his father Bill started the company. Cannabis was a long way from commercialization in Canada then, and what information they could get on growing was anecdotal — from the internet or black market growers.

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At one point they grew “massive cannabis trees” in 77-litre garbage cans, Arbuthnot said. A consultant had told them to maximize output for square footage, they needed to grow the largest plants possible. Eventually they found out they could get a larger crop if they added more plants and grew them smaller.

It’s a “sea of green” model now, Arbuthnot said.

“The cannabis industry is still very early on in terms of figuring out the best way to do a lot of these things,” he said.

The product has only been legal as a recreational drug since October 2018. The regulated use of medical cannabis became legal on July 30, 2001. Delta 9, founded in 2012, became just the fourth licensed producer of medical cannabis in Canada in 2014.

Delta 9 has benefited from having the early days of medical growing to work out kinks.

Delta 9 CEO John Arbuthnot shows the tour group Delta 9’s new automated packaging line.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Arbuthnot recalled hand-watering plants in the early days. As they added more growing space, they upgraded to mixing water and nutrients in barrels and wheeling them from room to room, watering with a wand.

Today, the watering system is completely automated and centralized for two employees to control from a computer. The system mixes concentrated nutrients in a series of tanks and pumps it to the rooms. If the system detects an issue, it can automatically dump the nutrient mix and start again.

When plants are ready to harvest, workers cut the plants down at the base and bring them to the processing area. The plants are put through a “bucking” machine that strips away stems and leaves. The flowers are then fed through a machine that trims them of unwanted materials, leaving finely “manicured” flowers.

The flowers are tray-dried to 14 per cent moisture from about 80 per cent, and then enter a curing process in a pod that essentially acts as a giant humidor. They’re then bulk-packaged.

Tour members took turns holding these one-kilogram bags of weed and posed grinning for photos.

The tour group poses with a one-kilogram bag of dried cannabis.
photo: Geralyn Wichers

Bulk-packaged material is shipped to Montreal where a lab sterilizes it with gamma radiation before shipping it back for packaging.

Currently, the flowers are hand-packaged into bottles, but as part of Delta 9’s “Phase 2” expansion, they’ve built a fully automated packing line. Last year they also increased capacity to 297 pods from 154. Once all pods are in production, they’ll have a capacity of about 8,400 kilograms of cannabis per year.

Arbuthnot said a politician once asked him if he thought he could outcompete the black market.

“I think I can reach economies of scale with this facility that the black market cannot,” he said.

He added that he expected consumer sentiment to swing from black market (akin to a Mason jar of moonshine) to legally grown product (which he likened to a labelled, branded bottle of booze).


Farmers’ cash crop opportunity?

Delta 9’s grow pod technology has become a way for others to get into the cannabis industry.

The company packages support and growth pods along with operating procedures and markets them as a turnkey operation platform. Arbuthnot said many buyers have been farmers looking to add a winter cash crop to their operation.

It began when a friend asked Arbuthnot to sell him pods, standard operating procedures and sanitization procedures and to help him file his Health Canada licence application. The friend theorized it would expedite the process — at that time it could take two years to get a licence.

His friend was licensed in eight months.

“At that point the light bulb goes on that there may be a business there,” Arbuthnot said.

“We’ll sell you this equipment. We’re not going to say that it’s the best equipment in the world, we’re just going to tell you that it’s exactly what we use here,” he said.

Arbuthnot said the long-term goal is to provide a complete platform for craft cannabis growers — including buying the small-batch cannabis to be packaged and sold.

Last year they sold 89 pods, he said, adding he expects that to double or triple this year.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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