As a former owner and operator of a 25,000sf indoor and 7,000 sf greenhouse cultivation facility in Denver I can relate to how the COVID-19 situation can put your business at great risk.
Having many people working together at the grow will increase their risks of getting infected with this disease, a risk that no employee wants. Thus social-distancing: a precaution many workers and customers are taking voluntarily to avoid contact with a potentially infected person or surface that may get them sick.
But in a commercial cannabis grow there are a large number of growers, trimmers, admin/sales staff and management that must perform their roles to keep the operation running to make payroll at the end of the month. How can we continue operations without sacrificing margins or putting our people at risk?
TIP 1: DO YOUR RESEARCH & CREATE A PLAN
DO YOUR RESEARCH & CREATE A PLAN
Things are changing by the minute. Read what other places (including internationally) have implemented so you can consider those extreme conditions and plan accordingly. As of March 25, 2020, mandatory stay-at-home orders have been issued in at least 22 and the capitol: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington D.C., Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Things will get worse before they get better, therefore we must prepare for what may come over the next few months by creating a plan.
Every good plan starts with thorough research. Understanding what rules and orders have been in place in other cannabis markets allows us to prepare for that potential situation in your territory. What if they shut down your business? Will your plants survive? What will that mean for your business and what can you do to prepare for that situation?
The good news is, a lot of large states in the cannabis industry have deemed cannabis businesses "essential". As the NYT put it, "Over the past week, more than a dozen states have agreed that while “nonessential” stores had to close, pot shops and medical marijuana dispensaries could remain open — official recognition that for some Americans, cannabis is as necessary as milk and bread." That is good news for the industry as a whole. Not only will our businesses be able to stay open at the moment, but it also shows progress for the industry and mainstream recognition of cannabis as legitimate medicine.
Remember to take a look at the larger picture by researching globally. In Peru, the entire country is on lockdown, no one can come or leave the country, and driving a car is not allowed. If a citizen needs to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy, the government requires a special permit which needs to be requested online. Have a worse-case-scenario plan ready for your business.
As you are probably accustomed to doing already as a cannabis business, be sure to keep up with your state and local regulations surrounding the virus containment efforts. Local orders are often more strict than the state orders. Sign up for your state and local government's updates. Follow them on Twitter. Seek out new information in the morning, afternoon and evening—ordinances tend to go into effect swiftly in this ever-changing environment.
TIP 2: CHANGE WORK SHIFTS
CHANGE WORK SHIFTS
These days with quarantine measures and limitations day and time are less relevant. Weekdays may feel like weekends and vice versa. People are more concerned about their safety than the steady 9am-5pm schedule because we can’t do much outside of our homes these days.
Create an early shift and a late shift for people to be at your facility in less numbers at the same time. For example, having a 7am-1pm and a 1:30-7:30pm can be a good solution.
TIP 3: SANITIZE & SEPARATE
SANITIZE & SEPARATE
Having a dedicated cleaning person on-site at all times may be the best investment to prevent cross-contamination via surfaces. In grow facilities people tend to touch surfaces like supply racks or nutrient bottles and we know that this virus can survive for up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Recent reports show the novel coronavirus stayed on the Princess cruise ship for 17 days. More research is needed to fully understand what we're up against, but it is better to play safe than sorry.
Therefore, cleaning all surfaces at the end of a shift is key. But we can’t clean all surfaces all the time, so having people use their own personal protective equipment, including gloves, masks and suits is imperative to minimize the risk of contact. So purchase plenty of PPE and cleaning supplies to provide the necessary resources for the employees to Sanitize and separate.
TIP 4: TASK SPECIFIC ROLES
TASK SPECIFIC ROLES
In many cultivation facilities, most growers do it all: trasnplanting, watering/feeding, spraying, trimming and harvesting. In this times it is best to distribute the tasks amongst growers so one only does 1 task and not the other. This way, less people will be using the same equipment and touching the same surfaces. This may be monotonous for growers but it will keep them safer.
The first step is to understand that some work will have to be done differently because this situation may last from 3-6 months according to Infectious Disease expert Michael Osterholm. So prioritizing the cultivation tasks to allow crops to make it (even if you don't get perfect yields) is the right way to go. So what are the key activities in the grow:
- CLONING. So you have new batches coming and production doesn't stop. This is a one person task and can be done every 7-30 days depending on your harvest schedule.
- WATERING & FEEDING. This is the most important task too keep plants alive. Operations that hand-water will suffer more from this and may rely more on granular nutrients to feed the plants and just water every 3-5 days. This works specially well if you grow in living soil and in beds with several plants. People that have a Dositron-like automated feeding system can benefit from this activity requiring little manual labor.
- SPRAYING. Integrated pest management (IPM) is key to prevent and control disease in the plants and this task must be done as always, fortunately, this is a task commonly performed by one person at a time and the person is suited and protected with a mask, so there is less risk of contamination with this task.
- TRANSPLANTING. This is a task that typically involves more than 1 person and for this I recommend considering minimizing transplant by allowing plants to Veg and Flower in the same space. This may seem hard at the beginning but nowadays most commercial grows have automated lighting controls that allow they to regulate light intensity and program ON-OFF hours (even remotely). If you can not do that, then consideR doing this with less people, maybe using some wheeled table to move pots easier.
- TRIMMING OUT. This is the most labor intensive activity in the garden and the one that will probably need to change most dramatically. Heavy pruning is important for IPM (via increased airflow) and for yields as more of the growth is directed towards the productive area at the top of the plant (where it receives the light). So I would not recommend stopping to trim out but a lighter trim-out will save you a lot of man-hours and reduce the exposure of people.
TIP 5: LIMIT ONSITE WORK
LIMIT ONSITE WORK
If people on your team can work from home, have them work from home. Having your admin, sales, accounting, marketing and management teams work remotely may reduce your staff exposure by 20-33% at your grow.
Most of their work can be done remotely and using video-conference tools like Zoom allows you to interact almost perfectly. Now growers can’t really perform their duties remotely, or can they?
TIP 6: INCREASE USE OF PRODUCTION TECHNOLOGIES
INCREASE USE OF PRODUCTION TECHNOLOGIES
If you hand trim, this may be a time to consider using a machine for a while. It is not ideal for those of us who prefer craft-cannabis, but during this extreme situation, having a large trim crew is too much of a risk and customers will understand that you are prioritizing their safety now. But you must tell your customers.
Same goes for packaging, if you had-roll joints, consider buying a Knockbox 3 automated joint filler and reduce your labor that way. If you pre-package flower consider getting an automated solution like the WeighPack or hire a co-packer to do it for you.
BONUS TIP: BRAND AWARENESS
Know that although this is a hard time, other industries like airlines, oil/gas, travel agencies, restaurants and bars are suffering much more than cannabis. We at least still have demand and in many places it is increasing with lockdowns and business shutting down.
Invest in safety first to avoid the debacle of having your staff infected and realize that your productivity will go down, your profits will likely go down but you can stay in business and show your employees and customers that you are a responsible company that puts safety first. People will remember this and it will pay-off!