Indigenous BC grower makes a craft out of the drying process too

When the Cannabis Act came into effect on October 17, 2018, it opened up a new world of opportunity for Indigenous people in Canada. One of those opportunities is the chance to enter the legal cannabis market as entrepreneurs and business owners. Sugar Cane Cannabis, owned by West Lake First Nation, is committed to leaving a mark in the industry. Actually, they already have, and this has to do with how the company was born. The company indeed is the product of a government-to-government agreement about licensing cannabis operations for First Nations companies. This part of the BC Cannabis Control and Licensing Act was developed to recognize First Nations' rights and promote reconciliation. Yet, no one has ever taken it up until Sugar Cane Cannabis, that is.

A first-of-its-kind agreement
"Sugar Cane Cannabis (micro-cultivation) and Unity (retail brand) are wholly owned by Williams Lake First Nation (WFLN), or the T'exelcemc (people of WLFN). These have belonged to the Secwepemc (or Shuswap) Nation for over 6500 years. Today, the WLFN community includes a growing population of over 800 registered members who live on reserve in Sugar Cane, nearby Williams Lake, and across the globe. One of 17 Secwepemc nations forming Secwepemculecw, the greater stewardship land area extends from Shuswap Lake in the south to Quesnel Lake in the north and from Columbia-Kootenay Range in the east to the Alexis Creek area in the west," says Brendon Roberts from Sugar Cane Cannabis.

WLFN and the B.C. government entered into a first-of-its-kind agreement under section 119 of the Cannabis Control Licensing Act in September 2020. "WLFN is excited to conclude this historic agreement with the Province of British Columbia," says WLFN Chief Willie Sellars. "We have expressed a desire to have a government-to-government arrangement around our participation in the cannabis industry for several years, and it is gratifying to finally formalize this agreement. We're particularly excited about being the leaders in farm-gate cannabis sales. The WLFN craft cannabis farm-gate facility that is currently under construction will create jobs and stimulate tourism, and represents a significant boost for the region's economy."

Creating the craft
"When we began planning the project, we aspired to create a model that would enable us to educate our customers on our holistic grow process and provide the market with some of the freshest cannabis available in the country. We're looking to create a cannabis experience for our customers likened to attending an Okanagan wine tour. WLFN has also considered the environmental footprints of these cultivation facilities and attempted to minimize their impact by installing LED lights, significantly reducing the power requirements of the facility."

Brendon and Sugar Cane Cannabis grow their cannabis indoors to have that greater degree of control over cultivation that allows them to fully express their craft. "Sugar Cane Cannabis is a 7000 sq ft cultivation micro licensed facility with 5 grow rooms (414 sq ft canopy space), dry room, processing room, secure storage, and farm gate storefront. It has an annual capacity of 600 kgs of dried cannabis. Being indoors allows us to have greater quality consistency with total control of our cultivation environment. Similarly, we can produce fresh cannabis year-round to our value supply chain and retail channels."

A crucial step to producing craft-quality cannabis is the drying one. Brendon and Sugar Cane are very much aware of the importance of staying focused throughout the cultivation process. If a grower wants to stand out in the market, dropping the ball when it comes to drying and curing is not an option. Yet, many growers have not taken into consideration that the drying space and process need to have enough capacity for the whole harvest. This is mainly a result of being focused on the cultivation only, losing sight of the processes that follow that. At the same time, there's more. "Most facilities designed for drying and curing are not well properly engineered," Brendon points out. "Lack of air movement or fresh oxygenated air to deter mold and other opportunistic pathogens are none existent. Dehumidification becomes an issue if the needs are under spec or underestimated. High temperatures above 21 degrees Celsius also dry cannabis too quickly and causes loss of terpenes, and contribute to a harsh and unpleasant smoke as chlorophyll is not adequately broken down. Therefore, end consumers get a hay taste, throat burns, and unpleasant experience. This stems from a lack of scientific know-how combined with a lack of traditional drying and curing concepts/ principles to improve end-product quality. Drying requires precision timing - The drying period should never take too long and should never end too quickly. Too long and buds are prone to mold & too quick, outside of bud will seem dry but inside won't necessarily be."

Drying cannabis at Sugar Cane
Following scientific principles, Sugar Cane Cannabis has set up a drying and curing process that ensures all of their plants express their full genetic potential. This starts with the drying, and then the second step is fermentation. Finally, all the flowers get hand-trimmed. "Drying process at Sugar Cane Cannabis starts with the initial hang drying of (harvested plants) bud which takes place in controlled drying room environment on stainless steel (food grade) racks in open air or well-ventilated space. Our drying temperatures range from 18 - 20 degrees Celsius, with a relative humidity of 58% - 63% for a slow dry within 8 - 14 days. This allows for the slow degradation of chlorophyll. At a moisture content of 18%-20% and water activity of 0.75 - 0.80, plants are taken down from drying racks for the hand bucking, trim & begins fermentation phase."

It is with fermentation that things get really interesting. "Fermentation provides a pleasurable and presidential smoking experience that is highly rated for its taste and smooth vibes during consumption. Cannabis which remains exposed to air, light, and unstable moisture, dries up quickly, losing medicinal properties, decreasing cannabinoids and terpene content, respectively. The fermentation processes counterbalance this. The chlorophyll continues to synthesize slowly, allowing the terpenes to maximize their content, enhancing aroma and flavonoids by unlocking their full potential. The result contributes to a product that is refined, thus improving with time and age while preserving cannabinoids and terpene value."

But how does it exactly work? "The fermentation is a multi-phase process. After the hang-dry phase described above. The cannabis is placed in containers. The container should be filled roughly 1/4 of maximum capacity but never full. 3/4 vacant space provides enough air volume to deter moisture collection, which can easily lead to mold infestation. At 4 - 10 weeks, your bud should be moist on the outside (a bit spongy), may turn sightly yellowish enhancing appearance & bag appeal," Brendon explains.

More specifically, from week 1 to 3, the cannabis should be aerated for 20-40 minutes every 8-12 hours. This should be placed in such a way that it homogeneously fits the ΒΌ capacity of the container, thus preventing excess moisture. The temperature should stay within 19-20 degrees Celsius and the humidity between 58%-63%. Brendon also advises doing a mold inspection daily and placing 58-62% Boveda two-way humidity packs evenly around cannabis to maintain container conditions.

From week 4 to 8, the cannabis should be ventilated for 10-20 minutes every 24 hours and also steered a little bit to deter moisture hot spots. Humidity and temperature stay the same as in weeks 1-3. Finally, in weeks 9-12, the ventilation should occur for roughly 10 minutes every other day. The daily mold check, and redistribution, should be kept to maintain even moisture distribution. In the end, the water activity in the cannabis should be between 0.58-0.65, and moisture content between 10%-13% for long-term storage.

A bigger reach
Considering the love that Brendon and Sugar Cane Cannabis put into their craft, Brendon says that he'd like to engage customers more if regulations allowed it. "Currently, as a result of the cannabis regulations, we are very limited on how we can engage with consumers. We hope that the future of the industry will allow cultivators to properly showcase their products and develop new and creative ideas. For example, we would love to allow our customers to touch, taste, and feel the cannabis via consumption lounges."

For more information:
Sugar Cane Cannabis

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