Ep. 9: A Green Thumb | Growing Cannabis
February 27, 2019 5:55 a.m.
The cannabis industry needs scientists, too. Allison Justice applies her green thumb to a very green enterprise.
Related Story: Rad Scientist Ep. 9: A Green Thumb Growing Cannabis
Margot: It’s the morning and I’m getting my bearings on a dusty dirt road in El Cajon right by a small airport. I walk towards a door blocked by a burly security guard.
“Is this the entrance for outco?”
“Okay, I’m here for an interview”
Margot: I’m waiting to meet a scientist at Outco, a cannabis dispensary and grower in East County. I’m here to see where the Cannabis industry is headed and how science might play a role in its future. But first, I wanna get a tour of the place. I’ve never been to a dispensary in the states. Virginia, director of communications shows me around.
Virginia: “Hi, I’m Virginia”
Margot: “I’m Margot”
Virginia: “Nice to meet you Margot”
So patients come in, they come in to the waiting room, they register and check in, and then one by one they’re taken through to the dispensary to have a one-on-one interaction with the bud tender.
Margot: “Sorry Did you say budtender?”
Virginia: “I did..so”
Margot: She brings me into a room filled with glass cases teaming with cannabis products I didn’t know existed.
Virginia: ...in this case it’s flower and all of our concentrates, so hash, rosin, shatter, and keef. And then if you step over here, in this display case you can see out tinctures, so tinctures are cannabis extract mixed with oil that’s taken sublingually. We have specialized tinctures, for pets and for people with sleep issues, infused teas. This is a lubricant, or a sensual cream.
Margot: I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store- but where I don’t know what any of the candies are. Most of these products are made in-house from cannabis grown right on the property just behind the dispensary. And I’m not just here to admire Outco’s products. I wanna know how science impacts the cannabis industry here in San Diego - given that it was illegal for so long. Like there weren’t scientific journals and conferences in the US on how to grow an illegal substance. So, this is an industry that hasn’t had the benefit of years of scientific research into how to most efficiently grow the crop - minimize synthetic pesticides, maximize growth. Who is the scientist in charge of the plants here? And how are they going to shake stuff up?
This is Rad Scientist: Where the scientist becomes the subject.
Margot: Meet Allison - she’s in charge of outco’s cannabis production.
Allison: I’m Allison [chuckle] I am Dr. Allison Justice. I’m VP of cultivation at Outco.
Margot:..a scientist whose roots in the agriculture business span generations.
Allison: I grew up in South Carolina basically in the middle of nowhere, my grandparents were cotton farmers my mom had an ornamental tree farm, two hundred acres in Georgia. So, I basically grew up around plants and on tractors getting my hands dirty. I tried to deny and say that I didn't want to be in horticulture and i went into veterinary science but I quickly went back to my roots.
Margot: Allison got a degree in horticulture at Clemson University and after college, she went back home to work on her mom’s farm.
Allison: “You know they had me doing the hard labor. I was doing everything from pruning to digging the trees.”
Margot: She missed days spent in a lab at Clemson, studying peaches. Also, the summer heat was a bit much.
Allison: Yeah, after 90 degrees consistently in Georgia all summer, yes I want to get back in the lab and learn more.
Margot: So it was back to the classroom for Allison, this time to get a doctorate in horticulture.
Allison: That’s what I wanted to do is increase yields and help farmers, but do it scientifically.
Margot: She studied a problem that you might be familiar with. If you’ve grown plants, you know one of the main challenges is keeping away bugs that like to eat your plants. When you start growing at the scale of farmers, the problem can get really expensive.
Allison: There are some pests that if you get a few in, they completely take over your crop. And when you do get that pest, you expect to just clear out the whole room or the whole facility and start over. That’s millions of dollars down the drain.
Margot: By using poinsettias, she tested out a more natural way to keep away pests. Rather than using synthetic pesticides like roundup, she tried applying what she calls natural pesticides. Organisms that eat the pests. Mostly mites and worms that are deployed like a hungry army to protect the crops. This method is called biological control.
Allison: ...and if you do it the right way, it’s just as good as synthetic chemicals.
Margot: Biological control can be a way to save money and a way to go organic. So, obviously Allison’s expertise was highly sought after by many different kinds of farmers. But she never thought she’d would end up working in Cannabis production.
Allison: In grad school, cannabis was not on my radar. You know I supported it from afar, I didn’t ever grow it just because you know, South Carolina, I didn’t want to go to jail for 5 years. But once I graduated with my PhD I began doing consulting in greenhouses across the nation. Mostly for pest management. And, a lot of the same pests affect cannabis as they do poinsettias or tomatoes whatever else, and so I started getting calls from cannabis growers to help them with their biological control program. And you know I always made sure it was legal grows, and um you know first couple times it was a little frightening because I didn't know exactly what to expect, but you know once I got into those grows and saw what was going on and saw the dire need for the technologies in agriculture and the methodologies in agriculture, standard operating procedures, you know it was very clear of the help that was needed and the opportunity. After a few consulting jobs, talked to my boss, my current boss, and he offered me an opportunity, and so I moved to california.
Margot: Allison knew that she was going to be able to make a big impact in her new job, and in a relatively new industry.
Allison: As a scientist it was super exciting, because there’s so many firsts. There’s so much we can do to rapidly make this industry legit.
Margot: At Outco, Allison is hoping to use her green thumb and her green science for another green enterprise. Her goal? Increase Outco’s yields.
Allison leads me to a conference room with a large window that looks down upon a yellow tinted room filled with Cannabis plants. This is where outco started. Version 1.0.
Margot: We go downstairs to take a look at the setup.
Allison: So, we’re going into the room that we were looking down on. So keep in mind this is what a traditional cannabis grow looks like and what we are moving away from.
Margot: When we go inside we have take a lot of precautions to keep it sanitary and free from pests, like small insects, bacteria, and molds.
Allison: Yes, so..
If you guys can slip these on first
Margot: We wear lab coats Booties and black gloves.
Allison: These are our ladies. We have all female plants. We don’t want male plants because then they bring male pollen. They pollinate the flowers, and then we have seeds, and nobody wants weedy--uh seedy weed.
Margot: Version 1.0 still looks pretty impressive to me. At least 500 plants, green-leafed with purple-ish buds, are packed in a racket ball sized room. And let me tell you, this room was a feast for my senses – mostly my sense of smell
Allison: This one right here is called Grape Pie and if you wanna give it a little squeeze, smell your fingers, you’ll see why it’s called grape pie. It’s very sweet.
Margot: Oh my god, yea that really does smell like grape.
Allison: Right? So that’s a combination of potentially hundreds of different turpines to make that one distinct smell.
Margot: Turpines – these are the chemicals that make lemons smell citrusy they give you that sweet sweet coffee aroma in the morning. And each cannabis strain has a unique mixture of these chemicals that gives it its signature aroma.
Allison: This one is called blackjack, it's one of my personal favorites, it has a lot of mercine in it, people like to say it’s gassy, as in car gas, give this one a squeeze and see how it smells.
Margot: It’s pretty incredible how spot on the name is for the smell and how different each strain smells with names like diesel and fruity pebbles. But Allison really wants me to notice the limitations of this grow room.
Margot: And one thing she keeps pointing out are the yellow high pressure sodium bulbs that provide lights for the plants. They put out a lot of heat, so they can’t get too close to the cannabis. She says these lights are part of the industry’s dogma, and it’s time to test out which light sources are best.
Allison: ...because we're growing indoors, and that’s the plant’s sole source of energy. And, there's so many types of light um that, that was the first thing I wanted to figure out.
Margot: To hear how Allison more than doubled the output of outco by fiddling with the lighting, stick around after the break.
Margot: Allison wasn’t happy with the status quo of cannabis cultivation. One of her first projects was figuring out which source of lighting was best for the cannabis and most efficient for the company. The results are evident in version 2.0 of Outco’s grow rooms. We head there next.
Allison: Let’s go to the new updated room.
Margot: If this were MTV cribs, this would be the cue for Allison to say
Allison: This is where all the real magic happens. [reveal sound] Two weeks ago it looked liked the first one you saw, but we’re clearing out our old rooms, and making them now look like this.
Margot: Not one, but two rows of cannabis stacked on rolling shelves. Hanging just a foot or so above them were strips of small LED lights. And they emit very little heat. That means that the lights can hang closer to the plants, and now Allison can fit two levels of plants into the same space as before. Double the output.
Allison: You know when i first came to outco, the growers told me, and a lot of the industry still believes this, that you can’t flower under LEDS. And that’s just a misconception handed down through growers. What’s the light intensity that cannabis needs, and people say, well you just hang the lights 3 ft. from the plants, well that’s not an answer. We can actually measure how many photons are coming out, and I wanna know what that number is. And what our studies showed is that the higher light you have, the higher yields you have,
We were putting intensity on plants that I never thought you could do. Like poinsettias, if you were to put this high of light on a poinsettia it would pretty much crumble and fall apart. A lot of of phototoxicity, but cannabis loves light. So, the more light we can put on, the better. If you think to general horticulture, that’s something that’s been answered long long ago. But it just hasn’t in cannabis yet. And there’s a lot of , I don't want to say easy, but very general research that we’re being able to do, and very quickly elevate this industry because it’s been hidden for so long so a lot of those questions that should been answered haven't been answered yet.
Margot: These are some of the skills a scientist can bring to an industry without a lot of evidence based practices.
Allison: there’s so much more that can be done. I can probably work my whole lifetime 40 hours 80 hours a week doing research and just just, plant science of cannabis, and just, and you know that wont be it, there'll be plenty more to do. It’s intriguing it’s exciting, it’s very different than traditional agriculture, so I intend to stick with it.
Margot: And Allison, as a lady scientist, is cutting through a sort of “grass” ceiling that exists in the heavily male-skewed cannabis industry. She attributes her desire to do so to her kickass mom.
Allison: I was able to see my mom do big things in an industry that was ran by males.
Margot: And I wonder if her mother is proud of her success in the cannabis world.
Allison: My mother is very proud of me. You know of course at first she was a little concerned.and cautious. But it think after being in this industry after a year and a half she’s seen some of the benefits that it can do. And she understands my passion and supports me. And, now, she is one of 20 licensed holders in South Carolina to grow hemp.
Margot: And you had a hand in that?
Allison: I did have a hand in that?
She’s uh pairing with Clemson University and she’s gonna grow 20 acres of hemp, of hemp for CBD production.
Margot: Wow that’s a lot.
Allison: Yeah it's a lot and they're excited. They took the land from cotton to soybeans, to cows and now hemp.
Margot: She has brought science into the cannabis industry and she may just bring cannabis into the family business. After all, if legalization spreads throughout the US, it’s likely to be a cash crop.
Allison: Absolutely, if I had to guess. I would say 4 -5 years and South Carolina would allow it.
Margot: So, maybe Allison got pulled in to the family business after all. Heck, it may turn out to be a joint effort.
Margot: This weeks moment of xenopus is a challenge, can you count how many puns in the episode? If so, email us at email@example.com. First person to get the right answer will get a prize.
Looking for a cool thing to go to this weekend? I’m producing a science storytelling event at the Loft at UCSD. March 1st, 6:30 PM. The theme for the night is “well that was weird” and there will be stories about sea lion pap smears, a large poop, mucus, cadavers, and more. You can find a link for the event in the show notes.
Rad scientist is produced by me, Margot Wohl. This episode was written by myself with script edits by Jill Jainero. Our theme guitar riff is by Grant Fisher. Logo by Kyle Fischer, no relation. Music for this episode was by Cullah, Julien Matthey, Podington Bear, and Kinoton. At KPBS, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Melanie Drogseth is program coordinator, Jill Linder is programming manager, Kinsee Morlan is Podcast Coordinator, Lisa Jane Morrisette is Operations Manager, and John Decker is director of programming. This program is made possible in part by the KPBS Explore local content fund. If you liked this episode, tell a friend or rate and review us on itunes. It really helps. Stay Rad.