How Compassionate Cultivation Grows High-Quality Medical Cannabis

Compassionate Cultivation opened Texas’ first licensed medical cannabis dispensary on Feb. 8 in the Austin area, a major milestone in the implementation of the Compassionate Use Act, which was enacted in 2015 to provide qualifying patients with access to low-THC medical cannabis products for the treatment of intractable epilepsy. Many components went into making this historic event possible. But one of the most important facets of delivering on the promise of high-quality, lab-tested CBD medicine is the cultivation of CBD-rich medical-grade cannabis plants.

As Compassionate Cultivation’s Director of Cultivation, Taylor Kirk is an expert agronomist educated at Texas A&M University who heads up cultivation operations at our state-of the-art facility in the Austin area. Kirk’s years of experience in turf grass management, and his extensive training in cannabis cultivation, are evidenced by the high-quality, medical-grade cannabis plant growth he oversees.

We recently sat down with Kirk to get a better sense of the processes and techniques that go into cultivating high-quality medical cannabis plants.

Compassionate Cultivation staff: Can you walk us briefly through the process of cultivating medical-grade cannabis?

Taylor Kirk: The plants grown at our facility started from seeds that were selected from CBD-rich cultivars that are known to have a minimum 20:1 ratio of CBD:THC. Several seeds from a cultivar are grown in a batch that shows slightly different genetic expressions of that cultivar. We select the best plants from the initial batches of a cultivar to work with further; they are then cultivated as “mother” plants from which cuttings (clones) are taken to create a batch of plants that are genetically identical to the mother plant and provide consistent yields of medicine.

We make the initial selections through two key processes: phenotyping and chemotyping.

Phenotyping is done by identifying plants with unique physical characteristics, such as the plant’s growth habit and yield.

Chemotyping is done by performing plant tissue analysis in our lab to determine what specific cannabinoid levels the plants contain. This allows us to target specific plant genetics that facilitate production of low-THC, high-CBD cannabis medicines, in accordance with Texas law.

The growth process happens in three phases: propagation, vegetation and flowering. All told, it takes roughly 13 weeks (cultivar dependent) for plants to reach full maturity from clones. Once a plant reaches maturity, we harvest and dry the plants in our drying room, which takes another week or so, before turning the plants over to our extraction partners.

CC: What special techniques do you use to ensure high-quality plant growth?

TK: There are four key techniques that we implement:

First, we select strong genetics. Second, we create an optimal environment. Third, we maintain a strict nutrient management program to make sure the plants are getting a proper diet with all the elements they need for optimal health and growth. Fourth is an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program.

At Compassionate Cultivation, our IPM starts with maintaining a very clean, sterile environment to prevent pests from slowing down the growth or causing infection. We use weekly foliar applications that are a part of our nutrient management program that perform a dual purpose by washing off any pests that may be present on the plants. And finally, we use biocontrols such as predatory insects and microorganisms.

Additionally, we thoroughly clean our water systems on a regular basis, which is important when you’re running nutrients through them. We constantly filter and periodically disinfect the water systems to make sure no contaminants like algae or biofilm are building up.

From a horticultural standpoint, we utilize cultural practices such as pruning and cleaning the plants to encourage growth and overall health by removing old leaves that might be nutrient deficient or sucking nutrients from the plant; we also prune the plants to raise the canopy and encourage top growth and flower production.

CC: What techniques do you use to maximize energy efficiency?

TK: We have high-tech controls and sensors that monitor the environment to finetune and dial it in, so we’re not wasting energy and resources. We also implement internal controls to efficiently manage energy use. For example, we adjust the lights in our grow rooms to offset each other, so we’re never drawing maximum energy loads all at once.

Another technique we use is to schedule the light and dark cycles in our indoor cultivation rooms around the outdoor environment and temperatures. Setting our indoor dark cycles during the heat of the day outside allows us to reduce the energy it takes to cool the room and mitigate the heat created by our grow lights.

CC: Tell us about the cannabis strains you’re cultivating.

TK: The Texas Compassionate Use Act provides for the use of low-THC, high-CBD medical cannabis oil. So, all the plants we grow are CBD-rich cultivars—or strains, as they’re more commonly called. We’re currently growing four different strains: BaOx, ACDC, Harle-Tsu and Ringo’s Gift. All of these strains are similar in their CBD:THC ratios but have differences in other cannabinoid and terpene profiles that might prove to be of differentiating value once these factors are completely understood.

(Photo credit: Chris Reichman/Sum & Substance Photography)