Less than two hours outside of Chicago, a team of experts in cultivation and extraction is setting the standard for large-scale medical cannabis production, processing and lab-testing. Our senior cultivation editor reports on his exclusive look behind the scenes at this awe-inspiring facility serving the medical marijuana patients of Illinois.
Start a Revolution
Deep in the farmlands of central Illinois sit two identical medical marijuana facilities owned and operated by Revolution Cannabis. Each one boasts an enormous 75,520-square-foot footprint on 10 acres of farmland. Revolution Cannabis–Delavan, located in a town of less than 2,000 residents, is by far the largest and most technologically advanced indoor medical-marijuana-cultivation facility I’ve ever seen. And it has the ability to expand!
Its sister facility, Revolution Cannabis–Barry, is located over 130 miles from the Delavan site. With a combined total of more than 150,000 square feet of cultivation and laboratory space, these facilities make Revolution Cannabis the single largest grower in the state by square footage. Both facilities are named after the towns in which they’re located, paying homage to the communities that welcomed Revolution with open arms.
Founder and president Tim McGraw tells me that his goal from the start was to bring a new level of professionalism to the medical-marijuana-production industry. From Revolution’s initial applications for cultivation licenses, to the buildout of its facilities, to the dedication of its staff, McGraw has left nothing to chance. The folks who showed me around the Revolution Cannabis–Delavan facility beamed with pride at what they’ve been able to do so far. “I started Revolution with a desire to advance the science of cannabis and create the cannabinoid medicines of tomorrow—and that’s what you see being accomplished here today,” McGraw says.
Typically, growing on this scale would mean serious compromises in the quality of the finished product, since the prevailing wisdom holds that it’s impossible to produce excellent cannabis in such large amounts. But the experts at Revolution Cannabis have managed to prove this adage wrong: The flowers they cultivate so lovingly are simply amazing, and the concentrates produced in their labs are clean, potent and pure.
“Patients need safe and efficacious cannabis medicine,” McGraw says, adding that there are stringent quality controls in place at every step of the process to ensure product integrity. “We take our responsibility as a cannabis-business licensee very seriously. We are producing medicine that, for many patients, can improve their quality of life.”
What sets Revolution Cannabis apart from other large-scale grows? Each of its two facilities is now capable of producing over 20,000 pounds of cannabis per year when fully operational. There are multiple layers of security in place here; it felt more like I was visiting a power plant than a marijuana-cultivation site. All visitors are required to wear head-to-toe scrubs to ensure cleanliness and keep all areas free of pests or any other contaminants that could compromise the health of the plants.
The state-of-the-art environmental controls are completely automated, enabling the growers to manage, track, record and analyze temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and lighting in each cultivation room and even access that information in real time via smartphone. This allows them to see the history of each room down to the second and eliminate any micro-environment problems that might be tough to track otherwise. This attention to detail ensures that they’re creating consistent and reliable medicine for Illinois’s patients. “We’re utilizing the latest technology to create tightly monitored environments, which allows us to maximize each plant’s genetic potential,” McGraw tells me.
All of the water used here is carbon-filtered and deionized and goes through reverse-osmosis (RO) filtration, followed by ultraviolet (UV) filtration as well. The Revolution growers also have the ability to recycle all of their cultivation-room runoff (gray water) and HVAC condensate through the filtration system. Close to 70% of the water used at Revolution Cannabis is recaptured, making this a much more environmentally sustainable operation than many others. “We engineered our facilities to have as little waste as possible,” McGraw notes.
Divide and Conquer
Each of the 20 cultivation chambers is sealed off and sanitized individually. This compartmentalization fosters cleanliness and keeps any potential issues isolated to one area. The rooms are 20 by 80 feet, for a total of 1,600 square feet, and lit with 45 1,000-watt double-ended E-Papillon high-pressure sodium (HPS) bulbs to evenly cover the canopy with an emphasis on indirect crossover lighting. All of the cultivation rooms are protected with 1,200-pound magnetic locks and automatic door closers.
For the medium, the Revolution growers use an enriched semi-soil mix made in-house that includes perlite, coco coir, organic soil, humus and worm castings. The medium is fed with compost teas to enhance the health of the plants. The philosophy is to utilize the soil microbiome to work synergistically with the plants’ root structure, because a happy plant below ground is typically a happy plant above ground. Revolution operates one of the most advanced grow labs on the planet, but nothing beats the science of evolution and what has been perfected over the millennia by Mother Nature. The Revolution team maintains precise control of the environment to mitigate pests and disease; everything else is as nature intended.
The plants here spend anywhere from four to 10 weeks in the vegetative stage, depending on the strain. Then flowering is induced and, as the plants approach ripening, they receive a thorough flush. Chief operations officer Dustin Shroyer tells me, “Flushing is of utmost importance to quality. We use nothing but 0 ppm [parts per million] water for several weeks leading up to harvest.”
I ask about the use of pesticides. “What I love most about the Illinois program is that pesticides are greatly restricted and only allowed in the vegetative space,” Shroyer replies. “We only use living organisms and have grown very fond of various types of nematodes. Nothing is ever sprayed on a plant, and that’s the only way to ensure there is no residue on the final product. After all, cannabis isn’t intended to be washed off like fruit, and it’s pretty evident when crops get treated even with natural pesticides—anything from sulfur to neem—that they degrade the quality of the final product.”
Each Revolution Cannabis extraction and formulations lab has over 3,000 square feet of space. The company produces a variety of refined cannabis products through multiple processes that include sifting, low-temperature pressing, and the use of supercritical-fluid CO2, butane, propane and ethanol. The Revolution team can further process extractions through fractional distillation to create ultra-refined cannabinoid and terpenoid concentrates and remove any residual solvent. “Our analytic capabilities mirror the pharmaceutical industry and ensure purity, efficacy and consistency in the finished product,” Shroyer says.
The extracts, edibles, sublingual sprays and topicals made here are produced by experts in the fields of chemistry and microbiology. All Revolution Cannabis products are also sampled and tested by an independent lab to ensure the absence of pesticides and other impurities, including residual solvents, which are legally required to be below 10 ppm in Illinois.
Intense quality control is maintained throughout the post-harvest handling. All harvested bud is processed on parchment-covered, stainless-steel work surfaces and hand-trimmed in order to inspect each flower and sort them into A+ and non-conforming groups. The A+ group will be sold as premium cannabis, and all non-conforming grades go to the lab for whole-flower refining to make an array of products through extraction and distillation.
Every piece of cannabis that is not fresh-frozen for live resin is hang-dried and cured on the stem for seven to 10 days before hand-trimming and inspection. After slow-drying, each batch of cannabis is cured for at least four weeks, and the moisture level of the cannabis inflorescence is closely monitored the whole time.
Once the final moisture content is achieved in week four, every batch is sampled by the third-party lab and tested for mold, mycotoxins, pesticides and other contaminants, as well as a plethora of cannabinoids and terpenoids, prior to being packaged and released for final sale. The entire process can take up to six weeks, and sometimes longer, for particular strains to achieve their finest quality.
Breeding the Future
Revolution Cannabis specializes in rare and high-quality genetics with maximum potency and unique cannabinoid profiles. Because the focus is on pleasing patients’ palates and achieving the best medicinal effects, Revolution works with a broad spectrum of cannabis varieties. While I can’t mention specific strains due to state advertising rules, some of the favorites here include OGs, Kushes and high-CBD varieties. “We’re continuously breeding in-house to upgrade our lineages and create new elite varieties,” Shroyer tells me. “We plan to create over 200 F2 crosses and F1 hybrids in our first year of the program.”
The air curtains at each breeding room’s entry point are controlled by motion sensors. Multiple small rooms are used, each with its own HEPA filtration, benching and double-ended lighting to resemble a scaled-down version of the main growrooms. The replicated environment allows for the selection of genetics that thrive in conditions similar to the larger rooms, while trapping pollen to avoid cross-contamination.
“We don’t grow pounds; we grow eighths,” Shroyer says. (This is my favorite Dusty quote.) Revolution isn’t about growing huge colas: All of the large clusters of cannabis inflorescence will still have to be cut into smaller units, and they’re full of stems and more prone to contamination by mold. The majority of Revolution’s premium flower is sold in 3.54-gram units. Therefore, the Revolution team focuses on growing beautiful high-quality flowers that receive even light from all sides. The result is a consistently superior quality in every harvest and package of Revolution Cannabis bud.
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