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Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Take a look at Aurora Cannabis’ 800,000 square foot grow facility.

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Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow
Justin Cannabis/ High Times

Welcome to Aurora Cannabis, a Canadian company that’s redefining what constitutes an efficient, high-capacity cannabis-production facility. Take a tour of its massive cultivation locations, including a gargantuan 800,000-square-foot greenhouse, and learn how this licensed producer continues to expand internationally.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Danny Danko/ High Times

Northern Lights

Founded in 2013 and headquartered in Edmonton at the foot of the Canadian Rockies, Aurora Cannabis Inc. looks well-poised to take a sizable chunk of the multibillion-dollar legal cannabis industry both in Canada and worldwide. Spearheaded by CEO Terry Booth, the company is publicly listed (TSX: ACB) (OTCQX: ACBFF) and now has several hundred employees—an intriguing combination of business-savvy suits and cannabis-obsessed cultivators and processors.

Aurora is federally licensed through the Canadian Marihuana for Medical Purposes Regulation program to grow and sell cannabis and now has four state-of-the-art facilities throughout the country. What’s interesting is that its operations are new, purpose-built constructions—specifically designed and built for cannabis growing rather than repurposed existing warehouses or retrofit buildings. The layouts are designed for maximum efficiency, and their closed-loop HVAC systems allow them to produce clean and safe medical cannabis free of pesticides, molds or any microbial infections.

Aurora also has a policy of not utilizing cold pasteurization via cobalt-60 irradiation. Although some other licensed producers may use this radioactive process to sterilize their products, the team at Aurora prefers to preserve its terpenes from heat and its flowers from radioactivity in order to retain all of the medical potential of the crops. Although Aurora tests all its products in an on-site laboratory, Booth tells me, “We also have samples of all our cannabis sent to a Health Canada–qualified independent third-party laboratory for testing and analysis as well.” It’s important to ensure the cleanest possible product, and the team at Aurora remains devoted to maintaining the quality and integrity of its output.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Danny Danko/ High Times

Lit Products

Aurora provide several dozen strains of flowers with high THC and CBD levels, as well as buds with a variety of THC-to-CBD ratios in five- and 10-gram increments, with all products shipped using earth-friendly cornstarch packing peanuts.

The company also sells supercritical CO2-extracted THC and CBD drops made by blending whole-plant extract with MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil to attain a targeted potency. Booth explains: “MCT is a healthy, colorless, odorless oil that is found naturally in coconut oil. MCT oil is broken down easily and efficiently by the body, which means that the client receives the maximum effect of our THC and CBD drops in a relatively short time frame.”

A unique product offered by Aurora, its Double-Milled Decarb capsules, is a smoke-free way to receive activated cannabinoids for patients who choose not to smoke or vaporize their flowers or oils. Flowers are decarboxylated to fully activate cannabinoids and then powdered to produce a capsule that can be eaten directly or added to food or drinks. You can buy them filled or purchase your own filler and capsules to make your own at home.

All of Aurora’s cannabis and cannabis-derived products are available at a flat-rate compassionate pricing of just $6 per gram for patients in financial situations that qualify for the government-subsidized program established in 2013. Also available is a variety of vaporizers, including desktop versions and discreet vape pens.

Aurora’s mobile app takes convenience a step further, allowing patients to view products in real time and order their cannabis medicines with a click of a button on their smartphones using fingerprint authorization. It’ll even send push notifications the instant that favored products are made available! Deliveries take between one and three business days depending on location, and the company is planning same-day delivery in the near future.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Danny Danko/ High Times

Mountain High

Our first stop was in Alberta to visit and tour Aurora’s 55,200-square-foot facility known as Aurora Mountain, nestled in beautiful Mountain View County near Calgary. Here, over 100 employees produce and process an astounding amount of cannabis in many different forms—over 10,000 kilograms per year! As I’m gearing up in head-to-toe protective garb to maintain sterility, chief cultivator John Barnet explains to me the protocol and process.

Plants are grown in pro-mix and drip-fed with a solution of nutrients mixed into fresh Canadian mountain water once per hour for 10 hours during the daytime light cycle. No pesticides of any kind are ever utilized, resulting in an integrated-pest-management system that relies heavily on beneficial insects. These carnivorous predators and nematodes attack any vegetarian bugs and their eggs in order to keep plants clean, healthy and thriving.

Aurora also avoids problems with powdery mildew using preventative measures that include meticulous quality control and employing strains with natural resistance to humidity-related issues. Barnet’s background in osteopathy inspires him to “treat the plants like people,” and he’s passionate about providing the right environment for them at all times. I quickly see that he and his crew cater to each strain’s specific requirements, even with thousands of plants to maintain.

The propagation area housing mother plants and clones is lit with LEP (light-emitting plasma) and MH (metal halide) lighting. The advantages of being located in the pro-business province of Alberta include low tax rates and low electrical costs. Tissue-culture techniques are employed as well for efficiency and decontamination along with traditional cloning practices.

The 10 flowering rooms range in size from several hundred to several thousand plants. Each is maintained in ultra-sanitary conditions requiring clean trays, benches and floors. The individual enclosed rooms contain their own recycled air, with no fresh air brought in from outside.

Plants are harvested, trimmed, dried, packaged and shipped directly to patients. Climate-controlled vaults for storage contain packaging designed to protect the product from light, heat and humidity.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Justin Cannabis/ High Times

Sky’s the Limit

Our next stop was at an enterprise the likes of which I’ve never seen in all my years of visiting grow facilities. Located near the international airport at Edmonton, the Dutch-designed hybrid greenhouse known as Aurora Sky, still in the process of being built, boasts a mind-blowing 800,000 square feet! It took a helicopter ride over the site for me to truly determine the enormity of this $100,000,000 endeavor.

Conservatively projected to grow over 100,000 kilograms of cannabis per year, the facility employs high-tech European greenhouse agriculture technology for speed and automation. It includes a massive propagation bay, three vegetative bays that are 17,000 square feet each and 16 flowering bays that are each 35,000 square feet.

With an 8,000-plant mother room and 40,000 plants per bay, the numbers are simply mind-boggling. Add to that two massive storage vaults, multiple drying and packing rooms, space for a tissue-culture project, a hot-water storage tank and a 50-foot-deep, 102-million-gallon pond the size of 17 Olympic pools, and you begin to understand the magnitude of this endeavor.

Aurora’s commitment to cost-effectiveness drove the design of the greenhouse to utilize self-cleaning antireflective glass with snowmelt technology for optimal natural-light intake. The huge hot-water tank, warmed by hyper-efficient European boilers, pumps radiant heat through tubes, and an advanced HVAC design using forced air provides uniform climate control. A separate condensation system prevents humidity-related issues such as powdery mildew.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Justin Cannabis/ High Times

The bays are laid out with one lamp per every 25-26 square feet of footprint to act as supplemental lighting and help produce an even canopy over NFT (nutrient film technique) benching with one plant per square foot secured in rockwool medium. There’s a 1-to-4 ratio of HPS (high-pressure sodium) to LED lights. The LEDs are sealed water-cooled units from the Dutch manufacturer Oreon, providing 53 percent more efficiency than HPS and an eight-year lifespan. Total power usage is 28 megawatts, and the facility can be seen from space!

Automation is key to Aurora’s good manufacturing practices, as founding cultivator Chris Mayerson explains to me: “For both quality and cost-effectiveness, we seek to have as little human contact with our plants as possible to avoid contamination. Automated bench washers clean the growing areas and cranes lift up beds to move them as necessary. Robots space out our plants, and an automatic visioning system seeks out and identifies pests and diseases. We use no pesticides at all—just bio-friendly bugs.”

Aurora Sky’s post-production area alone is staggering in size. Fifteen drying rooms employ a cold-harvesting method that keeps the ambient temperature no higher than 9°C (48°F). Like a giant humidor, the rooms contain only filtered air and lock in terpenes and flavonoids for optimum quality.

A team of mechanical twister machines auto-trim the flowers and send them to the packing room, which can produce 50 sealed bottles per minute accurately. Air in the containers is replaced with CO2 and nitrogen to preserve freshness almost indefinitely.

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Justin Cannabis/ High Times

Home Cultivation

For those seeking to grow their own, Aurora recently acquired the BC Northern Lights and Urban Cultivator grow-box companies. While other licensed producers may seek to undermine and delay home-cultivation rights, Aurora sees an enticing market for personal grow equipment among the Canadian public and plans to even provide clones for sale to its customers who choose to produce their own marijuana.

CEO Booth explains: “We’ve always advocated for people’s ability to make their own choices and are very supportive of the Supreme Court’s Allard decision, which confirmed patients’ rights to grow their own medical cannabis. Similarly, we believe that, after implementation of consumer legalization in Canada, individuals who choose to grow their own cannabis should have access to cultivation solutions that are in controlled environments, safe and can produce high-yielding, high-quality cannabis.” Furthermore, the grow-box buyer can sample stains from Aurora before growing them in order to be sure they’re cultivating the varieties they want.

BCNL and Urban Cultivator, operating for 17 and eight years, respectively, provide state-of-the-art indoor-gardening appliances with touch-screen technology and advanced automation. They’ve earned a reputation as the leading grow-box brands in the world and have been encouraging and helping people to grow their own cannabis as well as microgreens, vegetables and herbs.

Neil Belot, Aurora’s chief global business development officer, says, “These transactions are an important step in our strategy to serve the home-gardening market in Canada for patients who choose to grow their own medical cannabis, and ultimately for adult consumers who choose to grow their own after Canada’s federal government legalizes adult usage, which is anticipated by July 2018. For over a decade, BC Northern Lights products have been widely recognized as the gold standard for home cannabis production, and we look forward to integrating our offerings to deliver a truly unique and full-service customer experience.”

“We are delighted to be part of the Aurora family,” says Tarren Wolfe, co-founder of BCNL and Urban Cultivator. “This will enable us to address a much larger audience of people who have been empowered by the Allard decision to operate a home garden and are seeking access to the equipment, genetics and educational support services to do so. In teaming up with Aurora, we will work with an industry-leading team of cannabis-branding specialists and sales and marketing professionals to bring BCNL to the next level. In addition, Aurora’s licensed-producer status means the company will soon be able to provide a fully integrated package, including starter materials such as clones, offering one-stop shopping for people who choose to grow their own cannabis at home.”

Inside Aurora Cannabis: The World’s Biggest Grow

Blue Dream; Justin Cannabis/ High Times

Aurora’s Glow

With its commitment to quality and cost control; its fast, free and discreet shipping throughout Canada; and its newest facility projected to produce over 100,000 kilograms of cannabis per year, Aurora Cannabis Inc. looks certain to gain strength in the highly competitive marijuana-production marketplace on a global scale. Aurora’s acquisitions, investments and recent expansion into supplying multiple international partners in Europe, Australia, South America and beyond will certainly change the future of cannabis cultivation and distribution worldwide. Like its namesake, the aurora borealis, this “electric” company seems destined to continue shining for years to come.

This feature was published in the July 2018 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.

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