Cannabis growing is probably the most interesting job available right now to the American entrepreneur. In many ways, this industry offers the kind of opportunity that only comes once in a generation. Just name one other industry where you can make it big, and your own product research can rival the practical subject knowledge of most top colleges. Go on; I’ll wait.
Because of its unique status, the industry is a magnet for the curious. Many growers love tinkering in their grow room, tweaking their environmental conditions or the nutrients in their flowering stage, engineering a bigger, more potent harvest. For the botanically inclined it is a dream job, but nobody can dream forever.
Even when you work a job you love, there are parts you just don’t want to do and growing cannabis is not an exception. Most managers will tell you that firing people is never fun. Most doctors resent doing paperwork. For many growers, the part they want to dwell on the least is trimming their harvest.
Trimming buds is a lot like washing the dishes; it’s a time-consuming, monotonous chore that just needs to get done. So it’s no surprise that it isn’t much fun to think about. That said, whether you’re growing four plants in your backyard or you have 20,000 square feet of canopy, there are a bunch of good reasons to start thinking about trimming well before you get there.
“Where trimming fits in is a question that very frequently doesn’t get addressed until it’s too late,” said Baylee Sweet, the sales director at Harvest Helper Trim Store in Olympia, Washington. “No matter the size of the grow, farmers need to plan out their harvest needs from the very beginning. A lot of these commercial grows didn’t plan for the drying space, and now they’re trying to get more zoning done so they have more room for drying.”
When you’re just growing a couple of plants in your basement, it isn’t so bad. You spend a few hours in the basement, listening to your favorite album, and accompanying it with the snipping sounds from your scissors. It can be quite relaxing
However, it’s an entirely different story when you’ve just finished harvesting 30,000 square feet of canopy, and it needs to be sold to retailers in three weeks time, or your business is toast. That situation will give you the kind of migraine that blows the top of your head clean off.
Better by far to plan ahead now and try to make the post-harvest process as easy, efficient, and painless as possible. The market has long since realized that harvest time poses a lot of problems for growers, and companies have responded by offering their own solutions to make your life easier.
To cover them all in exhaustive detail would take a book, and even then, it would be a book you don’t have time to read. So instead, let’s sketch out the options you have as a grower, and some of the factors you’ll probably want to consider. Then, when we’re finished, you can do your own research on whichever one fits your situation best.
The first, most obvious, option is to scale up the method that’s always worked in the past and hire people to hand trim your bud for you. It’s been a popular option among growers, historically speaking, especially in areas with a plentiful labor market. Maybe you’ve got enough staff that you can handle your crop in a timely fashion by yourselves, too.
In either case, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing hand-trimmed bud. Many cannabis consumers are looking for organically-grown, ecologically-friendly, carefully manicured bud. For them, hand-trimmed has a cachet that may be enough to influence their purchasing decision.
For that exact reason, a lot of operations that use machines to trim most of their harvest will set their biggest and best buds aside to be hand-trimmed, just to cater to that slice of the market. However, there are a lot of factors to consider when choosing whether or not to trim your crop by hand.
First, can you afford to? Sure, the materials for hand-trimming are a bare fraction of the cost of an automated trimmer, but you also have to consider the labor costs that come along with it. Even if your local labor market is normally plentiful, if there are a lot of other growers in the region, you might find that trimmers aren’t exactly a dime a dozen when harvest time rolls around.
Then you have to consider the problems that come with bringing in a lot of outside help. They need to be trained, not just how to trim carefully, but how to do it safely, and how to be clean. Even in the nine states that allow recreational cannabis use, it’s still a medicine, it’s still going to be ingested, and it needs to be as clean as you can make it.
Mike LeBlanc is the rental department manager at Grow Green MI in Whitmore Lake, Michigan, and he wants everybody to keep their bud germ-free when they harvest. LeBlanc was a grower before he began working for the grower supply company, and he reckons that most buds get dirty because people are dirty. In his experience, paradoxically, gloves are part of the problem more often than not.
“I hate it when people wear gloves because when they have gloves on, they think somehow that now the gloves are invincible to germs,” LeBlanc said. “I’d rather have them wash their hands because then they’re conscious of what they’re touching.” It takes hours of specialized training for doctors to learn how to avoid contaminating a sterile environment, and even then they make mistakes.
The medical profession discovered decades ago that it’s a lot easier to clean tools than clean people, which is why there are so many robots in the operating room these days. Many growers have taken a leaf from their book and decided that keeping a trimming machine clean is a lot safer and easier than training a dozen people to keep their workspace germ-free.
Time was, there were no automated options for trimming, and all bud was trimmed by hand. That time has passed, but there are still plenty of growers who are leery of automating this process. Maybe you had a bad experience years ago with a machine that clogged in minutes or tore your buds to shreds. Maybe you are just cautious about switching from a tried and true method.
I’m not here to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do for your business; only you can do that. However, you should be aware that trimming machines are swiftly becoming the norm among commercial growers. Even if you decide it’s not for you, wouldn’t you like to know why so many are trying it out?
“What I tell growers is that a trimming machine gives them their lives back,” LeBlanc said. “Instead of sitting around that table for weeks at a time, you’re now doing it in a couple of hours. If you can get one more harvest out of your year because you’re not sitting around the table, that alone is worth it.” And make no mistake, with legalization dropping cannabis prices across the board, efficiency is the name of the game.
Greg Forkash is the owner of Trim Butler, a trimmer rental company based in Medford, Oregon, and he often tells his clients that “if hand-trimming gets your bud to 100 percent, a trimming machine will get you to 80 percent.” The difference being, the trimming machine is a fraction of the cost of hiring labor. “If you were paying $100,00 a year for trimming, now you’re paying $20,000,” he said.
But let’s say you feel your yield is small enough that you aren’t spending tens of thousands trimming manually. There are unpowered options for those who aren’t interested in renting an automated trimmer, like the Trimbag. “It’s a little more than $300, and can process two pounds every ten minutes,” Forkash said. “But it’s all by hand, you put your dry bud in the tub and shake it up, and the bag trims it.”
That carries across other post-harvest tasks, like de-bucking and sorting. “I don’t carry everything because not everyone has $25,000 to spend on a de-bucker,” explained Forkash. There’s the bucket de-budder as well, a plastic attachment for the standard five-gallon bucket which plucks the buds from the stem as you pull the branch through. It makes a lot of sense if you have a lot of de-bucking to do, but aren’t prepared to drop a few thousand dollars to fully automate the task.
If there’s one common thread among grower-serving retailers, it is that there’s no one trimmer that’s right for everybody, but there is almost certainly at least one machine that’s suited to your needs. “Asking which is the best trimmer is like walking into a hardware store and asking what the best tool is,” said Casey Barkmeier, owner of Green Harvest Supply Company in Portland, Oregon.
He explained that factors such as the size of your grow, whether you’re trimming wet or dry, and what you plan to do with your trim, can all determine which trimmer is best for you. You might be best off with a small trimmer, one of the table-top models that cost a few thousand dollars, or it might make more sense to invest in a larger unit that will accommodate your expected growth.
Barkmeier likes to encourage his growing clients to have the goal of having the shortest ‘blade time’ possible. “Even if you’re hand-trimming, you want the scissors on the product as little as possible,” he said. “Because you are removing trichomes, every machine is built with the goal of getting the bud in, getting it out, getting it trimmed. If it’s not in the right humidity range, the bud will get trimmed, but it will also sit in the machine a lot longer.”
That’s because if you’re trimming dry, the amount of moisture remaining in your buds is a huge factor in determining how swiftly and smoothly your trimmer will run. With more and more growers choosing to trim dry, LeBlanc finds that when a grower hates their trimmer, a lot of the time it’s because their bud isn’t dry enough. “Every trimmer has its own butter zone, an optimal range of moisture where the machine works best,” he said.
Renting a trimmer is costlier than buying a machine outright in the long run, but many growers choose to rent for a variety of reasons. “What I’ve found is that people really like rentals because they pick it up and it’s clean, it’s been maintained, it’s sharp, and it’s ready to go,” Barkmeier said. “Harvest time is such a stressful time, and my customers like that I’m taking trouble off their plate. They don’t have to maintain the machine, and if it breaks down in the field, they have my cell phone number and can call me 24/7.”
Many of these companies will also apply the cost of the first rental to the purchase price of the unit, encouraging growers to try it out before they buy it. Forkash had some advice for anyone trying out a trimming machine for the first time. “You want to start small and play with it because all weed is different and will act differently,” he said.
Leaf elasticity and bud weight are both directly affected by moisture content, so it’s no surprise that trimming machines have an optimal moisture range. Too much moisture content and the trimmer won’t get as clean and thorough a cut. Too little moisture content and the bud will suffer greater damage and trichome loss on its way through.
If you decide to buy outright, be aware that it’s very important to clean and maintain your trimming machines. “A big thing I find when people have had less than desirable results, they are not cleaning the machine as they go,” Barkmeier said. “I tell people it’s automated, not automatic. If they do their research, and they’re willing to do the work and the maintenance though, it brings processing costs down to pennies on the dollar, and that’s a fact.”
Most manufacturers will provide instructions on how to clean their machines, as it differs from machine to machine. Some want you to wipe the machine down with isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. Others recommend going over the machine with a power-washer. It’s a good idea to take their advice, not just because it’ll drastically improve the lifetime of your investment, but because it cuts down on the risk of cross-contamination.
“You have to get into every corner,” warns Barkmeier, “powdery mildew can hide in the head of a bolt.” Like a number of retail outlets serving cannabis growers, Green Harvest rents trimmers to their clientele. No small part of that service is meticulously maintaining all of his rental stock so that if one of his clients has spider mites (heavens forbid!), it won’t reach any of the others.
Another part of investing in a trimming machine which you won’t want to overlook is the support package that comes with it. Will the manufacturer overnight you a replacement part in the event of a breakdown? It may not be at the front of your mind when you’re on the showroom floor, but it is worth considering. You definitely don’t want to find out the hard way, halfway through wet trimming your crop on a Thursday afternoon.
Then you need to take into account the workflow, the space you’re going to trim in, and how many employees you’ll have available at the time. If you don’t have the space to hang dry, you might find that you have an easier time trimming wet and clearing the space for drying afterward. Does your existing harvest schedule and drying setup work best with a batch trimmer or a continuous feed trimmer?
Then there’s the question of what you’re going to do with your trim. If you’re using it as cattle feed, you probably don’t care about the condition it’s in, but if you’re planning to process it, you’ll want some control over how fine it’s cut.
“Anything with a compelled blower pulls the trim through the blower, but it also pulverizes it,” cautioned Sweet. “When the trim gets chewed up, it can pulp some of the chlorophyll and the plant material throughout the trichomes. That makes it harder for the grower to extract and separate different compounds.” In that case, you might want to invest in a trimmer that has variable speeds for the cutting mechanism, or variable suction power, for greater control.
Then, if you’re trimming dry, how are you drying your bud? “Drying nets create flat spots if they aren’t rotated properly, or the airflow isn’t correct,” said Sweet. “That flat spot on the bud won’t trim in an autotrimmer, so there are a lot of variables that affect the outcome.”
Last, but not least, how big is your business now, and how big will it be next year? If you know your canopy is going to double next year, you could invest in a bigger trimmer than you need right now to meet expected demand.
If, on the other hand, you’re looking to be the sole purveyor of a particular strain, then you might want to prioritize where trimming fits into your curing schedule. “A lot of farmers skip curing, it’s what comes of legalization when people have to sell so quickly,” Sweet said. “If they plan a curing period into their timeline, and know they’re not going to sell that product until it’s finished off-gassing, they’re going to end up with a better product, a more consistent product, and a better reputation.”
This market has already become drastically more competitive than it was just a few years ago, and it shows no signs of stopping. For growers looking to stay ahead of the curve, how and when you trim will likely play a key role in how you lay out your space and your equipment purchases. If you don’t give a thought to trimming now, you may find yourself trimming profits away instead.