Photos by Steve Galicza

In the cannabis industry, where margins are tight and legal and logistical challenges are the norm, cultivators are constantly looking to improve efficiency and productivity. GreenSeal Cannabis Co. looked to new heights for a solution to expanding its business: by growing cannabis vertically.

Based in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, GreenSeal Cannabis operates a bold six-level vertical grow as part of its 28,000-square-foot operation — half of which is used for cultivation, the other half for supporting infrastructure, according to Phil Niles, executive vice president.

“Our first room was two levels, our second room was five levels, and our latest room is six levels … under a 20-foot ceiling,” Niles says. “It just shows that evolution [as we’ve grown up] and figured things out.”

Maximizing Square Footage

Founded in 2014, GreenSeal Cannabis broke ground on its new facility in 2015. The indoor operation was completed and licensed in 2017, and the company began growing and selling cannabis later that year.

“At the time, licensed square footage was so expensive in Canada,” Niles says. “Southwestern Ontario, where we’re based, has some of the most expensive land prices in North America. The cannabis company costs [required] to get licensed and set up were huge. It was so expensive.”

Facing those daunting costs, GreenSeal Cannabis shifted its perspective upward to maximize its capacity with vertical racking systems. According to Cannabis Business Times’ “State of the Lighting Market Report,” the number of cultivators using tiers in both the vegetative and flowering stages has increased during the past three years, with 38% of participants indicating they grow vertically in veg and 20% in flower in 2020. However, only 1% noted they are taking the GreenSeal approach and using more than five tiers in their flower rooms.

“We looked up at this big, cavernous space because our building here has 20-foot ceilings,” Niles says. “We were like, wait a second. We’re paying to buy it, to outfit it, to heat it, to cool it, to clean it, to license it, to secure it—we’re paying for all these different things and it’s sitting there. That was sort of the ‘aha’ moment where we said, ‘We need to stop thinking about square footage; we need to start thinking about cubic footage.’ And that was the turning point.”

GreenSeal started with a two-level vertical grow room before advancing to five and now six levels. An eight-level veg room is in the works, and GreenSeal and has realized improved efficiencies along the way.

“If we take a step back and compare it to our first room, which is a two-level room, that room was kicking off 400 kilos (nearly 900 pounds) per year,” Niles says. “Now [our latest flower room] is kicking off 1,500 or 1,600 kilos per year on six levels. So even though we tripled our number of levels, we quadrupled the harvest size.”

While GreenSeal uses a number of metrics to gauge its business, the company says grams per watt is the most telling.

“Everyone calculates their own metrics within cannabis cultivation,” Niles says. “We love grams per watt because it’s probably the best measure of how much the plant is taking its energy source and converting it into the ultimate biomass that you’re looking for at the end. Why are you powering your plants? You’re powering them to get that yield. So why wouldn’t you do that calculation? It makes perfect sense.”

Innovating With R&D

With six levels of vertical cultivation, GreenSeal Cannabis gets about 90 harvests per year, providing ample opportunity to fine-tune its production processes and efficiencies. Niles credits the company’s “foundational” commitment to research and development as key to GreenSeal’s continuous improvement.

“In one year at GreenSeal, you get 25 years of harvest experience (compared to a typical greenhouse operation), which is partly where a lot of this R&D comes from,” Niles says. “We just have so many opportunities for learning.”

Through all those harvests, GreenSeal’s growers are constantly innovating and exploring ways to improve the company’s mix of cannabis products. However, none of that continuous improvement would be possible without access to testing and lab results, says Chad Morphy, master grower and co-founder at GreenSeal Cannabis.

“The biggest thing that’s given us the ability to push things a little bit further is the fact that we can now [access] cannabinoid and terpene test results,” Morphy says. “The old system was very much based on appeal, flavor or a certain thing we were looking for at the time, but it’s become much more scientific for us now. We can still use our sensory experiences of smell and feel and density, but we can add on these layers of being able to really dive into 150 different terpenes that are there.”

Through its in-house genetic selection program, GreenSeal selectively breeds strains with a focus on strong tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) levels and interesting terpene profiles, including cultivars like Chemdawg Ultra, Mango Kush and Gorilla Berry—the last being a “unicorn” in-house strain unique to GreenSeal.

The decision-making process of what to cultivate, however, involves a number of factors, including selecting plants specifically for their vertical grow system and eliminating those with weaknesses, Morphy says.

“We do a very custom light ramping routine or light schedule we’ll call it. Part of that has to do with height. And even if they don’t quite match our system, we normally are able to manipulate them through topping or through other methods in order to try to keep them a certain size,” Morphy says.

According to Niles and Morphy, GreenSeal Cannabis is best known for its premium flower and pre-rolls and, therefore, has been able to improve its products through the company’s research and development.

“For something that you’re going to put into a pre-roll, you’re going to want something that’s a lot higher in a sesquiterpene profile because it will hold the flavor throughout the entire joint better than something that’s a monoterpene where, when you light it, the first bit of heat that goes through tastes great for two pulls, and then it doesn’t taste great for the rest of the joint,” Morphy says.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of GreenSeal’s in-house breeding and genetic selection programs is the company’s ability to adapt and grow alongside the industry and consumer preferences.

“So far, at least, this industry is not like the beer industry,” Niles says of cannabis consumers. “If you drink Budweiser, that’s what you drink, and people don’t generally stray too much. Cannabis isn’t like that. People want to try different things. They want to explore new terpene combinations and new cannabinoid preferences and things like that, so we’re always looking for what’s next.”

Above: Phil Niles (left), executive vice president, and Chad Morphy, master grower and co-founder of GreenSeal Cannabis

Conquer Vertical Obstacles

While vertical growing can be fruitful, there are dozens of challenges that come with this cultivation approach. Niles says GreenSeal had to tackle numerous obstacles to implement vertical growing.

“One of the first problems that we had to solve with growing vertical was warm air and humidity rising,” Niles says. “How do you make sure that the plants at the top of the room are getting the same temperature and humidity as the plants at the bottom? You really have to keep a very close eye on building infrastructure and automation [issues], because if the power goes out and humidity spikes for an hour, you’ll kill the entire room. There are a lot of risks that come with this [growing method].”

Yet another logistical challenge of a vertical grow is irrigation and nutrient delivery to plants in the top rows.

“You pump water up; well, gravity is going to force that water down,” Niles says. “So how do you make it so the water and nutrient delivery at the top is the same at the bottom? It’s part engineering challenges and part physics and math that you have to work out. Working with trusted, talented third parties can be really helpful on this front.

“We run a hydroponic system, which naturally uses a lot less water,” Niles added. “We see some people in vertical growth have a tendency to overwater, and they’re flushing thousands of dollars down the drain every month from either wasted nutrients or, probably more critically, wasted time, because it takes time to water six levels of product. It’s definitely a facet that people need to be quite mindful of.”

When it comes to lighting, GreenSeal Cannabis opts for LED lights as opposed to high-pressure sodium (HPS) or metal halide (MH) fixtures. In fact, before settling on a lighting solution, the company partnered with a local research university to publish a peer-reviewed study of cannabis lighting intensity.

“It’s nearly impossible to [grow vertically] under HPS or metal halide lights because they simply give off too much heat,” Niles says. “You’ll cook your plants [unless] you use LED lights.”

With these potential equipment challenges in mind, Niles suggests having “redundancy on top of redundancy” to best prepare for unexpected failures.

Right: GreenSeal Cannabis has three strains currently on the market: Chemdawg Ultra, Mango Kush and the company’s “unicorn,” Gorilla Berry (pictured at right).

“With temperature, humidity and lighting, we have four fail-safes in place—backup generators, automated dimming of lights, etc.,” Niles says. “If the power’s reduced for some reason, automated alerts are sent to a few different people who live in the area to come in and [fix] it.”

GreenSeal Cannabis also considered how vertical growing would impact the company’s workforce of 41 employees, all of whom are full-time, with 18 to 20 devoted to cultivation.

“I would say every one of our employees would rather work on levels two through six than level one,” Morphy says. “Because [on level one,] you’ve got to do a lot of stuff where you’re bent or squatted down. Being able to adjust the [aerial lift] to not hurt your back is a really big benefit. [Our employees] don’t seem to mind working at heights, and we do everything very, very safely with all the safety guards in place.”

Not only can vertical growing enable employees to work more productively, but it also can allow management to realize labor savings, too.

“One thing people are always surprised about is how few employees we actually need,” Niles says. “Our production team is only about 20 or so people to kick off about 3,500 kilos or so a year. So it’s a very efficient labor model. Scheduling is a huge part of what we do here. We don’t use any temps. We don’t use any part-time people. We’ve exactly scheduled our facility to make full use of the resources that are there.”

Looking ahead

As the cannabis industry continues to evolve, GreenSeal Cannabis plans to continue improving its vertical growing processes, with Niles noting that “the sky is the limit.”

“There’s no reason it has to stop at six [levels],” Niles says. “We stopped at six for two reasons. One, our ceiling height is 20 feet, so you can only do so much. From a labor perspective, [common aerial lifts] only go up to about 19 feet. Could you do 30 [levels]? Yeah. It’s just an engineering question at that point; it’s not really a question of can it be done? It’s just whether it’s economical for you to do it.”

While GreenSeal Cannabis has “grown up” tremendously within just a few years, Niles admits that the company— and the industry as a whole—is barely scratching the surface of what’s to come.

“If you fast-forward 10 years in this industry, there are things that will become conventional wisdom for operations and infrastructure, that people will say, ‘Of course you should do that, that makes perfect sense,’ but people aren’t doing [those things] today,” Niles says. “That’s why I’m so excited about pursuing [innovation] at GreenSeal. Vertical growing is just a piece of that puzzle. There’s so much unknown about this plant, and every day we’re learning more.”

Zach Mentz is senior editor of Cannabis Business Times (CBT) and Cannabis Dispensary (CD). This article originally ran in the June 2021 issue of CBT.