With cannabis sales skyrocketing during the COVID-19 outbreak, keeping the supply chain alive and uninterrupted has been an ongoing challenge for the industry. Unlike other industries that can work remotely, those in the frontlines of cannabis cultivation do not have that option as plants must be tended to on a regular basis to ensure steady production levels while meeting surging demand.
Front Range Biosciences, an agtech company focused on the breeding and production of industrial cannabis/hemp, is one of these companies. To prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the 110-member staff, Front Range has put together an emergency plan that includes strict cleaning protocols and staggering shifts to maintain social distancing. But there have been challenges. Masks, for instance, have been in short supply.
“We’ve actually had a number of masks that are part of our inventory,” said Dr. Jonathan Vaught, CEO of Front Range Biosciences, which has facilities in Wisconsin, California and Colorado. “We donated some of our N95 masks to our local emergency crew. They were having a hard time getting them. The only masks readily available are the new cloth masks. When people are working inside the greenhouses, we’re asking them to wear some form of mask if available.” Bandanas are used as backups if none are forthcoming, he added.
Challenges also abound for CannaSafe, a top cannabis testing company in California whose clients include some of the state’s top brands and producers such as Raw Garden, Cresco Labs and Lord Jones. Although CannaSafe employs similar safety guidelines as Front Range, there has been significant attrition among the workforce.
“Fifteen to twenty percent of our workforce has called in sick,” said Aaron Riley, CEO of CannaSafe. “If workers don’t feel comfortable, we’ve updated our policy to support extended sick leave. But there’s more pressure on the remaining people.” As a result, CannaSafe has slashed its work hours.
No surprise the pandemic has affected the bottom line. According to Riley, there’s been a “10 percent drop” from what CannaSafe would normally expect in April in terms of testing and revenue.
Front Range has struggled with other problems . There have been delays in shipment, both overseas and domestic. These disruptions have caused companies to get “creative” in navigating the supply chain and keeping the agriculture industry moving forward, said Dr. Vaught. After all, “farmers need to plant.”
Ironically, there is the proverbial silver lining that benefits Front Range. Although the company does work with legal cannabis companies in California, the bulk of its operations, Dr. Vaught underscored, is focused on hemp, which was federally legalized in late 2018 with the passage of the Farm Bill. Unlike cannabis companies, hemp businesses are eligible for federal funding as provided by the CARES Act, which provides emergency relief to COVID-19-battered companies.
Expressing sympathy for the cannabis companies Front Range works with that have been excluded from the federal aid, Dr. Vaught is also quick to note, “We’re very happy to see the stimulus.”