How to Test Your Hemp Like a Pro
Welcome back to Growing With North Carolina Farms! In Episode 4 we interview Jeff Sullivan from New Bloom Labs with a focus on hemp compliance, preparing your test sample, mailing your hemp safely, and other best practices.
Some of the highlights include:
- How do you cut and prepare a hemp sample to get the most accurate readings?
- How do you mail your hemp without it getting damaged or confiscated?
- What happens once your hemp gets to the lab?
- What is hemp compliance and what do those lab certifications mean?
- What’s the difference between total THC and Delta-9-THC?
- How do you vet a COA?
- What are microbial testing and mycotoxin testing options, and are they right for you?
Grab a cup of coffee and get comfortable. You’re about to listen in to a practical, actionable 30-minute conversation filled with hemp wisdom from:
Mick– One of our owners, and our Director of Business Strategy
Jeff- Director of Sales for New Bloom Labs in Chattanooga, TN
If you aren’t able to listen, we’ve provided the full transcript below.
Mick: Today I’m joined by Jeff from New Bloom Labs to talk about how to take the perfect hemp sample for cannabinoid testing. You can connect with Jeff over at https://www.newbloomlabs.com/
Mick: Jeff, welcome.
Jeff: Yeah, thank you Mick. I appreciate it.
How to Prepare a Hemp Sample
Mick: So, in testing we’re often confused and we get lots of questions about: How big should a cutting be? How big should that bloom be? Where should I take it? How should I ship it? Should it be dry? Should it be wet? All that. Can you talk to me about how to submit a good sample to a lab? What are some of those pitfalls? What does that perfect sample look like from a lab standpoint?
Jeff: Then we are going to talk just regular potency test. Your 13 pound cannabinoid potency test. I need two grams of dry weight. Here is a really good example.. and I measured this out a little while ago of what two grams…I’m going to tilt my screen, just a little, forward.
Mick: Ok. So, palm full basically. I noticed there you’ve got stem and leaves. It’s not a trimmed flower at this point.
Jeff: No, it’s not. This is just somebody stuck their hand in a super sack. So, you can send me a nice big palm full of biomass. Stick your hand in the middle of that super sack. Get it out. Nice big palm full and that will be a perfect example.
Mick: So, what happens if I send you one gram and it’s too low? You’re stuck, right? You are going to have to call me and we’re going to have to re-ship?
Jeff: I’ve got to call you and you’ve got to ship me some more and your sample is going to sit there until I get the rest of your sample.
Mick: I know you can do terp profiles and that sort of thing.
Mick: Each test. Do you do samples or can you reuse that original? If I send you four grams, can you do a potency and a terp profile out of it or do you need…?
Jeff: So when we get the order form and you look at it it will tell you above each test how much I need. I need two grams and for the terpene profile I need two grams, so four. I need four grams to do both of those tests.
Mick: Yeah, so, you’ve got the size of the bud. What about the placement? Where do I take that sample? Do I take it from the top of the plant? The middle of the plant?
Jeff: Sure, so there are two very separate trains of thought with this. One is: Am I testing to see if I’m legally compliant? The other one is: Am I testing to see what the monetary value of my crop is? Your first test and first thought should always be: Am I legally compliant? Because you don’t want to have to destroy that crop.
With that, what you want to do is cut me about four inches off of a top center cola and ship that to me. That’s going to be the most potent part of your plant. You want me to test the most potent part of the plant before your state comes out to test. That way you know where you are, and you’re not going to be surprised by their test results. So that’s going to be your first move: What’s my potency to make sure I’m legal?
If I’m legal, what’s the real potency of my entire plant? If I have a price for my biomass. So, if you can cut me two inches for a top center cola, two inches from a bud that is in the middle, and two inches form a bud that’s toward the bottom of the plant and put them all together in the same bag.
I’ll homogenize them and mix them up real good when they get in here and we’ll run a test on that. That’s going to give you a COA with results that will tell you: That’s my top center cola for legal compliance. It was 14% CBD. Now that I’ve tested my three different culls from three different parts of the plant — and you can put some leaves in there too, which is a good idea for your other test — and it tested at 12.5%, so I’m not going to be fooled when I go to market with my material and tell people I have 14% CBD to sell when it is really 12%.
Mick: Yeah, that is great information. You’re trying to arrive at an aggregate number. What’s the average throughout the plant?
Jeff: A lot of buyers are going to send off to their own lab that they are familiar with. So, if that particular person buying your biomass reaches into your super sack and sends it off to his lab and comes out with 12%, we don’t want you to be surprised by that when you thought it was really 14%.
Mick: You mention the leaves. You would defoliate for the aggregate test to see what your value is. Would you defoliate on your compliancy test? How does that affect your ratios with legal doubt?
Jeff: For a state compliance test, typically, they don’t take any leaves. They just take the top cola. It depends on how your state operates. It depends on the guy taking the sample. He might cut some leaves and stick in there with it. Typically, they are just cutting that top center cola out of there.
How to Mail Hemp for Testing
Mick: Alright, how about drying? Is it better for a grower to dry it himself or to send it to you? Have you seen differences on that side as far as ratios and that sort of thing?
Jeff: Yeah, well, sure, if you test it completely fresh off the vine, your potency levels are going to be lower because of the moisture that is in there. It is going to dilute your potency, so that’s why it is always best to test dry.
You can cut me a fresh sample, let it dry overnight and ship it to me with the materials in my shipping kit — which we will get to in a second. If you’re shipping a sample that you’ve only dried overnight, you have to overnight that sample to me. We can’t afford for those samples to be in a U.S. postal truck or van this summer when it is 170 degrees in that van and have a chance that the fresh wet material will start to decompose and decarboxylate even.
You can send me a fresh sample. When I say fresh, I mean cut it Monday morning and ship it to me on Tuesday. You have to overnight it. Oh, never ever ever put it in plastic. Plastic will — especially with fresh materials — plastic will create this greenhouse effect and by the time it gets to me it’s like mushy pudding and it’s not testable.
So, you have to put it in paper bags, which we will supply for you. Dry material- you can put it in plastic. You can put it in paper bags. It’s fine. So, you can dry overnight and send to me or you can dry three or four days and send it to me. It’s up to you, but if I get a wet sample, we have dryers here at the lab and we’ll get it down to the right moisture level that we need to test for. We don’t charge extra for drying. Some labs do. Fresh samples are fine. You just have to overnight them and put them in a paper bag.
Mick: Yeah, we had an issue early on where we had dried some flower and the smell was so strong that it got lost in the postal service. Someone had an interesting weekend with our CBD flower. So drying, it did give us the opportunity to put it into some vacuum seal bags that would hold in that smell, but then we did some fresh stuff in vacuum seal and that almost was catastrophic on your end early on.
Jeff: Don’t ever vacuum seal fresh material because it will…there is still enough air in there for the greenhouse effect to start working. We have to call people multiple times a week. I have to call them and say please don’t vacuum pack and send me fresh material because it got to me and it’s not testable.
It literally looks like a green pudding by the time it gets to me and you don’t want to have to go cut more. You are just slowing everything down for you. Don’t vacuum pack fresh material. Let it dry for 24 hours and then ship it off to me. Of course dry material is completely different. It is fine to ship however you want.
Hemp Testing Best Practices
Mick: I know this is more of a legal side, but are there best practices from a postal service standpoint? Do you need your license? Because you’ve got the test samples, you might not have a COA yet. Is there anything that you’ve seen as far as best practices of what to put in that box?
Jeff: Yes, always great to put your license in there. It is not required. The only thing required by you according to federal law is you have to keep up with your shipping records, so you have to keep your shipping receipts for a number of years in case the postal service wants to come by and check your shipping receipts.
It is always good to put your license in there. It helps in case they have an issue and of course, it’s always good. You’ll have my order form in there. Now the order form has our phone number and it tells, if there is an issue with it, they know where it is going. They see that it is going to a lab and my phone number is on there. They can call us if they have any questions about the legalities of this particular shipment.
We went through a lot of that this past fall. We talked with the U.S. Postal Service, FedEx, and UPS. That brings me to this. Do not use FedEx or UPS. Please use the U.S. Postal Service for everything that you ship to me. They have been given directives that shipping hemp is perfectly ok. They have been fantastic. FedEx, we went through the ringer with them and ended up not doing business with them anymore. UPS is ok sometimes and sometimes they are not. USPS is the way to go.
Mick: Yeah, we’re a big FedEx shipper on our ornamental side and so, we’ve tried to use some of that influence to help push the envelope, but so far it’s just out of our hands. They are going to have to make their decisions. If you’re a FedEx shipper, they can actually revoke your account if you are outside of the terms of service. So, be careful with that.
Jeff: They sent us a letter cutting us off completely. We lawyered up on them and we learned very quickly not to lawyer up on FedEx because you will never “out lawyer” FedEx ever. Our lawyer said, “Boys, call it a day.” It just didn’t go anywhere, but USPS has been fantastic.
Mick: FedEx is a good shipper and we use them a lot, but this is not the time to use them with hemp.
Let’s take a look at your order form. I think it’s a good time because I have a specific question. When I am submitting a sample to you as a grower, it is really really important that I get that information — the address and the name on the sample and all that correct — because that becomes the official document at that point. Correct?
Jeff: It does. This becomes the official document showing what your intent is. Your intent is to get a COA to show that you are legally compliant. So, it is very important to write legibly your contact name and everything else is on there. And company name.
For you, if you put Superior Hemp Clones in this box, this is what you’ll be referenced as with us from that point forward. So, if you call me to ask me a question. You’ll say, “Hey Jeff, this is Mick with Superior Hemp Clones.” I’ll know how to look you up. I’ll look you up, not under Mick, but under Superior Hemp Clones.
What Happens in the Lab
Mick: We’ve talked through: We’ve got the sample. We’ve pulled it from the right place. We’ve got the right size. We’ve got your order form filled out. When it gets to you, what happens?
Jeff: They are picked up. We bring them back here to the lab. We then take them to our intake room. Those samples are opened up. Then the chemistry starts. We look at everything that came in and we’re like, what controls do we have to run today? Controls are, if we are running a salve for a particular client, we have a salve that we keep here that we know is 250mg that’s in that salve of CBD.
We pick out all the controls we need. We run them through the instruments. Then the chemistry starts on: Do we have to dry this sample? Do we have to grind this sample? Do we have to chop this one up? Do we have to put it on the shaker? I mean, what steps do we have to start taking to get these samples ready for the analyzer?
So, all those things take place in the morning and once we get everything situated and all the chemistry is done, then they go into the particular piece of machinery that will run those tests. You know, the down and dirty. It comes in. There is a chain of custody that we follow, then the chemistry starts on it and they get in the analyzer in the afternoon and we are off to the races on them.
Mick: There are two kinds of machines, right? There is the HPLC and there is the Gas Chromatography. I see a lot of people batting that back and forth online. Walk us through that debate?
Jeff: Yeah, so, the simplest way to explain the difference between HPLC and GC. HPLC stands for High Performance Liquid Chromatography. The GC stands for Gas Chromatography. Gas Chromatography is a little older technology. It has been around longer. People did potency with the GC. The Gas Chromatography machine.
Then the HPLC came around and they are much more accurate. We have both machines. The HPLC measures distance traveled with liquid. The travel time will tell you what the potency is and with the Gas Chromatography is the same thing only it tells you how fast gas travels. So, without getting into too much science with that, those are really the biggest difference.
So, here’s the main reason we have these two pieces of equipment. With the HPLC we do potency. Your cannabinoids are tested with HPLC. With the GC, we test terpenes and residual solvents. That is why we have a GC. It is really good at sniffing out terpenes and it’s really good at sniffing out what might be left over in an oil or a crude. It is great at that, so that’s what we use it for.
We also have other pieces of equipment. We have a mass spectrometer. We have two different mass spectrometers. One does pesticides and one does heavy metals. We also have what is called a Q-PCR. That is a machine that does microbials and mycotoxins.
Hemp Compliance and Certifications
Mick: Wow! Ok, so you opened up a can of worms on a lot of stuff there I want to break down. Let’s take one step back and talk about from a lab standpoint, I see a couple of different certifications out there. I see people who are ISO certified and I see DEA certification. Of course that’s part of this new rule that got kind of postponed. What are those certifications? What do they mean? How do you get them? Walk me through that.
Jeff: Alright, well we will start with the ISO certification. Basically, it is a worldwide accrediting board. It established a high bar. When you hear that someone is ISO certified, what that means is they have jumped through the hoops and they are playing inside of a box and as long as they play by the rules inside this box, you can be ISO certified.
There are very specific rules that you have to follow and again, it is a high bar. It is not just somebody who has an analyzer in their basement who is running tests. You have to have very specific standard operating procedures that are written and then certified by a certified board, which is the ISO board. You play within those rules and that is how you become ISO certified.
Mick: In my world it is a lot like the organic certification. I have an outside group who is going to read my farm plan. They are going to come in and do inspections. They are going to make sure that I’m following the rules set forth in that certification.
Jeff: You follow their rules man and as long as you do that… they do come and I think, you have to recertify every year and they come by to look at what you are doing and following your own rules and their rules.
Mick: So, ISO is about procedure. DEA is more about security. Am I right about that?
Jeff: Yeah, you are 100% right. DEA is about security and disposal are the two things. To be DEA certified — which we are — they want to know the security of your building. What are your procedures if someone sends you a sample that is 3% THC?
As we know, in the recreational world, that is pretty low marijuana, but in the industrial hemp world, that is really high. So, that would be considered a schedule one drug, if it is over .3. What are our procedures on disposal if something comes in hot? That is how you become DEA certified. You have to show security and you have to show that you have proper disposal techniques.
Mick: With the DEA certification, I’ve talked to people — and we were the same way early on before we really understood how it worked — you are worried that if I submit it to a DEA lab and it comes back hot, now I’m going to be on some government list somewhere and they are going to come find me. Is there any back channel? Are you sharing information or is it really just more about disposal?
Jeff: Yeah, we get asked that question a lot. We do a lot of shows all over the country and that is one of the first questions, in certain areas, that people will ask you, “Hey man, I see you are DEA certified. Do you have to report that?” The answer is, “Absolutely not.”
There is no direct link between our lab and a DEA agent. We do not have to let them know if a sample comes in hot. There is no reporting. There is no paperwork. There is no phone call that needs to be made. The only people that know you came in hot is our lab and you. That’s it.
Total THC and Delta-9-THC
Mick: Let’s dive into the COA. I think you have one that we can share. We can use it because there are a lot of questions on the COA and you hit a few of them as we were talking earlier and I’d like to dive a little bit deeper into that. What is the difference between total THC and delta-9-THC? Why are they both reported? Why are they different?
Jeff: Delta-9 THC is the psychotropic chemical compound found in the hemp or cannabis plant. The delta-9, if you flame it, decarboxylate it — flaming it would be decarboxylating plant material. If you put a flame to it, you convert what is called THCA. It’s THC with an acid compound connected to it and you’ll see that under the analights. It’s the first one.
You are basically burning off the acid and converting that THCA into delta-9. Delta-9 gives you the high in the cannabis plant. THC on its own does not. Only the THCA burning off the acid, decarboxylating it into the delta-9, that’s what gets you high. That’s why there has been this — state by state they are different. Do you go by total THC or you stay compliant if you are under .3 in delta-9 or are you compliant if you are under .3 in total?
How to Vet a COA
Mick: As a lab, do you have any pointers — as people are looking at genetics, they always want to see a COA — do you have any pointers for people who are trying to vet? We see 10 or 15 COAs in a day sometimes, it feels like. Are there things that draw your eye immediately as a lab guy?
Jeff: Yeah, there are things that will certainly stick out. For example, if you see a total THC of .127 and you see a total CBD of 16.5, there is something fishy about that to me. That ratio, to my knowledge, doesn’t exist. So, when I say a ratio, what I mean is all genetics have a ratio of THC to CBD. Whether it is 25% ratio, 30% ratio or 35%. Whatever that ratio is, it is a ratio between THC and CBD. And they travel at a constant rate.
So that ratio is going to stay 30% or 25% and sometimes when you see a low THC with a really high CBD, if someone can come up with that, more power to them, but I don’t know of many that can have such a low THC and such a high CBD. Does that make sense?
Mick: Yeah, and we’ve seen it too. We’ve seen samples where it comes back and you look at the COA and you think, hmmm, something happened here. Something is off. Because, like you said, you’ll have something like a 50:1 ratio. What I coach people to do is if you see a 50:1 ratio, I want to see three or four weeks at 50:1. I don’t want to see an anomaly. I want to see it over and over.
Jeff: You are 100% right. You want to see that for about four weeks. We like for people to start testing about four weeks after they see a bud about the size of your pinky nail. About three to four weeks after that is when the cannabinoids start getting juicy and active and you can really start to figure out where you are. Then you test every week until you harvest, but you are right. You want to see a consistent 50% ratio. Not just one test that shows you that.
Mick: Let’s go back to the COA. There’s an abbreviation that I get a question about all the time and it is LOQ.
Jeff: That stands for Limit of Quantitation. So, if it was LOQ, that means it was detected, but in such a small amount that we don’t report the number. So, a great way to visualize this is, if you put a mouse on your scales at home to try and weigh him, the scale is not going to move. Well, you know the mouse is there. Obviously, you see him on the scale, but the scale didn’t really move or didn’t move. That is what LOQ is. We know that a little bit is there, but not enough to move the scale. Did that help?
Mick: Yeah, that is a great explanation to visualize. It is just not enough to move the scale, but it does exist. Now that is different from the measure of uncertainty, right? We’re not talking about the same thing.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Two completely different things. Measure of uncertainty — which we don’t have on our COAs right now, but we will have them on our COA very soon — it is just something that is coming into its own as far as reporting.
Two first year hemp states this year are Texas and Georgia and both of their laws are going to require a measure of uncertainty or the MU to be reported on your COA. An MU means that you are not 100% sure that this is exactly what these results should say. So, what percentage would you say that they are off? Five hundredths of a percent? Is it off two tenths of a percent? It’s two tenths either way, plus or minus or five one hundredths, plus or minus.
Mick: Yeah, so to make it kind of easy on the math on this particular COA. If the measure of uncertainty was .05, what we are saying is the total THC could actually be .2 – .3. We are not certain within that range.
Mick: So, .34 would still be within the compliance range because a .5 gets you to a possibility of .29 at that point. With .30 being the compliant number to get everybody on the same page. When you talk about measure of uncertainty, is that per machine or is that lab-wide or is it this particular test potency we are within .05 or whatever it is going to be.
Jeff: Yeah, for compliance, it is only going to be for potency. The reason is because that is the only test for state compliance. For state compliance, the only thing that states really care about is either your total THC or your delta-9 THC. So, the only machine that is going to be relevant is our HPLC because that is what we do potency testing on.
Microbial Testing and Mycotoxins Testing
Mick: One of the things that you mentioned early on when you were talking about HPLC and Gas Chromatography was microbial testing and mycotoxins testing. That is more of an end of harvest kind of thing, so we don’t do it a lot, but I think it is very important for our customers to understand. When should you do that? What is it really testing for? When and what is the timing for all of that? Talk me through those two tests.
Jeff: So, again, microbials are bacteria, mold, and yeast. Those things can occur for a lot of reasons, but mostly because there is moisture. As water is getting into your bud and your bud is getting tighter and tighter, moisture can get trapped in there.
If you don’t have a lot of breeze or if it is cloudy for a few days, all sorts of things can start to happen inside there because the moisture wasn’t able to evaporate. So, all of a sudden, you could end up with some moisture issues in there, which will create the mold and bacteria that could grow in there.
So, you want to do that test as soon as you harvest. You can do it before you harvest to see what the plants in the field look like. Have they been draining? Has the sun been getting to them? The breeze is helping knock out some of that moisture.
Yeah, you can do a microbial test before you harvest. You wouldn’t do a mycotoxin necessarily. A mycotoxin test would be after harvest and after you dried your material to see if there are any of those toxins left behind, if it had mold or bacteria.
Mick: So, a customer who is about to buy some extra flower, you would recommend, at least, a mycotoxin at that point to see…
Jeff: At the very least a mycotoxin. You would probably do both, but at the very least a mycotoxin test to see. Again, the QPCR, we don’t have to grow a culture. It is going to check for the DNA to see if there is any DNA left over in that plant that had any of those toxins still left over in there.
Especially if you are buying 500 pounds of some smokable flower. Man, you want to make sure you have a full panel test before you pull the trigger on a whole lot of smokable flower, which includes the microbials and mycotoxins, absolutely!
Mick: To take it one step back. As a greenhouse grower, which is what we are, is the microbial a preventative? Do you see greenhouse growers doing that every couple of weeks to see if they have any fungus that they need to be treating?
Jeff: Absolutely! Yeah, yeah. Guys that are doing indoor grows? They are testing microbials more than the outdoor guys because it is a little more susceptible. Fans are there blowing, but sure, absolutely. It is a preventative measure. It is worth doing. The majority of outdoor growers wait till harvest before they do those two tests.
Mick: That is great. Jeff, I really appreciate your time today. You answered so many questions. I’d love to do it again.
Jeff: We look forward to it Mick. Thank you so much man. When the new normal returns, get over there. I know you guys are just outside of Charlotte, so I can’t wait to do it and I look forward to seeing all you guys all over the southeast.
Mick: Yeah, look forward to seeing you. Thanks again Jeff.
Jeff: You too. Thanks Mick. Have a good one!