November 2021's Featured Agrologist is Sarah Hirschfeld, AAg, of Okanagan Branch (District 2)

I have written the below to reflect my work over the last few years; however, a disclaimer is that I recently resigned a couple of weeks ago to return my roots to the earth. I am currently in transition to my six-acre farm in Golden, BC. Along with my partner, I am designing and populating an ecologically integrated site with diverse medicinal plants, fungi, and perennials.

What are your areas of practice? What is your expertise?

I am an agro-ecologist with expertise in permaculture and controlled environment cannabis horticulture.

Why did you choose the career in which you are currently?

Fortuitous timing. I have always been fascinated by medicinal plants but did not know how to translate that passion into a professional career. I completed my Master's in Plant Agriculture shortly before cannabis was legalized for use in Canada, and the pathway suddenly became clear. As a scientist, this is an open field where every question is fair because every answer is helpful to someone. This career has also provided me with a platform to advocate for a historically misunderstood crop.

What do you do in a typical workday or week?

As a horticultural scientist for a controlled environment cannabis research and development facility, I engage in every aspect of trial planning, approvals, execution, and reporting. I evaluate new trial ideas and advise the protocol author regarding facility logistics and scheduling, raw material quality control and procurement, and scientific congruency.

I collect plant and environment response measures for ongoing trials in our ten production rooms and two nursery rooms using the digital data collection system I designed and implemented. Each week I present recent trial photos and observations to partnering scientists from across North America to inform them of trial progress and discuss promising leads for the next round.

Describe a challenge encountered in your career and how you resolved it.

I was hired in 2019 to support a multi-national partnership between a leading agricultural input manufacturer (Hawthorne Gardening Company, a subsidiary of Scott's Miracle-Gro) and a licensed cannabis producer (The Flowr Corporation) in opening and operationalizing the first privately held dedicated cannabis production research station.  There was no road map—every aspect of operations needed to be customized to satisfy scientific and regulatory requirements.

I began by collaborating with both companies to revise and implement Standard Operating Procedures intended for large-scale uniform cultivation and Good Research Practices designed for other crops to satisfy our unique needs. We opened our doors six months into the COVID pandemic, which meant that simple things like hiring outside contractors were limited or entirely suspended. There was only one solution available: elbow grease and determination.

With such a small team on-site, we all needed to participate in every aspect of operationalization, including environmental controls validation, propagation, cultivation, inventory management, quality assurance and control, procurement, furniture building, and sanitation. I taught my team how to use digital software (Smartsheet) for project management, trial scheduling, and data collection to track and respond flexibly to rapidly adapting operations. In the first year after opening our doors, we successfully conducted and analyzed over 25 trials investigating the role of cultural practices, lighting technology, grow media, nutrients, and pest control products on cannabis yield and quality when grown to completion.

Would you please share some favourite bonus "perks" or experiences from your career?

As a home grower, I have loved seeing the inside perspective on how agricultural inputs are invented and refined. Our R&D facility grew and processed over 10 000 plants across 25 trials, ten flower rooms, and over 100 unique treatments in the first year of operation. Watching the plants grow and adjust to each intervention created a rapid and unique learning curve that could not have been tolerated in a standard production grow. A self-taught photographer, the 20,000 images I have collected in the last year have greatly improved my technique and confidence and are skills I am keen to continue to develop. 

Trials are often designed to support input or technology development and thus are analyzed individually. As the primary data collector and keeper, I love to "spelunk" my way through informal meta-analyses, searching for and usually finding unexpected and intriguing trends. This approach was what I was most excited about in taking this position because common cannabis knowledge is rife with anecdotes and miserly sample sizes. Analyzing across trials was frequently helpful in optimizing our operations, infrastructure, and future trial designs.


Tuesday, November 30, 2021