Cannabis Sorters: Maximizing the Value of Your Crop
If you’re a commercial cultivator, you already sort your crop by size; whether you use a mechanical cannabis sorter or simply pick out the best colas, you are — at least to some degree — “grading” your harvest to maximize its value.
But, unless you’re like Matthew Kaplan of the cultivation firm Vertical, you could probably make more money by sorting your flowers more precisely.
As Vertical’s Operations Director, Kaplan has repeatedly evolved his processing strategy to decrease labor costs and increase the selling price of his flower. Now, from the top of the plant to the bottom, Kaplan is generating more revenue per harvest by sorting.
The Surprising Benefit of Sorting
Consumers will always value the aesthetics of larger buds and associate size with quality. That preference leads premium brands to seek out bigger buds. Yet, according to Kaplan, an increasing number of brands want small flowers.
“With our sorter, we’re not giving away the big stuff to the people who only want smalls,” says Kaplan. “And for the brands who want large flowers, they don’t ask us for a discount because there are no small flowers in the bag.”
The definition of “smalls” varies from customer to customer. Some producers want 10mm smalls, while others want 15mm smalls.
Regardless, Kaplan can accommodate the request by easily adjusting the settings on his new sorter.
“We have total uniformity in the bag. We give the customer exactly what they want, and that means we have more bargaining leverage.”
Ultimately, sorting makes the most out of Vertical’s crops: it increases the value of the large flowers and puts the smalls to better use. With the high-value flowers sorted out, the smaller product can go to the extractor or be milled for pre-rolls.
A Big Opportunity for Small Flowers
The per-gram cost of pre-rolls always exceeds the usual price of popcorn flower. However, with a little labor and some branding, small flowers can effectively become the most valuable of the crop. This is another way that dividing out the small flowers can potentially increase their value.
In established markets, the retail price of a one-gram pre-roll exceeds the price of a loose gram by 30% or more. And in 2020, despite the pandemic, pre-roll sales increased by more than 50%, according to market researchers. Most experts expected pre-rolls — which are a historically social way to consume cannabis — to be less popular during quarantine. But the opposite proved true.
Consumers turned to pre-rolls for different reasons during the pandemic, and now they’re smoking them alone rather than in groups. For those buyers, pre-rolls are a way to try new cultivars or brands. For growers, that means starting a pre-roll line is a great way to win customers and market share.
Vertical holds a variety of licenses in California, allowing them to not only wholesale their smalls but also use them for extraction, pre-rolls, and direct sales to consumers. Small flowers are nearly as cannabinoid-rich as the top colas, so they extract well while maintaining the same ratios of terpenes and secondary metabolites. The quality is identical but production costs less.
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The Evolution of Cannabis Sorters
Kaplan chose the Mobius M9 Sorter because he says “it’s twice as fast as similar sorters and easier to use.”
Kaplan also cites the importance of build quality; the team at Vertical has worn out similar machines taking down 400-700 pounds of plants four times per week, so for Kaplan, equipment reliability and labor coordination are paramount.
“Before getting our new sorter, it was too slow and too much labor. If we stole people from another department for trimming and sorting, we’d never make it up because there’s no break,” says Kaplan. Vertical was previously using a barbecue-grate-style sorter.
Sorting and packaging a crop with the grate sorter took four employees about eight hours. They loaded the grate handful-by-handful, and even after Kaplan welded an expansion onto the grate, sorting and packaging was still about a 32-hour task.
In the past few years, the cannabis market has given rise to band-style sorters. This type of sorter uses diverging elastic bands rather than a grate. As the bands move apart, the small flowers drop through first, then the mids, then the larges. They collect in sequential bins below. This design saves more than time — it preserves trichomes that would have been lost to overhandling.
A band-style sorter also enables Kaplan to feed eight pounds of dry flower into the machine in one step. “We’re figuring out our workflow now where it’s one person for eight hours sorting and tying bags, or else four people getting it done in two hours. It’s a massive reduction — we’re using just 25% of the labor we were before.”
Kaplan offers a warning to other growers who are considering a sorter: think about cleanability and ease of use. Sticky trichomes and leaf fragments adhere to everything, especially moving parts.
“With some sorters, you might spend one hour cleaning it and taking it apart for every hour you use it,” says Kaplan. “Now we can do it in about 15 minutes without any tools.”
Kaplan can also micro-adjust the settings of the sorter quickly, thus accommodating customer requests. By moving a spacer, he can easily collect larger or smaller material.
As with all mechanical processing equipment, labor savings is the biggest benefit of a sorter, so Kaplan chose a fast machine to minimize payroll. Without the need to load handful-by-handful, the technicians don’t need to constantly attend to the machine and can do other tasks.
Keeping Up with the Future of Cannabis
The price per pound will continue to fall as more licensees come online. Margins will tighten. But by lowering operating expenses, cultivators such as Vertical intend to stay competitive.
“Companies like Amazon will spend $500,000 on the best conveyor system because it reduces downtime. We’re on a way smaller scale, but we still need the most reliable equipment,” says Kaplan, who insists that the capital investment in a sorter is more than offset by the reduced operating costs.
“My advice is to take the long view on making this kind of investment.”
Mobius takes the complexity out of harvesting by offering the world’s best cannabis processing equipment. Our machines are engineered for ease of use, scalable output, and safety. They disassemble by hand in minutes, and are so simple to clean that GMP-certified workflows are easily accommodated. Plant material bucked, trimmed, and milled by Mobius equipment rivals product processed by hand. To learn more, visit mobiustrimmer.com or contact [email protected]