Cannabis, we have a problem. Legalizing adult use cannabis in California caused the demand for high-potency cannabis to increase dramatically over the last several years. Today, many dispensary buyers enforce THC minimums for the products that they sell. If smokeable flower products don’t have COAs proving the THC levels are above 20% or more, there is a good chance many dispensaries won’t carry them on their shelves. Unfortunately, these kinds of demands only put undue pressure on the industry and mislead the consumer.
Lab Shopping: Where the Problems Lie
Lab shopping for potency analysis isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent with the increasing demand for high-potency flower over the last couple of years. Sadly, many producers submit valid, certified COAs to the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC), which show two to three times the actual potency value.
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve purchased products from dispensary shelves and found significant discrepancies between the analysis we perform and the report submitted to the BCC by the producer. So, how can this happen? Several factors are creating the perfect storm in cannabis testing.
Problems with Potency
Many consumers still don’t understand that THC potency is not the only factor in determining quality cannabis, and they are unwittingly contributing to the demand for testing and analysis fraud. It is alarming for cultivation pioneers and ethical labs to see producers and profit-hungry testing facilities falsifying data to make it more appealing to the unaware consumer.
Basically, what’s happening is growers are contacting labs and asking, “I get 30% THC at this lab; what can you do?” When they see our COA reporting their flower tested lower than anticipated, they will go to another lab to get higher test results. Unfortunately, there are all too many labs that are willing to comply.
I recently saw a compliant COA that claimed that this particular flower was testing at 54% THC. Understanding cannabis genetics, we know this isn’t possible. Another product I reviewed claimed that after diluting an 88% THC distillate with 10-15% terpenes, the final potency test was 92% THC. You cannot cut a product and expect the potency to increase. Finally, a third product we reviewed claimed 98% total cannabinoids (while only looking at seven cannabinoids) with 10% terpenes for a total of 108% of the product.
These labs only make themselves look foolish to professionals, mislead laymen consumers and skirt under the radar of the BCC with basic mathematical errors.
The Pesticide Predicament
Frighteningly, inflating potency numbers isn’t the most nefarious testing fraud happening in the cannabis industry. If a manufacturer has 1000 liters of cannabis oil fail pesticide testing, they could lose millions of dollars – or have it retested by a less scrupulous lab.
As the industry continues to expand and new labs pop up left and right, cultivators and manufacturers have learned which labs are “easy graders” and which ones aren’t. Certain labs can miss up to ten times the action level of a pesticide and still report it as non-detectable. So, if the producer fails for a pesticide at one lab, they know four others won’t see it.
In fact, I’ve had labs send my clients promotional materials guaranteeing compliant lab results without ever receiving a sample for testing. So now, these companies aren’t just tricking the consumer; they are potentially harming them.
An Easy Fix
Cannabis testing is missing just one critical factor that could quickly fix these problems – checks and balances. The BCC only needs to do one of two things:
Verifying Lab Accuracy
InfiniteCAL also operates in Michigan, where the Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) has already implemented a system to ensure labs are maintaining the highest testing standards. The MRA will automatically flag all COAs which test above a certain percentage and require the product to be retested by multiple labs.
Labs are required to keep a back stock of material. So, when test results come back abnormally high from Lab A, then Labs B, C and D are commissioned to retest the material to compare data. If Lab A reports 40% THC, but the other labs all report 18%, then it’s easy to see Lab A has made an error.
By simply buying products off the shelves and having them blind-tested by other labs, it would be simple for the BCC to determine if the existing COA is correct. They already have all the data in Metrc, so this would be a quick and easy fix that could potentially solve the problem overnight.
For example, at InfiniteCAL, we once purchased 30 samples of Blue Dream flower from different cultivators ranging in certified COA potencies from 16% to 38%. Genetically, we know the Blue Dream cultivar doesn’t produce high levels of THC. When we tested the samples we purchased, nearly every sample came back in the mid-teens to low 20% range.
Labs Aren’t Supposed to Be Profit Centers
At InfiniteCAL, we’ve contacted labs in California where we’ve uncovered discrepancies to help find and flush out the errors in testing. All too often, we hear the excuses:
“If I fix my problem, I’ll lose my clients.”
“I’m just a businessman who owns a lab; I don’t know chemistry.”
“My chemist messed up; it’s their fault!”
If you own a lab, you are responsible for quality control. We are not here to get rich; we are here to act as public safety agents who ensure these products are safe for the consumer and provide detailed information about what they choose to put in their bodies. Be professional, and remember you’re testing for the consumer, not the producer.
With data forecasting expert BDSA predicting that the global cannabis market will reach $56B by 2026, there is no time to waste. Whether it’s Oklahoma, New York or even Macedonia, the frenzy is on. Investment decisions are immediate, and you have to be correct out of the box. This is where an expert like Andrew Lange and his company, Ascendant Management, come in. Andrew has designed more than 1.5 million square feet of cannabis facilities and moved them into profitable production in North America and Europe. One of his active customers is Onyx Agronomics in Washington. Bailee Syrek is the director of operations at Onyx and this is the story of the key points in designing a precision cannabis facility with state-of-the-art efficiency.
Andrew Lange, a navy veteran, runs a global cannabis consulting business based in Washington. With a “prove it to me” approach, he regularly tests the best new technologies in the facilities he designs. He integrates his knowledge of what works in practice into his subsequent facilities. One of his previous projects, Onyx Agronomics in Washington, started in 2014 and moved quickly into production in a retrofitted warehouse. Many of his best ideas started with Onyx, including some new innovations in the latest expansion there this month. Onyx is a tier 3 cannabis cultivator.
Bailee Syrek’s operation at Onyx currently produces 9,000 lbs. of dry trim bud per year in 8,000 square feet of canopy. She operates the state-of-the-art, clean room style, indoor grow facility around the clock, delivering 2.7 grams/watt from every square foot of canopy in her building. She runs a highly efficient facility.
Onyx has had an ongoing relationship with Ascendant Management and chose to leverage them again with their current expansion to increase their capacity further. Onyx uses a range of advanced technologies including aeroponic cultivation equipment and control software from AEssenseGrows to hit their metrics.
Precision, Quality & Consistency
“I look for ways that my clients can differentiate themselves,” says Lange. Maybe it’s his military background, but Andrew demands precision, quality and consistency in the operations he designs. “Cannabis is a just a plant really so we look for the highest performance grow methodology. I find that to be AEssenseGrows aeroponics,” says Lange. “The AEtrium Systems provides a good foundation to manipulate for grow recipes and business process. I add teamwork, communications, and operations procedures to that foundation.”
At Onyx, Bailee Syrek works closely with her channels. She invites her customers in regularly to review the Onyx cultivars and to cover their ideal requirements. These can range from bud size for their packaging to THC or terpene profiles (Yes, channels do want both higher and lower THC content for different consumers and price points). Based on that feedback, Bailee and Andrew work together to dial in the ideal grow recipe in the AEssenseGrows Guardian Grow Manager central control software. They push their target strains to optimize the results in the direction requested by their customers. For example, “How do you get the highest possible THC out of 9lb Hammer?” You’ll have to ask Andrew and Ascendant Management.
Driven by customer requests, Onyx is adding new strains to build on their innovative brand. Bailee expects to reach new levels of terpene bundles with Cheeseburger Jones, Koffee Breath, Shangri-La and OK Boomer. Utilizing Andrew’s expert knowledge, they can take typical sub-20% cannabinoid bundles and improve them using aeroponics and better controls, into standout aeroponic 30% packages.
The Onyx Vision
Bailee Syrek believes this is the most exciting time yet for Onyx. Delivering premium grade cannabis as a white label flower supplier for years, Onyx is a profitable and successful business. But even with doubling capacity every year, they are still having trouble keeping up with customer demand. Bailee wants to get to the point where she can always say yes and accept an order from their white label customers. With this objective, she again engaged Ascendant and Andrew to get beyond 15,000 lbs. of output in 2021 to make her customers happier. Beyond that basic expansion, she is also ambitious and is preparing plans for additional lines of revenue with their own proprietary flower, oil and derivative products.
“This expansion will be a new challenge,” says Syrek. “Flower production is in our wheelhouse. We have tighter operations, with the most consistent bud size, terpenes and test results in our state. These new products will require that same quality but now in new areas.”
Her Path to Leadership
Bailee started with Onyx in a compliance position that grew out of the constant demands for government licensing and reporting. In that compliance role, she had the opportunity to work a bit in every department, giving her a good understanding of all of the facility operations and workflows. All of that experience led her to eventually take over the operations leadership role. She instills care and effort to maintain the cleanest and most efficient operations possible. “With aeroponics, we don’t have to lug soil from room to room or in and out of the facility. This saves us a ton of work that we can redirect to plant health and maintenance,” says Syrek. “Medical precision and GMP quality is a given. Each room on average is 105 lights and one room manager and one cultivation technician take the room from clone/veg transfer to harvest as a two-person team.”
Bailee prides herself with results. “Medical grade precision is normal for us. We use medical grade SOPs for every aspect of our production.” Bailee has designed these guides into their control system that runs on the Guardian Grow Manager software. From sensor tracking, to performance graphs to time cards; everything is integrated in her performance monitoring.
A quality focus is very apparent in every Onyx flower room. Every watt of light energy is transferred to the pristinely manicured canopy. Naked stems feed nutrients up to the fat buds at the trained canopy surface. Fan leaves are removed and all possible energy turns into bud weight and potency. The room technician has a passion for plant health, table care and plant maintenance all the way through to the harvest bonanza.
What is the biggest challenge for Bailee as she drives the operation? Even at 105-110 grams per square foot per harvest, they are sold out. “Every customer wants to buy beyond our capacity. It is a good problem to have,” Bailee says. “Customers want our quality and love the consistency. This is the most exciting thing about our expansion. We will finally be able to make additional channels happy with high quality supply.”
This is where Andrew credits Onyx’s performance. “Most well running operations deliver 1.1-1.8 grams of dry trim bud per watt of electricity used in powering a grow room,” says Andrew. The Onyx grow formula results leave this in the dust. Running Fluence SPYDR 2i grow lights and the AEtrium System aeroponics, Onyx plants are delivering just shy of 4 lbs. per light with every harvest cycle. At 630 watts max output, that delivers ~2.7 grams/Watt, the most efficient operation he has seen. The Onyx process and execution works.
“Bailee is a great example as a professional. She builds a motivated team that executes better than her competition,” says Andrew.
At the same time, Onyx runs a highly space efficient nursery with just enough mother plants feeding energetic cuttings into the 4-layer stacked AEtrium-2.1 SmartFarms in their environmentally controlled clone room. They produce more than enough healthy clones to jump from veg to flower in the span of a week. Grow time, harvest turn time and no veg space, results in very efficient use of power in the complete operation.
Mirroring Onyx for Medical Grade Cannabis in Europe
Andrew Lange’s current passion is a green-field project in Portugal. Self-funded, Andrew says that this facility will be one of the first that is pure enough in operations to supply non-irradiated clean-room-level-quality cannabis beyond the precise standards required by European regulators. Current importers have not been able to clear the European standards for cleanliness without irradiating their buds. Other companies like Aurora have abandoned efforts to access the market due to the precision requirements. Typical methods used for fruit imports use gamma radiation to get bacterial counts down. This was tried with cannabis to sterilize buds, but the problem with cannabis is this degrades the quality of the flower.
Andrew’s Portugal facility will be using a sterile perimeter surrounding his grow space (mothers, clones/veg, flower rooms) and harvest and processing areas (dry, trim, packaging). Andrew creates a safe environment for healthy production. A steady harvest cleaning regimen is built into his operational designs from the beginning. All operators are trained in procedures to exclude pathogens and limit all possible transmission (airborne, physical/mechanical touching, or water carried). Every area is cleaned during and between harvests. Andrew is confident he will reach a consistent level of accuracy and purity beyond European requirements because it is routine in all of his designs.
Certified Efficiency is the Message
Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) are required for certification and access to European markets. Andrew always builds tight operations, but in this case, his Portugal facility is designed with the fit and finish to be GMP and GACP compliant from day one with advanced air filtration and air management throughout.
Automated aeroponics is a foundation technology that Andrew recommends for his facility designs. The automatic data logging, report generation, cloud access and storage make this a foundational technology. Andrew does get some resistance from cultivators that are used to the classic soil media approaches but he explains that software configurable grow recipes, precision controls, zero soil/no pests and hyper-fast growth makes aeroponics the foundation of competitive advantage. Precisely controlled medical quality precision operations are built on top of this foundation.
The initial phase of the Portugal facility is 630 lights and this facility is Andrew’s latest personal investment. From secure perimeters to modular grow rooms and highly automated equipment, this location will be state-of-the-art in terms of grams/watt yields and renewable energy with an output of 6 metric tons per year. Solar powered electricity from a 4-megawatt farm will use Tesla megapacks for storage and be grid independent.
Technology & Innovation, Onyx & Ascendant
From his first experience with AEssenseGrows aeroponics, Andrew has been able to design complete grow recipes in the Guardian Grow Manager software with very tight precision on dosage. This makes it possible to create ideal recipes for each strain (nutrition, irrigation cycles, lighting and environmental management). This frees up the operations teams to focus on plant health and execution. The nutrients, pH, CO2, temperature and humidity, follow the Guardian directions that he sets.
Working with Bailee at Onyx, Andrew is now consulting on the post-harvesting side of operations (drying, trimming, extracts and packaging). In parallel with his efforts, Bailee is optimizing THC & terpene production on the cultivation side with UV lighting (considering far-right red frequency light recipe enhancements).
That is the Ascendant Management approach to innovation. Trial, test constantly, perfect ideas in practice. Optimize the results for consistent, high-quality results. Even while driving for the personal craft touch, use automation to increase efficiency of mundane, but important tasks. With these methods, Andrew believes that the Onyx labor cost is one third of typical soil media grow operations. Zero soil aeroponics offers many benefits. Bailee’s team is able to give each plant more attention and delivery better quality. Automation is a win-win for them.
Bailee finds that constant testing is useful for two things: one, great results, and two, surface the best talent with their hand’s-on approach.
Always Finish with People
Bailee says that her staff works incredibly hard. “We are a different grow, with better ergonomics on the job, aeroponics for precision and yields, and advanced technology at the leading edge in every part of our grow. No dirt up and down stairs. People are proud to work here. We are not your dad’s grow operation.”
“We promote from within. Everyone starts as a room tech and has the opportunity to move up. Teams are isolated by rooms so there is no contamination between rooms or humans. Put in the work, and you will get promoted with expansions, and grow with the company as we take a bigger share in the market.” Female employees make up almost half of the current staff, and Bailee encourages employees to refer their friends. “Good people invite good people,” she says.
Her training program introduces the technical aspects of their unique operation, the positive expectations and career path for every new employee. The social environment is friendly with good pay and regular raises. Each new employee fills a range of roles during their 1-month training circuit and are assigned to a cultivation space under a lead as an official cultivation tech at the end of 30 days. “One thing that we do more than at other grows is constant cleaning,” says Bailee. “This is an ever-present mantra for the staff.”
At Raw Garden, we have a ‘Farming First’ philosophy because we understand that the process of farming is the process of managing the plant’s life and the management of the land those plants grow on – this is when the plantgets its chance to thrive but requires that it is properly nurtured in order to provide resources such as high-quality terpenes and cannabinoids.
Our cannabis plants are sun-grown in Santa Barbara county soil just like other California crops. From the seed to the shelf, we are vertically integrated and maintain quality control at every step in the process. We grow our own seeds, farm and harvest our own plants, and process our own products while employing sustainable and regenerative farming practices – only organic and natural fertilizers, soil amendments and pest control methods are used on thefarm.
As farmers we have a responsibility to care for the land and the soil to ensure it is fertile and healthy well into the future. We take care of the soil and it takes care of our plants. The result is premium quality products that our customers love and trust. Our success and commitment to quality is proof that the economics of clean, sustainable operations are achievable. We’re farmers and scientists on a mission to make clean, high quality cannabis that is affordable and accessible.
A few of the sustainable agriculture practices we employ at Raw Garden include:
Clean Green Certification – Since our inception, we have been certified and licensed members of Clean Green, the #1 globally-recognized organic and sustainable cannabis certification program. The program was created in 2004 as a way to standardize legal cannabis products and the result was a program to help farms and brands obtain organic-like certification based on the USDA National Organic program. Clean Green-certified growers and processors regularly win awards for their high-quality products, including our award-winning extracts.
Water Conservation – Our farm team waters at the right time of day to reduce evaporative water loss; we also use drip irrigation and mulch to reduce water waste and runoff. Last year, we used about 8,000 gallons of water per acre on average, which is significantly less than standard outdoor grown crops.
Natural Fertilizer and Pest Control – We apply only organic fertilizers and foliar feeds and we spray only organic pathogen-free inoculants to keep our plants healthy and disease-free, which consistently results in high yields. To naturally deter pests, we recruit beneficial predatory insects like ladybugs and parasitic wasps, in addition to botanical oils and diatomaceous earth.
Precision Agriculture (PA) and Site-Specific Crop Management (SSCM) – We utilize technology to manage crops and increase farm efficiency, such as machine learning for fertilizer optimization and digital sensors in the field to monitor crops.
Soil Health and Terroir – Like grapes for wine, cannabis plants grown in the soil have terroir that affects the flower’s qualities, characteristics, terpene profile, aroma and taste, based on temperature, climate, soil composition and topography, as well as other environmental influences. Micro-climates matter – the same strain of cannabis grown along the coast likely has a different taste and potency than one grown inland. We grow in Santa Barbara wine country for the combination of fertile soil, hot sun, and cool nights which yield an incredibly diverse, potent and flavorful crop of cannabis flowers. Between growing seasons, we employ regenerative agriculture by planting cover crops including oat, beans, peas and buckwheat to add nitrogen and organic matter naturally back in the soil. This method of cover crops also helps reduce pests and soil-borne diseases in preparation for the next growing season. We know that an ideal environment in combination with healthy soil and good land management results in healthier, more vigorous plants, which translates to higher-quality products.
As farmers, it is our responsibility to care of the land with good management decisions today so that we grow the best quality products while better preserving the land for the future. It takes careful planning, knowledge of the land, a commitment to sustainable practices and a desire to put farming first.
A Guidance on an Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation
Gretchen Schimelpfenig, PE, Technical Director of Resource Innovation
Brandy Keen, Co-Founder & Sr. Technical Advisor, Surna, Inc.
Adam Chalasinski, Applications Engineer, Rough Brothers/Nexus Greenhouse Systems/Tetra
David Vaillencourt, Founder & CEO, The GMP Collective
Kyle Lisabeth, Vice President of Horticulture, Silver Bullet Water
Back by popular demand, this panel discussion is returning with the same cast of subject matter experts to foster a longer, more comprehensive dialogue on cultivation facility design. Designing a cannabis cultivation facility that can produce consistent quality cannabis, meets the demands of the business objectives (profit, time to market, scalability) and consumers and stays within budget and timelines has been a major pain point for new and seasoned business owners and growers. What appears on the surface as a simple proposition – build a structure, install HVAC and fertigation systems, hire a master grower, plant some seeds and watch the sea of green roll in — is anything but.
The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management
David Perkins, Founder, Floresco Consulting
This presentation goes into detail on everything you need to know to get started with integrated pest management. Learn about planning and designing your cultivation facility to minimize pest pressure, how to apply pesticides safely and lawfully and pest identification, as well as choosing the correct pesticides.
Starting from Scratch: Launching a Hemp Farm in Georgia
Reginald “Reggie” Reese, Founder & CEO, The Green Toad Hemp Farm
Dwayne Hirsch, President & Chief of Business Development, The Green Toad Hemp Farm
This presentation discusses how The Green Toad Hemp Farm started with an empty lot with no water, power or structures and turned the space into a productive vertically integrated hemp cultivation operation. Learn how to work with local and state regulations from this case study in Southeast Georgia and learn how to operate with friends, not enemies: How building partnerships with your community can ensure business success.
National Agriculture Day (March 23, 2021), is an annual event held by the Agriculture Council of America (ACA), a not-for-profit 501-c (6) organization, to increase the public awareness of agriculture’s vital role in our society.
The ACA believes that every American should:
Understand how food and fiber products are produced.
Appreciate the role agriculture plays in providing safe, abundant and affordable products.
Value the essential role of agriculture in maintaining a strong economy.
Acknowledge and consider career opportunities in the agriculture, food and fiber industry.
We investigated how the hemp and cannabis industry is disrupting agriculture in positive ways, from automated trimming, to controlled environment agriculture, to water conservation and beyond. We interviewed Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies, parent company of Mobius Trimmer and Triminator, Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc. and Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII) to get their perspective on agricultural innovation.
Aaron McKellar, CEO and President of Eteros Technologies
Aaron Green: Why is hand-trimming inefficient at scale?
Aaron McKellar: Hand-trimming is inefficient at scale because it is so labor-intensive and time-consuming, not to mention repetitive and frankly boring. It’s hard to stay fully engaged as a worker trimming by hand, so the consistency of your finished product isn’t reliable with a crew of hand-trimmers.
A hand-trimmer can produce good quality trim on about 2 or 3 pounds per day. A scaled-up facility running just one Mobius M108S Trimmer can realize up to 120 pounds per hour, replacing many dozens, or even into the hundreds of hand-trimmers. The HR nightmare this presents, and all the associated costs of paying and facilitating dozens of employees (parking, washrooms, lunchrooms, PPE and gowning, etc) is simply unworkable. And that’s before COVID.
Green: How does automated trimming benefit large producers and how does the quality compare to hand-trimming?
McKellar: Not all automated trimmers are created equal. Any of the machines out there will help to reduce the need for hand-trimmers by taking off the bulk of the leaf, leaving a small team of “hand-polishers” to finish it up. The Mobius Trimmer is the only automated trimmer on the market today that leaves the technology of the original machines in the past and employs next-gen technology to truly mimic hand-trimmed quality with stunning through-put rates.
We have high-end producers using Mobius Trimmers whose own QC department cannot discern Mobius-trimmed flower from hand-trimmed flower. Hand polishing crews tend to be far smaller when using a Mobius vs first-gen machinery, and many Mobius users don’t touch up at all, instead going straight to market right out of the trimmer. For a look at how our technology differs from the rest of the field, check out this look under the hood.
Mark Doherty, Executive Vice President of Operations, urban-gro, Inc.
Aaron Green: What is controlled environment agriculture?
Mark Doherty: Cannabis cultivators understand growing indoors because, prior to legalization, they had been doing it for years in the gray market. It is by way of that experience that cultivators learned how to manipulate a highly-valuable, complex plant in an indoor setting. As cannabis legalization spread across the United States, many government regulators required that it be cultivated indoors according to strict regulatory protocols. Fast forward 10 years, and we have an industry that is keenly aware of the indoor environmental conditions required to be successful. Critical factors like heating, cooling, ventilation, dehumidification, and how to best mimic Mother Nature’s energy through lighting are all deliberately optimized.
With cannabis cultivation driving the advancements of controlled environment agriculture, market and regulatory forces demanded higher efficiency, reduced energy and resource consumption, and clean crops. In most states, cannabis crops have more stringent testing than food crops. For instance, the lettuce in Massachusetts will not pass the standards for cannabis in Massachusetts. It’s through rapid innovation and technology adoptions that the cannabis industry has paved the way for lettuce to be profitably grown indoors.
Green: How can controlled environment agriculture help alleviate supply chain stresses?
Doherty: By growing food closer to the consumer, you reduce food miles; meaning, that link in the food supply chain gets a lot shorter and is less prone to disruption. Whether you have hyper small cultivation facilities on every street corner, or a larger cultivation facility geographically close to consumers, you can grow 24/7/365. Furthermore, growing locally allows for better prediction of facility output—10 boxes of greens on Monday, 50 boxes of greens on Tuesday, and five boxes of greens on Thursday. This eliminates harvesting a large crop before it is ripe and likely requiring cold storage. The controllability of controlled environment ag is that consistent, reliable contribution to the food supply chain and shortening that path to the consumer.
Derek Smith, Executive Director at Resource Innovation Institute (RII)
Derek Smith: Until this report, if you searched for cannabis water usage, you’d basically find one cited statistic. It was “six gallons per plant per day.” We knew this was from a model based on one extreme illicit market scenario. Based on the data we were seeing and the conversations we were having, this number seemed way off. So, we pulled together a multidisciplinary Water Working Group as part of our Technical Advisory Council. The objective of the Water Working Group was to establish a scientific understanding of how, and how much, water is used for cannabis cultivation so that cultivators have confidence in taking steps to be more efficient, and so that industry leaders, governments and media can be accurately informed about the range of water practices of today’s regulated market.
Green: What key points should cannabis cultivators take away from the report? What key points should regulators and policymakers take away from the report?
Smith: As the cannabis industry matures, water use efficiency will become more important, as it has for other agricultural crops. Pressures to use water efficiently will mount from multiple channels including – reducing input and energy cost, protecting the environment, meeting regulatory standards and simply being good stewards. We recommend that industry and regulators focus efforts on the following areas:
When grown outdoors, water for cannabis production should be assessed like any other agricultural crop and be subject to state and local regulations that apply to other crops. Our research indicates that cannabis neither uses a massive share of water nor uses more water than other agricultural crops. Applying the same standards to cannabis as to other agricultural crops will correctly categorize outdoor grown cannabis as an agricultural crop.
In areas where there may be conflict between water use for cannabis and environmental concerns, regulators and the industry should focus (1) on the timing of water use and (2) the potential of storage to mitigate environmental conflict. Our results show that in many parts of the country legal cannabis farmers have ample water storage to satisfy their needs. In areas where storage is insufficient, increasing storage should be a priority for farmers and regulators.
Our research shows there are still massive differences between cannabis production techniques. As farmers continue to experiment and improve, we expect to see water use be a more important part of cannabis farming decisions and expect new plant varieties and growing techniques to be developed that increase water use efficiency. Yet more data from actual farms and facilities are needed to point the way toward the technologies and techniques that drive optimal efficiency and productivity. It is recommended that producers benchmark their performance and governments consider requiring energy and water reporting by producers. The Cannabis PowerScore can assist in these efforts.
As indoor production continues to grow, especially in areas that have unfavorable climatic conditions for outdoor growing, we expect more cannabis users to rely on municipal water sources. Yet, it is unclear if municipal water suppliers are equipped to work with the cannabis industry. We suggest outreach efforts between the cannabis industry and municipal water suppliers to incentivize efficiency where possible.
In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses integrate innovative practices in order to navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Large-scale agricultural practices can take a toll on soil health leading to inefficiencies over the long term. Harvey’s All Naturals is a Colorado-based company specializing in premium farm-to-table full spectrum CBD products. Harvey’s gets all of its hemp from Boot Ranch Farms, an off-grid sustainable hemp farm in Southern Colorado supplied by an artesian well.
We spoke with Harvey Craig, CEO Harvey’s All Naturals and co-founder of Boot Ranch Farms, to learn more about the benefits of regenerative agriculture, how he thinks about soil health, and how they produce their CBD products. Harvey started Boot Ranch Farms in 2014 after the passing of the Farm Bill and Harvey’s All Naturals followed shortly thereafter.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis and hemp industry?
Harvey Craig: I got involved at a very young age, as the youngest of eight kids, seven of which are boys, I was introduced to cannabis on the marijuana side first. As an engineer through the years, I’ve always been involved in creating very efficient growing systems for cannabis.
In the early 2000s, I learned about CBD a little bit through experimenting with marijuana strains to help a friend who had Parkinson’s and also through the research performed by Raphael Mechoulem, an organic chemist and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. In 2014, when the Farm Bill made hemp legal, I dropped everything and went into it because I felt “this is what I need to be doing.”
Green: What is sustainable farming mean to you?
Craig: Sustainable farming to me means putting soil health and responsible natural growing practices at the forefront of all agriculture – regenerative processes for soil, in a nutshell. To me, soil health is one of the biggest problems in the United States right now. By regenerating and making our soils living, healthy and with a rich nutrient base we create an ecosystem that is good for human health and health all around.
Green: What do you mean specifically when you say, “soil health?”
Craig: Soil is living. A good natural soil has a living microbiotic structure inside it. There’s a living habitat that forms inside our soil over the years. Large scale agriculture in many cases has depleted or killed this living structure through readily accessible fertilizers and tilling practices.
Farmers understand the soil. There are practices we can undertake that are helping our living soils and helping the microbiotic habitat to thrive. Practices such as no-till technologies, rotating crops, using cover crops, not being a monocrop, responsible water use, healthy fertilizer and pesticide technologies, minimal processing, the list goes on and on…
When we talk about this thing called sustainability, I think it’s very important that we understand there are two sides of cannabis. There’s the marijuana and then there’s the hemp. We can’t put those two together – they’re governed very differently. Hemp became legal through the Farm Bill and is governed by the Department of Agriculture. Hemp is just like any other crop out there really. That means we can mix hemp in with other crops. It’s very much like corn and other crops in how it’s grown on a large scale, industrial basis.
Marijuana on the other hand is governed by each state’s regulatory commission. Those regulations make it very hard to mix in with general agriculture. So, when it comes to the marijuana side, unfortunately, it must be a monocrop. Most marijuana is grown in pots and pots are fine. However, if you are just growing in a pot and then throwing your soil away, that is not very sustainable. As it sits right now, in the marijuana industry there is really no sustainability, unfortunately. The energy use for the lights in indoor grows, for example, creates a huge carbon footprint and load on the electrical grid. I’m not trying to put indoor growing down, but that’s the way it is. The only way I foresee sustainability in the marijuana side of cannabis is to let loose a little bit on regulation and allow it to become a part of normal agricultural processes.
Green: What is it about tilling that degrades the soil quality?
Craig: When we till our soil, we’re turning the organisms in the soil up and we’re allowing the sun to dry them out. If it’s not done properly, you kill that soil structure.
Now, these little microorganisms in our soil create a healthy soil, but it doesn’t happen instantly, this takes years to create. Nobody has the time anymore, everybody’s “go go go” and “make it happen instantly”. So that gets destroyed. Now we have all these dead soils that everybody’s growing in and growers turn to factory-produced fertilizers with readily available nutrients.
When we are talking about cannabis, we can’t just look at monocropping. If you grow one crop in the same soil over and over, the soil is going to get depleted. One of the main things that we deplete is nitrogen and growing other crops, such as clover, can replenish that nitrogen. Growing cover crops protects the soil from the sun, creates nitrogen for the soil, and holds the water within the soil.
Instead of tilling, you can rotate with crops like root vegetables, radishes and other things that have deep root structures. Instead of tearing them up, just let them degrade organically and go back into the soil. Those deep root structures will also help aerate the soil.
Green: What is a farmer’s first approach?
Craig: Farmers want their land to be healthy. True farmers have a oneness with the earth and understand the earth. The farmer’s first approach keeps the farmer involved in creating new technologies for agriculture.
Green: Let’s say you’re a farmer that has land or recently acquired land that’s been industrially grown upon. How would you take that land and start fresh with a regenerative process?
Craig: The first thing you have to do is take soil samples and send them to a lab. That’ll tell you what you’re working with. Also, knowing a little history about the land helps as well. Was it used for grazing? Was it used for growing corn? What was it used for? Were organic practices used?
Then, there are many things you can do to start to regenerate your soil, but it takes time. In many situations, people don’t want to take that time. But what we’re learning is, the people and the farmers that do take that time often take a hit monetarily for the first two or three years. After that, once that structure is maintained, the natural health of the soil can be replenished. Crops will grow better, and they won’t spend as much money on fertilizers and pesticides in the long run because the microbiotic structure in the soil is creating a healthy ecosystem. When we destroy that ecosystem, it doesn’t come back easily or quickly. If there’s a little bit there, it can be regenerated with the right practices.
Green: I understand that the Boot Ranch is an off-the-grid farm. What was your motivation for either going off-grid or remaining off-grid?
Craig: I have a background in alternative energies and engineering, and when creating Boot Ranch Farms there was a lot that went into the sustainability side of it. The farm is extremely far away from the power grid for starters. So, an investment in solar for electricity was money well spent. My thought process was, why would I invest in bringing the wires in when I could actually save money and resources by creating a very efficient solar system and not be tied to the grid? Our farm is self-sustaining without being connected to any grid, which is one of the main reasons for remaining off-grid.
Green: I understand the farm is supplied by an artesian well. How do you monitor your water quality?
Craig: Well, we’re very fortunate. Existing natural water quality is one of the main reasons we decided to grow in the San Luis Valley. When you’re starting something new, you have to look at your financial side of things. Investing in a hemp farm is very different than the marijuana side because you won’t make as much money per pound of product sold. So, you have to watch your budget and not spend too much, or you’re never going to make a profit.
The self-sustaining artisanal well and water rights were existing on the property. There’s no pumping required for it and the water goes into a 10,000-gallon holding tank, where we can monitor and test for water quality. In order to water our plants, we use a pump/drip water system that supplies water to each individual plant. It’s very efficient compared to most watering systems out there, such as flood irrigation or pivots, and really doesn’t use a heck of a lot of water.
Green: Are you growing in open air or greenhouses?
Craig: We grow in two 3,000 square feet industrial-grade greenhouses at Boot Ranch Farms. Greenhouse One has all the bells and whistles including heating, cooling, light deprivation, supplemental lighting, automated controls and more. That greenhouse allows us to mimic Mother Nature a little bit. We can get up to six harvests throughout the course of the year in that greenhouse. However, in reality, we get about four.
In addition, we have a second greenhouse that is set about 100 feet away and set up to keep plants growing on mother nature’s cycle. We can move groups of mature plants to Greenhouse One after each harvest for multiple flowering cycles. Lastly, between greenhouses, we have a 10,000 square foot courtyard that’s protected with shade cloth and other things to help protect those plants from the elements. In late October, all remaining plants in both greenhouses and the courtyard become mature and ready to harvest due to shorter days created by mother nature.
Green: Do you insure your crops?
Craig: We have not. Hemp is a new industry and we have not found good crop insurance.
Green: Do you cultivate your own genetics?
Craig: We work with some other companies here in Colorado to provide genetics. Consistent genetics are extremely important on the hemp side because we need to trust that they are going to keep the THC levels down. On the marijuana side, that part doesn’t matter so much
There are different strains that have been created that I absolutely love, and I’ve tried to stick with them and stay with that seed stock. One of them is called The Wife and the other Cherry Wine. Most of the best hemp I have found is based upon the Cherry strain. People are always looking for high CBD. I’d rather have a lower CBD level in the 8% to 12% range. Something higher in the 14% to 20% range has a higher chance of producing a product with more than the legal amount of THC.
Green: Is Harvey’s All Naturals fully supplied by Boot Ranch Farms?
Craig: Yes, it is. There are a lot of things that go into a quality product and we focus on that at Boot Ranch. We’re small, not trying to compete with the large-scale market. Unfortunately, a high percentage of the products out on the market come from large-scale industrial hemp grows. We focus on long-term medicinal value and grow very high-quality hemp and we try not to degrade it in any way, shape or form throughout processing.
Green: How many square feet or acres is the Boot Ranch Farm?
Craig: Boot Ranch farm is about 260 acres. We only grow on less than three of it.
Green: What’s your extraction process?
Craig: We use cold alcohol extraction. We do not distill to separate our alcohol from the hemp oil. We use what’s called a roto vape. That cold processing preserves our terpenes, it preserves our full-spectrum cannabis oil profile and doesn’t fully decarboxylate our CBDa. We want a large CBDa percentage because there are many things that CBDa is good for when it comes to long term medicinal reasons.
Green: Are you processing your own hemp?
Craig: No, we sub that part of it out. What I’ve learned in this industry is three main parts: 1- the farming; 2- the extraction, and; 3- the product line. Those are three very separate processes and require specialized expertise within themselves. Each is a large investment and it’s very hard to do it all. I decided to work with other people on the extraction part of it. They have the expertise, and we pay them well to do what they do.
Green: Okay, great. And then any final words for Ag Day?
Craig: Support your small farmer in nutrient-rich agricultural products.
Green: Great. That concludes the interview, Harvey!
As cannabis legalization becomes more prolific across the United States, entrepreneurs are entering the cultivation business in droves. With so many new companies entering the market and growing cannabis, there are a lot of common errors made when getting started. Here are ten of the biggest mistakes you can make when building a cannabis grow facility:
Failure to consult with experts in the cannabis business – poor planning in floorplan and layout could create deficient workflow causing extra time and costing profits. Bad gardening procedures may result in crop failure and noncompliance could mean a loss of license. Way too often, people will draft a design and begin construction without taking the time to talk to an expert first. Some important questions to ask yourself and your consultant are: What materials should be used in the building of the grow? Is my bed-to-flower ratio correct? How long will it take before I can see my first harvest?
Contractor selection – DO NOT build your own facility; leave it to the experts. Sure, you have experience building things and you have a friend who has worked in construction. Do not make this mistake – Our experience can save you from the mistake’s others have made. To stay lucrative in this competitive industry and to maximize your products’ quality and yields, have the facility built right the first time. Paying an experienced, qualified cannabis professional to build you a facility will produce better yields and will save you time, stress and money in getting you from start of construction to your first crop.
Not maximizing your square footage potential – With today’s fast changing environment, multi-tiered stationary racks, rolling benches and archive style rolling racks help maximize square footage. Without the proper garden layout, you will find yourself pounds short of your potential each harvest.
Inadequate power – Not planning or finding out if there is sufficient power available at the site for your current and future needs. This will stop you from building the overall square footage you want. When finding a building make sure you first know how much power you will need for the size grow you want. With proper engineering you will find out what load requirements will be so you can plan accordingly.
Material selection – The construction material that goes into a cultivation and extraction facility should consist of nonabsorbent anti-microbial finishes. The days of wood grow benches are long gone. Epoxy flooring, metal studs and other materials are mandatory for a quality-built, long-lasting facility.
Hand watering – Once your facility is up and running, many people feel they have spent enough money and they can save by hiring people to water by hand, rather than going with an automated system to handle the watering and nutrients. The problem with this is your employees are not on your plants timetable. What if an employee calls off and can’t come into water at the right time or they mix the wrong amount of nutrients from the formula you have selected? These are issues we see a lot. It is critical to perform precise, scheduled watering and nutrient delivery to increase your yields.
Failure to monitor and automate – Automating your grow is important for controlling the light and fertigation schedules as well as data collection and is crucial to maximizing yields. Being able to do this remotely gives you peace of mind in that you can monitor your grow room temperature and humidity at all times and be notified when something is not right.
Poor climate – This can cause stunted growth, smaller harvests and test failures. Our experience has taken us to facilities that have had mold and mildew issue due to poor climate. Proper air balancing, additional dehumidification along with a proper cleaning procedure can get a facility back in working order. Installing proper climate control systems could save millions of dollars.
Choosing the wrong site or building – Not knowing the history of the building you are choosing to rent or buy can create logistical and monetary nightmares. The wrong site can be a distribution and marketing disaster. In the wrong building, exponentially more money is spent to bring that building up to the standards needed for successful production and yields. For example, bringing in the ceiling and the cleaning of an existing facility can be a great expense. If you do not know what you are looking at when you purchase, you may be in for months of unaccounted expenses and inaccurate timelines. This can be detrimental for companies and individuals that are on restricted timelines and have to start producing successful and continuous yields from a space that has to be converted into a prime grow facility.
Failure to maintain your facility – A dirty site creates an invitation for pests, workplace injuries, unhealthy working environment and equipment failure. Keeping the facility and equipment properly maintained with routine service will ensure efficiency, longevity of equipment life span and reduce mold and bacteria risk. Clean facilities = clean plants and better flower.
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles, Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Maggie’s Farm is an integrated cannabis company based in Southern Colorado. Maggie’s Farm has seven adult-use and medical dispensaries and cultivates the vast majority of their flower on outdoor farms. All Maggie’s Farm products are sun-grown from seed in soil that is 100% custom-mixed onsite as well as spring-watered, slow-cured and hand-trimmed. Maggie’s Farm does not use any synthetic pesticides or growth hormones in its cultivation. In addition, for the past eight years, Maggie’s Farm has recently obtained Clean Green Certified®, a designation certifying organic standards and testing that mirrors the USDA organic certification. Maggie’s Farm was the first cultivator in Colorado to earn the Clean Green certification.
We spoke with Bill Conkling, Founder and CEO of Maggie’s Farm to learn more about the benefits of outdoor growing, localism and their Clean Green certification. Bill started Maggie’s Farm in 2010 after growing up on cattle ranches and farms in Colorado.
Aaron Green: Bill, thanks for taking the time today. Tell me a bit about how you got involved in the cannabis industry.
Bill Conkling: I am a native of southern Colorado. I was a medical caregiver back in the early days of legalization, and I saw an opportunity to vertically align after my first legal crop in 2010. I opened up the store in 2011. I’ve been a lifelong proponent of medical, recreational and adult use of marijuana.
I come from a background of farmers and I had worked on cattle ranches and farms throughout childhood. As soon as I graduated from college, I went back to work on a large cattle ranch in the four corners area [of southern Colorado]. That’s where I started to incorporate my indoor cultivation experience and skills with outdoor.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the cannabis industry?
Bill: I was one of the first medical operators to support legalization, so I have certainly followed legalization trends. I’ve looked at some other states in our region in terms of growth and legalization.
We’re trying to stay a regional supplier and producer so that we are locally grown. We believe the southwest of Colorado is optimal for outdoor cannabis cultivation.
At Maggie’s Farm, we have followed an organic trend from the beginning and I think that’s becoming more of a trend now. We recently received Clean Green certification to that effect. Our goal is to try to provide the healthiest product at a good value to the market.
I believe that all of the products that are made in the cannabis world come from the flower. Downstream products are only as good as their ingredients. It all starts with the flower. So, we focus on producing a clean, top-shelf quality flower that is produced outdoors.
Aaron: How do you define local?
Bill: Local is staying in the climate that is optimal with the least amount of carbon footprint to the earth. That also means trying to operate so that we’re not moving a lot of product across long distances.
We’re trying to set up farms that are in optimal climates. There is a two or three-state region that I believe is the optimal climate for outdoor marijuana cultivation in our country.
Aaron: What states are those specifically?
Bill: I think Colorado and New Mexico, primarily.
Aaron: What geographies is Maggie’s farm currently in?
Bill: We’re in southern Colorado. We don’t go into the plains of Colorado.
Aaron: So Colorado state only right now?
Bill: Yes. The wet mountain range is one of the mountain ranges that we are in. I’ve also cultivated in the La Plata mountain range.
Aaron: What specifically is it about that region that makes it conducive to cannabis growing?
Bill: I think if you get the right elevation and the right microclimates within those elevations, and you have the number of sunny days that Colorado offers in those areas – the intensity of the sunlight, and the cool nights – all those things are factors that coincide in these areas that we like to cultivate in.
Aaron: We’ve been talking about outdoor growth. Does Maggie’s do any indoor?
Bill: No. We’re essentially an outdoor farm. We do a little bit of breeding and we’ve got starter houses, greenhouses and hoop houses for that purpose. We’ve got one greenhouse that we use for some wholesale, but we are primarily outdoors.
Aaron: How do you go about selecting the genetics or evolving the genetics to meet your local environment, given that you’re growing outdoors?
Bill: A lot of it is honestly through testing and experimentation, historically. You just cultivate and harvest and see how the genetics performed, you know? You test, you take test inputs, you take customer reviews, and blind test results from the team and from the customers and you consider all those facts.
Aaron: Do you produce and use your own seeds or are you purchasing those?
Bill: We have done both. I think I’ve probably created somewhere north of 800 different strains at this point. So, we’ve got a huge seed bank. We do also buy from vendors and experiment with some of those genetics as well.
Aaron: Do you market your seeds in Colorado?“I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors.”
Bill: We do not.
Aaron: How did you settle on outdoor-only as the strategy for Maggie’s?
Bill: I believe outdoor is a premium flower. I think it has less impact on the earth. I think that there is a lot less pest mitigation than there is indoors, which makes it a healthier, cleaner product. You don’t have to mitigate the concentration of pests that you get in temperate climates of stagnant corners of greenhouses and buildings that you cultivate indoors. Therefore, you never get into the situations as often or as intensely, where you might have to really work hard at mitigating your pests. You can use the natural predator insects you can introduce and oftentimes they survive and they create their own climates and it’s a more natural, healthier product.
I don’t think that you can get anywhere near the terpene value indoors that you can outdoors. You just don’t have the value of the sun, which nothing compares to. You can hold up as many high wattage bulbs as you want and you don’t even pale to the sun and the effect that the sun has on the flower.
Aaron: What are some of the challenges of growing outdoors that you see frequently?
Bill: You have to be nimble. You can’t rely completely on a schedule. You’ve got to be able to shift around in your planting days and your harvest dates.
You’ve obviously got to be on your toes all the time for weather changes. Higher humidity years can tend to bring more insects or pests. Some years you’ve got higher winds than other years. This year, we had a snowstorm on September 9, which left nine inches of heavy wet snow on one of our farms. So, you’ve got to be nimble, very proactive and ready for those kinds of weather events that happen in very short notice.
Aaron: We mentioned Clean Green Certified® briefly. Can you explain more about the Clean Green certification and why that’s an important thing for you at Maggie’s?
Bill: The choice to become Clean Green Certified® was really an effort to validate the organic process that we have. We vetted out what we believe was and still is the premier, organic criteria certification endorsement in the market for cannabis. To this day, they really do an ethical, vetting-out process whereby if you fail the parts of any of the soils that are sent to federal-licensed labs, you do not get your endorsement. The owner of Clean Green also had a mother company that was an endorser of other agricultural products such as coffee, wheat and dairy.
Aaron: How would you compare Clean Green Certified® to USDA Organic?
Bill: Identical. When the federal government legalizes, we are poised to automatically convert to a USDA Organic certification and endorsement. The processes the founder and owner of Clean Green uses to test cannabis is the same process used to test other agricultural industries. For plants, he takes random samples of soils throughout a cultivation field and sends them to a federal-licensed lab where they test for impurities.
Aaron: Did you decide to get your Clean Green certification due to pulling from the market, or is this more something you decided to do internally as Maggie’s Farm?
Bill: I decided to do this internally. I wanted to be recognized for all of our organic efforts and I wanted to let people know that we have a safe product that doesn’t have synthetics in it. Even to this day, a lot of people in Colorado unlike the coastal states like maybe California are still pretty unaware of a Clean Green certification or even the fact that there is an organic process for cannabis or marijuana. So, it’s really just to let our customers know that there is value in a safe, healthy choice for them.
Aaron: What kind of products do you create at Maggie’s farm?
Bill: We grow flower. We are also a big producer of a very high-quality pre-roll. We are developing promoted products as well.
Aaron: Do you do fresh frozen?
Bill: We do some, yes.
Aaron: Are you selling direct to the dispensary or to manufacturers?
Bill: We finally had produced some excess. So, we started wholesaling flower this year and lots of high-quality shake for concentrates to concentrate makers. Our customer is typically a little more of a mature customer. I don’t want to say necessarily older, but I think we probably do hit a little bit of a higher, more experienced, health-conscious, connoisseur customer.
Aaron: Can you give me an idea of some of the regulatory challenges in Colorado that you’ve faced in the past or are facing today?
Bill: The perpetual change of regulation has been a challenge. Being a competent operator in cannabis means getting used to the change and having the resources to be nimble with compliance. We haven’t had common problems such as metals, mold or mildew issues. However, we have had some hardware issues, which required us to change cameras along with other technical intricacies.
Aaron: How many acres do you have?
Bill: We have about 30 acres of secured premise cultivation.
Aaron: Is that all managed in-house or sublet?
Bill: It’s all managed and operated exclusively by Maggie’s Farm.
Aaron: What’s next for Maggie’s Farm? What are you excited about?
Bill: We want to continue to put a higher scale of a very healthy, quality, value flower out there and to be able to offer that to more states initially states that are within our region and eventually states across the US. Also, we will continue to do our best to meet the growing demand for healthier choices in general.
Aaron: Lastly, what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Bill: How we can continue to be as earth-conscious as we can be? How we can continue to look for ways to give back to our communities? How we can continue to operate as a view of made in the USA and to try to just support local regional and national products and vendors? Just how to be more aware and always look for opportunities for self-improvement.
Aaron: That concludes the interview, thank you Bill!
Flower continues to be the dominant product category in US cannabis sales. In this “Flower-Side Chats” series of articles Green interviews integrated cannabis companies and flower brands that are bringing unique business models to the industry. Particular attention is focused on how these businesses navigate a rapidly changing landscape of regulatory, supply chain and consumer demand.
Connected is a vertically-integrated cannabis company based out of Sacramento, CA and one of the most sought-after brands in California and Arizona. Having formed as a legacy operation in 2009, Connected has created a cult-like following over more than a decade in business. According to BDS Analytics, Connected Cannabis and their acquired brand Alien Labs now boasts the highest wholesale flower price in any major legal market – their average indoor flower wholesale price is 2x the CA average – yet also has the highest flower retail revenue.
We spoke with Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected to learn more about his transition from tech to cannabis, how Connected thinks about product and his vision for future growth. Sam joined Connected in 2018 after getting to know the founders. Prior to Connected, Sam was a co-founder at Box where he stayed on for 3 years after their successful IPO.
Aaron Green: How did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Sam Ghods: I originally came from the tech industry. I co-founded Box, a cloud sharing and storage company, in the mid 2000s with three other friends. We grew that from the four of us to eventually a multi-billion-dollar public offering in 2015. I stayed on a few more years after that until I took some time off trying to decide what I wanted to do next. I looked at a number of different industries and companies, but personally I always had a real passion for artisan and craft consumer goods. It’s a really big hobby of mine. Whether it’s going to Napa or learning about different kinds of premium consumer goods, I really had a deep love and never knew cannabis could be like that.
When I first met Caleb, the co-founder of Connected, he instantly got my attention by telling me that they had been selling out of their product in the volume of millions of dollars a year at more than two times what everybody else was selling for. That really piqued my interest because creating a product that has that level of consumer passion and demand is maybe the single hardest thing about building a consumer goods business. For them to have been so successful in what was a very difficult and gray market to operate in at the time – this was mid 2018 that I was speaking with him and he had been building this company since 2009 – is a really big challenge, and really impressive.
So, I started spending time with Caleb and the Connected team and learned a lot about the business. Everything I learned got me more interested and more excited. The way that they thought about the product, the way they treated it was with a reverence and level of sophistication I had no idea was possible.
I was so excited to just learn about the space. I mean, honestly, it feels like the internet in the 90’s- The sheer possibility and excitement. The only difference here is that the market already has existed for 100 years plus: the gray and underground markets for this product are actually phenomenally mature. And now we’re lifting up billions of dollars in commerce that’s already occurring and attempting to legalize all of it in one fell swoop, which creates such an interesting set of challenges.
I first got involved as an advisor on fundraising and strategy. And then a few months later, they were looking for a CEO and I joined full time as CEO in September 2018.
Aaron: What trends in the industry are you focused on?
Sam: It may seem basic, but I think product quality in the broader cannabis markets nationally and internationally is really underrated. Because of the extreme weight of the regulatory frameworks in so many different markets, it’s resulting in a lot of product being grown and sold just because it can be by the operators that are doing it. In many markets, they count the number of producers by the handful, instead of being measured in hundreds or thousands like in California or Oregon. And in that kind of environment, you’re not really having competition, and you’re not really able to see the quality that has existed in this category for years and years and years.
That’s one of the things that really sets us apart – the quality is first above all else, as well as the innovation and time that has gone into it, and not many existing brands in the legal market can say that. With some of the “premium” brands on the market, it would be comparable to just jumping into the wine industry one day and thinking that you can become a premium brand, without having any knowledge of the history of the product or the industry itself. At Connected, we have a team that’s been doing this for over a decade. We did a back of the envelope calculation: there’s over one thousand lifetime harvests between our team. We’ve also brought in specialists from Big Ag and other industries to complement that experience.
Cannabis is a very, very difficult plant to grow at a very high level. It’s much more like high-end wine or spirits than other fruit or produce. I think in the cannabis community, that’s extremely acknowledged, and appreciation for that is the reason we get by with the highest prices in the legal market. I think in the broader investor and financial community, this point hasn’t really hit home, because the limited license markets aren’t mature enough, and there isn’t enough competition in many of them.
Our focus is continuing to make the best product we can, which has fed and developed our brands [Connected and Alien Labs] into what they are today. That is our number one focus, and we think it’s pretty unique to the space of not just cultivating a great quality product, but also as far as breeding, pushing the bar higher and higher on what can be done with the genetics of the plant.
Aaron: How do you think about choosing testing labs?
Sam: So, the number one criterion is responsibility and compliance. We must be completely confident that they’re testing accurately, safely and exactly to the specifications of the state. Then from there, it is really cultivating about a partnership. There’s a lot of nuance in the relationship with a testing lab. We note things like: Are they responsive? Are they sensitive to our needs in terms of either timelines or requirements we have? It does come down to timelines and costs to a certain extent, like who’s able to deliver the best service for the best cost, but it really is a partnership where you’re working together to deliver a great product. Reliability and consistency are big pieces as well.
Aaron: Industry estimates for illicit market activities are something like 60% of the California market. From your perspective, how do we fix that?
Sam: I think it probably comes down to funding for the efforts to discontinue those activities and opening up the barrier to entry, incentivizing “illegal” operators to make the investment in the cross-over. I think the most successful attempts to tamp it down was when there were initiatives that were well-orchestrated and well-funded, allowing for legacy growers to actually cross over to the “legal” industry. You can’t launch an industry with such an extreme amount of regulation, set a miles-high barrier to entry, and then penalize legacy growers for continuing their business as-is. If the illicit market continues to be fueled by rejection, you’re not going to achieve the tax revenue that you’re expecting to see, that we all want to see. There needs to be an attitude that every dollar put into transitioning illicit markets into regulated markets is returned many times over in tax revenue to the state’s citizens.
Aaron: So, I understand you sell wholesale. Do you sell direct to consumer?“Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before.”
Sam: We own and operate three retail stores, so we do sell direct to our consumers, but at this point the majority of our product is sold through third party dispensaries.
Aaron: Do you make fresh frozen?
Sam: We do. On the cultivation side we have indoor, mixed light and outdoor. We fresh freeze a portion of our outdoor harvest every year, and then we use that fresh frozen for our live resin products, for example, our recent live resin cartridge. It creates a vape experience really unlike any other because we are using our regular market-ready flower, but instead we’re taking that flower and actually extracting, not just using the distillate and mixing a batch of terpenes with it. We extract the entire plant’s content across the board, from cannabinoids to terpenoids and everything in between, and then you have our live resin cartridges.
Aaron: How do you think about brand identity and leveraging the brand to command higher prices?
Sam: The cycle we’ve effectively created is that every time we do a release of a new strain or a new batch or harvest, the quality is generally going up. That quality is released under our brands, and then the customer is able to associate that increase in quality and reputation with those brands. Then for our next launch, we have an even bigger platform to talk about the products and to ship and distribute and sell the products. Once they hit the shelves, we blow people away again, beyond their expectations of what they had before. That continuous cycle keeps fortifying the brand and fortifying the product. From our perspective the brand is built 100% on the quality of the product. The product will always be our highest priority and the brand will come downstream from that.
Aaron: Tell me about Alien Labs.
Sam: Alien Labs was an acquisition. It was a company that had built their brand really successfully in the gray market through 2017 and Prop 215 in California and had an incredible level of quality, a really loyal and dedicated fan base, not to mention a tremendous Instagram presence and following, which is where 98% of cannabis marketing happens today. We really loved the spirit of what the founders were bringing to the table. In 2018, we decided basically to join forces with them and bring them on board, creating a partnership where they leverage our infrastructure and the systems and processes we’ve built, but still keep their way of cultivation and their product vision. To this day, Ted Lidie, one of the founders, continues as the lead brand director for Alien Labs.
Aaron: In what geographies do you currently operate?
Sam: Our primary offices and facilities are based out of Sacramento, California, but we have facilities throughout the state. Last year, for the first time we launched operations in a new state, Arizona. As you may know, you’re not allowed to take cannabis products across state lines at all, so if you want consistent product in multiple markets you really have no choice but to rebuild your entire infrastructure in each state you want to open up.
There are many brands that are expanding and launching in more markets more quickly, but they’re doing so by taking product that’s already existing and putting their brand name on it. That is something we’ve decided strategically that we will not do. We’ve spent years building a high level of trust with our customers, so we’re only going to put our brand name on products that are our genetics, our cultivation, our style, our quality of product. When we launched in Arizona, we did it with a facility that we leased and took over and now operate with our staff. We’re replicating the same exact product that you can get in California in Arizona, which is really exciting.
We launched just this past November, which has been incredibly successful. Our dispensary partner Harvest saw lines of dozens of people out the door.“We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move.”
Aaron: Any new geographies on the horizon that you can talk about?
Sam: We’re constantly evaluating new opportunities. I don’t have anything particularly specific to announce right now, but I will say we look for states where we believe there’s a competitive environment where the product quality is going to really stand out and be appreciated.
Aaron: Do you notice any differences in consumer trends between California and Arizona that stand out?
Sam: Not too many yet. We don’t have a retail location in Arizona, so we don’t have as much direct contact. However, we have heard consistently that the Connected customer demographics – as you would imagine most interested in our product – are those looking for something special, unique, different and have a really superior quality to everything else out there. We ended up launching in Arizona with the highest price point for flower in the state, and we say that’s just the beginning. The market is still so young and immature, both nationally and internationally, that this category is going to develop into one that’s really taste-driven.
Aaron: What’s next in California?
Sam: Continued growth and product development. We want to keep blowing away our customers with more and more incredible products, different product types and categories. For example, the cartridges were a really big launch for us because we don’t really consider ourselves a vape company. We consider ourselves a flower company first and foremost, so for us, that was a very calculated strategic move. We were only going to launch the product if we could fully replicate what the consumer gets from the flower experience. We are very unlikely to ever release a distillate pen, for example.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Sam: We, as a society, really don’t know very much about the cannabis plant. Pretty much all meaningful research around cannabis stopped in the early 1900’s with prohibition. In the meantime, we’ve performed millions of dollars of studies and research on almost every other plant that we grow commercially. We understand these plants extraordinarily well. Cannabis science is stuck back in agriculture of early 1900s. The most interesting conversations I have are around how the plant works, how it doesn’t work and the ways in which it is so different from all other plants with which we are familiar. Our head of cultivation comes from Driscolls, the largest berry company in the world, and even he is frequently surprised by the way the cannabis plant reacts to things that are commonly understood in other plants. So, the way the actual plant responds to different environments is truly fascinating and something I think we’ll be learning about for decades and decades to come.
Aaron: Okay, great. That concludes the interview. Thank you, Sam!
Cultivation businesses should consider specializing in just one stage of the cannabis cultivation process. The industry has focused heavily on vertical integration, and some regulating bodies require licensees to control the entire cannabis value chain from cultivation and processing to retail. This requirement is not always in the best interest of the consumer or the business, and will likely change as the industry evolves. Not only will companies specialize in each step of the value chain, but we’ll see even further segmentation among growers that choose to focus on just one step of the cultivation process. Cannabis businesses that want to position themselves for future success should identify their strengths in the crop production process and consider specializing in just one part.
Elsewhere in commercial horticulture, specialization is the norm. It is unlikely that the begonias you bought at your local garden shop spent their entire life inside that greenhouse. More likely, the plant spent time hopping between specialists in the production chain before landing on the retail shelf. One grower typically handles stock plant production and serves as a rooting station for vegetative cuttings. From there, rooted cuttings are shipped to a grower that cares for the plants during the vegetative stage. Once they’re an appropriate height for flowering, they’re shipped to the last grower to flower out and sell to retailers.
Cannabis businesses should consider imitating this model as a way to ensure competitiveness in the future. In the US, federal law does not yet allow for the interstate transport of plants containing THC, but the process can be segmented within states where vertical integration is not a requirement. As we look ahead to full federal legalization in the US, we should anticipate companies abandoning the vertical integration model in favor of specialization. In countries where cannabis cultivation is federally legal, entrepreneurs should consider specialization from the moment they begin planning their business.
Cultivators that specialize in breeding and genetics could sell seeds, rooted cuttings, and tissue culture services to commercial growers. Royalties could provide a recurring source of income after the initial sale of seeds or young plants. Contracting propagation activities to a specialist can result in consistently clean rooted cuttings that arrive certified disease-free at roughly ¼ the cost of producing them in-house. This not only frees up space at the recipient’s greenhouse and saves them money, but it eliminates the risks inherent in traditional mother plant and cloning processes. If a mother plant becomes infected, all future generations will exhibit that disease, and the time, money, energy, labor, and space required to maintain healthy stock plants is substantial. Growers that focus on large scale cultivation would do well to outsource this critical step.
Intermediary growers could specialize in growing out seeds and rooted cuttings into mature plants that are ready to flower. These growers would develop this starter material into healthy plants with a strong, vigorous root system. They would also treat the plants with beneficial insects and inoculate the crop with various biological agents to decrease the plant’s susceptibility to pest and disease infestations. Plants would stay with this grower until they are about six to 18 inches in height—the appropriate size to initiate flowering.
The final stage in the process would be the flower grower. Monetarily, this is the most valuable stage in the cultivation process, but it’s also the most expensive. This facility would have the proper lighting, plant support infrastructure, and environmental controls to ensure that critical grow parameters can be tightly maintained throughout the flowering cycle. The grower would be an expert in managing late-stage insect and disease outbreaks, and they would be cautious not to apply anything to the flower that would later show up on a certificate of analysis (COA), rendering the crop unsaleable. This last stage would also handle all harvest and post-harvest activities—since shipping a finished crop to another location is inefficient and could potentially damage the plants.
As the cannabis cultivation industry normalizes, so, too, will the process by which the product is produced. Entrepreneurs keen on carving out a future in the industry should focus on one stage of the cultivation process, and excel at it.
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