The cannabis industry is approaching a crossroads. While cultivators must ensure they are getting the greatest yield per square foot, an increasingly competitive landscape and sophisticated consumer means growers must also balance the need for volume with quality, consistent and award-winning cannabis strains.
Tissue culture propagation represents a significant leap forward in cannabis cultivation, ultimately benefiting both the grower and the consumer. The proprietary technology behind our sterilization and storage process results in the isolation of premium cannabis genetics in a clean, contaminant-free environment. Since our inception, we’ve been focused on setting a higher standard in medical (and one day adult use) cannabis by growing craft cannabis on a commercial scale through utilization of this cutting-edge cultivation technique. When taken in total, Maitri boasts access to a library of 243 unique cannabis strains, one of the largest collections in the U.S.
Trouble with Traditional Cultivation
Pathogens, insects and cross contamination all threaten the viability and value of cannabis plants. In many ways, current cannabis cultivation techniques compound these issues by promoting grams per square foot above all else and packing plants into warehouse sized grows where issues can quickly spread.
In these close quarters, pests can swiftly move from plant to plant, and even from generation to generation when propagating from clones or growing in close quarters. Similarly, pathogens can leap between susceptible plants, damaging or killing plants and cutting into a cultivator’s bottom line.
Of particular concern is hop latent viroid. Originally identified in hops, a genetic relative of cannabis, this infectious RNA virus has torn through the cannabis industry, endangering genetics, causing sickly plants and reducing yields. Plants cloned using traditional methods from an infected mother are vulnerable to the disease, making hop latent viroid a generational issue.
Minimizing or even eliminating these threats helps to protect the genetic integrity of cannabis strains and ensures they can be enjoyed for years to come. That is where the sterilization stage in tissue culture cultivation stands out.
Like cloning, tissue culture propagation offers faster time to maturity than growing from seed, allowing for a quicker turnaround to maximize utility of space, without overcrowding grow rooms. However, it also boasts a clean, disease-free environment that allows plants to thrive.
Tissue Culture Cultivation
Tissue culture cultivation allows for viable plant tissue to be isolated in a controlled, sterilized environment. Flowering plants can then be grown from these stored genetics, allowing for standardization of quality strains that are free of contamination and disease from the very beginning. Tissue culture cultivation also takes up less room than traditional cloning, freeing up valuable square footage.
This propagation process begins with plants grown to just before flowering and harvested for their branch tips. These branch tips undergo a sterilization process to remove any environmental contamination. This living plant material (known as explants) gets fully screened and tested for potential contaminants.
If it passes, the sample is stabilized and becomes part of the Maitri genetic library for future cultivation. If any contamination is discovered, the plant is selected for meristem isolation, an intensive isolation technique at the near cellular level.
Once sterilized and verified to be clean, the samples — often just an inch tall — are isolated into individual test tubes in our proprietary nutrient-rich medium for storage indefinitely. The cuttings are held in these ideal conditions until tapped for cultivation. This process allows Maitri to maintain an extensive library of clean, disease-free cannabis genetics ready to be grown.
Benefits for Medical Cannabis Patients
One of the chief benefits of tissue culture propagation is that it creates exact genetic replicas of the source plant. This allows growers like Maitri to standardize cannabis plants, and thus the cannabis experience. That means patients can expect the same characteristics from Maitri grown strains every time, including effects, potency and even taste and smell. Keeping reliable, top quality strains in steady rotation ensures patients have access to the medicine they need.
Preserving Plant Genetics
Beyond the benefits that tissue culture cultivation provides for the patient, this approach to testing, storing and growing cannabis plants also goes a long way towards protecting cannabis genetics into the future.
Cannabis strains are constantly under assault from pests and disease, potentially destroying the genetics that make these strains so special. Over-breeding and a dwindling demand for heirloom strains also threatens the loss of some individual plant genetics. Having a collection of genetics readily available means we can quickly cultivate strains to best meet consumer demand. Additionally, maintaining a rich seed bank that features both legacy and boutique strains allows us to have options for future tissue culture cultivation or for future new strain development.
Advancing Cannabis Research
Due to federal prohibition, researching cannabis, especially at the university level, can be extremely difficult. Additionally, the cannabis material that researchers have access to is largely considered to be subpar and wildly inconsistent, placing another barrier to researching the physiological effects of the plant. Clean, safe and uniform cannabis is a necessity to generate reliable research data. Utilizing tissue culture cultivation is a smart way to ensure researchers have access to the resources they need to drive our understanding of the cannabis plant.
Clean, ecologically sound production methods are the ideal for any cultivation or farming activity. Taking from the earth only what is needed to grow the crop and leaving behind little in the way of chemicals and land/water loss is the goal; with cannabis grow facilities, it can also be a reality.
This type of production does require some capital investment into state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, with standards that are equal to or even surpass current EPA and USDA regulations. While cannabis growing does not yet have access to the organic certification, that doesn’t mean growers can’t abide by and even go beyond the rules, to grow clean, healthy and environmentally sound cannabis.
There are a few essential elements required to make this kind of operation a reality.
Ecologically advanced use of power
For any indoor facility, one of the key elements is lighting. Using as energy efficient a system as possible is key. The best option at the moment is LEC lighting, which provides a spectrum of light that is very close to natural. This makes checking on plant progress more realistic and, with the inclusion of UV-B in the spectrum, can improve yields as well. In addition, the LEC bulbs have a long life—up to 2 years—which means lower maintenance costs as well.
Another aspect of growing that tends to use a lot of power is the cooling system. A standard HVAC system will be power intensive, so alternative ones like water chilled climate control systems are just as effective and 30% more power efficient. These systems are also able to reuse wasted power by feeding it back into the system, creating an additional 10% energy reduction. In addition, when the outdoor air temperature dips below 45 degrees, a water chilled system can switch to using the outside air, creating 60—70% in energy savings.
Efficient management of water resources
Cultivators depend heavily on water to ensure that the plants are hydrated and able to absorb the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. The result for many however is an excessive waste of water. This is a problem when a grow facility is leveraging municipal water resources. A water meter helps to manage and track usage but to ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible, a “top feeding” method of usage ensures minimal water waste (5% or less).
Effective waste management
Wastewater is a byproduct of any water intensive cultivation method but there again, managing the systems to ensure that what water isn’t reused and becomes “gray water” is still as clean as possible is the ideal. A high-quality filtration system keeps sediment, chlorine and other harmful elements out of the water supply — and out of the municipal sewage system. Further, by using organic matter throughout the growing process, the wastewater that is produced will meet every federal standard for organic food production.
All plant waste in a grow facility—for example: stems and fan leaves—is disposed of according to state and local laws. With cannabis plants, that requires a certain level of security, including locked dumpsters that are only unlocked and placed outside when the removal trucks arrive on site.
Organic farming practices
Using OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) listed soil is an essential part of clean, environmentally friendly growing. To ensure the proper nutrients are available for each harvest, once a crop is gathered, the soil is transferred to a local landscape company to compost and reuse.
Pesticides need to obviously be avoided and all fertilizers need to be USDA approved as organic and all nutrients need to be certified by OMRI to ensure they don’t contain any synthetic materials.
Considering all of these aspects is essential to creating an ecologically friendly grow facility with tremendous yields that are clean and safe for the end consumer, as well as minimizing the impact to the earth.
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.”
When it comes to small business opportunities these days, few phrases give people the old dollar-sign-eyes more than “legal cannabis”.
From states like Michigan where it’s been approved for both medicinal and adult use, to places like South Carolina where legalization has been a popular topic for ballots and voters, cannabis is slowly turning into one of America’s biggest businesses.
You don’t need us to tell you that – Investopedia reports that (as of Nov. 2020) over 340,000 American jobs were devoted to the handling of plants at various stages along the retail cycle, and the industry was estimated at over $13 billion as of 2019.
Not bad for a plant that’s still technically illegal under federal law, huh?
If you’ve read this far, it probably means you’re hoping to be among the lucky ones who can strike it rich with their own cannabis business. A noble undertaking, but are you really prepared to make your mark? In a field as competitive – and occasionally complicated – as cannabis can be, you really need to lead with your best foot forward, and make sure you’re as well prepared for the various challenges of a fairly new industry as possible.
With that in mind, below is a list of the five things you’ll need to double-check and make sure you actually have access to before embarking on your new business venture.
The right shelving & equipment
You see this a lot with smaller businesses as well as, er, ‘independent growers’. A lot of people assume that they can just buy some greenhouse shelves, line the walls of their business with it, and call it a day, right?
This approach leads to problems more often than not. Even above and beyond the inherent concerns of helping your plants grow safely (and productively!), the sort of equipment you use should reflect the sort of business you’re trying to run. A cannabis retail outlet, for example, is going to need different sorts of shelves and tables than a dispensary or growing facility, as the work being done is completely different.
It will take a little research, but it helps that a lot of businesses these days are starting to offer shelving specifically designed for various cannabis operations. Check to see if any of the big warehouse suppliers near you have gotten into the cannabis game yet – Shelving Inc, Metro, and Rack & Shelf are a few of the bigger shelving names with cannabis offerings as of this writing.
Long gone are the days when all you needed to be successful in cannabis was a booth at the shady flea market, a pun name and a big sign that said “Head Shop” to throw off the authorities.
Far too many cannabis businesses launch themselves headlong into a business plan without stopping to think of a good name, or just settling for the first one they think of. With as crowded as the playing field is quickly becoming, it might honestly be worth it to pay someone to help you come up with a decent logo and branding – it’ll go a long way towards helping you stand out against everyone else using a green font. Places online like High Hopes specifically offer these services for cannabis businesses, so you know they’ll be able to figure out what you’re about more quickly.
An understanding of your consumer base
The exact sort of work your cannabis business performs is going to affect what your potential customer base can be – and vice versa.
Early on in the planning stages, make sure to figure out exactly who you’re going to sell your products to, as this will inform nearly every other decision your business makes. Do you want to sell directly to the customer, or to work as a distributor for CBD/cannabis retail outlets? Are you prepared to manage and run your own storefront, or are you just going to rent warehousing space to sell your plants to other retailers? If so, do you know who the businesses are in your area that you could work with? Or, if you are planning on entering the retail space, do you know how many other cannabis businesses could be operating in your desired geographical area? Finding an audience may be the hardest part of opening any business, but it’s important work.
Banking that understands your industry
Maybe the biggest drawback to being involved in an industry as comparatively new as cannabis, is that a lot of the old methods of doing business aren’t quite available to you. Many financial institutions of various sizes are limited in the ways they can help finance cannabis businesses, from not understanding the regulations and needs of your industry, all the way to being unable to assist cannabis businesses with banking in the first place.
It might be advantageous to look into banks, credit unions or financing companies in your area that specifically offer banking services (like business accounts and the like). A few examples include Aery Group from New Mexico, or Seed to Sale in Michigan. (It’s important to note that many of these companies, such as Aery Group, can only service the state they’re located in due to different state-by-state regulations – check ahead to make sure you find a place that can help you!)
Knowledge of the needed licensing and regulatory requirements
Getting a license to open any business is a tricky prospect on a good day, but for an industry as wide-ranging and varied as cannabis, getting licensed can require a lot of homework.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be setting up shop in a state that allows for the sale of cannabis, the licensing process can vary widely from state-to-state. In New Mexico, for example, it can take months to acquire a license simply due to the amount of paperwork, research and submissions required to cement your business. Before going too far down the rabbit hole of opening your business, make sure to take the time you need to completely research and understand the various local and state regulations you’ll need to adhere to for your business to get off the ground.
Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of other hurdles and requirements that come with starting a business – but by remembering these five things, you’ll be off to a much better start than many others.
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!
On March 23, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting our annual Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to nine veterans of the cultivation market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of growing cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on growing organically, facility design and planning, hemp farming and integrated pest management.
Back in December during the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, the Cultivation Technology episode featured a session titled A Panel Discussion: Integrated Lifecycle of Designing a Cultivation Operation. Due to a large amount of interest and attendee questions that the panel did not have time to address, we are reprising this panel discussion and bringing it back on March 23.
Speakers for that panel discussion include: Gretchen Schimelpfenig, PE, Technical Director of Resource Innovation; Brandy Keen, Co-Founder & Sr. Technical Advisor at Surna, Inc; Adam Chalasinski, Applications Engineer at Rough Brothers/Nexus Greenhouse Systems/Tetra; David Vaillencourt, Founder & CEO of The GMP Collective, and Kyle Lisabeth, Vice President of Horticulture at Silver Bullet Water.
Other talks from the Cannabis Cultivation Virtual Conference on March 23 include:
Why CBD Companies Should Go Organic
Brad Kelley, COO of Socati
The Beginner’s Guide to Integrated Pest Management
David Perkins, Founder of Floresco Consulting
Starting from Scratch: Launching a Hemp Farm in Georgia
Reginald “Reggie” Reese, Founder & CEO of The Green Toad Hemp Farm
Dwayne Hirsch, President & Chief of Business Development at The Green Toad Hemp Farm
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!
It’s no secret that the rollout of cannabis legalization has underperformed in countries like Canada. Since legalization in October of 2018, industry experts have warned that the projections of the big cannabis firms and venture capitalists far exceeded the expected demand from the legal market.
Today, major production facilities are closing down, some before they even opened, dried flower inventory is sitting on shelves in shocking quantities (and degrading in quality), and an extremely robust illicit market accounts for an estimated 80% of the estimated $8 billion Canadian cannabis industry. None of those things sound like reasons for optimism, but while some models for cannabis business are withering away, others are beginning to put down stronger roots. Crucially, we are beginning to see new business models emerge that will be able to compete against the robust black market in Canada.
The Legal Cannabis Industry Can’t Compete
Legal rollout in Canada could easily be described as chaotic, privileging larger firms with access to capital who were able to fulfil the rigid – and expensive – regulatory requirements for operating legally. But bigger in this case certainly did not mean better. The product these larger firms offered immediately following legalization was of a lower qualityand higher price than consumers would tolerate. In Ontario, cannabis being shipped to legal distributors lacks expiration dates, leaving retailers with no indication of what to sell first, and consumers stuck with a dry, poor quality product.
The majority of existing cannabis consumers across the country prefer the fresher, higher quality and generally lower priced product they can easily find on the illicit market. That preference couldn’t be clearer when you look at the growth of inventory, which is far outpacing sales, in the graph below:
Which brings us to the crux of the matter: when it comes to building up the Canadian cannabis industry, what will succeed against the black market that has decades of expertise and inventiveness behind it?
Rising From the Ashes: Craft Growers and Other Small-Scale Producers
The massive facilities like Canopy’s may be shutting down, but our friends over at Althing Consulting tell us that those millions of square feet facilities are being replaced by smaller, more boutique-style cultivation facilities in the 20,000 ft tier, which are looking to be the future of the industry.
Consumers have consistently shown a strong preference for craft cultivators and other small-scale producers who produce higher quality, more varied products that are more responsive to consumer needs. It also hasn’t hurt that prices are also coming down: Pure Sun Farms in Delta, BC is consistently selling out of their $100/ounce special, which is highly competitive even with the illicit market.
This vision of the industry matches up better with the picture we’ve been getting from other legalization projects around the world. It also squares with other indicators of success. Despite the small market capture of the legal market, industry employment numbers are still relatively high, especially when compared with more established legal consumer products markets such as beer. In fact, craft cannabis growers now employ nearly as many people as the popular craft brewing sector here in British Columbia.
But in order to make the craft cannabis market actually competitive in both the regulated and unregulated spaces, the government will have to address four major challenges.
Challenge #1: License Distribution is Uneven and Chaotic
A December 2020 report by Ontario’s auditor general contains admissions by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), Ontario’s cannabis industry regulator, that they lack the capacity and resources to manage the number of applications for private cannabis retailing. Problems relating to the issuing of licenses, including long delays and difficult requirements, are widespread across provinces. One way this becomes clear is by looking at the very uneven distribution of stores across the country in the graph below.
Challenge #2: Basic Regulatory Compliance is Complex and Time-Consuming
Smaller-scale micro cultivators, whose good quality craft product remains in high demand, still face prohibitive barriers to entry into the legal market. Licensing from Health Canada is one onerous challenge that everyone must tackle. Monthly reporting requirements have in excess of 477 compliance fields. Without additional support to navigate these requirements – including automation technology to ease the administrative burden – these smaller producers struggle to meet the minimum regulatory standards to compete in the legal market.
Challenge #3: A Long-Distance Road to Compliance and Safety Means Higher Costs
Even with all regulatory requirements satisfied, cannabis cultivators can’t sell their product from “farm to fork” (to borrow a phrase from the food industry). Many growers ship their product to be irradiated in order to ensure they are below the acceptable microbial threshold set by Health Canada. While irradiation positively impacts the safety of the product, new evidence shows that it may degrade quality by affecting the terpene profile of the plant. Furthermore, only a few facilities in Canada will irradiate cannabis products in the first place, meaning that companies have to ship the finished product sometimes thousands of kilometers to get their product to market.
Next year, Health Canada looks set to lower the limit on microbials, making it virtually impossible to avoid cannabis irradiation. If Health Canada follows through, the change will be a challenge for small-scale cultivators who strive to prioritize quality, cater to consumers who are increasingly becoming more educated about terpene profiles, and seek to minimize the environmental impact of production.
Challenge #4: It is Virtually Impossible to Market Improved Products
Finally, there is a marketing problem. Even though the regulated market has made dramatic improvements in terms of product quality from legalization two years ago, Health Canada’s stringent marketing restrictions means that cannabis producers are virtually unable to communicate these improvements to consumers. Cannabis producers have little to no opportunity to reach consumers directly, even at the point of sale – most legal sales are funneled through government-run physical and online stores.
What Can a Thriving, Legal Cannabis Market Look Like in Canada?
The good news is that change is being driven by cannabis growers. Groups like BC Craft Farmers Co-Op are pooling resources, helping each other navigate financial institutions still hostile to the cannabis trade, obtain licenses and organizing craft growers to advocate to the government for sensible regulatory changes. As a result of their advocacy, in October, the federal government initiated an accelerated review of the Cannabis Act’s restrictive regulations related to micro-class and nursery licenses.
Now, more co-op models are popping up. Businesses like BC Craft Supply are working to provide resources for licensing, quality assurance and distribution to craft growers as well. Indigenous growers are also showing us how cannabis regulation could work differently. Though Indigenous cultivators currently account for only 4% of Canadian federal cannabis licensees (19/459), that number looks to be growing, with 72 new site applications in process self-identified as Indigenous, including 27 micro cultivators. In September, Williams Lake First Nation entered into a government-to-government agreement with the province of British Columbia to grow and sell their own cannabis. The press release announcing the agreement includes the following statement:
“The agreement supports WLFN’s interests in operating retail cannabis stores that offer a diverse selection of cannabis products from licensed producers across Canada, as well as a cannabis production operation that offers farm-gate sales of its own craft cannabis products.”
More widespread adoption of the farm-gate model, which allows cultivators to sell their products at production sights like a winery or brewery, has a two-fold benefit: it better supports local, small-scale producers, and it offers opportunities in the canna-tourism sector. As the economy begins its recovery alongside vaccine rollouts and restrictions on travel ease, provincial governments will have the chance to leverage the reputation of unique regional cannabis offerings (i.e. BC bud) through these farm-gate operations.
While the cannabis legalization story in Canada has had its bumps, the clear path forward for greater legal market success lies in increased support for micro-cultivators. By increasing support for these small-scale producers to navigate regulatory requirements, more will be able to enter the legal market and actually compete against their illicit counterparts. The result will be higher quality and more diverse products for consumers across the country.
Multi-state operators (MSOs) are on the rise in the United States, navigating complex regulatory frameworks to drive profitability through economies of scale and scope. C21 Investments is a vertically integrated cannabis company with operations in Nevada and Oregon; traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CXXI) and on the OTCQX (CXXIF). The company recently secured a commitment from Wasatch Global Investors, JW Asset Management (Jason Wild/TerrAscend) and CB1 Capital Management (Todd Harrison) who, in addition to C21’s CEO, provided an equity commitment for repayment of all convertible debt.
We spoke with Bruce Macdonald, Chairman of C21 Investments. Bruce joined C21 in 2018 after reviewing the company as a personal investment and getting to know the senior management team. Prior to C21, Bruce had a long and successful career in finance and capital markets at one of Canada’s largest banks.
Aaron Green: Can you give a brief overview of C21?
Bruce MacDonald: C21 is a cannabis company that has operations in both Nevada, and in Oregon. Oregon is fundamentally a wholesale business, and we recently announced a divestment of some non-core assets in the state. Our cash cow and where we currently see our best opportunity for future growth is our Nevada operations. We run a seed-to-sale business in the state with two dispensaries doing about $35M a year in revenue, with a 40% EBITDA Margin, and servicing 600,000 customers.
Aaron: Can you tell me about a little bit about your background and how you got involved in a cannabis company?
Bruce: I spent 37 years working for RBC in the capital markets business. I started as a floor trader, back when there was such a thing as a floor, and over the years held a number of positions, ultimately working my way up to Chief Operating Officer of the bank’s global capital markets division. Throughout my time, I built a lot of businesses, which was why C21 and this opportunity was so interesting to me.
My involvement in the cannabis sector was a bit of an accident, but it’s turned into a passion. It actually found me. I was an investor in the C21 IPO. I sat down with management to understand the investment and given my experience, they asked if I would consider becoming a member the Board. Since joining the Board, my involvement has been primarily focused on strategy and the financing side of the business. While I certainly didn’t anticipate it, it’s turned into a 24/7 gig and a challenge I am thoroughly enjoying.
Aaron: Can you tell me about the history of C21 becoming a MSO? Did you start in one state?
Bruce: While this history predates my time at the company, my understanding is that as a Canadian company, we had first mover advantage to be able to access public funding and get established in the US cannabis space. As part of that, the team at that time reviewed approximately 100 different properties. Because we were based out of Vancouver, the focus was primarily the Western states like Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Arizona wasn’t in the game yet. The first transaction C21 did was in Oregon, with a company called Eco Firma. In all, there were four acquisitions in Oregon, and one in Nevada. In fact, it was the investment in Silver State (Nevada) that was by far the most meaningful. As far as our Oregon assets are concerned, we have worked hard to integrate and streamline them into an efficient operation.
So, when I joined the Board, we were just completing the paperwork on the acquisitions, and finalizing our strategy and business plan to go forward.
Aaron: Today there are a number of MSOs. How does this more crowded market impact your value proposition; how do you think about gaining and maintaining strategic advantage?
Bruce: It’s important first to start with strategy. From a strategic perspective, we had the advantage of being the first operator in Nevada with Silver State. Sonny Newman, our CEO, started the business back in 2013. We run a seed-to-sale business so we have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the operation and really know the Nevada market. In fact, 70% on a dollar volume basis of the 700 SKUs that we sell are products that we manufacture. It’s a critical piece of our strategic advantage.
What I would say is our most important strategic advantage is the fact that C21 is a stable, self-sustaining operator. What I mean by that is we’re one of the few businesses that actually makes money. This is what really allows us to be strategic and disciplined in our approach to growth. For example, it’s been more than 18 months since we did our last capital raise and that’s by choice. Every decision we make is through the shareholder lens and focusing on delivering value to customers and shareholders.
Looking at our value proposition, simply put, it comes down to four things – the right products, at the right price, in the right location, with the right environment. Some people might call this motherhood, but there’s a lot of work that goes behind each of them.
Great quality products, that’s table stakes. You have to be a top-notch grower and generate quality products that people demand if you want to build a loyal customer base. Right price – to some it sounds like just putting the right sticker on the package – it’s not. It’s all about making sure you are efficient in your operations because to be profitable, you have to be a low-cost producer to deliver on a lower price promise. Tons of work has gone into our operation around being a “right price” business.
Right location is another important element of our value proposition. We wanted to build a loyal customer base which for us meant focusing more on locals than on tourists. This is why Sonny positioned the dispensaries on commuter paths.
The last key factor is having the right environment to sell our products. In Nevada, the company ended up building fit-for-purpose dispensaries rather than fitting ourselves in a strip mall. We cater to over 600,000 clients a year. Now we’re doing 10,000 curbside pickups a month. With that type of volume, logistically speaking you need ample parking, a well-lit exterior so people feel safe, and of course, great curb appeal. These factors are essential in maintaining a loyal customer base.
Aaron: Tell me more about Silver State Relief and why it has been so successful?
Bruce: I think what you’re really asking for is: what is Sonny’s secret sauce? There are a few ingredients that go into it. As I highlighted, it was a purposeful decision to build a business with a loyal customer base focused primarily on locals. That needs product, price, and convenience. Sonny lives in the Reno area, which is one of the main reasons Silver State is located up North.
Critical to success has been the culture of the organization. Let’s start with the company being nimble and I’ll give you an example. The early days of the pandemic included the complete shutdown of dispensaries. We went from serving over 1500 customers a day in our stores to the next day being told that we could offer delivery only. Within a week, we were able to pivot and had lockboxes, regulatory approvals and a delivery capability. When you look at our Nevada operation, we ended up with just a 10% dip in our revenues for the quarter, even though we had to live through six weeks of delivery-only and then a phase of curbside-only.
Another key element of the culture is our laser focus on cost management. We’ve talked a little about cost management, but it’s absolutely critical, especially in the context of the high cost of capital that we see in this sector. Add to that the punitive tax impact of 280e where federal tax is applied to gross margins which means SG&A and interest are non-deductible expenses for tax purposes. So, to enhance our profitability, we are intent on having the lowest SG&A of the public cannabis companies. We’re also among the lowest in interest expense. That whole drive for efficiency has given us a formula and a mantra that has allowed us to have a stable business with significant cash flow. We get to make strategic decisions — not hasty or desperate ones — and focus on what’s good for the shareholder.
Aaron: How was C21 capitalized?
Bruce: We did a $33M raise on the RTO of a listed shell company. That was how C21 was established, and then signed contracts with the Oregon and Nevada properties.
Aaron: I recently saw a press release about expanding the Nevada cultivation. Can you give me some more details?
Bruce: We announced that we are tripling our capacity within our existing 100,000 square foot warehouse facilities. We’re going to build out another 40,000 square feet, and we currently use 20,000. That’s the tripling. Expanding our cultivation was clearly the next logical step in our growth story. This should yield us an additional 7,500 pounds of high-quality flower. We can do this very cost effectively with about $6M in capex, and we anticipate funding the project internally. We will still leave another 40,000 square feet of expansion capacity as market needs justify.
This announcement was significant, but I don’t think it was fully understood by the market. Just to play with some numbers, 7,500 pounds of flower has a wholesale market value today of about $17M. It will cost us approximately $2M in incremental operating expense to add these additional grow rooms. We already pay the rent, so we just need to pay for the people, power, fertilizer and product testing. When you do the simple math, we see this as a big win for shareholders and extremely accretive on an after-tax basis.
Historically, we always used to grow more than we needed, but with the increase in demand that’s going on in the market, we now run at a flower deficit. In the near term, this build-out will allow is to meet our current retail needs, with the balance that we will sell on the wholesale market. Ultimately, this positions us well on a seed-to-sale basis to support our plans to extend our retail footprint in Nevada.
Aaron: It sounds like the decision was made based on both revenue growth and supply chain consolidation?
Bruce: Yes, and just the pure profitability of it! You can’t get a bigger, better bang for your buck from spending $6M to generate $17M with ongoing operating costs of $2M.
Aaron: The next question here is about the recent note restructuring and, and how the debentures was restructured. How’d that come about and what is the advantage now of having gone through that process?
Bruce: This all fits into our medium-term growth strategy. For C21, the first thing we focused on was getting our house in order to ensure that we were efficient and profitable. We knew we needed to have a scalable machine to grow. The second step, which the debt restructuring relates to, was around fortifying our balance sheet. To support our growth plans, we needed to have a solid foundation.
Our balance sheet had two things that needed fixing. One was that we had an $18M obligation coming due to our CEO. The effect of the restructuring extended this obligation over the next 30 months at favorable terms. Additionally, $6.5M of convertible debentures were reaching maturity in January of 2021. And while the debentures were in the money and theoretically would convert to shares, we didn’t want to take the risk that our stock price could drift a bit and all of a sudden there could be significant cash required for redemptions. We’ve seen a lot of companies suffer significant unwanted dilution when their debentures get out of control. So, we approached Wasatch, Jason Wild’s JWAM and CB1 Capital, three seasoned investors, who provided a backstop whereby they would purchase any shares not taken up by people though the conversion of their debentures, so that we would be able to pay any debenture holders back cash with the money we would receive as the investors took shares. In exchange for providing this backstop, C21 gave them an upside participation in the form of warrants. I think it was absolutely critical to get this in place. And it’s phenomenal to have these three names in our corner. We couldn’t imagine better partners.
Aaron: So, what’s next for C21?
Bruce: I hope you are getting the feeling that here at C21 our objective is to play the long game. That means we make measured decisions with the interest of shareholders top of mind. We’ve worked hard in 2020 to get our house in order, fortify our balance sheet, and generate significant cash flow. I think we’re clocking in at around $12M in trailing annual cash flow, which interestingly, is about the same number that Planet 13 is doing. That’s obviously a fantastic result for a company with $150M of market cap.
“We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics.”When we think about our medium-term growth strategy, we will continue to make our decisions through a cash flow and earnings lens rather than hype and flash. While we will remain opportunistic with respect to strategic alternatives, the core of our expansion is going to focus on where we already have a proven track record: Nevada. We’re big believers that to achieve long term success, you have to own your home market. And what I mean by that is today we’re about 5% of the Nevada market. Owning your home market looks more like a 15% share. That is our focus. I think we’ve shown that our disciplined approach delivers results – results such as having top five metrics in Net Income, Cash Flow and EBITDA Margin, across the range of public companies that we can see.
I think it’s key we’re getting noticed. We talked about the strategic investors, but we’re also one of the 17 plant-touching companies that’s in the MSOS ETF. So, we’re going to follow our clear growth trajectory, focused on the bottom line and delivering for shareholders. If you look under the hood right now, you see a 10% cash flowing company, which is a pretty rare bird in our industry. We’re excited about where we are.
One thing I haven’t touched on in great detail is our plans for expanding our retail footprint. How do you grow in the dispensary space? Aaron, I think what’s key here is looking at the expected return relative to the cost of capital. For example, if you targeted buying a dispensary with $20M in revenues, and are able as we are, to generate 25% in after-tax cash based on those revenues, then once optimized, it would generate $5M in earnings. An asset like this is going to trade at roughly one and a half times revenues. So, you’re going to have to pay $30M. For the people that have been going out and borrowing money at 15%, their annual cost would be $4.5M. We’re not going to give four and a half to the moneylenders, it just doesn’t make sense for shareholders. We are working with urgency to break the back of these sector economics. It is something we believe will be afforded to companies with stable earnings and profitability such as ours. Of course, no deal’s a deal until it’s on the tape, but we are very hopeful that we have cracked the code ahead of SAFE Banking to get capital costs down. This is just a little bit of an inside look into our thought processes.
Aaron: Okay, awesome. All right. That concludes the interview.
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