Thanks to the green rush, everyone thinks they can turn their hand to a bit of cannabis cultivation. Much to the frustration and anger of many seasoned growers, a whole host of farms have appeared from seemingly out of nowhere in the last few years alone, all because of the sweeping changes in state cannabis legislation.
But what many of those who are new to the cannabis industry have no idea about is just how difficult, and how much time and commitment it takes, to get your green to return you greenbacks.
Big Buds spoke to cultivators at three organic cannabis farms around the US, all of which have been established for less than six years. They shared their thoughts on what trials and tribulations they had endured to get their farms up and running, as well as some top tips on starting from scratch.
Oregrown: Following The Cannabis Rules And Scaling Up
Spencer Brewer, chief cultivation officer at Oregrown, located north of Bend, Oregon, joined the company in March. He comes from a family of cannabis growers — his parents grew pot when he was a kid, and later, as a teenager, he would often help out with the family harvest. In fact, Spencer’s father was so keen on a toke or two, it put the youngster off smoking weed until he was 17. Now aged 34, he says he has a joint once a day, and it’s his love of the plant that motivates him.
“It keeps me driven. Sometimes, the effects [of smoking cannabis] don’t lend themselves to a hard day of farming, but once a day, I will smoke that perfect joint and I will get down there and work so hard in the gardens to give back. Every crop we grow, I am looking to inform the consumer and [give them] that perfect joint.”
Brewer has worked as a consultant for several farms, helping to set up grow operations at a number of facilities. He says Oregrown is truly organic — something he believes many other producers can’t claim.
“We go at it with a common-sense approach, starting with the soil. We provide natural food stock, like alfalfa and kelp meal, and the protozoa through earthworm castings and compost to help break that down,” Brewer explains. “There has been a huge upturn in the hydro industry and marketing off of the black market. You have these ‘organic nutrients’ and people will stick an organic label on [the bottle]. But the thing is, these nutrients are processed and synthesized in unnatural ways. And in doing that, you miss all of the secondary metabolites that hold things together — all the enzymes and funguses, things that occur in the natural world, and you limit the plants’ exposure to that. It’s a liquid organic nutrient, which isn’t natural. It’s just like comparing an organic tomato with one that has been grown on a huge factory farm.”
Oregrown as a company knows only too well the challenges facing cannabis producers.
Having first launched in 2013, last July the company was issued with a number of penalties due to new regulations. As a consequence, the company’s grower, processor and dispensary operator were collectively fined a total $4,950 and hit with a 46-day suspension.
According to the Oregon Cannabis Connection, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) said its action was due to Oregrown keeping hemp on the premises before it had been licensed to do so, mislabeling “hemp flower oil” on the ingredients list of certain products, and false statements made by co-founders Hunter Neubauer and Aviv Hadar to inspectors.
Neubauer served a 23-day suspension for making a false statement to the OLCC. He said at the time he was unaware he had fallen foul of regulations, and rectified the situation as soon as he was informed.
With this behind them, Brewer says Oregrown can now concentrate on what they do best: Cultivating the crop. “I really think it is a powerful plant and it is a big move putting it out in the legal sector and I like to think [cannabis] has a card up her sleeve and will really change the world for us.”
Aside from the issue with OLCC violations, Brewer notes that another obstacle Oregrown has encountered is expanding the business in a proportional and profitable way.
“Scaling up is a problem. In the beginning, a lot of people got involved who didn’t really know what they were doing. There were a lot of “fake it ’til you make it” types. That set everyone up for a wave of disaster. There is a lot of flower on the shelves, but I see this differentiation in quality versus what’s mass produced. I could grow 50 tons of this stuff a year, but it won’t look great — my environmental impact wouldn’t look great. This is an industry of huge waste. I have seen mountains and mountains of plastic. The first thing I did was limit the amount of plastic we use at Oregrown.”
So, what advice does Brewer have for newbies entering the cannabis field for the first time?
Apart from wanting to see “more cannabis being grown on a high-quality level,” Brewer’s first top tip is to not allow yourself to be so easily led or swayed by what you see on social media.
“There are a lot of false prophets out there, and misinformation,” Brewer notes. “If you really want to understand something, you have to go through constant observation, work hard on it, and you have to fail and succeed. That is how you learn.”
He adds that newbies should also concentrate on growing a healthy crop, giving it what it needs to thrive, rather than rely on fancy, faddish processes. Brewer also stresses the importance of watering plants the right way.
“Water twice. If you water deep, for example, one gallon, all that does is get the soil surface wet and it had 10 percent runoff. It has to be done a second time. First level, you reach field capacity and the second water, everything is full and ready to grow.”
Lastly, Brewer insists that cannabis cultivation isn’t for quitters. “I have seen a lot of people come and go. After a couple of years, you are only just on the next level. So stick at it.”
AlpinStash Urges Persistency, Transparency — And More Female Growers
Kristin Murr and her husband Danny Sloat know a thing or two about sticking at it. They set up AlpinStash in 2015, with Murr having previously worked in a bakery specializing in infused baked goods to get some background and understanding of cannabis management, while Sloat focused on getting the farm off the ground.
Growing “cannabis with a conscience,” the boutique grow op based in Colorado has a loyal fan base, with AlpinStash marijuana often selling out within hours of dispensary delivery. Run by a team of four — three of whom are women — AlpinStash has been a labor of love for Murr and Sloat.
Sloat was initially motivated to grow after suffering a series of health issues, with doctors prescribing him a litany of opiates. “They started shortly after 2001 and I was on a load of pain medication,” he recalls. “I had an undiagnosed stomach pain issue. I was put on Fentanyl. I started taking medicine for the side effects and then medicine for the side effects of the side effects. The opiates weren’t helping at all. Now, [studies] show if you take opiates for muscle pain, it will only exacerbate it.
“I had a noncancerous base-of-skull tumor, which had to be removed,” Sloat continues, adding that he then turned to cannabis in late 2009 to help manage his physical suffering. “I started taking cannabis and was able to get over a lot of the pain issues. Growing became very therapeutic for me. I decided I wanted to focus on growing and focus on making the highest quality medicine I could.”
Sloat’s first cannabis purchase at a dispensary came with free clones, and this was how he got his first taste of cultivation, spending the next three years learning the hydroponics industry in and out, plus how to make a licensed facility function successfully.
AlpinStash is transparent about its grow practices and even has a YouTube channel documenting the company’s cultivation efforts, although Sloat notes that he never anticipated how hard it would be to run a farm in the cannabis industry. “When you get into a facility, there is a whole level of stress and responsibility I didn’t anticipate, as well as it being a highly regulated industry. Our biggest challenge is being such a small company that’s going up against well-funded and big competitors. But it is the challenge that craft folks face in general.”
Murr and Sloat agree that when they first started out, what surprised them above all was the level of suspicion that exists between growers. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of the little guys feel they have to be secretive and kind of fight amongst themselves,” Sloat says. “It plays very much to the big corporations’ strengths — that is why we need to develop the craft industry and stake our claim there. There are some extraordinarily well-funded companies coming in that are growing garbage, making it difficult for the little guys.”
The Colorado growers also faced early difficulty getting their product accepted in dispensaries, with Murr, who is known by her last name, often calling repeatedly, offering free samples in a bid for shops to stock shelves with AlpinStash.
“The people in charge of buying for these dispensaries, they get calls all day,” Sloat explains. “Murr got fake email addresses, or was told, ‘He is with a customer,’ and the person on the phone was the buyer.”
AlpinStash also slashed its prices to retain a competitive edge. Murr says it was a tough decision to make, but ultimately the right one.
“For the first year, I was selling really low to get us into stores, and that has really paid off for us. We have almost doubled the price now. We get emails from customers who bought our flower at a dispensary and they go out of their way to tell us so, and that means so much.”
She also agrees with Sloat that the veil of secrecy among growers and others within the cannabis community has to end. “A lot of times, there is a lot of ego involved. It’s a secrecy, which is so silly to me. No two people are going to grow the same product, even if it is the same strain from the same mom. We think it is important to educate and inform. So you may want to use some of the nutrients we use, but different lighting. We are not threatened by them and they shouldn’t be threatened by us. It is important to band together and educate.”
Murr, who is in charge of marketing at AlpinStash, trained as an elite athlete for much of her early life, playing hockey all the way up through college, until injury sidelined her athletic ambitions. At the time, she didn’t view marijuana as medicine as it had been drilled into her head that “it was bad.”
However, after suffering an intense back injury, she was prescribed Vicodin and Percocet and soon found herself addicted.
She recalls, “Then when I left college, I was still in a lot of pain because I wasn’t rehabbing and a friend suggested I try cannabis. It took a few weeks and then I was off of the medications.”
When asked what she thinks is lacking in the cannabis industry, Murr responds that there should be more female growers, explaining, “Women have been nurturing for thousands of years — [cannabis] is such a detail-oriented and fickle plant, and women are great at nurturing and love. We have been growers since the beginning of time.”
The couple also advise that new cannabis growers pay attention to branding and marketing to ensure their cannabis business is a success: “Identify the values you hold as a company and your best brand narrative.”
And they hasten to add that when it comes to getting your name out there, getting online is the way to go: “Have a website that works well — so many companies don’t think about that,” with Murr noting that you should also have a team behind you that is passionate about the company. “It was really easy for me to sell our product. We really love having people [on the team] that we love and trust. They are dedicated. Surround yourself with dedicated people who have as much of a passion as you. Find those people and do everything you can do to keep them around. This is to do it right, especially if you are a small business. [Cannabis] is a long-term business you have to put a lot of sweat and love and tears into. The smaller you are, the more this holds true.”
Got Agriculture Experience? Use It For Cannabis, Advises Aster Farms
Noah Cornell, director of cultivation at Aster Farms in Mendocino, Northern California, is in the minority when it comes to growers.
He has a background in farming vegetables — Fancy Greens, to be exact.
After selling his lettuce to some of the best restaurants on the East Coast, Cornell was encouraged to try his hand at a cannabis harvest. And once he did, he never looked back.
The draw for him was being able to farm a crop he could actually make a decent living from, with people who grow food for a living often facing a tough time making ends meet.
Cornell, who helped establish Aster Farms in 2016, says he is banking on his knowledge of food production carrying him through the peaks and troughs in the marijuana market.
“I knew a lot about organic agriculture, but not a lot about cannabis,” he explains. “That work experience as a food producer has informed my career as a cannabis farmer.”
He believes he is possibly one of only a handful of growers who plants in natural soil.
“When I first came out here and I saw the way people were growing in these pots and I saw the way they were irrigating, none of it really made sense to me. I think the cannabis industry developed in the late ’60s and ’70s with those who had experience in gardening, but who came from urban areas. It was built on growing plants that you could hide. You hear the stories of the old-timers who used to have to hide them up in trees — and literally you can go to homesteads and they still have pots up in the top of the oak trees. All of these practices came about from people who were growing with no agriculture experience.”
Having always grown his marijuana in the ground rather than using a synthetic grow medium, Cornell claims this cultivation method works better for a number of reasons. “When you focus on good soil, it has multi-tiered effects. When you produce healthy plants, they have less disease pressure and bug infestations. When they have exposure to something like a seasonal infestation, they have natural defense systems. You don’t see any overall harm to the crop.
“We have always grown nice flowers, get good potency results and terpene profiles,” Cornell adds of Aster Farms. “The shape and density of the plants has been good.”
Undoubtedly, Cornell’s biggest issue with the cannabis industry is expansion and legalization, which means he has to be across a lot of different areas when it comes to business handling and compliance.
“As we expand, you have to get used to wearing a lot more hats,” he says. “Now, I am not only the farmer, I am also looking after more employees — and that takes me away from the field. So, I have to keep my feet on the ground and then focus on the bigger picture. I have to do a ton of paperwork, with reporting and monitoring at the county and state level on everything that is happening on the farm.
“And then next spring we will most likely have to do track and trace and record all of the plants that go in the ground, followed through until harvest. People who have been through the permit process are happy to be out in the light. I have a six-year-old kid and the years of growing in the quasi-legal realm were very stressful, and I think a lot of people have ongoing PTSD from that.”
To add to the stress of it all, Cornell also faced the heartache of losing his 1,200-pound harvest and his home over the summer, when wildfires tore through the region. Thankfully, he and his family were unscathed.
However, he is pragmatic about the situation and says that climate change is just something a farmer must deal with. “Yes, it was upsetting, but what can you do? We were glad everyone was safe.”
Cornell remains cautiously optimistic about the cannabis industry and, from the beginning, he pitched the Aster Farms brand at the higher end of the marketplace. “We have an organic, high-end product and came up with a marketing campaign that would reflect that. We have known from the beginning we didn’t want to be a commodity producer. We wanted to see it through from seed to sale to maximize profits through the supply chain.”
Perhaps his most important piece of advice to cannabis newbies is to constantly check legislation in your area, especial before buying land for your farm.
“Before purchasing land, hire environmental consultants and check out the legal constraints of where you are setting up. We saw a lot of people buy farms over the last three or four years, either as regulations were being developed or the gray area, and then when the rules got written, the land that they bought to set up the farm wasn’t appropriate because of zoning or legacy. So, make sure it’s compliant.”
Water is another major issue Cornell urges newbies to consider.
“Make sure you have enough water and it is high quality and that you are legally able to use the water source. A lot of people are trucking in their water and that is going to kill them if everything else doesn’t, because it is incredibly expensive. It can take a long time to get water in California. A lot of people use spring water as their primary source and it can take years to get a permit because we are so heavily scrutinized.”
His final words of wisdom involve finance: “If you are projecting numbers for investors and you have a five-year spread for what you can produce, I would assume the worst-case scenario for what you can produce — cut it right in half and even further. How far can you cut it and still make a profit and survive? The chances are your idealized projection will fall far short.
“Estimate what it is going to cost, double that, estimate what you will produce, halve that,” Cornell finishes, “then see if you have a viable business. And forget about fire and flood — anything can happen.”