Flight of the Dutchman

Features - Cover Story

The Pharm’s Sjoerd Broeks (formerly of The Flying Dutchmen seed company) combines world-class genetics, high-tech systems, robots and glass-house growing in Arizona’s medical market.

March 5, 2018
Brian MacIver
Photos by Molly Condit at SunStreet Photo

Sjoerd Broeks (pronounced Shored), director of cultivation at The Pharm, is a cannabis industry rock star.

While this could be taken as hyperbole, a case can be made in support of this claim: Broeks, like Eddie Van Halen, originally hails from The Netherlands; he was part of a legendary group: The Flying Dutchmen seed company; he had the opportunity to tour the globe thanks to his unique skill set; and he eventually made it to America, where his fame only grew.

None of these things were lost on Randy Smith, the company’s CEO, when he met Broeks through a mutual friend. “When meeting with Sjoerd the first time, you knew right away he knew what he was talking about, you knew right away he could get the job done,” he says. “You knew that this was a very rare breed.”

A rare breed of cultivator is what Smith needed to complete his ambitious project: turning a 320,000-square-foot Dutch glass greenhouse in Willcox, Ariz., located roughly halfway between Tucson and the New Mexico border, into a premiere cannabis cultivation facility.

Smith was inspired by another cannabis luminary, Harborside’s Steve DeAngelo—who he met after founding medical cannabis consulting firm 4front Advisors in 2011—in creating the farm.

“One of the things Steve was preaching all along was sun-grown cannabis and the belief system that the plant is meant to grow in the sun, that the plant is a healthier plant in the sun, the cannabinoid profiles are better in the sun,” Smith says.

Smith understood that not many cannabis cultivators had experience growing in a greenhouse, even less so in a high-tech greenhouse, so he turned to a neighbor: Johan van den Berg, the founder of produce grower Eurofresh Farm and former operator of the country’s largest greenhouse. Smith says he and his team talked with him extensively and took his input into account during the company’s planning stages. After talking with van den Berg, Smith explains, “we knew what we really needed is somebody that was deeply passionate about the plant, could grow at scale and really had a deep tie to world-class genetics.”

The Pharm’s geothermal well. The water coming out of the ground enters the greenhouse at a constant 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The company’s CEO, Randy Smith, says it “was one of the main attractions to that particular property.”

“When we were trying to find those people that checked those boxes in the cannabis side, Sjoerd was the No. 1 guy.”

‘The Bones Were Good’

As soon as Broeks saw the Arizona facility, however, he knew lots of work laid ahead for him.

“It was practically unusable,” he remembers of his first visit in 2015. Nearly everything, including the fan systems, the irrigation system, the rotors, the benches, the blackout curtains and shading cloth had to be redone, he says. “The bones were good, that was it.”

But there were a few features that stood out. First, the structure was a Dutch glass greenhouse, meaning it’s “a good framework to control the heat and the light,” even as you are subject to nature’s fickleness, Broeks says.

The second point in the farm’s favor was the location.

A close-up of a flowering cannabis plant. Sjoerd Broeks, The Pharm’s director of cultivation, selects his mother plants by germinating thousands of seeds.

“The nice thing about Willcox is the elevation. It sits above 4,000 feet, so we have a cooler climate,” Broeks explains. “It’s a little cooler than a lot of places in Arizona, the water is really good, the nights are pretty cool and dry for the most part. It’s almost a perfect place to build a greenhouse like that.” The cool and dry nights help maintain an appropriate cultivation environment without increasing costs. When it’s very hot and humid, cooling greenhouses becomes more of a challenge, Broeks says.

But what sold the former Flying Dutchman was the geothermal well that provides almost all the heating the facility needs in a year. Broeks estimates the company gets 80 percent of its heating from that sustainable energy source.

Geothermal wells work as natural boilers by using the organically produced heat from below the Earth’s surface. By digging deep holes and putting in reservoirs, heated sub-surface water can be collected and pumped directly into a heating system, or a fluid from an outside source can be passed through the system and be heated by the warmth underground.

“We rely almost exclusively on the geothermal except for three months a year” when the company supplements the geothermal well with two boilers, Broeks says. The backup boilers are run only for CO2 gas which is pumped to the crop throughout the greenhouse.

The geothermal well offers The Pharm a consistent measure of heat: The water from the well enters the facility at around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and circulates between each row of the greenhouse through a widespread radiant piping system.

Smith says the facility came with the well when he purchased it (the previous owner had invested more than $1.3 million into making the functioning geothermal well) and like Broeks, it was one of the things that attracted him to the property.

“It’s a state-of-the-art, amazing advantage that we have,” he says. Instead of spending money on heating with natural gas or another artificial heating system like other greenhouses in the state, Smith can “put those [saved] costs back into the plant itself with better nutrition, better people, better oversight. That’s the luxury that affords us.”

A The Pharm employee working in the nursery. A conveyor belt moves the pots across the massive greenhouse, helping employees be more efficient.

A Systematic Approach

That investment into better people and oversight through better developed systems and processes is critical to the company’s—and Broeks’—success, according to Smith. “We preach a lot that we cannot be a people-dependent company because [we] will fail. We are a systems-dependent company run by great people.”

Currently, each greenhouse staff member is in charge of one section, or “bay,” of the greenhouse. Each bay measures approximately 6,500 square feet, and each team member is focused on a small number of tasks in that bay. This task- and zone-specific model came from Smith’s examination of other cannabis cultivation markets.

“What we saw a lot in this space when we thought about why some of these operations succeed and some fail … is these guys were wearing too many hats,” Smith says. “I thought, ‘What happens when you get a really talented guy and all he has to do is work his magic with the plants?’”

On top of the system, Smith also has the “great people” part covered: Many of the company’s greenhouse workers are former workers from local commercial farms, making their learning curve that much shorter and the systems that much more effective.

Although the CEO shaped the company structure, Broeks is in charge of executing the vision. Once the entirety of the greenhouse is open for use (final upgrades on the last remaining bays are expected to be done by May), he expects the greenhouse will need between 40 and 50 full-time employees, not much more than what it currently has. (The company employs 125 staffers.) That’s because Broeks is hoping the staff’s skills grow along with the company’s footprint. As the workload gets bigger, so should the employees’ ability to manage it, he says.

That is not to say the workers won’t be duly compensated. Broeks plans on introducing an incentive program to keep the workforce motivated when he doubles the number of bays for which each team member is responsible. While this type of incentive-based pay scale might not be a good fit for every company and every worker, Broeks says, “a lot of our crop workers are used to working in tomato greenhouses, cucumber greenhouses, so they’re already used to, and prefer, that incentive style of work. They are highly motivated to do the job well, and they have experience, so they get more responsibility in a bigger area.”

Having employees dedicated to one task not only means the company is able to run a more efficient company—especially considering The Pharm plans to crank out up to 40 tons of flower per year once it is running at full capacity—it also minimizes the chances of Broeks having to deal with a catastrophic crop failure, Smith says.

But that isn’t the only thing helping Broeks and his team run a smooth operation.

Isaac Pabst, the cultivation manager at The Pharm, tending plants

Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots

Both Smith and Broeks borrowed from the commercial agriculture industry in implementing technologies and tools to reduce labor and increase efficiency.

A Priva climate control system operates everything from temperature and humidity to irrigation and fertigation. A rolling bench system keeps things running smoothly in the nursery, and a conveyor belt moves mature plants from the nursery to the flowering areas. There is even a steam cleaner that sterilizes every container without having to dispose of the substrate, the idea being to eventually leave root balls in the container and use them to form enzymes for inoculation, Broeks explains. He adds the company uses organically derived substrates that is suitable for inoculations of beneficial organisms so there is enough organic matter for the inoculation to multiply.

While that last piece of technology is impressive, it isn’t even close to the most advanced tool Broeks has in his arsenal. That title belongs to the two robots that automatically navigate between aisles and spray the plants or clean the bays.

The first robot is a spray robot, which can be filled with a pest or disease control product, including Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR) stimulating products, and automatically sprays both sides of each aisle. All of this is done without any human assistance other than placing the robot on the heating rails (the same rails that carry the hot water from the geothermal well). The second robot is a low-volume mister (LVM), which is used to sterilize the bays after plants have been removed and sent to post-harvest. “It’s really cool to watch,” Broeks says of the machines.

Dividing curtains mark off each two-bay section and are used in the company’s integrated pest management (IPM) strategy. “If we have one bay area that looks like it has some issues with pest or disease, then we can have a little bit of a demarcation between bays,” Broeks explains.

“If an area and all the materials, including plants, are sterile and clean when we plant, it’s much easier to control pests and disease,” he says.

In the case of crop failure in one bay, Broeks’ IPM team—a full-time staff of six scouts and four other workers whose sole responsibility is to identify and treat pest issues—can quarantine and sterilize the zone with a hydrogen peroxide product without affecting the rest of the crop, or simply set the LVM in that section. Broeks treats pest and disease issues only with beneficials and products certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI).

The Pharm uses a low-volume mister (LVM) to disinfect bays after they have been harvested.

The curtains also serve a second purpose. After moving the plants into the flower area, Broeks likes to give the plants some time to fill out the canopy to create the optimal leaf area index and canopy density depending on the climate or season. “When we do that,” he explains, “we also need to have a blackout barrier that separates those bays from the rest of the greenhouse, so we don’t get light pollution to the plants that are on the right light cycle.”

These investments in technology are all part of Smith’s experiment to discover what happens when one person has just one job.

“[Broeks is] surrounded and supported in a way that he gets to do what he’s best at. And the things that aren’t his strongest suit or that he doesn’t enjoy doing, he doesn’t do,” Smith says. “It’s a true commercial agriculture company.”

By far, Broeks’ favorite part of his job is the research he gets to do at the farm. However, that doesn’t mean he runs around the greenhouse like a mad scientist. It’s actual work. Take, for instance, his approach to selecting genetics.

In addition to using only OMRI-certified products, Broeks uses beneficial insects to prevent pest outbreaks.

Jam Session

Last year, Broeks and his team planted 25,000 seeds from about a dozen different seed companies. That number might seem excessive, but he has just as many boxes to check as Smith did when searching for a cultivation director.

“What I’m primarily looking for is plant characteristics that make them a real joy to grow and a plant that does a lot of the work for you: It drinks a lot, it eats well, it’s vigorous, it’s heat resistant, it’s not a hermaphrodite, it has a high flower-to-leaf ratio-all those different things,” Broeks says, adding, “once those boxes are ticked, its all about potency, terpene profiles and medical efficacy.”

Broeks has worked on breeding plants since the late ’90s during his time with The Flying Dutchmen seed company and his following projects. In his world travels, he was lucky enough to work with many of the original landrace varieties—South Indian, Thai, Afghan, Hindu Kush, Columbian, Mexican, etc.—and that has determined his approach to strain selection. He laments how breeders and cultivators have focused on high-THC strains over the past several years. This has narrowed down the gene pool, he says.

“The ways each of those varieties made you feel, how you experience them, are so wildly different than the next one,” he continues. “By trying to create variety in the gene pool, as opposed to trying to narrow it down, you can start finding and isolating different cannabinoid profiles and flavonoids for medical applications.”

In popping 25,000 seeds in a year, Broeks gets to see different expressions of multiple varieties, increasing the chance of finding one that can make it through his entire selection process.

That process starts with 500 seeds of each variety. Of those, roughly half will be males and will be discarded. Of the 250 females, usually only eight are judged good enough or deemed interesting enough to move on to the next phase, where each strain is grown from clone three times. This is a crucial part of the selection process, as a phenotype might grow differently from a clone as compared to growing from a seed, Broeks says. He grows three clones to test how each variety does in each season, as one phenotype might be unfit for a hot climate, but could thrive in an environment with cooler nights, such as Willcox’s winter season.

Ultimately, only the top two clones make the cut, if at all; only 1 to 3 percent of seeds make it into the company’s rotation, he says.

To assist with the selection process, the farm’s cultivation director imported a practice from his Flying Dutchmen days: He invites each breeder to give him feedback on their genetics.

Breeders not only know the details of each of their varieties Broeks is testing, they also can tell him which ancestor that particular variety resembles most, giving him more insight into each individual plant. It’s always a good deal for the breeders, too.

“They like it too because very rarely do they get to go out and see 500 plants of each variety. … They also get a lot of information about how their breeding lines are going,” he says, adding how this practice is a way for him to pay homage to breeders. “I’m not someone who enters a lot of cannabis cups, but I’ve worked with a lot of those breeders over the years. When we do have the opportunity to grow out their genetics, we treat it with respect [for] whoever that may be.”

Inviting dozens of breeders to inspect thousands of plants might be a difficult task for other cultivators to accomplish, but cultivators shouldn’t blame the breeders if they don’t answer calls because Broeks has a bit of an advantage due to his industry reputation. Let’s face it: If your rock idol called you up for a jam session, you probably wouldn’t say “no,” either.

Brian Maciver is the associate editor for Cannabis Business Times.