Going Maine-Stream

Features - Cover Story

Jar Cannabis Co.’s Erika Morrotta and Meowy Jane’s Noelle Livas share their outlooks on Maine’s shifting market, strain selection under production limits, the power of social media and more.

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August 27, 2018
Edited by Cassie Neiden
Photos by Kaitlynn TierinnI

Maine’s cannabis industry is caught amid an adult-use and medical expansion purgatory, so it seems. Recreational legalization squeezed past Gov. Paul LePage’s veto with a Statehouse override in May. But while limited home cultivation is currently permissible under the new law, the state’s adult-use regulatory framework likely won’t be established until the next governor takes office in 2019.

In addition, Maine’s medical program improvements made their way to fruition after state lawmakers again overrode Gov. LePage’s veto in July. The amendments allow retail storefronts, expansions for current businesses (including increased quantities of medical cannabis a patient can purchase within a 15-day period, as well as the number of employees a facility may hire—which is currently limited to one employee per caregiver), and the elimination of a qualifying conditions list, among other victories.

The flurry of recent changes has caused confusion among caregivers and patients in the current marketplace. Looking ahead, however, the state’s five-year market projection is $222 million, according to a June 2018 forecast by Brightfield Group. Therein lies great opportunity for Maine’s market, whose robust program already serves approximately 42,000 current registered medical patients.

Two state-registered caregivers—Noelle Livas, the co-owner and lead cultivator for Meowy Jane, and Erika Morrotta, co-lead cultivator and director of sales and marketing of Jar Cannabis Co.—realize that potential and intend to capitalize on it. Despite technically being “competitors” in a currently saturated market, with their facilities just a 20-minute drive apart, they don’t see each other as rivals. In fact, they even share their cultivation experiences and methods with one another. “I feel way it’s more of a collaborative process, like having a friend in an industry,” Morrotta says.

In this behind-the-scenes guest interview, Livas and Morrotta share what it’s like running a small facility and being female growers among the male-dominated cultivation space, and talk about their daily cultivation challenges, their social media efforts, expansion plans for the adult-use rollout, and more.

Noelle Livas: Tell me about a day in the life for you in the Jar Cannabis garden.

Erika Morrotta: I start my day between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. by checking the conditions of all the rooms. That’s first and foremost. [I] want to make sure CO2 levels are in check. Then I check that ACs are working and that temperatures and humidity are in the proper VPD [vapor pressure deficit] range. All of those are crucial.

I’m always testing pH, checking PPFD [photosynthetic photon flux density]. Every day, I manipulate plants with high- and low-stress training techniques. I spend a lot of time doing that, and making sure plants are stretched and my canopies are even.

I always have an R&D project going on, which is fun but time-consuming. I spend a lot of time documenting control groups and placebos.

Other than that, I love getting creative putting together content for the Instagram account. Right now, I’m also working on getting more promotional and marketing products, like apparel and lighters. What about for you?

Livas: Very similar. [I’m] always checking in on the environment. It’s not always the same every day you walk in—so adjusting from there to get into the target zone.

A lot of times, too, I get pulled back and forth because I have to do a lot of [operations-related items]. I have to do supply inventory management, conduct batch scheduling and bill paying, I have to make sure the landlord gets paid and, you know, the little things in addition to my general daily gardening.

Livas (left) and Morrotta (right) inside Meowy Jane’s curing room, inspecting Purple Punch hanging to dry.

[My husband] Joe used to be here more, and we would tag-team it, but he’s now focusing more in the [extraction] lab.

[Most days,] I dive in and do the daily [tasks] that are needed, such as watering and training, and if cloning needs to be done, or transplanting. [I’m] always trellising, always scrogging—that’s an everyday task, moving branches throughout the trellis to keep the plants wide and growing larger for our canopy space.

If I have free time, I try to find new ways to organize and create more systems for checks and balances, because it can be tough when you have multiple people in the garden, making sure people are problem-solving in the same way, so that we know how to identify what’s going on.

I think my favorite task would be when I actually can focus in the garden.

I love the nursery. That’s my favorite place in the garden because I think it’s the most important place. The magic happens in the veg room. If you’re sending unhealthy plants into that flower room, they’re not going to be their full potential.

How about you?

Morrotta: Definitely my favorite place to be in the garden is in the veg room. I also have a love-hate relationship with lollipopping, [a pruning technique to remove lower branches that aren’t getting light].

It was one of my least-favorite tasks in the beginning because I’m such a perfectionist that it was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to take that branch off,’ and now I’ve gotten so good at knowing the patterns with the specific strains. I can almost do it with my eyes closed. But my shoulders and my neck are not happy campers when the day is done.

Livas: Your [plants] are tall, too. I’ve seen them.

Morrotta: They’re so tall. I feel instant gratification from lollipopping. It’s all in the details, and when I put that kind of work in and focus on filling the trellis, I know buds are going to swell and the canopy will be full.

Meowy Jane uses a growing media mix of coco coir with a 30-percent perlite mix.

Livas: What have you been growing lately? Anything new, anything fun?

Morrotta: We have 25 strains right now. Fifteen of those are newer strains so we are learning them all and excited to offer more variety.

Silver Kush, Headband, and Skywalker Kush have been some staples of ours. Some of the newer ones we’re looking forward to grow are Clementine Kush, Sunset Sherbert, Blissful Wizard and the Mac—which is a slow grower, but she’s stacked real tight, and we’re excited.

Livas: Yeah, everyone talks about that strain.

Morrotta: But as you know, I’m sure, [in regard to] bringing on a lot of new strains, there’s definitely a learning curve there—you have to learn every plant and their needs.

Livas: [It] takes time, too, for them to adjust to your environment. It took us almost three runs to get a lot of these adjusted to the LEDs. It takes a while to dial in the nutrients and the environment.

We have over 10 strains right now, which is down from closer to 20. We’re trying to find things that are foolproof while also slowly adding in new genetics. A lot of things that we liked, unfortunately, we couldn’t keep because they didn’t fit into our garden. They took triple the amount of time to veg or they take 12 weeks to finish, or they didn’t produce the way that we were aiming for.

I’d say Wedding Cake is No. 1. It tests at 35.8-percent THC. Key Lime Pie has been popular. Purple Punch is amazing. I feel like people, [for] lack of a better word, sh-t on Purple Punch because it’s a hyped strain and it’s not super potent, but I find a lot of the medical patients really love it because it has such a great medical effect. It’ll help you sleep, eat, reduce your pain. So, we definitely are going to keep that one around.

It’s always a guessing game. People want variety. You have to keep pushing forward, getting new things.

Morrotta: That’s a struggle that we’ve seen too, trying to provide the variety, and then also integrating those newer strains at a reasonable pace, because you’re not going to throw 10 brand-new strains into flower. You’ve got to stick with your for-sure [strains], then trickle [in] a couple.

Key Lime Pie in week 3 of flower

Livas: How is social media going for you?

Morrotta: It’s a tricky platform, but I feel overall, I’ve had a lot of support on both Instagram and Facebook.

I just hit over 2,000 followers [on Instagram]. So, I’m already gearing up and preparing myself for the not-so-supportive audience as well.

I’ve had people zoom in on any flaw they can find in the photo and give me “advice” on what they think is the problem. I appreciate feedback, but sometimes people think these gardens should be perfect and that they know more.

Overall I feel confident in my garden and what I share with everyone on social media. I’m just being me, and all I can do is work hard, show my love for gardening, and the support will be there.

How about you? You have a lot more followers, and you probably deal with drama.

Livas: There’s a fair share of drama, but it’s been a roller coaster for me. I started three years ago on social media. It was fun for a while, and then it got a little more serious. I started getting more followers and more people commenting, and I started getting quite a few negative replies, and it really bothered me. I reached a point where I was like, ‘All right, I either can’t do this or I just have to learn to let it go and not take it personal.’ You can’t let it bother you if you’re going to put yourself out there.

Livas adjusting a Netafim spray stake at the Meowy Jane facility, ensuring it is spraying correctly.

 

Do-Si-Dos, Key Lime Pie and Girl Scout Glue strains in the vegetative stage

But [what bothered me more were] the people who were attacking me for being a girl or posting pictures of myself, or wearing leggings, just stupid things.

Now, I have such a strong group of followers that they’re there to support me. It’s a cool community, especially in cannabis. I think that you and I are a little bit more unique [because] there aren’t as many female cultivators.

All the women are so supportive of each other.

Morrotta: I think sometimes people look at you and I, two females in very well designed facilities with high-tech equipment, and wonder how we got into that position and what we could possibly know.

Livas: Right. That’s what I think is the most frustrating.

[That said, a] lot of insight has come from [social media]. I get people who send me information all the time. They see me vacuuming or scrubbing my tables by hand with a sponge and they send me this link online to this automatic table-washer.

A vault containing Blue Dream haze product that is dried, trimmed and cured.

[On the other hand,] my garden isn’t always as perfect as it may look online. I have health issues with some plants. I think maybe I’ll do a little post about that, to show it’s OK to have mistakes and mess-ups sometimes, and it’s all part of the learning process.

The other day, I had a flood in one of my flower rooms, coming out of the mini-split—

Morrotta: Yeah, I saw that.

Livas: It’s not all peachy all the time. [Laughter.] Yeah, that was brutal.

Morrotta: We have this [perfectly designed] environment really, [and] it’s not always going to be perfect, but we do try to make it as controlled as possible.

[For example,] we have five dehumidifiers and two, 10 tons of cooling in each flower room.

Livas: So do we, and we don’t even need half of them now that we have the LEDs.

Morrotta: We’re making the switch to 48 Fluence VYPRx Plus LEDs, and I’m looking forward to our energy consumption being way less. I’d love to pick your brain on tips and tricks with LEDs. What can you suggest?

Livas: Because there’s no heat put off by the lights, the canopy doesn’t get super hot. With LEDs, your ambient temp in your room can be 78 degrees to 80 degrees, and because the lights don’t put off heat, your canopy also remains at that temperature instead of overheating. However, your root zone will also be that temp, which is why we’ve tried so hard to get our plants onto a daily dry-down, so that we could always provide them with a nice cool drink of water, and oxygen and nutrients.

We tried to aim for around 68-degree water to keep the pot from getting too hot, because it’s obviously not great for your root zone to be 80 degrees.

Metabolism is a lot more vigorous under these lights because they are so intense. We’ve upped our feedings—another reason we’ve tried to get daily dry-downs, which is just overall important, anyway.

Morrotta: Speaking of pots and dry-downs, we have gone from 20-gallon pots to 15 to 7. Each time we’ve made the switch, I’ve liked the results more. Scaling back on size has allowed for consistent dry-downs and a much more quality product to provide our patients with, which is what we are all about. I think [that’s what you’re after], too—quality over quantity.

Livas: Absolutely. The industry is flooded right now, especially in Maine, and people can’t sell [product]. The only way you can keep your product and your company going is by having the quality that people want, or the strains that people want.

It would be nice to combine both worlds, of course. We used to be a lot more concerned with our yields, and we still are, [but] we want to keep our business afloat [with our] quality.

We used to grow [in] a 20[-gallon pot] as well, but we switched, and now we go between 7[-gallon] and sometimes 5[-gallon], but our plants are still the same size. I’ve found that it’s better because they have that really fast dry-down [with] daily watering.

Blackwater OG scrogged under a trellis net for horizontal growth.

Livas: Then you don’t have to use up as much coco either, which is nice. Are you mixing perlite in yours or [using] straight coco?

Morrotta: Not yet, but we’ll be trying that with the LEDs coming in. I think it will sort out dry-down variances within our strains.”

Morrotta: How are you coping during this transition period, with the recent medical and adult-use legislative changes?

Livas: Maine is an interesting place right now. It is crazy how we’re technically rec, but we’re not at all.

We voted [adult-use] in, and then the governor vetoed the bill written to implement it, and now [the legislature has overridden the veto and] they’re trying to put through these rules. A lot of the residents here believe that because it is recreationally legal, they should be able to buy it. … So [not as many] people are getting their patient cards anymore, which means the patient numbers are starting to drop, which is unfortunate for caregivers.

They’re trying to [lessen restrictions] for caregivers. That would be awesome for us. We may not have to worry about our plant limits anymore. [We may also be] allowed unlimited employees, more customers.

Livas: How do you see your company evolving as the market’s opportunity expands?

Morrotta: Maine has allowed retail locations to pop up, and that’s our goal—to open up as many retail locations as possible throughout Maine. We plan on being vertically integrated and providing patients and customers alike with premium cannabis products.

Livas: It’s been quite a challenge trying to figure out the retail location thing because there are so many aspects that go into it. Right now, any retail location we get is going to be for medical use [only]. The towns are starting to take notice and starting to put their two cents in on what they want to allow.

You have to consider, ‘Is this town cool when rec comes around?’ Because in the State of Maine, most of the towns have a moratorium right now. It’s honestly a gamble at this point.

We have our lab now, which is in the process of being certified in order to process product from external grow operations [in] compliance with the new law. It looks a lot, too, like the market is starting to lean toward concentrates for the more popular mode of consumption.

Right now, cultivation is great, but it’s not going to be the only thing that can carry us through, if we want to be successful.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length, style and clarity.

Cannabis Grower Maine