Growing legal cannabis for profit means that cultivators must maximize yield, maintain quality, prevent pest infestations and operate at peak efficiency to be able to offer competitive prices while maintaining or increasing profit margins. If investors are involved, they, of course, want a maximum return on their investments. Cannabis Business Times asked cannabis growers from three states — Colorado, Oregon and Washington — to describe how they set themselves up to maximize yield and remain competitive.
CannaMan Farms Vancouver, Washington
Brian Stroh received one of the first licenses issued by the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board for CannaMan Farms, a 1,500- to 2,000- square-foot facility in the northeast part of Vancouver, Wash. In March 2014, Stroh started cultivating cannabis on two acres of property that gives CannaMan Farms space to expand — not that expansion is on Stroh’s immediate radar. Instead, CannaMan Farms focuses on consistent growth of exceptional cannabis flower. Here’s how and why they do it.
1. Have a growing strategy that matches your business goals. Sea of green (SOG) is CannaMan Farms’ preferred cultivation method. Stroh says it yields a quality flower in a short growing period. “To me, it was an obvious choice because you produce single cola plants as opposed to large plants with a lot of larf,” he says. “A lot of people grow large plants because that’s what they are used to doing, but I don’t see that as the most viable way of producing usable flower.” In his experience, a quarter to a third of a large plant has inferior-quality flower. That strategy works for growers with ancillary lines that can use lower-grade flower, he says. CannaMan Farms doesn’t ignore yield, but Stroh says their status as a small, Tier 1 grower means every pound they produce must be top-quality cola.
2. Sweat the small stuff and remain consistent. Many ways exist to increase yields, but, in a regulated system, it’s difficult to do it consistently on a large scale. Stroh says disappointing yields are rarely caused by a large, egregious event. “It’s the culmination of many, many small inconsistencies or things [like watering, adding nutrients or spraying] that didn’t get done precisely right,” he says. “Those are the things that add up and really eat into your yields.” Inconsistency doesn’t just harm output; it can also affect product quality. At CannaMan Farms, Stroh emphasizes baseline scientific methods that can be repeated to increase yield and improve quality. “Everyone has ideas,” he says. “But when you start throwing tips and tricks at your grow, you don’t really know what’s working.”
3. Appreciate the fact that growing cannabis is a process-driven business, like any other. Stroh believes too many people look at cannabis as a new, unique industry. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. Like every other business, without a process-driven environment, the product may not meet requirements, which can jeopardize a harvest or diminish its market value.
Another business challenge: closing the gap between sales and production, when you can’t produce enough to meet demand. “If you spread yourself too thin, and you start trying to suddenly ramp up production, you’re going to push your yields. And how are you going to do it?” Stroh asks. “Are you going to throw the kitchen sink at it and hope? Or are you going to do it little pieces at a time? If you do it the correct way, you’re going to have to tell somebody that you’re not doing business with them.” For many people, saying no to business is a problem.
Shango Premium Cannabis Aurora, Oregon
Nestled in historic Aurora, Ore., is one of the newest Shango Premium Cannabis grow facilities. The 10,000-square-foot operation 25 miles south of Portland was purchased by the Shango brand almost a year ago. Although the location grew cannabis before the acquisition, head gardener John Hinkson says the affiliation with Shango has removed a lot of the guesswork.
With operations in Nevada, Oregon and Washington, Shango is a data-driven business that invests in learning how to grow various strains and how to optimize conditions to support yield. “We’re set up for success because Shango has done a lot of research and development on genetics, and we’re able to control our temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and air flow to a tee,” says Hinkson. Below, he shares four fundamentals of smart growing.
4. Find strains that thrive in similar conditions. Since the Shango product is distributed to a wide variety of patients and consumers at nearby dispensaries, a diversity of plants is important. “We try to find similar strains that can handle all the same conditions, so we can have multiple strains in the same room and still get the same yields,” says Hinkson.
5. Start small when making changes. Hinkson says many industry newcomers don’t understand the fickleness of cannabis. “When we’re going to use a new product, for example, we always do a test run on three to five plants,” he says. “We take pictures, make notes and try to notice if there are any adverse effects on the plant. If we were to lose a few plants, it’s not a big deal.”
6. Remember that automation isn’t everything. Most problems that affect the health of cannabis will show within a few hours. Hinkson says it’s easier to see what a plant needs when you get up close and personal. “I feel that the physical, one-on-one connection to your plants, going into the rooms, working with them ... has a positive effect,” he says. Through anecdotal experience, he has learned that the less time he spends in a grow room, the lower the yields when all other factors are equal.
7. Perfect the grow environment first. For better yields, slow down and make sure every condition in your grow environment is perfect before you put the first plant in the room. “Your vegetative stage is a key stage,” says Hinkson. “If you’ve got a poor veg, your yields are not going to be good.”
Smokey’s 420 House Garden City, Colorado
Inside a concrete and corrugated metal building in Garden City, Colo., are three rooms where Smokey’s 420 House grows 18 strains of cannabis for two medical dispensaries and a retail store. The former artist’s studio was modified extensively to meet state regulations for cultivation.
“Since I came on board 18 months ago, our No. 1 mandate has been preventing contamination,” says master grower and grow operations manager Scott Brady. To keep things contaminant-free, Smokey’s eliminated products with paper backing, wood products or drywall, and replaced them with more washable surfaces. Smokey’s also adopted SOG growing methods. Everything is moved and cleaned at once to maintain an immaculate growing environment.
In an industry ripe with regulatory changes, Smokey’s experience with construction, process documentation and quality improvements has provided a good foundation for their expanding business. Here, Brady shares a few hints for getting the most out of a harvest.
8. Have standard operating procedures (SOPs). One careless person can carry powdery mildew on his shoes and jeopardize an entire harvest. Smokey’s addresses this by using SOPs designed to keep workspaces and floors clean. That’s why Brady emphasizes the importance of hiring people with strong work ethics and perfectionist tendencies. When employees are properly trained to develop and observe SOPs on everything from spraying to cleaning, they can have a positive effect on quality and yield. At Smokey’s, written SOPs ensure that everyone follows the same practices every time, Brady says.
9. There are no shortcuts to better yields. “I wish there was a magic bullet that would give us another 5 to 20 percent yield ...,” he says. Being ready to respond to all the variables is perhaps the only universal cultivation rule, in Brady’s opinion. He is an advocate for tending every plant to evaluate its needs.
10. Identify strains with common growing schedules. Smokey’s cultivates plants with three distinct gestations: eight weeks, nine weeks and 10 weeks. Brady and his team are always looking for new strains and have discovered many nine-week strains with similar needs, which could result in healthier plants and better yields. “I’m considering growing all nine-week plants, so we can lose a week of gestation and gain an extra harvest at the end of the year,” he says.
11. Keep fastidious records. Smokey’s tracks temperature, humidity, CO2 and other factors three times a day. Those records help them understand how small changes affect the grow. Example: Smokey’s experimented with lighting and found a Gavita bulb that offered a slightly bigger lighting footprint than a typical 1,000-watt high pressure sodium bulb without harming yield. “We’re using that data to find the sweet spot for lighting in each room,” Brady says.