Name: Robert May
Location: Southern Humboldt County, Calif.
Title: Conductor, Humboldt Sky
One word to describe your cultivation style: Pristine
Indoor, outdoor, greenhouse or a combination: Combination of outdoor and light dep greenhouse
Can you share a bit of your background and how you and your company got to the present day?
My background is pretty unusual. My parents, a doctor and nurse, taught pioneer living skills as a hobby. I was booted out of high school in 1969, became a union construction worker, then co-founded a rock and roll poster company. In 1979, I met a lovely lady from Humboldt County who invited me to visit. When I stepped off the plane, I knew California was home.
When we broke up, I thought I’d win her back by homesteading a 60-acre ranch with no power, phone, radio or TV. She was smart enough not to join me, so I had plenty of time to develop an early computer program for breeding cannabis. We won first prizes in the 1983 and 1984 Harvest Cup, but I was still looking for love and moved to San Francisco, where I founded a number of successful technology companies, raised a family and retired in 2013.
The ranch had some talented tenants who, I discovered, had developed some beautiful hill strains. When legalization happened in 2015, it was clear Big Ag was going to rush in and monocrop standardized strains. I realized our off-grid, pristine location, plus a love of breeding, tech and Humboldt County, might enable us to build a company devoted to breeding Calibrated Cannabis, preserving genetic diversity and championing sustainable farming practices.
What tool or software in your cultivation space can you not live without?
Our 5kW solar system and Google Sheets.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your business in the last six months?
A cellular router on Google's Project Fi.
What cultivation technique are you most interested in right now, and what are you actively studying (the most)?
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
There are so many to choose from, but my failure to win back that Humboldt lady led to 30 years of entrepreneurial experience, a fantastic daughter and the capital to build a world-class brand.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven grower about to enter the legal, regulated industry? What advice should they ignore?
Think carefully about your staying power. Do you have the capital, energy, relationships and location to lose money for five years? The lessons from Colorado, Oregon and Washington are clear: prices one year from now will be 50-percent lower than today, regulatory costs (and risks) are rising, and differentiation is expensive. Ignore the temptation to dabble in the black market.
How do you deal with burnout?
Working out, power tools and Burning Man.
How do you motivate your employees/team?
We have a great team and we love our mission. Creating a series of trustworthy Calibrated Cannabis products, preserving genetic diversity and celebrating rural cannabis culture is at the heart of what we do.
What keeps you awake at night?
Regulated cannabis cultivation is the most challenging business I've ever done. I sleep pretty well because I’m too dumb to worry, but the combination of extreme regulation, potential criminal activity and the unpredictability of any commodities business keeps my partner awake, and she wakes me up!
What helps you sleep at night?
I’ve helped build nine businesses and four have failed miserably. I've learned it’s never as bad as it seems or as good as it seems, but the wheel always turns towards the sun.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photos courtesy of Humboldt Sky