How Stone Road Farms’ Lex Corwin and Blake Kelley Work: Cannabis Workspace
Headshots courtesy of Stone Road Farms

How Stone Road Farms’ Lex Corwin and Blake Kelley Work: Cannabis Workspace

In this installment, CBT presents an up-close look at the tools and habits behind the California operation.

January 28, 2022

Names: Lex Corwin and Blake Kelley
Location: Nevada City, Calif.
Titles: Founder & CEO and Director of Cultivation, Stone Road Farms
One word to describe your cultivation style: Natural

Indoor, outdoor, greenhouse or a combination: Greenhouse and outdoor

Photos courtesy of Stone Road Farms
Lex Corwin founded Stone Road Farms in 2016, when California was still a medical-only market.

Can you share a bit of your background and how you and your company got to the present day?

Corwin: I started growing cannabis in high school. I was a little bit of a naughty child, and my parents sent me to a farm school in rural Vermont. I grew up in New York City. So, I learned how to basically work and exist on an organic farm. When I came back, much to my parents’ chagrin, I ordered cannabis seeds from Amsterdam and started growing a cannabis crop on my neighbor’s property, which was named Stone Road, hence the name of the company. So, I’ve pretty much been involved in cannabis since I was 16. I went to school in Portland, Ore., and worked with a bunch of different growers there. I bought this property in 2016.

Kelley: I grew up in Ohio and started smoking cannabis, obviously, like everyone in high school. Then, after high school, I started working various 9 to 5 jobs. I got the opportunity to move out to California in 2017 and just stumbled in and through the grace of God met Lex, who gave me a wonderful opportunity. We’ve just slowly been ironing the kinks out from there.

Corwin: I started [the company] in 2016, and for the first few years, we had the business before [adult-use cannabis] became legal in California and we were operating in the medical framework. We were growing cannabis and using it for our products, but then when Metrc was instituted in July 2018, we had to switch to the co-packing model, and then finally, after two long years of working with our county, we are now fully legal and fully built out. In 2021, we pulled our first inaugural legal harvest from the farm. So, now, Stone Road products, a growing percentage of them, are actually coming from the farm.

Stone Road has greenhouse and outdoor cultivation operations.

What tool or software in your cultivation space can you not live without?

Corwin: We don’t really use any, honestly. I probably shouldn’t use Google Sheets for everything, but we really use Google Sheets for everything. I have a little team, so everybody does their part. Blake uses Metrc, but ultimately, we’ve found that, for cultivators, there’s not a perfect piece of software. I feel like if we were running a more complex operation with more plants and more people, we would need to utilize it, but right now, we just use Metrc.

What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your business in the last six months?

Corwin: Nothing that is less than $100, so far. Honestly, I would say that it’s about the people you hire, not the equipment you use. There are so many grows that are using crazy technology and their stuff is pretty whatever, where if you are growing it with a lot of attention and love, you’re going to ultimately get a better product all in all.

We just got a new pressure washer for like $200 that I’m really excited about.

Stone Road uses living soil and elements of biodynamic farming.

What cultivation technique are you most interested in right now, and what are you actively studying (the most)?

Corwin: We like to say that we use elements of biodynamic farming. Obviously, [we don’t do] all of the crazy stuff, like combining cow manure with llama poop and growing under a full moon. We don’t have time for all that. But [we implement] other things, like regenerative water practices [and] using living soil. Instead of using pesticides or synthetics, [we use] predator mites. [We make] our own compost teas.

Kelley: As far as what we’re trying to work toward in terms of sustainability, we recently installed solar on the farm. That’s free, renewable energy. And then we’re trying to learn more about creating our own compost so we can amend our soil [and] make our own nutrient system and produce everything in-house, [or] at least as much as we can for this scale.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?

Kelley, Stone Road's director of cultivation, wants the farm to eventually create its own compost.

Corwin: Oh, I have so many—we’d be here all day. The biggest one is, obviously, our business is like a family in that to succeed, you need to be able to work with people that you can trust. When I started the business, I had two business partners who their hearts just really weren’t in it. Ultimately, after a lot of just crazy betrayal, we have a much stronger working relationship and also, it’s just a lot easier to know that those people have your back. So, I would say just choosing the wrong partners, the wrong people to surround yourself with, [is a failure that set us up for success].

Kelley: I second that completely because, obviously, with growing, you’re going to make certain mistakes—maybe more than one. A new issue is going to arise every year. It’s all about learning. If you’re not surrounded by people who want it as much as you do, then you’re set up for failure from the beginning.

What advice would you give to a smart, driven grower about to enter the legal, regulated industry? What advice should they ignore?

Corwin: Don’t come to California—there are too many pot growers. That’s my advice. Honestly, all the real areas of growth for cannabis are outside of California, as long as the political and tax environment is in its current form. I just saw a map today that 60% of municipalities in California outlaw any commercial cannabis activity or any type of retail. So, California is still a very underserved state from the retail perspective. If I were a young entrepreneur, I would look at Oklahoma or Illinois or Massachusetts, places with rapid growth and a little bit more of a friendly business environment.

In terms of what I would tell them to avoid, just don’t compare [yourself] to others because you’re always going to find growers who are doing it bigger, better, with more money and higher THC numbers. You really need to stay in your own lane and focus on your product because at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

Kelley: It’s very much choose your workers and surround yourself with the right type of people. And again, don’t get jealous and compare yourself to others. Also, [take a] sort of a lessons-learned approach when it comes to plants—you can always supplement and add more, but you can’t take some away, so tread lightly with some of that stuff.

Corwin: Yeah, like nutrients and pesticides, they always tell you to throw on huge amounts when in reality, it’s a fraction of that.

Kelley: There are so many new pieces of technology that they swear you need to be using, but for the most part, it’s not true. Some things will make your life easier, but like I said before, it’s a less-is-more approach. Work with what you’ve got and the budget you have and don’t feel like you need to be working at the same level as someone who’s been doing it for longer.

Corwin describes Stone Road's cultivation style as "natural."

How do you deal with burnout?

Corwin: For me, I’ve poured all of my everything into this and I’m 100% in, and you have to be that level of committed. You have to always be believing that you’re going to crush it in the next season, crush it next year. If you have that one shimmer of, “Oh, I don’t know if it’s going to work out,” just leave. You don’t have what it takes to make it in the industry—it’s too brutal. So, ultimately, how do you deal with burnout? [You have to] learn to enjoy it.

Kelley: California’s hot and plants don’t take a day off, so sometimes it’s long days, several days in a row. You really have to communicate well with your partners and just speak up. You might be able to see it in a coworker’s face that they’re getting burnt out, but if you don’t speak up about it, nobody knows, hey, he needs a break—these days are getting kind of long. It’s very much you have to communicate well.

How do you motivate your employees/team?

Corwin: Tell them you love them. Basically, you just have to work really hard and stay really focused. Make sure that they’re in a good situation and pay them.

What keeps you awake at night?

Corwin: Collections—but that’s different from the farm. On the farm, it’s agriculture—there are so many different things. There’s a lot of HLVd, hop latent viroid, which basically leads to plants yielding less and having low THC, and you don’t really know you have it until the very end. Eighty percent of California plants have it in some capacity. [Also,] are we going to get a wildfire? There are so many unpredictables that you have to prepare for.

Kelley: I would agree with that completely. It also depends on the time of year because in peak grow season, there’s a lot of stress, there are a lot of things that can come up, but you’re giving it your all and by the end of the day, you’re exhausted. I sleep pretty well during grow season. When the days are less busy and I haven’t worked up a physical sweat and then I’m anticipating the following year, then it’s easy to keep myself up at night.

Corwin: I’m nervous pretty much anytime I don’t have plants growing because then I don’t know when the next check is coming in.

What helps you sleep at night?

Corwin: The fact that I love what I do.

Kelley: After a day’s work, I’m exhausted. It’s also the excitement for the future. You’re eager for the next day and what’s coming tomorrow.

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