Legion of Bloom's Rise From the Ashes

Features - Cover Story

California’s Legion of Bloom emerged from a devastating wildfire stronger and leaner, with innovation and sustainability at the forefront of the business.

August 17, 2021

From left: Marcos Morales, Matthew Woolley, Brandt Collings, Russell Weisman and Troy Meadows, co-founders, Legion of Bloom Photos by Hasain Rasheed

By 2015, California’s legalization of adult-use cannabis seemed inevitable. Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon had already taken that step, and drafts of Proposition 64—the 2016 voter initiative that legalized adult-use cannabis in California—were already circulating widely. For five cannabis farmers in the state’s medical cannabis community, the drafts foretold how the new recreational market would change the cannabis space. Lengthy discussions ensued about what they saw as a tough road ahead for small-batch farmers like themselves.

Connections between the five men—Brandt Collings, Troy Meadows, Marcos Morales, Russell Weisman, and Matthew Woolley—reached back two decades to the Southeast. One was from Georgia, the other four from Florida, where they all met and connected through a common interest in music. In the decade that followed, individual migrations brought them to California and the cannabis market. “We wanted to move to a place where we could explore cultivation in a real meaningful way,” Meadows recalls.

In California, they all developed their own farms, networks and relationships across the state, but the five remained close. With the adult-use market looming, they foresaw the power of a brand and the strength of working together as one organization to capitalize on the coming market. So they joined forces, pooled their resources, and Legion of Bloom was born. The brand officially launched in late 2015 and, in 2016, Legion hit the market with its Monarch vape cartridge line.

Today, all five founders remain actively involved in the business in roles that draw on individual strengths: Weisman as CEO, Meadows as chief marketing officer, Collings as chief procurement officer, Woolley as business development manager, and Morales as lead project manager, overseeing cultivation and extraction.

Legion’s 44,000-square-foot cultivation space in their 87,000-square-foot indoor Oakland facility is now fully operational. Additionally, the company’s new branded indoor flower line has joined their award-winning terpene-rich vape cartridges, topicals and extracts in nearly 200 dispensaries throughout California.

Legion controls cultivation, manufacturing and distribution of its products. Plus, its house of brands includes brand partners Glowing Buddha edibles and outdoor craft cultivators Humboldt Trees. But despite the rosy appearance, the path to the present wasn’t easy.

Legion’s Sonoma outdoor farm, before the 2017 Nuns Fire

Strengthened by Fire

Rewind to 2017, and Legion of Bloom appeared set to flourish. The individual farms had been consolidated, redundancies had been eliminated, and a smooth permitting process was behind them. Emerald Cup awards and other honors already were lining the company’s shelves.

The founders had poured their hearts and resources into their outdoor grow in Sonoma County—and the farm’s first harvest was in sight. But then, the Nuns Fire swept through Sonoma and, two weeks before harvest, Legion of Bloom’s farm burned down.

“We had leveraged a lot of finances into it,” Meadows says. “We were going to use what was coming out of our first harvest to really grow and elevate the brand and really grow the organization.”

But Weisman stresses that, despite the pain and hardship at the time, quitting was never a consideration. “It was just find the perseverance and fortitude to push through,” he says. “It wasn’t as if we were just cultivating at the time. We were extracting and becoming a big company, so it was just the fortitude—just knowing that we had barely begun and there was a lot ahead.”

Morales, whose home was just a mile from the farm, lived in evacuation for a month. He saw the fire galvanize both the Sonoma community and Legion as the company entered survival mode. Part of Legion of Bloom was born out of the fire, Morales explains, like the phoenix rising from the ashes.

“The coffers were empty financially for about a year,” Morales says. “That kind of hunger made us so lean and mean that about a year afterward—when we actually were able to get some funding in—we were able to execute really well. I think that’s helped grow us to where we are today.”

The Nuns Fire decimated Legion’s farm.

Pivoting to Indoor

The Sonoma fire struck at a critical time for the company: Legion had already started business development on an indoor grow to augment the sun-grown farm. Proudly self-funded by the founders up to that point, the organization was positioned to either rebuild the farm or move forward with the indoor grow—but not both. The team pushed through sleepless nights and endless workdays while weighing what to do and, ultimately, the new indoor facility won out. In the process, the possibility of outside funding came up.

“We decided that the funding environment in cannabis was right at the time for us to raise money. We found a strategic partner that complemented our company very well in the Glass House Group,” Weisman says. “They invested our entire seed round and have been a great strategic partner for us since the beginning. They continue to lend advice and help us grow.”

While Glass House’s 20% minority ownership gave Legion its needed boost, its indoor permit process took about 18 months to process due to backlogs in California cultivation licenses at the time. The rest of the progression to indoor was smooth, and the most significant step was finding the Oakland property so the process could begin.

Weisman and Morales worked closely with design and buildout plans while maintaining as much control as possible over their products and processes—from cultivation and distribution to manufacturing. But even more important was the ability to bake sustainability into the facility and its operations from the start.

“From a macro scale, we look at ourselves as Earth defenders … [All of the founders] believe strongly in sustainability,” Weisman says. “We believe that through business, we can create change. And so all of our decisions filter through a sustainability lens.”

Apple Fritters a week before harvest at Legion’s cultivation facility in Oakland

Flowering-Only Facility Design

The canopy at Legion’s Oakland facility, which welcomed its first plants in 2020, comprises 44,000 square feet. By design, flowering rooms consume the entire canopy footage.

Morales says sustainability was the driving force behind having flowering-only on site. “We source all of our plants from greenhouse nursery partners, and that allows us to have the entire vegetative growth phase of the plant underneath the sun,” he says.

In essence, the choice cuts the company’s cultivation’s energy-related carbon footprint in half while increasing yield, revenue and ROI for the indoor space, according to Morales.

“Having to trust the outsourcing of a very crucial part of the process can be considered a drawback. But as we’ve developed the relationships with our nursery partners, they’ve been able to refine a lot of their practices,” Morales says.

The original field of nursery partners has been narrowed down to three Salinas, California, growers who produce the vegetative plants. All stock originates from tissue culture, which reduces the likelihood of viroids, and holistic IPM programs are in place. “We are now finally consistently receiving healthy, viroid-free, flower-ready plants,” Morales says.

Once in Oakland, the flower-ready plants need two to four days to acclimate to indoor light. The plants grow in 2-gallon pots with soilless media under drip irrigation in 19 growing bays, one cultivar per room. Perpetual harvest clears two rooms per week, with an annual goal of 16,000 pounds of flower.

A water catchment system recaptures water from HVAC, dehumidification and plant runoff. Eighty percent of water used comes from the system itself—reclaimed and refiltered from the previous day. “Only 20% of the water on a daily basis comes from the city,” Morales says.

Morales put the facility’s monthly revenue run rate at about $3 million, give or take.

The shift from wholesale to Legion’s branded indoor flower translates to increased revenues, too. “We’re thinking about a $4 million-a-month revenue run rate once the CPG (consumer packaged goods) can be scaled up significantly, which may take another [few] months,” Morales says.

Wedding Cake ready to go into flowering under LED enhanced CDL fixtures

Sustainable Lighting Trials

As Legion’s canopy has expanded, so has the team’s lighting choice. Three lighting trials are operational, with a fourth now entering play. Improving on traditional high-pressure sodium (HPS) lighting was the initial goal, and trials have grown organically from there.

The first lights, purchased about three and a half years ago, were 315-watt LED-enhanced ceramic discharge lamps (CDL). Compared to traditional HPS, Morales says the CDLs increased yields and terpene production while producing less heat, which lowered energy bills for cooling and dehumidification.

About a year later came LED lighting from a second company which specializes in LED technology. Compared to the CDLs, Morales reports the LEDs increased flower yield, flower density, and terpene and cannabinoid levels. “A big plus is that we save about 35% of the energy cost in reference to HVAC because the LED lights put off almost no heat,” he says.

In 2020, Legion installed LED lighting from a third company also specializing in LED technology, which added the ability to change light spectrum to push plants different ways at different times. Morales says Legion’s now topping out around 67 grams per square foot–comparable to 3.8 pounds per light. “These are now what we termed the Ferrari of LEDs,” he says.

Legion is now experimenting with under-canopy lighting, and Morales is impressed with the small pilot program’s first results.

“I don’t want to put out too much of the data, but we will be continuing our experimentation with under-canopy lighting,” he says.

Peach Flambe a week from harvest under LED fixtures

Proprietary Terpene Extraction

Part of what elevates Legion among its competition is its proprietary terpene extraction process. “I still believe to this day, as somebody who tries every one of our competitors, that we have the best tasting products in the market,” Weisman says. “And I’d say that’s due to our terpene process.”

Morales developed the solventless extraction process, building on foundational knowledge acquired while studying for a biochemistry degree years ago. He says the rest was “just following the nose.” He hesitates to share too much about the proprietary process.

Eco-friendly plastic-free packaging for Legion’s Monarch cartridge line. Part of the proceeds help support pollinator habitat restoration in California.

“We started off with very simple steam distillation, but were not satisfied with the product … There is no out-of-the-box extraction apparatus currently in the cannabis industry that does what we do,” Morales says. “I can say that our process is able to capture an unaltered essence of the plant with no degradation whatsoever.”

Meadows adds, “With our extraction process, we capture the essence of a specific cannabis strain, and we’re basically using water to do that.” The terpene extraction occurs at Legion’s 6,000-square-foot Santa Rosa location, a facility mainly dedicated to manufacturing and distribution.

The terpene process fuels the success of Legion’s flagship Monarch vape products, which combine single-strain, water-extracted cannabis terpenes and triple-refined, ethanol-extracted THC oil. And for anyone questioning how the results stand up to common extraction methods, Weisman points to numerous awards recognizing Legion products as top in taste.

Legion does only the terpene extraction in-house, working with extraction partners for Monarch’s ethanol extraction and the hydrocarbon extractions used in Legions’ live resin lines. The company’s goal is to minimize its carbon footprint while creating high-quality, extremely flavorful experiences.

Legion’s filtration skid filters the site’s recaptured water.

Environmental Stewardship

From Legion’s inception, Meadows says the founders wanted to create an organization that did more than just craft quality cannabis experiences. “We really want to be known for something different,” he says. “As long-time farmers and environmentalists at heart, the dream for us was to have Legion be a vehicle to create positive change in the world that we live in.”

As part of that dream, the company gives back to the environment in multiple ways. Monthly grants based on sales of their Monarch vape line help fund California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD) habitat restoration projects for the monarch butterfly and other pollinator species.

A similar program, tied to sales of Legion’s California Sauce live resin line and PAX Era pods, helps fund reforestation projects in wildfire-affected California areas through the non-profit One Tree Planted.

Legion has removed all single-use plastic from its packaging lines. New 100% recyclable vape product packaging is made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper stock in a U.S. facility powered by wind energy. Legion’s new branded indoor flower line launched in 100% plant-based zip-lock pouches made from compostable materials.

Internally, all nitrile gloves used in cultivation, manufacturing and distribution go into a recycling program that turns them into faux-wood composite materials used for park benches and the like. Legion documentation uses 100%, post-consumer recycled paper, and all paper waste is recycled. In addition, 75% of the Oakland facility runs on California-produced renewable energy, with plans to increase to 100% renewables throughout 2021.

Nitrile gloves collected at all legion facilities are repurposed into faux wood, park benches and playgrounds.

“Hopefully, we can shine a light on some of these problems and show there are [other] ways,” Meadows says. “We’re not the biggest players in the game, but we’ve been able to figure out ways to do all these things. If we can do it, I don’t see why the rest of the cannabis industry can’t do it, too.”

Crafting high-quality cannabis products is key to Legion’s continued success, but Weisman emphasizes the importance of operating sustainably and ensuring all decisions follow suit. As the company looks forward, Legion intends to be an agent for positive change—and reach far beyond five founders who had a dream.

Jolene Hansen is a Minnesota-based freelance writer specializing in the cannabis, hemp and horticulture industries. Reach her at jolene@jolenehansen.com.