For pot yield of growers’ dreams, fickle plants need constant care
They call it “weed” because marijuana supposedly grows like one. But it’s not simple getting this multimillion-dollar product to market. This second story in our Seed to Sale series focuses on the plants themselves and the quirks and challenges of growing at an industrial scale.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A marijuana grow room in Sodo blazes from a dozen 1,000-watt bulbs. The light is so intense that Mark Arnold, assistant grower for pioneering pot producer AuricAG, wears blue-tinted lenses to cut the glare.
Surveying the tall plants — made happy, Arnold believes, by his own positive attitude — he beamed: “Who says money doesn’t grow on trees?”
If all goes according to plan, AuricAG could fetch $2 million a year for its products.
But it’s not easy cultivating high-quality pot on an industrial scale. “It’s remarkably hard to do consistently,” Arnold said.
It’s even harder when you’re a do-it-yourself operation, like AuricAG. Converting a Seattle warehouse, last used for car repairs, into an indoor pot farm is far from the plug-and-play automated facilities whose probes and nutrient systems nurse pot plants like electric nannies.
Throw in AuricAG’s ongoing build-out and fraught female plants — tricked into hypergrowth by artificial light — and you’ve got challenges. “This is when I go home and pray every night things are going to work out,” said master grower Steve Elliott, after AuricAG’s electrical system recently misfired and its air conditioning misbehaved.
The company, among the first 76 licensed growers in the state so far, had hoped to have its product in the initial wave of stores expected to open July 8. Now the team of middle-aged local guys is resigned to late July.
Elliott wanted to slow down and get everything working as desired. “People don’t understand what a volatile crop it is,” he said. “One wrong move, and you lose your room. It’s hard to explain to business people. They say you’re just losing money.”
Mark Greenshields, president of AuricAG, thought Elliott was overly concerned. “What it’s really about is plant perfectionists,” Greenshields said, referring to temperatures in growing rooms “just a little outside the perfect zone” of 75 degrees.
There’s not much choice but to defer to Elliott. He is like a lead singer in a band, Greenshields said. His talent demands that he calls certain shots when it comes to the plants he calls his “girls.”
“You have to roll with things like this,” said sales director Joby Sewell.
And, AuricAG’s delay isn’t devastating.
Retailers are scrambling for contracts with producers who can put pot on store shelves. They’ll need product in August as well as July. “Just about every retailer wants to lock us down,” Greenshields said.
State officials are expecting supply — which can only come from licensed producers — to be scarce at first, driving prices upward. Some growers are seeking up to $5,000 a pound, Greenshields said, almost triple the price of pot on the illicit market.
First step: starter plants
Greenshields and Sewell envision their product selling for roughly $3,000 per pound. They believe their pot will be as good as anybody’s. But they want to be in the business long-term and establish a well-regarded brand. They don’t want to be seen as gouging the first customers just because they can.
After retailer markup and before sales tax, Sewell hopes consumers can buy an eighth of an ounce of AuricAG weed for $60. Top-shelf eighths sell in medical marijuana dispensaries for roughly $40. But dispensaries don’t pay the stiff state excise taxes that the recreational system will — 25 percent when producer-processors sell to retailers, and another 25 percent when retailers sell to consumers.
AuricAG’s 500-square-foot grow rooms should each produce at least 12 pounds per harvest, Elliott said, citing the growers’ general rule of one pound per light. The yield could be much more.
In its assembly-line system, in which new clones are supposed to constantly replenish supply, the AuricAG team hopes to pump out 500 to 1,000 pounds of pot in its first year.
That could bring roughly $2 million in receipts before taxes and expenses. As for getting rich, Sewell said, “I don’t see it in the short term.” But AuricAG does hope to increase the size of its operation one day, and it is already exploring new lines of business, such as packaging for other growers.
The company has more than 1,000 plants in various stages, from clones just 2 inches tall, to 2-foot-tall juveniles, to behemoths stretching above Arnold’s head. Every plant taller than 8 inches must be assigned a bar code and a 16-digit identifier for the state’s tracking system.
The first challenge, though, was rounding up the starter plants. Elliott, who had grown medical marijuana on a small scale, used some of his plants and reached out to friends and fellow growers. They offered him cuttings from their reliable mother plants.
In all, Elliott gathered 232 of these. Then the team started snipping off small branches, about 2 inches in length, creating more clones, as they’re called. Those are nourished until they produce stringy roots.
Then they’re transplanted into red keg cups filled with crushed coconut husk, which Elliott thinks is better than soil for growing. They graduate to three-gallon buckets in a couple weeks. All along, they’re fed a diet of water and nutrients, including calcium and magnesium.
All of their products must be tested by state-accredited labs to certify their chemical content and lack of contamination.
Inside the rooms, you can see distinct differences in the plants.
Some are cannabis sativa, a tall, spindly species that hails from tropical zones and is known for its energizing effect.
Others are shorter and thicker. They’re derived from cannabis indica, which has its origins in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Indica is prized for its more sedating properties.
Because of rampant crossbreeding, most of the strains are actually hybrids that lean one way or another, dominant in either sativa or indica genes. Marrying the two produced a plant generally “short, fast and strong,” according to Michael Pollan, author of “The Botany of Desire.”
A happy gardener
AuricAG has more than 30 strains in all, including Berry White, Cotton Candy, Obama Kush and Snoop Stream. The tallest plants are Skunk #1, whose lineage can be traced to Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan. Another strain called Hog’s Breath tastes, Arnold said, like you fell face-first into dirt and apricots.
The Blueberry strain dominates several rows. Look at their hearty happiness, Elliott said like a proud papa, marveling at the similar structure and color in plant after plant.
But disaster lurks around every corner, Arnold said, from botrytis, or gray fungus, to bugs, like the mayfly. Defenses include neem oil sprayed on plants and a crunchy silica substance spread around the base of the plants, which looks like shards of glass under a microscope and lacerates tiny insects that crawl on it. Even the wheels on AuricAG’s watering buckets get bleached, to prevent contamination.
The best overall defense, Elliott said, is good air flow that maintains the right temperature and humidity. If rooms are too hot, plants will dry out and droop. If they’re too cool, dampness will invite pesky critters.
The growers believe their positive energy also helps the plants. If so, Arnold may be the equivalent of a human vitamin. A former Boeing inspector with a big scar on his back from spinal surgery, Arnold is a believer in the medicinal properties of marijuana.
His first growing experience came after he got his medical card and a friend challenged him to try keeping one plant alive for a year. “I was able to get off painkillers,” he said. “It allowed me to dream.” Now he’s living his dream, he said, tending plants at AuricAG.
“You always have to think about the gardener,” Elliott said. “If the gardener is happy, the plants feel it.”
The most exciting moment in growing, Arnold said, comes at the first sight of little flower buds, called “popcorn.” These clumps of tiny white pistils are the beginning of flower clusters that eventually reach the size of a zucchini, sticky with resin full of pot’s active chemicals. The appearance of popcorn stirred pride and joy in Elliott and Arnold.
Getting the air-conditioning system working on automatic controls was another big relief. That allowed sensors and actuators to adjust each room to ideal conditions, even while Elliott lay in bed. Until that juncture, Sewell was trooping down to the warehouse around midnight — because he lives closest — to check on the plants. Some of the biggest ones would gulp a gallon of water during his visits.
“I can actually sleep at night,” Elliott said. “We turned the corner.”
He’s eager to get software that will allow him to monitor the grow rooms from his phone and alert him via email if something goes astray. With it, he can even fine tune warehouse conditions from home.
But more challenges wait.
Some of his plants are too tall, growing several inches a day. That called for raising lights in one room, where plants were topping 6 feet. In turn, that meant less illumination spilling onto the lower branches of the biggest plants.
Elliott’s next task is to construct two more growing rooms, with 17-foot-tall tarp walls to reduce the risk of mold and other contaminants. He’d rather manage plants. But Elliott sees his sweat equity as the price of autonomy. AuricAG could seek help from outside investors. “But then somebody else has say,” he said.
A retailer visiting from Bellingham said he was impressed by AuricAG’s progress. “I like what I see, in terms of the setup. It leads me to believe you will have a high-quality product,” Justin West, owner of Cascade Herb, told Sewell and Elliott.
But West said he wouldn’t sign a contract to buy pot from AuricAG until he could see and sample some of the product.
As Greenshields and Sewell meet with more and more potential retail partners, Elliott is reminded of his burden in the coming weeks. “For a grower,” he said, “there isn’t a good day until harvest.”
Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter: @potreporter