As they work out kinks, pot growers strive to meet demand
Countless hours went into preparing AuricAG’s first batch of marijuana for retail sale. Then it took just four hours for all 259 of its packages to sell out. This first harvest has allowed AuricAG to cover its bills, and now the company is looking ahead with expansion plans.
Seattle Times staff reporter
This is the latest story in a seed-to-sale series focusing on one pot-growing operation in Seattle as owners take their historic product from seedling to retail-store shelf.
It might have been Seattle’s easiest pot deal, if you don’t take into account FBI background checks, adding every gram into the state’s traceability system or testing for mold and moisture in a state-licensed lab.
Mark Greenshields and Joby Sewell climbed into a 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser with a bit more than a pound of marijuana and cruised down Airport Way, with directions on a manifest provided by the Liquor Control Board.
Just more than a mile later they arrived at Cannabis City, Seattle’s first — and for now, only — retail pot store. It took all of four minutes.
Inside the store, the pair from AuricAG — one of Seattle’s first state-licensed growers — plopped the cardboard box on a frosted glass counter.
“Two hundred fifty-nine bags counted three times,” announced Greenshields.
“And it’s going to be counted a fourth,” said Cannabis City manager Amber McGowan, as she gently poured the pot packages on the counter.
Sure enough, there were 259 two-gram bags of West Seattle Kush, freshly packaged, with gold labels indicating the pot passed state tests and contains about 15 percent THC, the psychoactive ingredient that gets you high.
“Is the packaging OK?” Greenshields asked.
Save for a missing sniff jar, all was well, McGowan said. Perfect, even.
From the beginning, AuricAG owners said they planned to charge about $7 per gram. They ended up settling on $7.73 a gram, but a portion of that will pay for packaging and delivery fees, and the state’s 25 percent excise tax.
It was higher than sales manager Sewell initially wanted, but with a retail markup and sales tax, the two-gram bags cost Cannabis City customers $42.33 — right around the $40 mark Sewell was gunning for.
McGowan said she’s negotiating with another Seattle grower who wants about $12 a gram.
The AuricAG owners said all along the company wasn’t in the price-gouging business, even with the state-licensed growers in the market’s driver seat because of a demand that greatly exceeds supply.
“Some growers are high-priced and more concerned with their bottom line than how their product comes out and how it looks to society as a whole,” McGowan said. “At this point in the game, with so little supply, I have to work with them.”
“With AuricAG, their price point is good. We were able to do that easily,” she said.
Sixty-eight days after they flipped the light switch on their “girls,” as grower Steve Elliott calls their marijuana plants, the AuricAG team finally got paid. Cannabis City cut them a check for $4,002.07.
The store hadn’t had marijuana to sell for several days. By the time it opened early Tuesday afternoon, about 40 people from across the country and even Canada were waiting in a line that wrapped around the side of its building, eager to buy one, and only one, package of AuricAG’s pot.
It took just four hours for the store to sell all 259 packages.
“I’ll celebrate for five seconds and then it’s on to the next one,” said Greenshields, allowing just the hint of a smile to tug at the corners of his mouth. “I’ll feel better when the entire crop is processed and sold.”
Elliott, back at AuricAG’s Sodo warehouse, estimated the entire initial crop — which should hit stores around the state by month’s end — would yield about 20 to 30 pounds of bud, fewer than the 50 pounds the growers initially hoped for “if the marijuana gods smiled” upon them, as Greenshields often jokes. Still, money was finally flowing in the right direction.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sewell said.
It’s been months since the AuricAG owners have seen paychecks. They pulled from retirement accounts and sold cars and houses to pool $150,000 to get the operation started, according to Greenshields.
Money from the West Seattle Kush will pay for this month’s rent. Sales of strains to follow will pay for utility and other bills through October.
“This crop has to get us to the next crop,” Greenshields said.
Still, he said there’s a chance they’ll all be able to take home small paychecks by the end of this month. How much depends on the final weight of the crop, but he said it could be between a single dollar and $10,000 each.
It had been a tedious three weeks in AuricAG’s Sodo warehouse. First Elliott and the rest of the crew harvested about 175 plants, weighed and dried the crop.
Then they began working strain by strain to trim, cure and prepare the pot for sale. The West Seattle Kush was first, but behind it were 13 more strains.
The constant snip, snip, snip of titanium pruning shears has taken a toll on the AuricAG guys. Sewell had a four-day stretch where he trimmed for 18 hours a day.
“I sit there, and my eyes start to blur and my shoulder gets a knot,” he said.
The burden of trimming got so heavy that AuricAG brought in two volunteers to help. An experienced trimmer, Gene Spaeth, had worked “in the middle of nowhere” in California as a trimmer for a medical grow.
Spaeth said a good trimmer could chew through one to three pounds a day, depending on the quality of the marijuana. But the AuricAG team isn’t up to speed just yet; Greenshields said Spaeth trims “at least twice as fast” as the rest of the team.
With trimming, the difficulty rests with clipping the tiny sugar leaves that wrap and “cocoon” the bud, Elliott said.
Before a final trim, buds are housed in jars and opened once a day to let moisture out. “When it’s in the jars, the terpenes mature,” said assistant grower Mark Arnold, referring to the sticky resin that coats the buds and gives strains their specific smell. That “builds the flavor profiles,” he said.
Once dry, flavorful and ready for testing, the pot was sent to one of several state-licensed labs. Moisture and mold are the enemies of any pot grower.
If anything, the pot was a little too dry, but easily passed the state’s test for bacteria, yeast, mold and other contaminants.
Test results in hand, AuricAG finally packaged its first product. Greenshields said it took three people more than eight hours to weigh 3.5 pounds of West Seattle Kush and hand pack it into small, sealable bags adorned with golden labels that list the percentage of active ingredients, along with AuricAG’s logo.
“Fair share of mistakes”
As the first plants were being trimmed, new ones already were taking their place in the growing rooms. In a few days, the growers plan to begin the flowering process anew.
Next time, though, they’ll do a few things differently.
“We made our fair share of mistakes,” Greenshields admits.
“I’m in a big manufacturer,” Elliott said. “I’m no longer in a little garden. It’s what I’ve done times 10.”
Instead of two flowering rooms, they plan to use four, and stagger the growing to keep a steady supply. Their first crop grew too tall because of air conditioning problems, which forced them to allow the plants extra time vegetating while they fought the temperature and humidity. This time, they plan to keep the plants a couple of feet shorter — think bushes instead of trees. And they’ll harvest more frequently.
The business side will see changes, too. Once the first harvest is sold off, Greenshields said, AuricAG expects to have enough money to hire super trimmer Spaeth, and Ky Boisjolie, a commercial painter who volunteered to help the team set up the warehouse and has been helping with trimming.
The extra hands are much-needed. Greenshields said he hadn’t taken a day off since Father’s Day. Elliott figured he’d worked more than 70 straight days.
The growers are excited about expanding, too. Greenshields said Seattle City Light has approved ramping their power from 200 to 600 amps.
More power means more lights. And more lights means plants will yield more marijuana — and money.
More power also means AuricAG can move ahead with plans to finance a machine that extracts key chemicals from the trimmed leaves for use in oils, tinctures and edibles. Instead of becoming waste, the trim could be converted into more product.
Changes moving forward
The biggest changes going forward might be directed by Sewell, AuricAG’s sales manager.
Right now, 1.7 million square feet of growing space is licensed by the Liquor Control Board, according to Randy Simmons, the state’s marijuana project director. The state will cap production at 2 million square feet. Simmons said if all the licensed producers had crop that was flowering and ready for harvest, supply would not be an issue. But many producers were only recently licensed, including 18 last week. Thirty-eight retailers have been licensed, and more than a dozen are waiting on licensing fees or final inspections. About 20 have opened.
Sewell hopes to get a jump on what soon will become a more competitive market.
He’s using his background in the wine industry as a guide. Unless AuricAG can create distinctive and desirable brands and product lines, he said, retailers will have leverage over the company and take a larger share of the profit.
“Once you have a brand that (retailers) want and need to carry in a storefront, they have to be competitive with each over the brands,” Sewell said.
Creating a compelling brand is a particularly vexing problem in a marijuana industry that’s transitioning from shadowy to legal.
“There’s only so many types of mayonnaise,” Sewell said. “But how many strains of marijuana are there? How many producers? There’s tons.”
That might include renaming strains to appeal to a wider consumer base. Take, for example, the Alaskan Thunder(expletive) strain.
“That’s not necessarily (a name) we want to market,” Sewell said. “But the strain is good.”
Sewell said AuricAG will brand its own pot as Seattle grown. They named their kush West Seattle Kush; their blueberry strain is Sodo Blueberry.
“When someone comes, let’s say, from New York,” Sewell said, “they don’t want marijuana grown in Yakima or Bremerton.”
He said AuricAG also will “tier out” its pot. The best buds will be set aside for the “gold series,” mid-grade product for the “silver series,” and so on.
The “snicklefritz,” as Sewell called it, that ends up at the bottom of the bag could be sold as a retro-branded product — something that Sewell thinks could appeal to boomers. He envisions $10 bags of lower-end pot packaged with rolling papers.
Sewell also plans a line of high-CBD pot known for its medicinal qualities marketed under the Remedy label.
Ultimately, Sewell said, the team needs to have the flexibility to react to the market, which is part of the reason Elliott maintains 34 strains waiting to be cloned and produced as the market demands.
“Some people might want something that makes them sleepy. Some people want to giggle. Some want just a light buzz,” Sewell said. “We have to be ready to change.”
While this first harvest has allowed AuricAG to cover its bills, October’s harvest will be a watershed moment.
How much more pot will four rooms produce? Will the extractor, which could take more than two months to set up, be ready in time to process oils and dabs? Will shorter plants pay off?
The company is bullish on the prospects.
“I’m not losing sleep at night,” Greenshields said.
But he and his partners aren’t getting much sleep, either.