Staff writer Chloe Teasley has the details of what it's like to grow and sell weed—legally.
Recently, I took a mid-week jaunt to Las Vegas to experience everything I could (well, almost everything) about the dispensaries and grow facilities owned by Columbus-based Green Growth Brands for a story in Columbus CEO’s February issue. I learned much more than I bargained for about what it takes to operate a cannabis grow house and what it’s like to be inside one.
The Green Growth Brands grow facility photographer Rob Hardin and I visited on Vegas’ southwest side is not sexy. A very small front room with two desks gives way to a maze of hallways and closed doors—there isn’t a lot of room to move around. I felt a bit like Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka hunched inside his lobby hallway. I wore a Tyvek gown, shoe covers and a hairnet, and I shuffled around, needing to be steered back in the right direction frequently by my tour guide Brandon Wiegand, The Source’s director of operations. I never got the hang of the layout. (The Source is the name of Green Growth’s acquired dispensaries.)
It turns out, cleaning is half the job of growing marijuana. In the grow facility, the smell of bleach is ever-present, and door handles and hands are scrubbed frequently. There’s a business case for the germophobia. If an employee touches their nose, for example, and it happens to have harmful bacteria on it that gets transferred to a plant, the plant is ruined. “That’s an expensive nose brush,” says Wiegand. For bacterial contaminations such as mold, mildew or yeast, the flowers are extracted for oil instead, since the process used eradicates the contamination.
In addition to the bacterial vigilance, all products are tested for pesticides, insecticides and heavy metals. If a lot fails this test, it is discarded completely and the company is out roughly $11,000.
“I think that’s why consumers don’t mind paying a premium, because you’re getting something that’s very healthful—more healthful than even the produce you buy at Whole Foods,” he says.
The life cycle of manufacturing cannabis
The growing process begins in a tiny room with baby plants incubating under little lights. The clone stage marks the beginning of the 105 days that will pass until the plant can be harvested. The plants come from “mothers”—mature plants with good genetics where clippings are taken and planted in a propagation medium (it looks like a dirty Styrofoam cube). Two hundred clones are taken every five days from mother plants and the worst 20 are killed off before entering the next stage. “Most people when they think of ‘hydroponic’ probably have the image of PVC pipes and water running through it—that’s not the way this works,” says Wiegand. The way it works is through a system of IVs coiled around the plants that delivers water and nutrients. What the plants receive is precise. The IVs originate from mechanical devices called dosatrons that hang on a wall and click nutrients into buckets.
The vegetation room has plants in various stages of growth that are not yet flowering. Lights stay on 24-7 at varying strengths depending on the plant’s age and increase in intensity (there are five phases in this room). The ceiling is covered in fans that gently rock back and forth, making the ceiling look like it’s alive. The circulation kicks up the carbon dioxide that’s pumped into the plant rooms. Without the breeze, it would sink to the ground and be useless to the plants—carbon dioxide lovers. A suited-up worker with earbuds tends to the plants. The mother plants watch over their babies from one corner. Kristen Etz, the cultivation manager, explains to me that there are about six mothers for the 12 strains that are grown at any given time. Because cannabis plants aren’t evergreen, they are eventually discarded when they become too old.
After a plant leaves the vegetation room, it’s sent off to one of three flower rooms. The lighting in the room I walked through was bright orange. It turns on and off to encourage flower production, mimicking the time of year a plant produces its fruit. Plants boast sparkly buds in various stages of maturity. They are pruned to encourage the right kind of growth—like pinching suckers off a cherry tomato plant. Wiegand says a plant should have three things: large “fan leaves,” whose job it is to soak up the light; smaller “sugar leaves” that surround the flowers and are dusted with valuable trichomes, which are glands that hold cannabinoids and terpenes and look like tiny hairs;and lots of flowers. As a plant grows toward maturity, the flowers form what is called a cola, becoming tightly bunched toward the top of the stem. The time from harvest to sale (with drying, curing, trimming and testing in between) is anywhere from 17 days to 25 days. Every cultivation facility spaces things out a bit differently. “If you have fewer harvests but much larger, you have these peaks and valleys of staff,” says Wiegand. “This allows us to keep a team of talent engaged.”
‘Each plant has its own personality’
Plant species long have been called by many names, and marijuana is no different. The various strains in Green Growth’s cultivation facility have names like Cherry Diesel, Truth Serum, Long’s Peak Blue and the unsettling Oaktown Crippler. They all look different and have nuanced needs. “Each plant has its own personality. That’s one of the challenges—how do you create an environment that’s maximized for different genetics?” says Wiegand. Once the plants reach maturity, they go from the flower room to the dry room, where the clipped stems are draped over metal hangers and blown with fans to prevent mold and other harmful organism growth. The sugar leaves remain curled around the flowers for protection, later to become an ingredient in a pre-rolled joint at The Source.
After 10 days of quick-drying, the stemmed flowers are put into white buckets to cure and dry out more slowly. “When you have a really perfect bud, there is a little bit of crunch on the outside then it stops and gets spongy,” explains Wiegand. “What you want to avoid is when things get too dry, it turns into dust.” Once or twice a day, every single bucket in the room gets “burped,” meaning it gets opened to let out air.
Flower trimming happens via the busy hands of many workers with clippers who are fully suited, right up to the facemask. Wiegand says they are highly competitive, trying to outdo one another on trimming speed.
The last door we open is to a room dedicated to extracting and making concentrates. It’s a science lab of machines and glassware. When we walk in, Aaron Nino, the production manager, greets us in a gas mask. Right now, they are preparing to move this facility to a building of its own.
At the end of the tour I shed my Tyvek apparel with a lot of new knowledge in my head. I’ll be going home that night.
Two thousand miles away in Columbus, cannabis use is restricted to those with prescriptions, but on the horizon is a different central Ohio—and a different nation—where a legitimate recreational marijuana industry hums along. What will that be like?
Chloe Teasley is staff writer.