The Long Road to Retail: Chapter 1

Aug9-1Chapter 1: The hunt for genetics and a grower

By Garrett Rudolph

With construction of the Colorado Leaf greenhouse under way, the Sprau brothers still have a lot of business development and basic steps that need to be taken before the company puts its first plants in the ground.

The initial columns for the facility have been set, and all the underground plumbing and electrical has been laid. Next is pouring the 17,000-square-foot concrete slab, and waiting about five weeks for final construction of the greenhouse. As of early July, the company was about two months away from planting its first crop, according to Keith Sprau. As the two brothers ride out the calm before the storm, they’re scrambling to get two big tasks accomplished before the end of summer — acquiring genetics to populate their grow and hiring an assistant grower.

Genetics

Within Colorado’s legal cannabis infrastructure, newly-licensed growers face the challenge of acquiring genetics without violating the state’s plant tracking regulations. Seeds and clones must come from licensed businesses, so they’re already part of the tracking structure.

The inherent challenge this creates is that many growers and retail operations tend to be highly protective of their plants and strains.

“A lot of the people that have good genetics are not willing to give them up,” Brett Sprau said. “Right now we’re in the process of contacting a lot of the dispensaries with connoisseur-level bud, to see if they’ll give us any clones.”

Businesses that were originally licensed under Amendment 64 did not have to deal with this obstacle, because of the requirement that initial entries into the recreational sector had to come from Colorado’s regulated medical system.

Washington’s system took a different route when it launched its recreational marijuana program, giving licensed producers a 15-day window where the Liquor and Cannabis Board looked the other way and didn’t pay attention to the acquisition of start-up genetics. During that stretch, growers can get seeds or clones from any source they want; afterward, genetics for the recreational market can only be bought or sold between licensed producers.

Brett said Colorado Leaf wants to grow from seed eventually, but the first harvest will probably be solely based on clones. He said the big challenge is tracking down the right genetics, not just any genetics that are available. Colorado’s market grew so quickly, some growers and retailers have been scrambling to get product on the market and not putting enough emphasis on the quality of their genetics, he said.

“We could do the same thing, but that’s not in our mission plan,” he said. “We don’t just want to produce average product.”

The Spraus are being extremely particular about which strains and genetics they’re willing to grow. They didn’t want to put spend the time and energy into a high-tech greenhouse, expensive LED lights and top nutrient brands only to fill their operation with mediocre plants.

Some of the traits they’re looking for are fairly obvious — a good mix of indicas, sativas and hybrids, plants that produce decent yields and feature the characteristics consumers want.

But Keith said they’re also looking for strains that aren’t already flooding the market.

When you look at the various retail stores in Colorado, there are certain strains almost everybody carries, Keith said. He used the example of Durban Poison, one of the more common strains in retail stores. Some people see that as a positive trait, because it must mean that strain is a good seller, Keith said.

“But in my eyes, that means everybody is growing it, so the market is flooded,” he said. “We’re looking for strains that only a small handful of stores have.”

As of early July, the Spraus believe they have lined up a source for their genetics — a grower who is in the process of rebuilding his facility and needs a place to store his mothers for a while.

In general, trust and cooperation are two things the cannabis industry seems to be lacking, Keith said. However, some business-minded folks are starting to come around and see how symbiotic partnerships can create more success for everybody.

“A lot of people will say, ‘No. I’ve worked hard on this (strain) and I don’t want to give it to you,’” Keith said. “But then you’ll find the random person you says, ‘I’ve worked hard on this and I want to show it off.’”

 

Growers

These days, it isn’t hard to find somebody claiming to be a master grower.

But finding somebody with a degree in botany or horticulture, rather than just a marijuana grower, is another story altogether.

Brett said Colorado Leaf’s investor wants the company to hire a serious grow consultant, somebody who would most likely start as a part-time employee, before eventually taking over Keith’s role as head grower.

“We’re putting up a state-of-the-art facility here,” Brett said. “We don’t want some kid using this as his test facility. We want someone who knows exactly what they’re doing, someone who can nip any deficiency in the bud as soon as he sees it.”

“I think I’m one of the few people out there looking for a cover letter, a professional resume and references,” Keith said. “I’ve got a lot of responses back from people don’t have references and an official job history. If you can’t put the effort in, that’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for somebody that has the knowledge, but also has that business mind to realize you need to keep this professional.”

The Spraus are also planning to attend a greenhouse class during the fall semester at Colorado State University, one of the state’s top schools for horticulture.

The class is geared more toward operating a commercial-scale greenhouse rather than being plant- or cannabis-specific.

“After reading (the course description) and talking to the professor, this is exactly what we need,” Keith said.

“There’s only a handful of guys out here that have run these greenhouses, and those people all have jobs already,” he added. “It’s either a steep learning curve or find a class like that.”

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