Black Dog Acres founder Toni Reita addresses the pitfalls and obstacles of being among the first state-licensed cannabis growers in the country and why she’s ready to part ways with her pot plantation
Toni Reita is not the type of person who sits still very long.
Reita’s eclectic career has spanned a wide variety of industries, from construction to homeopathic medicine to agriculture. So it’s not surprising that after three years as a cannabis farmer, she’s ready for her next adventure. The free-spirited founder of Black Dog Acres is putting her Goldendale, Washington property and state-licensed grow operation on the market.
Marijuana Venture first interviewed Reita for its February 2016 cover story, “Force of Nature,” and now reconnects to discuss the rollercoaster life of a marijuana industry pioneer.
Marijuana Venture: Why are you selling your business?
Toni Reita: Wouldn’t a static life be boring? Dreams change. We don’t choose them, they choose us.
If I were able to clone myself as successfully as my plants, wild horses couldn’t pull me away from this business. One clone would continue running the business, living and enjoying the tranquility of this gorgeous environment. Another clone would return to her roots of the self-indulgent gypsy life, footloose, fancy-free globetrotting.
That inner voice tells me that it’s time to dabble my toes once again on distant shores, take tango lessons, revisit Machu Picchu, maybe cross paths with Arjan Roskam, the famed strain hunter of ancient landrace strains. Time, perhaps, for my linguistic abilities to once again take wing, though cannabis will always be part of my life.
It’s just time to pass the dream to someone else.
MV: What has it been like to be one of the first state-licensed marijuana businesses in the country?
Reita: Everything changes frequently. Currently, legalized cannabis cultivation and sales are regulated and treated with greater scrutiny than transporting nuclear waste. A natural plant is classified as a drug, yet plants are grown in soil, while drugs are manufactured in buildings. It’s an upside-down world where Alice in Wonderland would blend beautifully.
Everything is a moving target in this developing industry. Yet, we love it because we are either adrenaline junkies, require psychiatric care or like that it helps keep us on our toes, offers a continual challenge, keeps us mentally agile and is creating history while normalizing this amazing plant.
The current pioneers of this industry are only three years old, coming from many previous professions with different levels of experience and expectations. There were no mentors, flow charts, training or instruction manuals to guide us. We learned from the school of hard knocks and many of us feel like we’ve been put through the wringer.
Yet, at times, everything clicks into place and the euphoric synchronicity is wonderful, knowing that the system is starting to come together and will become increasingly better.
MV: What changes do you see happening in the future?
Reita: It’s a legal industry, yet we’re regarded by some family, friends, neighbors and government officials as barely legal. The regulations are written in a way that at some point every day, I guarantee every producer, processor or retailer is out of ‘compliance’ because of the wording and definition of getting something done ‘immediately,’ which isn’t even close to being realistic with the time-consuming requirements.
When you consider that this federally illegal industry is rapidly spreading across states, it’s easier to understand that the more strenuous rules and regulations were implemented initially and to imagine that as the industry evolves it will look different after some of the burdensome, time-consuming requirements soften and relax.
It isn’t really too hard to imagine the winery model will eventually pass legislation as it did for the wineries. Think of other possibilities: Cannabis-flavored festivals helping to inspire tourism; wondrous innovations and exciting products; robotics for packing or harvesting. Truly, the industry is ripe for creative folks who are already in or are willing to invest early. Better too early than too late, isn’t it?
Once the industry is fully established, only the deepest pockets will be able to participate.
MV: What is the biggest challenge for cannabis growers today?
Reita: Can you imagine the cost of tomatoes if farmers had to bar-code every single tomato immediately after reaching a certain size? Then they would need to package in one-ounce or smaller sizes and deliver them all over the state? Then the poor, dazed, exhausted farmer would also have to weigh his dead tomato leaves and vines, immediately enter information into a database every time a tomato died, find a spot to store the waste for three days, then actually destroy it and dispose what was only waste. Who would be able to afford tomatoes?
At every point of touching the plant, those bar codes change. If there is a reorder of the same product, the bar codes change again. So do the labels. Keeping track from seed to sale need not be so laborious and expensive. Some of the burden could be passed by changing legislation so we could sell wholesale quantities to retailers and they could package their own product. What could cannabis sell for if the dynamics of cultivation, recordkeeping and marketing were intelligently changed?
MV: What advice would you give to someone getting into the cultivation side of the business today?
Reita: Perfect timing, whether by design or by default. You avoided the extreme growing pains associated with being licensed early without having any connections or realistic concept of how you would proceed. There were no informative metrics to direct us, few labs, no transportation companies, no online marketing services, no associations, few retail stores. Banks were running scared. Packing materials often took months for delivery.
We’ve done the heavy lifting, paid 25% taxes of every gross sale until July 2015 and are still surviving. Learning from our mistakes will make your ability to thrive much easier and greatly improve your success and sustainability for the long haul.
Simply put, you must produce your product, market it, package it, deliver and sell it for more than your total cost of goods. Are your expectations realistic? Are they aligned with hard numbers or do they conflict with reality? How many participating principals are on board with the structure of your company? Who will handle that 3 a.m. emergency on a weekend in the middle of winter? This is very much a daily hands- and eyes-on business; is absentee ownership really practical? Plants and people need daily attention. Who can offer that better than an owner? Doesn’t there need to be an informed decision-maker immediately available? Doesn’t it make sense that every principal in your business knows how to do — and is willing to do — every aspect of your operation? The time you spend prior to planting your first plant should be directed to how you want to grow, to whom and how will you sell and can you do it for less than it costs you to grow it? Or do you have sufficient development funds until conditions change? Cannabis doesn’t just sell and deliver itself. Take your sharpest pencil and factor in every known expense. Consider many eventualities to see if, or how, they could impact you. Know your niche and stick to it, but be flexible enough to change with market conditions. Remember, this industry is in its infancy and will change significantly.
MV: What should a grower avoid?
Reita: Wasting their precious energy evaluating every industry rumor. They quickly pop up, are always dire, spread like wildfire and never materialize. Give everything a glance and then move on if it doesn’t warrant further attention.
Who will manage the intensive record keeping commitments? Who will market your product and how? Avoid hiring a ‘master grower’ who ‘grows the world’s best cannabis.’ Who invented such a term? Will growers next be called ‘cultivating engineers?’ If one or more of your principals isn’t fully capable of growing plants to your expectations, how can you trust someone who boasts that they do? Make sure you train your workers to do it your way, not the way they did when growing six plants illegally in a closet.
Avoid egos. Very few things are personal. Be humble.
My motto is ‘Bridges you cross before you get to them are over rivers that aren’t there.’
Don’t overly concern yourself with what every other grower’s numbers or methods look like; spend your energy on due diligence for your unique circumstance and adjust accordingly. Change is inevitable so learn to ride the trend, stay focused and have fun.
MV: How have your retailer relationships been?
Reita: Short and sweet. I consider myself a farmer and am truthfully disinterested after the harvest and trimming of the product. I would prefer that someone else pack and sell — although I do both retail and wholesale sales.
I like the outdoors and object to being confined inside. While I would be thrilled with vertical integration, it isn’t here yet. In order to keep my prices trimmed, my costs must also be trimmed so it’s not practical to visit every retail store in the state, although face-to-face encounters are always the best.
Retailers also come in all shapes and sizes with varying numbers of employees and tremendous responsibilities and obligations. They are busy people and may be too hurried to spend a lot of time chatting about what products you have to offer, or the buyer may not be available when you call or show up unannounced. To respect their time and maximize my effectiveness, the majority of my sales are done via email or texts. That’s just amazing to me, but it really saves time on both ends and provides both of us with a written record of our conversation and transaction. The few retailers I’ve met have visited the farm and those were a wonderful pleasure for me and a welcome relief and experience for them to see a full field of flowers blowing in the constant breeze.
MV: Is sun-grown still the cultivation method you believe in?
Reita: The short answer is yes, but with lengthy qualifications that each individual must consider for themselves. Keeping in mind that cannabis happily and robustly grew outdoors in many inhospitable climates without significant human intervention for millennia.
But how best to grow it and profit?
Cannabis growing moved indoors only due to prohibition, for no other reason than to conceal it from law enforcement when special interests successfully demonized the highly respected herb.
Now we have growing choices. There are numerous considerations in answering what sounds like such a simple question. Expectation of perfection will lead to disappointment; we must each evaluate our decisions carefully based on our unique circumstances.
My answer is that I’ll always be sun-grown, even if some of that sun comes through plastic or polycarbonate to help protect the girls from pounding, relentless rain or hail and also offering the ability to supplement with lighting if it seems prudent during prolonged gloomy days.
MV: How have your greenhouses worked out?
Reita: The best of both worlds. Imagine the magical sensation of working in below-zero temps on a sunny winter day, when within minutes, temperatures could easily reach over 100 degrees if you aren’t proactive about opening doors and/or turning off heat. There is a learning curve for the most basic greenhouses compared to the high-tech, push-button, fully automated versions. There are also huge cost differentials.
Greenhouses are truly essential if you plan to grow clones to perpetuate your genetics or get a head start on your outdoor crop, or if you want to stagger your harvests to even out the success or failure of an all-or-nothing, outdoor-only crop. My greenhouses are as basic as you can get and did amazingly well in temps of 13 degrees below zero with snow on the ground for months this past winter.
I will definitely be adding more greenhouses, staggering harvests and I also have a few ideas up my sleeve to mimic orchard growers as well for the outdoor crop.
I avoid obstacles, but welcome challenges, and this industry is full of both!