Michael Sassano took everything he learned from developing real estate and put it into growing plants in the Mojave Desert.
As founder and CEO of Solaris Farms, Sassano wanted to make an investment not just for today, but to keep his company competitive for the next decade and beyond. He built a 30,000-square-foot hybrid greenhouse on the company’s 12-acre plot in North Las Vegas, where temperatures regularly soar past 110 degrees in the summer and vegetation can whither in the blistering heat.
“All I can tell you is that it’s not easy growing in the desert, but there are pluses,” he says.
It took two years to find the right combination of technology, genetics and talent, but Solaris Farms’ streamlined operation now consistently produces top-quality flower for Nevada’s recreational market and is ready to expand tenfold in the next few years.
“We planned it this way, and we’re just excited to get on to the next grow phase,” Sassano says. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”
Castle in the Sand
Sassano describes the company’s hybrid greenhouse as an indoor facility with a polycarbonate roof, built to harness the desert’s abundance of year-round sunlight while mitigating the area’s extreme temperatures.
The facility has a three-level shading system with exterior and interior shades in addition to blackout curtains (and to comply with building codes, Sassano had to install multiple sprinkler systems both above and below the curtains, though he says “there’s nothing in there that can burn”). Wet pads and exhaust fans provide evaporative cooling, while a reverse osmosis misting system keeps leaves from drying up. Vertical fans circulate air down the walls from the ceiling and back up through the plant canopy. Sensors continuously report on the growing conditions inside the greenhouse and give the growers full control over the environment.
The greenhouse also has 1,000-watt high-pressure sodium lights ready for the rare cloudy day.
“We have plenty of light,” Sassano says. “Places up north cannot tout that. … And because we’re in the desert, we have less contaminants like mold, aspergillus, things of that nature. We still have it, but we have a much lower count than other areas.”
According to Sassano, the main problem with growing in the desert is finding genetics that are not only capable of withstanding the environment, but that can also compete with the state’s indoor growers.
“If I take an award winner in California, Washington or Oregon, and I bring it to Nevada, it’s going to be a completely different plant,” Sassano says. “I’ve got to make genetics that work in the desert, because nobody decided to grow in the desert, unless you count Mexico 30 years ago.”
Developing the right genetics was a major milestone for Solaris Farms. Now the company’s cultivation team can focus on strengthening them while Sassano lays the groundwork for Phase 2 of the operation.
“Right now we have all focus on continuing to improve the genetic yields,” he says. “Some of the genetics will make it, some of them won’t. We’re going to keep moving those generations, getting stronger in the desert.”
A Better Business Plan
Solaris Farms wasn’t Sassano’s first venture into cannabis. In 2008, he started making small investments in cannabis and those investments became larger as the industry matured. In 2015, he flew out to Las Vegas with the hopes of salvaging a separate investment, before eventually pivoting toward Solaris.
“Each company starts with a plan,” he says. “You try to hit those plans and you alter them as you go along.”
The first step in Solaris’ plan was to build a commercial greenhouse operation capable of producing sustainable, high-quality cannabis near Las Vegas. Sassano is now working on the next step, getting a building permit to expand into a 300,000-square-foot production facility with an adjacent 65,000 square feet of operating space.
“All I care about is finishing the project and making sure all the genetics are able to transfer over there, and that they’re strong and ready to go immediately when we finish it,” he says. “The last thing you want is to build an expensive structure and not have the plant materials to grow. That’s how people lose money.”
Having a large facility, even a high-tech one like Solaris’, isn’t the only factor in the company’s success. Sassano also worked one of the oldest real estate adages into his plans: location, location, location. Solaris bought 12 acres of land right next to the North Las Vegas airport in order to have immediate access to the largest cluster of retail stores in the state — and that in the event of federal legalization, the company will have a direct line to distribute nationally via the nearby airport.
At Home in Sin City
Although Sassano says casino operators aren’t likely to do any favors for the cannabis industry, the friction with the local gaming industry has quelled since Nevada launched recreational cannabis sales. But without legal places for tourists to consume cannabis, the market remains stifled.
“Obviously if there were lounges, the volumes would pick up and it would be more productive,” he says. “It’s not legal to smoke outside. You can’t smoke in hotels. That really just leaves us residents being allowed to smoke in our own homes.”
Although Solaris Farms has a distribution license so it can deliver product to retailers, the company uses an outside vendor for distribution because “it’s just cheaper and easier than buying our own refrigerated trucks,” Sassano says.
“The cost/benefit isn’t there,” he adds.
While there are other producers in the area, Sassano says most of them are relatively small operations, between 5,000 and 20,000 square feet, and owned by local cannabis retailers. The majority of Solaris Farms’ main competitors are roughly 90 minutes away, Sassano says.
The prime location has also provided Solaris Farms with a bigger pool of talent to choose from. While Sassano says the company prefers to run a lean staff, new positions have been met with an overwhelming response from applicants.
“Years ago, we would have to guess with tea leaves about who was going to work out,” he says. “Now I put out an ad and I get 500 resumes from great people with experience to choose from.”
Sassano adds that he’s proud of having assembled a diverse team, “just by choosing people we think are great.”
Despite the challenges of operating in Sin City, Sassano says Las Vegas presented an opportunity unlike any other city in the country.
“I can reach 45 million tourists with one billboard that costs me between $5,000 and $20,000 a month,” he says, adding that Solaris is just minutes away from the 40-plus cannabis retailers in Las Vegas. “Imagine in Washington or California, the monster sales staff you’d need for that kind of outreach and marketing. You’d need a lot of driving to move your product, you’d need a lot of holding hands at dispensaries.”