Longtime Washington cultivator provides a tour of its operations, equipment and practices
As one of the first licensed recreational cannabis farms in North America, Buddy Boy Farm has grown quite a bit in the past nine years. The multi-award-winning Eastern Washington cultivator was established by Steve Walser and his partner DJ Parker, two organic farmers who spent more than 40 years in traditional agriculture before transitioning into the burgeoning cannabis industry. Together the duo not only helped usher in the Evergreen State’s recreational marijuana program in 2014, they built a foundation that also endured the price wars that followed.
Through the race-to-the-bottom price war among competitors, changing regulations and the ongoing over-taxation — not to mention the inherent challenges of working with a Schedule I substance like IRC Section 280E or not having access to banking — Buddy Boy has refined its operations to keep its place as one of the state’s top producers.
“Every company kind of goes through its ebbs and flows depending on how well things are selling,” head grower Aaron Ides says. “We’ve stayed consistent without having to take on any other investors and that says a lot.”
Do you have a cutting edge or unique cannabis operation? We want to hear about it. Email MV to be considered for a future Inside Look.
Ides joined the company in 2017, and since then has worked his way up to overseeing the company’s 24 greenhouses. Although he says the precise controls and systems the farm used meshed well with his education in aerospace systems, Ides opted to pursue a more cannabis-centric education, taking CEA courses at the University of Arizona and receiving a certification in pesticides from Washington State University.
Ides agreed to give Marijuana Venture a walkthrough of the equipment used and processes the farm has developed during nearly a decade of legal cannabis cultivation.
Filling the Houses
It takes only three hours and about eight people to fill one of Buddy Boy’s greenhouses to its max capacity of 764 plants. Ides credits the company’s ability to achieve such a pace to its widespread use of mobile conveyor belts and its Ellis potting machine.
Planting is a fairly straightforward process where workers start by taking young plants growing in rockwool cubes and set them on a table next to the potting machine. The machine fills pots with soil and spits them out to workers who transfer the young plants into the pots and send them down the conveyor belt to their designated greenhouse.
“The only time we actually stop is to refill the soil machine,” Ides says.
While the potting machine is stationary, the conveyor belts are mobile and can be moved to wherever the company needs. The conveyors have also helped Buddy Boy reduce staffing costs and allows employees time to handle more complicated tasks than just lifting and moving plants, Ides says.
The system has proven so effective that Buddy Boy Farm is looking to increase its productivity to seven harvests per month, which Ides estimates would be about 1,400 pounds of flower.
Ides says the farm uses a little bit of both worlds when it comes to lighting: HPS lights in select greenhouses and Phillips LEDs in the others.
Ides got a crash course in LEDs from a specialist at Phillips when the farm first started adopting the technology and after learning the system’s parameters, he tried a couple test runs and managed to bring in about 150 pounds of flower, but with time, that improved significantly.
“The first couple of crops were a learning experience,” Ides says. “We just got better after that. We were able to double that production to about 300 pounds with LED.”
Buddy Boy Farm uses a proprietary blend of nutrients to feed its canopy. The in-house concoction has proven to work considerably well for the farm, and has reduced the company’s growing costs.
“We’re able to keep our bottom line low; some guys will buy $5,000 nutrient lines just for one crop, where I can do it anywhere from $800 to $1,100,” Ides says.
The nutrient mixtures are monitored with precision instruments from Blue Labs and each greenhouse is fed individually with its own Dosatron pump. Buddy Boy also uses Heavy 16 nutrients fed through Dramm sprayers that let out a 40-micron mist so the plants can feed through their stomata.
“So instead of eating entirely from what’s in the pot, we have the ability to feed from the top as well,” Ides says. “Our plants’ health is really dialed in, and I don’t use ‘dialed in’ very often, but accuracy is very important, and we have to make sure our parameters are spot on.”
Buddy Boy Farm also uses proprietary controls to monitor its greenhouses. FinStack, a company that normally designs HVAC and dehumidification systems for warehouses, created the greenhouse controls specifically for the farm. The controls use 12 sensors per greenhouse to monitor growing conditions and provides cultivators the data to create the ideal growing conditions for each crop, or even manipulate the plants to grow taller or denser if needed.
An advanced camera system monitors each crop. The camera system uses a variety of filters to scan for different pests, such as aphids, thrips or termites, and it will send an alert if it spots any issues.
“It’ll actually pinpoint in the greenhouse where any hotspots are and that gives us the ability to go in there and spray that hotspot for that pest,” Ides says.
Through most of the growing cycle, Buddy Boy runs with 50 full-time employees, but the headcount nearly doubles to 90 around harvest time, still a smaller number than many farms its size. A big part of what keeps the headcount down during harvest is a Mobius trimmer, which does the initial removal of the larger stems and crow’s feet from the buds before the flower gets a final hand-trimming, Ides says.
In his view, the seemingly eternal debate of hand vs. machine trimming really comes down to the scale of the farm. Smaller-scale farms often opt to do hand-trimming and hope the final product makes up for the cost of labor to manicure it, whereas larger farms simply operate from a cost perspective and often opt to cut labor to stay in the black. Ides sees the advantages to both sides of the argument but says the Mobius trimmer gives Buddy Boy Farm the ability do both.
“Talk about a time saver — we shaved off at least a day, day and a half with that machine alone,” he says.
Special thanks to Buddy Boy Farm and Aaron Ides for providing an inside look at their growing operation.