Chris Lane was in law school when recreational marijuana became legal in Washington.
“When I said I wanted to work in this industry, most people were caught off-guard, but people who knew me well weren’t surprised to hear that I was going to start a marijuana business,” he says.
That business became Virginia Company, an indoor producer/processor in Spokane Valley, Washington, founded by Chris, the company’s CEO, and his wife, Rebecca, the quality assurance manager.
While conducting research into a wide variety of growing methods, Chris discovered a post describing aeroponics on an agricultural forum. Aeroponics requires little water and no soil.
“It was actually for a NASA study that was looking for ways to grow plants in space,” Chris says. “But no one had figured out how to do it on a large scale.”
He tried out the method and after comparing the results to more conventional indoor growing techniques, the choice was clear: aeroponics was the way to go.
“Aeroponics was the only system we tested that was able to yield consistent results, even after being left alone for three weeks,” he says. “So we figured if we can automate the process and control the consistency, it was a no-brainer.”
Virginia Company employees have spent the last few years developing the infrastructure and processes for the Tier 3 producing and processing facility. Today, its products are available at about 80 retailers throughout Washington.
Virginia Company’s high-pressure aeroponic grow system provides plants with a special mixture of water and nutrients through a precisely calibrated atomized mist. Each strain receives a specific nutrient schedule based on years of research and development conducted by the Lanes. The mixtures are sent to specific grow rooms from a centralized mixing room via a proprietary mixing and dispensing system.
“The whole building is pretty much one big plumbing project,” Rebecca says.
Since there’s no soil, the chance of a pest problem is minimized, eliminating the need for pesticides. This approach also keeps dirt and other potential contaminants to a minimum, while using 90% less water and 60% less nutrients than conventional cannabis growing methods.
Each grow room is computer-controlled to maintain the optimal temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, light levels and other environmental factors for consistent growth.
“Everything is repeatable,” Rebecca says. “You can set exactly what they need and walk away.”
Sensors in each room alert managers if environmental conditions change.
To keep the company running smoothly, the Lanes have leaned on Rebecca’s chemistry background and agricultural experience, as well as Chris’ business management skills and legal training. Other family members and colleagues contribute expertise in security, heating and air conditioning, computer engineering and systems management.
The Lanes credit their success not just to an impressive growing system and the controlled environment grow rooms, but also the roughly 40 employees who keep everything running smoothly, from rigorous sanitation procedures to precise nutrient mixing.
One especially valuable team member is co-founder and general manager Josh Ruhlman, whose role ranges from establishing growing procedures to building the sales program.
“We have some great managers and supervisors and lots of layers of quality control,” Chris says.
The company continues to look for improvements, including encouraging the staff to propose and conduct their own controlled R&D experiments.
“Many of the improvements we have implemented stem from employee-driven projects and ideas,” Chris says.
Rebecca says the facility can be thought of as “one big laboratory.”
“As long as experiments are controlled, we want to empower employees to try new things and test different growing techniques,” she says.
Virginia Company recently opened a separate processing building. The company is currently installing extraction equipment to begin developing concentrates and edibles.
Now that Virginia Company’s products are available in Washington, the company is entering its next operational phase. Some details are still under wraps, but the goal is to use aeroponics and the automated process in other states. Many details of this expansion plan are under discussion, including whether or not the Lanes will be actively involved or if they would license their technology to approved growers.
“We’ve been approached by groups from other states, including some places that haven’t legalized marijuana yet,” Chris says. “Whatever way we go, our biggest fear is losing quality. The hardest thing hasn’t been creating our system but maintaining it.”