Story by Garrett Rudolph
Photos by Ken Pedevilla
Bigger might not always be better, but in business, nobody sets out to be the smallest fish in the pond
While individual growers are limited to 30,000 square feet apiece under Washington’s recreational marijuana laws, there’s nothing to prevent several growers from working as a team to take advantage of economies of scale, reduce processing expenses and save money on land and resources.
Several production facilities, both indoor and outdoor, have already capitalized on this model, with more expected on the horizon.
Among these, The Happy Crowd is one of the most notable examples.
With a total canopy of 260,000 square feet, The Happy Crowd has embodied the philosophy, “Grow big or go home.” It could be the largest legal, licensed, outdoor cannabis farm in the nation.
One big harvest
It’s early November and everybody at The Happy Crowd — all 10 licensees and every employee — has been working their hands raw during the final stages of a massive harvest.
Fifty-seven-year-old Tim Lamb is just finishing his second harvest season. He’s exhausted, his eyes are bleary and his muscles ache. But there’s an underlying sense of accomplishment that makes it all worthwhile. He’s expecting the 10 farms combined to produce a bounty of between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds that will start hitting the market this winter (that’s more than 4 million grams of cannabis).
For Lamb, becoming a part of the emerging cannabis industry was his opportunity to finally be his own boss. He began working as a farmhand in 2014 before buying his business, Mean the Green, from one of The Happy Crowd’s previous tenants.
His work on the farm initially began as a challenge to himself. With The Happy Crowd drawing many of its employees from nearby Eastern Washington University, Lamb was one of the elder statesmen of the gardening crew.
“I needed to prove to myself as an older guy that I could stand out there with those kids for 27 days,” he said.
It was a far cry from the suit-and-tie life he’d lived for ages. And for that very reason — blisters and all — he loved every minute of it.
It’s safe to say that Lamb isn’t the typical cannabis entrepreneur.
He readily admits he didn’t know much about the marijuana biz when he first started getting his hands sticky, but he knew he could work as hard as anybody else.
“I knew if I had the opportunity, I wouldn’t blow it,” he said.
Lamb comes from a corporate sales background in the health care field, where he spent three decades of his life traveling hundreds of thousands of miles each year, constantly eating his meals on the run and living out of suitcases and hotel rooms.
At one point, his closet was overflowing with business attire. He had more than a hundred neckties, 50 dress shirts and enough suits that he could go weeks without a run to the dry cleaner.
“The day I got to put all those suits and dress shirts in a different closet, that was a very, very big day for me,” Lamb said.
He’s making the transition from selling high-tech health care machinery to working the sales and marketing side of the cannabis industry, trying to soak up as much new-found knowledge as possible.
“I feel like I’ve been drinking out of a fire hose learning more and more about cannabis,” he said. “Selling marijuana, I’ve found, has been a lot easier than selling multi-million dollar medical equipment, and it’s just a lot more fun.”
One of the most profound learning moments of Lamb’s fledgling cannabis career involved a conversation with a retailer who wouldn’t buy product from The Happy Crowd simply because it was grown outdoors. Lamb wasn’t familiar with the stigma of sun-grown cannabis, that many people within the industry consider it an inferior product.
“I left there not knowing what to say, and that’s a difficult situation to be in when you’re a sales guy,” Lamb said.
But Lamb has plenty of experience sitting across the negotiating table from CEOs and hospital administrators who thought for certain they didn’t need to invest in a brand new magnetic resonance imaging machine.
At the very center of The Happy Crowd is Pat Dullanty, an outspoken farmer, long-time businessman, martial artist and former marijuana smuggler.
Dullanty owns the 180 acres of farmland that The Happy Crowd sits upon, which includes working alfalfa and quaking aspen farms, as well as the substantial water rights associated with the property. He rents out plots on an annual basis to nine other licensees and uses the 10th pen for his own Tier 3 production and processing operation, which also carries The Happy Crowd moniker.
“Pat is really the godfather of the operation,” Lamb said. “He makes sure everybody has everything they need.”
Lamb credits Dullanty as the architect of The Happy Crowd, but Dullanty isn’t one to take credit for himself. He’s quick to point out the contributions of others, including The Happy Crowd’s head grower, Francisco Ruelas, and noted geneticist Phil Hague, who helped develop the strains at the farm.
Dullanty believes there’s strength in numbers. He’s always made money as part of a team.
“I’m smart enough to realize my limitations and I don’t have an ego,” he explained.
Dullanty added that The Happy Crowd would never have come about without the help of his friend, boss and “organizational genius,” Gerald Wills.
“He taught me to think big,” Dullanty said.
Ruelas works for Dullanty, but he also helps oversee the entire facility. With varying levels of experience among the other licensees, Ruelas offers a second set of eyes and some trusted advice for those who need it.
He preaches proactive growing methods — keeping a watchful eye for pH fluctuations, weeds that might harbor powdery mildew and early warning signs of aphids and mites.
“I’ve failed a lot,” Ruelas said, “but I have been fortunate to learn from my mistakes.”
Although the growing conditions of 2014 were superb, the over-supplied market and subsequent price crash left a gloomy cloud over The Happy Crowd.
“Last year was pretty rough for a lot of people,” Ruelas said. “(The atmosphere) was pretty cloudy last year, whereas this year, there’s nothing but smiles.”
With the exception of a September cold snap, 2015’s weather has been every bit as good as 2014, he said. The combination of excellent weather, superior top soil, cheap electricity and a plentiful water supply means The Happy Crowd can be one of the most efficient operations in the state.
“Our philosophy is to grow the best sun-grown, natural marijuana we can at the lowest possible price we can and enter the market at that price point,” Lamb said. “We can sell processors product for less than they can grow it.”
Lamb believes the cannabis industry will follow a traditional agricultural model at some point in the not-too-distant future, where growers and processors will focus on their strengths and develop working relationships that make the most sense.
In the meantime, Dullanty predicts the oversupply woes of 2014 and early 2015 are in the past. He sees the revised tax structure as a game-changer for Washington’s legal cannabis industry. The opening of more retail stores has helped erase one of Washington’s flaws in the system — the state’s retail lottery, which Dullanty called “beyond belief, an idiot move.” With a steadily growing customer base that’s now supporting more than $2 million a day in sales, there won’t be the same glut of product this winter, he said.
“I believe there’s actually going to be a shortage,” he predicted.
Dullanty is a true farmer at heart.
He believes sleep is a waste of time, so he gets up every morning at 4 a.m.
By only getting four or five hours of sleep a night, Dullanty said he’s already gained about 15 years of life compared to other men his age.
“He’s got farming in his blood,” Lamb said.
Dullanty scoffs at the notion that indoor-grown cannabis is superior to outdoor. He believes there’s good indoor and bad indoor; good outdoor and bad outdoor. He visualizes a blind competition of sorts where the best indoor and best outdoor growers square off in a taste test, much the same way wines are compared.
“All that being said, I really had extensive experience with marijuana all over the world and saw that 99% of it was grown outdoor,” he said. “It was only because of necessity that indoor came about, because they had to hide.”
Dullanty, now 64, says he’d smuggled a hundred tons of marijuana across the Mexican border before he was 30 years old.
At the age of 37, Dullanty’s luck ran out — but the timing couldn’t have been better.
He and his team were caught with 22,000 pounds of Vietnamese weed and $2 million cash in the 1980s, he said.
“We all would have spent life in prison for kingpin offenses,” if the arrests had happened any later, when mandatory minimum prison sentences were implemented, he said.
But for everybody involved at The Happy Crowd, it’s a new era in marijuana.
When Washington voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012, Dullanty was initially caught unawares.
His first thought was “Holy moly! Marijuana’s legal?!” he said.
His second thought evolved into one of the top-producing outdoor farms in the legal cannabis industry.
And for those who make The Happy Crowd their office, the stigma of being marijuana farmers has long since dissipated. The fear of telling neighbors, friends and family — “Hey, I’m a pot grower!” — is a thing of the past, Lamb said.
“I’m proud to tell you what I do because we work our butts off,” Lamb said. “It’s a business just like any other business. We don’t do anything that’s not legal.”