At the Ayra grow facility in Seattle’s industrial Sodo neighborhood, everything is geared toward efficiency. From the lighting to the water usage to the fertilizer, the goal is to be as sustainable and efficient as possible, including the company’s proprietary closed-loop aeroponics growing method.
Which makes sense considering one of the company’s founders is a scientist who spent 20 years in Washington’s agricultural sector, striving to find new methods to help farmers increase their harvests and expand ever-shrinking margins.
“I spent my whole career, basically, in tree fruit,” says John Dunley, who with his brother, Tim Dunley, founded Ayra in 2017. “Cannabis is another flowering plant to maximize yield and increase quality on.”
John’s scientific background and Ayra’s constant testing and retesting of inputs and methods has led the company to build a “super sustainable” facility that uses only 35% of the energy of a traditional indoor grow operation and less water than a typical Seattle family of four, while producing a consistent, sought-after product that holds its own with any other buds grown in the state.
“We consciously decided to build the most sustainable grow,” says Tim Dunley, adding, “You can’t just jump into it. You have to take a scientific approach.”
“There’s some art to it, but there’s a lot of Six Sigma-type efficiencies and we focus on that,” John says. “And we’re cheap.”
At the heart of everything for Ayra is its proprietary aeroponic system, which uses no substrate and suspends the plants’ roots in air, using a high-pressure mist to deliver tiny droplets of nutrients. The process prevents nutrients from being wasted as the roots grow.
“You’re only giving the plant exactly what it needs,” John says.
Like everything else, it grew out of John’s experiences in agriculture and was developed through constant iteration. John has a Ph.D. in entomology with a minor in genetics, has written extensively on the parasites that affect crop growth and spent decades as a professor at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center. In the pre-adult-use days, he worked with a group of other researchers doing experiments on agricultural methods, including one researcher with a background in orchids, the best of which are produced using aeroponics.
“It’s the brass ring of growing styles,” he says. “Everything is about controlling the environment for the plants so they can grow optimal.”
Tim, who came from Seattle’s tech sector before co-founding Ayra, also likes to point to the company’s ability to control the inputs, resulting in a product with consistent quality that can be replicated each grow cycle. It allows the company to have an ever-changing menu of varietals (not “strains,” because, as John likes to say, “they’re not bacteria”) growing at all times.
“We start from the botany first,” Tim says, adding that they know of no other cultivators that have a Ph.D. entomologist as a co-founder and calling it part of the “secret sauce” at Ayra. It is also one of the reasons the company can keep its pests under control without having to resort to any kind of chemicals being sprayed on the plants.
“There will never be pesticides in this facility,” Tim says. “Nothing will touch our plants but dissolved minerals.”
Instead, the company uses strict environmental controls to manage all of the inputs — from lighting, temperature, humidity and CO2 to the air that enters the facility — and says its growing methods disrupt the lifecycle of indoor pests to keep them from getting established.
Having someone with John’s extensive background is important due to the difficulties of building and maintaining an aeroponic system.
“Aeroponics is not easy by any means,” John says, calling it a “balancing act.”
“If one variable gets out of whack, you’ve got plants lying on the table,” he says.
That exact scenario has happened at Ayra, multiple times. Both Tim and John admit that in the beginning, they found themselves in several “blind alleys” and had to just acknowledge that maybe what they were doing was not right for an aeroponics system. And even when it goes right, it doesn’t always go as hoped. According to Tim, the company’s first two harvests were sold directly to processors instead of being sold as flower under the company’s brand because the team did not think the buds met their standard.
‘Walter White style’
The current system began to take shape, as John puts it, “Walter White style” in half-buried shipping containers from the pair’s days working in Washington’s unregulated medical marijuana industry prior to adult-use legalization. Among the issues that needed to be addressed was a problem of redundancy, of making sure the plants continued to get the necessary nutrients if something went wrong with the system.
According to John, most aeroponics growers use a reservoir system, but the Ayra team wanted to be more sustainable and use less water, prompting him to come up with another solution. In the end, he says he woke up from a dream one night at 2 a.m. with a vision of how to solve the issue in his head.
Though he does not go into detail (it is proprietary), he says it is an “elegant solution” that solves the problem simply and easily, without using a reservoir.
And it works, as the company’s minimal water usage and bills indicate. John cites a 2015 California study that showed outdoor marijuana plants use about six gallons per day while growing and then turns with pride to his own system.
“We’re around 16 ounces per day, per plant,” he says.
In total, Ayra only uses between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons of water per month to supply its Tier 2 operation.
“That’s about what my house uses,” Tim says, adding that the average family of four in Seattle, which has one of the highest water costs in the country, uses about 11,000 gallons per month. The company also recycles as much of its water as it can and is careful to only dump nutrient-rich waste water into drains that go to a treatment plant and not into the surface water, highlighting the sustainability side of its efficiency goals.
As for the fertilizer mix they use, it is also proprietary. But like everything else, it’s a result of two years of experimentation and testing to find the most efficient mix for the aeroponic operation. All John will say is that the flowering plants get more phosphorous while the plants in vegetation get more nitrogen, but again, he hints at the efficiencies and cost savings the company gains through constant iteration that has cut fertilizer costs to about $100 per month — enough savings that sales people from nutrient companies have stopped calling.
“We use so little fertilizer it’s crazy,” he says.
Lighting the Way
Constant experimentation and an eye on efficiency also led Ayra to use LED lights in every part of its business, from the sparse and chilly-in-winter office spaces to its mother/clone/veg room to the flower rooms.
The company tried traditional high-pressure sodium lights during the medical days, but opted to go full-LED when it scaled up because of the energy savings, not just in the lights, but in cooling. Tim says the same size rooms they currently have would require about 20 times the amount of cooling — “about a movie-theater-and-a-half” — if they were using HPS lights instead.
Tim calls the decision to go with LEDs a “leap of faith” and admits the initial cost was higher, but was offset by an efficiency program offered through Seattle City Light.
“We’re trying to reduce energy everywhere,” Tim says.
The company’s experimentation and eye on efficiency extend to almost every aspect of the operation, obvious with a quick look at the flower rooms, where employees trim the plants very tight early in the cycle and then don’t touch them again until harvest. It gives the flowering plants a distinct lollipopped look that is unlike most other grows, which trim fan leaves multiple times throughout flowering.
The rooms are also designed for maximum efficiency, with multiple, moveable tables packed with flowering plants and plenty of space inside the flower rooms for employees to move around and work without having to roll tables into the hallway.
According to John, Ayra’s pruning protocol makes plants easier to trim, dry and cure after harvest, creating efficiencies at that end of the process. It also prevents small buds from forming along the stems and maximizes the buds at the top of plant. Whereas many other grows use those small buds for pre-rolls or extraction, John says the lower buds have less value on the market and create an “opportunity cost” by drawing nutrients and energy from the main cola.
“We get enough popcorn stuff in a normal grow,” John says.
He also says the company’s method of trimming not only maximizes the yield of the plants, but allows the company to reduce labor and maintain efficiencies in staffing as well as in the plants. Ayra has only six full-time employees and works on a perpetual harvest model that has them harvesting half of each of their grow rooms at any given time.
“Timing is efficiency,” he says.
Interesting and somewhat unexpectedly, however, for a company focused on efficiency, Ayra hand-trims all of its buds. Tim says they found using machine trimmers reduced the quality of the buds and knocked off trichomes, making the buds less attractive to the discerning shoppers of the Puget Sound market.
“Our business is to sell triple-A bud, not put as much THC into the market as possible,” Tim says.
After just two years in operation, Ayra is making a name for itself as a sustainable, efficient operation that produces consistent, quality cannabis, though that is not always enough in Washington’s hyper competitive recreational market.
“The challenge in the marketplace right now is there’s so much undifferentiated product,” Tim says.
The goal is to fully build out the company’s 10,000 square feet of allotted canopy and to make a name through the sustainability and unique choice of production methods, both of growing importance to the Pacific Northwest consumer, as a way to sell “high tech, hand-crafted cannabis.”
“There’s no one doing it like this,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt to overestimate the consumer.”
The Dunleys also see themselves as leaders on the industry’s sustainability side and often open their facility to other growers or interested parties to encourage others to build similarly efficient operations.
“If not, we’re all going to be out of business,” he says.
From John’s perspective as an agricultural researcher, the cannabis industry also provides a unique opportunity to start from square one and help develop the kinds of best practices that one sees in the traditional agricultural sectors he has worked on in the past.
“Here’s an industry that’s starting fresh that has none of the background work done on it,” he says.
Through constant experimentation, Ayra has a good jump on many of those practices, but even for a longtime farming professional like John, the cannabis industry still presents a new set of challenges and difficulties every day that keeps him engaged in new studies and new attempts to make the operation even more efficient.
“It’s much more complex than most situations in ag,” he says. “This is the hardest damn thing I’ve ever done.”