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Nate (Narration): Hi, my name is Nate, owner of Growers House, one of the top suppliers of cultivation equipment in the world. I help growers source equipment and put together some of the largest, most advanced cannabis growing operations. I am constantly looking for the top products and methods needed to grow the best cannabis. Join me on a tour where I get inside access to the industry’s leading cannabis grow ops. This, my friends, is Canna Cribs.
Nate: It’s Sunday night, we’ve just rolled into Snowflake, AZ, and I’m about to go into a 40 acre greenhouse farm. And this farm used to be tomatoes, and now they’ve converted it completely to cannabis. They gave me a pass at security, and I’m about to go inside and meet with Fife, the owner, so he can show me how they run such a large operation. Let’s go inside.
Brief Interview with Fife
Nate: I just walked into Copperstate Farms, and I’m here with Fife, the owner of the facility. So Fife, I know you that you didn’t start in cannabis, as none of us did. So what was your life like up until now?
Fife: For the last 20 years I’ve been growing tomatoes, seedless cucumbers, and yellow and orange bell peppers in greenhouses. Basically, there was this green revolution going on right here in my home state. And I thought “Wow, I’ve been learning about commercial agriculture and greenhouse farming my whole life.” And now there’s real demand for it in the state of Arizona.
Nate: Why don’t you give us the story on this facility in particular, because I know it’s rich?
Fife: It’s got a great history, and the beginning of it might be a little bit apocryphal, but supposedly the first owner won the Canadian lottery and decided that he wanted to build a greenhouse in the best place he could find in North America. Looked all over the place, and built the south 20 acres. He was attracted to Snowflake because of the elevation, the light intensity, the number of sunny days, the quality of the water. He ran that operation for about six years, and then sold it to Eurofresh. They then doubled the size. Eurofresh ran it very successfully for a long period of time, and then they sort of got bitten by the global financial crisis. They went through an extended two rounds of bankruptcy. Then Naturesweet, which is a large producer of cherry tomatoes, bought this Snowflake facility and a facility in Wilcox, Arizona, out of bankruptcy. In my own time schedule, I think it was 2015. I thought “You know what, I really do want to get into the greenhouse growing of cannabis.” Right around that same time, Naturesweet announced that they were pulling out of the Snowflake facility.
Fife: To me it was like a sign. The stars had aligned. I was looking around the state for where I was going to build a greenhouse, and here was 40 acres already built. We bought the property in September of ‘16, and we had our first harvest in August of ‘17.
Nate: Wow. That’s great. And to think that so many jobs… Naturesweet probably pulled out because they couldn’t be competitive with south of the border crops from Mexico, right?
Fife: Yes, yes.
Nate: And that’s happening more and more, and that means there are certain jobs in the US that are disappearing, and who’s going to pick up the slack?
Fife: And it’s a perfect window for the cannabis industry.
Nate: Fife, thank you so much for teaching us all about your facility. I know I have an early morning tomorrow with Jacob, one of your growers, and I’m really excited to see the rest of this facility.
Fife: You’re in great hands with Jacob, so, enjoy your tour.
Nate: Thank you so much Fife.
Fife: Absolutely, thank you Nate.
Nate: So we’re here in the breezeway, about to enter the mega facility greenhouse of Copperstate farms. And I’m here with Jacob, one of the growers here, and he’s going to give us an inside look at their facility.
Jacob: Awesome, we’re happy to have you guys. Let’s go take a look around.
Nate: Let’s do it.
Nate: Wow. First room of the day. Jacob, where are we right now?
Jacob: So this is the mother room right now. We’ve got all of our moms here. It’s basically the start of our process. All the cuttings are going to come from these plants.
Nate: These mothers are really big. I’d like to get a closer look at them.
Jacob: Sounds good, let’s go.
Jacob: So, our mother room is 55,000 sq. ft. Got it broken down in 3 zones, so we’re standing in the B section right now which is our active moms. We’ll be taking cuts off all of these active growing points to be stuck in the propagation room later on. We’ve got about 150 strains represented across about 1200 plants. 100 strains are active, which we’re currently growing for production. 50, we’re growing for trials for seeds or phenotypes, trying to make sure we’ve got some stable genetics.
Nate: Look at all these plants. This row must go down… I dunno, a hundred feet?
Jacob: Yeah, so. On average we get 350 cuts per strain when we’re going on active cuts. 25 cuts per tray, and on here we’ll have a couple thousands cuts, so I think it’s around 3500 or so.
Nate: Ok, so, you guys are using, it looks like… Grodan as a media?
Jacob: Yep. We’ve got Grodan Rockwool cubes here, and their trays as well. We’ll go ahead and be using those for our production cuts. Grodan’s been amazing ever since we switched over to them, and I can’t see us switching over again unless we experience problems.
Nate: And I noticed there’s almost this sawdust looking stuff on them. What is that?
Jacob: That’s actually our BioBest program from Coprate (?). They’re beneficial insects like Swirskii mites and aphipar (?) to really cut down on the amount of bug pressures we see in this room, because really similar to the genetics mother room that we just left, there’s always plants in here. So we’re really restricted on the type of bio regimen we can use. They’re predatory on the pests and they don’t really do anything to the plants. They just live there and call it their home. They’ll leave as soon as the bug pressure that they were eating has left too. It’s kind of like they finished the meal and left the restaurant.
Nate: Well, what about the difference between growing tomatoes versus growing cannabis?
Jacob: It’s much much more massive. If you think about it, they had 250,000 tomato plants per 10 acres here, and those plants would last for months and months and months. We have a smaller number of plants, and they last for a smaller amount of time, so they’re cycling through much more rapidly.
Nate: Wow. Very impressive room. So this is much larger than the mother room we were in. So can you give me a sense of scale?
Jacob: So this is actually about twice the size of our mother room. We’ve got 2.5 acres of veg space here. It’s about 100,000 square feet.
Nate: One room. 100,000 square feet?
Jacob: Yeah, just one room.
Jacob: We start out with our Rockwool cubes, and then we immediately drop them into these Medicoir bags that you’re seeing. Coco is our desired media that we like running right now. After our trials back in August/October time, we saw that coco was the most profitable, and that’s what we’re looking into right now.
Nate: And then for fertigation, it looks like you’ve got a lot of drip line here.
Jacob: So we have all Netafim drip systems. We love the real pressure regulating aspects of a lot of their products we’re using right now. It really makes sure that we have a uniform fertilizer and irrigation distribution between all the plants we have spread out across the zone.
Nate: So whether it’s in this corner of the greenhouse or that one, they’re getting the same amount of water every time?
Nate: So what about nutrient regimen? You guys using anything else other than your own custom blend?
Jacob: So we do use one product or a few products through a company called Key to Life. They do some amazing nutrient work. We’re currently using their Silver Bullet sulfur for foliar applications. We also did some experiments with their molasses as well. It’s just a great nutrient company out of Colorado. They’re doing a bunch of great stuff as far as cannabis fertilization. Everything that we do is based on plant reaction. It’s not just a matter of every plant needs this. We try to make everything as uniform as possible, but at the end of the day, they still tell us what they want.
Nate: I really want to dig into these LEDs that you have. Can we take a closer look at these?
Jacob: Yeah, let’s go hop on one of those scissor lifts and take a closer look.
Jacob: So these are the new LumiGrow Pro 650e’s with a SmartPAR module. I can run the entire lighting system remotely from my phone. It’s an extremely user-friendly system. Like you said as well, I’ve got complete control over this. So increasing the amount of blue spectrum or blue wavelengths in the last couple days of flower actually improves terpene retention. So you can improve your potency based on your lighting strategy even in the last couple days of flower.
Nate: These lights, they know if there’s a cloudy day and a few cloudy days. They have predictive analysis that might frontload the amount of light that they get in the morning to make sure the plants are going to get enough light.
Jacob: Exactly, so what it’s doing is constantly live-time measuring and analyzing the light conditions of this room, looking at our settings and our targets, and saying “Ok, how do I need to affect or change the instantaneous intensity of this light to make sure that we achieve this goal in the set timeframe?”
Nate: As far as I know, this is the only fully automated LED solution that takes into account environmental factors, at least as far as I know.
Jacob: Exactly, this is the only fully automated lighting greenhouse solution out there.
Jacob: So we’re in house 44 right now. We’ve got about 7200 plants in here spread out across an acre and a half. That many plants, you’re going to get some really crazy smells first thing in the morning.
Nate: Maybe… we can take a stroll down one of these rows?
Jacob: Yeah, let’s grab a lab coat to keep us off the plants and we’ll go check it out.
Nate: Jacob, one of the things I really wanted to get into coming into this flowering greenhouse is how you manage environmental controls. In Snowflake, Arizona, where in the summer it can be 100 degrees, and winter it can be snowing, and you have to grow a crop year round.
Jacob: We have a Priva environmental control system and it’s just amazing. It takes into account all these different factors: Temperature, relative humidity, vapor pressure deficit… all of these crazy factors that we can use and create our own program and our own strategy.
Nate: And the Priva system… that’s commercial ag software that’s used in tomato production, you guys were able to transfer right over to cannabis right?
Jacob: Right, Priva was designed for large scale agriculture and it fits our needs really well here because everything is interfaced into once source, so I can control all of the environmental factors, all of our irrigation, lights, fans vents, whatever it may be, just from one platform.
Nate: So you mentioned pruning just a second ago. I know you guys are using our Common Culture Trojan scissors. You guys buy a ton of them. But I want to go over… what’s your philosophy behind it? What are you trying to go for?
Jacob: So the philosophy is just to pull off some of those lower shoots, auxiliaries, and little flower sites that aren’t going to produce much for us in the very end. So we pull those off and try to have the plant focus its growing energy on those four main heads that we created in the veg room.
Nate: And this is the Grower’s Edge trellis netting. I know that you guys use this in a vertical fashion more than a horizontal fashion that I see so often.
Jacob: So what we’re trying to do with this is open up the plant a little bit more, getting the airflow going down through the center of the plant. Right now we’re in monsoon season, so we went from 5-10% average humidity to over 50% within a week’s span. With that big of a change, you’re watching powdery mildew and other mold spores popping up. It’s something that we have to stay on top of with our IPM regimen, our environmental control strategy, and everything down to this trellising and pruning, making sure we’re helping the plants by keeping these pressures as low as possible.
Nate: Jacob, I noticed you have these packets hanging up above your plants in the flowering rooms. What are those?
Jacob: Those are part of our ProKure protection program. The ones you’re seeing right now are the ProKure D slow-release packets. They give us the ongoing ClO2 protection during the plant’s life cycle. We also have fast-gas ProKure G and V packets that we use in between harvest to clean the room of any remaining mold and mildew spores that could be airborne or in some really hard to reach places. It’s really essential for our IPM program to keep these houses as clean as possible.
Nate: Ok Jacob, I am not lying when I am saying this is the most beautiful drying room I’ve ever been in. I would eat off this floor, it is so clean. There is not one speck of dust.
Jacob: We’re a medical facility, you’ve got to keep this to the highest level of cleanliness.
Nate: Of course, and you guys have something I’ve never seen before. You have a wall pushing out air slowly.
Jacob: So it’s a slow dry and directional air flow. We’ve got our south walls that’ll push air and our north walls that’ll pull air, and effectively it creates this real slow draft over the plants to make sure that we’ve always got new, dry air coming in, but we’re not blowing trichomes off the plants. We want to make sure we keep those crystals nice and intact. This was just cut down today, so it’s still really fresh. Can probably still get a real big whiff of vegetative and a whole bunch of terpenes. It’ll be here for about a week or so until we get to the right moisture content, and then we’ll go ahead and move it onto the curing room.
Nate: Jacob, this room is the curing room, right? I mean, it’s really cold and kinda windy in here. Loud too.
Jacob: This actually used to be the original cooler back when this was a tomato farm. So this is where they’d store the tomatoes before they got shipped out on trucks to grocery stores all over the US. So, you’re actually hearing the AC from that old system, which keeps it nice and cool for our workers in here. When we originally started we were in these black totes that didn’t quite give us the airtight seal. We switched to CVaults because we realized the benefit in having a sealed environment cure in the little CVaults.
Nate: So no light, no air.
Jacob: Exactly. Also in these, we’ve got the Boveda moisture packs to help regulate humidity in the CVault, keep it at exactly 62%.
Nate: Ok, for the Bovedas. I know some people use the 55%, some use the 62%. You like the 62?
Jacob: We like the 62. It keeps a lot of those terpenes in there, we feel. It’s extra sticky, which a lot of customers like.
Nate: Ok, so how much weed is actually in this store room right now?
Jacob: Because this is also our storage room as well, we’re probably looking at over a ton. Close to 2 tons, 4,000 pounds of weed. Dried, cured, packaged, and ready to go.
Nate: Wow, the market is hungry.
Jacob: We’re ready to feed it.
Nate: So I made my way into the trimming room of Copperstate Farms and I met up with Holly, who’s going to go over a little bit of what they do here. So Holly, what is your role here at Copperstate Farms?
Holly: I am in charge of preliminary QA. What I do is when it comes out of the dry rooms, I take at least an ounce of it, trim it up myself, grind it up, and look at some under the microscope. That way I can document if there are any issues like seeds, pests, or mold, and catch that. Then I do the good things like how much it weighed, the density, is it larger than the last batch around, things we can compare to improve in the future.
Nate: So that’s interesting. You’re almost acting like the end user to grade the cannabis in different… steps?
Holly: Exactly, yes. Normally every strain runs through the GreenBroz first, and then we can send it to them because it cuts out about 70-80% of our trimming.
Nate: Cool, I’m going to check out packaging. Holly, thank you for showing me around.
Holly: Any time. Glad you could make it.
Nate: So I’ve stumbled my way into the packaging department, and I’ve met up here with Ivan. Tell us a little bit about it. You’re running this department and maybe among others you were saying?
Ivan: I’m the processing manager for everything that comes in from harvesting. As soon as harvesting comes in, I’m in charge of all operations. Right now we’re ramping up to 500 pounds. We’re anywhere from 200-300 pounds a week. Trim alone, we’re packaging up to 300-400 pounds per day. Popcorn, we can do anything from 100 to 200 pounds a day. We used Boveda packs to balance out our moisture. If the moisture comes anywhere from 10-11%, we throw in Boveda packs into the package. They work both ways. If there’s too much moisture, it’ll remove moisture, and if it’s too dry, they’ll add moisture. They work really well for us.
Nate: So we made our way out of packaging and I found myself in this very quiet, sterile room with Alec. Alec, what’s your role at Copperstate?
Alec: I’m the extract lab manager here at Copperstate Farms in Snowflake, Arizona. This room right here is very clean and it is the material prep room. We take all flower from the processing area or this big freezer behind you and grind it, mill it, and get it prepared for CO2 extraction.
Nate: This Vitalis (?), is that the next step in the process?
Alec: That is essentially the next extraction step.
Nate: Why don’t we jump out of this room and go show everyone that piece of machinery?
Alec: Sounds like a plan.
Alec: So this is ELSA, the Vitalis Q90. It’s able to process about 75 pounds of biomass per day. Currently we’re running 25 pounds of material, we expect to get around 2000g of crude oil from it.
Nate: Alec, I saw this in the corner and it looks like a really insane crockpot, but I know it’s much more than that. Can we go into this guy?
Alec: Yeah, so this is our Delta Separations CUP15 Ethanol extractor. C1d2 approved, able to process about 30 pounds of flower every 35 minutes. Beauty of this system, in an 8 hour shift we can process about 300 pounds with a single technician.
Nate: And how much does a machine like this run?
Alec: It’s actually a pretty reasonable pricetag. It’s only about $84,000 give or take depending on what additions you get.
Nate: Wow, that’s crazy. And this is making a lot of the things you see in vape pens, distillates, shatters…
Alec: With this we can make isolates, sauces, shatters, crumbles, we can whip different products. Like you were saying, we can make distillate, distillate cartridges. This is really kind of an all-in-one system. Set it, forget it. It spins, it dices, it sets the prices.
Nate: I’m here with Bodhi, one of the cofounders of Root Sciences, this really awesome piece of equipment behind me. And he’s going to go into it a little bit so we can learn a little bit more. So Bodhi, what is this?
Bodhi: So, basically what we’re doing is putting the feed stock into the feed tank. This is already prepped oil ready to go. We use gear pumps instead of a gravity fed system which allows us to pump oil through the machine instead of using gravity which gives you a less precise separation of the cannabinoids. So on the first pass, we’ll want to pull out the terpenes. On the second pass, we’ll target cannabinoids. We do that through temperature and via vacuum. We’ll modify those parameters to target terpenes or cannabinoids. The check valve is our barrier to vacuum. From there it goes into the degassing arm. The degassing arm helps us to alleviate entrainment issues, which means we don’t want any off-gassing happening on the evaporator, which can cause splashing for residue to condense on the coil and it’ll come out in your distillate. So the oil comes down the evaporator wall. The rotor is creating a thin film which agitates the oil and provides maximum surface area. On the first pass, the terpenes are vaporizing off of the wall, recondensing on the coil, coming down, and coming out this side. The rest of the oil is staying on the evaporator wall and coming out this side and pumped out here. Once all the oil has run through the feed tank, we’ll take this oil, which doesn’t have any terpenes in it any more, put it back into the feed tank, change the parameters, temperature, vacuum. We’ll pull a deeper vacuum, run it a little hotter. And then we’re going to do the same process. But because of those parameters, now the cannabinoids are going to vaporize off the wall, recondense on the coil, now you’re going to have distillate coming out this side. Your residue, which is basically trash, is going to come out this side. Root Sciences has been doing distillation for 7 years, so we have the expertise and the know how to run these machines, train people on these machines, support these machines, which you’re not going to see from other competitors. The other competitors that are out there are manufacturers. They don’t know the process of extraction or winterization and filtering and solvent recovery. They know distillation. Root Sciences knows the whole gambit. We started out in concentrates and extraction. You’re not going to find a better piece of equipment in the market.
Nate: Very precise piece of machinery right here.
Nate: Welcome everyone to this week’s episode of cooking with cannabis. I’m your host, Nate Lipton, and I’m here with Good Things Coming, Sarah, and Alex. Why don’t you tell us how Good Things Coming came about?
Sarah: So Good Things Coming is started by industry-leading chefs. We came together in Phoenix and we saw that there was a huge need for chef-driven edibles. We took our experience working in high-intensity kitchens. We took that discipline and applied it to a really badass brand of edibles.
Nate: So Alex, tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you come from and how did you end up getting here?
Alex: I’m original from Spain, Barcelona I mean. I started in some pastry schools in Barcelona, and then I started working for one of the best pastry chefs in the world. I just moved to Arizona last summer, and they told me about the brand and I said “Let’s do it.”
Nate: I hate to use the phrase, but you must be like a kid in a candy store. In this 4000 square foot commercial kitchen with all the new… appliances? Tools? Equipment? I don’t think anything can help me close out this show better than your company’s name… there’s Good Things Coming to Arizona and maybe even the rest of the country. Sarah, Alex, thank you for having me.
Nate: So I’m here in a very unique laboratory inside of Copperstate Farms. Now I’ve never seen this before, but this is a separate business operating on the same property of Copperstate Farms. Now this business is run by Catherine, and what is the name of your guys’ business?
Catherine: Well, welcome to Bioanalytical Laboratories Nate.
Nate: Why thank you. It’s a laboratory of course, I see all the equipment. But what do you guys do here? Give me the skinny.
Catherine: We test for cannabinoid potency, we test terpene profiles, take a look at that, and we also take a look at any microbial activity that may be present since we are working with biological systems. Would you like to help me with my microbial assay?
Nate: I do not know what that means, but it sounds like fun, thank you.
Catherine: Great. Come on!
Nate: I hope they fast motion this part.
Catherine: We’re currently evaluating the Cure Advantage system. They’re a local company that’s located right here in Tucson, Arizona. The Cure Advantage staff monitors the gases that are released during curing. They do that in realtime.
Nate: So it’s almost like you put the flower into a receptacle, and rather than burping it manually, that system will handle any exchange of gases within it so that you can cure faster.
Catherine: Right. And it’s a very simple system to use, dried flower is put in the containers, and they’re connected with quick connects, and it’s that simple. It has the potential to reduce labor costs and elimiNate any contamination.
Nate: Yeah, cool. I want to hear more about that Cure Advantage as you guys get farther along in your testing.
Catherine: Ok. I will keep you updated.
Nate: Thank you Catherine. So that wraps up my tour of Copperstate Farms, Catherine, thank you so much for showing me around this analytical lab. It’s the first one I’ve ever been to.
Catherine: Well, I hope that you enjoyed yourself Nate, and thank you so much for honoring us with your presence.
Nate: Thank you.
Nate: After a long day of hanging out at Copperstate Farms, I’m finally here with my crew. Jacob is joining us, and I got some of these. Would you like one? Jacob. To good times, to high times. Canna Cribs Episode 3: Copperstate Farms. That’s a wrap. I think we’re going to go hang out with our crew. Jacob, thank you for joining us. Let’s go.
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How did Copperstate Farms start?
I teamed up with a good friend of mine, and we started Copperstate a few years ago. Not two weeks after we began looking for a facility, Naturesweet, a large cherry tomato producer, announced that they were pulling out of a 40 acre greenhouse in Snowflake, Arizona. It was almost as if the stars had aligned.
We went to work to get the permit from the town council in Snowflake. It was a long process, and quite a few people in town were nervous about the idea. I assured them that the farm would be a significant economic boon to the town, and I promised to focus on hiring local labor rather than outsourcing.
The town agreed to let us start growing and converting the greenhouse. I initially hired 130 people, and nowadays we’re over 200 people. We’re the largest employer in Snowflake, and one of the largest in the county.
Copperstate is a MASSIVE farm. How did you secure the capital necessary to acquire and renovate the facility?
Because of my background in other agricultural businesses, I’ve been raising money and entering new ventures like this for 20-25 years. So I started like I would with any other business: I came up with a business plan and figured out how to finance it. I spoke with some private investors whom I’ve worked with before and explained Copperstate’s business plan. Most of them were eager to hop on board.
How difficult is the conversion process for facilities that were designed for tomatoes?
The most time consuming thing was taking down the energy curtains and replacing them with light deprivation curtains. We also made other subtle improvements. High quality cannabis requires constant airflow, so we added a lot of ventilation equipment to improve it. We also had to design a system to allow ventilation to remain on when the light deprivation curtains are in place.
What distinguishes Copperstate? What’s its competitive advantage?
I am striving for customer service that is above and beyond. What I mean is that a lot of dispensaries in Arizona don’t have a reliable supply of cannabis. Many dispensaries have to shop around from multiple growers and supplement their own stock to just have enough.
I come from conventional agriculture, where our customers are number one. We want them to come back to us for our reliability and our quality.We’re willing to communicate with our customers about the product and if there are any issues. I want to make the experience for a dispensary owner as easy as possible so that they can focus on their sales.
What happened while you were pitching Copperstate to the town of Snowflake?
One of our competitors hired an attorney and launched a two year smear campaign against me. Their team even dropped pamphlets all around Snowflake claiming that I came from a Mexican drug cartel and there’d be druggies all over town. They tried to extort me into reducing the amount of space I’d grow in.
They even went so far as to find a few strawmen in the town to file a lawsuit against me. We ended up winning. The opposing attorney never said who his client was, but there was a whole lot of shadiness about it.
Where do you picture the future of the Arizona cannabis market in 10 years?
10 years from now, we will have adult-use legalized in Arizona. I don’t believe there will be federal legalization by that point though. That said, if I’m proven wrong, we’re in a great strategic position to compete all across the American Southwest.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
With cannabis, I’d say that ⅔ of the work actually happens after the harvest, and only ⅓ of the work happens in the greenhouse. That took a bit of a learning on my part.
What’s been your biggest success?
One of the best parts of forming Copperstate is just seeing how rewarding it has been for everybody. It’s hard to pay people well in commercial agriculture. You pay the minimum wage because of tight margins, and there’s high turnover because of the difficulty of the work and the low pay. But with cannabis, that paradigm has been entirely flipped on its head. I’m able to pay people a living wage and provide full benefits.
What was your response to the 2016 ballot initiative in which recreational marijuana use in Arizona was not passed?
I was surprised and also appalled by the donations from opiate manufacturers. They were running a “Save the children!” campaign while they were making drugs that are causing deaths all over the country from the opioid epidemic. The amount of hypocrisy from anti-legalization groups makes me sad.
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Luckily, we came to an arrangement and my partner and I went to work to get the permit from the town council in Snowflake. I established my residency in Snowflake in the summer of 2016, and lobbied the council. It was a long process, and quite a few people in town were nervous about the idea of converting the facility into a cannabis grow, as it was a significant landmark there and the public was worried about the perception of a giant weed farm. I assured them that the farm would be a significant economic boon to the town, and I promised to focus on hiring local labor rather than outsourcing. Additionally, the town had lost several businesses in the previous few years, and here I was with a golden opportunity. So, rather than letting the greenhouse gradually degrade and fall apart, I would take up the mantle.
Sure enough, the town agreed to let us start growing and converting the greenhouse. I initially hired 130 people, and nowadays we’re over 200 people. We’re one of the largest employers in Snowflake, and one of the largest in the county. We only needed six employees to relocate from elsewhere. Turns out we were pretty lucky. Many of the Naturesweet managers and workers were still in Snowflake, and had lots of experience in commercial agriculture. Most of the work we had to do were retrofits for the facility and getting people up to speed about the specifics of cannabis.
With that said, of the 40 acres we own, we’ve only retrofitted 8.5 acres, and we’re working on another acre and a half, so we’re functionally farming about 10 acres right now. We’re working on getting our processes dialed in, and we’re holding the extra space in reserve in case demand starts bumping up for some reason.
Snowflake is an ideal location for greenhouses because it has an incredible number of sunny days and because it’s 6000 feet above sea level, you also get cool nights. When we compared light measurements at Copperstate to our friends at Aphria, they were blown away. We get more light on a December day than they do in the middle of August. That reduces our flowering time from 8 weeks to only 6 weeks in the summer. Snowflake also has a relatively low humidity for most of the year, except during monsoon season.
We also made other subtle improvements. High quality cannabis requires constant airflow, so we added a lot of ventilation equipment to improve it. We also had to design a system to allow ventilation to remain on when the light deprivation curtains are in place, as they stop a lot of airflow. That took some structural changes to the greenhouse, and we had to specially design a flow pattern that pulls all of the air in the greenhouse to a carbon filtration system which then vents above the facility.
What I mean is that when I started doing my research and visiting grows and dispensaries, I noticed that a lot of dispensaries in Arizona didn’t have a reliable supply of cannabis. Many dispensaries have to shop around from multiple growers and supplement their own stock to just have enough. They didn’t have a regular buying pattern, and there was a whole lot of caveat emptor. It seemed like people were just trying to take advantage of each other all of the time for a quick buck.
I come from conventional agriculture, where we’re used to selling six or seven million boxes of produce per year, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Our customers are number one. We would have never tried to screw them over for a quick buck, because we needed the repeat business. It wasn’t about making a killing on one sale, we wanted our customers to come back to us for our reliability and our quality.
It showed in how we interacted with our clients. If there was ever a production or quality issue, we were upfront with our buyers. We let them know what was going on. If they sent something back to us, we dealt with it in an amicable way.
And that’s how I want to be perceived in the Arizona cannabis market — as a large producer with consistent quality, consistent pricing, and willing to communicate with our customers about the product and if there are any issues. I want to make the experience for a dispensary owner as easy as possible so that they can focus on their sales.
Any agricultural business must acknowledge that Mother Nature can be somewhat fickle, so you can’t always have the best or prevent every problem. Instead, we focus on honesty and being forthright in our communications. We want to make dispensaries happy so they can keep coming back. Copperstate is about repeat business.
We also aim to be the one stop shop that can consistently provide the stock that dispensaries need. Because of our sheer scale, we’re able to grow a large number of different strains in large quantities. We have about 25 different strains that we’re really confident on right now, and we have another 100 in the research phases right now. The ones that show promise will start going into commercial production.
But you don’t get that kind of system with cannabis. You’ve got to do all the genetic research in-house. I didn’t realize just how much work that was, because I was just used to paying a lot for seeds and having that work already done.
So now we do our own in-house R&D, focusing on strains that sell well and produce well, with plenty of variety to be the one-stop shop in case our customers need it. It takes about 6 months from a seed pop to when we have enough mother stock for commercial production though, so the research process is relatively slow.
As for bugs, they’re always an issue. All sorts of bugs out here love to eat our plants. In the commercial ag business, we joke that we’re waging full-scale biological warfare all the time. We definitely follow IPM protocols for targeting bugs. We regularly use biological pest controls and scout constantly, and we never use chemical pesticides. We have a huge handbook that was focused on tomatoes, and cannabis shares a lot of pests with tomatoes, so it’s a great resource for dealing with problems when they arise.
We’re also using software called AgriWare in concert with Microsoft 365. It helps us document everything and manage our costs in a well-designed way. We even have it connected with our RDF system for seed-to-sale tracking. You can just scan a tag at the door and bam, it’s logged.
While the community itself didn’t seem to have a problem with the idea, one of our competitors did. They hired an attorney and launched a two year campaign against me to try and rally opposition to everything I was doing. Their team even dropped pamphlets all around Snowflake claiming that I came from a Mexican drug cartel and there’d be druggies and vagabonds all over town. They tried to extort me into reducing the amount of space I’d grow in. I didn’t listen.
They even went so far as to find a few strawmen in the town to file a lawsuit against me. I met with the individuals filing the lawsuit one by one, and when they realized they were just being used as pawns by another marijuana grower, they dropped the suit. We ended up winning and getting the full award of our attorney’s fees, and Snowflake also won its fees too. The opposing attorney never said who his real client was, but there was a whole lot of shadiness about it.
I predict that 10 years from now, we will have adult-use [cannabis] legalized in Arizona.Fife Symington IV
As for Arizona itself, I think in 10 years the market should be similar to where Colorado’s is at right now, as far as total market size goes.
You see with tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, etc. your post harvest simply amounts to boxing everything up, chilling it, and shipping it out. That’s not the case with cannabis. With cannabis, I’d say that ⅔ of the work actually happens after the harvest, and only ⅓ of the work happens in the greenhouse. That took a bit of a learning curve from me, but now we understand the process much better.
The other struggle we’re working on has to do with extraction. Simply put, it’s hard to find extraction equipment that can handle the volume we’d like to produce. Most extraction equipment is meant for small grows, and can’t handle the large quantities of cannabis we have available. That said, we do make bulk distillate and plan on making vape cartridges soon. We use a subcritical CO2 extraction process, which is very clean and safe.
It’s also great to see how quickly our team has come together. There’s a lot of really excellent people here working with us.
But almost overnight, cannabis has started to gain cultural acceptance, both in Arizona and the US. People’s minds are changing very quickly, and almost everybody knows somebody whose life has been improved with medical cannabis. This effect has snowballed, and so now I am much more open about talking about the matter.
If an adult use bill is put before voters, do you think it will pass?
I think it would pass if put before the voters in 2020. If you look at the polling in the state, the majority of Arizonans want to have adult use in the state. Turnout in the general election of 2020 will be a lot higher, and the demographics are there. They’re almost there today, and at the rate that opinions are shifting, it will almost be a guarantee.
About Fife IV
In 1995, my best friend from college started a farming company in Culiacán and I got involved with it. We built large scale greenhouses and produced high-quality tomatoes en masse. It’s done really well. There’s over 800 covered acres of greenhouse in Mexico that ships over 200 million pounds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and bell peppers to the US and Canada every year.
I spoke with one of my buddies, John Cervini, who had founded Lakeside Produce up in Ontario. Lakeside Produce was a distributor for tomatoes and cucumbers in Canada during the winter. John had sold his share of Lakeside Produce and was a founder of Aphria. He told me what was happening around the US with regards to cannabis, and invited me to try it out. I took a brief jaunt over to visit him and see Aphria for myself. I was impressed by their capitalization strategy and valuation. When I mentioned that I was interested in starting something similar in Arizona, they were eager to offer financial backing for what would become Copperstate Farms.
That said, we’ve made massive strides retrofitting the facility, and we’re well into our production cycles, so hopefully our week-to-week activities will start to stabilize.
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About the Author
Hunter Wilson is a community builder with Growers Network. He graduated from the University of Arizona in 2011 with a Masters in Teaching and in 2007 with a Bachelors in Biology.