We interviewed Tim Cullen, CEO of Colorado Harvest Company, about his growing strategies and business practices. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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About Tim Cullen, CEO of Colorado Harvest Company
Acknowledged as a pioneer in the cannabis industry, Tim Cullen is the founder, co-owner and CEO of Colorado Harvest Company. The vertically integrated company operates three Denver-area retail cannabis centers, including a flagship location on Denver’s Green Mile, and two cultivation facilities that provide premium, naturally grown cannabis for a medical and recreational customer base estimated at nearly 160,000 for 2017.
In addition to his roles at CHC, Cullen is a partner in Organa Brands, the parent company of leading cannabis oil production company Organa Labs and the personal vaporizer brand O.penVAPE. In this interview, he shares his unique perspective on cannabis cultivation, industry challenges, and what he expects to see as the industry matures.
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Colorado Harvest Company
Tell us about Colorado Harvest Company’s growing facilities and your cultivation strategy.
Cullen: We run two facilities. One is 8,000 square feet and one is 10,000 square feet. ... We use a coco growing medium and work in a system called "perpetual production." We're constantly cloning, constantly in veg growth, constantly harvesting, so that every week we turn a harvest out of both of these facilities.
In terms of overall business strategy, perpetual production is great for the retail stores because it keeps fresh product moving in and keeps things different. ... Perpetual harvest allows me to maintain a constant work force, so I’m not always looking for trimmers and packagers and having to hire people and lay people off at the end of a harvest. I can have this constant work force which makes business function so much easier.
It’s also security ... You show all these people the inside of your facility and then tell them they don't have a job anymore?
You describe your products as "natural cannabis." Why and how did that come about?
Cullen: There was a point in time when we only used OMRI-certified products. OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) is the body that reviews pesticides for organic food production. We really wanted to use those products. Then the state of Colorado had this whole to-do with pesticides because the EPA verbiage says that use inconsistent with the labeling is a violation of federal law. And, of course, it doesn't list cannabis as one of the uses.
The Department of Agriculture in Colorado started to enforce the pesticide rules and came up with what's now called the "approved list." None of those OMRI-certified products made it onto the approved list. So, we went from essentially what could be considered organic farming to be being forced to not do that. We also got a call from [one of the regulatory agencies] saying we could not use the word "organic" because that’s a federally controlled word and federally illegal cannabis cannot use it.
I wanted some way to convey that we are practicing these same production methods ... So, we landed on the word "natural" instead of organic.
What kind of production are you achieving with those techniques?
Cullen: We run about 400 flower lights, and we average 2.7 pounds per light. You can measure it per watt or per foot or per whatever variable you don't want to change. We measure it per light.
For a long time, the gold standard was 2 pounds per light. But I think the lighting is better and the overall growing techniques are better. We're using a double-ended Gavita light now that's 1100 watts. You can just get better production out of it – you really can. That light is just a superior product to the old-school lights that we grew with for a long time.
I think nutrient delivery systems and nutrients in general have gotten better. The micronutrients are better. We're able to control the climate so much better. We have sufficient tonnage of HVAC in every room that controls the temperature through the year. So, we’re really able to get a good grasp on our humidity, which controls molds and mildews, so we're able to do a lot of disease prevention.
What might surprise other growers most about your cultivation techniques?
Cullen: Agriculture is old. People have been doing it for 4,000 years. I'm not sure that Colorado Harvest Company is doing something mind-blowingly new, but one of the most important things is to keep it pretty simple.
Most of the pests that attack cannabis plants are decomposers in the natural world. Just by practicing clean techniques inside the grow, you can eliminate almost all of your pests. That means keeping dead and dying leaves off the plants, keeping the floors clean, and that whole concept is wrapped up in Integrated Pest Management.
Eighty percent of pest issues can be taken care of by keeping the place clean. Everything else is just maintenance after that. Then we use little yellow flytraps as our early detection methods. As soon as we catch something on one of those, we know we have a potential issue. Then we're able to spot treat without having to spray whole rooms or large amounts of rooms.
We also keep our production areas limited to 1,000 square feet between a wall and another production facility. Even though our warehouses are 10,000 square feet, they're broken up into ten smaller rooms so that we can always isolate and quarantine without having to spray plants that may not have been affected.
You have three dispensaries. How much of the flower you sell comes from your own grows?
Cullen: About 90 percent of it. We purchase a little on the wholesale market just to keep things mixed up. People really like to change up the products they buy within the store. They always want something different, so we supplement with wholesale just to keep it a little spicy and have new stuff rolling in.
We also tie that in to celebrating local cultivators. We sell that as a locally harvested cannabis product, and we celebrate the brand that we purchase that from. We do vendor pop-ups in the store and let the growers hang out and talk about their product. We allow them the chance to build their brand also within that market.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing the industry right now?
Cullen: [Cannabis is] clearly being commoditized. It is about production per gram and how low you can get that price and still turn out a good-looking product.
It is very different than when we started, which was almost nine years ago. We started in 2009. Our business model is completely different. When we started, there was no Marijuana Enforcement Division, so the rules and regulations are completely different now.
I really think the future is going to be very similar to alcohol. It's not going to be this vertically integrated model. It's going to look like Coors makes beer, distributors pick it up and retailers sell it. You are going to have brands emerge that become household names. Whether or not you drink Jack Daniels, everyone knows what Jack Daniels is, and you're going to have cannabis brands that move in that direction – but I do not know that you'll have flower products move in that direction.
I think there'll be some names and strains that catch on, but I'm not sure that branding the flower itself is that big a deal. It seems to be more on the retail side of it; that’s where that play is on the branding part.
I don't think that's true about any of the other products. People who find an edible product that they like and are comfortable with continue to buy that product over and over. But consumers who primarily like flower are frequently switching that up.
What other changes do you foresee for the industry?
Cullen: [...] For all the same reasons that we don't grow oranges in warehouses in Colorado, I don't believe we're going to grow cannabis in warehouses in Colorado for a lot longer either. This greenhouse model is more energy efficient, it's more scalable, and it definitely looks like the way of the future.
... What I think will really happen is that federal legalization will happen and you'll be able to move cannabis over state lines.
There’s a state that’s going to step forward and say, "We can produce cannabis." In Colorado right now, I'd say that it’s Pueblo that is driving the market and the prices down, and it's because of those agricultural production methods.
What are some things within our control that you would like to see as the industry matures?
Cullen: I would like to see more industry groups form that allow for a free flow of information. I feel like so many of the good indoor agricultural techniques and cannabis production techniques are held as close company secrets and almost treated like intellectual property within a company.
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Integrated Pest Management ... should be something everyone in the cannabis industry is practicing and understands, and we have this common language around it, and the regulatory model supports it, and regulators know what those best practices look like.
When we talk about pest control, ... it should be that these guys can call up the Department of Agriculture and say, "Hey, I have spider mites and I need to kill them because I'm an agricultural producer." The Department of Agriculture should be helpful to those cultivators in making decisions about the best ways to treat those things, instead of this trial-and-error work and using off-label products or products not intended for that use.
What other ways can we move forward?
Cullen: For a while, until it was disbanded, I was sitting on a work group with the Colorado Department of Agriculture developing a best practices manual … and then they dropped the program. It really was my hope to be able to complete that little body of work. It was going to be a website and a publication and a phone number to the Department of Agriculture that people could call.
That idea could still exist; I think Colorado should pick it back up. But I think that local cultivators should move forward with that concept in their local areas – whether that's at a state level or a municipal level – and develop relationships with the regulators about the best practices they're looking for, so everyone is doing similar techniques and there's buy-in.
Where you get into trouble is when you start coming up with your own ideas about how things should be done and they don't jive with what the regulators think is the best way to do it. Then all of a sudden you find yourself in trouble.
Any final thoughts you want to share?
Cullen: I think that people should be aware that federal agencies are going to start moving into their lives. If your facility has not been visited by OSHA, it's a question of when, not if. Setting things up so they are compliant with federal inspectors and work safety standards are really important ideas.
These aren’t underground grows with a couple of lights; these have to be industrial. They need to have eyewash stations. They need to have the correct bathrooms in them. They need to have lunch spots and the clean areas. All the parts that a professional organization should put together need to be implemented into these spaces.
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