Indoor marijuana grower keeps strict schedule to maximize output, avoid bottlenecks

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Chris Ball

Chris Ball keeps tabs on what is happening in each grow room at Ball Family Farms using Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. (Courtesy photo)

Perhaps the most important tool that Chris Ball, owner of Ball Family Farms in Los Angeles, has in his cultivation toolshed is database software Microsoft Excel.

“Our best friend is that computer program,” said Ball, explaining that he depends on Excel to plan and coordinate the seven strains he grows annually in eight grow rooms that each can hold about 60 plants.

Ball breeds and uses his own genetics to grow six signature strains plus a “one-off” in any given year.

His bestseller, Daniel LaRusso, gets two rooms, while the other five signature strains and the one-off strain get one room each.

A 12-Month Plan

Every strain needs its own room because each has its own environmental preferences, Ball said.

Some cultivars thrive when the room is cold while others do better when it’s hot; some need more humidity while others excel with less humidity.

“We have different lighting patterns, depending on the strain,” Ball said, adding that each room has 30 lights. “It really comes down to dialing in your strain, figuring out what that particular cultivar likes and doesn’t like. And then you set that room up so that the plant will be in the correct environment for that cultivar.”

The different strains also take varying lengths of time to mature. To avoid harvesting multiple strains on the same day or harvesting crops too far apart—as well as to ensure a steady and consistent supply of product—Ball and his team meticulously plan their year.

“At the beginning of the year, we come together as a team and map out the entire year from start to finish—from January all the way to Dec. 31. We write out our schedule of when this strain is going to be in this room for this many weeks, this strain in this room for this many weeks,” Ball explained.

This is where Excel comes in.

“Having all that on an Excel sheet helps us forecast how we’re going to operate. We can forecast how many hours (of labor) we’re going to need on said day if we’re de-leafing, if we’re trimming, if we’re transplanting, if we’re just watering,” Ball said. “But we have to forecast it out for the entire year to be as efficient as possible throughout the year and not be wasting money in labor costs, not run into an issue where we’re harvesting two or three rooms on the same day.”

The Tetris Method

The planned-out schedule includes buffer dates in case something goes wrong, such as an air-conditioner malfunction or lights blowing out. Otherwise, it needs to be precise.

“You have to be very diligent and very meticulous about that, because things happen,” Ball said. To help coordination, the Excel cells are all color-coordinated according to rooms, strains, dates and various tasks such as de-leafing and watering, Ball said. He estimated there are 10 categories on that Excel sheet.

“It looks like Tetris,” he joked, referring to the video game with colorful blocks. “We have a full-time person paying attention to this Excel sheet eight hours a day, because things pop up or go wrong. Or, we have to get a contractor in to fix an AC unit, and we have to plan that because some days a contractor may not be able to enter the facility because they might screw up the environment.

“Everything is on a schedule. Because once we get going, a plant doesn’t stop.”

Keep to the Cycle

To help keep the schedule, Ball Family Farms follows a cycle where employees are harvesting rooms every two weeks.

How many rooms you plant is determined by how much drying space you have, Ball said. At his grow, employees plant one to two rooms at a time because the drying room, which is about 1,000 square feet, can accommodate only two rooms worth of cannabis at a time.

Ball develops his own genetics, nurturing mother plants that stand about 7 feet tall. He typically gets 100-150 clones from one mother, he said, and clips a mother plant about every two weeks.

Which strains are planted first and most often depends on their popularity and growing cycle length, Ball said.

For example, the Daniel LaRusso strain takes 11 weeks to grow and is the most popular, so that is planted to start the year, giving Ball five harvests of that strain. Some other strains might take only eight weeks and therefore can be planted later but still result in roughly six harvests.

“We typically like to (harvest) one room every two weeks. Since we have eight rooms, it works out pretty cool for the month because it’s an even number,” Ball said. “So, four weeks in a month, there’s eight rooms, we go every two weeks. And we’re pretty golden.”

At the same time, when the different grow cycles converge later in the calendar year, Ball is ready thanks to the Excel sheet.

“We can see that months ahead of time, so we prepare for that,” Ball said.

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