Staying Ahead of the Game

Washington DC grower solves problems preemptively, develops creative solutions to challenges

by Omar Sacirbey

Veteran marijuana grower Corey Barnette aims to nip problems in the bud before they mushroom.

He also prefers doing things in-house when necessary. That can mean creating his own strains or developing a system to monitor his plants’ nutrient uptake instead of relying on inferior commercial technology.

Keeping problems to a minimum is a big reason Barnette prefers aeroponic growing: The plants are grown in an air or mist environment, without substrates like soil, coco or water. An engineer by training, Barnette also develops “processes” that allow him to head off problems before they happen. For example, he inspects his plants regularly for pests rather than letting them develop in the first place.

“We are able to identify problems because we have a process that is looking for them,” said Barnette, president of licensed cannabis cultivator District Growers in Washington DC. “We want to be able to solve problems in a way that our system deals with the issue so that you never have to step in individually to solve it again.”

Getting Creative

One of Barnette’s early creative work-arounds occurred when he ran two medical marijuana collectives in San Diego nearly a decade ago, shortly after he moved from growing for personal use to cultivating commercially.

The collectives’ patients grew their own medical marijuana and shared it with other patients. For such a system to work, a collective needs enough patients who can grow enough product consistently, Barnette said. While securing enough supply was occasionally challenging, it was far harder to get high-quality cannabis consistently.

Lower-quality cannabis hurt the two dispensaries’ margins because they couldn’t sell it for the same price as the higher-quality cannabis, Barnette said. So he had to get inventive: The only way to guarantee having high-quality cannabis, Barnette concluded, was for his dispensaries to grow it.

“We got into growing to fill out that upper-end, high-quality offering,” Barnette said. “We grew the strains that a lot of people didn’t want to dedicate their time to growing.”

For example, while most growers focused on popular, high-yield strains like Sour Diesel, Barnette grew strains such as Super Silver Haze, a strain that was in high demand but produced limited yields.

“The more routine growers were making the economic decision when we were trying to build up our exotic offerings,” Barnette said. “It worked because patients came to know our place as a place where you can always get very high-quality product.”

This allowed Barnette to phase out inferior product and concentrate on high-quality strains he could sell at good margins.

Incorporating Processes

In 2011, Barnette left San Diego to avoid the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raids that were closing California dispensaries. He and his team returned to Washington DC – where he had residency – and launched District Growers. He incorporated and refined many of the same processes developed in San Diego.

“When we came back to DC, we were able to refine our process and step back and think about it because we weren’t as concerned about being stealth anymore. We were more concerned about being commercial, efficient and making sure we were operating within the regulatory guidelines,” Barnette said.

“That allowed me to think about how to make our process as efficient as possible, how to make it commercially scalable, how to make it productive.”

He sums up his business strategy as “being commercial and thinking about things from a process standpoint.”

For example, pests like root aphids are more prevalent on the East Coast than the West Coast, something Barnette knew from having grown in both regions. His response didn’t come after he found root aphids on his plants. Instead he acted preemptively, instructing his growers to check plants daily for such pests.

“If you know that in your area of the world you have a problem with fungus gnats, then you might want a process that addresses the potential for that problem to occur,” Barnette said.

“So your gardeners are actually taking the time to look for and do the kinds of checks to make sure this problem is not coming up and biting you in the butt. Or maybe you have intervals in your weekly or monthly routine where you take measures that are preventive so you never even see the problem.”

Opting for Aeroponic

Perhaps the most important change that Barnette made was to the environment surrounding his plants’ roots. Barnette had grown in substrates such as fertilizers and coco. They generally turned out good product. But they had their drawbacks.

Fertilizer and coco, for example, could leave salt deposits on the roots and reduce the quality of the plants. And coco needed frequent changing, which Barnette found wasteful and environmentally unfriendly.

“When you’re growing in coco you have to turn coco more often. As you put nutrients in the coco you do end up with some salt buildup, and it’s not always easy to wash that through. Even when I flush for four or five days, I still have a degree of salt buildup,” Barnette explained.

So Barnette tried an aeroponic system. The benefits were clear. Barnette didn’t need to recirculate his water supply as often, and, when he did, there was less chance of clogging or salt or other debris getting mixed in with the nutrients he fed the plants.

“It was clean. It was less likely to have some of the problems that you have when you’re dealing with a substrate like coco or soil, where you can have salt buildup. It was greener, so we’re not throwing away tons and tons of coco every two or three months,” Barnette said.

There are risks, however, because the roots are more exposed and more vulnerable to pests or fungus. But those can be preempted by inspecting the plants frequently.

“If you have good sanitary practices, those problems won’t arise,” Barnette said. “I just need to make sure I have good sanitary practices and that I am on top of monitoring the roots of the plants to make sure I’m not dealing with fungus or an adverse predator that is there to attack my crop.”

Another risk is that if problems do arise, the plants can deteriorate more quickly when their roots are exposed rather than grown in a substrate.

For example, in an aeroponic system plants must be fed nutrients constantly. If feeding is interrupted, the damage sets in more quickly than if the plants are grown in a substrate, Barnette said.

“If you’re growing aeroponically, you cannot have a system failure that is prolonged,” Barnette said. “If you have an adverse event in your nutrients, the amount of time that it takes your plant to fail is going to be shorter.

“But it works the other way, too. Your plants grow faster and they are more robust because they uptake nutrients more efficiently. You have more root branching with aeroponics than other methods, because the plants have more access to oxygen and more room for the roots to grow.”

Developing an In-House System

Because of the importance of constant nutrient feeding in an aeroponic system – and the ability of plants to deteriorate more rapidly – it’s critical to monitor how much nutrients plants are consuming. But the available nutrient dosing and monitoring machines either break down or don’t do what they’re marketed to do, Barnette said.

“Most nutrient dosing systems on the market that are targeting the cannabis industry are woefully inept,” Barnette said. “They can manage the overall presence of metals, but that doesn’t tell me if my plant has consumed one nutrient versus another nutrient.”

If a plant is getting too much of some nutrients and too little of others, that can throw off a soil’s pH, which is the measure of acidity and alkalinity in the soil. If the pH is unbalanced, the plants are not consuming the nutrients as efficiently as they should be, resulting in a weaker plant and consequently a poorer product.

The solution?

“We got fed up and decided to design our own process and our own piece of technology,” Barnette said.

Barnette teamed with Hanna Instruments, a global maker of analytical equipment, to develop a nutrient monitoring system that he says tracks the availability of nutrients to plants at any given time.

“We make sure we never get out of our pH tolerance ranges, and make sure the probes (of the monitors) are always working and monitoring what nutrients the plant is taking in,” Barnette said. “That process alone makes sure our nutrients are always optimized.”

District Growers has also developed and built in-house plant racks optimized for the grow site, Barnette said.

“Our racks, our systems are not available on the commercial market. And we think what we’ve designed in-house, internally, far exceeds in terms of its quality and output what most people see on the marketplace today,” Barnette said. For example, company staffers cut out holes from the bottom of the pots, which are suspended, so the roots have plenty of room to grow out.

Developing New Strains

With nutrient monitoring and other problems dealt with through regular checks, Barnette and his team of growers have more time to tend their plants and do what really brings joy to a grower: Developing strains they think will appeal to the very specific tastes of his patients.

“We’re leveraging our relationships and finding strains that are grown in different parts of the world and balance those genetics and create some of our own strains,” Barnette said, ticking off names like Sugar in My Bowl, a pure sativa strain, and High Lyrical Content and Buffalo Soldier, a pair of indica-dominant hybrids.

“We wanted exotic to be a function of creating strains that this market could embrace,” Barnette said.

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