The Sky’s the Limit

A focus on best practices, conservation and diversity helps former home growers establish successful wholesale operation

by Tony C. Dreibus

It ain’t easy growing green.

Just ask Jill Lane. The 35-year-old got her start like many growers in the cannabis industry, working as a trimmer part-time and learning the finer points of marijuana production before cultivating for a handful of patients.

Now, after years of refining her craft, Lane is the master grower at Sky High Gardens in Seattle, overseeing production of 13,000 square feet of cannabis – a big jump from when she grew a few plants as a caregiver.

Scores of cannabis growers in the U.S. have moved out of their basements into larger, better-equipped facilities in the years since medical and recreational marijuana legalization has spread, but many struggle with the transition. It takes knowledge, persistence and good business sense to go from growing one plant to growing 1,000, Lane said.

“It’s not incredibly hard to grow with 10 or 20 lights, but once that starts to multiply, it gets complicated,” Lane said.

The expense of expanding to a large warehouse, greenhouse or outdoor cultivation facility can also be considerable, as can the time commitment, she said.

Sky High Gardens – co-owned by Jeremy Knox and Lane’s fiancé, Brian Humphrey, who also were home growers prior to starting the company – has handled this well. It now has 27 employees and about 30 strains in production.
Constantly Evaluate and Adjust
The company got its start in 2013 after Humphrey and Knox found a suitable warehouse a couple miles south of downtown Seattle and secured a license under Washington State’s recreational cannabis program.

The early days weren’t easy, though.

Because Lane and the owners were stressed and overworked, there was considerable temptation to make things easier by straying from the best practices they had implemented.

Lane looks back on that now and is thankful they didn’t take any shortcuts.

“It’s expensive, so there’s a lot of temptation to cut corners when the workload is hard to manage,” Lane said. “It’s difficult to create a quality product and keep up the quality.”

Part of the company’s success on this end is tied to its attention to detail and ability to constantly refine processes.

The company fine-tunes lighting spectrums after each harvest to try to improve yields and boost THC or CBD levels. To do that, it switches out bulbs and gauges their performance. Lane said she recently switched lighting sources out for a UV-B bulb, which creates stress on the plant in a similar manner to the way the sun causes skin to tan or burn.

“The bud produces extra resin, which increases potency,” she said.

Grow More With Less

Another way to improve the bottom line is to use as little water, nutrients and energy as possible, Lane said. Although that seems obvious, doing so effectively can be quite difficult.

Sky High has started switching to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) in some of its finishing rooms, which are both energy efficient and produce less heat. So far, the technology isn’t there to move completely away from the traditionally used high-intensity discharge (HID) fixtures that are prevalent in the cannabis industry, Lane said.

“The key is to find out how much water and nutrients (plants) need to survive and not overfeed them,” she said. “As far as energy conservation, we’re working with (local utility) Seattle City Lights. They have an engineer whose job it is to manage the cannabis growers and monitor how much energy they’re consuming and find ways to reduce costs.”

The company also has shunned automated watering systems because it’s found that each plant doesn’t need the same amount of water every day. By having growers water the crops, Lane and Sky High’s owners can determine how much each plant needs, thereby reducing water costs and the amount of waste created at the facility.

Nutrients are applied at about half the manufacturer’s recommended dose, another cost-saving measure that was derived from trial-and-error, Lane said.

“We find that’s all the (nutrients) plants need,” she said. “We grow big, fat, healthy buds without all the nutrients recommend by the manufacturers.”

Diversify

Lane said she hopes Sky High will soon be able to move out of its 13,000-square-foot warehouse into a new facility that offers more than double the amount of space. But it’s not just physical expansion the company’s working on.

It recently launched a sister company called Sky High Threads selling T-shirts, hats and other wearable products with the company’s logo. It also has plans to produce new topicals and concentrates to complement its lines of sativa and indica strains.

The amount of revenue Sky High Threads will generate has yet to be seen, as the company just launched this part of its business. But executives are hopeful it will serve as a way to bolster the company’s brand and increase its name recognition.

Lane and her staff currently spend about 10 to 20 hours a week total on new product development. The time commitment is minimal – especially considering that they all work 12 to 15 hours a day – so it doesn’t distract them from the core business of cultivation.

“We’re continuing to evolve our marketing and develop our brand,” she said.

Find Ways to Get Your Name Out

Most wholesale growers don’t attempt to develop and push a brand, as consumers and patients typically buy from retail stores and dispensaries without asking what company actually grew the marijuana. But Sky High believes getting its name in front of end users is critical to sales and its future growth. The goal is to develop a strong enough brand that consumers will seek out retail stores selling Sky High cannabis.

Washington has strict limitations on marijuana-related advertising, so Sky High uses unorthodox marketing methods. The company allows visitors to tour its grow site and has what Lane calls “store days” when staffers actually go to recreational shops to meet customers. The idea, she said, is to ensure consumers are asking for Sky High products by name.

The store days have proven especially popular with women, who are often more shy about expressing the fact that they use marijuana because of the stigma that goes along with consumption, Lane said. Telling them exactly what they’re getting can help put them at ease.

“For whatever reason it’s more socially acceptable for men to smoke marijuana than women,” Lane said. “We try to make it a fun experience so they don’t feel like they’re going to some back alley and passing a joint around.”

The company also allows tours of its cultivation warehouse, contracting with a Seattle-based cannatourism company to bring visitors to the facility, Lane said. About five to seven groups come through each week, she said.

After the tour, visitors should have enough knowledge to know the difference between low- and high-quality cannabis.

“It’s exciting for us to do our part and take away the stigma associated with the marijuana industry by showing tourists that cultivation facilities are run like horticulture operations,” Lane said.

Growers interested in hosting tours should partner with a reputable tourism company and be sure their facilities are up to high standards. People are going to see every inch of the facility, and if something is amiss, they’ll notice, Lane said.

Still, having consumers come through Sky High’s warehouse is good for the industry and the company.

“People are now presented with so many options, it helps us sell our products and helps us make lifetime loyal customers,” Lane said. “People love it – they’re taking pictures and posing with plants. They’re smelling the jars. Having big jars in front of them is as close as you can get to a taste test.”

It’s also a good way to get women in the door, she said.

Being a female master grower – a rarity in the cannabis industry – Lane said she would like to see more women get into the industry, adding that women also shouldn’t be afraid to consume cannabis.

One of her goals is to break the stigma surrounding marijuana so more women feel comfortable walking into a rec shop or dispensary. Lane said she’s only aware of one other master grower in the Pacific Northwest and has seen a few quoted in news articles, but doesn’t personally know any.

“Part of it is the social acceptance – frequently women have children and working in the cannabis industry doesn’t go hand-in-hand with being a PTA mom,” she said. “But I feel like it’s an advantage because they never see me coming. Plus, women are uncommon, so it’s nice to sometimes have less testosterone in the workplace.”

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