Harvest-Time Insights into Legal Cannabis and Industrial Agriculture
Mac & Fulton’s Kent Gruetzmacher had the opportunity to visit Los Suenos Farms in Pueblo, CO to interview the commercial cannabis cultivation company for HydroLife Magazine. Here are the main takeaways from the article and tour of the cultivation operation:
Kent’s tour of Los Suenos was facilitated by their Director of Business Development Jarrod Mason and Cultivation Director Aaron Hoare. This team has been essential in pushing the company to the forefront of commercial cannabis cultivation in the United States and beyond.
Colorado’s Los Suenos Farms: Commercial Cannabis Cultivation
HyroLife had the opportunity to visit Pueblo Colorado’s Los Suenos Farms in early October 2017, during the heart of cannabis harvest season. Los Suenos has set a new precedence in commercial cannabis cultivation. To this end, they have transformed a once cottage industry into full-scale industrial agriculture. In the process, they have earned the title of the largest legal outdoor cultivation facility in the United States.
Pueblo is an ex-steel industry manufacturing town, its location marks the end of the Rocky Mountains and start of the Great Plains, as they sprawl eastward throughout the heartland of the United States. Just outside of town, Los Suenos’s massive outdoor grow facility is located amidst a checkerboard of cornfields and family farms—blending somewhat seamlessly into a landscape and community based on agriculture and blue collar industry. This is one of the most remarkable facets of Los Suenos, the feel of the cannabis farm is unmistakably “Americana”—like witnessing something strangely familiar in the novel landscapes of the marijuana industry.
One of the most compelling business aspects of Los Suenos Farms lies in the sheer size of the operation and the subsequent ingenuity of operational logistics on the part of the staff. The team at Los Suenos is forced to operate their farm with all the zeal, competiveness, and efficiency of an industrial agriculture operation—while simultaneously paying vigilant attention to detail concerning CO State cannabis compliance standards. This is no small feat for any plant touching business. Not to mention one this size.
Thanks to the generosity and attentiveness of Jarrod Mason, Los Suenos’s Director of Business Development, HydroLife got an all-access tour of the operation amidst the hustle-and-bustle of harvest. Moreover, their Complianace Jacob Faber was extremely informative in explaining both the legal and logistical nuances of the operation. Finally, Los Suenos’s Cultivation Director Aaron Hoare shed fascinating insight into marijuana cultivation on such a large scale. Hoare is also the founder of Ambrosia Cropz, a Colorado cannabis consulting firm that has recently released its own line of powdered, water-soluble nutrients.
Commercial Cannabis Cultivation: 36 Acres & 36,000 Plants
The massive scope of operations at Los Suenos Farms is their most defining characteristic, this size precariously provides both their brand identity and largest obstacle in logistics. For starters, Los Suenos is legally licensed by the State of Colorado to cultivate an astounding 36,000 marijuana plants—this number covers all phases of plant growth. Within this allocated number, the farm grows 24,000 full-season outdoor plants that comprise a 28 acre garden canopy. Make no mistake about it, witnessing an operation of this size during peak flower will change one’s perspective about the cannabis industry, by providing glimpses of the future.
It is important to note that the State of Colorado does not normally issue commercial cannabis cultivation licenses for this many plants. In fact, they never do. In order to function at this immense scale of production, Los Suenos operates under four different licenses. This licensing arrangement adds another level of complexity to a cannabis business venture already steeped in multifaceted regulation—the specificities of these licenses effect all business operations, from employee wages to product sales.
The Los Suenos Farms Vision
Mason shed a great deal of insight into the operational philosophy of the place, highlighting how the cultivation conditions in Pueblo have organically shaped Los Suenos’s business model and brand image. To illustrate, Mason reports that their approach to cannabis growing is to “let nature take its course.” Importantly, Mason stresses the fact that the climate in Pueblo provides the means for this system—Los Sueno’s garden is located at an elevation of approximately 3,700 feet and receives abundant sunshine. This notion is vital, because, there aren’t many geographies in Colorado (that are politically accepting of cannabis cultivation) which are conducive to full-sun, outdoor marijuana growing. Therefore, it is from this climactic niche that Los Suenos has developed its identity and business model.
The industrial agriculture component of Los Suenos Farms is directly attributable to the climate of Pueblo as well, as growing 28 acres worth of cannabis canopy in greenhouses or warehouses would be a drastically different affair. Mason is confident in the large-scale model of the farm, stating that “nobody else is doing it like we are.” To be honest, he is right. On a daily basis, the team at Los Suenos accomplishes a careful balancing act between industrial production and extreme attention to detail. For these reasons, they are setting an industry standard in efficiency—as Mason puts it “pushing the boundary every day.”
It’s worth noting, as well, that cannabis businesses who push the boundaries with size and innovation are generally those who push the whole industry towards progression. Along this line of thought, Los Suenos is literally writing the blueprint for industrial agriculture in the cannabis sector. Furthermore, as Colorado has become the worldwide stage as well as model for a functioning, regulated cannabis industry, international eyes have looked to Los Suenos for guidance. Thus far, the farm has been visited by Canadian businessmen and politicians looking to gain some insight into the inner-workings of such an operation. To this end, the could potentially use Los Suenos’s innovations in commercial cannabis cultivation to help with the launching of the Canadian recreational program next year.
Commercial Cannabis Cultivation Insights
The cultivation team at Los Suenos Farms, led by Aaron Hoare, Sean Babson, and Eric Henderson models their horticultural methods after the general vision at the farm— that of large-scale, natural growing. To this end, they use the native soil of the farm for plant propagation—a practice almost unheard of in an industry steeped in overpriced, name brand soils. Also, Hoare reports that the watering tasks at Los Suenos are accomplished through the use of irrigation lines built into the soil within the rows of crops. Finally, the growers at the farm have adopted the use of powdered, water soluble nutrients for their massive fertilization efforts—also a logical departure from the liquid nutrient lines that dominate the industry. To reiterate, efficiency with operational logistics is the key to success at Los Suenos Farms. For a commercial cannabis cultivation company like this, practical means for accomplishing day-to-day tasks are essential for Hoare and his team.
The growers at Los Suenos opted to grow smaller marijuana plants—by outdoor standards—than seen in traditional commercial cannabis cultivation operations. For them, it makes the most sense to grow their plants to between 5 and 6 feet tall. Again, this methodology is directly related to efficiency, mainly because attempting to grow 24,000 plants to large sizes, simultaneously, in vegetative growth would be an expensive proposition and logistical nightmare. Moreover, the size of the plants at Los Suenos makes them manageable concerning pruning and support. To illustrate, the team at the farm simply supports the plants with tomato cages—as opposed to time-consuming, labor-intensive trellising and tying practices.
As the employees at Los Suenos Farms consistently juggle the day-to-day logistics of such a sizeable cultivation operation, they must also navigate the fine legal nuances of the CO State cannabis business. For Compliance Director Jacob Faber, the constant struggle between logistical efficiency and attention to detail requires a careful “balancing act.” Faber explains that each of Los Sueno’s 36,000 plants has a tracking tag—these tags feature a barcode, serial number, and RFID chip. These numeric markers represent a wellspring of information on each plant, including strain, age, repositioning, and location. By way of the CO State mandated METRC tracking system, the aforementioned information must be available for the State at all times—through all growth phases as well as harvest.
Harvest Operations: Keeping Track of Every Gram
The harvest operations at Los Suenos are indicative of a finely choreographed dance, in which 70 temporary employees follow the careful instruction of management personnel. When streamlined, the team is able to harvest between 800 -1200 plants a day. It is also important to note that the harvest team at the farm is under serious time constraints with the Colorado weather, as mid-October freezes and snow are normal in the Pueblo region. Moreover, CO State tracking guidelines are strictly mandated in every phase of the harvest operation—this is serious business and it is not taken lightly. As a result, for Faber the most challenging element of harvest season is “keeping a fast pace while remaining compliant.”
The harvest procedure at Los Suenos Farms utilizes the infrastructures on premises, with a large influx of temporary employees to aid with the plethora of cannabis jobs at hand. With teams split up in various arenas of the farm, they bring down rows of cannabis plants with chainsaws and ship them into a drying room via ATV trailer. Upon entering the drying-room, whole wet plants are weighed for METRC tracking, then bucked-down for a more efficient drying process. Once dry, cannabis flowers are removed from stems and sent to the processing building for trimming in industrial trim machines. Finally, cannabis flowers are stored in large barrels for the curing process.
A crucial element of the entire harvest process at Los Suenos, again, boils down to cannabis compliance with CO State law. To illustrate, the METRC number from the original whole-plant weigh-in must match the weight of the finished flower product plus waste for each plant—waste denoting leaves, stems, and unusable materials. All of this plant material gets weighed several times throughout drying and processing to account for loss of water weight, etc. Finally, Los Suenos hires an ancillary business to visit the farm and destroy all excess plant matter, or waste, on camera for CO State to witness.
The industrial agriculture approach to cannabis cultivation at Los Suenos Farms is not without its problems, or critics. Of course, they face the problems with weather, pests, and labor seen with all farming operations—inside the cannabis industry as well as mainstream agriculture. Additionally, being the biggest cannabis grow in the United States puts them on the map for drug war zealots on the local and federal level. However, as Mason explains, the cannabis industry in Pueblo, CO has helped fill the economic void of a wavering steel manufacturing economy in the town. Also, Los Suenos has provided an overabundance of jobs in the region, especially during cannabis harvest season when they are continually short staffed. All things considered, the problems Los Suenos Farms faces are indicative of their iconoclastic businesses model—a program that pushing the cannabis industry for progress.
This article originally appeared in the December 2017 / January 2018 edition of HydroLife Magazine.