"My friends called me the Walter White of cannabis," says David Holmes with a laugh. The self-described cannabis genetics "geek" was, at one point, teaching math at a junior college during the day, and growing cannabis by night. He also did a research stint in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
More recently, however, Holmes saw the potential for a lucrative business opportunity in his past obsession. He's now the founder/CEO of the cannabis consulting firm Clade 9 (The name, he explains, denotes "an evolutionary relationship, like a modern take on a family tree. The '9' sounds like 'Cloud 9', and it also stands for the number of letters in 'marijuana'.") The "full-service cannabis-cultivation business" designs, builds and manages grows.
Holmes' has been a sensible trajectory, given the increasingly permissive legal climate for growing cannabis, and the two decades of industry experience he's racked up in warehouses and back rooms.
"I've been around [cannabis] a long time," he tells Civilized. "The the first time I saw it I was eight years old. My uncles both grew pot, my older brother grew pot. But I didn't grow until college: I stayed out of trouble for many years, unlike a lot of my family members."
That could be because he's kept a sensibly low profile: a June 2016 interview with master grower Mel Frank was the first time Holmes' photo appeared in print.
It seems unlikely that Holmes will maintain his relative obscurity for much longer, given the demand for his expertise.
When we spoke, he was in Phoenix, in a 30,000 square-foot, three-level warehouse that he's helping prepare for a large-scale operation. He flies there once a week from L.A. to Phoenix "to make sure the operations are being built correctly and all the equipment is being installed correctly. I'm always either here in person, or on the computer monitoring the data and making sure things are running smoothly."
People used to think he was a drug dealer
Still, with the gig comes inevitable misconceptions.
"Up until recently, people just thought I was a drug dealer,' he says. "It was really dark industry for many years - in the eyes of those who didn't know - until very recently. I was lucky: I made the right choice and started the consulting company."
Not all his colleagues, however, have been so lucky.
"It hasn't been good for some growers, who have been priced out because of all the competition, but California still has huge potential: it's a gigantic market, maybe the biggest in the world. In the years coming, it's going to be tough for some cultivators who were making a living for so many years doing their thing on a boutique scale, which is a shame because we need their high-end product."
In terms of the industry's rapid movement into the mainstream, Holmes says, he's really interested in "bringing greenhouse tech inside" - an aspect of cultivation that really "started advancing a lot maybe two years ago, and Colorado was a big part of that," he says. "They were the first state that could do really large indoor cultivation."
He's also intrigued by the rapid rise of extracts and concentrates - but while cutting-edge innovations are "really interesting," he says, there's not that much under the sun that's really new.
"A lot of techniques have been around longer than most people think," he says, "and they're already out there: just [used by] artisans doing their own thing."
Holmes still loves growing, testing plants himself
While travelling around the southwest advising people on how to grow primo weed is cool, Holmes is also "really into the breeding part of cultivation. I have my own private grow-op where we do a lot of breeding and lab testing. I'm really into geeking out."
Any advice for those just starting out?
"Read some books on cultivation to start, and visit some greenhouses and indoor grow facilities. If you want to get into a business-to-consumer company, go to one of the consumer events, like a Cannabis Cup. If you want to get into business-to-business, know who you're selling to. Figure out who your audience is. That's important."
Most importantly, however, Holmes says, is constantly striving to create the best possible product.
"I'm always open to learning new things, and that's what makes me a good grower," he says. "Every room that I grow in, I set aside part of the room to do research and development: if we try a technique multiple times, and it shows it improves the yield, it becomes a new protocol.
"It's science, you know?"