He doesn’t want to be robbed so we don’t take a direct path from his main office over to his industrial cannabis grow site. Instead we drive around downtown Los Angeles in circles. We pass homeless encampments that stretch the length of a city block. We cross railroad tracks. We pass under a freeway. He sits in the backseat and casually directs when to take a left, when to execute a U-turn. After a few minutes we arrive at a tall corrugated metal gate. You might guess on the other side of the fence is an industrial metal recycler or perhaps a cold storage facility for a dairy. To my eyes, it looks like the gate to a survivalist compound in a post-apocalyptic movie. The heavy metal wall slides apart. We pull slowly into the employee parking lot, and step out of the car.
Somewhere inside this nondescript building is an industrial farm that pumps out 65 pounds of market-ready cannabis each week. That’s, roughly, half-a-million dollars each month. Made from growing some of the prettiest, stoniest pot you ever did see, or smoke, or vape, or dab. That’s why I’m here at THC Design. To speak with CEO and co-founder, Ryan Jennemann about how his company became an industry leader. His brand may best be known for their flagship strain XJ-13.
Once upon a time, Ryan Jennemann was an outlaw dope farmer in Oklahoma. Back then he did all he could to hide his grow rooms from the legal system. Now, Ryan gives guided tours to local politicians and civic leaders each week. One day a week, he invites local and state politicians, as well as consultants, union organizers and lobbyists, to come in and take a tour, see firsthand what an industrial farm looks like and how it works.
Education is the best tool to combat fear. It’s important that lawmakers know and trust dope growers since California is about to join the states that have legalized recreational marijuana. But unlike Washington, Colorado, Nevada, and others, California is the 6th largest economy in the world. It’s recreational cannabis market is about to go boom. So it’s important they understand all the technical details, the nuances, the important aspects, of what goes into and comes out of industrial cannabis grow sites. Ryan’s been very busy recently trying to help civic leaders understand industrial cannabis cultivation. Which is a strange place for a outlaw dope grower to be. But these are strange times.
Since we aren’t lawmakers, for us, Ryan offers to give Civilized the full tour of one of his facilities. But the chill version. Time to draw back the curtain and learn how THC Design grows such beautiful buds.
The grow facility has cement floors and high ceilings. The first thing Ryan shows me is a supply room. It’s a mundane place to start. But, as with everything he does, Ryan has a reason for doing this. He points out that there isn’t much inventory. He prefers to order what he needs as he needs it. Fertilizer and mulch companies don’t mind––the volume he buys is massive.
One thing is immediately clear, this dude has a racehorse mind; one that prefers to run at full gallop. He thinks fast. He talks fast. He talks a lot. And he wants to compete. He wants to win. But here is where the racehorse analogy becomes useless––there’s no jockey. No master holding the reins. He’s willing to change course and reconsider any process or practice in his grow facility. At any time. If Ryan comes across a better way to do something, then that’s what he does. And he does it fast.
After the supply room, we pause for a moment in a main room. On a shelf is the only poison they use in the whole place. Ryan wants to explain his company’s commitment to organic.
He says, “Seventy percent of the food that goes into the plant is organic. One hundred percent of what we spray on the plant is organic. Whether it’s a pesticide or a fungicide, one hundred percent of what we spray on the plant is not only organic by the USDA standards, it’s organic with unlimited use by the Oregon Tilt. Oregon has the most strict agricultural laws in the country. The United States version of organic isn’t exactly what we think of as organic. The Oregon version of organic is what you think of as organic.”
Typically, different oils are used to keep bugs away from the plants. You can smell traces of the oils, floating through the air, tiny whiffs which me gag at first. I immediately recognize the odor.
“The number one poison we use,” Ryan says, confirming my suspicions, “and you’re going to smell it in all of the rooms we go in––is fish oil. Literally, it’s what you would take a supplement of. It’s five-percent sesame oil, and ninety-five percent fish oil. It’s literally stuff you’d take from a health store.”
One hopes it’s effective because it gives the places a hint of bait shop wherever you go.
“Number two is lemon oil. Number three is garlic oil. And number four is sesame oil.” Ryan says, like he’s listing ingredients for a salad dressing. “The negative aspect of using organic preventative measures is that we have to spray the plants every three days. If we were using systemic poisons––like 99% of large growers out there––you put that stuff on and you spray every three months. Our labor costs across the company are increased by hundreds of thousands of dollars just because of our dedication to putting on something safe. I am very much into the environment and, obviously, very much into organic culture.”
Has he noticed that consumers are becoming more educated about which pesticides are being used on the marijuana they consume? Are they seeking out organic cannabis now that it’s industrial? Since we all know industrial doesn’t always ensure the safest product.
Ryan explains with galloping speed, “They did an independent test a few years back. There were 200 strains tested in California. It was something like 95% of strains had plant growth regulators. Just a few weeks ago, they did that test of pesticides, and they found that 90% of independently tested cannabis––and this is from major companies––all of their products failed for PGRs and for pesticides. Publicly they say they don’t do it. But privately they’re just ‘roiding it out. When you really take into account the independent studies that have come out, to me it’s like, 99% of all marijuana you’re getting from a club or dispensary is going to have a banned poison or hormones in the plant.”
When Ryan says banned poisons he means chemicals deemed unsafe for human consumption. Based on how much you vape, or puff, you could be ingesting very unsafe amounts of poisonous pesticides, ones banned from use on food crops. But they are still allowed on flowering plants like daisies and tulips and cannabis.
“We try to educate them. I bring up articles, and so forth, we try to educate consumers. But they can say they want organic but it’s price point––that’s all that matters.”
You hear that often: customers say they want a safer product until they hear the price tag.
Now, if for some reason you missed it, California just got over a drought. We’re still super water-conscious. You may have a read news stories or at least a headline about how thirsty our almond trees are. They are. We take water very seriously around here. Which poses a particular problem for marijuana cultivation. Pot plants are notoriously thirsty. I ask Ryan about his company’s water usage, half-expecting him to avoid a direct answer. Instead, he’s very forthright.
“The City wanted to know about our water usage. The interesting thing we found was: it was 400 gallons coming out of the city water supply––for the grow side––per day. But with thirty people washing their hands, flushing toilets all day, that uses up 1,200 to 1,300 gallons per day. So, on the grow side––only 400 gallons per day––the amount of water the office side uses dwarfs the grow side.”
It seems impossible to believe, but if the City monitored their water usage, they have no reason to fudge the numbers. But, it still seems crazy. You’d assume with so many grow rooms they’d use way more water than that. Ryan helps the math work out when he explains how their HVAC and dehumidifier systems collects hundreds of gallons from the plant’s respiration and the humidity in the rooms. They recapture and recycle water from the air.
Although that sounds like some Dubai cutting edge shit, it’s actually fairly simple. Almost everything they do here is. Ryan likes to keep things, efficient, inexpensive, flexible, and easily-replaceable.
He explains how he likes to build a grow facility, “This system we built is made out of stuff you can find easily––everything we use for this you can buy at Home Depot––because when I go to a grow site and run into a problem I want to be able to go down to the corner and pick up what I need. Home Depot carries farming supplies; so most everything you see here is from Home Depot. The reservoirs come from a company in Compton that makes farming reservoirs, but everything else this is all from Home Depot. You can go way overboard and extreme, or you can keep it simple.”
Why is simplicity so key to his vision of industrial grow spaces? Part of it is where he’s from.
“One of the reasons is I’m from Oklahoma, and out there we have large farms––hundreds and hundreds of acres––and now, some things are automated, but for the most part it’s still manual. It’s the same way you can’t just throw a bunch of children in a room and have it all be automated and eighteen years later a kid pops out and he’s a genius and he’s going to Harvard, it’s the same way here. You can’t just automate everything. Every single one of these rooms needs something different. And for that reason we haven’t really gone down the automated path.”
But doesn’t that require a huge amount of labor?
“Obviously, in terms of labor, it does cost us a substantial amount more but this is why our quality speaks for itself. And the one reason is how much love and care is given to each plant in this facility. Like, each plant is handled every day and looked at every day and there’s a few thousand here. So you can see how many hours we’re talking about. But to do that, that’s how you have to do it.”
The first grow room, we visit is the clone room. Industrial shelving units line both sides of the room. Banks of lights glow generously above rows of freshly planted clones. In the middle of the room, a man works alone. He cuts clones with an exacto knife and and roots them in starter cubes. There are a few clones arrayed in front of him on a table. He doesn’t look up when we enter the room, he’s in a deep focus on his work, so we check out the babies.
“Now I’m just gonna walk you through the process,” Ryan says, sounding like a perfect mix of scientist and salesman, “Everything we’re doing here is to emulate the seasons of nature. So when the plants first start growing it’s March/April. And the plants are on the floor of a forest. When we’re finishing, when we harvest that’s November. So it’s dry and cold. The point is, right now, consider this March/April. And these plants are on the floor of a forest.”
“This room is 82-85 degrees. Humidity is set to eighty percent. The lighting in here...you’ll see two different spectrums. Primarily, it’s blue, with twenty percent red. If you look outside in the Spring, you see the sky’s much more blue. You look out in the Fall, you see it’s much more orange and red. That’s because the atmosphere and the angle of the sun and so forth. So we change over our bulbs as our artificial year progresses. These plants you see here were transplanted on Tuesday. So they’re three days old.”
Before we leave to go to the next room, Ryan pauses to introduce me to the man working in the center of room, cutting and rooting clones in the root cubes. His name’s Bernie. This is Bernie.
As we go further, Ryan gets excited, and tells me he want to show me his mothers. Soon as we step inside the adjoining room, we’re surrounded by tall, bushy, dark green mother plants. Each one is taller than I am and I stand a finger of tequila under six feet tall. A man works by himself, gently tending to the mothers. He looks up from his work, nods.
“This is Sam. He runs the mom room. And today, he’s applying a compost tea. It’s an actively aerated compost tea,” Ryan explains to me, about as excited as one can be about a compost tea.
“This mother room is the only room that’s 100 percent organic. This is the only room that’s straight soil. Everything else you see is coco or rock well. Since it’s all organic––I know it looks like Se7en with all the fly strips hanging from the ceiling, but that’s exactly what I tell them to make it look like, is the movie Se7en. We use so much organics it creates fruit flies but because it’s not outside and we don’t have birds to come and eat those bugs each morning. This is our all-natural way: when we water the bugs come up and then get stuck on the fly strips. So we make this room look like Se7en. (laughs)”
The room is humid and smells deeply of buttery pot plants, but it’s also an interesting mix because there are so many varieties. They each offer a different aroma to the room.
“One thing that you can see with these mothers is the massive difference in the growth structures. This is Bubba Kush. She’s sort of in the middle of being bushy and leggy. This is Skywalker OG. Very Leggy. Here is Agent Orange. It’s a Tangy cross, so it’s medium leggy. Over here you can see ones that are much more bushy. These Burmese Kushs––that’s something I bred myself. We do a lot of our own breeding and a lot of partnering, as well, with other breeders.”
What’s it like keeping up with the demands of such a fickle customer-base, one that’s always looking for new flavors and trends?
“It’s just so hard––shit, when I moved here in 2009, no one wanted fruity stems, it was all about spices and gas, and now 2016, 2017, it’s all fruit, they don’t want spice and gas. So that makes it so hard to stay with it, you know. (laughs). And it’s not like brewing––‘cause I like to brew beer––it’s not like brewing beer where you can just make it in a couple weeks. When they want something new you have to breed it, test it, clone it, you’re talking eighteen months before it hits the market. And that’s eighteen months, and now they’re on to the next one, and you’re like, damnit. (laughs) So it’s really hard, it’s really hard.”
Ryan’s attention shifts, more like it darts, he inspects the individual mother plants, and wanders between them checking the fan leaves for signs of their general health. After a long moment, he returns with a fresh thought: music.
“We do play music at certain frequencies for the plants.That’s why you see speakers in here.”
What type of music do you think the plants like? I ask, genuinely curious.
“Well, actually, it’s all stuff that’s scientifically-made, it’s proven that––well, I shouldn’t say that. There are scientific studies of different frequencies that foster different levels of growth. So when we play different frequencies. Some of it is birds chirping, but some of it is literally an alarm sound. We don’t play that until the middle of the night––because no workers want to be here with those alarm sounds going off. But there’s a lot of thought behind it.”
He doesn’t limit his sideways thinking just to playing car alarms for the plants to grow to, he also has hired a Sri Lankan medicine man to bless the plants, and chant to them, and this wasn’t a one day visit, this went on for months.
Ryan explains with a pride of spiritual purpose, “We recently had a shaman from Sri Lanka here, for five months. You can tell I’m on the real natural side of things. I wear this suit and so forth just because I like to make the cannabis industry look good. But in Oklahoma where everyone wore suits, I was always the stoned dude who never wore a suit. (laughs) Then I move out here to L.A. and nobody wears a suit, and I always gotta be the different one, so I always wear a fucking suit. (laughs)”
But, wait, what about this Sri Lankan dude?
“Okay, so we had a shaman here for five months. He would chant to the plants every night. As you’re gonna see as we go through here, you’re gonna see energy devices. Like, when we went through the reservoir room there’s these things in the back that look like rat poison, they weren’t. I didn’t bring it up––but they’re energy devices that he made. He gets metals from all over the world, then he solders them together. He had a big thing in here where he would chant to the plants. He was the one who set up all the different sound frequencies that play in the grow rooms. His name was Moose. He’s all over our social media.”
A racehorse with no jockey working with a chanting Sri Lankan holy man named Moose. Like I said, Ryan goes his own way. We wrap around a hallway and he yanks open a heavy industrial door. The noise of the fans is terrible, it’s like a machine gun firing angry puffs of air at your eardrums. A few scant rows of plants are spread across a wide room.
“This is our R&D room. I know it doesn’t look like much, but this room could make about one-hundred-and-eight grand a year. So, for us to use this for R&D and not flower in here, what I’m getting at is, although this looks like a little operation, that’s a huge commitment for a company of our size. You know, shit, we could be pulling ninety pounds of flower in a course of a year but instead we just use this to test.”
What do they test? Like, what parameters are they playing with?
“What you see in here is: different lights, different bulbs, obviously different strains, this is where we’ll do breeding, where we’ll do testing, but this is also where we will take, for example this tray will be Sam’s. And Sam will be growing whatever he likes, how he likes to, and we’ll let him do his thing. The next one Bernie will be doing that tray how he wants. So not only are we testing out different equipment, we’re also testing out different feeding regimens, different nutrients from different companies, at the same time we let the growers just go. And they’ll be like ‘Ryan, you know the way you tell us to do it, if we water it like this, or we manicure the plant like this, I think we’d get better results.’ I always want someone to do better than me. The best-case scenario is that instead of me being the best grower in the place, I become the worst grower. (laughs) If everybody is better than me, then I’ve done a great job building a company.”
Speaking of building a company, wandering around in this cement labyrinth I keep wondering what this space was before it was an industrial cannabis farm.
Ryan is quick to answer. “It was textiles. We built this whole thing out. I designed it. Obviously, all the rooms are my designs,” Ryan says with a small flush of pride.
“So we have eight rooms,” Ryan says, outlining the growth cycle of the industrial cannabis farm, “We flower our strains eight-to-nine weeks. Sometimes we flower for ten-to-eleven weeks. With the eight rooms at this location we basically have a harvest every Wednesday. When you go into the rooms…”
Before leading me into another grow room, he pauses to inspect the paperwork, that details all the necessary info on the plants in that room.
“Here’s the plant count. Two-hundred-and-seventy-two plants in there. This lists every single strain we have, and how many there are. And this is by irrigation zone, letting you know what’s in each irrigation zone. This list is something real simplistic...but it’s something the guys put out so all the workers can see––for example, it says it’s an eight week room, it’s going to flower in fifty-six days, the day temperature, the night temperature, the strength of the lighting, humidity for the day and night, the CO2, and the action.”
That’s about as industrial as it gets. But interestingly this wasn’t management-based efficiency. This was management listening to the workers, who wanted to make their jobs easier, smarter, and more efficient, and with a system that protected workers from making mistakes. Ryan listened and implemented it.
When we step into another grow room, one with plants a little closer to finished, it’s the first time we find a group of guys working, culling leaves, tending to the plants. They look up, briefly, and then return to working.
“What’s up, guys!” Ryan shouts to them, super friendly with them, almost suspiciously so, salesman-like, but their reaction to him makes it seem genuine.
He continues on with our tour, “This is one week older than the room we were just in. You see how one week later the buds are bigger. With XJ, my flagship strain, it used to take me nine-to-ten weeks to finish her, but now because I have her down, I understand the environment, we can finish her in a couple days short of eight weeks. And the product’s better than used to be. It’s just getting that environment down, you know?”
What are some unexpected techniques they use to cut down the grow time?
“A huge thing that we’ve found is that it’s matter of when we’re pulling the leaves. I used to just thin them when they needed to be thinned. But thinning them on certain days, changes their hormonal structure. It took me a while to figure it out. So, specifically, on Day 21 and Day 40 we get really aggressive with the leaf-pulling. One thing you can see in here with all the different strains, one thing I always brag about is when you see the leaves doing that, that’s called praying, and that’s about the healthiest sign you can ever see in a plant. It’s called praying.”
Maybe it’s the music, or the energy machines, but the plants do seem to have adopted the spiritual ways of Ryan and Moose the Sri Lankan medicine man.
Ryan finds a grow room further along on the growth cycle, “This room is two weeks older than the room we were just in. It has two to three weeks left. You’re starting to see the yellowing off. That just started this week. You’re now also starting to see the crystal production. This is Lemon Meringue OG. It doesn’t produce for shit, as you can see. But it’s a door-opener. You get in the door with this.”
For a wordless moment we admire the plants in quiet reverie.
We’ve arrived at the last stage: the trim room. It’s populated with young and middle-aged Latina women, and one middle-aged black woman. Everyone sits at their workstation, scissors in hand, manicuring the buds, shaping them for packaging while also careful not to handle the buds too much, so that they don’t disturb that delicate sugar-coating of crystals on picture-worthy buds.
Ryan directs me to what is so different about his trim room and their technique, “The thing to brag about with our trim room is: no machines, everything by hand. And, the level of care that we’re putting into it. You see how she’s doing everything by hand.”
“Then, the assistant manager goes through, quite literally––they’re putting the pounds in one flower at a time, one bud at a time. So it goes from hand trim here, to the assistant manager, then it goes to the head manager. Three levels of hands it goes through before it goes out. That’s why our flower looks so perfect. And the women you see up here, working, a lot of their husbands work downstairs. So most of this place is all family.”
As we leave the trim room, Ryan says, “Thank you, guys” to all the women and the few men in the room. His voice sounds genuine. Again, their reaction is, too. It could all be a show for the journalist, but it doesn’t feel like that.
We head back downstairs and our tour is interrupted by a black and white cat. Again. This industrial pot farm is clearly her personal territory. She walks up to Ryan, expecting for her back to be scratched. He bends down to pet the cat.
“Here’s our cat again. I love animals. I’m sure when people do tours of medical marijuana facilities, having a cat roaming around doesn’t create the best image. But whatever.”
Any warehouse has mice and rats. This is a warehouse, ultimately. This cat is the perfect all-natural answer, a far smarter choice than poisons and rat traps. This level of careful consideration in everything his company does is heartening to see in an industrial capacity. It would be good if more businesses were so thoughtful at every level. I ask Ryan about his workers and his relationship with those whose time and labor he rents.
“A lot of these guys have been with me––thirteen or fourteen of the people in the company, I’ve known since I was in school. As we were building out this industry we had to have people we could trust. And I can’t trust anybody really. (laughs) But I sure need people that I grew up with. And my friends are––they’re all just hardworking dudes from Oklahoma––one is a personal trainer, another one was a butcher, they’re all over the board. (laughs) But they work really hard. They’ve got a work ethic, and that’s what you need to be a good farmer.”
After we finish the tour, we drive back to his main office. We get comfortable in his personal office. The last big question to ask, is about the market and politics directing it as far as California’s recreational cannabis market. Forever, old potheads have told tall tales, shared the same urban legend, based on rumours that one day there will be Marlboro Greens and Seagram’s Pot Vodka, or whatever. So, I ask Ryan, from an insider’s perspective, is there any lobbying effort by Big Tobacco and Alcohol or agriculture to make a move on the cannabis market once recreational cannabis is legal in California?
Ryan’s answer is short and succinct, “Without a doubt. Out of all the groups you just mentioned, I think all those big names, they will have a negative impact in regards to branding in this industry. People aren’t going to want to see it. And in regards to them lobbying, yes, they spend a ton of money.”
Are they trying to buy their way into the cannabis market? Like maybe greenwash their brand by purchasing some popular growers and their cannabis brand?
“All the big boys you just mentioned, they play ball one way: with monopoly,” Ryan says with all the seriousness of business major. “They come in, and put enough money at the local and state level to make the rules change. That is how the big boys do it. On Wednesday, I was with some of the richest men in the world and they have monopolies in New Mexico and Arizona on cannabis. And they’re working on it in Florida. The point is I think those large brands are definitely spending a lot. Like Bayer and Monsanto just combined. And then GW Pharmaceuticals, the day after they combined, applied for the first patent for cannabis in the United States, outside of the government’s patents. You don’t need to say much when two of the largest brands in the world combine and the very next day they file for a patent on cannabis in the United States. It definitely shows where the mind’s at. Marlboro, I don’t know how much they’re spending lobbying each year at the federal level, but I do know they publicly keep track of how much they’re spending on their cannabis R&D. And it’s at like $150 million right now. They are not playing around.”
Jesus Christ. That’s a lot of money to spend without intending on getting a return back on your investment.
“So, yeah. (laughs) Those big boys are very serious. That’s why, as pro-weed as I am, I am in favor of keeping those guys out for a couple of years, or longer. Because they can definitely come in and change the game. Without a doubt, as the industry matures they will try to monopolize. The big boys are gonna come in, and I don’t see anyone else as competition, not that will end this company.”