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Ryan Douglas from Tweed on what it takes to grow Cannabis on a large scale


Ryan Douglas oversees over 30,000 sq. ft. of commercial cannabis production space inside the retrofitted 470,000 sq ft former Hershey factory. Tweed is, of course, the well-known medical cannabis producer inside the small town of Smith Falls, Ontario, about an hour southwest of Ottawa.

Initially licensed for the production and sale of cannabis in November of 2013, Tweed has continued to expand their footprint inside the retrofitted old Chocolate factory over the last two years and seen a change in leadership, but Ryan has been at the helm of their expanding grow rooms the whole time.

As Ryan will tell you, managing this much space is an enormous learning curve for anyone, especially in a complex and changing regulatory environment like the MMPR.

With just one year of experience with commercial cultivation of cannabis prior to being hired by Tweed in 2013, Ryan had over a decade of commercial horticultural experience in large-scale commercial greenhouses. What surprised me the most about Tweed’s scale of operation, was how many actual growers it takes to run something that large. This is where his experience managing larger facilities comes into play.

Several of Tweed's 12 Flowering Rooms
Several of Tweed’s 12 Flowering Rooms

While Ryan’s official title is Master Grower, the hands-on growing at Tweed is actually done by a team of 4 ‘Section Growers” covering three rooms each. These 12 rooms are then divided between two Zone Managers, Anthony Lacombe and Harvey Gracey, who both report to Ryan. In all, Ryan and his crews oversee ~14 rooms with cannabis growing or being processed in some form, one of the largest legal, regulated operations in the world.

While there are limitations to not having extensive experience growing cannabis, Ryan considers the experience in managing an operation the size of Tweed to be more important. As he explains, managing not just plants but people and equipment and the logistics of a complicated and ever-shifting regulatory environment, one needs to be able to do more than just grow great pot. And while he is the first to admit there are many out there who know cannabis better, knowing how to grow cannabis within these parameters is a whole new experience for anyone.

Lift had a chance to sit down after our tour to speak with Ryan about his experience at Tweed so far, what he has learned and where he sees the industry going, and his advice for those interested in finding a place in the new cannabis industry.

Lift: You have 15 years experience growing plants on a large scale, but only one year of experience with cannabis prior to Tweed. Some have questioned why Tweed hired not only an American as their Master Grower, but one without extensive commercial cannabis experience. How has this helped or hindered you? What has the biggest learning curve been for you so far managing a cannabis operation of this scale?

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Julie Brais. Section Grower (in charge of 3 rooms, reports directly to a Zone Manager)

Ryan Douglas: I’ve been a life long fan of cannabis, but I haven’t been in any commercial (cannabis) growing environment. I worked for a commercial dispensary in Maine prior to working for Tweed. I helped introduce some greenhouse growing techniques to an indoor producer of marijuana, and helped them grow a cleaner, more productive crop. But I do have over 15 years in commercial crop production.

The challenge I run in to as a hiring manager is that everybody has such concrete, passionate views about how to grow marijuana correctly. What can be a challenge is, as you are starting out if you’re looking to hire people with experience growing marijuana, oftentimes these very passionate viewpoints can clash and it’s difficult to move their entire operation ahead in one direction, where you’re cranking out product that is consistent if you have one grower who believes the only way to grow is their way and another grower whose opinion is diametrically opposed to their colleague. So one benefit I think of coming from a varied horticultural background is that there actually is not one correct way to grow a plant. There are as many successful ways of growing as there are growers out there.

So the first learning curve for me was actually not searching for experienced marijuana growers as we were staffing Tweed, but rather look for people who have the characteristics you look for regardless of the industry. You’re looking for people who are interested, excited, show up on time, can learn new skills quickly, that can adopt the company culture and work well with others. And once you have that in place it’s just teaching them how to grow is actually the easiest part. If this is their first time working with plants, it’s almost easier because they have a clean slate. You simply train the people on exactly how we propagate or prune, train, irrigate our plants.

There actually is not one correct way to grow a plant. There are as many successful ways of growing as there are growers out there. ~Ryan Douglas

That’s not to say that I am God when it comes to growing marijuana. Far from it. But what we can do is get a team of people who are eager, excited to be here, thrilled to be in a new industry.

What is the biggest difference when looking at the largely unregulated cannabis world and operating under the current parameters of the MMPR?

I meet with and speak with growers from the old system all the time, and one of the hot topics is always the grams per watt in terms of yield, or pennies per gram in terms of production cost. It’s almost impossible to have that conversation, just given the regulation and the constantly changing regulations, we have challenges in front of us that a home grower would never have to contend with, so they’re able to do things a lot faster and a lot easier than we are here. Certainly the regulations are part of it, but also being a publicly traded company everything we do is transparent.

Video monitors allow visual room inspection without having to suit up and enter
Video monitors allow visual room inspection without having to suit up and enter

As an example, one thing home growers don’t need to deal with is the destruction of the root balls. If you consider at our facility we’re cranking through tens of thousands of plants annually, and we need to weigh and record and properly destroy those root balls. If they’re not destroyed immediately there are very specific regulations regarding the storage and record keeping of those root balls. These root balls are treated as valuable as finished, dried marijuana so that means you need a facility similar to a vault, you need security cameras, you need security personnel to be in the room, to literally be in a room with a pile of root balls.

So in a typical greenhouse, if you need somebody to take out the root balls, you can just point to the wheel barrow and you can just point to the compost pile and that’s the end of the story. Here, if you’re transporting it from one room to another you have to have a security cleared person either transporting them or accompanying the person transporting the roots. Health Canada is constantly changing rules or interpreting regulations that already exist, so it’s a bit of a moving target. It feels like every couple of months we have to do something different. And sometimes those minute changes in the regulatory scheme have profound ramifications on the production floor.

I’m of the belief that if there was a group of people looking to start a new LP, you would be more successful finding an experienced commercial grower and teaching them how to grow a new crop, rather than finding an expert marijuana grower and teaching them how to be the manager of a large scale production facility. ~Ryan Douglas

Understandably, the regulator’s concern is avoiding diversion of any plants to the street, but in an intent to really lock it down, a lot of my time is consumed planning and organizing around the storage and disposal of either the roots or stocks of the plant. It takes about 5 times as long to accomplish anything than if you were growing a regular crop that is not as tightly regulated.

So it would be fair to say it’s more important to know how to manage a large scale operation and teach yourself a new plant, than have expertise in only growing cannabis, especially on a relatively small scale?

If you were to consider a typical home grower, even a true expert grower, but the actual skill in running a production scale, operation, regardless of the plant you’re growing, is a lot different than the skills required to be a master horticulturist in your basement. So I’m of the belief that if there was a group of people looking to start a new LP, you would be more successful finding an experienced commercial grower and teaching them how to grow a new crop, rather than finding an expert marijuana grower and teaching them how to be the manager of a large scale production facility.

thumb_DSCF2481_1024Aside from the plant, you have everything from HR skills, to facility operations skills. In my experience, some people may be excellent with the plant, but not so good when it comes to managing a team of 50 people. When you consider that any commercial greenhouse production (for ornamental crops), those companies like to mix up their product offerings to stay competitive in the marketplace, so I’m trained in learning how to grow new crops successfully. Whether it’s growing poinsettias one year for christmas, or white hydrangeas the next year… there’s tremendous pressure to learn how to grow a crop well the first time around.

Those skills were directly applicable to this job at Tweed, learning to grow a new crop, but bringing with me over 15 years of experience in commercial crop production.

What’s the biggest mistake you think has been made so far?

Starting with too many varieties right off the bat. Rather than starting with 20, I think it would have been more rational in retrospect to start with 6 or 8, nail those really well, and then add more variety.

We have already eliminated strains that either do not grow well or are not popular with our patients and the strains that do grow well, we’ve managed to refine those down to the versions of those varieties that are most effective for our customers, and also from a production standpoint, are efficient to grow.

One we have recently released is Paddington (Sour Tangie). We trialled it, and it grew well and sold quickly so now we know this is something we want to learn to refine.

I’ve never hired anyone because they had an outstanding academic background. I’ve hired workers because they’re excellent workers, they have the right attitude, and their references back that up. ~Ryan Douglas

thumb_DSCF2697_1024With so much to oversee, how much time do you get to spend with the plants?

A lot of my job is more high level planning and operations, but I make a point every day to visit with the growers, or to see the plants or the finished product. The last thing I want to do is be in an office all day where I’m not in touch with the people or the products. That’s not why I’m here. My real passion is with the plants. I’m a patient myself and a customer of Tweed, so I interact with the plant every day in more ways than one.

How do I get a job growing cannabis?

A lot of people contact me with that same question, a lot of young folks looking to enter the industry, and a lot of them are coming from an academic background. They’re already in college and they’re asking if it makes sense to pursue a horticultural degree or perhaps the cannabis institutes that are popping up. I put more emphasis on hands-on work experience than academics.

If you think about my team, I’ve hired a lot of people. My current team is, including growers and trimmers, about 35 and I’ve never hired anyone because they had an outstanding academic background. I’ve hired workers because they’re excellent workers, they have the right attitude, and their references back that up. So my suggestion for anyone looking to enter the industry, interested in being a grower, that has no experience, I would make sure they are interested in entering the industry on the ground level.

That means, at least for the short term, not really caring too much about pay. The growing positions are relatively few, and in this industry, everyone an expert, so there are fewer positions available than those looking for work. So somebody without experience, it’s next to impossible to land that job.

thumb_DSCF2534_1024However, every company, especially large LP’s like Tweed, are always hiring for trimmers. It’s a somewhat monotonous task but it’s consistent because we’re always harvesting, so we’re always trimming and waiting for new plants. So my suggestion is to find an entry level position that may not be your dream job, but at least it’s a foot in the door, where you can get used to the company culture, and show the management team who you are, what your interest and, and what you’re capable of.

I prefer to hire within, so when I look to fill any holes or as we expand and I need more people on my grow team immediately, I look to our trim staff. Often times I staff our grow team with someone who has been trimming with us for 6 months or a year because they already know the company culture, they’re already familiar with Health Canada regulations, they already know what an SOP is, and in my opinion the regulatory environment is the hardest part of the job.

You’ve seen so many strains in the past few years at Tweed. What’s your favourite so far?

thumb_DSCF2688_1024Ghost Train Haze (Princeton). The flavour is very unique. I find it’s very energetic and inspiring, and very clear headed.

 

 

 

 


 

Take a virtual tour of Tweed below… Enlarge images by clicking.

  • The Smith Falls Water Tower.

    The Smith Falls Water Tower.

  • An old Hershey Canada sign remains.

    An old Hershey Canada sign remains.

  • Tweed's lobby.

    Tweed's lobby.

  • Mother room. Ghost Train Haze in the foreground.

    Mother room. Ghost Train Haze in the foreground.

  • Cuttings being turned into clones.

    Cuttings being turned into clones.

  • Monitoring a flowering room by video.

    Monitoring a flowering room by video.

  • One of 12 2,000 sq foot grow rooms

    One of 12 2,000 sq foot grow rooms

  • One of 12 2,000 sq foot grow rooms

    One of 12 2,000 sq foot grow rooms

  • Flowers developing.

    Flowers developing.

  • Several of Tweed's 12 Flowering Rooms.

    Several of Tweed's 12 Flowering Rooms.

  • The necessary infrastructure above the grow rooms is extensive.

    The necessary infrastructure above the grow rooms is extensive.

  • Cooling system for temperature control.

    Cooling system for temperature control.

  • Room to expand.

    Room to expand.

  • Trimmers hard at work

    Trimmers hard at work

  • Ground up cannabis flowers for various in-house tests.

    Ground up cannabis flowers for various in-house tests.

  • Foreground: Gas chromatograph for in-house cannabinoid testing.

    Foreground: Gas chromatograph for in-house cannabinoid testing.

  • Super top secret.

    Super top secret.

  • Cannabis is dried in temperature-controlled chambers.

    Cannabis is dried in temperature-controlled chambers.

  • All unused plant matter must be destroyed and documented.

    All unused plant matter must be destroyed and documented.

  • They didn't let me go in this room.

    They didn't let me go in this room.

  • Product in the vault ready for sale.

    Product in the vault ready for sale.

  • Product in storage.

    Product in storage.

  • Tweed's copper kettles left behind by Hershey.

    Tweed's copper kettles left behind by Hershey.

  • Packaged and awaiting shipment.

    Packaged and awaiting shipment.

  • Bedrocan product is also now available in Tweed's vault.

    Bedrocan product is also now available in Tweed's vault.

  • Ready for Sale.

    Ready for Sale.

The post Ryan Douglas from Tweed on what it takes to grow Cannabis on a large scale appeared first on Lift Cannabis News Magazine.

Lift Cannabis News Magazine


October 29, 2015
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