How do they grow all this grass? Inside a new 270,000 square foot pot production facility in South Jersey
Volley Hayhurst had just finished donning a disposable lab coat when he glanced at his cell phone and let out a “Yes!” enthusiastic.
“My phone is exploding. The results just came in,” said Hayhurst, vice president of operations at Columbia Care’s new 270,000-square-foot cannabis growing and packaging facility in Vineland, NJ. fun and new to the market.
It’s THC-infused saltwater taffy, a Shore favorite that the company will soon launch in Delaware, and likely follow in New Jersey.
Demand has been so strong for recreational grass in New Jersey since sales began in April 2021 that there are still lineups every day outside most of the 17 stores that sell it. Adults are allowed to purchase up to one ounce of cannabis during a visit. They can buy dried flowers, concentrated oils, resin, vape formulas, tinctures, topicals, syringes, lozenges, and chews. But perishables like brownies are not allowed. Nine other stores sell marijuana for medical purposes only.
By state law, all marijuana sold in New Jersey must be grown in the state by licensed growers; owners cannot grow their own.
So how do you grow enough pot to meet demand?
For Columbia Care, factories are starting up at the publicly traded company’s two facilities in Vineland, Cumberland County: its original 50,000-square-foot factory and the one that opened in June, which has just nearly the size of an average Amazon warehouse, or the equivalent of five football fields.
Most commercial pots are grown indoors where safety, cleanliness, temperature, humidity, light, and water flow can all be precisely controlled.
Columbia Care, a publicly traded company based in Canada, describes itself as one of the largest and most experienced growers and manufacturers in the industry, operating in the USA and Europe. This is currently being purchased by Chicago-based Cresco Labs, which operates cannabis in 10 states.
Columbia Care sells through its Cannabist stores in Deptford and Vineland, with plans to open a third in Mays Landing.
Other marijuana companies operating in New Jersey include the San Francisco-based Apothecarium, which operates three stores. Curaleaf operates two stores and Miami-based Ayr Wellness operates three stores under the Garden State Dispensary brand.
Hayhurst, along with operations manager Cori Griffith and cultivation manager Alex Anthony, gave The Inquirer a tour of the Columbia Care factory in late July to explain the cultivation process. The investigator agreed not to take photos or videos of certain proprietary methods or machines.
» READ MORE: What to know about buying legal NJ marijuana if you live in Pennsylvania
The literal first step inside Columbia Care includes a shoe bath.
All workers and visitors should wear lab coats, hair nets and shoe covers to prevent contamination. And each enters a sterilizing bath before entering one of the cavernous rooms. The interior of the facility resembles a clean computer chip factory, or even a hospital with long, wide, white hallways and secure doors.
Anthony, who studied agriculture at Iowa State University, said fungi, viruses and other contaminants can sneak into the building. And once they’re in place, he says, they’re difficult to remove.
If someone, for example, stepped on a cigarette butt outdoors, Anthony said, “it could be a vector for tobacco mosaic virus.”
This virus is known to attack and stunt plant growth and is often spread by farm workers. Once a plant is infected, there is no chemical remedy.
And there’s a lot of ground to cover for shoes: the former shipping and logistics warehouse on West Park Avenue was remodeled specifically for weeding operations and employs 35 full-time people. About 50,000 square feet are currently in use, of which about 20,000 square feet are now dedicated to factories as the company ramps up production.
All weed-related products start with a combination of two cannabis species: sativa, known for an uplifting high, or indica, known for a smoother experience.
Growers experiment with a number of seeds to find the right blend of sativa or indica. They look for the desired level of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in weed (33% would be very high), and terpenes, chemical compounds that produce unique flavor, aroma and color combinations. For example, 10 seeds can produce a plant that has the genetic qualities a grower wants or a customer demands.
This seed becomes a mother plant – a mature marijuana plant that can be part of a grower’s proprietary strain and can produce hundreds of clones.
At the Columbia Care facility, workers examine rows and rows of mother plants, stored on mobile, white, steel-framed, tiered shelves, resembling something used in a library archive. Workers take small cuttings from plants and place them in nutrient solution as clones.
Finally, the cuttings are transplanted into the ground in plastic terrariums and tagged by known strain or genotypes to produce traits unique to a brand. Anthony said using cuttings from a mother plant ensures customers get the same experience for a particular strain every time. The company has up to 12 strains, but mostly relies on four to eight.
Mother plants typically grow about three feet tall in the setup, Anthony said.
Workers are careful not to take too many cuttings from the same tree, but eventually the genetic properties of a mother plant break down and the cycle begins again with a new mother plant.
Griffith said that in large states with well-established markets, a single mother plant can be worth millions because of all the cuttings it produces that are sold to other businesses. Licensed growers in New Jersey can transport seeds across state lines as they do not contain TCH, but any plants or cuttings must remain within state lines.
Consider that a 3.5 gram (1/8 ounce) jar of Runtz Muffin Blossom, used for rolling joints, was selling last week at Columbia Care’s Cannabist store in Vineland for around $47. It is part of the company’s Triple 7 line, which includes other hybrids such as Hot Rod and, most recently, Watermelon Sorbet.
Cuttings from the mother tree are moved to a room equipped with powerful grow lights that shine for eight to 14 hours a day.
“This is where the light cycle starts to change everything,” Anthony said.
The light is calibrated to ensure the right amount of photosynthesis for plants to flower. The workers separate the racks by turning cranks, which allows them to reach the upper levels. It can take eight to 12 weeks for a flower to reach the size and color needed for harvest.
The flowers are taken to a high-tech sorting and packing machine where they are dropped into a silver steel hopper that resembles a futuristic disco chandelier. The hopper contains 14 scales that sort flowers by size and weight to the nearest gram.
During the tour they were manually sorted and packed while the machine was reset.
The flowers fall into pots, which are corked, sealed and labeled.
The machine “was originally designed for other food packaging,” Griffith said. “It was kind of modified a bit to make cannabis as well. These bloom, and they can make gummies and tablets… It usually works all day every day.
As he spoke, a line at least 10 deep had formed outside the company’s store on Delsea Drive in Vineland to purchase the finished product.