By Josh Taub
It is everywhere. It is in our cars, our homes and our offices—lurking behind our texts, e-mails, video chats and instant messages. It speaks through our computers, TVs and appliances. No matter where we go, what we do or what we buy, digital technology is never far away. These days, it is even influencing what we smoke (and sometimes, how we smoke it). Sprawling like virtual wildfire throughout every industry and field in existence, digital is now impacting the way legal cannabis is produced in California’s coveted Emerald Triangle. One thriving brand in particular, Henry’s Original of Mendocino, has learned that success means filling every canister and rolling every joint with high-quality bud and cutting-edge technology.
It is just about 11 a.m. on a hot and bright Thursday morning in July. I am inside Henry’s Original’s cozy, clean and well-organized administrative office in Laytonville, waiting to meet with brand leadership and learn how fresh technology is helping them stay busy, while so many others are struggling just to get in the game. Sadly, a large backlog of legal permit approvals from local government are keeping hundreds of startups and pre-existing farms from making sale one, putting them in precarious positions both financially and legally. Of course, this is aside from the strict regulations and high taxes on commercial cannabis products, which have also made survival in the region difficult.
Despite just two fake props on a nearby shelf that each read, “One Pound of Fine Heirloom Cannabis,” there is not a hint of marijuana in the atmosphere; this could be almost any professional office space in the country, complete with super-comfy seating, air-conditioning, Wi-Fi and a small army of serious-faced employees furiously typing away, making calls and intermittently collaborating with each other. I randomly ask a team member about the current state of business:
“Holy moly!” she replies with a perfect mix of excitement and anxiety. “I just found out we need to hire twenty-five more trimmers!”
“By when?” I pry.
“As soon as possible,” she quickly concludes, before diving back in.
Meeting the demands of the biggest legit weed marketplace in the world is not an easy task, and it requires more than could possibly be outlined in this article. However, with products at 170 dispensaries (including their own, dubbed Artifact Nursery), three active farms, roughly 75 employees, a genetics program and a brand new, 10,000 sqaure foot. automated greenhouse under construction, it is safe to say that Henry’s Original is clearly doing something right.
Just then, my first contact shows up, and an informative lesson on the technological evolution of local cannabis production begins: “When I learned, it was stick your finger in the soil,” says lifelong cultivator and Henry’s Original’s co-founder, president and COO, Josh Keats, who sports a combination of buttoned-up entrepreneur and laid-back rock star: “Is it wet down there, or is it not?” Now, he says, without modern technology “you cannot run a business.” Today, he has a farm off the 101 with climate-controlled, automated greenhouses and drip irrigation systems: “We have created an organism that is adaptable and able to find efficiencies in everything we do, and we are continually investing our money back into that technology.”
It is hard to imagine anyone knowing more about growing pot in the Emerald Triangle than Keats or his executive partner and co-founder, Jamie Warm. As young adults, the two began nurturing a passion for the process alongside legendary pioneers of Sonoma County pot farming, including some who had cultivated since the 1970s. According to Keats, one of these unofficial weed gurus, Henry, is “the guy that gave us two hundred pounds and told us to return with his money,” he reflects with a laugh.
It seems they have never looked back.
Around 2014, when the opportunity arose to work safely within the decriminalized patient collective model, Keats and Warm jumped into the fray. It wasn’t long before they began making sales, while soaking up practical lessons on expansion and scaling—which has required becoming more tech-reliant throughout the entire soil-to-sale process. By the time California Proposition 64 came around, Henry’s—fully armed with the right knowledge, permits and digital know-how—was one of a handful in the area prepared to make a seamless jump to recreational sales without a major disruption to their day-to-day operations and “minimal worry over regulation,” adds Keats.
At this point in the interview, we have been joined by Riley Shields, director of cultivation for Henry’s Original. Dusty, sinewy and equipped with a backpack that supplies water through a thick straw, this is clearly a man who has spent a lot of time working among the elements: “More and more everyday, technology is becoming involved and adapted throughout the cannabis industry as a whole,” he begins. “Everybody’s trying to be more efficient. Remote, environmental control not only makes it easier on us by reducing human labor costs, it helps ensure we are sustainable by consistently delivering that high-quality product.”
To see Shields’s operation up close, one immediately understands what technology has allowed the business to accomplish. At a nearby location referred to as Stewart’s Lane, I am treated to a rich view of row after row of choice marijuana plants in an enclosed space (most of them clones for 100% consistency), tended to by a large control box in the corner that looks like something behind a panel on the Starship Enterprise. This is what Shields refers to as the “brain.” Developed and sold by prominent manufacturer Link4, it is a high-tech, digital controller designed specifically for commercial cannabis growers. Through an advanced sensor that hangs inconspicuously from the ceiling, the system can detect changes in atmosphere and automatically adjust temperature, humidity and supplemental lighting. Meanwhile, the location’s separate irrigation system is also technologically integrated and can be programmed to water the crops on a schedule, reducing waste and cost over time.
Just next door to this impressive, THC-glazed domicile are the beginnings of that new, 10,000 square foot, automated greenhouse, described as a “gutter connect house,” which will house four separate, brain-controlled grow chambers: “By staggering the ability to run perpetual flower cycles, we will increase our quality and our control, and cut down labor to about twenty-five percent,” says Shields. “The perpetuation allows me to maximize the amount of harvest per year, while minimizing certain costs.” At this point, my head is spinning—and I have not smoked a thing. I am starting to truly understand how much technology is responsible for keeping legal cannabis in business. But before my grand tour ends, the team continues to roll out the green carpet with a trip to Henry’s Original’s nearby dispensary.
Artifact Nursery, which also houses Henry’s Original processing and distribution centers, is also feeling the heat of demand rising, readying to jump from eight employees to 30. The well-designed, modern edifice is all boutique business in the front, and a literal forest of drying weed in the back. Managed by the youthful yet extremely knowledgeable inventory and compliance coordinator, Krystle Cartier, this is where fresh marijuana flower is divided into grades and sent for rolling, packaging and pressing.
According to Cartier, there is to be no feasible way to keep up without the assistance of digital software and Internet technology. Heavy fines or even loss of license can be incurred for a number of factors, including the sale of an outdated product. This is why legit growers are required to keep all inventory items visible to patients, consumers and law enforcement through government-approved sites: “The county requires we use track-and-trace software,” says Cartier, who is graciously credited by Keats for recently revamping the entire inventory program. “But we also have our internal programs to keep up, and lots and lots and lots of spreadsheets for hundreds of expiration dates to stay on top of.”
Alyssa Shields, Henry’s Original’s compliance and government affairs officer, who has been generously accompanying me on my journey, echoes the point: “I wouldn’t be able to do my job without technology,” she says through her glasses with dead seriousness. Not new to this rodeo, Shields (along with husband, Riley) has been earning an education in the cultivation and sale of cannabis for the last few years in California, Colorado and beyond. “Keeping up with regulations is really difficult to do. It is one of the reasons why businesses are being pushed back, and you’re not seeing that many products on shelves,” she adds. However, Henry’s Original has stayed strong by proactively staying informed through online notifications, e-newsletters and apps. As a result, the brand can augment its ongoing internal audits using the most up-to-date information to stay current and avoid painful penalties.
Henry’s Original’s massive operation in Laytonville—now visible from the 101—truly represents the digital future of high-grade, legal cannabis: efficient, consistent, sustainable and compliant. From grow room controllers, to tracking software, to joint-rolling contraptions, the brand has embraced the benefits of all types of modern methodology and is subsequently thriving on the ability meet increasing requests from terpene-obsessed consumers, while adhering to strict government regulations that call for freshness and quality of product.
The bottom line? The demand for legal cannabis products of all kinds will not be slowing any time soon, and neither will be the need for technological support.