So you wanna be a cannabis grower? Beware the rough and tumble

Nov. 22, 2021
A Fluence horticultural lighting user describes the low blows and constant rule changes.

Before you even get to the stage of lighting your cannabis greenhouse, be aware of the hard knocks you might endure early on as you go about procuring a license, securing a location for your facilities, and pursuing other practical matters.

That, in short, is the message conveyed by one grower in an insightful interview conducted by David Cohen, the CEO of horticultural lighting supplier Fluence by Osram.

“Nightmare after nightmare after nightmare,” said Michael Ward, CEO of Harbor Farmz in Kalamazoo, MI, as he recalled several years of tumult after founding the company in 2017 to grow cannabis indoors. “This was not for the lighthearted.”

Ward described a labyrinth of regulatory challenges in which the state first denied him a license, then a year later granted a provisional one, only to surprisingly withdraw it 12 months later after Ward had started construction.

That led to a drawn out third application, which was finally successful, but which, like the previous two times, required Ward to pay the full licensing application fee.

It also involved intense scrutiny.

“The state of Michigan knows more about Michael Ward than anybody,” Ward quipped.

Licensing was difficult enough, but there was also the odyssey of finding a town in the state that would welcome a marijuana facility. Although voters legalized recreational use across the state in 2018 (Michigan approved medical use in 2008), municipalities could opt out, and 85% took the opportunity to do so, Ward noted.

“I’m in a car in Michigan, driving around aimlessly, hoping that a township would opt in,” Ward told Fluence’s Cohen. “You’ve got these tiny little bullseyes popping up all over the state (and you’re) trying to figure out if you want to set up in U.P. (the northern part of Michigan, known as the Upper Peninsula), do you want to be over in Detroit, do you want to be right on the border.”

Ward’s search led him to the accommodating city of Kalamazoo in southwest Michigan, which even sold him property on which he could build. But as settled as things seemed at the time, there were more roadblocks to come, as zoning quirks delayed things. It wasn’t Ward’s first run-in with zoning rules either, as an earlier attempt to set up about 90 miles away in Muskegon ultimately failed. You can view the video in its entirety on the Fluence YouTube channel.

A common theme applied throughout the ordeal: “The rules changed all the time,” Ward said.

Not that running an indoor cannabis farm on a day-to-day basis is a breeze. Ward, a Fluence LED lighting user, described the many constant challenges, such as maintaining the climate and getting plant chemistry just right.

But the arduous several years of licensing and setting up seem to have steeled the company for the hits, which Ward described in a sports analogy.

“You never know if youre going to put on a helmet or wear a cup, because you never know where it’s coming from ” he said. “But it’s coming. So you just gotta roll with it.” [Note for readers: Depending on your geography, you might not be familiar with “cup.” British sports fans, for instance, will be more familiar with it as a “box.” It’s that curved bit of hard plastic that slips into a jockstrap to protect the family jewels, to use a bit of slang that might well apply worldwide].

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Coming soon: A horticultural SSL provider puts the spotlight on one very large roadblock to switching over to LED lights in cannabis grow operations.

MARK HALPER  is a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

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About the Author

Mark Halper | Contributing Editor, LEDs Magazine, and Business/Energy/Technology Journalist

Mark Halper is a freelance business, technology, and science journalist who covers everything from media moguls to subatomic particles. Halper has written from locations around the world for TIME Magazine, Fortune, Forbes, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Guardian, CBS, Wired, and many others. A US citizen living in Britain, he cut his journalism teeth cutting and pasting copy for an English-language daily newspaper in Mexico City. Halper has a BA in history from Cornell University.