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Ernie Pello, cultivation manager at NorCal Cannabis Company

The challenges of scaling up a cannabis cultivation

Transitioning from a small-scale setting to a large-scale one can be a very hard and challenging endeavor; this is what a number of cannabis growers have experienced when they entered the legal cannabis industry. Some of them could not cope with the difference in scale; yet, others rolled up their sleeves and turned a challenge into a learning opportunity. This is exactly the story of NorCal Cannabis Company. “When we started getting into the industry, it was with the proposition 215, which allowed people to grow a certain amount of plants for medical needs,” Ernie Pello, cultivation manager of NorCal Cannabis Company, explains. “Now, we have a campus north of San Francisco, with 4 buildings, each with 10 rooms. Plus, we have another facility in San Francisco.”

Transitioning from small scale to large scale
When Ernie and his company started operating in a fully regulated industry, the transition wasn’t super smooth. “The first five months were rough,” he recounts. “The scale of everything was a challenge to cope with initially: from the fertigation system to other equipment, everything highly computerized, and the HVAC as well. Back then, these systems were not meant for cannabis cultivation facilities, and we found that our A/C was sucking the humidity from the room thus drying out the plants; therefore, we had to add humidity. We spent almost 5 months of tinkering to get everything aligned to function properly.”

One of the most important things that Ernie has learnt is regarding nutrients. “Nutrients are generally full of sugars, chemicals, and are very expensive,” he says. “So, we have switched to salts. We hired an environmental engineer that reworked our nutrient regiment and advised us to use salts: that was a huge turning point for the cultivation. Not only are the plants cleaner and healthier, but we saved a lot on operational expenses: during the first 6 months from the switch, we saved almost 800,000 dollars just because of the salts.”

Organic solutions
The importance of using more organic solutions for growing cannabis is paramount in such a highly regulated industry. “In our county, the cannabis industry is more highly regulated than food: therefore, the produce you’d buy at the store is less regulated than cannabis. We have to turn in pesticides reports to the County so they could inspect that all we use is organic: for instance, we don’t need a mask and goggles to spray our mixture.”

The salts are injected through the irrigation system, which is one of the most impressive pieces of equipment that the company has. “Everything is highly computerized, and we dial in everything that we want the machine to perform,” he explains. “It was a substantial investment initially, and there is a little bit of maintenance to do; yet, the amount of labor that we are saving thanks to this is unmatchable.”

A labor of love
Ernie thinks that the most unique things about his cannabis plants are the passion and love he and his team put into the growing. “I am a firm believer that plants can feel it. They can feel the energy and the care from the moment we propagate them, to the point it is sent to retail locations. For instance, we play music to them constantly; this is just how we love to do things: passion and commitment.”

He continues explaining that all the hard labor has paid off, especially during the toughest times of the lockdown. “Cannabis was deemed essential, and we could continue operating,” he says. “We saw a huge increase in sales, and in the future, with a federal legalization coming online anytime in the next year, these can only increase further as the stigma of the cannabis industry is finally washed away.”

For more information:
NorCal Cannabis Company  

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