January 2020

High hopes: Bloom Doom, Seedless in Pueblo

Part 4 – Why the seeds of cannabis industry matter — especially for any “Napa Valley” hopefuls.

Can a place be famous for a product it imports? While sunny Pueblo has more than enough land for cannabis, a key element of the business is absent: the genetics. As the industry continues to sprout five years after legalization, how much do seeds matter? Photo of sprouting clones at Yeti Farms. (Noah Weeks for PULP)

By Noah Weeks

High Hopes is a collaboration between PULP and Colorado College’s Journalism Institute.

As with some crops, there are companies whose main focus is the genetical engineering of cannabis. And if Monsanto is any model, it could be a lucrative business. However, it’s unclear if Pueblo’s cannabis industry will be a benefactor.

While once seeds were gifted from one generation to the next, season to season planted in the same tilled fields, today they’re bred by scientists with PhDs and winnowed down like wolves to dogs to fit our desired outcomes. Cannabis strains are priced higher based on their potency and pungency, and they’re sold as proprietary entities.

Monsanto has been selling genetics since 1996, when its genetically-modified (GM) soybean hit the market — 20 years later, the crop had 28% larger yields annually, according to a letter in The New York Times by Robert Fraley, Monsanto Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Given that in 2017 Monsanto made almost as much in sales as Whole Foods, it’s safe to say farmers did not see the lion’s share of the profits from that efficiency. Bayer, a pharmaceutical company, purchased Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal.

While Monsanto’s products are increasing the amount of food we produce, the high prices of their seeds can leave America’s farmers feeling left behind, according to reporting by Business Insider. In order to produce enough to offer competitive prices, farmers have few alternatives to paying for Monstanto’s seeds — putting more money, and power over the marketplace, in Monsanto’s pockets.

So why aren’t there any prominent cannabis seed companies in the “Napa Valley” of weed?

“I think it’s just because Pueblo got their license after Denver,” said Lauren Boylan, admin manager at Klone Colorado, one of the only Denver-based cannabis genetics companies. She said Klone has a few stores that sell products to buyers, but most of the client base is wholesale to cultivators and growers, including some from Pueblo.

“We have a few retail stores that we sell to,” Boylan continued, “but most of our client base is business to business, which would be just wholesale. So we sell to the cultivators, to the growers.”

Some of Klone’s seeds end up germinated in Pueblo.

But in an industry hell-bent on maximizing efficiency, why not shave off the drive to Denver? Pueblo’s many growers and dispensaries make it an epicenter of Colorado cannabis, but only in the way a fulfillment warehouse is the core of Amazon.com.

An Amazon warehouse receives products, repackages them, and ships them to customers, and can be plopped on the map anywhere with road access and steady labor. If there’s a problem with either, there are dozens of other towns that would work just as well.

Acquiring the type of notoriety that Napa Valley did for wine takes more than arid farmland and relaxed regulations, and it’s hard to argue Pueblo County has more to offer the cannabis industry than that.

It’s not that Yeti Farms is building villas for tourists or anything, but owner Shawn Honaker has an intimate relationship with marijuana that, in turn, makes Yeti Farms feel more unique to Pueblo — at least, with the product being based on his black market genetics, it feels more homegrown.

Before he claims to have coined the term “Napa Valley” of weed, Honaker was homeless at 26. He has a self-described addictive personality, and after starting an oil field service business where he said there’s “a lot of drinking involved,” Honaker struggled with alcohol.

A low point hit somewhere around 16 or 17 years ago when Honaker got into a bad car wreck — and he had 24 points on his license. “So I made a choice at that point that I was going to be done with alcohol,” he said. “I was never going to touch alcohol again in my life, and I gave it up.”

At the time, Honaker had only smoked weed “here and there” on camping trips. But after “all the tension in my shoulders went away and my stomach completely unlocked” from smoking a bowl with his then-girlfriend from southern Alabama, Honaker found a new fix.

“For me, cannabis is a nuclear-powered rocket ship to universes I didn’t even know existed,” he said, “and alcohol is an anchor to the ocean floor.”

Honaker shot for the stars, which in the cannabis world of 2007 meant Amsterdam.

“I lied to all 70 of my employees and told them I was going home for the holidays, and I lied to my family and told them I was staying at work, and I jumped on a plane and went to the Cannabis Cup,” he said. Honaker sold the oil company shortly after and, using the genetics brought from Europe, began experimenting in his backyard using buried shipping containers.

Despite that today, Honaker says, “the idea of a mom-and-pop grow being able to survive in the next five to seven years in the industry is an ill-fated idea,” he managed to augment his hobby into a business.

Honaker says he told Pueblo City Council around 2013, “I’m going to be a large-scale outdoor cultivator.” Ever since, he has lived in a red house heated by a woodfire stove only steps from the gates of Yeti Farms’ fields and an on-site processing building.

In a way, Honaker is the “pop” on top. On the one hand, Honaker loves where he lives, as his simple home, flannel shirt, organic diet, and genial manner suggest: “pop.” On the other, Honaker is primed to launch cutting-edge, fast-acting edibles using proprietary technology, and he does cannabis consulting for businesses across the country: “on top.”

But he’s not the seed to a “Napa Valley” of cannabis.

While Honaker’s passionate knowledge of cannabis justifies an analogy to the sommeliers of California wine country, and Yeti Farms has even been visited by a Saudi billionaire, Pueblo County has not become a famous “destination” for cannabis.

However, the region could strive toward a different goal altogether — a cannabis market that’s more Pueblo-specific than an “Amazon warehouse” and less outlandish than “Napa Valley.”

Honaker’s type of business model, with homegrown genetics and vertical integration with edibles, stands out as an alternative. Maybe not every owner needs to live on their farm, but keeping as much production in Pueblo, at least, seems like a good first step toward fulfilling the hopes for Pueblo cannabis once contained in the “Napa Valley” analogy.

About the Authors

Miriam Brown

Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, Miriam is a student journalist at Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. She worked for CC’s independent student newspaper, The Catalyst, for two years in a variety of roles, including reporter, section editor, copy editor, and co-editor-in-chief.

Michael Gorman

Junior, studying race, ethnicity, and migration studies and journalism at Colorado College. From Bethesda, MD, with journalism experience in the Journalism Institute at CC as well as running The Sideline Observer, a student-run online media organization. @SidelineOMike

Noah Weeks

Noah grew up in St. Louis, MO, and is a senior Film and Media Studies major at Colorado College. His interests include public policy, political journalism, and sustainable international development, and his documentary “Guns for Everyone” was featured on Rocky Mountain PBS’s series “In-Short.” Noah can be found on @WeeksNoah.

Ana Mashek

Ana is from Swarthmore, PA. She’s currently a sophomore at Colorado College, where she is pursuing a degree within their Journalism Institute. She works for the school’s independently run newspaper, The Catalyst, as both a writer and layout editor. @ana_mashek

This series was produced by Colorado College journalism students and PULP.

High Hopes

What has happened to Colorado’s ‘Napa Valley’ of weed?

Intro: What has happened to Colorado’s ‘Napa valley’ of weed?

In 2014, Pueblo was referred to as the “Napa Valley” of cannabis, but by whom?

Part 2: License and Registration, Please

What does it take to earn a license in a tightening Pueblo cannabis industry?

Part 2

Part 3: Rising Tide in the Desert 

How federal cannabis regulation trickles down to raise water prices for Pueblo businesses.

Part 3

Part 4: Bloom Doom, Seedless in Pueblo

How federal cannabis regulation trickles down to raise water prices for Pueblo businesses.

Part 4

Part 5: From the Ground Up

Fluctuating market prices have made hitting profit thresholds a veritable science for cannabis growers.

Part 5

Part 6: What happened to the ‘Silicon Valley’ of Testing? 

With only one functioning cannabis testing facility, how can retail owners and growers be sure of their product?

Part 6

Part 7: Driving the Business

The white vans army fuels gets the cannabis from grow to the store.

Part 7

Part 8: Seeds to Retail Shelves

What happens in a Pueblo dispensary, anyway?

Part 8

Part 9: Not One Typical consumer

The white vans army fuels gets the cannabis from grow to the store.

Part 9

Part 10: High Hopes: Profit, Taxes and the Budweiser of Cannabis

Which companies have found success or failure in the new and tumultuous landscape of cannabis in Pueblo County?

Part 10

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