January 2020

High Hopes: From the ground up

Part 5 – Fluctuating market prices have made hitting profit thresholds a veritable science for cannabis growers.

Shawn Honaker of Yeti Farms checks sprouted plants. (Noah Weeks for PULP)

By Noah Weeks

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

When it comes to marijuana, growth is everything — and that means a lot more than planting a seed.

How efficiently a plant matures from sprout to cannabinoid-laden bud cuts directly to the farmer’s bottom line. While this hard fact has winnowed the scores of entrepreneurs still in the game, those who remain have spawned a school of horticultural innovation.

The economic importance of a new industry for a small town was part of childhood for Karson Beckstrom, owner of White Diamond Botanicals. The great-grandfather of Beckstrom’s classmate invented the Bobcat skid-steer loader, and the factory that builds them remains nestled in Gwinner, North Dakota. It has twice as many employees as there are residents of the town, according to Beckstrom.

“I was just showing my friends a Google map overview, and literally the factory takes up half the town,” he said.

Upon graduating high school, Beckstrom enrolled in the horticulture program at North Dakota State University— the first step toward growing cannabis, his dream since he was 14.

“Everybody laughed at that,” Beckstrom said. “But you know, 10 years later, there I was doing it.”

Along the way, he worked on several publications with professor Chiwon Lee, including a study on honeylocust germination and an experiment that created lettuce with enough iron to replace the iron pills with which many vegetarians supplement their diets.

Shortly before voters legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, Beckstrom dipped his toe into small medical grows before courting investors to construct a larger greenhouse operation. He now had the know-how and capital to launch White Diamond Botanicals, which today he operates with the help of five full-time employees — and up to 10 part-time trimmers during harvest cycles.

Like its numerous contemporaries, White Diamond Botanicals is under the onus to prove its legitimacy. On the science side, Beckstrom’s second-in-the-world state-of-the-art thermostat and reverse-osmosis water exude a procedural sophistication that few rival industries can claim. Juxtaposed is an erratic open market and governments scrambling to regulate it.

Shawn Honaker checking butane hash oil for impurities against the light. (Noah Weeks for PULP).

Shawn Honaker of Yeti Farms runs a grow that’s structurally different than Beckstrom’s. For one thing, the field is outside and uses a rafter of turkeys for pest management. For another, Honaker has explored a business model that includes making THC concentrates and edibles.

If marijuana growing can be simplified into schools, they would be the greenhouses and the open fields. The former takes a more measured approach, even going so far as to pump CO2 into the grow rooms, while the latter touts the efficiency of natural sunlight. Honaker takes the latter approach to the max, and it turns out using fermented tea as fertilizer has been good for harvest yields.

Once cut and hand-trimmed, Honaker sells the most aesthetically-pleasing cannabis buds whole to local dispensaries — and not letting anything go to waste, Honaker packs the rest of the plant material into an extractor that passes butane through the material to gather THC into a finished product, called butane hash oil.

“When it first hit the scene, nobody knew what it was,” Honaker recalled when he started making butane hash oil. “Everybody was like, ‘No, I think it’s dangerous.’” According to Honaker, the highly-concentrated oil that is smoked on red-hot quartz bowls is actually one of the safest ways to consume cannabis. At the very least, hash oil has been a good business venture.

The finished product looks a bit like honey, with a gooey-waxy texture that requires it be handled with metal dentist-looking tools prior to being smoked. When heated, the oil atomizes into a naturally-flavorful vapor and is one of the strongest forms of THC.

Perhaps in response to a broadening market base, Honaker’s next endeavor is to produce “Yetibles,” fast-delivering edibles using new techniques developed by researchers in Boulder. Compared to the gummies and cookies on the market today, whose effects are felt an hour or so after consumption, Honaker’s product takes “90 seconds to nine minutes.”

“I’m trying to get the entire country underneath my distributorship to where everybody in the country has to come to me to get this technology,” Honaker said. He added later that the room he set aside for the venture, despite in size it practically resembles a coffin for the claustrophobic among us, is the most profitable in the building.

Honaker is a skilled businessperson and a veritable connoisseur on all things cannabis. But his success owes no small part to luck, or at least some beneficial circumstances. For one, Honaker had the personal capital to augment his personal backyard grow into a production-scale cannabis farm — still in his backyard.

Unfortunately, that’s still in mother nature’s wheelhouse. Los Sueños Farms, also in Pueblo, lost a whopping 20,000 plants to the frost of an October snowstorm, losing $7 million in revenue. The company’s acquisition with Medicine Man Technologies, negotiated before the storm, was unaffected.

Honaker had a similar experience a few harvests ago — and to the newbie conjecturing, “‘We’re going to make it back in one harvest,’” Honaker cautions, “Well, you do if everything goes right. But did you calculate for the hail storm? Did you calculate for the grasshoppers? Did you calculate for the early frost?”

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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