How Hughes Pope from Sweet Dirt: Cannabis Workspace works

Indoor, outdoor, greenhouse or a combination: Tight

Can you share a bit of your journey and how did you and your business get to where you are today?

Sweet Dirt was founded in 2015 by a husband and wife from southern Maine ([me] and Kristin Pope) team of medical cannabis caregivers with years of experience in cannabis and herbal medicine. Our years of cultivation have taught us to respect the genetic integrity and power of living soil, and to embrace the serendipity of cannabis cultivation. Our passion for organically grown cannabis and our real-world experience in growing unique, heirloom and premium strains have helped us grow into the company we are today.

In one look :

  • [Roughly] 130 employees (representing over 300% growth in the last year alone)
  • 3-hectare campus in Eliot, Maine
  • 32,800 square foot greenhouse for adults (with eight flower and propagation rooms) [with] medical [cannabis] grown in a separate facility
  • Completion of the construction of [roughly] 10,000 square foot state-of-the-art manufacturing plant and commercial kitchen
  • Medical store in Eliot; adult stores in Portland and Waterville, Maine, with two new stores coming in summer 2022
  • Maine’s Only Third-Party Certified Clean Adult Cannabis Grower

What tool or software in your grow space can’t you live without?

Two tools quickly come to mind. First up: our irrigation system. We have a non-stop Bowsmith drip emitter and since installing it we haven’t encountered a single clog. Not one. Bowsmith has been around since the 70s and, although largely unknown in the cannabis community, Bowsmith is well known around the world, especially on large-scale farms, for being a game changer. With the Bowsmith system, two silicone bellies expand and contract inside the emitter, allowing particles to pass through the emitter. This allows Sweet Dirt to grow organically and use a precision drip system (instead of watering by hand) and it means we can constantly bring water to the plants reducing plant loss and stress.

A second essential technology for us [is] our more than 230 industry-leading Adjust-A-Wing lights. These are staggered in the flower rooms of the greenhouse and designed to mimic the rays of the sun, providing additional lighting and giving us the perfect growing environment.

Which purchase of $100 or less has had the most positive impact on your business over the past six months?

A few months ago we installed wireless sensors from Sensor Push. These sensors, placed above the canopy and at plant level (where there is more stagnation in the air), monitor temperature and humidity among other things 24/7 and send alerts directly on our phones. Each sensor costs around $40, but the data and peace of mind are priceless.

What cultivation technique are you most interested in right now, and what are you actively studying (the most)?

The basis of our cultivation model is our soil. We only use verified organic inputs to create our exclusive “living soil”. The result is a soil rich in beneficial bacteria and other constituents [that] allow us to grow the highest quality organic cannabis, with less impact on the environment. Studies have shown that conventional fertilizers are detrimental to all life, including beneficial microorganisms that are naturally part of the soil. In addition, up to 5% of the total annual yield of natural gas is consumed in the production of these conventional fertilizers. The result is depleted soil, toxic runoff, and reduced viability and yield of conventional cultivation.

Growing in living soil isn’t easy, but it sets us apart and has earned us the nickname “Certified Clean Cannabis” from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. There are a handful of Maine growers who are certified clean for medical cannabis, but we are the only grower in Maine for adult use to be certified clean.

We are always learning when it comes to cultivation, continuously optimizing quality control and plant health to ensure the highest quality without compromising what is best for the plant. Of particular interest to us at the moment is the relationship between root zone temperature and natural fertilizer supply (in winter, plants metabolize much more slowly, so they don’t need as much fertilizer, whereas ‘in summer, when plants benefit from more natural sunlight and heat, they need more fertilizer). In other words, less input to get the same output. This is classic winter farming, and for this knowledge we turn mainly to older texts and books on greenhouse cultivation.

How has failure, or perceived failure, prepared you for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure”?

In June 2019, Sweet Dirt’s main operating site at our Eliot headquarters was destroyed by fire. The 4,700 square foot building was the home for indoor cultivation, as well as the manufacturing and extraction facility for our then medicinal cannabis program and upcoming recreational program.

After investigation, the fire was found to be caused by a faulty electrical box. Luckily no one was injured in the fire and we were fully insured. But the loss was tough and presented a huge setback, and the team was devastated.

But we soon realized that the decimation and subsequent removal of the burned building cleared the slate of our facilities and opened the door for us to acquire and erect the right facilities for our growth – a 32,800 foot greenhouse square feet allowing us to capitalize on the state-allowed maximum of 20,000 square feet of flowering canopy for optimal yield. We were also able to work with our landlord to build a 2,800 square foot facility that houses our drug store and a small aftercare facility. Like the Phoenix, we have risen from our ashes!

RELATED: Sweet Dirt Highlights Commitment to Maine in Transitioning to the State’s Adult-Use Cannabis Market: The Starting Line

What advice would you give to a smart and motivated grower about to enter the legal and regulated industry? What advice should they ignore?

First, know all the regulations of the state in which you operate and be prepared to find solutions to meet those regulations while accomplishing your mission. As you grow your cultivation and cultivation team, it is essential to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) and continually review them and train and retrain cultivation team members accordingly.

There are many who will tell you that things cannot be done. We were told we couldn’t grow organically in living soil on the scale we do. We were told that we could not grow our organization at the rate we are doing. But this can be done. Ignore opponents. As the old saying goes: Find a way or make your own.

How do you deal with burnout?

At Sweet Dirt, we focus on cross-training and regularly rotate cultivation employees. Over time, you realize where people’s passions, strengths, and weaknesses lie and steer them in that direction. And, because we have such a hardworking and dedicated team, sometimes we have to force them to take vacations!

How do you motivate your employees/team?

We have flexible hours, full-time benefits, holidays, and paid volunteer days. We organize lunches where we come together as a team and strive to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. And our “Good Doobie” program rewards employees who go above and beyond.

What keeps you up at night?

As much as technology is a necessity in a 32,800 square foot greenhouse, it is also a challenge. For me, I lie awake at night wondering whether or not the technology will do what it’s supposed to do: will the lights turn on when needed, will we be notified of an electrical problem, etc. A lamp goes out and you increase the chances of that plant or series of plants being over watered or stressed or over fertilized. A small producer has everything he needs because he does everything manually. Technology complicates and rapidly worsens the likelihood of failure. We continue to put safeguards in place to make sure the technology does what it’s supposed to do, but it’s a process.

What helps you sleep at night?

First, I still pinch myself on the legalization of adult-use cannabis in Maine. What a journey it has been and continues to be. Also, recognizing that Rome wasn’t built in a day, I have high standards for what I want in terms of flower production and quality, and sometimes I have to look back and realize how far I’ve come. and how much consumers appreciate the product we produce today – and it will only get better.

When it comes to culture, knowing that I have a great team in place and that we are building and refining our SOPs gives me great peace of mind.

Finally, although I don’t usually smoke to fall asleep because cannabis usually gives me energy, my favorite strain for sleeping would be Lazy Dog (Chem91, East Coast Staple) x (Pacific Northwest Hash Plant by Northern Lights # 1), reared by crickets and cicadas, and grown here in our Sweet Dirt greenhouse. Lazy Dog relaxes my body and keeps my mind from racing on everything I want to accomplish when the sun comes up the next day.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

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