How Missouri marijuana cultivators supply the $1 billion recreational market
In the year since legal Missouri dispensaries started selling recreational marijuana, sales have topped $1 billion.
All of that cannabis is grown by 51 cultivation facilities currently approved by Missouri, with another eight waiting for the state to sign off on their ability to operate.
These facilities operate like a fine-tuned machine, turning out multiple full crops of cannabis each year.
“The cultivation facility environment, it’s fast paced,” said Justin Sheffield, director of cultivation for Sinse Cannabis, a brand of BeLeaf Medical Company. “Everyone on the team loves their job, but it’s high stress, there are production goals. We do have to hit numbers and time frames.”
The company’s largest cultivation facility, on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis, has around 24,000 square feet of flowering canopy spread among a handful of rooms, he said. Each room produces five or six harvests each year, Sheffield added.
“This building was dilapidated on the inside. It was falling apart,” he said. “It was gutted and rebuilt, kind of neat being in a historic area of town with a given footprint and getting to build vertically on the inside.”
Some of the rooms’ ceilings extend dozens of feet up with a few canopies of flowering marijuana plants stacked on top of each other.
Sheffield has more than a decade of experience with cannabis cultivation, starting his career in Colorado in the early 2010s, he said. In that time, he’s seen the marijuana industry shed its stigma and become more accepted.
“It’s much less hush-hush,” he said. “I can remember in 2010 having trouble renting a house in Colorado because of my profession.”
Sheffield added he’s found Missouri’s young industry a refreshing change of pace.
“I think that has to do with the limited licenses, there’s very few piecemeal grow (operations) in Missouri,” he said. “You go down South Broadway in Denver, and there’s plenty of bookstores that decided to hang 100 lights in the back room and decided to call themselves a commercial grow.”
St. Louis Public Radio’s Eric Schmid recently sat down with Sheffield to discuss his experience cultivating the crop and Missouri’s cannabis industry in general.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Schmid: Tell me a little bit of how you got into this field of work.
Sheffield: When I went to college, I went to Middle Tennessee State University and decided to pursue plant and soil science just because I knew it was something I would enjoy. I got a couple of undergraduate research grants, did some greenhouse research, graduated, and that was in 2010.
I had a good friend from school who had moved to Colorado and gotten a manager position at a cultivation facility. He was building it up. It was the latest, greatest thing, and so I packed my bags and headed west shortly after graduation.
Schmid: What did you see? What was really attractive about this work?
Sheffield: For me, cannabis cultivation was engineering, chemistry, construction, horticulture, it was a chance to just combine everything I love into one. Cannabis being a high-value crop, we could really push the limits and dive into research and development, increasing yields through small variables, which was something I was really interested in.
Schmid: Is it easy to grow?
Sheffield: It is easy to grow but difficult to grow consistently. It’s easy to flower a room but difficult to flower a room five to six times a year. It’s easy to grow a cultivar but difficult to have a 12-month outlook and know how many pounds of what cultivar you’ll have eight months from now.
Schmid: Talk about the relationship between cultivation and what the market demands are. How can that affect what the operation does?
Sheffield: We speak frequently with sales, marketing and manufacturing teams; everything we do is a collaboration between all the departments. A lot of the data we receive is from sales, marketing and retail. And this is what’s selling, what people are liking.
We really have to plan ahead. It takes 90 days to make any big change with cultivars or our numbers. It’s very difficult for us to turn on a dime because we don’t keep spare inventory on hand. It’s an agricultural commodity. It’s perishable. It’s got a ‘sell by’ date.
Schmid: Tell me about some of the lessons that you took from observing other recreational cannabis rollouts or your experience in Colorado. How did that inform your ability to kind of get a growing operation up and running and meet the demands here?
Sheffield: In Colorado we did see pretty significant price compression knowing that we would see that in Missouri too. A big part of my job is keeping our production price in check and making sure that we remain profitable. Going back to the difficulty of growing, it’s very easy to spend $1,000 and grow a good pound; it’s much more difficult to grow a good pound with $300.
Schmid: Missouri being a younger market, what do you see in this industry? How might this market develop as it becomes more mature?
Sheffield: (Consumers in Missouri) still shop on THC percentages, so I think shifting away from only THC percentage. That’s the first and biggest marker of a maturing industry that I see.
THC isolate hit the market in a handful of markets, and it was a blur. It was there and it was gone, because I think very quickly consumers realized that ingesting 99% THC didn’t give you the same experience as ingesting 20% THC plant material with other compounds.
Schmid: Interesting, sometimes the highest concentration of something is not the most enjoyable.
Sheffield: I mean I love vanilla ice cream but not vanilla extract.
I personally know a handful of dedicated medical users that don’t look at THC percentage, they don’t look at the name of the strain. What they want to see is the dominant terpenes, and they associate that with the relief they’re looking for.
Sheffield: A terpene. It's an aromatic chain, and it's responsible for the smell and the flavor, and there's a direct correlation of user experience. Consumers are getting much more educated on (these) levels, which is what a lot of more mature markets are looking at too.