October 3, 2019
By: Andy Tomolonis
Chapman Dickerson has been waiting for moving day.
The 40-year-old CEO of Bask Inc. oversees a thriving cultivation business and medical marijuana dispensary tucked into a quiet industrial building in Fairhaven. And now, after roughly a year-and-a-half at the old Mass. Lottery offices on Pequod Road, Bask is expanding – shifting its cultivation and processing operations to a new site in Freetown, complete with state-of-the-art greenhouses and streamlined production facilities. The Fairhaven building will remain open as a dispensary, but all production work will move to Freetown.
Not only is the growing area five times larger than in Fairhaven, but the entire Freetown facility was designed with the benefit of lessons learned. There are vast improvements in workflow, processing, kitchen design, drying, trimming, and every other facet of commercial cannabis production. The new place is also more Earth-friendly and energy-efficient, Dickerson says. For starters, the plants will be grown in hybrid greenhouses, using sunlight that is augmented with artificial lighting. By comparison, cultivation in Fairhaven has relied on 100 percent artificial light, which pushed the electrical bill to more than $20,000 a month.
Dickerson led a SEMAP writer and photographer on a late-summer tour of both the Fairhaven operation and the nearly completed Freetown site, pointing out the advantages that will be gained by moving the company’s cultivation and processing operations.
HIGH-TECH HYBRID GREENHOUSES
The immediate difference in Freetown is the setting itself. Phase I of what will eventually contain up to 1 million square feet of cannabis cultivation, production space, and testing facilities on 52 acres is located at 7 Campanelli Drive in an industrial park off Route 24 and a long way from neighbors. Six hybrid greenhouses line one side of the complex, with 18 massive ventilation fans that use ozone mitigation filters to remove odors. So there will be no marijuana aroma wafting through the air outdoors, Dickerson notes.
Inside, the greenhouses make use of the latest in agricultural technology. Air that enters the grow area must first pass through a hallway, where it can be cooled or warmed and treated with UV lighting to kill any mold spores, Dickerson explains. All six greenhouses make use of both sunlight and artificial light. And they all have solid, brick-and-mortar walls, conforming to state laws that require cannabis plants to be concealed from the public eye. Shade cloth curtains line the transparent roofs, allowing operators to manually control the growing season by adjusting light. One greenhouse will house young, pre-flower seedlings in what’s called the “veg” state, along with the mother plants, which are used for cloning (a.k.a. propagation by cuttings). That greenhouse will receive about 20 hours of light per day, which simulates summer. Meanwhile, flowering plants in the other five greenhouses will get 12 hours of light and 12 hours of total darkness – conditions that mimic autumn and trick the plants into producing more flower buds.
High-tech developments are everywhere: V-flow fans circulate air inside each greenhouse. Corrugated cardboard materials line a section of the walls, allowing air to flow through dripping water for low-cost evaporative cooling. Metal, knee-high benches are equipped with rolling tops, allowing easy access to every plant. Lighting, water, fertigation, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, and other greenhouse conditions are controlled by computer. Sensors called “sniffers” will hang above the plants, sucking in the air 24/7, monitoring the quality.
Throughout the new facility, workflow has been streamlined, too, thanks in part to consulting with lean manufacturing expert Gerson “Gary” Cortés of FlowVision, who reviewed the entire operation in Fairhaven and helped design workflows for maximum efficiency. Among the improvements that will be used in Freetown:
— A trimming room will be ready for work at all hours, eliminating set-up and break-down time that resulted in lost productivity.
— The new drying area uses separate rooms for different stages of drying – avoiding the constant introduction of humidity when fresh-cut cannabis is placed in the same room with nearly-dry material.
— The new kitchen has space for multiple workers, tables and equipment, increasing production and efficiency. Dickerson notes that his business is roughly 60 percent cannabis flower and 40 percent value-added products, like tinctures and edibles. In Colorado, the business is already 50/50, he said.
— Planting operations will use more automation. A machine with a hopper and auger will fill 1-gallon plastic bags with bulk growing medium. The investment will further cut labor costs.
PRICING AND AUTOMATION
In addition to the lessons learned in Fairhaven, Dickerson gleaned ideas from visits to large-scale agricultural greenhouses that produce cucumbers, lettuce, and poinsettias. He sees the future of the cannabis business with an agricultural producer’s eye, noting that growers who can deliver high-quality cannabis at lower costs are the ones who will survive once the industry settles down.
Growing cannabis is manufacturing, Dickerson asserts. “It’s beyond, hallelujah, kumbaya and ‘let’s throw some seeds in the field and watch it grow.’ … It’s like a machine. And it needs to be treated like that or you’re not going to stay in business,” he says.
Labor and electricity make up the biggest expenses, so finding ways to automate production will increase profits. And using less electricity is not just eco-friendly, it boosts the bottom line. There’s a lot of cannabis companies that are building production facilities, Dickerson says. “But only a few of us are building out greenhouses. So when everybody’s having price wars, and the wholesale price is eleven-hundred or twelve-hundred dollars a pound – great. I’m producing it for $300 a pound.”
GROWING THE BUSINESS
The final advantage to the Freetown location is the potential for expansion. The property is owned by the publicly-traded company AmeriCann Inc., which plans to build up to 1 million square feet of space in the Massachusetts Cannabis Center, including a research center, testing facilities and more cultivation and production operations. Dickerson is AmeriCann’s first tenant, operating under a 15-year lease. He said he is looking forward to continued expansion in Freetown with Phase 2 and beyond. Bask now has 38 employees, and even with the workflow efficiencies, Dickerson expects to bring on another 15 hires by 2020.
He’s now waiting for an inspection and final approval from the CCC (The Mass. Cannabis Control Commission). Bask secured a host community agreement from Freetown in January, and the company has signed a host agreement to sell recreational adult-use cannabis in Fairhaven – something that also awaits approval from the state CCC. And Bask is pursuing another dispensary for adult-use cannabis in Taunton.
Learn more about Bask at www.cometobask.com
About the Author: Andy Tomolonis is a nonfiction author, SEMAP board member, and an award-winning multimedia journalist.