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In the Weed Part 1: Going Green

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The medical marijuana industry recently marked a year of business in Missouri, amassing over $240 million in sales since its October 2020 start. Humansville-based Flora Farms LLC was one of the early companies to launch. It operates a cultivation facility and three dispensaries but also now has a manufacturing license with plans to become a vertically integrated company. Springfield Business Journal is documenting Flora Farms’ position in the burgeoning industry and its ongoing plans. This is the continuation of the multipart series, In the Weed.

A few miles outside the roughly 1,000-resident town of Humansville sits the 70-acre campus of Flora Farms LLC, a growing company with designs to become one of the state’s major players in the young medical marijuana industry.

The company in October 2020 received the green light from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to begin operations of its cultivation facility, which occupies 115,000 square feet between two buildings just off Highway 13. One of its three dispensaries, which opened in January 2021, fronts the buildings. A dispensary in Neosho was its first to market on New Year’s Eve 2020, while one in Springfield opened in February 2021.

Flora Farms President Mark Hendren said construction began simultaneously on the first building of the cultivation facility and its Humansville dispensary. However, company officials asked the state to inspect the cultivation building first so that cannabis plants could start being grown.

“It takes about three months to come to harvest,” he said. “As soon as we got approval, we started growing the next day.”

Hendren is among over 20 investors in BD Health Ventures and ERBA Holdings LLC, doing business as Flora Farms. He declined to name the other investors but said over 80% of ownership hails from Missouri. Arkansas, Kansas and Oklahoma comprise the remaining investors’ home states. BD Health and ERBA Holdings were awarded licenses by the state for three dispensaries as well as a three-license cultivation facility in Humansville. The company also is in process of starting a production facility in Springfield but awaits state approval, he said.

Total company investment is around $25 million, Hendren said, noting the buildings at the cultivation facility cost roughly $8 million apiece. Each has 30,000 square feet of flowering plant canopy space, the maximum allowed by the state.

On tour
Although not part of his job description, conducting tours of the cultivation facility is a regular part of Hendren’s work in Humansville. He’s over 170, including one to Springfield Business Journal, since its opening over 15 months ago.

“Our biggest visitors, of course, are our dispensary customers all throughout the state,” he said, noting Flora Farms has flower in about 85% of Missouri dispensaries.

As of Feb. 4, the state had approved 186 dispensaries, 64 manufacturing facilities and 46 cultivators to start operations.

Hendren said the staff doesn’t offer walk-in tours for the public.

“But there aren’t many people I wouldn’t give one to if we had the opportunity,” he said. “We think what Flora Farms has tried to build is a commercial grade food-like facility. We want to try to dispel that history of people thinking that marijuana was a black market, back alley-type business. Our goal is to teach everybody that’s not what this is.”

Around 30 of the company’s 170 employees work in the dispensaries. The remainder are employed in the cultivation facility, which contains dozens of rooms with near constant activity as staff move in and out of them to aid in the plant harvest process. Hendren said he’s personally logged as many as 27,000 steps in a day, although he heard the staff record is around 37,000.

Each building has nine flower rooms where plants grow for several weeks, along with multiple cannabis drying rooms where mature plants are hung to dry and cure for about two weeks.

“From cutting a clone until we have a final product, it’s about 120 days,” Hendren said. “We harvest two rooms a week on a general rule. We’re always harvesting because we’re trying to time all that out. The idea is on a 60-day cycle, we can have one harvest a week. The idea is to keep it perpetually harvesting.”

Planning ahead
Mark Buddemeyer is a director of cultivation at Flora Farms and has several years of experience in the marijuana industry under his belt, first in Colorado and most recently in Jamaica. He’s been with the Humansville company since October 2020 after relocating from the Caribbean.

“Being close to my family, that’s what I wanted to do,” he said, noting many still live in the Kansas City area, where he grew up. “I always saw myself coming back.”

Buddemeyer’s role includes making sure all the supervisors and teams in the various rooms are planning their harvests as far out as possible.

“We try to think six to eight months ahead at all times. It’s the only way you can do it,” he said. “It’s a lot of planning and a lot of moving parts and making sure everyone understands their tasks. There’s so many skills that need to be developed, and we’re here just to make sure it gets done right.”

A mother plant can last up to five years and grow as tall as 10 feet tall, Hendren said. Every 60 days staff clip clones from the plant, similar to how one would with a tomato plant. The clones are then put in a two-inch carton with soil in a little greenhouse. They remain for about two weeks until they root out the bottom. Then they’re moved into a bigger container for about 30 days before being transferred to a flower room.

It’s pretty much anything goes for music in the facility, which appears to be more for the employees than the plants. On a recent February day, staff choices included Tom Petty, Pink Floyd and Melissa Etheridge. When asked if the music has any impact on the plants, Hendren quipped, “That’s something we should look into.”

What does have an impact is lighting. In the vegetative grow room where the young plants begin the maturing process, 350-watt bulbs are on 18 hours a day.

“The idea is for the plant to think it’s summer,” Hendren said. “Then when we’re ready to take them into a flower room, we go to 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark – a much more intense light of 1,000 watts. That convinces the plant that it’s fall and it flowers. By doing an indoor grow, we can have four or five harvests per year, whereas Mother Nature generally only gets one.”

The company delivers roughly 150-250 pounds of flower per week to dispensaries and manufacturing facilities statewide. It’s a level Flora Farms has produced for the past three to four months, Hendren said. This year’s goal is to grow that total.

“I’d like to see us be able to get to 250-300 pounds consistently through this year,” he said. “It’s going to be a roller coaster in 2022 because of supply and demand. It’s hard to predict.”

Buddemeyer said where Flora Farms is in production from a year ago is “a world’s difference.” The first harvest was produced in March 2021.

“Not only do we have to train everybody, but we also had to get used to the cycle of this size of a facility,” he said. “It would be easier on a second go-around, but that first go-around, it’s tough.

“Patience is one of the biggest skills you develop in this industry. If you don’t develop patience, you’re not staying in it.”

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