By Linda Kor
Holbrook is facing challenging economic times, but one company located in the city has developed a thriving operation.
The marijuana grow facility Swell Farmacy employs 60 people at its Holbrook operation, with nearly all of them residents of Holbrook. The company has been in business for two years and has seen a dramatic increase in demand for a product that not too long ago wasn’t legal to grow or use.
The grow facility provides product for three dispensaries owned by Swell Farmacy that operate in the Valley and the firm is in the process of opening a fourth. “We’ve started getting recognition from the magazines for our cannabis. We’re being told we’re number one by a number of different entities,” stated Anthony Thomas, president of operations. “It’s the way I grow the plants. We have investors that have traveled the country looking at other products and we’ve been told that we’re in the top two percent.”
His employees are a mix of those who have never worked in the field of cannabis production and those who are seasoned growers. The industry is fairly new, so there is a constant assessment of what is working and fine-tuning of the process, as well as the introduction of new concepts. Recently, that evolution has included removing the fixed tables and putting in rolling table tops that allow for more plants to be handled because one row can be opened at a time, and testing the use of LED lighting for rapid plant growth.
“We were processing a couple hundred plants with a schedule of about a month in between, to now every 11 days we’re processing anywhere from 600 to 700 plants,” said Thomas. Even with this high volume they are challenged to keep up with demand. Production now takes up only 25 percent of the 100,000-sq. ft. building, leaving plenty of room for expansion.
A tour of the facility began in the research and development room, where seedlings are grown and the female plants are separated from the males and hermaphrodites, as only female plants produce the large flowers that contain the highest amount of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). The THC is what provides the “high,” while CBD balances it out. While the THC is what attracts many users socially, it has been discovered that the right combination of CBD and THC has the potential to reduce seizures, provide pain relief, and perhaps even have anticancer properties and a multitude of other potential medicinal uses.
While pharmaceutical companies can synthesize opiates for the treatment of pain and disease, that’s not the case with cannabis. “The combination of compounds in cannabis can only be derived from nature; it’s intertwined and you can’t physically separate it and have it react to your body the way that it does,” explained Thomas.
The research room is isolated from the main grow rooms to ensure that the pollen from any male flowers won’t reach the female plants. When the plant flowers and reveals its gender, the male plants are killed off. The female plants that are separated will still have a span of time before they are introduced into production.
“We grow this one plant and let’s say it makes it through. It’s a three-generation process to make sure it’s stable,” explained Thomas. Cuttings from the female plant will be taken and grown, then cuttings will be taken from those and grown to ensure stability before it is introduced into the production plant population.
The main grow rooms in the facility look nothing like a typical greenhouse or plant nursery. The halls leading to the production rooms are white and sealed in plastic, then covered with the same coating used for dry erase boards to ensure chemical resistance, and the floors are covered in epoxy, giving the grow facility a clinical feel.
The plants are in separate rooms depending upon what stage of the growth process they are in. Their roots are buried in a ground cocoa medium with soil and nutrients added, and the temperature, lighting and pH balance are strictly monitored by the workers.
Any bugs that may enter the facility don’t last for long as the plants are bathed with airless sprayers using organic concentrates several times a week. Sticky traps hanging in various locations show that very few insects get past the baths, but there’s enough to keep the employees ever vigilant.
Thomas explained that after 11 days the plants remain in their same rooms, but the next process is put into motion so that when the last room is harvested, that’s where the newest plants will be placed. “I’m up to a point now that I’m producing about 100 pounds every 11 days,” stated Thomas. He explained that the building holds 9,000 to 10,000 plants that are at various stages of development and the entire process from growth to packaging takes five weeks. As the door to each room is opened, the plants revealed are bigger and the flowers thicker and heavier. It’s a common misconception that the cannabis leaf is where the oils are stored, but the flowers hold the oils and every effort is made to push the plant to produce as much of the oil as possible. That means clipping the lower stems on each plant early on to ensure that the nutrients are driven to the top of the plant where the flowers are and controlling temperatures that cause the plants to secrete more oils.
Once the maximum growth is achieved, the plant is separated and dried. In the packaging room workers separate, weigh and package the final product to prepare it for shipping. Throughout the process of growing, drying and packaging the cannabis the product is carefully weighed and accounted for to ensure that every change is recorded and the information collected.
Thomas explained that there are no chemicals used at the grow facility. “It’s either a citric acid or its rosemary, cinnamon, everything is natural,” he said.
Thomas hopes that the federal government will change cannabis from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug so that further scientific study can be done utilizing grow facilities like Swell Farmacy. Right now only one or two universities have permission to do any type of research, and they grow only a few strains of the hundreds that are available.
“We need to get past the anecdotal and get into scientific fact. What is being studied is nowhere near what’s out in the private sector. We’re going to do what we’re doing here and create scientific data,” said Thomas. “We’re compiling data. We just started a new biotrack system that will allow a scientist to come in here and say, ‘Oh, here’s repetitive data that I can use.’”
Thomas also hopes Swell Farmacy can be part of a movement to set a standard for growth and research.
“If we can create an agricultural cooperative that operates under the same standards, then we can provide bulk product to pharmaceuticals,” said Thomas. His vision is that by keeping cannabis as a domestic product, grown locally, it ensures not only a better product, but more jobs for areas like Holbrook that would welcome them.