AROYA’s Grower of the Month series is an opportunity to shine a light on a craft cultivator whose ingenuity and innovation we find inspiring. Each month we feature a grower who discovered fresh ways to scale, break new ground, or consistently produce high-quality product - true markers of success in the cannabis industry.
February’s Grower of the Month is Drew Lian, Master Grower for Carmel - the brand behind the number one craft pre-roll in Ontario, Canada. A legacy grower who started learning the craft in 2005, Drew knew change was on the horizon once Canada legalized cannabis for all adults in 2018. When he connected with Carmel’s founders and was presented with the opportunity to grow for the regulated industry, Drew leaned in. Carmel became licensed in 2019 and launched with a team of cultivators that included Drew, his brother, and a couple buddies from the legacy market. Together they set up and managed eight flower rooms before ultimately evolving into a lean, eight-member grow team responsible for a 40,000 square facility.
We sat down with Drew to discuss his journey from the underground into the legal industry, find out what keeps him up at night - and what was the best piece of advice he’s ever gotten - and get the scoop on how crop-steering has changed him as a grower. And before settling in to read this illuminating interview, be sure to visit Carmel’s website and give them a follow on Instagram.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
AROYA: Why are data and transparency so crucial for your operation?
DREW LIAN, MASTER GROWER WITH CARMEL: You can only manage what you can see. So previously, your experience was what guided you, but now you literally have x-ray vision into your media. We're able to manage everything that's important now, like water content, EC, substrate temperature - obviously the AROYA® platform allows us to x-ray vision into our media, and allows us to crop steer. So we're super excited and grateful to have your tool at our disposal. Obviously, there's other meters on the market which we had experience with and we heard a lot about AROYA and we definitely wanted to see what it was all about. And now that we have, we're achieving great results.
AROYA: What was one of your major selling points when deciding to get AROYA?
DREW: Honestly, we're a startup so obviously every dollar counts. So the previous company that we were with, the sensors were roughly $1,500. They were three times the price that AROYA was. So the ability to gather more sensors - to have three sensors for every one - that was the biggest reason that we contacted you guys, that price point for sure. Everything else was just a bonus.
AROYA provides you with way more than the sensors, which we found out after the fact, but our major concern as a facility was we already had [climate control system] Damatex running, so there was a little bit of overlap with AROYA’s environmental controls. So at first, we really just wanted to crop steer and use your sensors.
AROYA: What on the horizon for Carmel in 2022?
DREW: We're definitely trying to check off some milestones. Last year's goal we hit Christmas Eve, Christmas Day - we got a pretty serious COA (Certificate of Analysis). Up here in Canada the whole entire business revolves around COAs. It's pretty sad actually, everybody just walks into the store asking for the highest THC. So right now we're kind of handcuffed with the highest potency possible, but one of our goals last year was to hit 30%, and we finally did with seven days to spare in the year. Our flagship product is Animal Face and it was consistently testing at 28% as you know, you were the first person I called when I got that result. We skipped 29% and we went right to 30% so I was thrilled, I was over the moon! It was really exciting because we've run that cultivar for two years. We're waiting to get it back from tissue culture and unfortunately that takes a lot of time. But even without getting rejuvenated, just running AROYA we were able to push it to its limit and our most recent result was 30%.
So we're definitely seeing the pros of being able to manage your data and steer, even crop steering with your method. Crop steering isn't an AROYA thing per se but you guys have your own version of crop steering, which - the first time I think you actually explained it to me, I was like, "Wait, what? You want me to do what? I'm not sure my plants are going to live through that!" That's where we started and we've come a long way.
It's funny, a lot of guys call me the graph guy. They just laugh because I show up with a laptop and I'm looking at graphs, but I mean, I'm super OCD with the graphs. I want to make sure that they all look proper, but day-to-day it's just hanging out doing your passion. It doesn't even really feel like work because you're surrounded by plants, you're pheno hunting, you're crop steering and that's it.
AROYA: What's the best piece of cultivation advice you ever received?
DREW: KISS is the number one thing: Keep it simple, stupid. I laugh when I see people's setups or their methods or their strategies, and I'm just blown away. I'm like, "Why do you make your life so complicated?" I keep my stuff very, very simple. Like my nutrients are simple, there's no additives. My techniques are day one lollipop, day 21 lollipop, just a little bit of a de-leaf, but yeah, nothing crazy.
AROYA: What's something you've done that helped your success that other growers should know about?
DREW: Honestly, you need a solid team - you can't do anything without a solid team. Keep it simple, obviously. The quicker you can manage data, the better off you'll be from a cost perspective and a success perspective. It's all tied in: you're wasting less nutrients, you're wasting less time, you're wasting less labor. When you're rocking the AROYA sensors, you've already saved yourself a lot of nutrients and you're going to get the best yield possible—you're gonna push the plants the best. Twenty [percent THC] used to be what you had to hit, then it became 23, and now 26 is the new 20. If you have something that is on the cusp - something pretty that yields well, but it’s testing 25%- and you crop steer, you could bump it 2%. Two percent is what I've gained, so I have no problem saying if you crop steer and push your plant to the full potential you probably could see a 2% bump from that cultivar.
AROYA: Nice, it’s great to know your THC percentages have gone up. How has the system changed your cultivation practices?
DREW: As far as having the AROYA system in place, it's helped a lot because me and the flower manager are able to communicate a lot better through using notes. So Billy, our flower manager, he's learning how to crop steer now. By using the platform, if he was in that morning and I show up in the afternoon, I can see the notes and adjustments he's already made for the day. So that's really also helped us a lot.
AROYA: What metrics matter the most to you? What keeps you up at night?
DREW: Those COAs make it real hard to sleep, because you'll see a banger and you're like, “Man, this thing is so pretty, and I'm either going to love it or hate it based on this COA when it comes”. It's sad because it takes a lot of the fun out of it - in the legacy market, if something was pretty and it slapped, you had a winner. It was all bag appeal and whatnot. But the COAs really determine whether you're going to feast or famine, whether it's a wedding or a funeral. So knowing that I have this little 2% buffer, that's huge for us. Right now we're trying to grow as much Animal Face as possible, so that's the one that matters the most, but the difference of being a 28 or having a three in front of it, the velocity of our product is so much faster. At 28 it moves fast, but at 30 it breaks the internet for us. So it makes me sleep easier at night, that's for sure. We just focus on pushing that plant as hard as we can.
If you guys have AROYA and are not booking once a week, you are sleeping because you have the opportunity to have [AROYA Client Success Team Member] George or one of his team members at your disposal to answer every one of your questions and review your graphs. When we first started I was like, "Yeah, I'll book you. I'll set up an appointment whenever." But then when I found out that I could book you whenever I wanted, I just hit your schedule every Friday for three months. So yeah, that definitely helped, but I'm looking forward to getting into learning all the other features that AROYA offers, like the Kiosk.
AROYA: How have AROYA’s remote abilities made your life easier?
DREW: I was in Mexico, gone for a whole week and I still have the graphs in my pocket. I can just pull out my phone, check in on my graphs. And once you've been using the system for a long time, you're looking at your pattern - you don't even have to really see numbers anymore because you're that cued into the design of what stage you're at, what it should look like. Here we call it “the Bart Simpson” when you're doing the vegetative bulking - my flower manager came up with that. And now in generative ripening or early generative, because our facility dries back so hard, we had to implement an extra shot at the end of the day - we call that one “the Camel”. So, we get that dry back during the day, then right before the end of the day we'll hit it again so we get that night dry back.
Being able to access remotely and at a glance from your phone is key. I hadn't had a vacation in three years, and now it doesn't bother me to go on vacation because I can see what is happening.
AROYA: What's the legalization situation like in Ontario, Canada?
DREW: It's crazy. Canada legalized completely, so there's not a portion of Canada that's not legal. All us black market growers were like, "Yeah, yeah look at California, look at Colorado - we're going to be still making money 20 years later with the black market." But what we noticed right away is, no provinces are like, “This guy here is illegal, but this guy's legal, so we're just going to shoot to move over next door”—that doesn't happen here. There's stores on every corner, which is convenient for the consumer but inconvenient for the black market, so a lot of the black market sales died immediately. Quads you used to get Can$2,800 for dropped to Can$2K - Can$2K now is like Can$1,200. The price just plummeted, so a lot of shops have shut down, a lot of black market spots - it just doesn't make sense anymore. Which is great because being in the legal market now, you know we're selling a lot of legal weed and legal weed doesn't have to suck anymore. And now I feel we challenged a lot of legal suppliers to step their game up and make it so it's fun again, like the black market where you're trying to compete to have the best product.
AROYA: What was it like for you to transition out of the illicit market and into the regulated industry?
DREW: It was the end of a dynasty; it was sad. You gotta get permission to do everything: “I want to pop seeds - oh, let me fill out some forms for that. Let's move this over into this room real quick—oh, we gotta fill out paperwork to transplant into that room.” So a lot more paperwork in the legal market. The transition out of the black market when nobody's buying your gear anymore, you don't want to spend that power bill, you want to sleep better at night. It was lucky that we were able to at least bet on both - do a little bit of legal and do a little bit of illegal - and transition directly to fully legal.
AROYA: What advice do you have for people looking to change their business model?
DREW: I think it's way easier in the United States, as far as getting legal. I'll answer that in two parts. So here in Canada, there's two levels of being legal. One is the full license producer license, which is really hard to get. You're not getting that unless you have a couple mill to play with. They want you to have a crazy amount of security and processes in place which makes it very unaffordable for the average guy to jump into. Because the black market was still thriving, they introduced this smaller license called the micro license, but the micro license only allows you to produce 2,000 square feet of flower, mother, and clone. You're really restricted to the square footage that you can operate in.
The good news is it’s a lot easier for the smaller guys to get legal, because most of them were growing in thousands of square feet. They already had all that equipment, so they just had to go through their process of getting their site approved. In the United States, from what I understand, you guys just basically have to test your product, your product has to pass its lab results, and you just have to pay tax per plant, I believe. So it seems like if you're a black market guy and you're willing to pay tax and get your stuff tested, you're in business. Whereas in Canada, you have to have your facility set up to a certain standard and have Health Canada sign off on giving you a license. If guys in Canada are doing it with all those hoops, guys in the US should be grateful that it's not that hard.
AROYA: How is your facility set up?
DREW: We have 40,000 square feet of building space. Twenty thousand of it is post-harvest for processing, packaging, trimming, drying. We keep our mother room and our propagation room indoors. We have 20,000 square feet under the greenhouse, which we basically run full indoor lighting and we use the sun as supplemental. So a lot of the strains that we run, we're getting ridiculous terps. We were running Mac for a while and we're hitting 5-6% terps, and people are like, "Yo, how are you hitting these crazy numbers?" Well, we're running full artificial lighting, but we are getting the full spectrum from the sun. So hybrid greenhouse definitely has its pros and its cons. Indoors, you just set it and forget it, you have a perfect day every day for the most part as long as your equipment is speced correctly. Even here in the greenhouse, your summer months are hotter than your winter months, your humidity is really bad in the winter. So if you want to grow and you want to go on expert mode, go in a hybrid greenhouse and you'll test your skills.
Our facility was already existing with Damatex - it’s a killer system for large facilities. They just started offering a micro system, so if you're a small 2,000 square foot micro facility you can also participate. But if I was starting a new business and we didn't have anything starting out. I've seen your pricing, AROYA would've been the most cost-effective solution to get data into my facility. So knowing that now, anybody setting up a new facility, you don't need a crazy expensive system. You can get an all-in-one system where everything's going to be displayed on one platform. That's one thing: even though I have Damatex, I flip between the two platforms: “Oh, why am I getting this water content? Why am I getting this temperature in my substrate?”, then I flip back to Damatex and see what my environment is based on that platform. However, if you are brand new and you are setting up, you would be able to get AROYA's climate, environmental monitoring system and it would all just be on the same platform, which would be pretty handy.
AROYA: How many TEROS 12 substrate sensors are you running?
DREW: We're running one per bench. Eventually we're going to step up to two per bench, but we're having great success with only one. So we have eight grow rooms, four per bench - we're at 32 sensors. The way I run it is, since there's four benches, I'll stagger each sensor on each bench slightly in different quadrants. That way I also know the front of the room, middle of the room, and the back of the room in terms of substrate temperature. Because our benches are slanted I'm able to see, okay, bench four is at the back of the room, that's where the drains are so if that water content's higher I know why. Being a startup, money was tight - we came to you guys, we got four sensors per room first, and once this year's money comes in we're probably going to hit the re-up.
AROYA: What SOPs do you follow when choosing the placement of your TEROS 12 sensors?
DREW: We follow you guys' guidelines. You guys provide a really awesome placement tool. So everybody is running different media—right now, we currently run the 6 x 6 Hugos. We're running trials starting next week of D10s on multi-slabs, so we're trying to get our water table more horizontal. For the Hugo we’re using, it's pretty much an inch off of the table where you guys’ tool asks us to put the sensor. You guys also say to be consistent - if you're going to put the sensor in the block, make sure it's always on the same side of the block, the whole room. To ensure that you're getting a proper EC reading, perhaps you might want to keep it on the backside facing the drain. Or for me, sometimes I'm more concerned with water content so I'll have it on the side facing opposite of the drain, just so I know that my water content is being protected and safer - because I'm in a hybrid greenhouse, my environment's not the same every day. So more often than not, I'm protecting my water content because I'm more interested in that than I am the EC. The EC, I'm always building it up and I know plus or minus my EC is going to be there, but for the most part we just follow you guys' guidelines for placement.
AROYA: What's your main resource for learning about crop steering?
DREW: Every Friday I have my sensei, George [from AROYA]. Sometimes our calls are 15 minutes if it's a soft week, or sometimes I take the full hour. We dive in, I show abnormal behavior in my graphs and we talk about it. I show things that I'm not satisfied with on the graph and you help me understand if it's dropping, how to build it back up. We create new strategies, especially in rooms that are behaving differently. If you have eight rooms, none of them behave the same, and even in an indoor facility it's very similar - they don't all behave the same.
Also there is a lot of content always coming through my email, there's always podcasts available. There's you guys' resources on YouTube—there's a good one on sensor placement—the resource guide, and the cheat sheet you created for me was a game changer. But when you first set up your AROYA system there is a resource that comes with it which is basically like Cliff’s Notes or “Crop Steering For Dummies”. It's basically all laid out, like this is what crop steering is all about, this is why we do it, and then it discusses AROYA strategies which are different than a lot of other competitors’ strategies.
AROYA: Have you needed to reach out to us for any technical support?
DREW: Out of 32 sensors, I've had one sensor that just for whatever reason wouldn't turn on. I'm in Canada, I got the sensor in two days with a return label to send the other sensor back to you guys. So I guess you guys could check out what went wrong with it, but customer support's sick, I definitely have nothing negative to say about customer support.
AROYA: Sweet. You’ve been saying a lot of nice things about AROYA. What other brands and partners would you credit for your success?
DREW: Our system's pretty straightforward. We use Fluence lighting. The homies at Fluence, they crush it, they give us so much support. We're always monitoring our lights—Apogee’s the one we got. We run Grodan Hugos - they provide great technical support for their substrate. And our food, we use General Hydroponics FloraPro. You don't have to be crazy fancy with your nutrients. Some bags cost like $300 - I'm like, what are you guys doing? All our plants are always healthy and it's very affordable, so if you're trying to grow on a large scale, definitely shoot them a call.
I'm not sponsored by any of these guys, I wish I was! Any of these guys listening, if you guys want to sponsor us, we definitely could use it. We're a little startup company.
AROYA: Heck yeah, man. Well, those are our questions. Anything else you want to say?
DREW: Honestly, I'm very grateful I called you. [George was] the first guy I called once we got that 30+ COA. Your product speaks for itself. I'm grateful that I've had you mentor me on crop steering, I'm grateful for the AROYA platform and the products. When you've been doing something for 15 years you get into habits, you get into your own set way. Being open to new techniques makes you a better grower, you know? So I think I've gotten to be a better grower using this platform, and taken advantage of all your time. That's what's up, I really appreciate you guys!
AROYA: Heck yeah, Drew, we appreciate kind words!
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