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January 2023 Grower of the Month

We had to make a name for ourselves with quality.

Our AROYA Grower of the Month series spotlights the stories of craft cultivators who inspire us with their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Every feature is a chance to celebrate growers who constantly find ways to optimize, refine, and improve their processes while also blazing new trails—and finding success—in this emerging industry.

Our January grower of the month is actually a team of cultivators, Zach Schopp and Ryan Miller from Seed of Life Labs. Together, not only do they cultivate some of the most fire tree coming out of Montana, delivering an elevated experience for customers at their four dispensaries around the east side of the state. With a new tissue culture lab in the works, they’re about to open up even more possibilities for growth, adding to their catalog of proprietary genetics, and officially opening up these flat plains to a sea of green.

 

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

AROYA: Hey Zach and Ryan! We saw you guys recently out at MJBizCon. How have y'all been since then?

ZACH SCHOPP, FOUNDER AND CEO OF SEED OF LIFE LABS: Good. Made it through the holidays barely. We're crushing right now. We're finishing up a big buildout and so we've been meeting deadlines, but it's been a lot of work. I think the 24th of this month, we're going to be done with this building. 

AROYA: Where's the new buildout?

Zach: It's convenient—it's up the street from one of our other cultivations here in Billings, too. And so they're both real close. And we can have one that warehouses Rockwool or we can hold all of our nutrients there and the other one could just pop up the way and pick it up and go back. It was a process. And I think we started it last Fall and we built it from the ground up and got it operational in six months. Got licensed, got operational. And then that was phase one. And then phase two, phase three is finishing now. So we're finally putting the pin in it. 

AROYA: Ah, big things in the works for you guys. That's amazing. Well, let’s talk about how you and Ryan got started with all of this.

Zach: Absolutely. We started Seed of Life Labs about five and a half, almost six years ago now. I was in the industry before working on the retail end and in the medical industry here and we had gone Montana had gone through a turbulent patch and the industry got shut down a little bit for a three month period and then a new law passed and we all opened back up. 

That would've been November of 2016. And that right at that time, that Winter and that Spring, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I got to start a business.’ The market's kinda reset. I saw the opportunity. At the time Montana was requiring we're vertically integrated. And we've sustained that model as well. So we are cultivators, manufacturers, and processors, as well as retail. And so that was when we were like, 'Alright. Let's hit it, all feet running.' The industry's changed over the last six years now, but yeah. Ryan and I, we've worked together actually selling appliances at Sears. And he knew I was starting this business out of the basement and was like, ‘Alright man, like you see any opportunity? Let me join!’ 

RYAN MILLER, CULTIVATION DIRECTOR AT SEED OF LIFE LABS: 'Let me know!'

AROYA: Tell us about that whole Sears relationship. How'd that start? 

Ryan: So at Sears, I'd been there for about seven years. We worked together at one point in appliances, in sales. And then I took over a manager position. And then Zach left and it was a bummer. I was losing a great employee. I knew he was going for weed. So I was jealous. 

But once one Sears started going downhill, that's where I just started out around. When we worked at Sears, I was growing weed for myself. I wouldn't go to Seattle for a while, moved to Billings and the weed was horrible. It was super expensive and the quality was very bad. 

So I had a friend who was growing in his basement and he had one of those trap door basement grows and he was producing super high quality strains from California, ones I'd never even seen in Seattle, it was just purple weed. Like no one really named anything. And so like now all of a sudden there were these names, strains that were each super unique. And I realized that the only way I was ever going to have that is if I grew it myself. 

I harvested and I got a couple pounds. I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I have enough to hold me through until the next time I harvest.' And that was like a life changing, like a liberating moment. And I think on maybe my third harvest the rules were that you could sell any of your access back to your caregiver. So I took a whole bunch of extra down to the caregiver and they bought it all from me. We're on the shelves that day. And I took that money and rented a house for my family. So that's how weed pretty much changed our lives. We went from a trailer park and nothing to renting a house and like actually being able to see a future. So that was pretty cool. 

AROYA: Yeah. So how did that relationship really start to bloom in y'all's canna-business?

Ryan: We're running things together every day. If it was my day off, Zach was watering the plants, even though he was working the front. So we just had a little dispensary up front, and it would be just the two of us trying to make the whole thing work. 

Zach: In the back and when they weren't customers there, it was getting out of the basement and we'd rented our first little, 3000-square-foot commercial place. And it was a really exciting and scary time, cause it was like, ‘Are we gonna make it, are we gonna be able to pay taxes?’ But it was cool. We were located out of town, too, where all the other dispensaries work. We had to make a name for ourselves with quality. 

We had to bring people out to us with quality. So from the beginning it's been a quality play. It has to be quality. We cannot grow product that isn't quality. And now, obviously we've got stores that are across Montana and really well located and stuff, obviously we've evolved, but in the beginning, if we weren't producing quality product, no one was making the drive out to us.

AROYA: Yeah, that's a huge challenge. How many different dispensaries and facilities do you guys have now?

Zach: Three cultivation facilities. We've got two in Billings and one in Helena. And then we have a facility in Billings. There's a retail store in the front, and then in the back, we've got a commercial kitchen lab. We've got a kind of a trim harvest department where they're doing the trimming and a big packaging room, in some office space. And then we've got stores in Glendive. And then we're opening one here in about two weeks in a town called 'Sidney.' 

AROYA: Wow. So, still scaling!  What's the scene like out there in Montana? 

Zach: It's pretty cool. It's really unique. Because we were all required to be vertical up until we went Rec in 2022. Then you could begin to just niche down and do, if you just wanted to grow or just open stores or whatever, you could have that option. It presented its challenges in the beginning, but we've had a really good time surfing the waves because we can do it all. We could extract, we could do good retail and customer service and things like that. It's just interesting; it's a pretty red state that's not too cannabis friendly at the legislative level. That's presented some challenges with locations and zoning and just last year we had to run a campaign to save Rec here in Billings. The county commissioner put it back on the ballot…Myself and a few other companies had to form an association and then a ballot issue committee and then run a whole campaign. It was all grassroots, it was all self-funded. And we ended up winning by a landslide which was really cool, but we had to save our businesses. 

These are the interesting challenges in cannabis, whether it's regulators or the way the laws are structured or just growing weed has its own headaches, so it's been an interesting landscape to operate in, but we've done a really good job of securing a foothold and really getting our brand out there. We came up out of nowhere being that we're on the east side of the state, most of the producers and operators are on the west side of the state because that's where all the mountains are. But on the east side of the state, it's not so much, it's more kind of that flat, Montana, industrial-style farming, agriculture, stuff like that. And we've come out here. And really set up shop across all of Eastern and Northern Montana. And now these guys on the west side of the state are like, ‘Wait, who are these guys?’ It's cool. We came from the background and popped onto the scene real heavy and we're just running with it. 

AROYA: That's awesome. It's like you've carved out your space over there. Yeah. They're like, ‘Oh, what's going on over here?’ 

Zach: Yeah. Now, we're because we're doing a lot of this wholesaling in a lot of their stores, they're carrying our product now and they're like, ‘How did I never hear of you guys before? This is awesome.’ 

Ryan: And I'm super proud to bring quality cannabis to Sidney, to Miles City, to have it in any places that a lot of people probably don't travel to often. And these are the underserved, and this is exactly why we do this, right? When I moved here, you couldn't find anything anywhere. It was hard to find. It's nice to be able to give that experience to people where they can just walk into a store and grab quality cannabis and have a great day, and not worry about getting ripped off or bad product.

AROYA:  Let's go into some of that. How are you guys maintaining your quality?

Ryan:  I mean, down to genetic selection and just quality control and paying attention to every little thing. Cleaning, IPM, all of this stuff should happen on this day—it has to happen. It can’t get pushed off to the next day or just not happen at all. You get bug infestations or whatever. Just routine. Strict routine. And just like, living the grow. You live, breathe, everything. It is the lifeblood. But genetic selecting, a lot of people pop 10 seeds and keep half, we may not keep any of them. Like my keeper to me is different from other people's keepers. 

Zach: Yeah. Yeah. I should add this to add to that too, just to highlight the importance that we put on finding good genetics. Our Helena garden is a pure pheno-hunt garden; that's all they're doing. All they're doing is popping seeds, running them, finding good genetics, and then sending those genetics down to Billings where our production facilities are. And we're running those through the gauntlet and really putting them to the test. And we'll have genetics that come from Helena. They're like, ‘Hey, this is a keeper. This is a good one.’ And we put it into production and it's decent weed for sure. Some people would probably really enjoy that cut, but if it doesn't check all the boxes we're looking for…next!

Ryan: And it's different too. We grow a lot of the same strains and different gardens and they come out different. One strain may do great here at our production major production facility and not so great at one of our smaller grows. So I have to pay attention to that stuff and it's sorted out accordingly.

AROYA: It's all about continuous improvement. We know about that. 

Zach: That's what it is. Yeah. Constant improvement. Never settling. Yeah. Exactly. 

AROYA: Let's talk about some of the tech you guys are using, too. 

Zach: Yeah, absolutely. In the gardens specifically we obviously use AROYA, OpenSprinkler. We use TrolMaster for our controls. What else were you using out there?

Ryan: It's pretty much OpenSprinkler, AROYA…

Zach: We're all Rockwool, I think all three gardens. We've done some other runs, but with coco and stuff like that, we used to do soil actually.

Ryan: We do love BioSafe Systems, too.

Zach: Helena is this the pheno-hunting garden, it’s a little smaller. I think they've only got about 1,800 square feet of cultivation property. They're doing 3,000 here at what we've globally dubbed 2.0—that’s 11,450 square feet.

AROYA:  That's amazing. It's very exciting stuff. What about the hardware you guys are using from AROYA. How has it helped you dial in on the quality that you guys are getting, or help you select some of your genetics?

Ryan: So before AROYA, obviously we would just water once a day, like a lot of people do. And it worked out in one of our gardens really well, and I think it was just circumstance, like it had to work and it did. But once we built our more professional main facility here, it didn't work anymore. Then we got AROYA right away and the big difference was going from crispier and product, which is way too dry. We were running crazy generative steers, just watering once a day. To weave the finished property properly and grew to what it was supposed to be. Sometimes you'll grow a strain and you're like, ‘Oh, it's just not as big as it was supposed to be.’ As soon as we started crop steering, everything was the side that it's supposed to be all the time. Which was big. So we had a gain in yield and overall quality of the finished product, and it's all just because we could see those drybacks. We know when they're drinking hard, we can adjust to it. And so the TEROS 12 and ATMOS 15 are the main ones we're using right now.

And being able to see different genetics and different strains, we can find strains that we're running for the first time. If our grow in Helena says, ‘ Yo, this is a great strain and we're running it.’ And we see that strain is a drinker or it's going to need its own kind of tailored attention, we can make those decisions from AROYA, because we've been given the tools to see what's going on inside that media. We've got the ATMOS in our dry and cure room. We've got them in all of our cultivation rooms. And we've had great results.It makes a world of a difference, especially at scale, these decisions that you need to be making are huge. It might not seem like it in the moment, but if you make the wrong decision and lose a bench or even worse, a room or something like that, because you don't have the tools to make those decisions using data. It's a big gamble. Your risk and a lot, rolling the dice like that. So being able to see what's going on and monitor it and trust it is just invaluable. 

Ryan: The way that everything's designed to be mobile, so even the climate station that is just hanging. You can just have it carabiner-clipped up and then over to your wall. If you think you're getting a bunch of like community leakage out of your room and your hallway feels sweaty, you're not sure. Grab your climate station unplugged from the wall, walking into the hall, plug it in. 

Zach: Yeah. Being able to monitor the data is an asset in and of itself, but being able to trust the sensors. It's hard to trust the hardware out there in the industry right now. And so that's an invaluable asset. 

Ryan: We use [AROYA] for tasking a lot, too. I really liked the tasking and their alerts. Once you get them dialed in, it'll tell you anytime anything's happening in that room, so that's really nice. I can also plan the week out, too. I can just task everything out for the week and it just pops up on their phone. The team can see all of the different water contents. So it empowers the employees. Everybody has access to the information and we all do our part in making sure that the plants are getting what they want.

Zach: And something else that's really nice is having it all in one wheelhouse because we've learned, you need a lot of software, but it's a pain to have to link to 14 different software platforms. And so getting them all neat and tidy into AROYA. It’s just a huge asset. 

Ryan: One thing I’ve been using it for is communication with our harvest managers. So [instead of] texting or calling each other all the time every week, she just pops into AROYA, and can see every stage of growth. 

AROYA: That probably simplifies so much for so many people. 

Zach: We have 70 employees right now and keeping those communication channels open has proved to be a hassle. And being able to just have a wheelhouse, everyone can pop in or, those who need to know can go to the data instead of having to make these calls. 

It's just a big simplifier. 

AROYA: So what is the market like out in Montana?

Zach: Yeah, that's a good question. So there was weed culture here. It was all medical and the medical scene out here was actually pretty popping, but it was mostly on that west side of the state. And there's a handful of operators out here on the east, actually quite a bit. And Billings. 

AROYA: And you’re bringing some new genetics out to the region, right?

Ryan: The popular ones are on the west side of the state.

Zach: Yeah. And I think the difference, or I guess what separates us, is the attention to detail that we put into the cultivation. We spend the extra dollar to build these state-of-the-art rooms and we really had to do a lot of research and look at what we need to be doing. Crop steering was coming out on the scene, pretty heavy a couple years back. And we just knew, we're going to have to remain competitive.

Right now the nature of the United States is each state is its own market, but and we're competing within those own markets, but really what we're trying to do, we're in this for the long haul, this is our careers and we have to be competing with California and Oregon and Arizona and all these other places where there is those facilities. There are those operators who are doing it the way we're doing it. And we need to rise to that occasion because again, this is something we're trying to do forever. Looking into the crop steering and looking into all of the intricacies within the garden, that really hadn't been explored too much at the time and are still kind of niche, I guess you could say. We landed on AROYA somehow and I honestly can't remember how we came to it, but I saw people posting their graphs on Instagram, and I'm like, ‘Man, I don't even know where I'm working…’ And so there's knowledge out there that we need to absorb, there's data that we're leaving on the table, we're not even taking advantage of. And so knowing that, when we were building this 2.0 facility last year, and then probably at the beginning of last year, we said, ‘Okay, we need to deep dive. We need to find someone who can teach us.'

And so we'd actually hired a gentleman to consult with us a bit on crop steering basics. And then he recommended us to AROYA, we hooked up with you guys and I think Seth at the time was who'd onboarded us and had a lot of good information. What's nice about AROYA, too, is your first cycle. You can know your way and say, ‘Okay, I know this is what I'm supposed to be doing,’ but in practice it's different; there's variables.

Ryan: There's just a million strategies about what worked for his plans. Exactly. And his drybacks and [other growers’] strategies, and it didn't work out for us. This has to be tailored. Not everything's the same. 

Zach: Yeah. AROYA was instrumental in walking us through our first cycle.

Ryan: Once you get it, it's really hard to imagine how we went for so long without it. Every year is winging it. 

AROYA: Since we're on the topic of how AROYA has helped you guys, do you mind sharing some increases in yields or some improvements that AROYA has helped with? 

Zach: Shoot—yield, just looking at the numbers, before we're using AROYA, really crops during it all, we were two to two and a half pounds of light, I think two and a half. Which is what we'd be like, ‘All right. That's good.’ I think our first cycle of crop steering was like 3.3 a light. We were like, ‘Oh, holy smokes. There's some results. It's real.’ We've found that I will say there is a balance between growing for yield and balancing quality. I think that there's a sweet spot that you want to hit. Now I guess we've raised the bar and if we're not hitting three per light, something's up. It's just been a huge difference. Two and a half to three alone, that's a 20% increase. 

Ryan: I travel garden to garden and if we grow certain strains at both facilities, at Billings and Helena; it's night and day. The interesting thing though, is that a lot of our strains where they get big over at our smaller facility, we water once a day or whenever they get big, we bring them over here and we put them on irrigation strategies. They get huge. But a lot of the times like the quality is exactly like our test numbers are the same. So the plant is just literally bigger. 

Zach: It's really a testament to us scaling up and we just haven't had the time to go back and rip out the old irrigation and start fresh, but it really is unique. 

AROYA: You can test strains and almost learn different strategies. That's very interesting. 

Ryan: And what I've seen is when we feed out of our other facilities, if we don't use AROYA, I've got to be really careful because of Zach was talking about. They might select one strain and say, ‘Hey, this is great,’ but it's not the way it was supposed to be grown the way it's supposed to be grown as the way we grow here with AROYA. So the plants are going to be completely different. And so it's almost a double hunt.

Zach: Because like our Helena pheno-hunting garden. It's a long story, how we ran into this garden, but we really put them to the test and it's not a super great environment. It's not like a sealed room. It's a kind of this old garden we purchased and retrofitted. And so we're going to know if the plant can survive, that it can run the gauntlet. They'll grow a plant that the quality is great, but it's a pound a light. Is that going to be what it's like when we put it into your irrigation strategies or is it going to be a whole nother plant at that point? And usually we find that it is a quite a big difference, but so far, and correct me if I'm wrong, Ryan, a lot of those genetics that we've been able to run, it's not often that we find something that we want to keep and it's still not a keeper coming out of Billings. 

Ryan: No, it's basically like I can look at it and go, ‘Okay. At the main facility with AROYA, I know this is going to be 20% bigger.’ The only thing you have to be careful about is if you have a really fat one, in your generative steer garden. It's going to blow out in your irrigation strategies gardens. So that is one thing that if it's foxtailing out or whatever, then we have to be careful. But we do know if the plant's going to perform in that super high generative steer environment that we have at our other gardens, it's absolutely going to perform when we put it into irrigation strategies. 

AROYA: How are you currently selecting which genetics you run?

Zach: That's a good question. Right now—numbers. Unfortunately like everywhere else, it's still a numbers game. We hit the numbers. So there's that, but I hate to see some of our product, like this divine gelato we grow that I love personally. It’s beautiful. It tastes great. It's super pretty. But it only will test it like 23% total cannabinoids. And so it sits on the shelf, but outside of those, the people coming in, or other vendors, they're wanting to see a lot similar to California or wherever it's going to be those purples. It's going to be something with a good nose to it. I think something that I see making a comeback, just kind of word-of-mouth, is some of those old school smells. Ryan and I are big on some of those kinds of diesels or we got this strain called Uranium. And it's like an old school trainwreck just like citrusy, gassy fuel almost. And some of that, I'm real hip to, personally. And so I think that I can see some of that making its comeback. When I hear people, when they crack open a bag or bucket. And they're like, ‘Ooh, like I haven't smelled this in so long!’ That's always a good feeling. There's something about it when you smell something you used to smoke all the time, 10 years ago, you're like, oh my God, this takes me back to where I was and I think that we'll see a resurgence of that probably across the nation quite a bit.

One of my favorite strains we produce is Wedding Sunset. It checks all the boxes and is one of the best strains we grow super, super popular. So that I think will have its place. Some of those run crosses, things like that, the white truffles and stuff we were seen, but I'd like to see, and I do believe we're going to be seeing a resurgence of those nose-heavy, stinky fuel leak strains coming back. 

Ryan: There’s a lot of quality in Montana and I think a lot of people are spoiled by numbers though. People are spoiled around here with the weed, honestly. We're in the middle of nowhere and they've got some really good weed. 

AROYA: I think that's a perfect segue into the future of y'all's canna-business and where you guys see your goals going into this year and the next few years.

Zach: Right now the name of the game for me is just opportunity costs and its real strategy. What I mean by that is, if I'm putting energy into something, I need to be putting my energy into the best path forward for the company. And we're finishing up this build here. We just turned the lights on for our last couple of rooms within this month. And so now I have to—being vertically integrated—juggle between the different departments. We scaled up the garden now we got to go scale up the lab quickly. And quarter one, this year, I'm focusing pretty heavy on the lab and retail. Something I'm really excited about, I know Ryan and I are both really excited about, we're about to begin building out our tissue culture lab. We should have that operational this quarter. We're really excited about bringing it to our gardens, just really revitalizing those genetics that we've grown to love.

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