June 2021 Grower of the Month

Crop steering: it's not the future, it's the present.

Every month, we like to highlight cultivators who are really getting it done in a big way. Few are getting it done in a bigger way than Nick Denney at Holistic Industries. As a regional cultivation manager, Nick’s instrumental in leading and managing grow operations across multiple states, in multiple grow environments.

And he’s got some serious chops. Nick holds a Masters degree in Agronomy from the University of Florida, and has been getting his hands dirty in organic commercial agriculture since before he even finished undergrad. His deep plant knowledge, can-do spirit, and his willingness to push the boundaries of what’s possible keep him at the vanguard of the industry.

This month, we were thrilled to chat with him and talk about his history, his favorite strains, his work managing a multi-state cultivation operation, and jaw-dropping expansion and retrofitting plans.

Read through the Q&A below, and remember to hit up Holistic Industries on IG.

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

AROYA: Hello! Today, we're fortunate to have Nick Denney from Holistic Industries with us. Nick, thanks for joining us today. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got going in the business and why you're so passionate about what you're doing?

Nick Denney, Regional Cultivation Manager, Holistic Industries: Yeah, absolutely. So I started gardening back in college. I was looking for a fun hobby to pass the time. I started growing fruits and veggies in our backyard with a good friend that kind of led me down a rabbit hole of saying, “Hey, I really love growing plants and I want to do this as a career. So I started working with a certified organic farm in Tallahassee, Florida, where I was doing my undergrad.

That carried me through till the end of school, when I eventually took a greenhouse manager job down in South Florida in Palm Beach County, where I'm originally from. We were doing all sorts of leafy greens and vine crops. We had some shade houses outside. We even had like a half acre or so of blackberries. So I got to get my hands on all different sorts of food crops. I did that for about five years.

During that time, I went back to school to get my Masters in Agronomy at the University of Florida. I also worked at a small farm selling really niche vegetables, edible flowers, and microgreens, to chefs in South Florida. Also, I got married. My wife wanted to start looking at real estate opportunities for her career.

I was also really interested in cannabis, I've been smoking since I was a teenager and just never had an opportunity to grow it commercially. Florida was just getting off the ground at the time, as well as Maryland. So we identified the [Delmarva] area as a good place to move. When we did, I found Holistic Industries … and here I am several years later.

It's been a crazy ride. Never had this much fun at work ever. Every day is just really, really exciting. Always something new, different challenges, a lot of problem-solving, which I really enjoy.

AROYA: Very cool. I think all that contributes to the great work you're doing there. You kind of talked about challenges: It's interesting how the last couple of years in the industry are kind of booming and especially with COVID over the last year, life’s been a little more different then we're used to. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what a day in the life of Holistic was like maybe two years ago and then maybe a year ago.

Nick: Sure. Two years ago, when I started with the company, I started as Assistant Cultivation Manager at our Maryland facility. About a year and a half after that I became Cultivation Manager. For about a year now, I've been in this more regional role, so my responsibility that really evolved over time. It used to be problem solving and management at a more granular level at the facility.

Now, as we're expanding to different states and I'm more at a bird's eye view--looking at the facilities and making sure the growers have everything they need to succeed. Obviously crop steering is a huge part of that. Over the course of my day, I look at all the equipment designed for new builds, retrofits of current builds, strategy and executing on that strategy. It’s my job to make sure we can put out the best quality and do it efficiently. It’s been crazy to see the growth. When I started with holistic, I think we had like less than 40 employees and now it's somewhere over 500, so it’s quite different right now.

AROYA: That’s great. That kind of leads us to our next question: what's on deck for Holistic in the coming year?

Nick: A lot. Our next facility is going to open in Michigan, hopefully in late July or early August. Soon after that, we’re opening up at the Big Grove in Kansas city. Right after that, West Virginia, and then in Los Angeles, we're going to open an indoor facility there.

We also just launched the Jerry Garcia, the Garcia-handpicked cannabis brand on the east coast. It had launched from the west coast, maybe five, six months ago, but within the last month we launched it in Massachusetts as well as Maryland. So we’re getting that brand off the ground, and picking unique varieties to fit into that brand. Again, I want to make sure we're executing to provide really high quality, really good tasting cannabis to people. So that’s a big one.

Also, we're retrofitting all of our facilities to use LEDs. I’m currently at one of our flower rooms in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania was one of our first facilities to adopt LEDs. Today at our facility in Massachusetts, we just finished turning on the rest of our LEDs. Then we’ll bring them to Maryland, DC and then all the future builds.

So that's been quite a transition for us: learning to adjust the set points and the equipment to really keep up with the physiology of the plant, because we're really noticing the growth rates, the consumption of minerals and the substrate assumption of water. The substrate is all different under LEDs, especially. We've almost tripled our light intensity from HBS. It's quite a bit different and we definitely have a lot more control to steer the plants when they have that much light.

AROYA: Absolutely. Well, it sounds like some of your upgraded implementations are going well for y'all ... that's exciting stuff! Are there any specific gear or brands that you're excited about using?

Nick: So I don't think I've ever gotten a piece of advice from an individual or a single piece of advice that really stuck with me, but what really changed my perspective on growing in controlled environments was the book Plant Empowerment. That really shifted everything for me. I think I read it maybe a year and a half, or two years ago. I would read the chapters four or five, or six times over. Not only because it was a little bit difficult to grasp at first, but because once I did grasp it, I couldn't believe that I didn't understand it that way to begin with.

Cultivation is all about balancing the plant. The water is similar in energy and it played perfectly into us getting AROYA® and really beginning to steer this crop effectively.

I definitely recommend that book to anyone who’s growing: not just indoors, either, it's probably more useful for greenhouses to be honest, but a lot of the concepts can be applied indoors. It's extremely educational; it reads like a textbook. So [laughs] if you need some help sleeping at night, open that up and read it. If you can get through it, it's really, really useful information.

AROYA: Yeah. It gives you the whole night to dream about how you can apply that stuff in that book.

Nick: I mean it kind of varies in the beginning. The first couple of weeks we've got to have a little bit higher dry-backs just so we can kind of stack the EC and get the nose, and be a little bit closer and be able to push those little bit bigger buds. Then once we're getting a little bit further into flower, like day 28 (give or take) we're going to start bringing those dry-backs down a little bit less further, just so we can start getting that water content a little bit higher. We might increase it daily. It could be weekly. Just really depends on how much these plants are raging. They can get water anywhere from five to 20 times a day.

AROYA: Nice. Now you're managing a greenhouse location and an indoor location: how many rooms in your indoor location are you managing right now? How many are at your greenhouse? I know you're expanding right now, as well. But, what are you currently managing day to day with the platform?

Nick: Yeah, very powerful. You have to order it from Europe. It's a little expensive, but it's totally worth it.

AROYA: Very cool. What's your favorite strain to grow?

Nick: Oh, that’s like picking my favorite child. We have a lot, and strain hunting is my favorite part of the job. We've done a lot of that and found some really special stuff. My favorite is probably White Mac by Swamp Boys. I picked those seeds up at the Emerald Cup in late 2019, and it's the only pheno hunt I've ever run where I called it before we even harvested. I called it like a week before that. I just had them kill off the stock for all the other phenos because this one just stood out like love at first sight. It has everything you want: the yield, the smells, the bag appeal, the performance. It's easy to grow, although it doesn't stretch as much as I wish it would. But through steering we can manipulate height, internode, and spacing. It’s just an overall pleasure to grow … and I love swamp boys. Anything like that is usually full fire.

Probably right behind that strain, I love Florida Kush from Jungle Boys. That one, again, is just super easy to grow, and throws down the weight. The quality is amazing. The smells just check off every single box. We've got plenty of others in our stable that can compete, but those two especially stand out.

AROYA: Love it. That's it sounds like, with some crop-string techniques, you can get exactly the kind of plant that you want out of there.

Nick: Yeah. If it's not stretching, or if it doesn't like to stretch, we can push it to stretch. My preference is more controlled plants that like the stretch, and we can just keep them more stout. We can do that even more over time with our data collection. We can observe the traits and growth habits of these plants, and just refine our process over time.

AROYA: Very cool, man. I think I remember meeting you a couple of years ago down at MJ Biz Con and that was really when things were first starting to kick off here at AROYA. How long have you been using the platform?

Nick: I think we were one of the early adopters ... it's a funny story, actually. I was looking into substrate sensors and I really wanted to control that, or at least observe what was going on, because at the time we were just able to spot check, which is really just a snapshot of what's going on. We wanted a more robust picture.

So I had actually reached out to METER Group [parent company of AROYA] because a professor at the University of Maryland mentioned the TEROS 12 sensors to me. I left a message and then got on a flight and went to the Emerald Cup. So I was waiting in line and I got to chatting with someone who mentioned AROYA, and said their goal for their clients was $70-$80K per square foot, blah, blah, blah. I took a note and honestly forgot about it.

But I came back, went back to work, got a call back from METER Group. They said, “Hey, we've got these sensors, but we also have this platform that we're launching. Would you want to do a demo?”

So I did the demo and I realized: this is exactly what we need. So we started piloting it in Maryland, maybe around January 2020. Once we proved that concept, we rolled it out to all of our facilities.

AROYA: Awesome, man. How has applying the data from AROYA® changed your cultivation practices?

Nick: So we were already pretty data-focused before AROYA, but this gave us even more immediate feedback. We would have weekly walkthroughs. Our growers would go through and have plant scoring metrics, spot checking for substrate, EC, temperature, water content, and pH. Then we would compile those into reports and base our decisions off those. But it wasn't continuous. So if something happened when we weren't taking a reading or something happened three days before, and then we corrected it without even knowing it, we wouldn't know that.

With AROYA, it's really changed. What we thought was a heavy plant or a light bag might not have been so. Now we know what plants can handle in different conditions. That all really ties back to the proper hydration, and AROYA makes it easy to know all that. So yeah, we're doing things now that we probably would never have done before.

For example, our substrate EC is going as high as it does now. We were put onto that by your team and we started applying. When I first heard it, I honestly questioned what we got ourselves into. These were substrate EC values that I was never comfortable using before. But now if it's below those values, I get worried that we're not getting the most out of the crop. Also, obviously utilizing dry-backs and cracking all that. But I'd say the straight EC is what really stood out to us.

Before, we focused a lot on the input ISI coming out of our grippers. Of course, like we're still paying attention to that, and we manipulate it throughout the crop cycle depending on the variety that we're running. But more so now, BDC is a means to an end, to get the substrate ISI correct and within the range that we'd want. So that's really what stood out to me, that’s the biggest difference with what we're doing for now.

AROYA: Very cool. We're so excited. That's working out for you. How's the system changed the way that your staff works?

Nick: So, we like to look for people to join our staff who are really passionate about this crop and growing plants in general. What I've noticed is everyone just seems more involved. Everyone's speaking out about the data they want to know, and about what's happening week to week. We're getting more people taking pictures and logging that into the harvest groups.

Then there's the potassium management portion of this, which I think is maybe the most overlooked component of the AROYA platform. We use it to not just hold each other accountable, but to track things and look back and say, “Hey, we could've done that differently.”

It's just like a journal. I used to just write things down [by hand] throughout a cycle, or throughout a season. Now it's just all much easier ... right in front of us and at our fingertips. And we can look back at all of it in a year or two.

And you know, we can also use AROYA to hold people accountable, and make sure we're getting all of our tasks done within the day or the week. It just keeps things more organized and keeps the team really engaged.

AROYA: That’s so awesome. As a multi-state operator, the way that you manage a number of cultivation facilities across the country, it's cool that you can use that data remotely. You can work with your teams from anywhere. Do you think that's been a big, big player in your ability to be effective in your position at Holistic?

Nick: Absolutely. Right now I can log in and see what's going on in any state without having to micromanage. So when we're first teaching the growers about how to crop steer, I don't necessarily micromanage, but I'm in their grass every day talking to them and giving feedback. Even if you apply all the same systems from one state to another, there's always going to be some variation. There is variation in the building insulation, and even down to the regulations in each state.

What’s great is I can be anywhere. Right now I'm in Pennsylvania, but I can look into Massachusetts, DC, Maryland, and see what's going on. I get real-time alerts, but I'll also have weekly calls with our growers in each state to review the graphs and find out if maybe they tried something different that they didn't want to show me.

A lot of this just goes back to the crop’s hydration. Once we can establish the fundamentals, I'll kind of back off. I trust our growers ... they're all incredibly talented and smart, but we use AROYA as a way to provide feedback to each other, and just to learn more about the crop, because there's always a lot more to learn. Not just for us here, but I think for the industry as a whole. I still don't think we've unlocked the full potential of this crop yet.

AROYA: Right on, man. It sounds like as a team leader, you're doing a fantastic job working with everybody, interpreting that data, making good decisions, and learning from this whole experience.

Nick: Yeah, I'm very, very fortunate to be in a position like this, with a company like Holistic, and work with all the growers that I work with. I can't do this without them. So, I’ve got to give them a big shout out; they're working day and night on this stuff. I think if you ask all of them: “What's one of the major contributors to their success over the last year or two,” they would say “AROYA.” It's hard to imagine how we were growing before. This is what we all talked about.

AROYA: Amazing, thank you. Well, I won't take up your whole day. We really appreciate you spending this chunk of time chatting with us and sharing your success with the world.

Nick: Absolutely. Crop steering ... It's not the future; it's the present. So however all you growers need to do it, get on it and unlock the potential of this plant.

Already found success using AROYA?

Send your story to kaisha-dyan.mcmillan@metergroup.com for a chance to be featured as a future Grower of the Month!

Grower of the month17 min read time

Our Guiding Philosophy is “Cannabis for Good”

September 2021 Grower of the Month

Our conversation with Jigar Patel, Co-Founder and CEO of NorCal Cannabis Company.

Grower of the month10 min read time

I'm your biggest advocate here, like a walking commercial.

August 2021 Grower of the Month

Our conversation with Anna Wiley, CEO of CAM.