June 2023 Grower of the Month

AROYA coming to the scene in Sacramento really helps elevate the craft here.

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 new ways to optimize, refine, and improve their processes while also blazing new trails โ€“ and finding success โ€“ in this emerging industry.
 

This month we had the rare treat of joining our Client Success team for a facility visit and conducting our profile interview in person! North Country Pharms has been cultivating fire in Sacramentoโ€™s red-hot cannabis scene for the last 10 years. For Director of Cultivation Christopher Platz, getting involved from the start also marked the beginning of a decade-long career. Then last year, when Jacob Nelsonโ€™s AROYA expertise with another company got him poached by North Country Pharms, Christopher was ready with an open mind and an eagerness to learn. 
 

In the year since they started seeing inside the root zone, the 2022 Golden Bear winner has seen higher yields, consistent and repeatable quality, and a host of operational improvements spanning the nearly 2000 feet of canopy in each of their grow rooms. And as we learned during our visit, theyโ€™re just getting started. Learn more about North Country Pharms through their Instagram and website.

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

 

AROYA: What brought you to North Country Pharms? How did you get started with the company?


Christopher Platz, Director of Cultivation: I kind of helped open the doors to a brand, was working for the company for almost 10 years. I just got in through a friend, wanted to get outta construction, and started growing with a small two-man crew. We started growing in a really small spot. It was all about the collective before recreational use, and I just really wanted to help out with that whole thing. I wasn't too happy working in construction and so I just ended up getting pulled into that. And then all of a sudden it was like, Hey, we need a brand. So we started the brand and just kept moving forward. Now we're up to where we are now, 10 years later and five times the size.
 

AROYA: What got you into cultivation to begin with?


Christopher: Got tired of buying it. Grew up on a small ranch, my family always gardened and a green thumb was somewhat natural to me. I figured why not grow my own crop, and just started from there.
 

AROYA: How old were you when you first started growing? 
 

Christopher: Seventeen.
 

AROYA: Oh my gosh, how did it go? What was the experience like?
 

Christopher: Looking back? I was so uninformed and just, you know, definitely green behind the ears, growing out of five-gallon buckets and hiding it in my parents' back property. Just kept learning and getting better at it, talking to friends and you know, just kind of networking then yeah, kept it going.


AROYA: Amazing. And then how about you Jacob, how'd you get involved with the North Country Pharms? 


Jacob: I started with North Country Pharms a year ago. Ben [Head of Sales for North Country Pharms] recruited me from a previous company that I started at probably four, five years ago now. Really, my purpose here was to help implement AROYA, crop steering strategies, irrigation strategies, and help bring what I learned through the consultants over at AROYA here to North Country Pharms.


AROYA: What's your background in cultivation?


Jacob: It grew outta necessity. We had a small team up in Mount Shasta and it was not necessarily efficient. If I see inefficiency, I gotta fix it. So I just started getting involved, overstepping boundaries, stepping on people's toes, learning as much as I could. And the next thing I knew I was running the company. 


AROYA: So operational efficiency is your love language, got it! Coming back to you Christopher, if you could grow just one strain, what would it be and why?


Christopher: Oh, that's so tough.I've fallen in love with a lot of strains over the years. If I could go back to just one, probably have to be Skunk One. Just the funk out of it. It was fun to grow and I got a really good high out of it as far as the effect I would get from smoking it. It's probably been my number one favorite and it's a long-gone strain that nobody really has anymore. Super resistant, you can grow it inside or outside. It was just a hell of a plant. That and maybe Afghan Goo, because I love the yields I used to get off of that one; but stuff that's all older. Newer stuff โ€“ now if I was gonna grow something new, it'd probably have to be our company's Tractor Gas. just cuz it's a good OG, good gas, and you just don't see it too much anymore.


AROYA: Getting a feel for what youโ€™re into! So talk to us about this region, Sacramento. It is on the map as far as cannabis cultivation goes โ€“ can you tell me a little bit about your experience working in this area? 

What is the cannabis culture like?


Jacob: Yeah, I mean, the culture's great. Honestly, I've learned 75% of what I learned from networking here in Sacramento. We all know Sergio Picazo, he's a huge networker. He's a good buddy, he throws these Cultivator Connect events. It's really about bringing the community together. There's a few outliers, people that don't want to share their intellectual property. But for the most part, it has the feel that we're all in it together, all trying to grow and succeed. There's a lot of good friendly competition, especially with the increase in advances in technology and cultivation practices. We're all watching each other, weโ€™re all hearing the same stuff. So I know that AROYA coming to the scene in Sacramento really helps elevate the craft here.


AROYA: Amazing! Okay, we're gonna get back to that in a minute. But first, we wanna hear about your philosophies on growing. You've been doing this a long time, Christopher โ€“ what keeps the cultivation experience cool, fun, and interesting for you?


Christopher: Just the education, the learning part. I mean, from years ago, the technology that we had โ€“ the studies, the data โ€“ from cultivating cannabis was a couple of books. And then word of mouth between some guys that maybe been doing it for a long time, and being able to carry on and keep going, learning new stuff. Seeing the expansion of legalization has allowed the door to open up for even more people, more technology to really come into play. Something that you might have thought was the way to go, it's like wow, I'm hurting myself or I could do better here. โ€˜Cuz that's always the thing with any kind of farming, is how can I do it better? And it seems like there's a never-ending list and timeframe of getting to that point. Something's always coming out, something's gonna change the whole game up, and I think that's very exciting.


AROYA: When you were talking about Skunk One you mentioned how fun it was to grow โ€“ what was fun about that? What do you consider fun about cultivation?


Christopher: Well back then, I think it was just kind of fun because it was taboo. It was hiding it from a lot of people, not letting anybody know what I was really doing, keeping a close circle. And then, just knowing that it was a widely known strain, and being able to grow it so well that people really appreciated the work that I put into it, I think is probably what I enjoyed the most out of it.


AROYA: You were working in construction before you entered into cannabis professionally. How about you, 

Jacob? What were you doing before you got into the cannabis scene?


Jacob: I worked as an EMT. I was moving from North Carolina. That's actually what introduced me to cannabis, โ€˜cuz North Carolina is very illegal. I grew up in a small conservative town, had conservative friends. You know, you hear all about the evils of the devil's lettuce. So I was skeptical, I lived most of my life in fear of this plant, not really understanding. And as I was leaving one of my two jobs, my buddy gave me a joint for my trip, for my drive across the states to California. I sparked it up on the way and it kind of changed everything. Ended up in Mount Shasta trimming and yeah, that was it.


AROYA: Wow, that one joint took you on a whole other trajectory! Very cool. So let's talk about where we're at right now. Tell us about your facility. 


Jacob: So, we have six rooms โ€“ soon to be eight rooms โ€“ pretty much half-and-half split with HPS lights and LED lights. 


Christopher: We run about 2000 square foot rooms, roughly 1500-1800 feet of canopy. Each room's about 60 lights. There's a couple of rooms that are a little bit less, but for the most part, there's 60 lighters. And we have a hand mix nutrient system here and everything's on automated irrigation, which actually we can't wait to get running on AROYA here. It's quite a large facility, but not too big so we can try to tame this monster every day. It's a good crew, we got about 15 people here that work all the way from cultivation through marketing and production.


AROYA: That's a pretty lean team! 


Christopher: Yep, we try to keep it small. Everybody's accountable and everybody here is passionate about working here and being in cannabis, so we all make it work.


Jacob: I feel like this is one of the only facilities that I've been to where the majority of the staff have been here 2-5 years each. Platz has been here 10 years. But for the most part, there's very low turnover. It's a good place to work.


AROYA: And how long have you been in this building?


Jacob: Four years. 


AROYA: So you spoke a little bit about the furthering of education and new technology in the industry. Let's talk about data and transparency โ€“ why are they important to your operation? 


Christopher: I'd say the most important thing is collecting the data, and there's only two ways of going about it. That's going and doing it by hand, taking a long time in every room getting different measurements: what kind of water content, what your runoff ECโ€™s gonna be, what EC feed you have going into the plants, what's your temperature in the room, what's your light actually at so that way you can adjust your EC, temperature, CO2 to make them work hard together. 

It's either doing it by hand or if you can, you get the sensors. If you have the sensors and an amazing platform like AROYA, everything ties into itself. I can show up to work in the morning and the first thing I do is fire up the computer and start checking the graphs: make sure the night went well and start watching to see what's happening during the day, trying to determine what kind of adjustments might need to be made to the environment or to the nutrient pattern. It's stuff that you need to do to thrive, and to get the best that you can out of each cultivar. So being able to take that information, adjust it, make new applications, and see where that takes you โ€“ as long as it's taking you forward and you can keep that data to rely on, you can make a repeatable finished product, I'd say that's probably the most important. 

Jacob: At this stage, we're really just in a constant state of evolution and development. We implemented AROYA โ€“ that was right around the time I joined a year ago โ€“ and along with a lot of facility and infrastructure changes and upgrades, we've had a huge cultural change as well among our staff to really embrace data-driven cultivation. We go into every room every day, spend hours checking light intensity, leaf surface temps, scouting for pests, but it's always great to have the passive data that's always being collected. But again, we're still just in the middle of this evolution. We have a long way to go. It's an exciting place to be. 


AROYA: No, it really is. And so you heard about AROYA through Sergio during your time at another company. What was your experience working with AROYA there? Why did it appeal to you so much?


Jacob: I mean, really I learned I have the advantage โ€“ some people see it as a disadvantage โ€“ of not having been a legacy grower.So I come into it right at this genesis where everyone's kind of changing the way they grow. The science is science, you know? You're not basing it off of the phase of the moon, you're not basing it off of touch and feel. Everything has a set point, everything has a target. So coming in and learning to grow, it was an advantage that you learn these targets. The challenge is, how do you get there? How do you get these targets? There's infrastructure challenges, HVAC challenges, dehumidification challenges, cultural challenges. But my experience with AROYA at my previous location really just caused me to dig deep into the science of cultivation and that's what landed me here. That's why I'm here: to help implement these changes, provide education, and help with the cultural and infrastructural shift.


AROYA: Y'all start using AROYA at this facility about a year ago?


Jacob: About a year ago. 


AROYA: And so where were things before you implemented AROYA? What made you decide, okay, we're gonna take this recommendation and go for it?


Christopher: Crop steering was something that was brought to my attention about a year and a half ago. To crop steer, you need to be collecting all the data for what's happening inside your root zones, and be able to water the plants and get their temperatures to the right place, and to make sure you're hitting those certain set points to really get the right kind of stress out of the plant and, you know, really get it to thrive and produce the best that that plant is capable of doing. And in order to do that I couldn't hand water anymore, I had to go into irrigation. So there was a lot of change, but it was something that I knew we were gonna be doing and we're gonna go forward with โ€“ we needed AROYA, or a platform such as AROYA, that could help us get that data. AROYA just hit the mark higher up because of everything else that it does for us besides just our water content. It monitors our environment, we're able to set alarms that can help us out if something's happening that we're not seeing. It can also help the team keep their tasks managed. Just overall, it's a way to streamline all the information into one coordinated place.


AROYA: So since you've been using AROYA, what results have you seen?


Christopher: I think we've seen roughly a 65% increase in yield, and then our quality has been a consistent trend up. And you know, I think we're not to the place where we want to be yet โ€˜cuz I don't think we ever will be. But I think that's the goal: constantly chasing that perfect run.


AROYA: That's so good. And it sounds like you were able to make some continuous improvements too โ€“ while we were walking around you showed us some upgrades you made to the facility. Your team is nice and tight with pretty low turnover. So yeah, it sounds like other areas have also benefited from this extra help. 


Jacob: Yeah, absolutely. 


AROYA: What can we look forward to seeing from North Country Pharms in the future?


Jacob: I mean, at this point we're really trying to build out all of our SOPs so that itโ€™s seamless, repeatable from facility to facility. Right now, obviously we're just the one facility, but we have big plans. We won the Golden Bear last year at the California State Fair. Didn't submit anything this year, we've just been so busy with all of the changes we've been doing, but hopefully in the next year you'll see us back on the shelves better than ever. 

We have several R&D strains that we haven't really given a name yet. We're extremely excited to see how they finish out, experience how they smoke, the whole sensory experience of it all. We're ready for the market to transition back to a more open mindset towards the different varietals that are out there, because limiting it to purple and candy is just, you know, it's doing a disservice to this flower to this plant. 


Christopher: I just want to see the company expand. I want the whole state of California to experience what we put our time, effort, and love into, and for people to appreciate the flower.

Huge thank you AROYA for everything that they've done for us as far as helping us get set up with all the equipment that they have to offer, what we would need for our facility, the tech support that we've gotten, alongside the grower support with Seth. Being able to reach out to him anytime we need to and set up an appointment, and we can bounce ideas off of each other that, you know, anything that's really gonna help drive our success forward. A huge part is gonna be with AROYA having that partnership with us and helping us move forward.


AROYA: Weโ€™re so glad to be on this journey with you. 

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