AROYA’s Grower of the Month series features craft cultivators whose ingenuity and innovation we find inspiring. Each story is an opportunity to highlight growers who have honed their processes over time, embraced new ones, and continue to push the envelope -and find success - in this emerging industry.
This month we spoke with Nelson Junco, Director of Cultivation with Freedom Town Holdings. Launched by Florida natives who got their start in the legacy market, Freedom Town Holdings is a legacy management company that specializes in commercial facility design, recovery, and operations consulting for clients nationwide. For 30-year-old Nelson, who has been running commercial cultivations since 2013 and worked in cannabis most of his life, joining the company was a natural fit.
Over the course of our conversation, Nelson shared his experience working a 30,000 square foot facility, the impact of Florida’s humidity on indoor cultivation, and how data from AROYA has improved his day-to-day. Read on for the full scoop, and be sure to give Freedom Town Holdings a follow on Instagram.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
AROYA: Tell us about your facility.
NELSON JUNCO, DIRECTOR OF CULTIVATION WITH FREEDOM TOWN HOLDINGS: We are currently based in Florida and have about 30,000 square feet behind me. That is all controlled by AROYA®, and loving every second of it.
AROYA: What was the major selling point that convinced you to go with AROYA, and how long have you been using it?
NELSON: Going on 18 months now and from beginning to end, it's been a life saver. The main big fact was data collection and really being able to understand what's going on inside of my facility. I think it saved me on several occasions, being in Florida where mechanicals will fail. And in a hot humid area like Florida, if your mechanical fails without any kind of safety measures, you could really be down a bad road.
AROYA: What’s one benefit of using AROYA that you weren't expecting?
NELSON: I would say the biggest benefit is really understanding what's happening inside the root zone of the plant. Crop steering is something new to me, and with AROYA it took the learning curve from 80% to 20% where you were able to understand what the plant was doing, whether you were there or not. So increasing yields, the standard two to two and a half a light doesn't really matter here with AROYA. The increase has been drastic to say the least: I'm pushing right around five and three quarters right now a light, which is definitely on the grand scale of things in a vertical operation. It creates a lot of revenue.
AROYA: What was your day-to-day like before AROYA, versus now?
NELSON: I would definitely say there's a significant change. A lot of it is very data-driven now. Before AROYA it was operator-driven where I'd have to be in the garden day-in and day-out, checking and feeling the plants. That still happens, but a big portion of it now is data-driven behind a computer screen - really paying attention to what your plants are doing and giving your team on the ground some straight directives, rather than having to make a change and guess what the plant was going to do. We can manipulate what the plant does now all based on data. Really understanding the plant with all the data behind it makes your life much easier.
AROYA: What metrics do you look at every day without fail?
NELSON: Every single day I'm looking at temperature, looking at humidity, making sure the VPDs are in range. A big part of AROYA, in my opinion, is really dialing in your crop steer. Your dry backs are very important - pay attention to those dry backs. Make sure you send the proper cues at the proper time, and this plant will respond properly. This room is approximately on day 20 and the canopy is stacking beautifully. So pay attention to the plant, listen to the cues she's telling you, and really pay attention to what your AROYA dry backs are.
AROYA: Love it. Have you noticed that your staff is doing higher quality work since implementing AROYA?
NELSON: I would say the staff is more focused on quality control of the crop now, where before [they focused on] growing the plant. This 30,000 square foot facility is run with 12 cultivators, so I would say what AROYA is giving me and the data behind it is allowing me to run a leaner team here.
AROYA: Nice. That's awesome. What are some of the main challenges that you guys face there in Florida with cultivation?
NELSON: Humidity, humidity, humidity, humidity. It is very humid outside and it is very humid inside. As much as you are in an indoor environment, that outside will still affect you. So humidity is very important, which then coincides with your dry backs. The higher humidity the less transpiration you have. So I would definitely say humidity's been my biggest curve ball.
Every day, depending on the stage of a plant, VPD and humidity basically correlate perfectly. I'd say the biggest curve ball was the vegetative crop steer where you're running a high humidity. That plant does not dry back as we're used to without crop steering, so you really need to pay attention and not over saturate that cube.
AROYA: Awesome. So how do you have your AROYA set up?
NELSON: So I have one of your sensors in the center of every room reading my environment. I try to keep it right around the crop height at all times - it comes up and down as it goes. And then depending on room size, we have your sensors which go into the cube.
AROYA: What sensor density do you guys use there?
NELSON: It really depends on the size of the room. A 45-foot table takes six sensors, so in [a room that’s] about 1200 square feet I'm running about 30 sensors. It's a bit extra, but it definitely helps dial in my feed a bit more and gives me tighter data across the room with more sensors inside the room.
AROYA: Nice. Was that helpful with getting your canopy consistent so you don't have hot spots and outliers?
NELSON: Oh my, the canopy consistency from the room sensor that reaches temperature has been great. And then the table sensors, what it does is really allow me to make sure that I don't have over-watering and under-watering across the table. Only having a couple sensors is great; you're still getting all your data. But what I realized is, adding two more sensors really gave me an even read of what the canopy is doing.
AROYA: Nice. And all of your rooms kind of set up the same way?
NELSON: Yes, depending on the room. The rooms are all about 1300 square feet. The ones that are a bit bigger are about 1400 square feet, and those have 35 sensors in each one. But there’s right around 30 sensors and one temperature sensor per room in the center of my canopy.
AROYA: How does AROYA help with compliance?
NELSON: I've already started to use your data tracking for weights, dry weight, pre-trim, post trim, and probably the best part of the system is really the recipes—paying attention and inputting as much data into those recipes as possible to make sure your garden stays within the parameters designed by you.
Compliance [in Florida] today is all done through BioTrack. Once you generate the plant into the system, it stays with it from beginning to end. Once it gets to the end, then AROYA comes in and I use that to track my yields, track my data and really make sure when I've hit the genetic potential of that crop, that I can save that recipe and replicate it over and over again.
AROYA: We like to give shout outs to brands that are doing great work. What are some other brands that you love working with?
NELSON: I love using Front Row Ag. I'm a Front Row Ag operator, I've been using them since they began. Power Si of course - any good gardener should have Power Si in their garden. Power Si is a monosilicic acid, which is some of the best silica on the market. And Front Row Ag is a three-part nutrient fertilizer. All my gardens across the country are fed with Front Row Ag and Power Si, and lit up by luck sliding above my head. They do great and I've been with them for years.
AROYA: That's awesome. So what’s coming down the pike for Freedom Town in 2022?
NELSON: Right now, we have about 72 different strains. Behind me is pheno hunt, we have Baker's Dozen and a couple different strains in here. We're most known for the Cuban Black Haze. So we try and stick to sativa as much as possible and bring the hazes back. But we do have some predominant modern day genetics as well.
AROYA: Nice. Last but not least, what is the best piece of cultivation advice that you ever received and who was it from?
NELSON: I would say the best piece of advice I ever received was from my mentor in Las Vegas: don't over-complicate this. The plant is going to talk to you and if you pay attention and listen to what she's telling you, it's not very complicated. Once you over-complicate things is when problems ensue.
AROYA: Cool. Awesome. Thanks so much for showing us around your facility and answering all these questions. Appreciate your time Nelson!
NELSON: Of course. Thank you very much from Freedom Town Holdings. We appreciate it!
Our conversation with Jason Caliendo, Cultivation Manager at The Botanist MA.
Our conversation with Cory Desloge, Director of Cultivation with Harbor House Collective, Massachusetts.
Our conversation with June Growers of the Month: North Country Pharms Director of Cultivation Christopher Platz, and Director of Operations Jacob Nelson