May 2023 Grower of the Month

I think I’m meant to bring great cannabis to the world.

Our AROYA Grower of the Month series showcases the stories of craft cultivators who inspire us with their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Each feature is a moment to shine a light on growers who push the limits in the garden, while highlighting the innovative tech and tools they use to do it.

May’s grower of the month is Jesse Jordan, Head of Cultivation for Blackwoods, although we know him better as the man behind Maine Trees. Teaming up with business partner Owen Ruh, the duo joined us to open up about their journeys into Maine’s cannabis market, share the insights they’ve gained, and give us an idea of what the future holds in store for this scaling canna-business.

Get to know Jesse and Owen, and be sure to stay in the loop with all of the cultivars coming out of this grow and check out Maine Trees Instagram.

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

AROYA: Thank you guys for meeting with me this morning, we're super psyched to have y'all as our May grower of the month. So yeah, let's get right to it. So, introductions. Jesse. Jesse Jordan. What is your title? 

Jesse Jordan, Head of Cultivation: I am head of cultivation for Blackwoods. We co-own and operate both Bstrees and Maine Trees. 

AROYA: Okay, got you. And then Owen, what is your title? 

Owen Ruh, Chief Operations Officer: I'm the Chief Operations Officer, so I work closely with Jesse on the cultivation front and manage our production, as well as our marketing initiatives and product development initiatives.

AROYA: Very cool. It's nice to meet you both today. How long have y'all been with Maine Trees? 

Jesse: I founded and started Maine Trees about eight years ago, and it was a simple Instagram handle that turned into the company name. It was actually created by my cousin Lauren, who's a professional photographer. I had just started to hear about people posting pictures online of their grows, like their home grows. When it was my turn, I got on and she had that account and I begged, I pleaded to her to give it to me; and she gave it to me. And ever since then, I’ve been rocking with Maine Trees.

Owen: Jesse and I got introduced through a mutual friend who's now a business partner of ours in Blackwoods, which is B's Trees and Maine Trees. When we first got introduced, I knew right away that Jeff grow the kind of quality that we were looking for. That was his reputation. That was the kind of bud that he brought to the sample meeting. So we knew that box was checked. What he and Mike had done, Mike created B's Trees. Jesse created Maine Trees before we got involved. We just wanted to add fuel to that fire. They were working out of a smaller shop initially. Now we're in something that's closer to about 150 lights. And really just wanted to build it into a lasting brand and build product lines around it to support the quality of flower that we were trying to put out.

AROYA: Beautiful. So what really got you into cultivating? 

Jesse: I think I'm meant to do this. I wouldn't say I'm the most religious person, but I believe in the ‘most high.’ And I think I’m meant to grow cannabis and bring great cannabis to the world, or as many people as I possibly can. There's a lot of synchronicity in my life that led me here. I was born on June 1st, which in my area is like a planter season. Fast forward into my life: I had a father who was, as you could say, a cannabis smuggler and grower himself. So I'm a generational grower in a sense, even though the man never showed me how to plant a seed. But I learned what I could around him. What really got me into it was smoking. When I was younger, my best friend Pete and I found some seeds out of a bag and we popped a couple of just regular commercial-grade beans in his little grow, underneath some stairs in his basement. We actually pulled a 250 watt HPS light off the side of our friend's old, 1800s-era barn, rewired it. And we were growing in this little cabinet underneath the stairs in the basement. And there were only about four feet. And they got big really quick. And this was in March, going into April. And then they filled the entire cabinet. And then one day, Peter's uncle came by. Well, this uncle happened to work in the DEA. So we were in the basement; he's upstairs walking around the house and we're just shitting our pants ‘cause he has no idea what we're doing at the house. From that day we were like, ‘Alright, we gotta get these outside.’ It was late April, early May, and it was still very early for planting cannabis in our area, but we did it anyway. And two of 'em out of the eight survived. And it was our first ever time and that grew to be about 12 feet tall. And they were the biggest things, to this day, some of the biggest plants we ever grew outside. From right there it was just hooked. Growing has actually taught me a lot as well.

Jesse: I didn't really have a lot of parental guidance growing up, so getting exposed to this and seeing the time management and investing into it—into yourself—really taught me a lot of life lessons moving forward that I wasn't getting elsewhere. So I just kept going to it. One strain that really brought me onto the scene was wedding cake. The timing of it: I got the cut of wedding cake right after my grandmother's passing. I acquired the cut and it came to the day of her death; we planted it literally like a week later. And it just came out phenomenal and it literally spread my name from here. From to New York, all across the Eastern seaboard. As far as the cultivator, and the funny story about the wedding cake. As I was mentioning earlier, I grew up with not much parental supervision, but my grandmother stepped in and was always there for me. I lived with her. I was a black sheep, but she was always looking out for me. And she was a baker and she did nothing but bake wedding cakes for the entire town. Everyone in the area, she just made wedding cakes and that was it. And her name was Mary Jane.

AROYA: That is crazy. I was gonna say, the universe was just pointing you in this direction and it's just hitting you with signs now.

Jesse: Yeah. I'm not really religious, but I believe in the afterlife and I think she's got a very strong spirit, and I just feel like when she passed on she still continues to this day to follow me around. It's and she had a big hand in that wedding cake. And I just like to say that she would never let me fuck up a wedding cake, even from the grave. 

AROYA: That is an amazing story, your grandma sounded like an amazing woman.

Jesse: Oh, she was great. She was a rare breed. I've been, that woman was irreplaceable. I just don't think that she just left, she's just, she's around a spirit that's strong. Keeping an eye on us and the whole family.

AROYA: Oh my gosh. I'm touched. This is like a really great story.

Jesse: I have her signature tattooed, too. *pulls back shirt to reveal a small tattoo on his shoulder*

AROYA: Oh my gosh. It's her signature. 

Jesse: When I got it, she got all pissed off cuz she was like, that's for weed. But she was a great lady. Another funny story that's synchronistic to the whole thing: my father was a smuggler with my uncle back in the day, in the 90s. They used to smuggle 70 pounds each from Mexico to San Diego, from San Diego back. And they used to do that quite often. They made a lot of money. And then back in the day, my uncle got caught in California. This was like ‘96. At the time, with the amount of weed he got caught with, it was like 400 pounds. He had the highest bail set in California ever at the time. Because he was a runner and his known people that he was working with, they called them the ‘Third Worlders.’ But it was just like the Mexican cartels over in Mexico. And, funny story about that. Have you ever seen Pineapple Express? So James Franco in that movie is a pot dealer, and if you go to the very end of the movie, his full character name is Saul Silver. My uncle, Sol Silver, was the one who got caught in Cali and got busted. Turns out, the directors took his name and used it to make the movie.

AROYA: Was that trippy for you when you saw that? 

Jesse: It was, yeah. Honestly, I didn't believe any of it. And until my aunt was like, showed me this is where it all came out, because she was l she started contacting the directors and stuff and started talking to him.

AROYA: That is so intense, man. Your story is amazing.

Jesse: Yeah, I just think I was meant to do it. I think the way it's helped me in my life and the teachings from gardening have also helped me in other areas: it's helped me become a better father. I have two children. The nurturing of the plant is very similar to the nurturing of a human in ways. So I have everything that I have everything to thank for this plant. Everything. That's why I'm gonna do it for the rest of my life. And the feeling I get when people tell me, how much I work has helped them or just how much they appreciate it, and we strive so hard to just provide these flavor experiences.

AROYA: Owen, how did you get into this industry? Do you grow as well?

Owen: No I don't, I've always been on the broker and wholesale and product development side of the space. Like Jesse, I think I smoked my first blunt at 15 years old. It was like Mexican brick weed. I grew up in Texas. So there really weren't a lot of people, at least any that I knew of cultivating. For most of my adolescence, bud was just coming up from Mexico and that's what we were capable of getting a hold of. Then, Dro sort of started to hit the scene in kind of the early two thousands from California. And I would say, from that first point, smoking that blunt, outside of a party when I was 15, things just continued to escalate in my relationship with the plant. I started building what I would call a career for myself at the time, because I didn't really grow up in an environment where cultivating or anything like that was a genuine kind of livelihood. That wasn't, yeah. I couldn't look around and see that was an option or a career path.

Owen: In my time in the industry since, I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing, a lot about the struggles that our co-manufacturers and partners were going through. And eventually it got to the point where it was relatively stable in my career. I’d helped grow a big organization at this point. There were 1,200 employees, and it didn't really feel like I still had that connection to the plant to a degree I might as well have been working at Oscar Meyer, selling hotdogs. I wanted to get back into what got me interested about the space to begin with, which was like, I wanna smoke really good weed, and I'm tired of seeing things in market where I go to the rec shelf and I get burned on a $65 eighth every time. That doesn't make sense to me. I thought that we could go out and do things a little bit differently. And that's where we met Jesse and I was like, this is one of the guys that we want to build this team with. We've taken it from the Oscar Meyer factory to now we're trying to build a Ferrari by way of Maine. And the Maine market itself has just been such an incredibly cool kind of welcoming space.

AROYA: I love that because you've seen so many parts of the industry, like the amount of insights...So that brings us to what year, when you started, when you started this business journey together. 

Owen: That was about 15 months ago. Okay. We started having the conversations in, I think like August or so over the summer of 2021. We then identified the location that Jesse's currently in today, which is, about 150 lights. The previous owners were actually expanding and moving into a much larger facility, and we said we want to go at this in a craft approach and make sure that quality is paramount. I personally had never directly run a cultivation before. Jesse had operated facilities that were a similar size to this, but we wanted to make sure that we were able to put our best foot forward and going out and starting with 2000 lights is usually not the way to do that. So we got in there, we made some facility improvements.

Owen: AROYA was honestly one of the first things that we wanted to implement. Just because I'm based in California. I'm out there, a few times a quarter, usually like once a month or so, and having that insight and transparency into what's going on in the rooms is extremely helpful and important to us. Jesse jumped on that right away as one of our first initiatives with the team;  he also understood the value in terms of being able to put out consistent quality product and have an eye on everything when he can't necessarily be present to either. 

AROYA: Let's go into the tech that you guys are using and the setup that you guys are at right now. 

Jesse: The facility is about 18,000 square feet. I think we have about 2,500 if I'm correct, in flower and canopy, and that's mixed between LED and HPS. We have an R&D space here that once that comes back online, we're currently using it as a dry space.

Owen: One of the things that we do is just part of our internal kind of record keeping right, on the bottom of the bags, CF1, F2, BF3, whatever it might be. For us, it's just the room number. Like it doesn't really mean anything more than that other than this is the harvest from this specific suite. We actually had several shops come back to us recently and say we cracked your code. And we were like sorry, there's no code. The only difference there is an LED room and an HPS room. But thank you, because this is the direction that we wanted to move in. So, we're actually taking our LEDs mostly out of the facility and replacing them with HPS.

Jesse: I think I think the scene, It's a craft. And Maine has a huge craft scene in general. We all just feed off each other. I have this thing, when you become a craftsman of any kind of craft, whatever it is, you start to respect and view other crafts, and look at them. Maine has a huge microbrewery scene. It has so many restaurants, like look at downtown Portland [Maine]. I think Maine being what it is as far as the quality of life, and the nature and scene here, all of this has drawn a lot of these chefs here. Access to fresh food. We have some of the best seafood in the world. Home of the Maine Red Lobster, the best lobsters in the world. I think over the last couple years, like we've all fed off each other…I don't know if it's just an energy there that drives us to continue to progress forward and watching people start to now wanna start to work together through the food and beverage industry, so to speak. And I think cannabis belongs at the table. Personally, I think of it like wine and food; we're like chefs. We're providing a flavor experience at the end of the day. And we have to hit, time and time again. And that's what really brings people back.

AROYA: Let's talk about some of the strains that you're growing. Any Wedding Cake?

Jesse: She’s not currently in rotation, but hopefully she'll make an appearance once again down the road. I'd like to rework her and make a cross kind of ODed to my grandmother. I definitely want to grow it again. The way they set up the rotation here, it's on a nine week schedule. So we keep everything to a nine week schedule. In my previous facility I was on a 10 week schedule because I was running GMO and Wedding Cake. And then Sunset Sheriff, they ran at 10 weeks. But hopefully in the future she'll make an appearance again.

Owen: Strains are like fashion too, like the bell bottoms—come back around every 10 years, right? A lot of the genetics that we had, Jesse said, were pretty well worked, like we're currently under construction to build more mother space. Because we still don't have enough mother space…last year was a big ‘churning of the strains’ in the mother program. So we did a fair amount of pheno-hunts, which I think anybody who's participated in a scaled pheno-hunt or a pheno-hunt of any kind, knows that you're buying lottery tickets. We popped maybe 200 seeds to grow out 200 plants over the course of the year, which is a pretty expensive endeavor. And out of those ended up coming the Blue Lobster, which was the award winner at the Zalympix.

Owen: What we wanna do is find the phenotypes that cover those bases and make sure that we've got a full kind of portfolio of all the different flavors that somebody might want, and the examples that we choose for those. Those flavors that we're trying to cover are just the best example of what we could find, both in terms of the experience for the consumer, but also in terms of ways that we don't have to compromise so much as business operators, we need things that can yield. We also need to look into how easy it is to train and maintain a plant. If we're having to default these crazy bushy plants all the time, like that comes into the cost of the whole thing. The team's not gonna wanna work with it as much. So we really do try to make sure we've got a full library of the best examples of whatever flavors we're trying to hit. And then at the same time, just make sure that we can actually make the economics work behind whatever we're putting in the garden.

AROYA: You guys are running a successful cannabis business. You have to dial in on so much: what the consumers want, how much labor a strain will require. How are you guys dialing in on data? What's the most important data that you guys look at, day to day?

Jesse: I would say we're obviously looking at the substrate data and the room data every day, but the big most important data at the end of the day is that post harvest data. Cause that, looking at all that and then versing that against your crop data, you can really dial in granularly what's successful for the facility. Because some people don't take in the post-processing process and where some plants some cultivars are providing much more trim than others as opposed to flower. You get to start to really start to see that across the board and see who's really producing; having all that data at our fingertips allows us to essentially drive this to a successful cross. And being able to have one click of a button go back to harvest that we finished a year ago is huge, too. And then when problems happen anything happens, you go back and can address it and see exactly what happened, whether it was something environmentally or something that happened in the substrate. You're able to diagnose issues so much through the dashboard via harvest groups.

Owen: We actually implemented computer monitors and computers in each of our three suites, and we've just mandated over the last few months that the guys pay really close attention to watering events specifically throughout the day. We use Leaf Logics for kind of downstream tracking, so marrying the data between AROYA and Leaf Logics has been huge in our ability to actually direct the business and get real time understandings of what's working and what's not working. In this business, if you get off course, it might take you six to nine months to get back on course just by virtue of the fact that's how long it takes to go through an entire harvest cycle. So having that information readily available to us all the time is just really eliminated, I would say unforced errors in the cultivation and at the same time improve the quality and the yield output of the building.

AROYA: Awesome. How big is your team right now? 

Jesse: You wanna answer that all? 

Owen: Yeah, it fluctuates. For the grow, we're at about eight to nine, including Jesse. For the entire kind of business we're, it's usually between 25 and 30 scaling up a little bit cuz we started getting into more manufactured goods vape pens and pre-rolls and things like that.

AROYA: What's the future looking like for you guys? Where do you guys see the business going? 

Owen: Yeah, I think, we, like I mentioned, we kind of wanna build the Ferrari factory eventually. Jesse's in this for life, so am I we're not really too concerned about what happens in the near term. I think we've got a pretty stable business for right now, and at the end of the day, as long as we can maintain our quality and continue to be inventive on the products that we're putting into market, I think it will be good. But our long-term vision is to obviously get as big as possible over the long run, but I don't care if that's 5, 10, 15 years, it would be great to get up to a thousand lights in Maine and be able to provide the world with the experience that we're getting out on the East coast.

AROYA: There's a lot on the horizon for y'all then. Very exciting. Do you guys mind talking about numbers? How AROYA has helped you guys scale your business or has helped your team remain a tight-knit team but still do a lot together? What are the main benefits that AROYA has given your team? Maybe we can start there. 

Jesse: I just think the complete organization of it being able to start these crops the second you make a set of clones and guide them all the way out and then, room to roam. Just the organization of that and having the ultimate control over every crop. And then again, being able to diagnose issues when they arise which for me is the most important thing at the end of the day we can keep, we can get all these things, stop these things perfectly, but when I think the only you're only as good as growers have the problems you can fix at the end of the day. The plants always will show you when things are going wrong. And being able to go back into the room data and then the sudden even the substrate data, see if the plants were getting too much water and EC was rising, things like that, is paramount to being able to run this business. The SOPs are super important as well with the AROYA. I think when you pair them together, it's a match made in heaven and it allows us to provide consistency and scale this type of quality that we want to provide to the market.

AROYA: Yeah, that consistency, that's really important.

Jesse: And then the transparency for me and from me who's running the grow to the business, we don't even have to talk, they can check in with themselves, see the data, and it brings together our ‘hive mind’ as we like to call it. 

Owen: Yeah, we try to use it to, to educate the other members of the team, whether that's somebody that's on, finance or somebody that's helping us work on the strategy side of the business and make sure that everybody's aware at least of what AROYA is and how to find information inside of it. It's just so impactful for us to be able to log into AROYA right now and see propagation batches that are gonna be harvested in September. Having that level of insight that far in advance and then having the historical data of those are the four varietals that we're gonna be harvesting in that room in September. We've grown them for six months now. These are the last four batches worth of harvest results and yield output. These are the environmental controls and historicals behind that last successful harvest. You just have so much more ability to actually forecast what's going to happen. Numbers-wise, I would say we're up about 30% to 35% in terms of yield from our baselines. One of the biggest things that I can't reiterate enough is it's really helped us avoid those unforced errors. Like early on we had a less experienced cultivation staff. We had a guy leave the lights on in a room for a couple days once and like we had a re-veg event, which, it's one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a room. That wouldn't happen at this point because we would know within 30 minutes that the lights off event didn't go down cuz my phone would blow up and Jesse's phone would blow up and the whole cultivation staff would be panicking and wondering what the hell's going on.

Jesse: Yeah. We make sure that everyone at the facility that cultivates is on the AROYA. Anytime there's an alert, we all get one, and someone is showing up so quick.

And thankfully we have very good contractors who are the same way when we make a call there right here. In this industry, you could lose one of these rooms and it could destroy your whole business. Yeah. And you're done, one, one bad crop and you're done at the end of the day.

Owen: Having a great HVAC contractor has kept our lights on. That's for sure. 

AROYA: They're the real heroes out here. That was so amazing. Thank you guys so much for sharing your stories and letting me get a look behind the actual scenes of your cultivation.

Jesse: Thank you. Thank you for choosing us.

Owen: Thank you so much AROYA. We’re honored to be a partner. 

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