September 2021 Grower of the Month

Our Guiding Philosophy is “Cannabis for Good”

Every month, we like to highlight cultivators who are crushing it. Our featured growers are often at the vanguard of the industry: scaling quickly, breaking innovative new ground, or producing consistently high-quality product.

This month, we met a man who’s doing all of the above and then some. We sat down with Jigar Patel, Co-Founder and Co-CEO at NorCal Cannabis Company. The massive grow op shells out 12 tons of cannabis per year, cultivating an enviable portfolio of brands, and working vertical integration like few in the state, or the country for that matter. They’re truly a seed-to-smoke operation, and they’re scaling at lightning speed.

Patel’s a vibrant character and brilliant business mind who’s chock full of gems and nuggets of wisdom. Seriously, few folks will go so deep into the (pardon the pun) weeds on AgTech and the humble origins of Sonoma cannabis farming, all while delivering memorable mantra after memorable mantra.

It’s clear from speaking with him that he loves not just the plant--I mean, who doesn’t?--but the culture that surrounds it, the healing potential of a growing cannabis industry, and pushing the industry into an efficient, consistent, data-driven future.

So sit back, relax, and buckle up for a joyous ride through an enviably successful lifetime spent in cannabis production, with pearls of wisdom to spare. In the meantime, you can also visit NorCal at their website, or follow them on IG.

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

AROYA: Hi, Jigar. So great to have you here with us today. Would you like to start by introducing yourself and your company?

JIGAR PATEL, COFOUNDER & CO-CEO, NORCAL CANNABIS COMPANY: Hi, I'm Jigar Patel. I'm the co-founder and co-CEO of NorCal Cannabis company. We're a vertically integrated California-focused cannabis company that really relies on indoor cultivation as the focal point of our business. We are a group of cultivators that have been cultivating extensively through Prop 215.

We consider ourselves industry veterans that come from the legacy cannabis operators of the past. We have been able to navigate California and the cannabis industry as it matured to what it is today, which is a burgeoning industry that’s becoming a major player across not only the nation, but the globe.

AROYA: You’ve been at this a while and seen a lot of changes. How did you get involved and what drew you to cannabis?

JIGAR: It's funny, I've been a lifelong lover of cannabis since I was a kid. I was drawn to Northern California because, at that time, with the Prop 215 movement, Sonoma County had the best laws for growing (medical, back then) cannabis.

Being from the Midwest and enduring their draconian drug laws, this magical place called Sonoma gave cultivators the ability to grow 99 plants per patient, so I came in and started to learn. I think within the halls of NorCal stories like mine ring familiar to many. You have a lot of folks that were drawn to this area, and they would learn from the legacy growers. When we all got here, we were the new kids on the block, and that was 20, 25 years ago.

People were doing this decades before us and are considered the OGs in this space. We look at these guys we know who’ve been cultivating for three, maybe four decades. When you start to learn the heritage and history, you realize how interwoven cannabis is to the culture. Especially in this area--the North Coast--you start to understand it's more than just a plant … It's a lifestyle. It's a culture and it does great things. That's really the draw for me, and that's why I'm still here today.

AROYA: No doubt. The culture is constantly evolving but it’s really it’s own thing. Speaking of constantly evolving, how would you say technology changed the way you cultivate cannabis at NorCal over time?

JIGAR: Great question. In building a cannabis business, especially a mature, modern cannabis business, what you have to realize is we used to not have access to really any technology. When we first started building grows in the early 2000s, we weren't even allowed to use the term cannabis or marijuana when asking for information on equipment like HVAC or electricity. The entire time you were operating clandestinely, even though it was legal.

What this led to was a bunch of learning by mistake, and making those mistakes early. As the industry improved and matured, we started getting more and more access to companies and Big Ag players who actually wanted to look at cannabis. An early thing we did was just rolling benches. If you could imagine something that's so stable and grows today, they wouldn't sell to cannabis companies prior to 2012. Then we finally got a lot of the equipment, but we were lacking technology.

In just the past few years, we’re able to actually use the technology that's been available to Big Ag, to actually help understand what's happening in our growing environments. Not only in the environment, but actually within the plant and substrate levels. I think that has made the biggest impact on groups like us, who always knew what was going on, but really couldn't put our finger on it and point to the data. The availability of that data helps inform us in what we do, and it is key as we move forward and transcend the industry.

AROYA: Yeah that data is so important and such a game-changer. What would you say is the biggest impact you’ve noticed since adopting cannabis production platform technology (like AROYA)?

JIGAR: The holy grail for most cannabis businesses, especially on the indoor side, is really yield improvements. I think since we started using AROYA equipment, combined with some other techniques that AROYA® allows us to do, such as crop steering. I think we've seen yield increases of 30 to 40%, which is pretty dramatic for a cultivator like us. When we employed AROYA technology with crop steering, we were already at the top of the market in terms of yield and quality, and we've only gotten better since then.

It's an evolving process. You have these long life cycles with cannabis plants. We're able to take that data, analyze it, and then try and find other ways to utilize it again, or at least learn from what happened in that growing cycle.

AROYA: What would you say is the driving force or mission behind the work you do at NorCal?

JIGAR: As an entire business, our guiding philosophy is “cannabis for good.” We believe in the planet first. This is something most of our employees can all say. NorCal Cannabis and Northern California in and of itself is the Mecca and the home of cannabis. We pride ourselves on this belief and we believe this plant has a lot of value to give to the world.

AROYA: You’ve been a vocal champion for indoor cultivation … What led you indoors, rather than focusing on, say, outdoor or greenhouse?

JIGAR: When we look at it from a business standpoint and an enterprise standpoint, we believe indoor cannabis is the way to go and the way to grow, because when you look at not just California but the rest of the country, not everywhere is equipped for outdoor growing or greenhouse growing. So the ability for us to consistently provide the same quality product over and over again is the future of cannabis. To do that, we need to have the right tools.

As we look at our operations, we strive for consistency, quality, and repeatability. I think that is one of the key differentiators of indoor growing, as opposed to greenhouse and outdoor, where you have to deal with other elements.

AROYA: Well, when you put it that way, the choice between indoor and outdoor cultivation sounds almost too clear.

JIGAR: Well look, I think indoor and outdoor are two totally different things. We have a lot of appreciation for outdoor growing. Being from Northern California, outdoor cultivation is in our blood for our people. Obviously, there's an appreciation for the outdoors and what you get from mother nature. I think for indoor growing, we're very proactive about our environments and controls and making sure they’re correct. Then, we guide the plant through its life cycle. With outdoor and greenhouse growing, you have to be a little bit more reactive because you don't have that control.

We've seen the AROYA stuff used outdoors, and it does give you data in real time, which gives outdoor growers the ability to be more reactive and see changes as they occur, rather than a week later or two weeks later, when it’s too late to react.

With us, we're looking for consistency, quality and something that we can repeat and take our SLPs elsewhere. I think we're trying to build a business that can be scaled not just nationally, but globally.

AROYA: What was cultivation like before you partnered with AROYA, and how has your cultivation practice changed since?

JIGAR: Great question. Look, I think when I look at my role specifically here at NorCal: I was a grower and a farmer first, but now I don't get to get my hands as dirty as I used to. I have a large appreciation for what growers have gone through, but blindly growing without real information would always leave a lot of things up in the air for us.

When we saw the AROYA platform at first, it wasn't an “aha” moment, because we had already understood crop steering. We had brought in the right people to teach us that. As a group, though, AROYA was the last piece that tied it all together. It gave us the vital information we needed to then be hands-on with exactly what we wanted to happen with our plants. Not only that, we were and are constantly getting information back from the plants to do what we need to do, and make positive changes in real time. That was probably one of the most important things for us during the last three years: we learned we actually had real control for the first time. Up until then, this was something that just wasn't available to us, and we had to just go off of our senses.

When people talk about a green thumb, back in the day, that was really describing somebody who understood what their environment felt like. Someone who could look at the plant and try to understand what was happening.

AROYA: It’s wild to think how far we’ve come as an industry in such a short amount of time, but specifically you’ve really scaled and vertically integrated and, as a result, and created a pretty legendary west coast cannabis powerhouse. How have you gotten to this point and where do you see yourselves going from here?

JIGAR: We look at NorCal and what we've built here is something really special. We believe we are on the cutting edge of indoor cultivation, and we want to continue to transcend indoor cultivation. We believe we've just begun to really see what we're capable of doing indoors.

I think we've been able to take this data and technology, plus our years of experience, and really transcend this industry in terms of what we do. I think in the next three to five years, we’re going to see (and utilize) even more technology, more data and be able to actually replicate things over and over again, because we'll have the data. We’re only scratching the surface of how much data we can collect, given how big we are, how many different rooms we have, and how many different strains we've done. Right now, we're still in the collection phase. As I said, life cycles are long!

All this data is only going to help the industry mature; I think it's going to allow us to understand exactly what types of strains and what types of genetics we should be bringing to the market. It will allow really, really operational and dialed-in companies to do plant strategies, and plan where they will plant their rooms according to what type of business products that they are creating.

For example, if you want to create very high-end but lower-yielding cannabis strains, soon you're going to know exactly what you need to do that. Conversely, if you're just looking for yield, or if you're in some state where biomass is everything, this will give us the data to actually know what to plant, where to plant it, and how to run it successfully. We look to be an industry leader in that. I think that's always been our goal and I think that's where we stand today.

AROYA: That’s an awesome answer, thank you. Along those same lines, how would you define success for NorCal, or even for you personally?

JIGAR: Success looks like a lot of different things to us here. I think first and foremost, something that gets overlooked is people didn't come into the cannabis industry to come work in some production plant and be just another cog in the system. People are here for a reason and they've got to believe in what they do. For us, the culture and feeling like people believe in what we're doing is really important, and that is a big part of our success.

I think secondly, having come from an industry that's moved from completely illegal to quasi-legal and to now full legalization, we want to be good stewards of the entire process. Being a part of that for us means being really good at what we do in the supply chain, so we can cultivate quality indoor cannabis at the levels at the scale we do.

We want to be the best at what we do, which is to provide great quality product at reasonable prices that can reach everyone who wants it. That’s our definition of success.

At the end of the day, we realize that as the industry matures, there needs to be more access to cannabis. If it continues expanding at the rate at which it's going, facilitating that access is going to be all about metrics that matter. Companies that are able to actually do this efficiently will flourish as the industry grows.

Again, if we're able to be one of the companies in the world that can provide quality cannabis consistently at the right price point, we've done our job and that is success for NorCal Cannabis.

AROYA: Wow. “We want to be good stewards of the entire process.” We love that. What does that look like for you? Can you walk us through a typical day in the NorCal growhouse?

JIGAR: We've always believed the people in grow rooms are really important because, having done this a lot, we've seen technology fail and the intrinsic value of the crops is really too important for us not to have somebody checking in on the product.

At NorCal, one of the things we always do is we have people walk the rooms when they start the day. Really, what their job is to do is just look and observe and feel. This is something we've been doing for years pre-technology and pre-data. A good grower will generally understand the environment, the stage of a plant, and what they should be seeing. They'll take notes on that.

The second thing they'll do is go back to their AROYA systems and look at the data, and look at what's happened over the last, 12-to-24 hours. They’ll look for any anomalies, or look for things that they may not have picked up. This is really important; this is really the melding of technology and legacy for us. This is where the magic happens. You may not pick something up in your daily walkthrough, but you may look at your software and be like, "It looks like humidity spiked, or it looks like the plants weren't eating enough, or the plants didn't get enough water. What happened?" From there we come up with questions like, "What happened overnight? Or, “Were there any issues?" Hopefully there weren't, and if they're not, then we tackle the day-to-day tasks based on where that plant is in its life, and we continue on.

We end the day with a very similar check. You go into the rooms and make sure you feel what's going on. You look at what happened during the daytime while you were there. That little check really sets the stage for tomorrow.

I think what people don't understand, as well, is that people actually have days off, but plants do not. Even when we're not here, we're constantly monitoring what's happening in our rooms and our plants. AROYA gives us the ability on days when people can't be there, or over the weekend or on holidays, to understand what's happening in those rooms and give us real-time data.

You'll see, when you come to NorCal, as much as our growers are hands-on, they will also be analyzing the data on their phones, on their lunch break, when they're at home or with their families, their AROYA screens are up. That’s just a dedication to the plant. Knowing they don't have to be there, and knowing that they can look at those phones and get the information they need, gives us all peace of mind and the ability to continue to be the best at what we do.

AROYA: The perfect mesh of analog and digital approaches. Would you say that there’s still room for 100% hands-in-the-dirt growers, or is technology like a cannabis production platform a requirement to survive in the industry at this point?

JIGAR: If you want to just grow for personal use in the States and allow you to grow for personal use, you don't need a cannabis production platform. But when you start talking about really building, whether it be craft or large-scale cannabis groves, without a cannabis production platform, you won't be able to compete because of how efficient growers are becoming. It is this data that makes that efficiency possible.

If you look at the big increases in yield and production and quality over the last 20 years, the biggest increase has come in the last three years, when people were finally able to get access to this data and really understand what was going on. There is a real limit to what you can do without this data, because you just don't have the understanding of what's happening at all levels of production. I think those folks that are on the fence about investing in technology like AROYA will soon find it will be demanded of them. Not only by their investors and the folks that are behind them, but by the market in general. I think in order to compete, you're going to have to hit metrics that matter.

AROYA: “Metrics that matter.” You’ve said that a couple of times. We love it and we may actually need to steal it for our own tagline. What does that mean to you and what are those metrics?

JIGAR: “Metrics that matter.” It's a term we like to throw around here. It’s going to be the name of the game as this industry becomes more and more competitive. You will be held to real metrics that will be comparable across multiple states and multiple countries. I think those that are using AROYA right now are at the top of their game.

AROYA: Awww, shucks. Now you’re just buttering us up. How do you get to those “metrics that matter” and what can you do with them?

JIGAR: As much as we love to cultivate, over the years we’ve become very efficient. Efficiency is a term I'll use about everything here because that's what we strive for in our production is efficiency. We’ve also become very efficient at post-cultivation and processing.

One of the things we do along the way in the growing cycle is start to identify different parts of the plants and how much post-processing they will need. As you look at the cannabis plant, different parts of the plant will be used for different things, different brands, and they will require different amounts of care along the way. What we do here is we start to identify what plants will be given what type of processing. For example: Will they be machine trimmed? Will they be hand trimmed? We’ve started to selectively do this along the way. Again, we're monitoring everything, so we’ll understand when the water content is ideal for us to take those plants down. We're separating them. We're also using this so that as our employees and processors touch the plant, each type of quality designation only gets that particular type of processing designation.

In our systems, there are parts of the cannabis plant that are hand-touched, hand-trimmed, or hand-packaged. There are things that are machine-trimmed and machine-packaged. There are things that are never trimmed and go to biomass. We like to make sure that we're not over-utilizing our people, and also make sure we’re really streamlining the process and understanding where things go.

AROYA: Those are all crucial variables to plan for and to keep in mind. Switching gears a little bit: What would you say you enjoy most about working in the cannabis industry?

JIGAR: I really enjoy working in the cannabis industry for several reasons.

First, I love the culture. There's a lot of cowboys and cowgirls that have made it this far in this industry--people who have lived different lives and come from all different backgrounds--all because of this plant. I think you can start to really understand why culture is so important in cannabis. Then, the ability to actually be a steward for seeing this industry mature from what I would call the heritage legacy folks into the new modern cannabis age is something I'm super excited about being a part of.

When I look back at my life and where I started and when I started smoking weed and think about how we got to what we are today, it's a pretty drastic difference. I’ve gotten to see and be a part of an industry that I think is going to help revolutionize and change culture as a whole. That’s really exciting for us.

That said, to be successful at this does take a lot of dedication and time, day-in and day-out. While all this stuff's enjoyable, it can be a bit stressful. As the industry matures and you start to see a lot of folks not from the cannabis industry come in with piles of cash and the ability to compete, we consistently see operators that have been in positions similar to ours get forced to evolve.

I think, when I look at the industry, one of the things that I'm actually not really fond of is what I call the “California Knife-Fight.” It may not exist in other states because they have moats around their businesses, but in California, because cultivation has been such a big deal and there have been so many investment dollars thrown into this, it's changed a little bit of the culture. It used to be just a few people sharing and working together, and it’s turned into a ultra-competitive marketplace that's very cutthroat.

I get that. I get that's part of business as a whole. It is something that wasn't part of cannabis is all. You miss out on some of the camaraderie of the past, where folks would share ideas, share genetics, and work together really for the good of the plant. It’s turned into a really competitive business. So when you keep hearing the word efficiency come out of my mouth? Well, that's why. If you're not efficient, there's an issue here.

AROYA: Yeah, no question. You always worry about what would happen if and when anything you love becomes mainstream or when there’s literally billions of dollars at stake. You lose that sort of innocence and camaraderie when those of you who grew up in the industry together are suddenly rubbing shoulders and butting heads with people new to the community. The secret’s out now and everyone wants to get in on the action. On that note, where do you see the industry going in the next decade or so?

JIGAR: I think there's no denying that cannabis is a global product. At some point or another, like anything else, we will start to see the market mature globally. If you talk to industry veterans, I don't think anybody saw the speed at which the industry would’ve already matured here in the States, from around 2010 to 2021. This industry has moved at a lightning pace. So I think you’ll start seeing different parts of the world join in, and we're already seeing it in Europe and South America. These different countries are opening up and preparing for globalization and actually shipping product across countries.

Now, do I think this is going to happen overnight? Do I think it's going to happen in 10 years? I don't know. I think you'll start to see some of the European countries start to develop very similar practices to those you see in North America today. I think you'll start to see some exports that'll show up in South America and perhaps Asia.

Now, does that mean you'll always be able to export? Maybe not. Again, that's why I tend to believe indoor cultivation has the most intrinsic value globally because if a state or country isn't willing to allow folks to import product and they want those tax dollars, ideally what they will do is develop some type of platform for that to work within their boundaries.

Even so, when we look at what we do and what we're able to do, I think we still need to realize that cannabis still has a long way to go for global acceptance. It's still very underground in most of the world. We all know there's a ton of cannabis users. A number that probably grows monthly, if not daily. So we'll start to see other countries adopt more and more legalization.

AROYA: That’s super fascinating and great perspective. As a global company with a presence on three continents, we’re very curious to see how things progress internationally.

Alright, lightning round: What’s your facility size now?

JIGAR: We total about 55,000 square feet of canopy.

AROYA: About how much in revenue did you do last year and how do you think you’ll grow in the near future?

JIGAR: I don't want to give the revenue number up. We'll grow next year because of expansion, probably by about 100%. Yeah. I would say 12 months from now, we should be doubled to run right.

AROYA: That’s impressive as hell. Okay, last one: How did the partnership between NorCal and AROYA begin and how have things changed for you in the way you do things ever since?

JIGAR: I think I can do something and it probably can incorporate a little bit of NorCal story into it. I think three years ago, when we saw the industry evolving, we realized that we had to start using data and technology to our benefit. We went out and constructed what I would call a pretty all-star crew of cannabis growers from different facets: those that were familiar with technology, those that had the Big Ag growing background. We had cannabis experts from our own team that were operationally sound at what they did, as well.

As we began to come together, we looked at a lot of technology and data companies to see what we would use. When we landed on AROYA, I think within about two months of really starting to get our hands around it, we began to see the possibilities of what we could do--not just internally, but long-term with the cannabis plant. I think the use of the AROYA equipment, and our ability to be partners with AROYA through that whole process, has really helped us evolve. I think it’s helped us become one of the leading indoor cultivators in the world.

Our ability to actually transcend what people thought was possible in our industry and with this plant really does come from this combination of not only that in-house team, but our ability to partner with AROYA, and some of our other HVAC and equipment vendors, to build something very special.

I think this is only the beginning. This technology and data collection is going to last us a lifetime. I think it's just setting up the groundwork for what will be an evolution in indoor cannabis farming.

AROYA: We love to hear it, and you guys are too kind.

JIGAR: I mean everything I say, by the way. We set out to build an all star team. One of the things that came out of it was our relationship with AROYA. Look, we're thriving, and we love what you guys do for us. We've had a great relationship. Cheers to you.

AROYA: Right back atcha. Thank you so much!

JIGAR: All right, guys. Well, look, I appreciate your time and let me know what it looks like. I hope we got some good things out of that.

AROYA: Oh, I’m sure we can find a few gems in there. Thanks again.

JIGAR: All right, guys. Take care.

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