Every month, we like to highlight cultivators who are really getting it done in a big way. This month, we had a double-barreled blast of expertise. We got together with two of our favorites in the industry: Jack Whipple, the founder and CEO of Whipple Effect, and Sean Curtis, the cultivation manager of Tradecraft.
They’ve got big plans and we talk to them about how they got to the point where they can keep scaling fearlessly: what they love to grow, what they’re excited about in the near future, and what they’re getting out of partnering with AROYA.
Read through our Q&A below, and remember to hit up Whipple Effect and Tradecraft on IG.
[This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity.]
AROYA: We've got Jack Whipple in here from Whipple Effect, and we got Sean Curtis here from Tradecraft. We are going to discuss a little bit about their AROYA implementation, how things are going at the facilities. So, we're pretty excited to have him on the call here today. Let’s talk a little bit about how you guys got started in the business and what makes you so passionate about growing cannabis?
Jack Whipple, Whipple Effect: So, I got started in the business way back when. It's kind of a silly story, but it's actually true. I was 15 and saw the movie Blow and I was, huh, I don't think I like school. I think I want to pursue cannabis. Sold my PSP, and I got involved. Luckily cannabis became legal way down the road, so I made the voyage from Indiana to Colorado and I was there in 2012 when they passed Amendment 64 to legalize recreationally. Before that it was always a smaller thing. But once it got legalized recreationally, I jumped right in and have been doing commercial cannabis ever since.
Sean Curtis, Tradecraft: I started around 2008 as a bud-tender at one of the original shops in L.A. We had a little grow operation there and I started working with it. I was the only one working there and I crashed into the ground a lot of times and then started doing a little bit better. Then I got a house and then we got a couple of commercial spots and then a bunch of little commercial spots. And then as time went by with all the new regulations and stuff, each little spot got shut down by the landlord or the city or the collective went out of business I was attached to. And then eventually I found the Tradecraft guys.
AROYA: Well, it sounds like both you've been part of this industry for a long time and you put those years together, it adds up quick, so. Maybe you guys want to tell me a little bit about what technology was like early on. What were some of the tools you're using and how did that play into your success where you're at now?
Sean: Oh, man. Back in ‘08, it was some system, two hoods, no humidifiers, little dinky dehumidifiers, and a lot of just raw conduit on the walls, just rigged. It was rigged, back in 2008, lots of stuff was rigged. But it worked.
Jack: I started in 2012 commercially and even back then it was tables that we made out of wood with corrugated plastic for roofing on the tables and the way that we were irrigating and the pumps we were using, it definitely wasn't Dad pumps and NetaFlex 3G systems. We were hand-mixing tanks, Triple-X rafter hoods, vented, old-school HBS bulbs. I guess right around that time or a couple of years after, is when we started using 315s and double-ended HPS lighting and stuff like that. But before that, a lot of places were still hand-watering, super high-tech places had some Rainbird systems going on, but it was a lot different than it is now.
Sean: No flood sensors.
Jack: No, and we certainly weren't crop steering with AROYA at that point in time.
AROYA: Well, it's taken us all a little while to get here but I'm pretty excited about where we're at right now and where things are going here in development the next couple of years, so. Are there any specific companies or other tools that you want to give a shout out to real quickly? Maybe those that you're still using, who have been around with you for a while?
Jack: Yeah, for sure. Shouting out Netafim we use. At this facility we're at now we've got the NetaFlex 3G and Allister at Netafim has just been an amazing help, helping us design these systems and the drip irrigation on the tables. They're one that without a doubt has to have a big shout out, and has been a crucial tool for us.
Sean: I guess the Spectra that I use. They have been really good with the support and we've had good results with them. Just rock-and-roll facilities.
AROYA: Very cool. I can imagine with the speed things are changing right now that life was a little different at Tradecraft two years ago, even probably a year ago. Can you guys tell us a little bit about what's changed in those last couple of years.
Sean: Man. Well, a couple years ago we were just kind of expanding really quickly and building out a bunch of facilities with just kind of putting in the pieces, a little dehu, a little lights, a little AC, but nothing dialed in really. So it was a lot of chasing down brand new issues: having 100 or 150 light rooms. So, you add 10, 20 tons of dehu when the summer comes and you can only run your lights at 80 degrees, or at 80 percent if it is 90 degrees outside. So, you add another 10 tons. So it was a lot of retrofitting two years ago.
AROYA: How's your relationship with Whipple Effect changed the way that stuff gets implemented?
Sean: Oh, man. It's having another head to look at what's going on and keep you on track and remind you because there's so many components, so many aspects, so many pieces working together that you can be focusing on a couple of things and completely miss something for a few days and that's going to make a difference. You miss something for three days and it's going to make a difference. So having somebody that's on point and can help you stay on point, it's made a huge difference.
AROYA: Very cool. And for you, Jack, how do you pick out companies like Tradecraft? How do you know who the right people to work with are?
Jack: Well, that's a good question. It's always very important when we're figuring out what clients we're going to work with, having preliminary meetings, meeting the team, we always do an initial current state analysis to meet everyone at, there's two Tradecraft facilities that we work with. Doing a current state analysis of the facilities, meeting both of the teams, connecting with the ownership groups and making sure that there's proper capital for improvements that need to be made, that everyone's on board with the vision of where we're going to take things, and everyone works as a team. We take stock of their systems for communication, and make sure there's a good work chart in place, then that's when it makes sense to make an engagement. We've been working with Tradecraft for about two months and everything, we made lots of improvements and things are looking awesome and we're super excited to be working again.
AROYA: We are too. We're always excited when you get new clients you're working with bringing on board. It seems like most everybody you've introduced to AROYA were very successful using it. So we can't say enough about the way your system works, using the technology and making sure that those facilities are set up to be successful in the future. So talking about the future, what are you guys thinking about for the next year? What types of improvements? What changes? Maybe just tell us a little bit about where you're going.
Jack: I'll let Sean talk about Tradecraft and how they're expanding, which Tradecraft has all sorts of exciting new expansion projects in multiple different states. But just cultivation at large I think what's really exciting, at this facility we're at here, we have the new model of Spectra's LED lights and we're able to have 13 to 1400 PPFD on top of the canopy. And I think the entire facility is LED and then we're also building. Excuse me, we're building an R&D room with Agnetix Lights we're going to have 1500 PPFD on top of the canopy at all times. So, I think in the world of crop steering and just cultivation in general, it's an exciting time to be learning the different set points for this high PPFD LED growing.
I've been telling everyone: in 2019, I was designing mainly HPS gardens. Last year I designed about 60% HPS, 40% LED and this year we're only designing LED gardens in a bunch of different states all over the country. So, it's fun to see all these states coming online, it's fun to see the market growing and it's exciting to be using all of the new technology that's out and just upgrades across the board where starting all of last year, we were using the original AROYA and now the AROYA 2.0 platforms coming online and we're starting to put that in facilities and just seeing everyone grow together at the same time is pretty exciting.
Sean: It’s really exciting with the new technology that's out and using the AROYA to just see what you can really do with plants. I'm just a genetics guy and there's things that you kind of put in second place because it wasn't big enough or it finished too slow. And now we can control these things a little bit better and then bring these strains back around and they can work this time. Strains that are just better than other ones. So, and then as far as the straight graph, we have a big facility in Lancaster being built right now. It's got 50,000 square feet of hoop houses going up, 30,000 square feet of Nexus Greenhouses and 1,500 flowering lights. So it's a beast of a facility. It's going to have a type seven extraction license, it's going to have our distribution there. So it's going to be a beast.
AROYA: That's a lot to manage. Kind of wrapped around, you were talking about bringing some of your strains back using crop steering, really making them profitable. And kind of just on a personal note, love to hear what's your favorite strain and why?
Sean: Oh, man. So SFV from back in the day that just carried my life for a long time. And then Green Crack also, surprisingly that one pulled me out of some dark times after I got there a couple of times. And now Biscotti. Biscotti is kind of what I'm on right now. Those three, I think, are the ones that have supported my life.
Jack: So I'll answer this from two different perspectives. The first one, my favorite strand to grow just because I love the strain and it's special to me but we don't grow it commercially that much because the THC is a little bit lower, is Purple Ayahuasca. It's just a beautiful strain and normally tested about 18% THC, but as 2% CBD. And I use that in the ceremonial blend in my nonprofit called The Sacred Trip. So that one is just kind of special for a lot of different reasons.
But over this last year from a commercial perspective, and just from a profit-driving perspective, we've hit our biggest yields with Ice Cream Cake. I know it's kind of getting played out in the market right now, but that strain can handle environmental stress, it can handle drought stress, and when you dial it in just right, I think our biggest record that we've ever hit was 110 grams per square foot. And it was with the Ice Cream Cake and just herbal, gorgeous, frosty. It's been a moneymaker for all of our clients over the last year, for sure.
AROYA: Good stuff. I think some of my favorites are still old school, kind of like the ones you were talking about with your Purple Ayahuasca are a little bit more personal favorites, but I think good old Chemdog is probably top of my list.
Jack: One thing I'm excited about in the future as well, is that just in general: THC is not dictating the market and I'm also kind of excited for exotics to stop trending. And a lot of the facilities right now are only growing purple weed and I love purple weed, but I love growing all strains of cannabis, and especially fine-tuning recipes and stuff for every strain using AROYA. When you're limited to only the purple strains that hopefully test in the 27 to 32 percent range, it takes our genetic library that's hundreds of cultivars and it's kind of slimmed it down to just being limited to five to 10 strains that are kind of hitting this high-THC purple cultivar category. So, I'm kind of excited for the market just to open back up and for terpenes to be more research, to be done around terpenes, more research to be done around just the synergistic effects of lower THC cannabis and there being more of a market demand for it.
AROYA: I am too. I think that genetic variability is one of the really fun things about cultivating. If you're in there for genetic strain hunting, if you're in there for just getting a good variety of buds, it'll be fun to see this stuff keep continuing to hit the library of genetics in the world. But what's some good cultivation advice, maybe the best piece of cultivation advice you've ever received, and who said it?
Sean: For me, there's a lot, but every time, because I was reading this question, it just keeps coming into my head about doing calculations for how many dehus you need and then multiplying that by four, that's exactly what you need. But that's the one that just keeps popping into my head.
Jack: I was thinking about this, looking at the questions beforehand. And I think it's funny and it was said by Josh Neulinger, on one of these AROYA Lives that happened earlier this year and I really internalized it and took it to heart, and I think it's probably the most impactful piece of advice that I've heard. And it's really just about maximizing the amount of micromoles that are on the canopy in the first three weeks of flower and really maximizing the photosynthesis that is happening in those first three weeks, because really that in the end, that's when the flowers are being produced from the plant. So in the first three weeks, the full potential of what your yield could be is created. And you're only going to be able to maximize that by finishing veg strong, matching your DLI, and then just getting the proper amount of PAR on the plants as soon as you can from the first week of flower on.
AROYA: That's really cool. We think about the limiting inputs and how it can affect your product. And I think most people start with light. Talk to Bruce Bugbee, the scientist over there at Apogee. And so we're pretty excited. We're now releasing the quantum sensor from those guys as SQ-521 to really get a good look at any spectrum of light, and find out what that equals in micromoles, and also start getting that daily lighting integral graft out in AROYA. So we're pretty stoked to have that as a new feature in the system. And I can't agree with you more as far as how that's impactful in overall yield quality of product. All right. I think we talked a little bit about how long you guys have been using AROYA. Jack, you've been kind of using the system since day one, I think probably well over a year now, is that right?
Jack: Yeah, January of 2020. Spoke with Ramsey when you guys launched that at the Vegas conference at the end of 2019 and January the month after purchasing our first system. I think that was definitely the early stages of you guys launching AROYA, if I'm correct. Is that right?
AROYA: Yes, that's as far as our commercially available product, absolutely. We've been doing some client research for a number of years before that and just making sure that when we hit the market our product was ready for what most really good growers needed.
Sean: We got ours about six months ago. So we've been using it for about six months now.
AROYA: And how was the process getting started with AROYA? What kind of things did you guys need? Where could we meet you with those needs and how smooth did that system set up go?
Sean: It went really smoothly. We got all the sensors, we had the onboarding with Reed and with Josh and we just had weekly meetings and kind of walked us through parameters that we needed to keep an eye on and keep between. And it was a lot of observing because we didn't have anything to go off of. So we plugged him in and looked at the graphs and then talked to Josh and Reed and made adjustments and saw trends start. And now we're actually to the point where we know what we're doing a little bit better and we can make things happen, we can start trends that we're trying to get started. We can increase our P1s to get our EC down, just a little tricks like that to stay in those parameters.
Sean: And I think one of the biggest things was just seeing how different our environments were at different times. And because we do a lot of double-stacks, our upper compared to our bottom environment readings were wildly different than at the beginning. So just doing those tweaks to get the rooms, to get the environment homogenized and get everything running without microclimates, that was really exciting because it was just chasing down ghosts that had been around for a while. And why is this side of the room, why is it so hot over here? It's because our light spacings closer and our PPFD is 1200, as opposed to the other side of our room where our light spacings two feet further apart and our PPFD 600 to 800. So it was a lot of that stuff coming together, connecting a lot of dots from just track knowledge. Things that I didn't know that I can put numbers to and metrics to and see them.
AROYA: Absolutely. Well, I think one of the funnest things of this job for me is working with growers that have been doing things for a long, long time. And they kind of had some good feelings about how plants reacted, what was going on in certain spots. And I think these sensors are documented verification that most of the time agrees with things they were feeling. They just had a hard time getting that all into graphs or just not enough time to take that data.
AROYA: So maybe tell us a little bit about how to capture this data: how is the system where all of your documentation is trying to get into one place? How has that changed your cultivation practices?
Sean: Man, I wake up in the morning, I look at the graphs and I kind of make a plan based on that: what we need to change, what we need to adjust as far as environmentals. I can see if we lose some HVAC, if we lose a circuit and some dehus get lost or some humidifiers get lost. So I would just start with that in the morning. I check out what's happening with the rooms and then when we get to work we split it up between, there's different room leads. So they go check their rooms and check all the environmentals in there. And they'll just do a spot check. But I guess really it just kind of gives us a real view of what's going on, not just the feeling and what's going on. So there's a lot more confidence in the decisions that we make.
Jack: And I can touch on this too. We started back in 2017 or 2018. Then I switched all of our facilities over to AROYA, just for the user interface and the platform is so nice to be able to record. Every week, if we're making any irrigation adjustments, we save it inside of the harvest group. We have the prebuilt recipes in there, we can also see all of the environmental data and from the home screen, I can flip through the nine different facilities that we're currently managing. Here at Tradecraft, we do AROYA walkthroughs every single day where the manager's first task of the day is checking the data environmental on one screen, substrate data on the other screen so we can see both of them at the same time. It's super efficient.
We go through all the rooms and then we physically walk the rooms after having checked the data. If any data looks off for any reason, we take note of the sensors and we go check those out. We're recording pictures every seven days, plant heights. It's just allowed us to really take, you're saying, practices that we have been doing for a long time, understand why some of them were working, understand why others weren't working and kind of just be continuously tracking data and harvest after harvest improving based on datasets that are digitally archived that we can revisit. For all of the harvest groups, once a harvest is complete, we save them in the AROYA system.
It's very common on a month-to-month basis where we're talking about a harvest that we had and we can pull it up and we can just hone in on a week, where did our EC finish the day-21 for this cultivar. Stuff that … unless you just were an impeccable note taker in the past, that data was hard to collect, or wasn't getting collected as efficiently as it is now.
AROYA: Very cool. Sean, you kind of touched a little bit on how your staff is functioning. I just want to talk a little bit about maybe some insights that, how has AROYA improved the way that your staff functions, what are some efficiencies that have been created by documenting this stuff the way we do?
Sean: Instead of training somebody to know “this is how heavy this needs to be,” or “this is how much whatever it needs to be,” We have a number to put to it now. And so it's brought the team together just in that consolidation of what we are trying to do for the plants. So if we're going for 30%, we all know what 30% is now because we have the sensors in there. Before it's, oh, this is 30%, you feel that? So as far as that, I feel like that's the biggest thing, it's just a consolidated team as far as knowledge and having actual information from a tool that we can all agree on... You know what I mean?
AROYA: Transparency, no, I get it. Trust me: 30% to my hands was different than 30% to your hands.
Sean: And it's a big deal. It just brings everybody. If you don't have these tools, you don't know what's going on in these huge rooms. So just having that confidence across the team I think that's the biggest thing that's made us better.
AROYA: I think having that confidence is probably one of the most gratifying things that you can experience daily. I know personally for me, if I'm not confident that what I'm doing is right, if I'm not confident that today my work is going to matter, it's always a more challenging day. So sometimes when I work with growers, our first step is to really get them confident in that data and allow them to say, “hey, let's change a little bit about how we think, how we interact with these plants.” And we're going to take that first step with data to verify, or maybe give us some questions about what we're doing.
Sean: That's what I was trying to say exactly.
AROYA: Right on. Well, and for you guys personally, I'm sure AROYA has had a fairly significant impact on your function, your position in the companies, in the industry, maybe touch a little bit on how it's helped you grow in your position, in your professional role.
Sean: Well, just going back to actually knowing what's going on, instead of guessing, if you're managing multiple facilities, you have your SOPs and you have what you're supposed to do, but then you show up, you only get what that crew is telling you. You don't know necessarily what happened to their environment. If they lost an HVAC or if they lost anything like that, or you don't know if they missed a watering and didn't tell you about it, or if the plants dried out, no one told you about it. It's things like that. You can tell what's going on.
Jack: It's all about scale, right? It's about tracking. The better that you can manage data, track it, and have the formulas in AROYA, the more facilities that you can manage at once. I went from being the owner/operator at the beginning of last year of three facilities to then starting with Whipple Effect, and now we're managing about nine facilities and I'm here at Tradecraft right now with Sean. But really, this morning, before I started the day here, I did a quick 20-minute check-in with our clients in Oakland. I'm in L.A. right now, but I'm able to make an impact on three facilities today. Whereas, before not having tools such as AROYA, having that kind of leverage of scale was a lot more challenging. So it's been great.
AROYA: Right on. Do you fellas have any questions for us?
Jack: What's exciting and new on AROYA's horizon for this next year.
AROYA: So, I'll talk a little bit here. I won't make too many promises, but since we are recorded, we are releasing that SQ-521 from Apogee integrated with the AROYAs. So, that'd be getting a very accurate look at your lighting intensity. So talking about bug canopy lighting intensity since it's calibrated for LEDs, it's calibrated for HPS, CMH and outdoor. With that, on the software side, we had paired it with DLI. So getting a good look at how many micromoles are hitting that canopy on a day-to-day basis. Obviously that's one of the most important things. When we look at lighting intensity from veg to flower talking about how do we get the same amount of energy into those plants in six less hours? Definitely something that I think should help clients understand, are my plants stressed because they're not getting enough light?
Let’s say I’ve transplanted these plants and I stressed them because they're in a whole different environment with a different room. Or I changed the lighting from CMH or from LEDs to HPS ... or any of those other changes that happen as a by-product of moving those plants to the next stage. Other things that we have on board is to continue rolling out METRC integration across the country. So right now, obviously our 2.0 METRC integrations are fully functional in California. It's working out great for a number of our clients: scanning RFID tags, hanging their plants, getting automated weights when that plant stabilizes and really all of the impacts that happen in METRC output are directly related to the way that you guys run harvest groups.
So, it's a nice transition for a lot of our clients currently because they're used to the workflow of manually entering into the system, telling what's going on with that plant life cycle. And then AROYA is automatically outputting all that into a compliance inbox. It's been making the life of compliance officers or compliance managers at these facilities quite a bit nicer because all that information can be shared. Those responsibilities can be shared a little bit, yet they are still the end choke point, that control point on verifying the information is correct before it lands into METRC.
So we're really stoked about how that information is really going to complete the dataset from a growth cycle. So when we look at all this data as an input, all this labor as an input and the output is talking about, wait, how long did it take us to get that weight? What's the quality of that weight? So that metric integration is down to a single input. So rather than dual entries taken, here's my yield into metric, here's my yield into AROYA, putting that yield right into AROYA, it's going into metric. Now you're attributing your facility. So that kind of leads into a couple of other features we're working on. So we're looking to improve facility analytics. So pages that basically break down how runs operate, how strains are operating and give you guys a big picture on what's the best way to function.
Sean: That's a lot.
AROYA: All right guys. Well, let's get this wrapped up and start sharing with everybody out there in the world. Thanks for spending the time talking with us. It's great to see both of you, and it's really fun to talk a little bit about how AROYA is working for you and listen to your comments about your companies.
Sean: Nice talking with you, it was awesome.
Jack: Cool, thank you so much.