Cannabis cultivation is in Gonzalo Soto’s blood.
For the third-generation grower, memories of being a little kid running around bales of compressed cannabis in Mexico are easy to recall. His family always viewed cannabis under the lens of gardening - just another crop that needed tending - and it was in the shadows of prohibition that Gonzalo learned the craft from his father, who would eventually help him establish his first indoor setup. It was then that Gonzalo experienced the business side and began envisioning ways to become an entrepreneur.
After launching a collective and growing cannabis for dozens of patients under California’s medical framework, Gonzalo gained a reputation for growing quality medicine. But as the Golden State was poised to usher in recreational legalization with the passage of Prop 64 in 2016, he was faced with a risky decision: stay underground, or enter the traditional market? Turns out having the CEO of a cannabis brand as a family friend would make that decision a no-brainer. Gonzalo joined Oakland’s Grizzly Peak in 2017 and hit the ground running. He started out supporting the cultivation team and shadowing the head grower at their original 10,000 square foot facility; within 6 months Gonzalo was the manager of a smaller facility. From there, Gonzalo was tasked with building out room-by-room their new facility, which he now oversees as Cultivation Manager.
This month we were excited to meet with Gonzalo and talk to him about his longstanding passion for the plant, the resourcefulness it takes to survive (and thrive) through the industry’s many growing pains, and his plans for the future. Read through the Q&A below, and remember to follow Grizzly Peak on Instagram.
[This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for length and clarity.]
AROYA: So how did you hear about AROYA?
Gonzalo Soto, Cultivation Manager, Grizzly Peak: 2019 was a rough year for the industry in general. It was just after the transition from medical to recreational, so everybody was new to the whole legal market and nobody knew what the hell they were doing, including the state.
We started having major financial issues and we didn't know if we were going to make it or not. We didn't know if we were going to have a job in a month. It was hard to keep team morale just because it was so unpredictable - we didn't know what was going to happen. And then in 2020, it all went downhill. So, back to back, we were just eating it. It was very scary, but I think all in all, what sets us apart essentially is going through all those experiences and figuring out how to overcome them.
In 2021, we had all flower rooms set up and we were rocking, doing decent yields, but there was still something missing. We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure all of this out, and on top of that, we had the state at our back like, "Hey, we're going to start implementing like track and trace". It was frightening. Nobody knew the SOPs for keeping everything compliant and getting everything on board with their tracking system. We had to figure it all out on our own. It was a nightmare, to say the least. It was so unorganized, and there were no tools to be able to achieve this massive expectation that the state had for tracking and tracing plants. We went through a couple of different compliance officers and they didn't know what they were doing. The communication between the compliance officers and the boots on the ground - it was like there was no communication. So, I started looking for alternatives, like, "Hey, there's got to be a way to keep track of all of this. There's got to be a way to be able to simplify all of this!"
I'd been following a lot of growers and cultivators at the top of their game and AROYA kept coming up in the conversation. So, I was like, "Oh shit. What's this whole 'four pounds per light', 'crop steering' all about?" I was intrigued right away and I didn't even know they offered compliance. I didn't know they offered all of this other cool stuff to help your operation. I actually reached out to Ramsey - I'd been watching his and Josh's content - and was like, "Hey, who do I need to talk to get this platform onboard with Grizzly Peak?". So, he put me in contact with guys over at AROYA.
AROYA: Why are data and transparency so crucial for your operation?
Gonzalo: Before we brought AROYA on board about eight months ago, we were doing readings manually to be able to achieve what our AROYA's already doing. We were doing it all by hand. I had a guy going and around stabbing all the pots throughout the rooms, and collecting pH and EC and water content readings. We had eight plants that we tested and we had them all tagged and we had a spreadsheet that we built - the same concept as AROYA. Based on all the data that we collected and input, it predicted like, "Okay, your EC should be around this set point and then your pH should be around this set point on your next feed essentially". So we were doing that for a while and that's around the time that we realized like, "Holy shit. There's more to just watering plants. There's a whole science behind this". We started seeing how important this information was.
AROYA: What was a major selling point that helped you decide to get AROYA?
Gonzalo: For us, it was essentially figuring out how to crack the three-to-four pounds per light. In reality, as a commercial cultivator, to do two pounds per light is very hard, and to do it consistently is even harder. So, for us it was critical that to maintain as a licensed cannabis company here in California with all the taxation and all the hoops that they make us go through, we had to have over two pounds per light in production in order to keep up with expenses. Before AROYA came on board, we were around 0.8 to one pound; 1.3 pounds was a good yield for us.
So we got AROYA on board and for the first three months, we just collected data. We let things roll and we were just looking at the graphs, then we started realizing “Okay, if we do this amount of shots and we shoot for these targets, then we achieve this”. And we're like, “There's some control that we have here". Manipulating the EC and the soil and the substrate was driving our production. It was how we were steering it, and it was showing greater and greater results every time.
So, we started seeing our yield go up, we started seeing our potency get better and better. Then we integrated their AROYA 2.0, which is their compliance package. All of a sudden any other guys on the team can pick up and track the movement of the plants, as opposed to writing it on paper and then communicating it to our compliance officer so that they can update all the movement that we've done. In that process there was a lot of miscommunication, things were always behind. So, we started using AROYA for track and trace. We started with the clones and creating harvest groups and then tracking harvest groups throughout, and it just simplified compliance immediately. We got rid of our compliance officer, there was no more need for one.
Essentially each building is in charge of its facility, its facility compliance, and plant tracking. It just super simplified it for everybody. So now we use AROYA as our operating platform at all facilities for compliance, processing, data - that was a huge selling point.
AROYA: So you started using AROYA eight months ago - how's it going? What have you learned?
Gonzalo: Once we implemented AROYA, immediately we were like 1.5, 1.8 and then two pounds - we were there, we hit two pounds of light! We had a couple of bad rooms and then boom, two pounds of light, and then it started becoming consistent.
I remember the owner was like, "Yo, just get me a 100 pounds of room dog, and I'll get you paid!" And back then, we were hovering around 60, 70 pounds per room, so we were like, "Dude, 100 pounds? That's a lot!" Three, four months later after implementing AROYA, boom: we hit our first 100-pound room.
We realized the value of AROYA after we were able to hit yield consistency, and then consistency with THC test results too. This facility has been at the cutting edge; any new technology, we implement it here, we develop it and then we pass it down to the other facilities to implement after we figure it out. So, we started implementing everything across the board throughout all the other facilities and their yields started coming up.
We have three facilities, eighteen flower rooms, total. And we're harvesting every three days. It's awesome to be able to talk to the executive team and have them cheer you on. Where 100 pounds used to be the goal, now we are way past that and we're at like 150.
AROYA: That is fantastic! So what are your goals for 2022? How do you top that?
Gonzalo: Our next biggest goal is obviously 200 pounds. The name of the game in 2022 is scale.
After playing around in AROYA, creating a system, and having everything compliant, my mind is at ease knowing that everything is where it's supposed to be in our track and trace, and everything's up to date.
One of my big roles here at Grizzly Peak is also curating the menu. I do all the pheno hunting and genetics, breeding projects. It's a very, very intense process, bringing a strain from seed to market here in the legal cannabis industry. So, figuring that out, I think AROYA has absolutely helped me achieve having the peace of mind to be able to step back and focus on creativity.
What's most exciting, I think moving forward, is actually being able to use the data that we're collecting on all strains and genetics, and dialing it in to be strain specific. So, creating a strain, building a recipe based on the data, the input that we have, building a recipe, and figuring out how to achieve the maximum potential of the genetic before we implement it into production. One of our biggest issues at the time was running shitty genetics and getting shitty yields and not actually achieving genetic potential. So now, we're able to hit all those milestones that the plant needs so that it could really express its potential. All the plants are super happy. We're giving them everything they need, at the time that they need it. No more, no less.
We’re focusing our efforts on thriving, on creativity, and offering more options to the end-consumer - being able to deliver premium quality cannabis safely, essentially. All our practices involve a lot of TLC and nurturing the plants from start to finish. Everybody here knows I make it very clear that all my guys are aligned with the vision that I have to be able to achieve great results. So, everybody's aligned with the same common goal of quality output, and that's important.
Being able to have a team that can execute that is huge. Being able to try all these new varieties that won't hit the market for another six to eight months - they're super stoked on that. It gets everybody excited. Not to mention management, the executives, they're happy because they see something here and I feel like we're past that point where, if you're alive by now, you're amongst the big leagues. Before, I used to talk about the big leagues and making it to the big leagues and now I am a player in the big leagues. And they can see the success.
I'm very, very passionate about finding the next new terp profile that stimulates you in a way that nothing else does, and being able to create experiences for everybody else that consumes cannabis. Being able to create the same experience that I have when I go through this whole process of bringing up a plant to life from seed form and taking it all the way through the hoops, and then finally being able to harvest the fruits and being able to have it available to the end-consumer - that is what drives me. That's what keeps me waking up. And it's very humbling to share that experience with a platform like AROYA and be able to tell the story of how we got to where we are.
I recommend AROYA. I feel like AROYA is forever going to be in my tool bag until something else that's better comes out, but I think they're way ahead of everybody else in their industry and they're on it. So, as long as they're on it, they'll be a tool that I use and that I will be able to take with me wherever I go and be able to execute results at this scale successfully, and being able to learn from it, being able to use the data to learn from it and scale it even more. The name of the game in 2022 is scale.
It's humbling being able to develop such a tight crew here and then being able to spread that amongst the other facilities and now being able to have control over the menu, which is what we're all here for. I've created my dream job.