Michael Sassano is the CEO and founder of Solaris Farms, one of three large greenhouse cannabis cultivators in Nevada. We recently checked in with Mike for an interview covering Nevada’s adult-use market, the latest greenhouse technology advances, and his advice for cannabis cultivators and other industry operators.
Scroll down to read through Mike’s advice, anecdotes, and predictions for the future of cannabis.
Ganjapreneur: What was your career that led to founding a cannabis farm, and what originally sparked the idea that led to Solaris Farms?
Mike Sassano: I have had many experiences based on extensive travel and a private equity career. I did extremely well as the number one arbitrage trader at CIBC and used that skill and resources to be an avid tech and real estate investor in the mid/late ’90s. I saw many cycles up and down until the “Big One” of 2008. Cannabis held a great personal appeal because it was not reliant on big banks and encompassed real estate development, sustainable resources, and technology all in one. But the idea of going industrial didn’t come to me until early 2015 when I traveled the world learning all the best techniques of growing from normal food farmers. By 2016 Solaris Farms was being built and by 2017 our genetics were being developed. The ride since has been all-in on cannabis.
What are the benefits for cannabis to greenhouse cultivation, and what about Solaris’ greenhouse technology makes it specialized for growing cannabis?
Let me count the ways! First: We are a hybrid greenhouse. There is a big distinction. In order to control the environment like an indoor facility, you must think out of the box and look at the latest technological marvels in hybrid greenhouses. Although Solaris was designed 3+ years ago, our next generation is much more efficient and in control. Second: Cost savings. I do not believe that indoor on any scale, besides large scale multi-leveled LED projects, will be able to keep up with the fractional costs of hybrid-greenhouse. Third: The ability to control all aspects of the environment allows for higher, more sensitive genetics to be cultivated. Fourth: Cost to build is significantly lower and only outdoor can beat the price, but not the quality. Fifth: Contamination prevention is superior to normal greenhouses and is extremely key as more and more states and countries adopt strict rules to protect the consumers. Sixth: Data is easier to accumulate and analyze since the environment is more stabilized.
How much R&D was required to get your hybrid greenhouse technology up and running? Could you elaborate a bit on your development process and explain the incoming improvements?
Back in 2015, I had already made the decision to make a large scale greenhouse. At that time, 350,000 sq ft was the biggest I had heard of. But the trick was to control the environment of Nevada. I traveled literally around the world, North to South, cold to hot, South America to Asia to the deserts of Kuwait, visiting the largest agricultural food producers and learning. The fluctuating heat and cold of the desert were more extreme in Kuwait than Vegas, so Solaris was born from a similar design. I also cribbed some details from Cargill, like a central spline and other details. The next phase is 300,000 sq ft to max out our potential. Since then I have designed other greenhouses. The phase after that will be glass and fully-enclosed like the more modern greenhouses that are being made. With 24’ peaks, the airflow and air contamination equipment will be superior. Post-harvest automation can best be described as one of those machines that laundry mats have, whereby the plants are hung and transported to dry rooms then to trim rooms in the most efficient manner with the least disruption and handling. I spend most of my time working on post-harvest automation and de-contamination equipment choices.
Could you describe the response to Solaris Farms’ products from consumers and retailers? Have you had a particularly popular strain/offering?
We have four high producing strains that have been testing from 25% to 30%+ THC, over 32% cannabinoids and at least 8-12mg’s of the two top dominant terpenes: Las Vegas Kush, Fire Chem, White Cookies, and LA Afghan. Then we have 4 strains producing slightly less but still 23-28% THC, over 30% Cannabinoids and similar 7-11mg’s of top dominant terpenes: 91 Chem Hawaiian Sativa, 91 Chem, HP13, and old fashioned Moonshine. Every dispensary knows us in Vegas and our product is sold as the test results come in. I throw a party every month or two in order to meet everyone, show appreciation, and celebrate our industry. We have an open door tour policy; as long as you haven’t been to another grow that day, you can come in and we will show you how we do everything. Our board room has a viewing area that people enjoy coming to and meeting with us. We have almost zero turnovers and the industry knows we create a great environment for everyone and our plants.
How many employees work at Solaris Farms, and which qualities do you think are most important for being part of a successful team in the cannabis space?
Solaris Farms has 23 full-time positions and 18 part-time positions. Solaris prides itself on well-over 50% diversity in ethnicity, race, and gender. We believe diversity is one of the keys to our success. We create an environment that fosters growth and has one of the lowest turnover ratios in the industry; only one in the past year. Each manager carries a future vision and is chosen because they are leaders, can perform, and know-how to create a successful environment.
Are there any major misconceptions you have to confront about owning/operating a cannabis farm?
The most abused perception, which causes our industry to be taken advantage of, is that people believe that we are all billionaires or hundred-millionaires and that profits are rolling in the doors like crazy. No, profit and wealth in this industry take hard work and precision. And those who gained it too easily may not be the ones you want to emulate. The best is yet to come. And this is much better than working for a living *laughs*
Where do you hope to see Solaris Farms in the next five years? And how about 20 years down the road?
Solaris was built to last, but inevitably we also must expand. Keeping a top 10 position in Nevada should be consistent. Expanding to Europe is in the works. That will be very challenging. And hopefully, an East coast hub will come together in 5 years. We hope in that time to have our tinctures and gelcaps in most legal states. In 20 years, I hope to be sitting on the grow in Europe eating cheese and drinking wine watching the plants grow since I will be 69:)
What can cannabis cultivators do to expand their brand’s reach and footprint in the industry?
The simplest and lowest-cost way is to bring your best few products to other states by renting space at other facilities. All it requires is sourcing the THC, some equipment and packaging, plus a manager and salesperson. I’m doing it, so why shouldn’t everyone?
What is the most common mistake you’ve seen other cannabis brands/entrepreneurs make?
There are many people that think they are better than everyone and haven’t learned to make friends and to help people. This creates the “island unto themselves” attitude. I help anyone who reaches out to me. I will give expensive advice for free. And guess what? When I need help, people are there for me doing the same. We all need help, so check the attitude at the door. One thing is certain, profitability is elusive as you grow and we should all be humble.
Are you planning to expand into any other state markets? Why so, or why not?
Just by branding. I believe that in the future there are no barriers to states and countries. I also believe that worldwide distribution channels will be open. All you need is brand recognition now and a few distribution points.
What advice would you offer to entrepreneurs and/or farmers who are considering pursuing a cannabis cultivation license?
In order to compete in today’s market, it takes 110% dedication and sacrifices, plus a heck of a lot of money that wasn’t needed 10 years ago. Don’t underestimate delays, costs, and lower than expected sales prices. As good as you think you are, cannabis is humbling to everyone. Extend your visions past the idea of greatness and think of all the competition and how to really beat them. But, more importantly, survive with them in the world. Be cautious and not frivolous. And then enjoy the ride…
Thanks, Mike, for taking the time to answer our questions! To learn more about Solaris Farms and greenhouse technology, you can visit the company website at SolarisFarms.org or reach out on Instagram @solarisfarms.