Washington State’s legal cannabis market just celebrated its first anniversary. While there has been much debate about the merits and faults of I-502 (the initiative which created the state’s legal market), it is undeniable that the industry has gained momentum and many recreational growers are making a name for themselves in the market.
This week, Ganjapreneur heads out to Vashon Island to meet with Vashon Velvet founder Susie Gress who runs a licensed recreational cannabis grow operation that is woman-owned and operated and uses environmentally friendly growing techniques to produce exceptional flower.
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Shango Los: Hi there and welcome to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I’m your host, Shango Los. The Ganjapreneur.com podcast gives us an opportunity to speak directly to entrepreneurs, cannabis growers, product developers, and cannabis medicine researchers, all focused on making the most of cannabis normalization. As your host I do my best to bring you original cannabis industry ideas that will ignite your own entrepreneurial spark and give you actionable information to improve your business strategy and improve your own health and the health of cannabis patients everywhere.
Today my guest is Susie Gress. Susie Gress is founder and ownership partner in Vashon Velvet, a recreational I 502 licensed cannabis grower and processor on Vashon Island in Washington state. Susie is a serial entrepreneur, having launched a recycling collection business, as well as a marina for floating homes. She presently manages all operations at Vashon Velvet, and drives the development of exceptional cannabis products for the recreational market. Vashon Velvet is leading the way in incorporating green technology to lessen their ecological footprint and we’ll talk about that today. Welcome, Susie.
Susie Gress: Hi Shango, thanks for the sweet words.
Shango Los: So glad you could join us. To start out, knowing that our listeners are curious what your operation consists of, will you start us out by telling us a little bit about your number of plants, the kinds of lights you use, and your growing medium so people can get a picture of the Vashon Velvet operation?
Susie Gress: Sure, Shango. We’re tier one, which means we’re about 1,000 square feet of canopy. We are all hydro, which we find is not only the easiest way to grow but uses a lot less water than you would think. We use LED lights and our growing medium is grow rock, Growstones I think, it’s made out of recycled glass which is melted, air is pumped into it, and it ends up with a lava rock consistency. We recycle that. Every time we have a harvest we dump them into a barrel full of hydrogen peroxide, let them sit overnight and use them again.
Shango Los: That’s pretty great that you’re incorporating so much green technology. Was that an ideal of the company to begin with? Or do you do that more because you’re on an island you need to conserve resources so much more?
Susie Gress: It was of course both. Not just that it’s also economically more advantageous for us to grow the way we are. But we did have a dedication to growing environmentally when we started. Especially the LED lights which use, I would say, less than half of the energy that the traditional HID lights use.
Shango Los: There’s a lot of trash that’s talked around LED and you’ve got to be one of the first major grows to be incorporating LEDs. What’s your experience with them then? How do you find that they compare to high pressure sodium?
Susie Gress: We’ve been delighted. One of the things that we find with the LEDs, we did do a comparison grow before we chose LEDs just in the garage with HID, LID, and the same plants. The stem length, the internodal spacing in between leaf clusters on a plant, is much shorter using LEDs. We actually use HIDs, two of them, for our mothers because it’s hard to clone plants grown with LED, they have such short internodal length that you can’t get the root space for them.
Shango Los: I had not even considered that but you’re right. Sometimes I guess you do want it to stretch out a little bit so you can get your snip in there.
Susie Gress: Yeah, absolutely.
Shango Los: I’ve seen some photographs of your grow and those hot pink LED lights, it looks like a disco in there. In that same article I saw some ridiculous photographs of the tips of the colas, they looked like they were somewhere between all white and transparent tricomb. I think you called them hash tips. Can you talk a little bit about that? Because this is brand new having not grown with LED lights myself.
Susie Gress: Sure, Shango. It was brand new to us too. Everything’s been new to us. One of the advantages we had is not knowing a whole lot which way they wanted to grow and they had a particular kind of growing method in mind. But so far as the hash tips go, when we first saw them it was about three weeks before harvest. I would say every tenth plant had about a two inch cola at the top that was pure white, just the top two inches, no chlorophyll whatsoever. We were really worried, we thought maybe it was something we were doing wrong. We googled white tips on plants and of course there were a lot of opinions. Some people said, “You burnt your plants, you ruined them, you are too close to the light.” Other people said, “That’s pure hash oil, it’s fantastic, you’re doing the best plant ever made.”
We weren’t sure what was going on so we called Illumitex, who make our lights, they sent a plant physiologist out to do some investigation. What he came up with was that he told us, “If a plant is having stress it will start to show from the bottom up because the plant tries to preserve the growing tip. If the tip is good and the bottom of the plant is good, then that white tip isn’t a problem.” Pretty much what he said, he compared it to a fat person that once you’ve got enough energy there’s no place else to store it, it’s just stored as fat. The testing of those showed that they had about the same THC as the green part of the plant but more total cannabinoids.
Shango Los: As far as taking those unusual looking colas to market, I would think that a lot of people who had not come across this, they may question it. Do you just put those colas in with the rest of the produce? Or what do you do with those?
Susie Gress: We only sell to three stores right now because they take everything we can possibly produce. We spend a lot of time with the bud tenders, talking to them about what we’re doing and our strains, so they know a lot about our plants and they’re able to pass that on to the customers. They explain to them what’s going on with the white tips. We have customers that will wait in line until there are more hash tips that come out. That’s all they want is a plant with a hash tip in it. Sometimes we put a little star in the ones with the hash tips just so the bud tenders will know, but they’re definitely in demand.
Shango Los: Wow, that actually sounds really exciting to not only … The idea that you’re educating the bud tenders is a really great idea because people do that with other products to make sure the salespeople there at retail know what they’re doing. But traditionally there hasn’t been a lot of connection between the grower and the person who is finally reaching the consumer. I can imagine that that would create a more voracious clientele going after your flowers.
Susie Gress: Those are the people that are the interface between the customer and the product. If they don’t know what your product’s about you’re not going to have much going out the door.
Shango Los: Let’s talk about some of your strains, Susie. A lot of folks who have moved into 502, their idea was we’re going to grow as many different strains as possible because we don’t know what’s going to be cool. They didn’t want to commit to anything. But I know from you that you have chosen what looks like about a half dozen strains and you’ve committed to those after, I’m assuming, trying them out. Tell me a little bit about that. How did you go about choosing your strains? From a business point of view, what was the strategy behind that?
Susie Gress: As you remember when 502 first came out, nobody knew what was going to happen. We didn’t know who our customer base was going to be, we didn’t know who was going to buy what strain. But my guess was that the younger people who do a lot of smoking already had a supplier, either they grew their own or somebody they knew did, and that they wouldn’t be willing to pay the extra price at retail. People in my generation, I’m 63, a lot of them haven’t smoked since, say, college or high school, quit when the kids came, and wanted to start again. The universal response for them was I don’t want something so strong it rips your head off, puts you to sleep, I want something giggly. That’s what we looked for is giggly strains.
Shango Los: That’s great. Did you experiment with a lot of strains before you went and committed to these six? Do you have quite a bit of variety in those six so you’ve got a little bit of something for everybody?
Susie Gress: As you know, in 502, after you get your license you have 15 days to bring in any strain you want, clones, seeds, plants. But after that 15 days is over you can only get plant material from other licensed growers. The strategy for everybody is bring as much in as you can, as many different seeds, as many different plants. At one time I think we had 35 different mothers growing. But it wasn’t long before we realized that’s an expensive way to go. You have to have packaging for each one of those, you have to train the bud tenders in each one of those. After I would say the first big harvest we realized that Laughing Buddha, Liberty Haze, and Acapulco Gold all were from Barney’s Farm in Amsterdam and people loved them. Can’t sell it, we can’t grow enough for the demand, especially Laughing Buddha.
Shango Los: Right on. Thanks, Susie. We’re going to take a short break and be right back. You’re listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Welcome back to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast, I am your host Shango Los. With us this week is Susie Gress, the owner and operator of Vashon Velvet, a cannabis grower in Washington state. Susie, before the break, we were talking about the strains that Vashon Velvet has committed to to bring to market. A lot of times bringing the cannabis to market is made more difficult because of the regulatory structure of the state. Washington does not have a really great reputation on that so far. What is your experience then? Did you find the bureaucracy to be really foreboding and challenging? What was your experience?
Susie Gress: I think looking back the hard part was there were so many unknowns. Because it was all new to everybody, no one had done it before. There were a lot of rumors about what the county was requiring, what the liquor control board was requiring. Things seemed to change frequently. Once we finally got to the point of having our license done though, learning to actually use Biotrack, which the state requires us, and to follow the rules, I compare it to breaking a horse to a saddle. At first it’s very irritating to have to weigh all your waste and destroy a little plant in front of a camera, quarantine it for 72 hours, but after a while it becomes routine, it’s a habit, you know what to do.
For me the hard part has been more the other government agencies than the liquor control board. Right now we’re dealing with the Puget Sound Clean Air Coalition is giving us a lot of grief.
Shango Los: Can you share on what particular topic? You’re not really much of a polluter it would seem.
Susie Gress: We’re producing oxygen, yeah. Too much I guess. The problem is they don’t have any standards they want us to follow, they just think if you are producing marijuana it’s going to smell and they don’t want it to smell. They want us to put in anti-smell equipment that we don’t need because we’re not really producing any exhausting smells.
I’ll share a story with you. One of the other producers is in eastern Washington, they want her to put in a $5,000 carbon filter. They told her that she has a lot of pine terpenes. She said, “Give me a standard. How much pine terpene can I put out before I’m exceeding the limit?” They said, “We can’t tell because you’re surrounded by a pine forest and we can’t tell the difference between your terpenes and the pine forest. You’re not allowed to put them out.” That’s what we’re up against.
Shango Los: Yeah, that sounds really frustrating. I can imagine that there’s all sorts of different flavors of that because we all joke about reinventing the wheel but you are on the cutting edge of cannabis normalization. You’re probably the first person to touch a lot of these agencies and they’re freaked out because they don’t want to do it wrong. Most bureaucracies look to what has been done beforehand and, of course, this hasn’t been done beforehand. You’re probably doing a lot of educating of folks.
Susie Gress: Lucky me.
Shango Los: One of the things that everybody loves about Vashon Velvet, and why you get a lot of attention, is your awesome packaging and brand integration. For lots of producers the brand and their logos and sometimes even the name is really an afterthought. But seeing your products in the market, they’re beautiful, they’re colorful, and many of them are under glass. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to the brand and the logo and your approach?
Susie Gress: Like so many things it started around the kitchen table with a bottle of wine. We knew we wanted a deer, my daughter and I both have deer as a spirit animal and, as you know, the deer are all over Vashon Island and all over our farm. We wanted a vintage feel. Again, as I said before, I think … I thought at the time that our customer base would be comprised of a lot of older people and we found that to be true. I wanted to bring back the nostalgia of my days of smoking pot in high school. We bought a lid, which was an old Prince Albert tobacco can lid, that was the standard for purchasing marijuana back in the day. We have a can that is modeled after a Prince Albert can. We were very lucky that my sister, who is a partner in the company, is one of the best commercial artists in Seattle. We came up with the idea and she executes.
Shango Los: You mentioned now your daughter and now your sister, this is sounding like a women-owned and operated company. Would you say that’s true?
Susie Gress: You better believe it. We also had a friend of mine from high school, who’s a CPA, decided she wanted in and she gave us a lot of guidance financially. We had a fantastic team. My daughter just graduated from college with a business degree and Chinese, but she’s stepped up and become a fabulous salesperson. Between the four of us, and then we brought in Patrick, one guy, he’s our token male. We’re a good team.
Shango Los: That sounds great. One of the things that people really like about your packaging, there’s lots of reasons, but it’s because you pack it in nitrogen. That’s new for a lot of folks. Can you explain why you pack in nitrogen?
Susie Gress: I have a chemistry background and at one time when I was in college I did a side job for Nalley Foods, where they were testing if it would preserve their chip dip better if they had a flush of nitrogen over the product, underneath the plastic seal on it. It did. The scientific testing that we did showed that it prevented it from oxidizing. We decided to steal that notion and it does seem to fill up the package nicely and keeps the bud fresh.
Shango Los: I’m assuming that’s mostly ounces. I know that you roll prerolls there too and you put them out in these gorgeous packages. Are you able to pack in nitrogen prerolls or is this mostly loose flower you’re talking about?
Susie Gress: No, it … We aren’t able to use the nitrogen for the prerolls, there isn’t enough room in there. I suppose we could try it but they seem to go pretty quick anyway, they’re not around very long.
Shango Los: You must have … Since you do so many prerolls, that seems to be thing that I see in most people’s hands is not your flower ounces but … Actually that’s probably because they’re in tall glass tubes. But people are carrying around your prerolls. You must have a lot of hands on deck to get those all filled out and into the market.
Susie Gress: I have to say they’re a pain. We take turns with who gets the short straw and who gets to make joints this week. But they are very popular so we crank them out. We do sell one gram, two gram, and three-and-a-half gram bags too, of flower. They’re, I would say, just as popular. Most of our orders run about 100 bags of each of our strains and 100 joint packages.
Shango Los: I got a two-part question on that. The first part is what drew you to have the tin? Second, it seems like everything that you deliver to the stores gets sold anyway. What caused you to want to do something above and beyond?
Susie Gress: The marketing strategy for that was whether you buy one gram, two grams, or three-and-a-half grams, they all come in similar Mylar pouches. Why would you buy a three-and-a-half gram when you can buy three of the one grams, which increases our packaging cost? We give a tin to anyone who buys the three-and-a-half gram pouch. We would sell it in the tin but people like to be able to see it first. We just send a package of tins to the bud tenders and when somebody buys a three-and-a-half gram package of bud, they get a tin. It has increased the sales of the higher gram packages.
Shango Los: It’s funny how a business strategy that works better on your side ends up being something special and that’s the magic of marketing, right?
Susie Gress: Absolutely. Make them want it.
Shango Los: Right on. Excellent, excellent. Thanks, Susie. We’re going to take a short break and be right back.
Welcome back to the ganjapreneur.com podcast, I am your host Shango Los. This week we’re talking with Susie Gress, founder of Vashon Velvet on Vashon Island in Washington state. Susie, before the break we were talking about your cannabis growing operation there on Vashon Island. I read in the papers that Vashon has been growing cannabis for generations but you’re still one of the first established legal growers on the island. Being a rural community that’s probably given you a lot of physical privacy, but what has been your reception from your neighbors and the rest of the folks that live on your island?
Susie Gress: Shango, if you Google Earth our location, you’ll see a dozen or so hoop houses within a mile. Looks suspiciously like people that are growing marijuana themselves. A lot of our neighbors are pretty familiar with marijuana. Some of them that are not marijuana growers, just families, have been extremely welcoming and very friendly. There have been a couple neighbors who weren’t so friendly. One of them was polite but wasn’t interested in talking to us. We tried to be open and forthcoming, inviting people over to see what we were doing, but she wasn’t having it. The other neighbor’s just been downright rude and antagonistic, but that’s the way it goes.
So far as the rest of the community goes, you’ve started VIMEA, Vashon Island Marijuana Entrepreneurs Association, and got it into the Chamber of Commerce, which I think is fantastic. That’s done a lot for normalizing marijuana growing as a business on the island.
Shango Los: I was thinking to myself the way good neighbors normally introduce themselves is by baking cookies and cupcakes and taking it over. But considering it’s cannabis that might seem a little bit suspicious, right?
Susie Gress: We did make the cookies and we were very careful to tell them that they were cannabis free.
Shango Los: That’s funny, that’s funny. With all of the success and being right at the beginning of normalization, I’m sure that you’re probably just excited and relieved to finally be set up and be taking product to market. As we talked on the earlier segment, you’re doing some exciting things like packaging your ounces in glass and creating these commemorative tins. What other things are you looking at that you’re excited about bringing into the market as you diversify now that you’re over the first hump of just getting your doors open?
Susie Gress: Part of 5052, which says that July of 2016, the medical dispensaries will have to either apply to be under the 502 system or close down, they directed the liquor control board to analyze whether or not we need to have more medical marijuana being grown to fill the lack when the medical places close. So far as I’m concerned all marijuana is medical but when they say medical they mean high CBD strains. We would love to be able to expand into high … We do grow some CBD strains now but we would love to be able to expand that. It’s frustrating sometimes to have a demand for your product but we’re limited in our canopy by being tier one. Like I said, we’re making all we can make.
The other thing that we’re doing to possibly expand, one of the growers on the island doesn’t have a processor license, which means she’s not allowed to sell to a retailer, she has to sell to someone who is a processor, which we are. We’re looking at a way to bring her product to market in a way that is transparent so that we let our customers know we didn’t grow it but it is a Vashon strain without a whole new labeling and packaging structure.
Shango Los: In the prior segment, you were explaining how when you first got into business you’re given this 15-day window to get your genetics. Where the state turns their back and you can bring plants in from anywhere and that’s your starting crop. Now if you’re going to be diversifying in the CBD, that sounds like that could be tricky, right? How will you go about getting CBD strains, additional ones, than the few that you’re experimenting now? How would you go about that?
Susie Gress: We had some CBD strains that we had seeds of before the 15-day window closed. We’re using those seeds right now. One of them is called Blue Dynamite that we didn’t even remember it was a CBD strain. We cracked the seed and sprouted it, it was not a very pretty bud, it didn’t look like a big producer, it took forever. We thought heck with that stuff, we’re probably never going to grow it again. But when it was tested it came out at 13% CBD, I think 5% THC, perfect combination. We’re growing that as fast as we can. We had another, a harlequin clone, that was supposedly a harlequin clone. Turned out it had 24% THC and no CBD.
Shango Los: Jeez.
Susie Gress: We renamed that. It grows like a dream. It’s now we call it King Louis.
Shango Los: I’m glad that you got some CBD, but let’s say for a second that you did want to pick up a new CBD strain on the market. How would you go about doing that? Just so people can understand the constraints you’re under.
Susie Gress: There are two ways. If there is a current license holder who has the strain that you want, we’re allowed to buy from them. Then if no one has it, someone who is in their 15-day window can bring it in and then you can buy it from them. There is a good network of growers who talk to each other. I’ve got my 15-day window if anybody has anything they need. That’s very legitimate to be able to do that.
Shango Los: Yeah, I can see that would be a great way to create a sense of community with other 502 folks that are coming in.
Susie Gress: They’re such a nice group. It’s amazing how many of them are women. There doesn’t seem to be any sense of competition, it’s more hey let’s … We’re all in this together. Everybody shares information, they share methods. It’s been very heartening.
Shango Los: It’s time for us to wrap up, Susie. Thanks so much for chatting with us.
Susie Gress: Thank you for having me, Shango.
Shango Los: Susie Gress is founder of Vashon Velvet on Vashon Island. You can find the Ganjapreneur.com podcast right here on the cannabis radio network website. You can also subscribe to the podcast in the Apple iTunes store or you can listen and read interview transcriptions on our home website at Ganjapreneur.com. Thanks so much to Brasco for producing our show. I am your host Shango Los.