Business

Get a sneak peek at Flow Cannabis Institute, a massive marijuana processing center now open in Redwood Valley

“Positing an alternate future” was one of the themes presented to about 300 guests this weekend at Redwood Valley’s Flow Cannabis Institute’s official ribbon cutting and launch party.

Cannabis industry leaders, local officials and guests mingled Saturday on the lawn at the former Fetzer family winery complex, purchased by the multi-faceted cannabis processing center about a year ago.

The event was billed as an opportunity to tour the 80-acre former family winery, which is being transformed by FCI into a centralized cannabis processing center and wellness “campus” where independent farmers may bring their harvest to the one-stop facility for processing, storage and distribution.

Guests were divided into groups and provided a tour of four separate buildings. The tour was part TED talk and part info-tainment, likened to an opening of a Silicon Valley startup. (Chris Pugh, Ukiah Daily Journal)

As stilt dancers and musicians entertained the crowd, the staff, sporting decidedly western apparel, welcomed friends and industry guests who were bused in from the Bay Area.

Attendees relaxed on the verdant lawn in front of what was once the Fetzer’s historic home. Local government officials, including county Supervisors Dan Hamburg and John McCowen, Mendocino County CEO Carmel Angelo, county cannabis czar Kelly Overton and others, were on hand for the event, and other local businesspeople including Real Goods CEO John Schaeffer, Factory Pipe’s Ross Liberty and representatives from Visit Mendocino County were spotted at the gathering.

FCI currently employs about 120 people, and its mission states a dedication to the thousands of sustainable cannabis farmers, who company officials identified in their opening statements as their “north star.” According to Community Relations director Amanda Reiman, it is the small cannabis farmer who guides FCI’s business model of “innovation, creativity, spirituality and activism.”

Supervisor Hamburg, who was invited to address the gathering, called the event an “auspicious day,” stating he met FCI founder and CEO Michael Steinmetz about a year before the property was purchased. Hamburg alluded to the “long, strange trip” that the cannabis community has undertaken to reach the recent goal of statewide legalization of recreational cannabis.

He recalled former California Gov. George Deukmejian, characterizing the governor as the “biggest, baddest hombre” who approved a raid on a small, Mendocino County cannabis farm during his term as governor.

Hamburg contrasted Deukmejian’s prohibitionist attitude to 2018 gubernatorial candidate Gavin Newsom’s support for Proposition 64. Hamburg concluded with his belief that FCI supported the kind of business model that demonstrated the “right love for Planet Earth.”

In his keynote address, CEO Michael Steinmetz asked attendees to suspend disbelief, to allow their imaginations to inform their experience, to have fun and allow their creative process to take flight – particularly because the industry is at a critical juncture and will require creativity and ingenuity to move forward.

In his keynote address, CEO Michael Steinmetz asked attendees to suspend disbelief, to allow their imaginations to inform their experience, to have fun and allow one’s creative process to take flight. (Chris Pugh, Ukiah Daily Journal)

“We’re in a critical, fragile time. The livelihood of so many are on the line,” Steinmetz told the crowd. He discussed how cannabis prohibition has disproportionately affected many communities, particularly communities of color, but that with legalization comes opportunities.

“Eighty-five percent of the nation’s cannabis comes from this region, which is a staggering statistic for agriculture,” he continued. Steinmetz’s concern is that cannabis, if unchecked by large corporate influences, will go the way of the nation’s soy, wheat and corn subsidies. “With only a few strains, only a few varietals are left because of mono-cropping. They’ve lost their genetic biodiversity. Imagine if that happened to cannabis,” Steinmetz continued.

The FCI vision is grand, and their hope is to offer an alternative to the accepted modality of traditional agriculture. Steinmetz envisions the cannabis world “powered by small farmers… bringing regenerative agriculture back to the supply chain.”

Guests were divided into groups and provided a tour of four separate buildings which the FCI estimates at about 87,000 square feet of industrial space. The tour was part TED talk and part info-tainment, likened to an opening of a Silicon Valley startup – not so surprising, given that according to FCI staff, employees from Netflix, Google, Intuit, Twitter and several other major tech firms have signed on with the company, working to address the mechanics of supply chains, compliance, communications, accounting and production.

Three of the four cavernous buildings were under construction, outfitted with temporary seating, lighting and stages for the day’s presentations.

Related: 10 surprising spaces that are being converted into California cannabis businesses

In the first building, with popcorn at the ready, to the music of drums and trombone, guests were ushered into a makeshift theater and shown a staff-produced film set at Waterdog Farms – a local cannabis and herb farm located near FCI. Following the film, which tracked the life cycle of the cannabis plant, staff described their plans for the building, which, upon receipt of permits, will become a centralized, multi-product manufacturing facility.

Throughout the tour, the concepts of regenerative agriculture, terroir, landrace cannabis cultivars, biodiversity and support for small farmers were repeatedly underscored.

Four state-of-the-art trimming machines manufactured by the Green Broz company were on display, and several other individuals demonstrated cannabis trimming while another used a sorting machine that separated buds by size. (Chris Pugh, Ukiah Daily Journal)

In the next building, which is scheduled to become a temperature- and humidity-controlled storage facility, Casey O’Neill, tireless local advocate for small-scale cannabis farmers and operator of Happy Day Farms, discussed the enormous challenges for those transitioning from the unregulated to the regulated market. “As a vegetable and cannabis farmer, I appreciate having a downstream partner,” said O’Neill, referring to the farmer services provided by FCI.

FCI’s chief production officer gave a brisk presentation, powering through a bullet-list of technological amenities created to serve the company, farmers and consumers.

Integrated production systems, e-commerce, supply chains, maximizing margins, forecasting data, risk quotas and more were briefly discussed.

One portion of FCI’s technological overlay is being designed to maximize harvest by utilizing “machine-learned demand forecasting” that in part tells farmers the quantity of cannabis flowers to process, and when. The goal of the FCI technological interface is to ensure trust and integrate FCI’s systems with state metrics, without removing the “human element” from farming, according to presenters.

In the third building, Jeremy Sackett of Oregon-based Cascadia Labs introduced his team to guests. In the next 60 days, this building is slated to become a fully-functioning cannabis testing facility. An offshoot of Oregon’s Forensic Analytical Laboratories, this will be Cascadia’s first California site. Their goal is to provide “solutions-based activities’ that go beyond environmental testing and into cannabis science.

Quality control, as well as research and development, will take place at the lab, where cannabis will be tested for potency and contaminants, with reports generated for the client and the state, now that cannabis testing is required for all licensed farmers.

The tour concluded with a final speech by Steinmetz, located in FCI’s processing facility. From atop a second-story balcony, Steinmetz addressed the guests, comparing the FCI business model to one of a coffee co-op. He explained how farmers can utilize FCI’s one-stop location and menu, opting to have their cannabis processed and marketed, use their own branding, or work with FCI to create an in-house label, and finally, engage with FCI’s distribution network.

The site will be the launch point for country music legend Willie Nelson’s “Willie’s Reserve” label, which, according to their spokesperson will offer clean, pure, consistent cannabis, grown in the Emerald Triangle region and distributed statewide.

Following the speeches, a roll-up door was raised, to the music of “Also sprach Zarathustra,” better known as the theme music for “2001- A Space Odyssey.” Guests filed along a roped-off red carpet into the processing facility, where lab-coated, snood-wearing workers stood on an elevated platform behind two large machines, placing small cannabis buds down a chute, where, after being processed, they tumbled down to a collecting tray and were placed into glass jars.

 

Following the speeches guests filed along a roped-off red carpet into the processing facility, where lab-coated, snood-wearing workers stood on an elevated platform behind two large machines. (Chris Pugh, Ukiah Daily Journal)

Several staff members sat at tables creating cannabis joints or “cones,” gently pushing the herb into pre-formed paper rolls. Four state-of-the-art trimming machines manufactured by the Green Broz company were on display, and several other individuals demonstrated cannabis trimming while another used a sorting machine that separated buds by size.

An adjoining storage room, outfitted with Costco-style industrial shelving, held between 300 and 400 plastic buckets, each labeled with the name of a farm, a strain name, the grade of the cannabis, the amount in the bucket and its effect- “relaxed, active or CBD.”

One such bucket held 1,000 grams, or about two pounds, of “Lucky Kush,” with varying amounts inside each bucket.

About 25 large bags of “shake” – the trimmed-off leaves from cannabis buds – were stacked in the storage area, along with about 70 black, rectangular buckets of cannabis. All in all, one visitor conservatively guesstimated that the room held something in the neighborhood of 1,000 pounds of cannabis flowers.

The event continued with guests invited to enjoy libations and the after-party at the FCI’s Big Dog Saloon, with food and entertainment continuing until black charter buses took the last guests back to the Bay Area at around midnight.

Though a few guests noted the absence of local farmers, those in attendance appreciated the professional presentations and the warmth of the event. Some commented on the symbolic significance of the launch party, which marked an important chapter in the development of the county’s commercial cannabis industry.

Though the staff were decked out in the trappings of the Wild West, the outlaw, renegade farmers who formed the foundation for today’s multi-billion-dollar industry are the very group that may not make the successful transition into the regulated market.

It is far too soon to predict the future of FCI or the many other burgeoning cannabis businesses in Mendocino County and beyond. But for a few hours, on that resplendent, celebratory sunny afternoon, cares were forgotten, hard questions were not asked, and pipe dreams, freely encouraged, floated languorously into the Redwood Valley sky.


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