There is so much curiosity about what happens behind the scenes in the cannabis industry, we wanted to give you an inside look and introduce you to one of the most crucial members of the PG Group team, Kevin Judy, the Operations Manager of Pro Gro!
Located in the old Pro Bowl building, after a complete physical overhaul Pro Grow is now fully functional, with its first harvest anticipated to hit provisioning centers in July. The operation houses a mix of medicinal and recreational licenses with an ultimate goal of supporting over 15,000 plants throughout its 13 grow rooms.
Overseeing all of this is 32-year-old Lansing native Kevin, working with a small, tightly knit team and an incredibly advanced monitoring system. We spoke to Kevin about his path to the cannabis industry (which, by his own description, was a “wibbly-wobbly” path), what it takes to manage a grow on a commercial scale, and his advice to those seeking to work in cannabis cultivation.
Getting Started and Breaking Into the Business
Q: How did you get your start growing cannabis?
Kevin: “2010 was the first day I ever smoked, and I remember that day vividly. I was straight-edge, I was too concerned about the religious world I was brought up in. On May 25th I got my med card and I stopped and got a nug of Danny Trevino from his place, and smoked it, and I knew I would never go back to the same mindset I had before. It was so eye-opening to think about how many years I’d been demonizing this experience, just because of my lack of understanding of it. It made me feel really small and really humble and opened my eyes to what the world offered that I wasn’t feeding off of or partaking in. That triggered the change, and then I immediately started growing. Within 6 months I had basically stopped working my other job just to grow.”
Q: Were you self-taught?
Kevin: “I had somebody I knew at the time who was growing and he was my introduction, but it was one of those introductions in retrospect that wasn’t ideal. Growing weed, sometimes it grows like a weed – there’s a lot of different ways you can grow but there’s not a lot of ways you can do it and get the consistency, the quality, and the yield over and over again. So I had to relearn years down the road how to do it properly.
I started branching out on my own and discerning through the information that’s out there with a little more intentionality. I looked into the science behind it – I looked into consistency in results based on what that approach provided and tried to look for the truth behind all of the anecdotal conversations and theories people have….Little pieces are everywhere; you just have to be smart about which pieces you take in.”
Q: How did you take the next step into commercial growing?
Kevin: “It started to grow when we met people in the Holt area who were retired individuals who wanted to get involved in the industry but didn’t have the capacity to, or the insight or education, and they wanted someone to help facilitate that. So we ended up doing a consultant type role – there were three individuals where we turned their pole-barns and warehouses into medium-scale grows. We spent, I think, three years growing those operations and trying different things because that provided us with a more lights and a higher scale than I had personally. So it gave us room to really trial things and gain more experience in consistency.”
Running a Major Grow
Q: What does the daily routine look like for a large-scale grow?
Kevin: “Every day has its wild card, but the traditional structure would be we get here in the morning. The core grow guys start at 7, and we have what we call ‘the essentials’, which is environment and equipment checks in the rooms. I go through every room and make sure everything is humming the way it should – we’re not missing any lights and there weren’t any issues overnight with HVACs going out – and then the guys do their essentials as far as fertigation. That’s more or less checking that every room has its reservoir filled, it’s mixed and it’s ready to fire because they all have automated irrigation schedules.
From there we do point maintenance. When the plants are in their early stage it’s more lollipop and plant shaping, and then as the plants age, that would involve the second tier of canopy management – trellis installation, defoliation and pruning to allow light penetration and air flow to maintain its optimum penetration and flow through the canopy.
When we’re growing at this scale, it’s really important to have everything – as far as your climate and your environment – in a very small window of parameters for temperature and humidity, but also to able to have that monitored to be aware of any deviation very, very promptly, because it does not take a lot of time for one of those factors to be off for that room to suffer irreparable consequences. So if the CO2 goes down and we lost our supplementation for a couple hours that will suffocate the plants. If something goes wrong with that irrigation system and it doesn’t fire in the morning and those plants go 12 hours without drinking but they still have high intensity lights they’re going to shrivel up and it’s going to affect them in a way they can’t come back from. So the most important thing for growing at scale to protect the integrity of our product is control, observation, and monitoring abilities.
Q: So everything in the grow rooms is monitored and automated?
Kevin: “We’ve been working with a company – this is something I have access to from anywhere – I can be in Tahiti with my toes in the sand I can change the light intensity in room 16. It’s really appreciated from my perspective to have this level of control because I never had any automation in any of the previous gardens I’ve grown. Every corner of the room has a sensor so you can look at the deviations. This was the type of thing that was a really valuable sign of the foresight that the owners of this company had to put something like this into place from the beginning to make us aware of any issues we may have.
To have something like this created and operational from the start really provides us with more time to do plant diagnostics and work on expansion and just utilize the small team we have in big ways. And then eventually everything that we track – every data point, every metric – will be thrown into one data sheet so that way we can review if we had Donkey Butter 5 in Room 1 and also Room 12, we can look back and see if maybe they were fed differently or maybe the lights were adjusted differently, and then they yielded differently; we can really pinpoint exactly when each strain has as a tendency or a nuance that we want to lean into or stray away from to get that craft cannabis consistently.
I couldn’t even calculate all the different things that could interrupt the growth and could screw up the result, but that really comes down to the foresight of the owners and the people who put this building together because they created an environment that makes our job easier than it ever has been.”
The Craft Approach to Cannabis
Q: Tell us a little about the idea of craft cannabis.
Kevin: “We have Fletcher on our team from Archive Seed Bank, and he is working with us to provide us with exclusive genetics that are not available anywhere else. He has a very wide repertoire of genetics to play with that are very high quality and have a lot of desirable traits. One of the goals we have here is to have that niche, exclusive strain, like the Oberon or the 2-Hearted of the cannabis industry.”
Q: How does that craft approach translate within the staff here?
Kevin: “We have a very small team. We’re very surprised with how much we can get done with the team we have, and that’s because the team we have is badass. It would be doing a tremendous injustice to this operation to put me as the reason – we are all equal parts of the puzzle. Everyone has a bit of a varied skill set, and we found a way to bring that together. Instead of telling people what to do, showing people what needs to be done and then empowering them to use their independent motivation and skill set to get that done, has provided a lot of ownership and a lot of accountability and camaraderie. Which is why, I think, this small team can do such big things, because everyone has that personal investment into it.”
Advice For Future Growers
Q: What advice do you have for people who want to work in cannabis cultivation?
Kevin: The thing that I’ve told everyone who’s interviewed so far is to be patient. Because a lot of people can catch the bug of the cannabis industry where they think very quickly they’ll be at that end goal of the pie in the sky type work day – that what they do is just going to be fun and they’re just going to be playing with plants, or that they’re going to skyrocket to a very well-paying position early on – but I really advise people to understand that the reality is that a lot of people want that opportunity and there are very few places that provide that opportunity.
In order to be one of the people who’s provided that opportunity, it’s rare, and then on top of that, once it happens, you have to have the discipline and the fortitude to really bite the bullet on the hard things and to muscle through when you’re not feeling that excitement. Because there are days that are overwhelming stressful. So patience, because it’s not easy to get into it, and when you do get into it, it takes time; and dedication, perseverance, and willingness to take the bad with the good and use the good moving forward.