Meet the team behind a thriving cannabis company in Hawaii that has three retail medical-marijuana shops and a huge grow facility built specifically to cultivate cannabis in one of the world’s most unique climates—the big island.
What’s In Store?
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Hawaii’s Big Island for the first time. My friend James Rushing, CEO of the cannabis-consulting firm White Coat Services, had arranged for me to tour the cultivation facilities of Big Island Grown, locally known as B.I.G. Formerly called Lau Ola, Big Island Grown is a locally owned and operated, vertically integrated company with three medical-marijuana retail locations on the Big Island—Hilo, Waimea and Kona. The Hilo location opened in January as the first cannabis dispensary on the Big Island, and perhaps the only dispensary in the world located on an active volcano.
My trip started with a tour of the Hilo shop, which has a comfortable lobby and waiting area designed with local hardwood and iPads for advance pre-ordering of medicine for those with valid state medical-marijuana cards only. Dr. Jaclyn Moore, Big Island Grown’s CEO, explained that her company wants patients to “understand how their medicine is grown and manufactured… We’re farm-to-patient in our approach to patient education.”
Big Island Grown’s pricing is purposefully affordable, with $30 eighths and $200 ounces available—practically half the price found at other Hawaii dispensaries. The company aims to provide reasonably priced, high-quality medicine with a diversity of options, lab-tested for pesticides, bacteria, mycotoxins, heavy metals and residual solvents, with cannabinoids and terpenes plainly listed at the shops. (There’s even a terpene wheel at the dispensaries that allows patients to enter the feeling and the flavor they desire which then offers product recommendations.)
According to Dr. Moore, when Big Island Grown was awarded one of only eight licenses in the state, it was seen as a responsibility to execute the state’s vision and to serve patients. “We spent every dollar necessary to build a top-notch, medically focused facility,” she said, “because it is truly about providing patients with clean, quality medicine.” While some other dispensaries don’t support home growing, Dr. Moore said that at Big Island Grown, “We support the patients’ right to grow their own if they choose. We want to eventually be able to sell them clones and seeds, which is currently not allowable.”
Hawaiian medical-marijuana legal requirements are very strict with compliance testing, so producers have to have total control over the grow climate to avoid pests. Big Island Grown founder and COO Dylan Shropshire, a fifth-generation farmer on Hawaii, understands the difficulties of cultivating on the Hamakua Coast, but specifically chose it to be his home because of the need for job opportunities since the shutdown of local sugarcane plantations.
“Cultivating cannabis on the windward side of the Big Island of Hawaii, from an integrated pest management prospective, is one of the most difficult places in the world to produce microbe-free, clean, safe cannabis, without the use of pesticides or inoculants,” explains James Rushing, a plant and soil biologist. “Most mainland environments experience periods of reduced pathogen occurrence due to changes in the annual climate. Here in Pepeekeo, we experience regular temperatures of 82°F (28°C) with an average 127 inches of rain a year. The pathogen pressures are immense in this area,” he explains.
After a delicious lunch at the Vibe Cafe next door to the dispensary, Shropshire, Rushing and I headed to the town of Pepeekeo on the Hamakua Coast to tour Big Island Grown’s cultivation center.
We drove up the lower hills of Mauna Kea (the tallest mountain in the world, as measured from the ocean floor) on the east side of the island, near Hilo, to the 35,000-square-foot facility. The building was purpose-built, meaning it was specifically designed for growing cannabis in the Hawaiian climate, effectively mitigating potential environmental and biological pressures. It sits on a former 600-acre banana farm that was once surrounded by sugarcane fields, and it makes great use of hydroelectric generation from spring-fed river flumes that were originally built to get sugarcane down from the mountains to the shore.
Repurposed to generate energy for the cooling rooms that ripened the fruits, the hydroelectric system now helps power the massive indoor pot farm. There’s also a 250-kilowatt biodiesel generator and a solar farm in the permitting stages. Cows and bulls graze around the perimeter to keep back the fast-growing jungle and as an added security layer.
When I visited, Big Island Grown was utilizing 17,500 square feet of the facility, in which 32 strains were growing in three 2,000-square-foot flowering rooms. With ambient humidity in the area typically around 90 percent, the crew has to use cutting-edge clean-room technology to ensure a pest and pathogen-free environment.
“The key to this level of environmental mastery is positive air pressure,” Shropshire explained. “The flowering rooms are positioned in the center of the building, and all incoming external air is pumped through a HEPA filter into a thermal buffer zone that steps down the temperature [and] provides cooling and dehumidification to the air. That air is then pushed into the tightly sealed rooms at very low CFU [colony-forming unit, a measurement of biological non-contamination], providing a resistance against any airborne pathogens or incoming insects.”
In fact, the doors popped open quite strongly due to the internal pressure, so care had to be taken when entering and exiting the rooms. Multiple Quest dehumidifiers, ultrasonic humidifiers, and three-ton LG split AC units are placed throughout the growing rooms for redundancy. All of the equipment is connected through a series of sensors that monitor CO2, temperature, pH, humidity, and power. A Growtronix computer “brain” system makes real time adjustment from sensor readings to ensure that the vapor-pressure deficit is dialed in at all times throughout the different stages of cultivation.
Shropshire and his team continued showing me some of the technology deployed to ensure successful harvests under strict conditions. With a multiple pound-per-light average yield, Big Island Grown is producing large amounts of medicinal-quality cannabis while dealing with some intense constraints and restrictions.
The farmers at Big Island Grown start with a reverse-osmosis treatment of spring water from a source located on the farm and grow solely in coco coir with some perlite mixed in. They use a proprietary blend of organically derived food-grade liquid nutrients with a Hanna fertigation system utilizing drip irrigation with two emitters per pot for redundancy.
Lighting consists of Dimlux double-ended high-pressure sodium (HPS) rigs with checkerboard double-ended ceramic metal halides (CMH) on Dimlux Maxi controllers. Rotators raise and lower the lights easily.
Plants go from cuttings to the flowering stage in just four weeks. After they’re cloned, they go right into six-inch pots in a high-humidity environment. The pots have their bottoms cut out to avoid transplant shock in the next stage. Once rooted and vegged for three weeks, the plants are placed directly into 1.76-gallon flowering pots and start the budding stage.
Plants are hung whole with just the fan leaves stripped in 50-60 percent humidity for seven to ten days. After that, the flowers are bucked (removed from the main stem) and put into containers for two weeks to cure at a 12-13 percent moisture level. Only then are they hand-trimmed by a professional crew and stored in a climate-controlled area for freshness.
One of Big Island Crown’s signature strains is its Hamakua Banana OG. The strain has acclimated to the islands and reeks of fresh dank bananas, which is quite ironic considering this was once home to the largest banana farm in the United States. The company also grows some Hawaiian varieties including the Big Island cut of White Widow, Maui Girl and Skunk Dog.
Another local favorite that Big Island Grown produces is Dutch Treat, a big yielder known on the islands as just Dutch. The company is also running Humboldt Seeds, CSI and Karma Genetics strains such as Josh D OG, Green Crack and Mendocino Purple Urkle. CBD-rich strains include CBD Critical Cure, a local Hawaii-acclimated cut of Cannatonic, and the in-house 20:1 CBD strain called Mauka Berry. The company plans to roll out over 75 unique phenotypes in the next year.
Entering another wing of the facility, we met Dr. Craig Pollard, who leads Big Island Crown’s manufacturing division. The company produces its own concentrates, including distillate and solventless cartridges, pharmacist-compounded infused topicals, CBD-rich tinctures and some fantastic-looking rosin. Extract artists in the in-house laboratory fresh-freeze harvested flowers, then freeze-dry the ice-water-extracted material that is then pressed into solventless live rosin. Patients can also purchase full-extract cannabis oil in syringes for the potent oral administration of activated THC.
Recently, the law was revised to allow visitors to Hawaii to take part in its medical-marijuana program. Out-of-state patients can purchase medical cannabis by applying for a medical card that is valid for 60 days—so you can now enjoy a trip to paradise and legally acquire and consume lab-tested and sustainably grown cannabis from Big Island Grown.
Check out bigislandgrown.co for more information, to view their medical marijuana menu, and for links to applications for 60-day 329V cards for visitors to Hawaii from medical states.
Originally published in the October, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.