Once Oklahomans voted in favor of medical marijuana, Sage Farms operator Ben Neal saw an opportunity for continued expansion of his agriculture operation in rural Tulsa County.
Between regular at-home deliveries of farm-grown products and monitoring the growth of his own produce, Neal and his staff set aside one of his six hydroponic greenhouses for sheltering 1,000 cannabis plants.
By Sept. 4, he had his commercial grow license from the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority — one day after seedling possession became permissible in accordance with State Question 788. As of this week, his harvest is almost complete and is expected to yield hundreds of pounds of flower in at least a half-dozen strains.
But businesses seeking product from Sage Farms could face heavy competition in the fledgling market. The few open shop owners in the state have paid upwards of $3,500 per pound in exchange for being the first to reach consumers amid scarce supply.
“We’re getting calls all day long every day,” Neal said during a facility tour Wednesday afternoon. “I had some person offer $2,800 (a pound) for my entire crop, which I think is very fair and reasonable. But we don’t really know what the market price is. I think the best way to determine the market price is to put it for auction and let the dispensaries determine what they’re willing to pay.”
Neal said he’s aware that that approach could be a gamble for his profit margin. But he also said he believes the price per pound will drastically decrease as more growers’ crops become available, which means businesses should prepare.
The OMMA released statistics Monday indicating it had approved 1,087 grower licenses as of Sunday, compared to 13,438 for patients. If all of those growers manage to open for business, product supply could exceed demand, he said.
“I think everyone that planted seeds legally is pretty much on the same page with us,” Neal said. “I’ve heard complaints very recently about products on the shelves right now. It takes time, particularly for people who have not been farming for the last five years and this is their first grow, to know what they’re doing.”
Conor Robb, a greenhouse attendant at Sage Farms, was among those cutting marijuana leaves off numerous columns of plants Wednesday afternoon. The initial grow only takes up part of the 12,000-square-foot building, which Neal said was partly out of consideration for the seasons and his limited experience with growing cannabis.
“We have little microscopes so we can check out the trichomes,” Robb said of the process. “They’re supposed to be kind of like a golden amber color. Then we’re going to pull (the plants) out of here and put them to dry and cure.”
He said he joined the Sage Farms team about eight months ago but didn’t foresee SQ 788 becoming a reality in Oklahoma. But when it did, he said he was pleased when Neal asked about his interest in maintaining marijuana crops.
“I’m just excited to see another side of medicine popping up, and I’m excited to see the tax revenue,” Robb said. “There was a while where I said I wouldn’t raise a kid in this state because of how awful a lot of stuff is. Hopefully this is something that helps Oklahoma move forward.”
With his harvests coming soon, Neal said he’s still trying to determine which laboratory testing facility to use. Although he doesn’t use pesticides or herbicides on his plants, he said it’s important for purchasers to know the percentage of THC, CBD and other cannabinoids before they buy.
Emergency rules from the Oklahoma State Department of Health governing board don’t provide standards regulating how or which components of cannabis plants should be tested. A legislative working group approved a set of recommendations last month for the health board’s consideration, but the board doesn’t meet until Dec. 10.
It has no legal obligation to consider those recommendations and has yet to hold talks on a separate proposal from the medical marijuana Food Safety Standards Board.
“You want to know the potency of the medicine you’re taking,” said Kyle Felling, the owner of FAST Laboratories, which has offices in Oklahoma and Arkansas. “Even if you’re not talking about medicine, you have to worry about what you’re putting in your body.”
Felling began testing samples from Oklahoma clients last week and said that “my phone’s been ringing constantly” with business owners trying to safely sell bud, oils and other items for the holidays. Arkansas legalized medical marijuana in 2016, but it has yet to see legal sales due to litigation related to cultivator licensing and other issues.
FAST Laboratories tests for multiple types of cannabinoids as well as terpenes, and Felling also looks out for potential contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury.
“I believe testing regulations need to be in place, not so much because it’s good for my business, but it’s for the safety of the consumer,” Felling said. “In the meantime, your reputable growers and processors will self-regulate. But ultimately it comes down to the patient. If the patient will buy it without seeing tests, then you’ll get some of those shadier businessmen continuing to (sell) without testing.”
Neal said he will likely initially send samples to multiple facilities to get an idea of their testing methods before selecting one. But he said his experience as a marijuana farmer so far hasn’t been a significant change from being a grower of other herbs such as kale and lettuce.
“I spend a good three hours a day with the plants checking for bugs, checking for mold, things like that,” Neal said. “I can’t tell you how lucky I feel that we got this good-looking of plants in our first grow. I wish I planted them in the whole greenhouse.”