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Growing Pains for Illinois Cannabis Farm

News alert to farm entrepreneurs: There are no get-rich-quick schemes. Case in point is cannabis farming. Marijuana, that is. Successful Farming magazine reported a year ago on one of the first cannabis farms in Illinois, where it’s legal to grow the crop for medicinal reasons. The Revolution Enterprises cannabis farm near Delavan had plans to produce 7,000 pounds of medical cannabis every year, worth $20 million or more. Dispensaries in Illinois would sell it to muscular dystrophy, cancer, autism, and other patients for pain, seizure, or depressive disorders. The facility is up and running, say the owners, but only at 25% capacity.

At a recent press event, company managers gave tours of the production facility and spoke about the problems of hitting their stride with this controversial crop. Of the 20 large growing rooms, each with sophisticated controlled-environment hardware and high-intensity LED growing lights, 15 sit idle. The problem is not growing the cannabis – it is demand. 

“We projected to have 80,000 to 90,000 Illinois patients on cannabis treatment by now,” says Eric Diekhoff, a Delavan corn farmer and general manager of the cannabis facility. “We only have about 9,000.”

There are a variety of reasons for the slow start for medicinal cannabis. One is simply the process for getting patients approved to use it. Willing doctors must certify that a patient has a qualifying condition.

Then, patients have to pass an approval process that can take months, even though the law allows just 45 days. Diekhoff has personal experience with that. His mother suffers from a muscular disease that is similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, and she could benefit from cannabis for pain relief. She waited weeks for approval.

“Many potential users just don’t want to wait that out,” says Dustin Shroyer, the Revolution Enterprises chief operating officer. They use other pain medicines, including opium derivatives that are more addictive and dangerous, that are easier to get.

Another problem is communication. Production is overseen by the state department of agriculture, while patient care is under the department of health. Dispensaries are under yet another state agency. As a result, communication between doctors, dispensaries, patients, and cannabis growers has been cumbersome. In fact, cannabis growers are not allowed to talk to patients or to promote their products. Only doctors can advise patients.

Still, the problems are slowly going away, and the industry will flourish, says Shroyer. 

In its recent legislative session, Illinois politicians took steps to increase communication and accessibility. They also expanded the list of approved ailments for which medical cannabis is permissible. Now included are terminal illness and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), particularly devastating to some military veterans. 

The cannabis chemicals help patients relax, sleep better, and function normally. Illinois state health officials say almost 1,000 new patients are being added to cannabis treatment every month, and the pace is picking up.

Production is not a problem. Shroyer, the COO, says Revolution Enterprises is pleased with the production levels coming from the Delavan plant and an identical sister facility in Barry, Illinois. The plants are grown under high-intensity LED lights that mimic sunlight. Each lamp is 1,000 watts and costs about $700. The growing rooms each have about 400 cannabis plants in individual pots and 45 lights overhead. The plants are practically spoon-fed precise amounts of water and fertilizer.

Production is measured in pounds of cannabis harvested per light. Plants get up to 2 pounds of product per light, per growing cycle, says Shroyer. (There are 5.5 growing cycles per year.) 

“In our system, we will never take yield over quality. We’re not producing a commodity product, like they do in some other cannabis states [that allow recreational use]. We’re producing a medicine, and our first goal is enhanced medicinal benefits,” he says.

Revolution Enterprises has a plant breeding program under way that is similar to any corn or soybean breeding program, complete with crossbreeding and line breeding that will lead to enhanced genetics. It’s the only cannabis breeding program in Illinois, and one of the few in the world, says Shroyer. Within a year, all of the cannabis the company produces will be proprietary varieties developed in this breeding program – essentially, hybrid cannabis with specific attributes.

“We know there are big differences in cannabis plants in their chemical profiles,” he says. “Ultimately, our goal is to produce a more robust profile of the active chemicals that give the best medicine for every patient and every illness we are treating.”

There are at least 200 chemicals in cannabis called cannabinoids that may give medicinal benefits. The most well known are THC and CBD. 

There’s a minor class of chemicals called terpenoids, which also give benefits. One is known as beta-myrcene, which helps patients with sleep and rest, Shroyer says. “Our breeding program will deliver more of it with targeted benefits.”

The product development team at Revolution Enterprises is working on new ways of delivering the medicines. 

Right now, about 60% is packaged as dried and trimmed flowers that come directly from the cannabis plants. They are packaged in 1-gram or 3½-gram units at the facility in Delavan. Then they are delivered by armored truck and guards to the dispensaries. Revolution Enterprises has sold about 100,000 units of 1-gram or 3½-gram canisters in that form in the last year. That product is consumed as smoke by patients. 

The 60% of cannabis that is smoked is shrinking, as researchers develop new delivery methods, such as oils for topical treatment or powder in capsules, says Shroyer. They’re even working on an emulsified version of cannabis that is inserted in chocolate candies, which is more palatable for sick children. 

“We want to bring it to market in 50 different forms,” he says. “Patients and their doctors can choose the form that works best for them.”

Tim McGraw (not the country singer), founder of Revolution Enterprises, gets emotional when he talks about the company mission. 

“We’re dedicated to the science of advancing cannabis medicines to change lives. It will help get people off of opiate medicines for pain control,” he says. “Opiates have led to many addictions and deaths. There has never been a death from cannabis. In states that have medical cannabis, there has been a major reduction in opiate-related deaths. 

“That’s behind my passion for this,” says McGraw, “especially when you see families changed forever because of what this medicine can do.”

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