Cannabis Combines Passions of Minnesota Doctor
There’s little doubt that your farm can grow marijuana, or cannabis as it is commonly called now. You’ve got road ditches and fence rows to prove that.
The harder part is turning it into a medicine. That’s the only legal way it can be sold under the state laws enacted over the last couple of years in Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, and 20 other states, mostly on the coasts.
Kyle Kingsley, one of the early growers in Minnesota, believes there is more than a little magic in the crop. Most of it happens not in growing the plants, but after harvest.
“How we process it and package it and make it conform to medical standards is what we are still learning. That’s where the big breakthroughs will come in medical cannabis,” he predicts.
“Don’t get me wrong, the horticulture is very interesting and I love watching that process, but I really like seeing how we put it to use with patients,” he says.
Business, horticulture, and medicine
Kingsley, an emergency medical doctor, had an unusual pathway to cannabis farming. He says it started with his three passions – business, horticulture, and medicine – which all came together in medicinal cannabis.
He grew up in rural Minnesota, went to medical school, and became an emergency medical doctor, treating patients with all kinds of illnesses. “I’ll be honest, I was skeptical of medical cannabis and its ability to help people,” he says.
As a Minnesota physician, he couldn’t prescribe medical cannabis, but occasionally he met patients from other places who told him of their response to cannabis treatment. “I decided to research it and see if there is a better way,” he says.
The successes he discovered eventually led him and his partners to form a company called Minnesota Medical Solutions. Kingsley is the CEO. When the state of Minnesota passed legislation in 2014 to allow limited production and prescribing of medical cannabis, MinnMed was one of just two companies to get licensed. They started treating patients on July 1, 2015.
MinnMed grows the cannabis in hydroponic (no soil) greenhouse facilities near Otsego, Minnesota, under very controlled conditions.
“We started with 50 strains of cannabis, and we’re now down to about 20 that we will concentrate on,” says Kingsley. “We’ve been looking for the most vigorous plants that can cope with our climate variability and can grow quickly.”
They also identify plants with enhanced THC and CBD levels, the main chemicals (out of 483) that provide the medicinal benefits.
Kingsley says cannabis plants can be either male or female. “We only grow the female plants, so they don’t shed pollen and go into the reproductive mode. It would take away from their flower and foliage growth.” Cuttings are taken from growing plants that will root and start a new plant, so viable seeds are not necessary.
The growing facilities consist of a 17,000-square-foot rigid-side greenhouse with full temperature control, and 10,000 square feet of hoop greenhouses that are only used in warm weather.
Inside both facilities, artificial lighting is provided 24-7 to the cannabis plants to encourage rapid early vegetative growth for four to six weeks. Then, the light is backed off to 12 hours a day to encourage flowering. About eight weeks later, the entire plants are harvested.
At harvest, the plants are hung upside down to dry for three days, then they are dissected and turned into medicines. The flowers are ground into a fine powder, and a chemical process is used to extract the oil. Cannabis medicine is delivered to patients as pills, topical oils, and liquids. Dispensaries owned by Minnesota Medical Solutions are located in Minneapolis and Rochester, Minnesota.
Some plants are harvested every week. “Yes, it’s labor-intensive,” says Kingsley. “We have about 20 people working on the greenhouse production part of the business.”
Seizures turned off
Kingsley says he is so excited about the potential for medicinal cannabis that he retired from emergency medicine a few months ago to work at it full time. He gets especially excited when talking about kids with seizure disorders such as epilepsy. “It’s life-changing for some of them,” he says. “When you can take them from 30 seizures a day and turn those off almost completely, it’s an incredible thing.” They have also effectively treated muscle disorders with cannabis medicines.
Kingsley won’t say exactly how much they have invested in the production and processing facilities, but it is several million dollars. Since it is state regulated, security is incredibly tight around the facility with multiple motion detectors and barbed wire perimeter fences.
California moves ahead
Kingsley’s company is not the only one trying to get in on the ground floor of medicinal cannabis cultivation. It is moving ahead on a state-by-state basis, since federal law prohibits interstate shipment.
“The cost to grow cannabis is significantly lower in a controlled environment."
One other example is a new farm in California called MediFarm. It is owned by the same parent company (Terra Tech) as Edible Gardens, a popular vegetable brand that sells in 1,500 supermarkets across the country. MediFarm has borrowed its controlled-environment greenhouse technology to grow cannabis, explains COO Ken VandeVrede.
The greenhouses use natural light supplemented with artificial light, he says. “The cost to grow cannabis is significantly lower in a controlled environment. We want to do everything we can to get the same crop every time, and the way to do that is to control the environment,” he says.
VandeVrede compares cannabis with grapes for the effects of environment on the crop. “If you grow it outside in open fields, there is much more range in the chemicals that give medicinal benefits, especially the THC and CBD. It needs to be the same all the time.”
He says it costs $2 million to $3 million per acre to grow a crop in their system, but it’s too early to say what the returns will be. “We don’t know how the market will unfold,” he hedges.
Only a few farmers will grow cannabis, he predicts. For one, it is very highly regulated in every state where it is allowed. Permits are not given out easily. Growing locations are rimmed with prison-style security fences. Also, few farms can gear up to process a plant into a medicine.
When a cannabis farm is your neighbor
Not everyone likes the idea of having a cannabis farm next door. Ask the folks around Delavan, Illinois.
Delavan is the new home to one of the first cannabis farms in the Midwest, a $23 million controlled-environment factory-like facility that is owned and operated by Revolution Enterprises.
Eric Diekhoff, a Delavan corn-soybean farmer, who also is general manager of the cannabis farm, says it’s a very religious community, and there were plenty of early misgivings among farmers and Delavan residents about how the crop would be grown and used.
As people have learned that the crop will be isolated inside the facility and used strictly as a medicine, he thinks those misgivings have worn off.
“I took my pastor on a tour of the plant and told him what we will do, and he supports cannabis for medicinal benefits,” Diekhoff says. “I think my other church leaders do, too. It’s not 100% support, but it’s a lot higher than it was at the beginning of the process, now that people understand it better.”
He points to a recent school referendum in the community to fund upgrades. It passed with 77% approval, and Diekhoff thinks it’s because people see the new jobs and families coming to town. “Our cannabis facility will be the second biggest employer in town, next to the school system.”
Diekhoff knows of the benefits of cannabis medicines for treating seizures, glaucoma, and a wide range of other ailments. He has a more personal reason for supporting it. One potential beneficiary is his own mother, who suffers from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. “My dad has researched it, and cannabis just might help her,” he says. “That does fuel my passion for this.”