Will Bowden is the Founder and Owner of Grasshopper Farms – local Michigan farmers on a mission to grow and provide high-quality cannabis. We discuss the future of cannabis farming, how to dodge shiny objects, and the difference between outdoor and indoor cannabis farming.
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Dodge Shiny Objects with Will Bowden
Thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure to be here.
You’re the first person on the show from the cannabis industry, so that is very special and I’m very curious about this whole business and I’m sure our audience are too. But let’s start at the beginning where we always start is how did you get into this business? What prompted you into starting a cannabis field, a growing company? What’s been your journey?
Yeah, Steve, thanks so much. And I’ll try to honor the fact that I’m the first cannabis guest on your show here. So let me see if I could do okay with that. You know, my story is I actually grew up in California and quickly found myself leaning into law enforcement and military. So while the product itself wasn’t unfamiliar to me and I didn’t really have any issues with it. My career decisions kept me from partaking as either from a use perspective or also from a working perspective as well. And that’s just my personal choices and journeys. And so as I was going through my life as a police officer and also in the military, I found myself about 10 years ago, observing and appreciating the industry as it was growing from a business perspective.
And I remember saying out loud, I’m like, “Wow, what an amazing business opportunity for other people.” And I said it like that because it was more of an appreciation than a desire to do it because at the time I was still in the midpoint of my military career and I didn’t have any aspirations of retiring at that point. But wouldn’t you know it that the same month that I retired, I ended up meeting this gentleman who was also former military. And when we started to get to know what we have done in life, he said, “Hey, listen, I’m starting this business and I’d really like you to consider joining me.” Well, it was a cannabis business. And so what he wanted me to do was to come on and basically be the person who went and operationalized licenses in other states. And so that’s kind of how it happened. I came home to my wife and I’m like, “Wait a minute, is this really happening right now? So I’m actually eligible to, I can legally work in the industry.
There’s no conflict of interest, all that kind of stuff.” We talked it over and ultimately I decided to take the position in the first state that I was sent to was Michigan. And so my job was to operationalize licenses, which means for that business model, it was retail, indoor grow and manufacturing. And as I was doing that, I came upon the other types of cultivation. So there’s greenhouse as well as indoor, and then there’s also outdoor. And I really liked the outdoor farming idea and I wanted to learn more about it. And once I learned more about it, I approached my previous company about possibly incorporating it for all the right reasons. They couldn’t do it because they were resourced doing other things. And I said, “All right, well, I’m just gonna investigate a little bit more.” And eventually I did, and I left that company and started Grasshopper Farms. And that’s what landed me just square in the middle of the cannabis industry and outdoor farming of cannabis as well.
Well, that’s fascinating. So how is outdoor farming different from indoor farming? Is it that makes the product different? Is it cheaper to do outdoor farming? How is it different?
You know, so at the broadest level, I would just say that they are different disciplines, right? So there’s three different disciplines of overall growing of plants. You have indoor growing, you have greenhouse growing, and then I call the third one a little bit different. I call it outdoor farming, because indoor growing and outdoor farming are actually different disciplines. Now, what I believe, Steve, is what happened is this plant started outside. It was pretty much only grown outside. But when it became illegal, people went into basements and pole barns to continue growing it, right? And so what happened then is over a period of not just decades, but generations of knowledge changed from outdoor growing or outdoor farming to indoor growing.
And then that knowledge was further developed and passed on generationally speaking. And so people became very, very good at indoor growing. Now, the benefit of indoor growing is that you can control your environment, right? It’s inside. So if you want more wind, you put up more fans. If you want more light, you put up different or more lights, right? So there’s a lot of control that you can apply inside versus outside. But what did happen is that when this started becoming legal again, people started going of going outside and they were taking their indoor expertise and very, very good at growing and they were taking out for farming and they were finding, you know, “We’re just having a hard time producing what the market calls a high quality smokable flour or the flour ingredients that would be meant for consumers outside of some of your manufactured products.”
A lot of folks who grow outside because of the challenges out there, started to pivot and basically just grow fields that would be for manufacturing, something that you don’t ever see in the flower or plant form. So that’s kind of the evolution there. I like to say it’s not about which one’s better or worse. I like to say it’s not “Where did you grow it,” It’s “What did you grow?” And I think at the end of the day that we’re gonna find that as our definition of quality continues to evolve, we’re going to find out there’s benefits in both disciplines. And we just have yet to realize the appropriate ratio that the United States market will need, let alone the global market as well.
Ok, so let’s say I’m curious about this quality thing. So how what constitutes in your definition a great quality cannabis? What makes it great quality?
Well, so in my definition, I would say that if you’re very clear on why you’re consuming cannabis, you’re going to want to know what effects am I trying to achieve. There’s so many people in this world that are really trying to achieve medicinal benefits from this plant. By and far, anxiety and sleep are probably the top two. I think that sleep often gets overlooked because it’s not a diagnosed medical condition for a lot of people. A lot of people are just, hey, I’m just worried, or I’m just in the grind, or I’ve got new kids, or all of these legitimate reasons of why we’re not getting enough quality or quantity sleep. And so they don’t really think of it as a medicinal use of it that’s helping them sleep. But anxiety and sleep are two of those things right there.
So I would say that the quality should focus on what are the effects that you want to achieve and how does the product help you to achieve those effects in what mechanism, right? So we all know about smoking the flower, there’s ways of taking the flower and then cooking with it, there’s ways then it can go to manufacturers and they can make edibles, topicals, sublinguals, there’s so many different ways that we can participate with this to achieve those effects. So I think the definition really needs to evolve and the assessment of quality really needs to evolve and how do we communicate what strain this is, what’s the cannabinoid profile, what’s the terpene profile, and then how are those cannabinoids and terpenes going to help lead me to the effects that I desire? I think that today’s market though, it’s a very young market for the broad brushstroke of the United States consumer.The quality should focus on what are the effects that you want to achieve and how does the product help you to achieve those effects in what mechanism. Click To Tweet
And I think a lot of folks right now are focused on what does it look like, what does it smell like, and what’s the THC level. And the higher the THC level goes, the first two start to become less important to a lot of people today. Now, I will tell you that folks who have been around this plant for a long time, they really know what they’re doing. They know what they’re looking for. So sometimes those visual and smell assessments can really get them to a high-quality assessment. But I would say, broadly speaking, there’s not enough experience in the United States or globally to help people to use those three things. And we need to look beyond those three things, back to our cannabinoid profile and terpene profile.
So there’s a lot in this, a lot more than meets the eye. That’s fascinating. It’s a little bit like wine, you know. There’s a lot to wine that maybe the average person doesn’t recognize. And when you get into it, then you really appreciate all these nuances about it. That’s fascinating. So this podcast is not directed at cannabis. It’s not a cannabis podcast. But it’s very interesting to see this business evolve and how this industry is evolving and looking for ways of generating value for consumers. So let’s switch gears here a little bit and let’s talk about how you manage this business, how you build this business. What is your favorite business framework, which I call management blueprint, that you applied in building Grasshopper’s Farms?
Yeah, it’s a great question. So for me, life and businesses, it’s all about the people or the team that you build. So one of the things that I have embraced from my former career decisions, and specifically being in the military and the police department, is you really look for where are your centers of excellence and how do you build teams, and how do you prepare those teams to carry out specific missions with successful outcomes. So I just took a lot of what I’ve experienced through life, both in some of those instances, and then also some great leaders and mentors that I’ve been around, and then I applied those to building Grasshopper Farms.
I’m starting with the people, right? So when I was really looking at the people, I’m saying, “Okay, so I need to be able to say, ‘what is Grasshopper Farms? What do we do and how do we do it? And then how do we then select the right people then to build that team?” So Grasshopper Farms, what does Grasshopper Farms even mean? Why do we call it Grasshopper Farms? There has to be something behind the name. For us, it’s two things. Grasshopper, it represents always learning. And then also the grasshopper, because of the method of it jumping and our seasonality is we start over every single season. So the grasshopper is jumping from season to season. That’s kind of our backstory there. And I think it’s important to have a story. There needs to be something that’s succinct that you can tell people. And hopefully it resonates pretty quickly when you tell them the thing or things that it represents.Grasshopper, it represents always learning. And then also the grasshopper, because of the method of it jumping and our seasonality is we start over every single season. Click To Tweet
So then beyond that, it’s like, “Okay, so what does Grasshopper Farms do?” I describe it to our team as our identity and core competency, right? So our identity is to do high quality sun grown flour, okay? And you’ll notice I didn’t say just high quality flour or premium flour. And the reason why is that you can have premium flour from indoor facilities, you can have premium flour from greenhouse facilities, and you can have premium flour from outdoor as well. And they’re all gonna be a little bit different. So, you need to be more specific, especially in an industry that’s trying to educate people and help people to develop ways of assessing like “What is it that’s important to me?” Right, So premium sun-gown flour, that’s our identity.
And our core competency is a single season outdoor grow. Okay, so when I say those things, you didn’t hear me say biomass, you didn’t hear me say pre-rolls, you didn’t hear me say manufacturing. So as we were building out our team then, which will come next year, everybody understood that the premium sun-grown flower is our absolute core competency and identity. And then that means that any decisions that we’re making, we have to make sure they don’t distract us from those things. If they do, it’s okay. It might be a great idea. It just goes on the wall that we’ll revisit later when we have the capacity, it’s not a distraction. Then when you build the team off of the identity and core competency, what I chose to do with the initial build is to look for people with individual expertise and overlapping experience.
And this is also something that I very much appreciated when I was in the military, helped us out a lot, right? So like you might go out on a mission with a team and on that team is one person who is maybe your medic, okay? So that medic has the expertise when it comes to supporting the team medically speaking, but the overlapping experience is everything else the mission is gonna require. That medic is still probably going to carry a weapon as well, right? And they’re going to be proficient with that so that the team can operate together, even though the medic is the one who’s going to give medical attention to anybody on the team or otherwise who requires it. So really just knowing that identity, core competency, and building a team with individual expertise and overlapping experience is what served us well as we got Grasshopper Farms off the ground.
Ok, that’s really fascinating. So it sounds like you are very system oriented in your thinking, and I love it how you think about these things as a separate building blocks, you know, the back story to know where we come from basically. And then identity or core competency, I call it the core business that you’re in, the premium sun-grown flower, it’s a great crop business. And then you also said the core competency, the single season outdoor grow is your core competency. So that’s really interesting how you laid this out. So the single-season outdoor grow, can it be others than cannabis? Can it mean other products as well, other produce?
So fantastic question. So, with the single-season outdoor grow, the reason why that statement of our core competencies is so important is because you’ll find that there are a lot of farms that also do indoor grow, they’ll do greenhouse grow, they’ll do other plants of growing too. So the decision for us initially was that single season outdoor growth of premium sun-grown flower. So it really gives us a very sharp definition that we can focus on so that we don’t get distracted. I think that one of the things that young businesses have to really look out for, or maybe not, maybe even beyond businesses, new ideas. Anything that’s newer is you’ve got to make sure like, what are we focused on doing? And then we go do that thing.
And then once you’re doing that thing and you’ve gained proficiency in that thing, then you can start to add on to it, right? Is at least the way that we chose to operate. And so there’s a lot of things within the cannabis industry or even if we were to go over to like winemaking, right? Or vineyards themselves, like just because you have a vineyard doesn’t mean you make wine, right? So in our case, we have a cannabis farm but we don’t manufacture cannabis. We just make the flower ready for wholesale to retail, or we sell to manufacturers on the biomass side. So having that clarity for us really helps us what to do. But I think more importantly, Steve, it helps us what not to do, because there’s a lot of shiny objects in this world, and it’s very easy to do a bunch of things in a mediocre way, or to do one or two things at maybe an elevated level.
Yeah, that’s a clear message. So it’s basically it’s a system to avoid the shiny objects, to keep you focused, to make sure that you get enough mileage into what your core business is, your core competency, so that you can get really good at it and then you can be very competitive. And then from that point you maybe you can expand your business further. You know there’s this concept of the experience curve, which is which is a BCG consulting group. Bruce Henderson came up with this this concept.
And basically it says is that every time you repeat, you repeat the process cumulatively, you double the times that you repeat the process, then you will increase your productivity by 20 to 30%. So every time you double the number of repetitions cumulatively, you become more productive. And I think that opens the scissor between the companies that are mediocre, that are always going for the shiny object, the new thing, find the new thing, and never become really good, against the companies that keep doing the same things, stay in the core business, improving the, increasing the reps, improving the productivity and becoming world-class.Every time you repeat the process cumulatively, you double the times that you repeat the process, then you will increase your productivity by 20 to 30%. So every time you double the number of repetitions cumulatively, you become more productive. Click To Tweet
So this is fantastic. It’s fantastic. So, so how do you manage the seasonality of this business? I mean, you’re a single season, you, you know, it’s, you’re up in the North. So surely, you know, the seasons have a great influence on your business. How do you keep busy in the off season? And what does it look like? How do you keep your people busy all year long?
Yeah, that’s a great question. So, behind me is an image of our farm, right? So there’s a large outdoor area. We have to start all these plants somewhere, right? So our year actually starts in January, February, and that’s when we’re working with our genetics and selecting which genetics that we’re going to prepare for the season. What we then do is we start to prepare those plants in a way that then we can create more plants from those plants so that eventually we have a lot of plants that get to go outside and go through the season. The plants don’t actually go outside until June, but the work starts in January, right? And so all we’re doing though is we have to be very delicate with our genetics. We have to make sure that we’re creating very, very healthy plants, young plants.
And then by the time they go outside, it’s a pretty major process. But back to what you just said though about BCG, the first year that we were at this farm, we have about 5,000 plants outside. And it took us about four weeks to transplant all those plants the first time because we were building out and all these other reasons. But we did it very proficiently. We got a high success rate in all the plants that went outside. But the second year, Steve, it took us five days, right? Because we continued to make sure we were practicing. We continued to take our efficiencies. We fine-tuned things and all that. So it’s maybe a good example of what you just said. So then the plants go outside in June and the growing season’s from June all the way through October and so during that time, that’s 32 acres that have all the plants out there, right? And so it takes a lot of people walking around, checking plants, you want to look for health, but you also want to look for stress and disease as well. So, you know, that’s a very delicate operation.
Also, the cannabis plant specifically, it’s a very hands-on plant. You’ve got to get up close and personal with it. You don’t benefit from big machines just going down and either using cameras to look at it or sprays to put on it. We get out there personally with all of our plants, with the resources that we have today. So that’s all the way through October, I mentioned. But really, the heaviest lift is, you know, it’s what’s called harvest. And I think a lot of people are familiar with harvest just from the wine industries, but the cannabis industry in particular is the same way. It’s very hands-on, it’s very personal. There’s not a lot of automation for your premium grade smokeable flowers is the key there. If this was all for biomass, we could use a lot of automation for that. So for us, Harvest starts late September, and it usually extends all the way through October. It is a big lift, it is long days, it’s seven days a week.
Very little time off for anybody. But then after that, you’ve just harvested all this material. And so you’ve got to do something with that material. And it’s not like you get to take that material and just start dumping it in boxes and say, “Hey, everybody, it’s here. We’re going to sell it to you now.” There’s a lot of steps that go into that that actually take not just days or weeks, but months. We are still today in February doing post-harvest processing of the material that came out from last October. Now, mind you, I also said that we’re getting our genetics ready and we’re doing our genetics for this year as well. So, now there’s an overlap of post-harvest processing of our 2022 season, the crop, and then also getting our genetics ready and propagation for our 2023 season.
So already right there, and I didn’t even touch on like sales and fulfillment, right? So there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. So part of the job for us to run a viable business, though, is to make sure that we have good SOPs, we have a way to gauge what are the steps that we’re taking to do each thing. Are we taking the right steps? Do we need to change those steps? How are we staffed appropriately so that we can make sure that we have not just the right processes, but the right people in place, the right staffing in place as well, so that we can make sure that we have an efficient business.
So you’re basically working through the whole year, it sounds like winter may be even the busiest period because you do the post-harvest processing and you do the genetics and making sure that you have the young plants that are going to be appropriate and grow and you can take them outside. That’s fascinating. Let’s talk a little bit. Our time is running out, but I’d like to cover a couple of questions here. I mean, one of the things that you told me in our earlier conversation was that cannabis is a reverse gateway drug. That is very fascinating to me because people look at cannabis, especially, you know, older people, maybe like me as well, as something dangerous, or it’s a drug, you don’t want your kids to get involved. So what does it mean that reverse gate fayers? Is this actually a positive force in our lives and in our kids’ lives?
So the way that I’m talking about this, so look, I’m just like everybody else, right? I was very much so susceptible to the education and marketing that we were all grew up in to say that this was not okay. In fact, they even put it in the class of gateway drugs saying that it could be a soft drug that leads to harder drugs later. And so I get where all that came from. I think the Nixon and Reagan administration specifically were very proficient in their ability to try to do anti-drug campaigns of which cannabis was a part of it. It wasn’t exclusive, but it was a part of it, right? But what’s happened here over the years is that people started to understand that there’s more to cannabis than we had been focusing on before.
And I think that a lot of the efforts before had to do with not just the use, but also the other things that were participating in the industry, like drug trafficking. Okay, and drug trafficking is responsible for all kinds of bad things and very, very bad violence as well. So hence, sometimes we get thrown into stuff that was either, I think positively intended propaganda is maybe how I would describe it. It meant well, but we just didn’t have all the information at the time, right? So as we started to learn more, we started to see very prominent folks like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and he’s a neurosurgeon. So not only is he a surgeon, but he’s a surgeon of the brain, right? Which is where our mind operates. And he went on record to say, “You know what, I used to be against cannabis, but I realized the reason why is the studies I was reviewing,” he was reviewing, “Were the studies that were showing the ill effects of cannabis.”
And when he started to investigate the actual studies that were out there that described the positive aspects of cannabis, it completely flipped him on that. And now he is an advocate for cannabis as well. So as I came into the industry, I started to learn how many people were benefiting from it from like anxiety and sleep. I use those a lot, although, you know, cancer and pain and all of that is very important as well. What I also started to find is by through articles and even more importantly, actual personal conversations with people is there are many people right now who are having a healthier relationship with alcohol and pain medication with the use of cannabis. And you notice I didn’t say that they eliminated those things. I said “A healthier relationship,” because there are some people who are going to continue to choose alcohol to use and that’s fine.
And there’s some people who need pain medication. That’s fine. The challenge is that some of the folks I’ve talked to were using both of those in excess. And the way they described to me that they were able to actually decrease that from excess to actually maybe a healthier relationship with those products, is what I call it, was with cannabis. So that’s why I say that there’s a lot of folks I know now, and I just picked two substances, okay, pain medication and alcohol, but there’s plenty more, in which cannabis is helping people to deal with addictive relationships with a product that’s not healthy for them in the way that they were using it. Then, you know, just not too long ago, there’s been a number of athletes who have actually gone on record.
Most notably, there were two former Detroit line NFL players who were on CBS News, and they went on record to say, “Hey, we’re a part of the cannabis industry now, and we used it in the NFL, but we had to do so secretly. But the reason why we did is because we were being prescribed pain medication and a lot of it, and we were afraid to use it because of its addictive and destructive tendencies.” And so they chose to just be secret and just use cannabis instead for the pain and injuries that they were going through. And there’s just countless examples out there, but that ultimately is why I like to talk about cannabis as a reverse gateway drug.
I love it. That’s fascinating. I’d like to learn more about that. Of course, a certain podcast may not do it, but it’s hopefully our listeners will also get curious and do some more research on this topic. So before we wrap this up, you have started a nonprofit called Simplicity. What is this about?
Yeah, so Simplicity to me is actually something that came before cannabis. It was, I realized that I’m in a world of people and there’s a lot of people out here who need help. And there’s many organizations out there that are organized to help people. Simplicity to me is what somebody might describe as like a NUDGE project. And what it is is that you’ve got somebody going through life and they’re traveling along with their peer group and they’ll have some, and a life event happen. The key here is life events don’t have to be these huge events that are documented. They can just be little things that just kind of knock us off a little bit. And then over time, what happens is this peer group continues to go up the same way, but they start drifting out here.
And then years later, they find themselves way out over here and they look over at their peer group and they’re like, “What happened?” And they don’t know how to get back to where they desire to get to. They don’t even have the means to say, “Is it even appropriate for me to go over there.” So, what Simplicity desires to do is to help people that are either homeless, unemployed, or underemployed, who don’t have drug, alcohol, or mental disorders. Those are all important, but those would be referrals. And basically, it would just be to sit down with somebody and to say, “Hey, so where are you in life, and where do you want to be? And let’s talk about why you want to be there. Let’s talk about why you are here.”
And then sometimes having that outside observer walk through your life with you, that person or team is going to be able to see things that you’re not able to see just because you’ve been in it the whole time, right? And then after we figure out where have you been, where do you want to go? It’s about saying, “All right, so here’s the framework that we’re going to build from.” So I’ll give you an example. Somebody used to be the VP of something. They end up getting laid off because of just whatever happened. And so they just, they start to apply for other VP jobs. They’re not getting in before you know it. They’ve lost their car, they’ve lost their house. They’re finding themselves in really difficult situation. And so maybe it’s, you shouldn’t apply for VP positions. Maybe you should just apply for a job.
And maybe it’s not a director or even a manager because I think statistically a person who has a job is gonna have a more successful time getting a job than a person who doesn’t have a job. And so sometimes we just need to think about things a little differently but it’ll be individualized for each person. Or maybe there’s a person out there who their confidence is shattered because they’re missing a tooth. Well, guess what? There’s fantastic resources out there right now. And there’s a lot of pro bono work that goes on out there in the dental community that can help that person get that one missing piece that’s gonna boost their confidence to get them back out there and get them back on track. I just used two small examples here, I think, but there’s so many examples of where if we have an organization, a team of people who can just say, “Hey, we’re here for you, we’re gonna help you out.
And maybe it’s gonna be exactly what you wanna do, or maybe we’re gonna help you think about your trajectory and destination a little differently. In either case, we’re gonna support you.” And there’s other organizations that do stuff like this. But for me, that’s why I created Simplicity. That’s what I aim to do. And that’s what we do with ourselves internally as well at Grasshopper Farms, people above all else. So we take care of each other. And so, when somebody at work is going through something hard or they’re considering something bigger, regardless, we sit down together and say, “All right, where are we now? Where do we want to go? And how do we transit that?” So that’s what simplicity is all about.
That’s amazing. I love the simplicity of the name of it as well. And I love this idea of paying attention to people and to look for that little lever that you can pull on to make their life much better. Because that’s what it is. That’s the simplicity of it is that you’re not trying to boil the ocean. You’re just looking for this little tooth that is missing. And that’s fairly inexpensive to fix that. they got off track with something that maybe they just got the wrong idea or they just lost momentum somehow. And if you can help them get back from the vicious cycle to the benign virtuous cycle, then they can go on their life. It’s kind of coach them back to where they want to be. That’s fantastic. If someone would like to learn more about you personally, about your business, Grasshopper Farms, about the cannabis industry, about why it’s a reverse gateway drug, or where can they go, where can they find more information?
So, for Grasshopper Farms, it’s real simple, grasshopperfarms.com. On there, you’ll also find our social feeds on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter. There’s more information than we publish on our website that’s also on social media, if you’d like to consume there as well. We do post a lot of great historical events of what we’ve done at Grasshopper Farms, plus some other information like maybe reverse gateway drug and other aspects of the market on our website. And there’s links to other sources that we do there. As far as me personally, it’s Will W. Bowden on either Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter as well. You’re gonna see something that’s probably leaning a little bit more on the simplicity side on my personal stuff on those four social platforms. And then I do, of course, post things on the professional side as well for Grasshopper Farms on our professional feeds as well. But we’re here as Grasshopper Farms. If anybody wants to learn more, I’m here. If anybody ever needs a helping hand, I’m always happy to contribute and be a part of this great adventure we call life out here.
Fantastic. I love your energy, Ville. That’s the perfect thing to wrap this podcast off. So thank you for coming on the show. And those of you, you may have noticed that the poster has changed behind me because I’m coming out with a new book, Strategy OS. This is kind of a sequel to Pinnacle, so make sure you check that out as well. So, Will, thank you for coming on the show and I look forward to staying in touch.
It was an honor, Steve. Thank you for having me on.