Harvest time at Berkshire County's first legal cannabis farm
PITTSFIELD — From the street, only a fresh sign and a dolled-up entry hint at the multimillion-dollar transformation inside.
But make no mistake. It's flower power time at 501 Dalton Ave. in Pittsfield.
Over the past year, construction crews have turned the nondescript former home of the Salvation Army Family Store, beside Ken's Bowl, into what's poised to become Berkshire County's most lucrative farming address.
In February, the first clusters of cannabis flowers were snipped from laden stems in one of Berkshire Roots' three massive indoor grow rooms — a third of an acre, in all, of heavily regulated photosynthesis.
And one morning this week, the company's cultivation manager, Dennis Gibbons, had the next harvest in mind as he stood at the controls of a complex irrigation system and pumps sipped from barrels of nutrients near a 5,500-gallon emergency water supply.
Just months ago, store workers under this roof were sorting through castoff clothing.
Today, after a roughly $5 million investment, securing local and state approvals and working through a mini-Greylock of paperwork, cannabis flowers and products are reaching customers who hold state-issued medical marijuana cards.
This week, the new dispensary's retail staff has been seeing customers by appointment, testing their computer systems and complying with the state Department of Public Health's "virtual gateway" ahead of a full opening in the days ahead.
In a surprise move Friday, the company's board changed staffing at the top, ousting its chief executive officer, John E. Mullen IV.
A spokeswoman, Jane Rohman, said interim management is in place. That staff includes Dennis Depaolo, its chief operating officer and former director of cultivation for Maine Organic Therapy Inc. She declined to say why Mullen no longer is with the company and said Berkshire Roots continues its countdown to opening at 11 a.m. April 7.
Mullen said that before commenting on the circumstances of his departure, he planned to get legal advice.
The BR Inc. board has selected a new CEO, Rohman said, but must obtain DPH approval. She declined to name that new leader.
Berkshire Roots becomes the county's second medical marijuana dispensary since voters approved them in 2012, joining the Theory Wellness outlet in Great Barrington.
While all Berkshire Roots cannabis will be grown in Pittsfield, Theory Wellness brings its inventory from its Bridgewater headquarters.
Come July, both dispensaries hope to be among the first outlets to sell cannabis to the adult-use recreational market. Given that they are "priority" applicants and will be allowed by the Cannabis Control Commission to shift marijuana from medical to recreational use, little stands in their way.
After nearly three years of preparations, Berkshire Roots' investors and leaders come to market just as the state begins taking applications for adult-use retail licenses.
Before leaving his position Friday, Mullen took The Eagle through the facility.
He called getting the facility up and running "a massive undertaking."
When it secured its provisional license in July 2016, Berkshire Roots was known as Khem Organics. Mullen's father, one of the investors, suggested a different name.
According to state Department of Public Health filings, early top investors were Matthew C. Feeney, Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr. and Albert S. Wojtkowski.
More recent DPH filings show that Feeney contributed $1,083,989 in initial capital and an entity known as KO Resources LLC controlled by Wojtkowski provided $1,028,193.
The company notified the state in September that it was entering into a "master services agreement" with KO Resources.
Along with its new name, Berkshire Roots just underwent a purge of longtime directors. As of February, the following were listed as officers and directors in the Secretary of State's database: Mullen, as board president, treasurer and clerk; and Amy K. Peckham of Katonah, N.Y., Janelle T. Cornwell of Cherry Valley, John Bianco of Blandford, Amy N. Sanders of Boston, David R. Buchanan of Amherst and Kevin F. Tierney of Needham as directors.
All are gone. In a change Mullen submitted to the Secretary of State's Office in March, Wojtkowski is listed as president, treasurer, secretary and sole director.
The building is owned by Wojtkowski Bros. Inc.
For dozens of the nonprofit's employees, the first duty this year is to meet the needs of medical marijuana patients. They have been working out the kinks by seeing patients by appointment only. (To schedule a visit, email email@example.com.)
The first thing patients see, after coming in under a new "BR" sign on the building's facade and being greeted by the odor of cannabis, is an outer lobby where they must show their state-issued cards to a worker behind a glass divider.
It takes one more door to get into the actual "dispensary."
The design inside, by William Caligari Interiors of Great Barrington, needs only stacks of towels and an urn of cucumber water to resemble the waiting room of a pricey spa. Instead, it's a retail outlet the likes of which Pittsfield never has seen after years of marijuana prohibition.
Once inside the dispensary, a little sign shows where to line up to buy. But the mood here is soft-sell, in a room that resembles a boutique hotel lobby: dark tile flooring, clusters of comfortable orange chairs on carpeting, and walls decorated with frames of dried and plastic plants. On two sides, a "blued steel" counter holds a half-dozen computer stations.
That's where employees will complete transactions. Patients will be handed menus listing some of the company's nine available cannabis strains, including four unique to Berkshire Roots: Silver Fox, Poet's Walk, Old School and Chalice CBD.
The breeder who developed those strains, and provided them to Berkshire Roots in seed form, has agreed not to release them to other producers.
A private consultation room, reached beyond a sliding barn-style wooden door, offers a place for the retail staff to hear more about the health benefits that patients hope to get from purchases.
A low, glass-enclosed case near the middle of the space will display products, but a bigger story of what goes on in this building will be told in photos and videos on 10 flat-screen TVs that adorn three walls. Those images largely will be the work of John Bianco, a freelance photographer and videographer who has been documenting the company's steps toward opening.
That story takes place on the other side of the dispensary's back wall, in the tightly controlled production area that includes 15,000 square feet of growing area as well as trimming, drying and curing rooms and other spaces devoted to packaging products. That side of the business is overseen by Joe Baillargeon, the director of production.
Near the back of the building, a new second floor rises within the space and is home to an extraction lab and a high-tech kitchen where chocolate bars and chocolate chip cookies lay this week on metal racks, waiting for test results to come back before being packaged.
In the lab, a brownish solution containing cannabis oil swirled in a large mechanized beaker, allowing ethanols used to extract the psychoactive ingredient to be removed.
Brian Dubs, who is in charge of extraction and infusion, reached into a cabinet and pulled out a finished container of gelled cannabis oil. A nearby rack held, on parchment paper, a thin layer of "shatter" — one of the extracts popular among customers who use vaping devices to ingest cannabis without burning actual flowers.
But it is back down a wide metal staircase, on the sprawling first floor, where Berkshire Roots digs in.
The company started its initial plants from seed, as the state requires. Seeds were germinated in September.
The other day, Gibbons, the cultivation manager, stood watching a computerized Agricare monitor attached to the system steer precise mixes of nutrients through what looked to be miles of pipes and tubes.
This arterial network reaches all the way, through increasingly small pipes and hoses, to individual plants in the facility's plant nursery (its "veg" room) and three spacious halls packed with high-tech lighting and ventilation systems.
Gibbons was dialing in just the right amount of water and nutrients to plants in one of three grow rooms. Those cannabis strains were winding down ahead of a harvest, he explained, and soon would be fed only on water, so that any residual nutrients could be flushed away.
Near the big backup water tank, a grinder sat ready to chop up "fan" leaves trimmed from plants. Under state DPH rules, that plant matter would be mixed with soil, rendering it safe to dispose. Wastes must be logged. In terms of record-keeping, all activities inside the plant are documented by ever-present security cameras.
But the leaves contained little of medicinal or other value.
The water and nutrients pumped into the grow rooms are just one ingredient here. Above, banks of high-pressure sodium lights rich in the red spectrum shine 18 hours a day in the veg room, where newly cloned plants develop root systems. Higher up still, ducts move air through the rooms, controlling for temperature and humidity.
Inside them, ultraviolet light units purify the air by killing any unwanted microorganisms.
Once moved to grow rooms, the plants receive less light each day, triggering them to begin to produce flowers. They sit in individual containers atop tables that can be rolled, like library stacks, to allow workers access to specific rows.
As the plants grow, propelled by the photosynthesis occurring in their leaves, workers remove lower leaves to promote air circulation. They're also on the lookout for signs of any male cannabis plants, since this is a "no boys allowed" zone.
"We have to do a lot of scouting to catch any males," Gibbons said. "I think there's a little bit of an art to it."
But science plays a big part. One area in a flower-growing room is home today to a small forest of "mother" plants deemed to possess the most desirable phenotypes of different strains.
Instead of growing subsequent plants from seed, the company, like most producers, takes cuttings from the mother plants, induces rooting to begin and uses them to create clones with the same genetic qualities.
Those clones grow for about three weeks before spending a month in the veg room, then moving to roughly nine weeks in a flower room. From there, it takes about another month for trimmed flowers to be sorted, further trimmed, dried and cured. Along the way, every bit of cannabis is tracked on software known as the MJ Freeway, part of the state's required "seed to sale" monitoring.
Then it's on to packaging, or to the lab for extraction, if the flowers are to provide materials for edibles or other products.
At the end of the process, Berkshire Roots' agricultural product will be, based on its farm footprint, the most valuable in the county.
By a long shot.
According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, the average Berkshire County farm measures 117 acres and produces crops worth $42,797 a year. That's less income than expenses, which average $53,991 — leaving farm economics upside down.
As farms go, Berkshire Roots' expenses are high, including a 30-employee payroll that is expected to grow as production ramps up.
For electricity alone, it pays about $32,000 a month.
That's not even close to the top expense. Rent on the roughly 26,000-square-foot building is $89,333 a month, according to a lease on file with the DPH.
That works out to $1,072,000 a year, but stood to be even more. The initial base rent as of September was $151,866 a month, DPH records show. That sum was lowered in an amendment signed in January.
A rule of thumb for the industry holds that it takes $10 million to $20 million to enter the business. Investment so far is less than that.
"It will still take some time to become profitable," Mullen said Friday, hours before getting word that he was being dismissed. "It's a massive undertaking, both financially and in terms of time."
The key to success, he said, is providing what patients now — and adult-use buyers this summer, perhaps — want from the company.
At the start, customers will find those nine strains of flower, eight types of concentrates and a list of infused products, from tinctures and grapeseed oil for cooking to chewables, caramels, bars and cookies.
Other strains from the initial grow will be cloned and brought into the lineup.
Then there is the "X" factor of the cannabis trade.
"There's this stigma still with this product," Mullen said. "It's going away fast. It's about the science behind the plant, not the misinformation people like to use."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
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