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S.F.’s Cannabis Industry Is Bigger Than You Thought

San Francisco now has 40 fully permitted marijuana grows, farming small-batch, artisan cannabis powered by smartphone apps.

When you think of marijuana grow operations, you think of giant Humboldt County farms or massive, multi-acre greenhouses in the Central Valley. Sure, you may have known some folks who ran illegal grows in San Francisco basements or closets, but these no longer seem necessary in the era of legal dispensaries.

In reality, many of those once-underground grows have sprouted into licensed cannabis cultivators. San Francisco received its first state-approved Cannabis Cultivation Licenses in March, and there are now 40 operations licensed by the San Francisco Department of Cannabis.

SF Evergreen checked out a couple of these urban pot farms. They make the most of their small indoor spaces with high-tech farming techniques like moving electrical plant racks, smartphone apps to power climate control — and tennis balls that keep farmers from bonking their heads on the shelves.

“For many years, all the way up until 2018, you simply grew the cannabis and took it into the dispensary,” says Aaron Flynn, co-founder of Gold Seal, which grows pot in a Bayview warehouse. “They smelled it, and if they liked it they paid you for it, and off everybody went.

“Now there are six different steps between you and the dispensary,” Flynn adds of the current cannabis cultivation landscape. “There is testing, there is packaging, distribution, and transportation. All of those things create enormous expense and need new logistics.”

Flynn also co-chairs the San Francisco chapter of the California Growers Association, so he’s uniquely suited to explain all these new logistics urban pot farmers face. Other local growers have their own techniques.

“We run about 120 lights in a highly controlled environment,” says Kind County Farms CEO and founder Brian McMorrow. “But we subdivide the space into very small rooms in order to run single-strain, small-batch, top-shelf quality flower. We have some classic strains as well as the exotics.”

You may be familiar with Kind County Farms in a completely different capacity. They also run the Bay Area’s Kind Courier delivery service.

“Kind County Farms is our in-house flower brand,” McMorrow explains.

Many of these growers keep a pretty low profile, for understandable reasons. If you look at goldsealsf.com, all you’ll see is pot-themed clothing and “educational services,” not cannabis plants.

“The reason you see apparel on the Gold Seal website is because federally, we are not allowed to trademark intellectual property as a cannabis business,” Flynn says. “So we have to find ways to protect our logo and our name and trademark via other means.”

The state of California offers cannabis trademarks now.

“Within the next six months or so, you’ll start to see more folks being comfortable advertising what it is they do,” Flynn predicts.

But there is one aspect to this visibility that San Francisco growers are not thrilled about. The Planning Department requires that each grower mail Neighborhood Notifications to all property owners within 150 feet of their marijuana grow, and cultivators worry this could attract a little too much attention.

“Unfortunately, folks who have been doing this in this neighborhood for a long time have had a number of break-ins, some by armed burglars,” Flynn tells SF Weekly. “These are some very scary things for people who have families to go home to.

“By making this process abruptly public, we may inadvertently subject business operators to more danger,” he adds.

There are 17 different types of Cannabis Cultivation Licenses in California, but you’ll only find two of these license types granted in San Francisco: a Specialty Indoor License that allows for up to 5,000 feet of flowering plants, and a Small Indoor License that permits between 5,000 and 10,000 feet of plant space.

“Because of the cost of real estate, and because it is impossible for cannabis businesses to get traditional financing from a bank, all of the San Francisco operators are under 10,000 square feet,” McMorrow says.

The Planning Department created a new land-use code called Industrial Agriculture for these grows. The parameters of this new code tend to cluster the pot farms mostly into District 10’s Bayview-Hunters Point and Potrero Hill.

“I would say that 80 to 90 percent of San Francisco cultivation sites are located in District 10,” Flynn estimates. “That’s due to the fact that most of the PDR space — Production, Distribution, and Repair — is located in District 10.”

Those PDR facilities are large buildings by San Francisco standards, but they are laughably tiny by big commercial cultivation standards. Some California grows are 10 times larger.

But the local guys have plans to take on their corporate competition.   

“There’s no way for us to really compete with the large greenhouse farms in the Central Valley and in the desert that are going to be growing the [cannabis] equivalent of Bud Light,” Flynn says. “The only way for us to compete as small, boutique cultivators is to be very craft, high-end, and top-shelf.

“We try to appeal to the connoisseur who will drink that craft beer or a $50 bottle of scotch,” he adds.

That’s a challenge for indoor cannabis growers. But some San Francisco growers meet this challenge with digital technologies to control dehumidifying, air conditioning, and lighting, all powered by smartphone apps.

SF Evergreen spoke with Ed Rancourt, sales and product development manager at TrolMaster Agro Instruments, which makes these high-tech instruments and the apps that run them.

“We prefer to help you grow basil or tomatoes,” Rancourt says with a smirk. “But if you happen to grow cannabis, we’re going to help you with that as well. We actually make the superior product for that.”

Urban marijuana farming still carries plenty of risks. A PG&E outage could render those automated systems useless. And growing or transporting pounds of marijuana in Bayview or Potrero Hill is a perilous proposition, plus growers face oodles of City Hall red tape.

But these growers have long been anxious for that red tape, and a structure that finally allows them to operate legally in San Francisco.

“I’ve been waiting for over a decade to have a fully permitted cultivation site,” Flynn says. Pointing to his California and San Francisco cultivation licenses, he adds, “That grow room, and those two pieces of paper mean the end of Prohibition. That’s something that I’ve been working for the better part of my professional career.”

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