Chris Lane was in law school when recreational marijuana was becoming legal in Washington.
“When I said I wanted to work in this industry, most people were caught off-guard, but people who knew me well weren’t surprised to hear that I was going to start a marijuana business,” he said.
This interest led to the founding of Virginia Company, an indoor producer/processor operation in Spokane Valley. Chris, CEO, and his wife Rebecca Lane, QA Manager, began performing detailed research into a wide variety of growing methods.
Chris said a post deep within an online agricultural forum caught his eye, describing aeroponics, an interesting growing method which requires little water and no soil.
“It was actually for a NASA study that was looking for ways to grow plants in space,” he said. “But no one had figured out how to do it on a large scale.”
He was intrigued, and after successfully trying this method and comparing the results to other traditional indoor cannabis growing methods, the choice was clear: aeroponics was the way to go.
“Aeroponics was the only system we tested that was able to yield consistent results, even after being left alone for three weeks,” he said. “So we figured if we can automate the process and control the consistency, it was a no-brainer.”
Virginia Company employees have spent the last few years developing the infrastructure and processes for the Tier 3 producing and processing facility. Today, Virginia Company strains and products are available statewide at about 80 retailers.
The high-pressure aeroponic grow system they’ve created provides plants with a special mixture of water and nutrient via a precisely calibrated atomized mist. Each strain receives a specific nutrient schedule developed based on years of R&D conducted by the Lanes. The mixture is sent to specific grow rooms from a centralized mixing room via a proprietary mixing and dispensing system.
“The whole building is pretty much one big plumbing project,” said Rebecca.
Since there’s no soil, there’s no need to worry about bugs – or pesticide applications to keep bugs away. This approach also keeps dirt and other potential contaminants to a minimum, while using 90 percent less water and 60 percent less nutrients than traditional growing methods.
Each grow room is computer-controlled to ensure the optimal amount of humidity, light, temperature, carbon dioxide and other factors for consistent growth are present.
“Everything is repeatable – you can set exactly what they need and walk away,” Rebecca said. Sensors in each room alert managers if any environmental factors change.
The Lanes utilized everything from Rebecca’s chemistry background and agricultural experience to Chris’ business management skills and legal training. Other family members and colleagues contributed expertise in security, computer engineering, HVAC, and systems management.
They are quick to credit not just an impressive growing system and the controlled environment grow rooms, but employees who keep everything running well, from rigorous sanitation procedures to precise nutrient mixing.
One especially valuable employee has been co-founder and General Manager Josh Ruhlman, whose role ranges from establishing growing procedures to building the sales program.
“We have some great managers and supervisors, and lots of layers of quality control,” Chris said.
He said the company continues to look for improvements, including encouraging the staff to propose and conduct their own controlled R&D experiments.
“Many of the improvements we have implemented stem from employee-driven projects and ideas,” Chris said.
Rebecca said the facility can be thought of as “one big laboratory.”
“As long as experiments are controlled, we want to empower employees to try new things and test different growing techniques,” she said.
Virginia Company recently opened a separate processing building, and is currently installing extraction equipment to begin developing concentrated products, extracts and edibles.
Now that Virginia Company’s strains and products are available in Washington, the company is entering its next operational phase. Some details are still under wraps, but the goal is to use aeroponics and the automated process in other states.
How this would work is still under discussion, such as if the Lanes will be actively involved or license their technology to approved growers.
“We’ve been approached by groups from other states, including some places that haven’t legalized marijuana yet,” Chris said. “Whatever way we go, our biggest fear is losing quality — the hardest thing hasn’t been creating our system but maintaining it.”