Tony Ratliff has come a long way since he had his first closet grow in 2000. Speaking to a room full of cannabis entrepreneurs at the November meeting of Women Grow-Southeast Michigan, he encouraged beginners to proceed fearlessly. “No one really knows what they are doing when they start out and it’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.”
Ratliff is a practicing dentist, angel investor, and licensed caregiver in Michigan’s medical marijuana program who co-founded MooFiber in 2013 to revolutionize the world’s manure management problem. The company did it by inventing a new process of washing cow manure, extracting water from it, compressing the solids, and sterilizing the fiber to produce a continuous supply of fibrous bedding material that they sell back to the farmers.
They called the new product MooFiber, a sustainable alternative bedding system for dairy cows. The process is now patent pending.
In 2015, he co-founded Urban Farms, “a small indoor test farm” in Indianapolis that supplies high-end restaurants with arugula, lettuce, basil, micro greens, and other leafy vegetables. They developed their distribution system by visiting with chefs and showing them their products. “The chefs loved the local farm-to-table concept and utilize it in the marketing materials and menus.”
Their biggest challenges? “Keeping up with production and growing indoor items in a profitable manner. We haven’t got control of the overhead yet. That’s why we moved to the cannabis market.”
Lessons Learned along the Way
Over the course of nearly two decades of growing, Ratliff has learned lessons, which he shared freely in a wide-ranging PowerPoint “crash course in cannabis cultivation.”
“Start your plants as early as March; bigger pots allow for increased root space so produce larger yields,” he begins. “Indoors you can grow in soil or by using hydroponics or a combination of the two. There’s no one best system. Plant them outdoor by June 1, as far apart as possible, again for the larger root space.”
Light, he says, is the critical primary input. When indoors, you can choose from among six light types: fluorescent, metal halide, high-pressure sodium, LEDs, CMH (ceramic metal halide), and LEC (light-emitting ceramic. Choose the best you can afford; wide spectrum lighting is better. Ideally, they should get full sun outside, with the amount varying according to the plant’s stage of growth:
- germinating seed: lasts from 1 to 2 weeks
- seedling: lasts from 2 to 3 weeks; plants need 18 to 24 hours of sunlight a day
- vegetative stage; 2 to 8 weeks; 13 to 24 hours of sunlight
- flowering stage: 6 to 8 weeks; 12 hours of sunlight
He believes it is essential to begin adding nutrients to the soil right from the start. Among the primary nutrients:
- nitrogen: promotes photosynthesis and chlorophyll production as well as stem and leaf growth
- phosphorus: supports increased stalk and stem strength, improves flower formation and bulking
- potassium/potash: regulates CO2 uptake, activates enzymes required in photosynthesis and respiration
Key secondary and micro nutrients include boron, calcium, chlorine, cobalt, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, silicon, and sulfur. If you use these nutrients in your soil and still find deficiencies in your plants, “it is because the pH at the roots is not right!” He advises you to have pH of 6.0-7.0 for soil and 5.5-6.5 for hydro/coco coir.
He encourages growers to spray for bugs while the plants are in the ground; he uses Captain Jack’s Deadbug Brew, an insecticide that uses a naturally occurring bacterium as its active ingredient. Get them out of the ground before Halloween.
A strong believer in genetics, he reminds growers to “Kill the male plants; flower the female plants; and clone the best ones. Genetics are the prime determining factor in quality and production factors.”
Succeeding in the New Paradigm
As he reflects on his own growth in the industry, he offers an optimistic outlook to the entire industry and its acceptance in mainstream society:
- Legal U.S. sales up 35% in 2016 to $6.5 billion ($1.8 billion recreational; $4.7 billion medical)
- 94% public support for medical marijuana if doctor-prescribed
- 64% support for legalization
To be part of the coming legalization boom, consistency is important. “You want to produce the same amount of medicine at the same quality every month in order to have a consistent revenue stream.”
He encourages continual experimentation, “but only change one variable at a time. Choose the right strains based on Environment + Yield + Demand. But you have to experiment in the beginning because each growing environment is different and there is no such thing as the ‘best way’ to grow cannabis.”
Ratliff’s company will be applying for a commercial cultivation license in December “and then focus on new problems and issues with scale and tracking.”
“Distribution and developing relationships with the dispensaries will be our biggest challenges,” he predicts. “You can grow it, but if you can’t sell it for a reasonable profit – that’s a problem.”
Final tip: Educate yourself. Attend meetings like Women Grow.
Ken Wachsberger, editor of Bloom Blog, is an author, editor, and book coach, and the founder of Azenphony Press. He is the author of the upcoming Ken Wachsberger’s Puns and Word Plays for the Job Seeker.