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Green acres: Inside the Valley’s hot new industry, from seed to weed

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Desert Grown Farms’ Armen Yemenidjian keeps a watchful eye on his plants.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Extend your arms wide and you can almost touch both walls of an all-white, florescent-lit hallway inside Desert Grown Farms Cultivation Facility in the central Las Vegas Valley. Jump with your hands up and you’ll almost touch the ceiling.

The narrow walkway feels like a set piece from The Matrix, except in place of sunglasses and a leather overcoat, you’re wearing a hairnet, surgical mask, black rubber gloves, booties and a disposable, navy-blue bodysuit not unlike hospital scrubs.

“The idea is that the environment is sterile and clean,” says Desert Grown Farms CEO Armen Yemenidjian as we tour the 54,000-square-foot medical marijuana facility. “We take care to make sure nothing from outside that could infect our plants is brought inside.”

Facilities like this have been popping up around town since the fall of 2015, when medical marijuana dispensaries in Nevada first began opening their doors. The demand for grow houses should only increase once the state legislature works out details on implementing Ballot Question 2, which passed in November, legalizing up to one ounce of marijuana flower or an eighth of an ounce of marijuana concentrates for recreational use in Nevada.

“The number of people who qualify to purchase cannabis will increase dramatically,” Yemenidjian says. “The industry expects clientele to [increase] three or four times from medical.”

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Inside one of seven plant-filled rooms at Desert Grown Farms, about 1,200 lush, skunky-smelling “trees” as tall as four feet have spent up to 18 weeks growing to maturity. The process starts from the time they’re clipped as a three-inch branch from one of the facility’s 400 mother plants—a process known as cloning. The plants are raised in ground-up coconut, a hydroponic substitute for soil and Rockwool.

Half of this particular flower room’s adult plants were cut from their stems and taken to dry in a Desert Grown Farms darkroom earlier in the week. The remaining 600 trees are also getting close to being harvest-ready. Some of the thickly budded branches’ 60 different marijuana strains—many with fanciful names like Grape Stomper and Black Gorilla No. 3—are as wide as an ear of corn. THC crystals on the buds glisten under high-pressure sodium lights, which fill the room with varying levels of artificial sunlight for 12 hours each day, before they’re switched off for 12 hours each night.

“Go ahead,” Yemenidjian says, encouraging us to touch the live buds with our glove-covered hands. Blue Frost flowers smell like freshly baked blueberry muffins, Strawberry Cough like newly picked strawberries. They leave a sticky, sweet-scented nectar on our fingertips.

“We’re just hunting for the best genetics right now, so we’re growing a little bit of everything,” explains Yemenidjian, who also owns a neighboring edible production facility called Desert Grown Extracts, and the Valley’s three Essence Cannabis Dispensaries.

Beneath the plants, a state-of-the-art, Argus-brand fertigation system—that’s fertilization plus irrigation—feeds them a nutrient-rich mix of liquid fertilizer up to five times a day. The feed gets funneled in from six, clear, 1,600-gallon tanks in another room. “This place is way too big to hand-water,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’d take way too much time.”

White Bubba buds from Desert Grown Farms.

Back in the all-white hallway, C.J. Furtado, Desert Grown Farms’ assistant director of cultivation, opens a door to a room of total darkness. Yemenidjian turns his cell phone into a flashlight and reveals some 70 marijuana plants—recently harvested and hanging from metal drying racks. A humidifier roars in the background, nearly drowning out conversation.

The harvested plants will sit anywhere from two to three weeks in the pitch dark, hanging upside down so that their nutrients move from their stems to their buds. When the dried-out trees are ready for shucking, Furtado hand-cuts the remaining leaves and puts them in airtight plastic bins.

Though he’s currently cultivating 60 different strains, Yemenidjian plans to sell only 15 at a time to dispensaries across the Valley. The rest will be preserved in the bins, to be sold when Desert Grown Farms’ clients “get bored and want something new,” he says.

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With current medical marijuana facility license-holders set to get first dibs on a new batch of recreational facility licenses that could double the amount of dispensaries and cultivation, production and testing facilities over the next 18 months, Yemenidjian says recreational legalization will undoubtedly mean more business for him.

Ditto for Kevin Biernacki, head cultivator at the Grove medical marijuana cultivation facility, a 32,000-square-foot grow house just south of the Las Vegas Strip. Biernacki, too, passes his visitors a pair of booties, a hairnet, a disposable face mask and a bodysuit—white this time—to prevent common parasites like thrips and spider mites from getting near his plants. He leads us to another sterile, all-white hallway leading to three separate rooms home to more than 4,000 total marijuana plants.

Each 1,600 square-foot room features double-deck growing racks, which allow Biernacki to produce twice as much marijuana in the same amount of space. This place cranks out 6,000 pounds of medical marijuana annually, later sold in its own Las Vegas- and Pahrump-based dispensaries, along with about 50 other medical dispensaries statewide.

Across the hall, three more 1,600-square-foot rooms sit empty, waiting for recreational marijuana’s legal framework to kick in next summer, which could double the facility’s output. “We’re probably not looking until July 1 to expand, until we know how the state legislature is going to implement rec.,” Biernacki says. “It’s hard to say right now how they’re going to fulfill that.”

Unlike Yemenidjian, Biernacki only uses water to hydrate his facility’s plants, which grow anywhere from two-and-a-half to three feet at their maximum height. Instead of fertilizers, the Grove’s marijuana trees get their nutrients from peat-blended natural soil. New clones spend two weeks spreading their roots in the soil before vegetating two more weeks under 18 hours of sunlight and six hours in darkness, and finally, nine weeks flowering in 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness.

The Grove is the only facility in the Valley using all-LED lighting as sunlight for its plants, part of Biernacki’s mission to be “as energy efficient as possible. We’re trying to produce the best carbon footprint we can produce and eliminate the amount of power usage that we draw,” he says. “LEDs are more efficient with power consumption; they’re also more efficient in heat mode, so we can cut back on our AC costs.”

Instead of hanging and drying his marijuana plants after harvest, Biernacki cuts the buds off immediately, and places up to 200 pounds’ worth on baking racks in a dark, humidified drying room. The buds dry for up to seven days before they’re placed in small, air-tight glass jars—up to one pound apiece—where they’re cured for a month. During that time, a cultivation staff of 15 typically opens the jars once a day to air the buds out. After that, the buds stay shut in the jars, which are packed with nitrogen to reduce harmful oxygen that breaks them down. If preserved properly, they’ll be good for up to a year, Biernacki says.

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Edibles-only facility Silver State Wellness doesn’t have to worry about crop-destroying insects coming in from the outdoors to ruin its inventory, which means we don’t need to wear bodysuits here. Visitors to this 17,000-square-foot production facility, which creates marijuana-infused chocolates, coffee, lotions, breath mints and more—require only a hairnet, face mask and gloves.

“It’s literally just to prevent hair,” explains marketing director Jacob Silverstein. “The production floor is a clean environment, so we make sure that when we’re handing specialty food products, everybody is wearing those. It’s like lunch ladies in the school cafeteria.”

Inside Silver State Wellness, Kristal Chamblee—a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef—pours hot, liquid THC oil-infused milk chocolate into 12-square molds. The hardened product will eventually become powerful, 100-miligram THC- and CBD-loaded chocolate bars, a single square of which can give users a “relaxing high,” Chamblee says.

Those chocolate bars are among nearly 50 products made on these premises, where $250,000 worth of machinery is used to press, filter and preserve gallons of highly concentrated THC oil from hundreds of pounds of marijuana flower each month. The oils are then infused into the products and packaged on-site.

Since Silver State opened for business in October, its Relaxation Peppermint and Orange Zest Awakening pill-size mints have been its hottest sellers to local dispensaries. Thousands of its root beer-infused elixirs, which feature 100 milligrams of THC per 8.5-ounce bottle, have also left the production facility for Valley shelves, Silverstein says. Other drink flavors include fruit punch and an Arnold Palmer-style lemonade/iced tea hybrid.

Where growers at Desert Grown Farms and the Grove expect similar requests for their flower from soon-to-be recreational users, Silverstein says recreational and medical users will likely have significantly different preferences for his edible and infused marijuana products. Topical lotions and suppositories currently available to medical cardholders in Nevada aren’t likely to appeal as widely to recreational users choosing products for their psychoactive effects.

So Silver State is preparing for an increase in demand for tinctures and coffee, along with its hot-selling mints, chocolates and elixirs, and has a new line of baked goods set to hit the production line this month. Here, as at Desert Grown Farms and the Grove, it’s all about gearing up for another major growth spurt by an industry that pairs especially well with its surroundings.

“Las Vegas has the Sin City connotation, and people are comfortable doing things here maybe they wouldn’t do otherwise,” Silverstein says. “We just want to make sure we have everybody’s needs covered.”

Editor’s note: Brian Greenspun, the CEO, publisher and editor of Greenspun Media Group, the parent company of Las Vegas Weekly, has an ownership interest in Desert Grown Farms and Essence Cannabis Dispensary.

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Chris Kudialis started at the Las Vegas Sun in 2015 after a year with the Las Vegas Review-Journal. A graduate ...

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