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Marijuana grower finds gold in fish feces

From fish poop to marijuana, the circle of life bubbles and pumps through pipes and ponds within the walls of a cool-looking industrial warehouse.

It’s a licensed marijuana grow, Thumb Genetics, unlike most you’ll find in the state or nation. Thumb Genetics, a mostly family-owned business, grows marijuana using aquaponics, an ancient agricultural technique first implemented by Mayan and Aztec farmers in Mexico nearly a thousand years ago.

“I can guarantee you that you have never been in a farm like this,” said Lloyd Owens, 65, the director of the company that owns a part of the business and operates it with his son, Jack Owens. “This is the craziest crop you have…I’ve ever been in.”

Aquaponics is a method commonly used to grow more forgiving vegetables, such as lettuce, but rare in the marijuana world, Lloyd Owens said.

The efficiency that aquaponics provides makes economic sense. There is much less waste. The need for expensive fertilizers and nutrient-rich custom soil becomes obsolete. The water in the 10,000-gallon system is reused, but the upfront costs are so high and the science so complex that most investors turn away from aquaponics, the Owens said, and use land-based farming instead. more tried and true, but wasteful. methods.

“Basically, it’s about $80 a month worth of fish feed, versus tens of thousands of dollars worth of chemicals every month,” said Lloyd Owens. “The other thing is: all these other crops, they waste all this water.

“We’ve eliminated all media, because our media is reusable, we’ve eliminated all fertilizer, and the fact that we don’t have to transplant and stuff, we’ve minimized our employees… We’ve had the same water in those tanks for about a year and a half”.

Aquaponics uses the symbiotic relationships between bacteria and animal waste to produce nutrient-rich water that is absorbed by the dangling roots of thirsty plants.

In the case of Thumb Genetics, thousands of blue Nile tilapia of varying ages swim in dark water inside 4-foot-tall blue tubs. Older seniors have safety nets strung over their pools to thwart the occasional suicidal jump to the concrete below.

“We had some kamikazes,” says Lloyd Owens.

The fish eat. They digest. Nutrients in their fecal matter seep into the water that seeps through a series of white PVC pipes into several pools covered in slimy bacteria and algae, with one pit stop in a 1,200-gallon water tank filled with red worms. that further refine the H2O in the sludge that collects at the bottom before the clean, invigorated water is pumped into grow rooms and eagerly soaked up by hundreds of growing plants under bright lights.

“You’re never exhausted,” said Jack Owens. “You’re recirculating your water and the plants are constantly feeding and taking in whatever nutrients they want in that water.”

A couple of years ago, Lloyd Owens took a road trip, drove to Pennsylvania, and picked up a few buckets of hundreds of small “fried” fish from a breeder. They are no longer small.

“We have four tanks, about 1,600 fish in all,” said Lloyd Ownes.

Each tank is about 1,200 gallons and the fish are divided, depending on their size and age.

The breed is chosen, in part, because they won’t breed as long as the water temperature stays below 82 degrees, but they get too old to serve their purpose: defecating frequently.

“We have different life cycles right now,” said Jack Owens, pointing to a tank with larger fish approaching 1.5 pounds. “We can probably keep them for another six months, but they’re definitely getting to the size where they don’t poop as often as the little ones.”

Once they get to be around two years old, their digestion is not conducive to the aquaponics system which is constantly being converted and recycled. The fish relieve themselves in greater quantity, but they do so less frequently.

They all started out small, like “minnows,” the Owens said. So far, they have avoided any serious illness. Aside from losing a few to deadly falls to the ground, larger tilapias eating their smaller siblings, or lustful males chasing females to the point of fatal exhaustion, schools have remained mostly healthy.

The business hasn’t had to sell any of its fish stock, but when it does, the Owens hope to one day be able to donate fish to those in need to eat.

“When we’re at full scale, we predict about 20,000 meals a year that we’ll be able to give away to the homeless,” said Lloyd Owens. “We’re not in the fish business. I’m not going to get a license to sell fish.”

In the meantime, as the company grows, it is likely that the removed fish will be collected and shared with employees.

Lloyd Owens hits his plastic prosthetic right leg hidden under a pair of blue jeans. He stepped into a hole as he ran, “splitting him in half,” he said, which contributed to his eventual amputation when he was 35. A host of other ailments led him to marijuana for pain relief.

He walks with a slight limp and leans against cinder block walls to take the weight off his prosthetic leg whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Jack Owens turned to marijuana after suffering a “really bad” concussion while playing goalie for the University of Davenport football team in 2008.

Farming is in his blood. Lloyd Owens grew up in one in rural Madison County, Illinois. His first job was in a nursery. Coincidentally, the nursery used aquaponics.

“It was my first paid job,” said Lloyd Owens as he walked past ponds of freshly fed fish in his marijuana farm. “I was 15 years old and it turned out to be a big problem.”

He studied biology at Southern Illinois University, and after his amputation, he went back to college and earned a degree in prosthetics from Northwestern University. That career path led the family to Michigan, where Lloyd Owens worked in the prosthetics industry for two decades.

With the advent of medical marijuana, the Owens became caretakers, allowing them to grow marijuana on a small scale. Even then, they began to flirt with the idea of ​​aquaponics, but the size of the farm did not make it economically viable.

In 2017, they decided to upgrade and applied for a medical cultivation license. They finally started operations in August 2020 after building the old Walmart distribution warehouse in which the business currently resides.

Originally there were more than 30 investors among the family and friends of the Owens.

“It’s been an adventure getting here for us,” said Lloyd Owens. “There is a large group, but not a real cash flow group, just a group of average citizens who pooled our money to do this.”

The 43,500-square-foot warehouse, just under an acre, is nestled among a number of other growing businesses in connected industrial warehouses.

Lloyd Owens opens a metal gate that leads to the concrete loading dock used for deliveries. The cold rushes in. He leads the way up the steel-grilled stairs and opens a door on the roof and points to the neighboring building. It is also a licensed crop, one that uses land.

See all those air conditioners, he says. There are dozens of them. She draws attention to her side of the ceiling. He is naked.

“This crop next to us is exactly the same size as ours,” he said. “And these are the air conditioning requirements for that growth and their power bill is $40,000 to $50,000 a month. Mine hasn’t hit $8,500 yet.”

Lloyd Owens said his facility uses three air conditioners. It is the nature of a water-based growing system. The water helps to cool down. If a grow gets too hot, microbes are attracted, the marijuana can become contaminated and invaded by pests.

When asked why, if Thumb Genetics’ aquaponic system is so much more efficient, others aren’t copying its style, Lloyd Owens said it’s all about experience and upfront costs.

“Start-up costs are three to four times higher,” he said. “So this comparable growth could probably be done for $1 million, a million and a quarter. This cost like $4 million.”

Jack Owens said that it is also know-how. “There are not enough scientists,” he said. “It’s very difficult to keep plants living in the same water for that long. You can make lettuce in 30 days, but when you make marijuana, it’s there much longer.”

The Owens foresee a massive expansion in the coming years. Aquaponics, more than traditional methods, is about a long game. Once the higher start-up expenses are paid, the cost efficiencies of the system should allow the business to prosper.

“As the price of marijuana goes down, you had better bring down the cost of doing business, and this is the lowest cost of doing business out there for any marijuana,” said Lloyd Owens.

The aquaponics method allows Thumb Genetics to cut about a week off the growing cycle, which becomes significant on a large scale. Another trait of Thumb Genetics marijuana that they believe will set it apart for years to come is that it is organic. Other growers use pesticides or methods that do not qualify as organic.

“It’s going to be federally legal,” Lloyd Owens said. “It’s only a matter of time, and the cleaner weed will be more valuable to the bigger players.”

Thumb Genetics is currently operating around three grow rooms with 250 plants each producing around eight ounces of marijuana each every eight to 12 weeks, depending on the strain.

They have dozens of strains that they have created as keepers and continue to breed as the new business expands. Its main client is Edgewood Wellness, a licensed medical dispensary at 134 E. Edgewood in Lansing.

“He’s probably going to have to retire soon, because he’s getting old,” says Jack Owens of his father. “So the plan is to take this model and copy it statewide in new buildings and then venture out to every other state as well.”

Before you cross state lines, there’s still plenty of room for expansion in your current building. As they walk through the largely empty warehouse, Jack Owens points to the beams and walls, explaining the vision. They are planning ten new grow rooms, which would expand their allotted grow from 3,500 plants to almost 6,000 plants.

In one of the grow rooms. Three employees with hygienic gowns and booties on their feet attend to the plants.

Lloyd Owen points to a woman shrouded in vegetation.

“Look at that girl down there, that’s my daughter,” he says. “My wife is in a seminar with the accountant right now.

“It’s a real family affair.”

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