Inside SpeakEasy: World’s biggest outdoor legal harvest
Published on May 13, 2021 by David Wylie
Editor’s note: This is the feature story on Issue 2 of the oz. magazine.
SpeakEasy founder Marc Geen had imagined it for years: standing in the middle of 60 acres of blooming cannabis plants, surrounded by crystal covered buds, the pungent scent hanging in the air.
Now it’s finally a reality.
“Walking through that is just unbelievable that it’s actually happening.”
Every week, with clipboard in hand, Geen compiled his assessment of each cannabis plant, collecting data throughout the growing season.
“The last step is a smell test—so you take the bud and you squeeze it a little bit and put your nose right to it so you can really absorb that flavour—and you get a little bit of resin on the end of your nose,” he recalls. “By the time I got to the 10th or 15th plant I could actually stick my pen to the end of my nose and leave it hanging.”
• RELATED: This is the cover story on Issue 3 of the oz. magazine
2020 was an extraordinary year for SpeakEasy Cannabis’ founder—“a whirlwind,” he says.
SpeakEasy harvested 60 acres of potted cannabis plants in fall 2020.
“It’s the largest legal harvest in the world,” says Geen. The previous record outdoor legal crop was in Colorado, where 40 acres of licenses were cobbled together, he says.
It was a perfect year weather-wise for SpeakEasy, with more than 60 days without rain from early July to the end of September. The plants grew between eight and 10-feet tall.
They harvested three varieties: Apricot Kush, Kootenay Fruit, and a third strain they are testing out. The unusual fall weather showcased how critical it was to choose an outdoor genetic that finished early, otherwise, one was certain to have challenges harvesting their crop before the first blast of winter.
Geen is a fourth-generation farmer. He’s dressed in a plaid shirt and blue jeans, as he tours the oz. through the operation located near Rock Creek, B.C.
He says the different varieties are intended to flower at different times to stagger the work, something he’s done throughout his farming life.
“I come from the cherry industry and it’s a very intensive harvest period,” he says.
“It requires a whole lot of infrastructure for processing. What you try to do in the cherry industry is spread your harvest out so you don’t have to have 500 people for seven to 10 days when your one variety is matured. You spread it out so you have a multiple staged harvest—six or seven varieties that all mature at a different time. You can have a smaller crew and smaller infrastructure and move through that harvest over a 30 to 40-day period. We attempted the same thing here with three different varieties and three different planting methods.”
SpeakEasy also experimented with different sized pots.
They were rewarded with six different harvest periods staggered over 35 days, wrapping up only one day before a freak snowfall in October.
“We’ve been really lucky,” he says.
“It was theoretical because no one’s ever really tried that on a huge scale, and it worked out really good.”
Pioneer roots run deep
The Geen family has a rich history in farming.
His grandparents were one of the original pioneer families in the Okanagan for tree fruits. They were involved in the start-up of Sun-Rype, a co-op founded by growers in the Okanagan who got tired of throwing away their cull apples.
When Sun-Rype went public, Geen’s dad, Merv, was elected as director for the first term and then became chairman of the board and remained there until it was rolled back into a private company.
Geen says he wasn’t too keen on the farming life when he was younger.
“It’s indentured servitude is what it is,” he says with a laugh. “It’s hot or it’s cold and it’s windy. You’re out in the elements all the time. The one thing I knew for sure I didn’t want to do when I got out of high school was farm; it was a terrible existence.”
Yet after his parents started growing ginseng, they offered him a small area of the farm that was sitting fallow to manage as his own.
“I just got hopelessly addicted to farming,” he says. “It’s instant gratification—
at the end of the day you could look back and see what you’ve done. It just grew from there.”
They bought the Rock Creek ranch in 1995, transitioning from ginseng, to cherries, and now to cannabis.
Made it through the ’60s without trying cannabis
After a Supreme Court of Canada decision forced the federal government to create a medical cannabis program, Geen took an interest in the new Marijuana for Medical Purposes Regulations (MMPR).
He says his parents were fully supportive—though they “somehow miraculously made it through the ’60s without ever trying marijuana.”
Along with his brother Pat and his parents, they started SpeakEasy and applied for a Health Canada licence to grow medical marijuana. SpeakEasy was the 46th applicant in the process.
The Conservative government at the time didn’t make it easy, and the process turned out to be much more onerous than they had expected.
“They just made it as difficult as they possibly could, on purpose,” Geen says, adding it took six years, four months and three days to finally get a license.
“It was very deliberate. Part of it was our own fault. We’ve been involved in farming for a long time and there’s all sorts of government programs that require applications.”
He says they approached the MMPR the same way they did other farming applications.
The scope, however, was beyond anything they’d done before. At the time they thought they were being “comprehensive” with their 20-page application.
“Our final application was thousands of pages of documents, and video evidence. Looking back at what we did before, which we thought was all-inclusive, is laughable,” he says.
On top of that, the federal government gave very little info to go on and any further guidance offered was vague at best.
Big boost for Rock Creek, B.C.
After a slow start, they’re growing fast. SpeakEasy began at 10,000 square feet and has expanded over the years to 60 acres of outdoor cannabis and 100,000 square feet of completed buildings.
Much of the indoor space was under construction during the oz.’s winter tour.
The operation has been a boon to the nearby community of Rock Creek. SpeakEasy started the season with 15-20 employees. They soon grew to 30, then reached their harvest peak of 82 employees from mid-September to end of October. Dozens of employees have been working on processing.
“In an area that has only 400-500 people, we employ most of them here. We are the largest employer by quite a margin,” says Geen.
“There will be an economic boom here. There will be some buildout as people move in. Part of the philosophy of the company has been to make sure that people have a living wage, so our starting wage is $20 an hour and goes up relatively quickly from that.”
“People are making vehicle purchases for the first time. We’ve had a number of people purchasing houses for the first time in their lives,” he says.
“We’ve got a nice little economy going here in the area. The people have been great. We try and keep as much local as we can; we use all the businesses here that we can.”
The company plans to produce the cannabis it has grown in a SpeakEasy line of flower, extracts, shatter and rosin.
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“The whole plan at SpeakEasy is to make a name for itself and make that name recognizable, then get it all across Canada, and then eventually it goes around the world,” says Geen.
“We will be processing all of our materials here. We will have very little bulk sales.”
“Part of being a farmer and part of being a farming family, you really get to understand the economics of being a farmer. Farmers are the lowest peg. Once it finally gets to the customer, there are about 10 levels in there that it passes through. And most of them take a much larger cut than the actual producer. At no point, did I want to be the lowest peg.”
Geen predicts there won’t be much of a market for bulk producers, as “they just get beat up too badly and go out of business.” That’s been the case, he says, in Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, and any states that have gone through the transition.
“If you’re not a vertically integrated operation, or something absolutely spectacular in terms of quality, you just get ground up and spit out. That’s definitely not our intent.”
Land of BC bud
Meanwhile in the Kootenays, Christina Lake Cannabis also had a successful year with their outdoor crop. Their plants grew seven to eight-feet—some as high as 11 feet—and almost as broad as tall.
“It was a bumper harvest and a bumper year from a weather perspective—very, very dry,” says company CEO Joel Dumaresq.
“Christina Lake is probably the best suited region in all of Canada for the growing of cannabis. In fact, that’s why a lot of the infamous bud that’s been grown in British Columbia in the last 25-30 years has come from the Christina Lake area.”
Dumaresq says Christina Lake has a dry climate. It runs along the banks of the Kettle River, which floods every few years and creates fertile soil. Strong wind blows through the valley so the plants develop hardy thick stalks.
The company grew cannabis on 18 acres this past season.
“Being our first year, we wanted to experiment with some of the strains that we’re working with,” he says. “Next year, we’ll dramatically increase the footprint.”
Their inaugural harvest year produced 32,500 kg. The company beat their production targets by more than 44%, and plan to expand grow operations in 2021. They are now contemplating expansion to 100 acres in the Kootenays. They say that will ultimately bring their annual cultivation footprint to more than 88,000 kg of sun-grown cannabis.
They also say that they could potentially grow some of their strains twice in a growing season.
Every plant is individually potted to control water and nutrients.
Of the four founders, three have been involved in both medical and legacy. They’ve been developing the genetics for 20-25 years, with 70-75 different strains specifically for outdoor growing.
This year, they picked eight they felt were suitable to the conditions. Dumaresq says cannabis grown outdoors can be just as aesthetic as that grown indoors.
“We would put a lot of the strains that we’ve developed outdoors this year up against any indoor product and challenge somebody to tell the difference,” he says.
Even a mayor is invested
There are about 50 people employed there, and Dumaresq says they are the largest employer in the Christina Lake area. He says the company has raised about $20 million and is well-positioned financially. Many investors are locals, he says, including the mayor of Grand Forks and the head of the Regional District of Christina Lake.
The company plans to develop white label products and also sell under their own brand, primarily focusing on producing cannabis distillate oils by extracting from their 2020 harvest.
Dumaresq says the trend is picking up to grow outdoors.
“Our cost is a fraction of what the indoor and greenhouse producers produce at,” he says.
“If you look at the costs of heat and light and everything else that goes into indoors, and you look at the costs outdoors, there’s such a massive cost advantage that one would really have to ask why somebody would invest further in indoor or greenhouse production.”