I had the opportunity to visit Pueblo Colorado’s Los Suenos Farms in early October, the heart of harvest season. Los Suenos has set a new precedence in cannabis horticulture, transferring a once cottage industry into full-scale industrial agriculture and in the process, earning it the title of the largest legal cannabis cultivation facility in the United States.
Cannabis in a Former Steel Town
Pueblo is an ex-steel industry manufacturing town and its location marks the end of the Rocky Mountains and start of the Great Plains, which sprawl eastward throughout the heartland of the United States.
Just outside of town, Los Suenos’s massive outdoor grow facility is located amidst a checkerboard of cornfields and family farms—blending somewhat seamlessly into a landscape and community based on agriculture and blue collar industry.
One of the most remarkable facets of Los Suenos is that the feel of the cannabis farm is unmistakably “Americana.” It’s like witnessing something strangely familiar in the novel landscapes of the marijuana industry.
One of the most compelling business aspects of Los Suenos Farms lies in the sheer size of the operation and the subsequent ingenuity of operational logistics on the part of the staff.
The team at Los Suenos is forced to operate their farm with all the zeal, competiveness, and efficiency of an industrial agriculture operation while simultaneously paying vigilant attention to detail concerning state mandated seed-to-sale tracking standards. This is no small feat.
Thanks to the generosity and attentiveness of Jarrod Mason, Los Suenos’s director of business development, Hydrolife got an all-access tour of the operation amidst the hustle-and-bustle of harvest.
Moreover, Los Suenos’s compliance director, Jacob Faber, was extremely informative in explaining both the legal and logistical nuances of the operation.
Finally, Los Suenos’s cultivation director, Aaron Hoare, shed fascinating insight into marijuana cultivation on such a large scale. Hoare is also the founder of Ambrosia Cropz, a Colorado-based cannabis consulting firm that has recently released its own line of powdered, water-soluble nutrients.
36 Acres and 36,000 Plants
The massive scope of operations at Los Suenos Farms is its most defining characteristic. This size precariously provides both the farm’s brand identity and largest obstacle in logistics.
For starters, Los Suenos is legally licensed by the State of Colorado to cultivate an astounding 36,000 marijuana plants—this number covers all phases of plant growth.
Within this allocated number, the farm grows 24,000 full-season outdoor plants that comprise a 28-acre garden canopy.
Make no mistake about it, witnessing an operation of this size during peak flower will change one’s perspective about the cannabis industry by providing glimpses of the future.
It is important to note that CO State does not normally issue cultivation licenses for this many plants. In fact, they never do.
To function at this immense scale of production, Los Suenos operates under four different licenses.
This licensing arrangement adds another level of complexity to a business venture already steeped in multifaceted regulation—the specificities of these licenses effect all business operations, from employee wages to product sales.
Mason shed a great deal of insight into the operational philosophy of the place, highlighting how the cultivation conditions in Pueblo have organically shaped Los Suenos’s business model and brand image.
To illustrate, Mason reports that their approach to cannabis growing is to “let nature take its course.”
Importantly, Mason stresses the fact that the climate in Pueblo provides the means for this system as Los Sueno’s garden is located at an elevation of approximately 3,700 feet and receives abundant sunshine.
This notion is vital because there aren’t many geographies in Colorado (that are politically accepting of cannabis cultivation) that are conducive to full-sun, outdoor marijuana growing. Therefore, it is from this climactic niche that Los Suenos has developed its identity and business model.
The industrial agriculture component of Los Suenos Farms is directly attributable to the climate of Pueblo as well, as growing 28 acres worth of cannabis canopy in greenhouses or warehouses would be a drastically different affair.
Mason is confident in the large-scale model of the farm, stating that “nobody else is doing it like we are.” To be honest, he is right.
On a daily basis, the team at Los Suenos accomplishes a careful balancing act between industrial production and extreme attention to detail. For these reasons, they are setting an industry standard in efficiency. As Mason puts it, they are “pushing the boundary every day.”
It’s worth noting that cannabis businesses that push the boundaries with size and innovation are generally those who progress the industry.
Along this line of thought, Los Suenos is literally writing the blueprint for industrial agriculture in the cannabis sector.
Furthermore, as Colorado has become the worldwide stage as well as a model for a functioning, regulated cannabis industry, international eyes look to Los Suenos for guidance.
Thus far, the farm has been visited by Canadian businessmen and politicians looking to gain some insight into the inner-workings of such an operation, potentially using Los Suenos’s innovations to help with the launching of the Canadian recreational program next year.
The cultivation team at Los Suenos Farms, led by Aaron Hoare, Sean Babson, and Eric Henderson, models their horticultural methods after the general vision at the farm, which is large-scale, natural growing.
To this end, they use the native soil of the farm for plant propagation, a practice almost unheard of in an industry steeped in name-brand soils.
Also, Hoare reports that the watering tasks at Los Suenos are accomplished through the use of irrigation lines built into the soil within the rows of crops.
Finally, the cultivators at the farm have adopted the use of powdered, water-soluble nutrients for their massive fertilization efforts—also a logical departure from the liquid nutrient lines that dominate the industry.
To reiterate, efficiency with operational logistics is the key to success at Los Suenos Farms and practical means for accomplishing day-to-day tasks are essential for Hoare and his team.
The growers at Los Suenos opted to grow smaller marijuana plants (by outdoor standards) than those seen in traditional large-scale operations.
For them, it makes the most sense to grow their plants to between five and six feet tall. Again, this methodology is directly related to efficiency, mainly because attempting to grow 24,000 large plants simultaneously would be an expensive proposition and logistical nightmare.
Moreover, the size of the plants at Los Suenos makes them manageable when it comes to pruning and support. To illustrate, the team at the farm simply supports the plants with tomato cages rather than what would be time-consuming, labor-intensive trellising and tying practices for an operation this big.
As the employees at Los Suenos Farms consistently juggle the day-to-day logistics of such a sizeable cultivation operation, they must also navigate the fine legal nuances of the CO State cannabis business.
For Faber, the constant struggle between logistical efficiency and attention to detail requires a careful balancing act. Faber explains that each of Los Sueno’s 36,000 plants has a tracking tag.
These tags feature a barcode, serial number, and RFID chip. These numeric markers represent a wellspring of information on each plant, including strain, age, repositioning, and location.
By way of the CO State-mandated METRC tracking system, the aforementioned information must be available for the State at all times, through all growth phases as well as harvest.
Harvest Operations: Keeping Track of Every Gram
The harvest operations at Los Suenos are indicative of a finely choreographed dance in which 70 temporary employees follow the careful instruction of management personnel.
When streamlined, the team can harvest between 800-1,200 plants a day. It is also important to note that the harvest team at the farm is under serious time constraints with the Colorado weather, as mid-October freezes and snow are normal in the Pueblo region.
Moreover, CO State tracking guidelines are strictly mandated in every phase of the harvest operation; this is serious business and it is not taken lightly.
As a result, for Faber, the most challenging element of harvest season is “keeping a fast pace while remaining compliant.”
The harvest procedure at Los Suenos Farms utilizes the infrastructures on premises, with a large influx of temporary employees to aid in the daunting task at hand.
With teams split up in various arenas of the farm, they bring down rows of cannabis plants with chainsaws and ship them to a drying room by ATV and trailer.
Upon entering the drying room, whole wet plants are weighed for METRC tracking, then bucked down for a more efficient drying process.
Once dry, flowers are removed from stems and sent to the processing building for trimming in industrial trim machines. Finally, flowers are stored in large barrels for the curing process.
A crucial element of the entire harvest process at Los Suenos, again, boils down to compliance with CO State law.
To illustrate, the METRC number from the original whole-plant weigh-in must match the weight of the finished flower product plus waste (leaves, stems, and unusable materials) for each plant.
All this plant material gets weighed several times throughout drying and processing to account for loss of water weight and other variables.
Finally, Los Suenos hires an ancillary business to visit the farm and destroy all excess waste on camera for CO State to witness.
The industrial agriculture approach to cannabis cultivation at Los Suenos Farms is not without its problems or critics. Of course, they face the problems with weather, pests, and labor seen with all farming operations, be they in the cannabis industry or mainstream agriculture.
Additionally, being the biggest cannabis grow in the United States puts them on the map for drug war zealots on the local and federal level.
However, as Mason explains, the cannabis industry in Pueblo, Colorado, has helped fill the economic void of a wavering steel manufacturing economy in the town.
Also, Los Suenos has provided an overabundance of jobs in the region, especially during harvest when they are continually short staffed.
All things considered, the problems Los Suenos Farms faces are indicative of their iconoclastic businesses model—a program that is pushing the cannabis industry for progress.