Marijuana grower finds gold in fish droppings

From fish poo to marijuana, the circle of life bubbles and pumps through pipes and pools inside the walls of a cold-air industrial warehouse.

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

“I can guarantee you’ve never been in a culture like this,” said Lloyd Owens, 65, the company director who owns part of the business and operates it with his son. , Jack Owens. “It’s the craziest growth you can do…I’ve ever been there.”


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

The efficiency of aquaponics makes economic sense. There is much less waste. The need for expensive fertilizers and custom-made, nutrient-rich 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 avoid aquaponics, the Owens said, using more proven soil-based culture instead. but wasteful. methods.

“Basically, that’s about $80 worth of fish food per month versus tens of thousands of dollars in chemicals each month,” Lloyd Owens said. “The other thing is all these others are growing, they’re wasting all this water.

“We eliminated all the supports, because our supports are reusable, we eliminated all the fertilizer, and the fact that we don’t have to transplant and that, we minimized our employees…. We had the same water in these 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 hanging roots of thirsty plants.

In the case of Thumb Genetics, thousands of blue Nile tilapia of varying ages swim through dark waters in 4-foot-tall blue tanks. Older larger ones have safety nets suspended above their pools to thwart the occasional suicidal leap to the concrete below.

“We had a few suicide bombers,” Lloyd Owens said.

The fish eat. They digest. The nutrients in their faeces seep into the water which is filtered through a series of white PVC pipes into various pools covered in bacteria and slime algae, with a pit stop in a water tank of 1,200 gallons filled with red wiggler worms that further refine the H2O in the sludge that collects at the bottom before the cleansed and invigorated water is pumped to grow rooms and eagerly sucked through hundreds of growing plants under bright lights.

“You never run out,” Jack Owens said. “You recirculate your water and the plants are constantly feeding and grabbing all the nutrients they want from that water.”

A few years ago, Lloyd Owens took a road trip to Pennsylvania and picked up buckets containing hundreds of tiny “fries” from a rancher. They are no longer small.

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

Each tank is approximately 1,200 gallons and the fish are divided according to size and age.

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

“We have different life cycles right now,” Jack Owens said, and points to an aquarium 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’re not pooping as often as the little ones.”

Once they are about two years old, their digestion is not conducive to the aquaponics system which is constantly transforming and recycling. Fish relieve themselves in higher volumes, but do so less frequently.

They all started small, as “fingerlings,” the Owens said. So far, they have avoided any serious illness. Aside from losing a few to death falls on the ground, larger tilapias eating their smaller brethren, or males eager to chase females to death exhaustion, the shoals have mostly remained in good health.

The company hasn’t had to renew the fish stock, but when it does, the Owens hope to one day be able to donate fish to the needy for meals.

“When we’re at full scale, we anticipate around 20,000 meals a year that we can donate to the homeless,” Lloyd Owens said. “We are not in the fish business. I will not get a license to sell fish.”

In the meantime, as the company grows, retired fish will likely be harvested and shared with employees.

Lloyd Owens kicks on his plastic prosthetic right leg hidden under blue jeans. He stepped into a hole while jogging, “broke it in half”, he said, contributing to his eventual amputation at the age of 35. A series of other ailments led him to marijuana for pain relief.

He limps slightly and leans against the cinderblock walls to relieve his prosthetic leg whenever the opportunity arises.

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

Agriculture is in their blood. Lloyd Owens grew up in rural Madison County, Illinois. His first job was to work in a nursery. Coincidentally, the nursery used aquaponics.

“It was my first paid job,” Lloyd Owens said as he passed ponds of fish recently fed into his marijuana grow op. “I was 15 and it turned out to be a big deal.”

He studied biology at Southern Illinois University and after his amputation returned to college, earning a degree in prosthodontics from Northwestern University. This career path led the family to transplant to Michigan, where Lloyd Owens worked in the prosthetics industry for two decades.

With the advent of medical marijuana, the Owens became caregivers, 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 culture did not make it economically feasible.

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

There were originally over 30 investors among the Owens’ family and friends.

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

The 43,500 square foot warehouse, just under an acre, is nestled among a series of other growth companies in connected industrial warehouses.

Lloyd Owens opens a metal door leading to the concrete loading dock used for deliveries. The cold rushes inside. He climbs the steel grate stairs and opens a door on the roof and points to the next building. It is also a licensed crop, which uses soil.

See all those air conditioners, he says. There are dozens of them. It draws attention to its side of the roof. It’s naked.

“This sprout next to us is exactly the same size as ours,” he said. “And it’s the air conditioning requirements for that that are increasing and his electric bill is around $40,000 to $50,000 a month. Mine hasn’t reached $8,500 yet.”

Lloyd Owens said his facility uses three air conditioners. This is the nature of a water-based culture system. Water helps 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’ aquaponics system is so much more efficient, others don’t copy their style, Lloyd Owens said it was a matter of upfront cost and expertise. .

“The initial costs are three to four times higher,” he said. “So that comparable growth could probably be done for about $1 million, a million and a quarter. It costs about $4 million.”

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

The Owens are planning a massive expansion in the coming years. Aquaponics, more than traditional methods, is about the long term. Once the higher initial expenses are paid, the profitability of the system should allow the business to thrive.

“As the price of marijuana goes down, you better cut your operating costs, and that’s the lowest operating cost for any marijuana,” Lloyd Owens said.

The aquaponics method allows Thumb Genetics to reduce the growing cycle by approximately one week, which becomes significant on a large scale. Another characteristic 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 are not considered organic.

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

Currently, Thumb Genetics operates approximately three grow rooms with 250 plants each that produce approximately eight ounces of marijuana each every eight to 12 weeks, depending on the strain.

They have dozens of strains they created as caregivers and continue to breed as the new company grows. Their primary client is Edgewood Wellness, a medically licensed dispensary at 134 E. Edgewood in Lansing

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

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

In one of the grow rooms. Three employees wearing hygienic scrubs and slippers tend to the plants.

Lloyd Owen points to a woman wrapped in greenery.

“See that girl over there, she’s my daughter,” he said. “My wife is at a seminar with the accountant right now.

“It’s a real family affair.”