At Buckeye Relief, they do things a little differently than the other guys.
Starting a new company in a small town, in a controversial and highly-regulated industry may seem like a recipe for disaster, but the northern Ohio cannabis cultivator gets it right by mixing technology, tradition, and some sweet jams in order to keep striving toward a brighter future.
While other Ohio cultivators have restricted access to their facilities, Buckeye Relief has allowed for tours. CEO Andrew Rayburn’s position is that there really aren’t secrets to growing marijuana—only best practices that drive the continual quest for improvement. The tour gives a peek inside the growing operation, how they cultivate and harvest cannabis for consumption, test it for safety and consistency, and package it for sale to dispensaries.
Off To Some Quick “Firsts”
After being named the first Level I Cultivator to be granted a license to grow cannabis as part of the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program (OMMCP) in 2017, time began ticking for Rayburn and his business partners. Every minute wasted in building the facility and getting operations up and running would be another minute that Ohio patients would be without access to medicine—medicine that many have been anxious to get for a very long time.
A Northeast Ohio businessman who has been successful with a variety of industries and investments, Rayburn got into growing cannabis due to a good friend who discovered the medicinal effects of marijuana while in hospice battling cancer. The friend’s pain was aggressive, but significantly curbed by smoking marijuana during what would be the last six weeks of his life. “I became much more intrigued by the medical aspects of the plant and started to invest in the industry in early ‘16,” Rayburn said.
The OMMCP set forth the rule that patients be required to purchase all cannabis products solely from Ohio dispensaries. Since cannabis is not federally legal or regulated by the FDA, the state program strictly laid out the process for applying for one of the 24 cultivator provisional licenses that were available beginning in 2017.
Once licensed, Rayburn and his team got to work immediately to build their 60,000-ft. facility that sits in Eastlake, Ohio on the shore of Lake Erie just east of downtown Cleveland. Having a new employer in town came at a good time for the city’s 18,000 residents as a string of layoffs have plagued the Cleveland and Akron areas for the past decade. So, Rayburn wanted to help the town economically.
Faced with particularly rough weather during the end of 2017, Rayburn was happy to report that his team persevered and forged ahead with an ambitious building schedule. “They didn’t miss a minute through the whole winter,” he said. By fast-tracking their building process, Buckeye Relief’s management was able to get their facility operational in less than eight months, which gave them a strategic advantage over the competition since they were able to plant their first crop on July 31st, 2018.
Being the first to get their products into patients’ hands was a source of pride for Rayburn, though he is quick to say that they are far from satisfied. “We’re on step two or three of about a 12-step process,” said Rayburn about how his company has been striving for better products with each harvest. “We gotta do better than this. We need smelly, sticky, sweet product.”
Buckeye Relief’s first year in business has seen ten harvests. In that time, they learned a lot and began implementing changes where they discovered things could be done better. These advancements can be seen throughout the facility, from the growing operation itself, to new packaging, to a new commercial kitchen to make edibles.
Buckeye Relief’s cultivation team began last year by planting about 10,000 seeds. This allowed for both a sufficient first harvest and the freedom to pheno-hunt (after males were culled and less desirable plants were removed). Each of the initial seedlings were planted beneath rows of LED lights and rinsed in a bleach solution that washed away any infected pathogens that could potentially cause food-borne illnesses.
While soil is more of the “artisanal” way to grow, the decision to use rock wool was made because it is more difficult to grow in soil indoors. “With the amount of plants that are grown, it makes more sense to use rock wool,” explained Leslie Brandon, Communications & Community Engagement with Buckeye Relief, who guided MedicateOH’s tour of the facility.
The initial planting of a wide variety of cannabis strains was strategic from a research and development aspect, but in the first year Buckeye Relief’s cultivators have since been able to bring the seed bank down to about 40 strains where they specialize. “They grow about 20 of those per harvest,” Rayburn said.
Cannabidiol (CBD) is another area where Buckeye Relief has adapted to change. Ohio state and federal laws don’t treat CBD any differently than THC cannabis products, therefore they can only be dispensed in a licensed dispensary even though CBD products don’t produce a high. A rule change (Ohio Senate Bill 57) was recently passed, making the production and sale of products containing CBD legal in Ohio and allowing hemp-derived products to be allowed to be sold in regular stores.
Despite the passage of hemp CBD, Buckeye Relief will continue to meet the heavy demand for high-CBD products by offering medical marijuana patients a safer, scientifically-tested version of CBD that’s derived from the cannabis plant (not the hemp plant).
“The danger with some of the unregulated products is you’ll see ingredients like ‘hemp seed oil’ which is not the same thing as hemp oil, plus the source of hemp is usually unknown and unregulated,” explains Brandon.
Buckeye Relief already allocated a significant portion of their growing operation to strains having high CBD content, Rayburn said. “We can now do a 10 to 1 CBD and will be one of the few if not only in Ohio to put that CBD content in from our own plants,” Rayburn said.
“We’re going to do the same with our chocolates and introduce a heavy CBD chocolate because I think what will happen when high CBD content edibles are on the market is this unusually high demand for high-CBD flower will probably tail off as the medical edibles fill that gap. So we’re going to try to be there to help that to happen.”
One of the biggest challenges for cultivators comes from the rule that all cannabis production, packaging, and sales must occur within state lines and be secured in tamper-evident packaging. New clear containers that house the standard size 2.83g flower will be of great benefit to patients who wish to visually inspect the buds before purchasing.
“In Ohio, we have to package everything on site whereas if you go out West, you see the big Bell jars and you see exactly what you’re going to get weighed out for you,” explained Brandon. “Unfortunately patients can’t see what they’re buying before they buy. These clear jars will be a big step forward in terms of transparency.”
Buckeye Relief’s packaging department will soon kick into high gear because in addition to changing their packaging for flower, the company has recently been cleared to make edibles and concentrates utilizing the ethanol and hydrocarbon butane extraction process. They also plan to offer several nationally-recognized cannabis-infused products, lotions, and topicals.
Testing Lab on Site
All cannabis grown in Ohio is mandated to go to independent testing before it goes into dispensaries, but Buckeye Relief has an additional step in the safety and quality control process by having a test lab on site which mirror images the independent testing that occurs outside of the facility. “We can not only monitor the quality of our product through growth and production, but we’ll be doing more and more R&D back there,” Rayburn said.
Brandon talked about how the additional testing lab serves as a benefit to knowing when to pack the product at the end of the harvest process: “We start trimming them, curing them, and then they are sent out for testing at some point in that drying process. We want the moisture content to be right around 12 to 15 percent. When we get test [results] back that are…like right on, we know it’s time to pack it.”
Looking to the Future
Today, Buckeye Relief employs approximately 45 full-time staff members and hires an additional 10 to 20 temporary workers every three weeks to help with harvest day. After becoming the first licensee to begin a cannabis growing operation in Ohio and the first to provide products to local dispensaries, Rayburn sets his eyes to the future, to more improvements and changes that will help to continue to get Ohio patients the cannabis that can help them to safely and effectively medicate themselves.
With all the changes going on at Buckeye Relief in just under one year in operation, one might wonder if anything stays the same for very long around here. But the rows of Grateful Dead and Dead & Company Tour posters proudly displayed on the walls of the facility will show plainly to anyone who walks through it that there is one strong tradition: On the night before each harvest, Rayburn blasts tunes by his favorite band, The Grateful Dead. He selects a different live show recording each harvest and pumps the music through the PA system to serenade the plants as they drift off into a final night of sleep before being turned into medicine.
And in the morning, the cycle begins again.
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