OutCo VP of Cultivation Allison Justice — Photo by Torrey Bailey
When the licensed marijuana dispensary OutCo hired Allison Justice as its VP of Cultivation three months ago, she was shocked by the El Cajon-based lab's use of a high-priced fertilizer. At the time, Outco Labs was using fertilizers from Heavy 16, an established, cannabis-centric hydroponics company based in Long Beach. Justice, who has a Ph.D. in ornamental horticulture from Clemson University, asked about the product's ingredients and whether it contained the 16 essential nutrients for plant growth. Outco didn't know, and when she contacted Heavy 16, they wouldn't tell her.
"They said that of course all the essential nutrients were there, but they also had like 40 different ingredients that supposedly are cannabis-specific," she said. "Their secret."
Dissatisfied, Justice sent a sample of the fertilizer to an outside lab, Quality Analytical Laboratories, to check that the essential nutrients were there and there weren't chemicals that would retract her harvest's organic classification. While all 16 nutrients were present, she also noticed that the nutrient levels were similar to fertilizers that aren't designated for marijuana growth.
"If you were to compare [the numbers] to what an actual tomato grower would use, the actual parts per million of nitrogen versus phosphorus, potassium are all more or less the same," Justice said. "There's a little tweak here and there but more or less the same. But the price difference is gigantic."
OutCo switched to a traditional fertilizer that costs 22 times less, which comes out to an expense of six cents on each gallon pot per harvest versus $1.37.
For OutCo, which is the largest marijuana distributor in Southern California, switching fertilizers will positively shift its profit margin. OutCo CEO Linc Fish said that buying top dollar products won't harm a large company like his, but that those prices do have the potential to financially burden anyone in the state who's looking to cultivate marijuana post-Prop 64. That is, small grow operations not only have smaller profits than larger growers like Outco, but they also don't have access to wholesale prices.
"Where you see people really spending a lot of money on nutrients and it becomes much more of a cost, is when they are growing on a very small scale, and they're buying a one gallon bottle of the stuff and it's $80," Fish said.
Heavy 16 declined the opportunity to comment after being notified of this articleís angle. In an email, Operations Manager Jessica Spivey said, "Thank you so much for disclosure—however, timing just doesn't work out for us."
Eric Smith is the inventory manager at San Diego Hydroponics and Organics, where cultivators can buy equipment, soil and fertilizer, including Heavy 16 products. Smith said the prices represent quality, making a comparison between eating at McDonald's versus a nice steakhouse. For example, he cites one company, House and Garden, that was based in Holland but recently moved to Northern California. He claimed that since the move, the company has been shipping its water from Holland to maintain quality control (this turned out to be a falsified rumor). Smith also said that prices could be the result of higher quality nutrients, but Justice disagrees.
"It's just the same stuff that a tomato grower is using or that a flower grower is using," Justice said. "It's just that they are able to put different marketing labels on them and what not to raise that price just because they can."
Smith pointed out that branding comes into play too. One popular hydroponics brand called Advanced Nutrients sells a product called Kushie Kush, which has a label that features a busty redhead wearing a dress made of marijuana. Another Advanced Nutrients product is called Flawless Finish, and its label dons a cartoon of a stereotypical Rastafari-style stoner, outfitted in green, yellow and red. Other products have names like Big Bud and Bud Candy.
Inside San Diego Hydroponics and Organics, Advanced Nutrients' products stack the shelves with more than a dozen available options. Its website lists 30 products oftentimes including two-step formulas within a multi-step fertilizing process. Smith warned that this is another way the companies could take advantage of potential growers.
"Advanced Nutrients will take one product and split it into three different bottles so they can generate more sales, or sometimes they'll get rid of a couple of things and combine them together," Smith said.
Black Magic, which can be found at Home Depot, is also catering its fertilizer products to a cannabis-centric community. Its website has a flashy layout with photos of well-dressed urban farmers and mantras like "Learn the Dark Arts of Growing." However, Black Magic is a product of Hawthorne Gardening, a division of Scotts Miracle-Gro.
"Those bags of fertilizer or soil are identical to the ones Scotts Miracle-Gro already has," Justice said. "All they are simply doing is re-branding, calling it a silly name like Black Magic basically just to target the cannabis growers."
According to an Arcview Market Research study, California's legal marijuana industry is projected to increase from $2.76 billion in 2015 to $6.5 billion by 2020. By getting involved in hydroponics, Big Ag companies like Scotts Miracle-Gro can profit off the quasi-legal grow rush without federal concerns.
"This year really is starting the big mix of established agriculture crossing over, feeling comfortable from a legality standpoint, and going to work with the cannabis industry," Justice said.
Nelson Lindsey, owner of Los Angeles-based cultivation consulting company, Poetry of Plants, said that growers can purchase the fertilizer's ingredients and mix them at home, rather than using marked up, pre-mixed products.
"It's all really basic fundamental organic chemistry," Lindsey said, who speculates that 99 percent of the industry purchases bottled nutrients instead of blending their own. "You don't really need to spend that much on it."
"If you have a horticulture degree, or even a chemistry degree, and you can source all of your own ingredients, there's no reason to buy a bottle off the shelf because you could specially make it for exactly what you're growing."
However, small-scale growers may prefer spending the extra money for the sake of convenience, Fish said.
"People are overpaying because of the word cannabis, and they think they have to because there's some magic to it," he said. "At the end of the day, it's just science."