How do they grow all that weed? Inside a new 270,000-square-foot pot producing plant in South Jersey

Volley Hayhurst had just finished donning a disposable lab coat when he glanced at his mobile phone and let out an enthusiastic “Yes!”

“My phone is blowing up. The results just came back,” said Hayhurst, vice president of operations at Columbia Care’s new 270,000-square-foot cannabis growing and packaging facility in Vineland, N.J. “We have something fun and new for the market.”

It’s THC-infused salt water taffy, a Shore favorite that the company will launch soon in Delaware, likely to follow eventually in New Jersey.

Demand has proved so strong for recreational weed in New Jersey since sales began in April 2021 that there are still lines each day outside most of the 17 stores that sell it. Adults are allowed to buy up to one ounce of cannabis in a visit. They can buy dried flower, concentrated oils, resin, vape formulas, tinctures, topicals, syringes, lozenges, and soft chews. But perishable edibles like brownies are not allowed. Another nine stores sell marijuana only for medical use.

By state law, all marijuana sold in New Jersey must be grown in state by licensed growers; homeowners can’t cultivate their own.

So how do you grow enough pot to meet the demand?

For Columbia Care, plants get their start at the publicly traded company’s two facilities in Vineland, Cumberland County: Its original 50,000-square-foot plant and the one that opened in June that’s about the size of an average Amazon warehouse, or the equivalent of five football fields.

Most commercial pot is grown indoors where security, cleanliness, temperature, humidity, light, and water flow can all be controlled with precision.

Columbia Care, a publicly traded company based in Canada, describes itself as one of the largest and most experienced cultivators and manufacturers in the industry, operating in both the U.S. and Europe. It is currently being bought by Chicago-based Cresco Labs, which has cannabis operations in 10 states.

Columbia Care sells through its Cannabist stores in Deptford and Vineland, with plans to open a third in Mays Landing.

Other marijuana companies operating in New Jersey include the Apothecarium, founded in San Francisco, which operates three stores. Curaleaf operates two stores, and Miami-based Ayr Wellness operates three stores under the Garden State Dispensary Brand.

Hayhurst, along with Cori Griffith, operations manager, and Alex Anthony, cultivation manager, gave The Inquirer a tour of the Columbia Care plant at the end of July to explain the growing process. The Inquirer agreed to not shoot pictures or video of certain proprietary methods or machinery.

» READ MORE: What to know about buying legal N.J. marijuana if you live in Pennsylvania

The first literal step inside the Columbia Care includes a shoe bath.

All workers and visitors must wear lab coats, hair nets, and shoe protectors to keep out contamination. And each steps into a sterilizing bath before entering any of the cavernous rooms. The inside of the facility resembles a clean computer chip plant, or even a hospital with long, wide, white corridors and secure doors.

Anthony, who studied agriculture at Iowa State University, said fungi, viruses, and other contaminants can sneak into the building. And once they’re in, he said, they are difficult to remove.

If someone, for example, stepped on a cigarette butt outside, Anthony said, “it could be a vector for the tobacco mosaic virus.”

That virus is known to attack and stunt the growth of plants and is often spread by agricultural workers. Once a plant is infected, there is no chemical cure.

And there’s a lot of ground for shoes to cover: The former shipping and logistics warehouse on West Park Avenue has been renovated specifically for weed operations and employs 35 people full-time. About 50,000 square feet is currently being used, with about 20,000 square feet now devoted to plants as the company ramps up its production.

All the weed-related products start as a combination of two cannabis species: sativa, known for a stimulating high, or indica, known for a more mellow experience.

Growers experiment with a number of seeds to find the right mix of sativa or indica. They look for the desired level of THC, the main psychoactive ingredient in weed (33% would be very high), and terpenes, chemical compounds that produce unique combinations of flavor, aroma, and color. For example, 10 seeds might yield one plant that has the genetic qualities a grower wants or customers demand.

That seed grows into a mother plant — a mature marijuana plant that can become part of a grower’s proprietary strain and can yield hundreds of clones.

At Columbia Care’s facility, workers examine rows and rows of mother plants, stored on movable, white, steel framed, multitiered racks, resembling something used inside a library archive. Workers take small cuttings off the plants and place them in a nutrient solution as clones.

Eventually, the cuttings are transplanted to soil in plastic terrariums and labeled by strain, or genotypes known to produce traits unique to a brand. Anthony said using cuttings from a mother plant ensures customers get the same experience for a particular strain each time. The company grows up to 12 strains but mostly relies on four to eight.

Mother plants typically grow about three feet tall in the facility, Anthony said.

Workers are careful not to take too many cuttings from the same tree, but eventually, the genetic properties of a mother plant degrades, and the cycle starts over with a new mother plant.

Griffith said that in larger states with well established markets, a single mother plant can be worth millions because of all the cuttings it yields and are sold to other companies. Licensed cultivators in New Jersey can transport seeds across state lines because they do not contain TCH, but any plant or cutting must remain within state borders.

Consider that a 3.5 gram jar (1/8 ounce) of Runtz Muffin flower, used to roll joints, was selling last week at the Columbia Care’s Cannabist store in Vineland for about $47. It’s part of the company’s Triple 7 line, which includes other hybrids such as Hot Rod, and, the newest, Watermelon Sorbet.

Cuttings from the mother tree are moved to a room equipped with powerful grow lights that shine eight to 14 hours a day.

“This is where the light cycle starts to change everything,” Anthony said.

The light is calibrated to ensure the proper amount of photosynthesis for the plants to flower. Workers part racks by turning cranks, allowing them to reach upper tiers. It can take eight to 12 weeks for a flower to achieve the size and color needed for harvesting.

The flowers are taken to a high-tech sorting and packaging machine where they are dropped in a silver steel hopper that resembles a futuristic disco chandelier. The hopper contains 14 scales that sorts flowers by size and weight down to the gram.

During the tour, they were being manually sorted and packaged as the machine was being reset.

The flowers drop into jars, which are capped, sealed and labeled.

The machine “was originally made for other food packaging,” Griffith said. “It’s been sort of tweaked a little bit to do cannabis as well. These do flower, and they can do gummies and tablets … This is usually running all day every day.”

As he spoke, a line at least 10-deep had formed outside the company’s store on Delsea Drive in Vineland to buy the finished product.

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