Dispatch #4: Determined little guys chase cannabis dream

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COLORADO SPRINGS -- The Steinkamp family’s aggie roots go deep, back four generations. But not here in Colorado.

If family tradition ruled, Jason Steinkamp would be raising corn and soybeans in Minnesota, running machines around the family’s 1,500-acre farm. 

“We’re a wholesome family. Midwestern Christians,” he tells me Monday, as we scoot along I-25 in his partner’s white Mercedes, heading for the outskirts of Colorado Springs. 

Instead, Steinkamp chased his future west.

At least for now.

Cannabis is big business in Colorado. But mixed in with factory farms around Pueblo and Denver are little guys like Steinkamp. They see an opportunity to make their bones -- and some money -- in a business that can only be pursued in a few places. 

“If there’s a word that describes it, it’s passion,” he tells me from behind sunglasses, maneuvering through traffic. Passion is why he’s on his way to tend his very own pot farm, not teaching physical education, his college major. 

“I’d bet it all on this. Anybody can be a self-sufficient weed farmer -- and that’s our whole point in being here.”

Of the tons of weed flowing from corporate farms into the medical and recreational markets in Colorado, only a fraction comes from minuscule growing operations like the one Steinkamp and his partner, a former college roommate, tend on a patch of leased land. 

That’s our destination, as Steinkamp changes lanes on the interstate like a skier seeking the fall line. 

Tinted windows shield us from a blazing Colorado sun. In the back seat, Royal, the partners' American bulldog, nuzzles up to an air-conditioning vent. 

It’s taken years to get to “go” for these guys.

Will still in college, Steinkamp and his partner pledged to each other they’d reunite in Colorado and get growing. Countless others had the same idea, joining a new-fangled gold rush.

To amass his grubstake, Steinkamp tended bar in Texas. Once he put $20,000 aside, the partners  took the dream off the shelf. 

They stretched their startup funds by getting discounts on equipment, thanks to a day job at a company that sells to the industry. They hit Barnes & Noble for books. Hydroponic equipment set them back $10,000. 

But as of this summer, they’ve made their investment back. A new greenhouse is paid off. And they’ve learned -- if only that, so far -- what it takes to succeed.

The traffic starts to thin, and so do the housing developments, here in one of this state’s fastest-growing cities. 

Royal is drowsing, and looks a little annoyed. But after a bit she senses we’re close. Steinkamp climbs out and walks to a locked fence, a sheathed knife on his left hip, above camo cargo shorts. A neighbor’s animals nicker and bleat.

Hard lessons

One of their first hard lessons came early. Steinkamp says they were tapped to manage a grow inside a home. That investment went south when the woman who hired them cut plants early and locked them out.

Indoor growing operations, some legal, others not, are commonplace. A real estate broker in Colorado Springs told me she knows of cases in which growers ripped up floors in rental properties to make space for plants and lights.

Steinkamp started thinking outside those sorts of boxes. Back in Minnesota, sunshine is counted a farmer’s biggest partner. 

So last year, he and his partner moved their operation outdoors, after catching a lucky break. It’s not simple finding a place to grow, even on a modest scale. 

Then they met a guy named Doug, a 71-year-old retiree. He stopped in at the equipment dealer looking for help cultivating on his land. They hit it off and came to terms: The growers had to satisfy Doug their operation was allowed under Colorado law He’d get a small share of the profit. 

“We did everything we could by the book. We have the licenses,” Steinkamp tells me.

After we get to the farm, I meet Doug, a big man with a flowing gray beard wearing suspenders over a polo shirt. I am not identifying him, to protect the location of the farm, which is fenced and studded with video cameras that feed images to the owners’ cell phones. 

That’s only part of it, though. Doug needs a little cover too, because his friends don’t know what’s flourishing inside the new greenhouse on his patch. 

At one point, Doug worked as a physician’s assistant. A year back he had spinal surgery. He says edibles helped him manage the pain without resorting to opioids. “I’m a medical person. I like what the herbs do for my body. I’m a non-smoker, but yes, I do smoke for pleasure,” he tells me. “I like to slow up now and then. You’ve got to pace yourself.”

Down on the farm

Steinkamp still pays his bills by bartending. But when he climbs out of the car at Doug’s place, he’s back at the work he grew up with. 

A first task is to inspect the health of the plants, still in the “veg” stage of the growing cycle in which the farm is expanding their stalks and root systems. They’ll move along in a few weeks to the flower phase, clipping and training the plants for a maximum harvest.

Steinkamp connects two lengths of hose and douses each plant with a special “tea” concocted by his partner. There’s a bit of “mad science” to this. Plastic jugs full of ingredients like Sensi Grow and Voodoo Grow crowd a shelf in one shed.

Then the plants, some over 6 feet now, get water. 

Leaves on a few of the plants are yellowing. That prompts Steinkamp to send pictures to his partner. Not to worry, comes the reply.

The back wooden wall of the greenhouse seems to be leaning a bit forward. Rain has also collected in two segments of the clear plastic covering 15 feet overhead. We climb ladders to try to let it drain -- with marginal success. 

Hail is always a worry. It could rip through the greenhouse cover and decimate plants.

But all is well today. The plants sit in 100-gallon “smart” pots with fabric sides that allow water to drain. The soil is this team’s own concoction, fashioned from ground coconut shells, crab meal, oyster shells, bat guano and other things. 

You spend on good soil, Steinkamp explains, or on fertilizer.

The big saving now, with the greenhouse, is on electricity. “Indoor growing is great, but at the end of the day, it’s not natural,” he says. “The sun does everything for a plant. I’m a full believer in ‘off the grid.’ We developed the greenhouse because it will save us so much money.”

The hoses stowed, Steinkamp begins hauling buckets of extra water and plant food, the weight canting him to the left as muscles strain on his right arm. 

It’s nothing he hasn’t done a thousand times on the family farm. 

His parents visited their son’s cannabis farm not long ago. With that bit of ice broken, Steinkamp speaks freely about what he hopes comes next.

“My end goal is to bring this home. Go back to Minnesota,” he says. But he wants to return with enough money to make it on his own, not relying on help. 

That’s going to have to wait for a simple reason. Recreational sales aren’t yet legal there. But like others, Steinkamp believes it’s just a matter of time. 

“If we can move here and in less than five years know how to grow it, then people can go anywhere and grow it,” he says.

Tight market

But it’s not all gravy. The wholesale market for their product -- the only lawful option -- is saturated. That puts pressure on the duo.

“There are very few opportunities out here. The people who have been here their whole lives are running the industry,” Steinkamp says. 

That makes it hard to find a good price at wholesale. But he doesn’t seem discouraged. “We’re leaps and bounds from where we were when we first moved here. This is a good opportunity to get some grow hours under our belts.”

They’ve been perfecting their cloning techniques, the system by which new plants are created from clippings. At the start, they bought clones from medical marijuana dispensaries. Results weren’t great, as they say. 

“The more generations you go, the lower your yield will be,” Steinkamp tells me.

When he meets people around the Springs, Steinkamp sometimes gets this loaded question: “What brought you here?”

He knows that they’re fishing for.

“I go right for it. ‘Weed,’ I say. I wouldn’t want to live here if you didn’t have weed.” 

Colorado voters made cannabis farming possible when they passed Amendment 64 in 2012 by a 55.3-44.7 margin.

If people don’t like what he and others are doing, Steinkamp has another answer ready: “You should never gave us a chance in the first place.”

Have a question about what’s up with the cannabis business in Colorado? Email Larry Parnass at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com. And watch this space for regular reports from the road.


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