LINCOLN PARK NJ – A longtime family agriculture business in Morris County has partnered with a publicly-traded corporation to enter a new growth business — medical marijuana.
The VandeVrede family business began in 1973 with a small farm in Lincoln Park and expanded over the decades to the popular Gro-Rite Greenhouse and Garden Center on Hillview Road near the Lincoln Park Airport. That property includes about 25 acres of land and a greenhouse covering three-quarters of an acre.
The family used to grow flowers in the greenhouse, but searching for an opportunity to abandon seasonal growing in favor of year-round production, converted the greenhouse in 2010 to a state-of-the-art, computer-controlled hydroponic growing system, where it produces its successful line of Edible Garden-brand produce.
The Edible Garden product lineup — all Global Food Safety Initiative-certified and non-genetically modified — includes butterhead lettuce and herbs such as basil that are sold to more than 1,400 grocers and retailers in 12 states.
All those enterprises will continue, but in 2013, Ken VandeVrede ushered in a new era for the business by partnering with Terra Tech, publicly-traded urban-agriculture corporation that has cultivated a strong share of the medical marijuana market in its home base of California and Nevada.
“I came from the family background of growing,” said VandeVrede, a second-generation principal in his family business. “We’re bringing our expertise to them and they’re bringing their expertise to us, to form this company.”
Founded in 2010 by former investment banker Derek Peterson, Terra Tech has grown in a few short years to a valuation in excess of $100 million, and is leveraging its size to aggressively acquire other companies in the cannabis market.
When Terra Tech looked to expand to the East Coast, the company found a symbiotic partner in VandeVrede, who is now the chief operating officer of Terra Tech.
“Ken’s extended family is one of the biggest controlled-environment-growing families in the country, with greenhouses spread across the entire country,” Peterson said. “We knew that they had the experience, network and infrastructure to enter the cannabis space in a big way, and we wanted to partner up to combine forces. Ken’s family has been growing in controlled environments for generations. The produce they grow is top-quality, pesticide- and GMO-free, GFSI-certified and organically and grown sustainably. It was a perfect fit for us.”
During an interview in the Lincoln Park greenhouse, while computer-controlled fans clicked on and off to maintain ideal temperature for a huge lettuce crop, VandeVelde said the Gro-Rite Garden Center is still family-owned and operated, while the Edible Garden division has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Terra Tech.
“We have a lab and also we dispense cannabis in Oakland, California,” he said. “We just won eight permits out in Nevada, two cultivations, two labs and four dispensaries. We are working on New Jersey, we’re working on New York and we’re working on Florida as we speak to enter the medicinal cannabis business.”
New Jersey legalized medical marijuana in 2010, but the rollout has been slow. Only six permits have been issued and only three clinics are in operation. VandeVrede said if all goes well, Terra Tech will obtain a permit within a year to begin growing medical cannabis, with hopes of entering the dispensing market as well.
“We think we can come into New Jersey and really rework this (medical cannabis) program here,” said VandeVrede, a resident of the Pompton Plains section of Pequannock. “As a company, we have experience in medicinal cannabis, we know how to cultivate it correctly, how to produce medicine correctly and how to dispense it correctly.”
Crops are crops
He explained that his experience in growing commercial produce relates directly to the cultivation of the cannabis plant.
“Any plant that grows in a greenhouse requires three basic steps: putting on a good root system, vegetating out and putting growth on the growth of the pant, and finishing it in a bud or flower stage,” VandeVrede said. “So the idea of how cannabis grows, and how lettuce grows, and how a lot of floral grows, the concept of agriculture is the same exact way.”
His company’s commitment to computer-controlled hydroponic growth, which came at an expense of about $300,000 at the Lincoln Park greenhouse, is adding to Terra Tech’s potential on both coasts.
“All of our facilities are totally environmentally computer-controlled. It is temperature- and humidity-based,” VandeVrede said. “When it hits a certain temperature, the fans kick on. Your light levels, humidity levels, temperature levels and nutrient levels are all controlled by computers. Once they are all dialed in, you end up with crops that are even and of top quality.”
Terra Tech remains committed to food production — the Edible Garden division, for example, ships 8,000 to 10,000 heads of butterhead lettuce to market every week — so the company’s Lincoln Park greenhouse will not be converted to cannabis production if and when permits allow.
Instead, the company will expand its larger, newer facilities in Belvidere, where it has more room to expand and enact the strict security protocols that are crucial to the medical cannabis industry.
“Security is an issue, but as a company, we know how to do that,” VandeVrede said. “In Nevada. the application process was 1,700 pages. About 300 were security. So we know how to operate in these cultivation facilities, we know how to operate dispensaries at the highest security. For us, its just building another facility.”
Terra Tech is aware of the growing national push for legal marijuana, with states such as Colorado and Washington leading the way. For now, they will stick with what is working for them already.
“Right now, our focus is medicinal cannabis and produce,” VandeVrede said. “We feel as a company there are a lot of benefits, that are not even researched yet on the cannabis side, that we are tapping into with our chief scientists and our doctors on staff. Benefits that we can pull out of the cannabis plant that we can put into different forms of medicine.”
“Marijuana is a medicine, the science is clear on that,” Peterson said. “We also have nearly half of U.S. states allowing medical marijuana in some form, so medical marijuana is the natural focus of ours right now. We also see adult-use legalization as inevitable since a majority of Americans now support it, and as the laws change we'll continue to evaluate. Right now we’re focused on building out the infrastructure need to supply safe, reliable, and high end cannabis to consumers, just like we do with basil and mint now.”
The New Jersey Assembly voted last week to approve a resolution criticizing Gov. Chris Christie’s health department for placing “arbitrary and unnecessary” restrictions on the state’s medical marijuana program.
The Assembly contended that administration regulations, like requiring doctors who prescribe marijuana to register on public lists, hurt the program. It also approved two additional marijuana bills. One adds post-traumatic stress disorder to the list of authorized medical conditions for the drug. The other authorizes treatment facilities to transfer medical marijuana in order to meet demand.