In 5th grade, I had the opportunity to live on an Amish farm for a week in Pennsylvania. I was a suburban kid who had never been to a farm before. Laboring on that farm for a week, solely using hand tools without any electricity, taught me plenty about hard work. I remember being so exhausted when I went to bed I could barely move—only to wake up before dawn and do it all over again. This ingrained in me a lasting respect for farmers.
Decades later, when I co-owned and operated HarborsideI became close to a lot of cannabis growers. Raw Garden was one of the companies we carried on the shelves then, and still do today. I’ve always been impressed with their ability to make consistently good hash at affordable prices. This is a brand that has stood the test of time and has earned its badge as one of the best in California. I wanted to learn more about this operation so I reached out to Thomas Martin, CEO and co-founder of Raw Garden.
A fifth-generation California farmer with a legacy of raising cattle and growing grapes, Martin oversees Raw Garden’s research and development, as well as their agriculture operations and manufacturing. We discussed his decade of experience in finance and cannabis business operations, as well as his approach to success in a very tough market here in California.
What is the origin story of Raw Garden?
Raw Garden started in my basement in 2008, with two 1000-watt lights. It had been five short years since my family retired from nearly four decades of farming sugar-rich raisins for the Sun-Maid brand when the opportunity to grow a different active ingredient popped up. In the winter that year we harvested our first crop of THC-rich cannabis flowers. Early in the following year, a visit to Harborside Health Center with my brother-in-law, Khalid Al-Naser, exposed us to the lack of branding and quality control in cannabis. This intrigued us. I grew up as a small family-farm operating in a land of farming giants. My family had zero capital, and zero competitive advantage in a massive raisin industry. We missed the opportunity decades ago when modern farming scaled, and we did not. Cannabis was a chance to return to our roots in farmed consumer packaged goods and get ahead of the competitive curve we had succumbed to in the raisin industry. It was clear: 1) there was massive room for quality improvement and branding in cannabis, and 2) we were going to grow a brand based on consistently raising the bar for the consumer via differentiation, trust, and value.
What does Raw Garden do, what is Raw Garden all about, and why does it matter?
Raw Garden recruits and retains great people who want to maximize access to fresher and better cannabis products that are valued and trusted by the most discerning consumer. Raw Garden is all about building teams that trust its members to positively impact their environment: families, neighbors, land, vendors, and customers. It matters because: 1) the consumer always deserves fresher and betterand 2) a business should not exist if it cannot greatly impact the people and communities that support it.
What products does Raw Garden specialize in and why?
Raw Garden specializes in the cannabis plant and the growth, preservation, and delivery of its active ingredients. We are Your Single Source for pure, clean, and all-natural cannabis products. Your Single Source means that we control the quality of our supply chain by owning the entire process: breeding, growing, harvesting, manufacturing, and sales. Our goal of better and fresher starts with the right seed—cultivated and harvested to perfection. Like most specialty crops, cannabis is hearty, yet finicky. It requires specialized farming, harvest, and manufacturing processes that preserve all of its ingredients, not just THC. Yes, the cannabis flower grows an abundant amount of THC, which is very stable and easy to handle downstream from the harvest. THC does not degrade quickly. What is not stable, and is very difficult to protect, are the flower tissues and aroma compounds. If not treated with care, the tissues oxidize and the aromas evaporate and become stale. In other words, your green, aroma-rich, and sweet flower can quickly become brown, rancid, and smell like hay. This is where the notion of “specialty crop” comes in. The meticulous process of harvesting, packing, storing and processing cannabis so that degradation is minimal, does not come easy and is the opportunity Raw Garden specializes in. Why do we specialize in this? So the consumer benefits from fresher, better cannabis.
The name Raw Garden suggests a connection to farming, can you describe that relationship?
Farming is in our blood and is an essential part of creating a high-quality supply chain. The old saying, “garbage in, garbage out,” is what motivates us to own the whole process. From the seed to the soil, and eventually into the consumer’s heart and lungs, we control each quality step. Grading standards in cannabis have been completely remiss for decades. Owning the entire process allows us to set and consistently meet very high grading standards—and it starts at the farm. Not every dried grape makes it into a Sun-Maid raisin box. That is why each red box delivers a consistent taste and look. We took the same approach: Harvest and grade for the best, and out with the rest!
Your farms are both large in scale and Clean Green Certified®—is that correct?
Yes and no. Yes, our cannabis crops have been Clean Green Certified annually since 2010, and our manufacturing since 2013. No, we do not consider our farms to be “large in scale.” Farming at scale is 1000 acres plus, and we are still a fraction of that size. Our biggest fear is scaling too quickly and beyond what our quality processes can control. It took nearly a decade of time to expand from two indoor lights to multiple-acre canopies under the sun. We did this by: 1) assuring ourselves that we understood our ability to consistently meet quality and demand at the current scale, and 2) by never requiring a quantity of production that superseded our ability to meet quality. Scale will come, but we must be careful and sure our processes are ready.
Can you describe what that certification is and why you thought it was important for your company to get?
Clean Green is an annual organic crop certification that mimics the review process of the USDA program. Since cannabis is still federally illegal, we do not have access to USDA certification and Clean Green fills that void. We obtained our first Clean Green Certification in 2010, and have maintained the status annually. It’s important because consumers want to be informed about the goods they purchase. Some of the questions regularly asked are: Where did this come from? How was it made? Is the company who made it responsible and safe? These types of questions are what drives Raw Garden to be transparent, and Clean Green is one more level of transparency and peace-of-mind we can give the consumer.
What have you learned about farming and making products at scale?
It comes with a huge burden of responsibility in safety and quality. For the team, safety must always come first. Farming and manufacturing are dangerous and success is measured by maintaining the health of the team. For the consumer, quality must be consistent and at the highest level. Branded goods do not survive without being trusted and valued by the consumer. Walking a hard-line of commitment to safety and quality means you are constantly on the edge of your seat looking for ways to improve both.
Do you feel like you do a good job of keeping that promise in such a hostile market as California?
Yes, we have not stopped obsessing over those words: fresher, better, trusted, valued. We don’t feel that it is hostile in California. (Although, we did just close-out a consumer complaint that was frivolous and obviously penned by a competitor.) We like to consider California competitive, not hostile. This is excellent for the consumer because, when businesses compete, they get the highest quality possible. This is also excellent for Raw Garden because it keeps us on our toes. We have an unrelenting press to stand out to the consumer with innovative products and transparency. For example, unlike most competitive brands, we hold ourselves to a higher standard of compliance by publishing the COA for each batch of goods we make. Tighter quality standards can be costly if the harvest or finished goods do not meet internal guidelines, but are imperative if we want to build trust and value.
What are your biggest wins of the last year? What about the biggest losses?
2021 was a wicked and wild year! Biggest win: we created a differentiated pre-roll process that yielded a fresher, greener, and smoother smoking experience than the competition. This required thinking about the harvesting, drying, and manufacturing process completely differently than the age-old technique of stuffing old and degraded weed into a pre-manufactured cone laced with low-grade concentrates like kief and distillate. The team almost killed itself getting this done, but the smoke has made it worth the while.
Biggest loss: oversupplying ourselves with inventory due to bad planning and forecasting. The market did not grow to where we expected, the black market continues to thrive in California, and we have a massive (albeit healthy) inventory we are now leveraging so that it becomes a “win” in our next conversation.
What is the company culture of Raw Garden like?
It is a THC-fueled grind at Raw Garden. We smoke big, take our mission and vision seriously, and do our best to plan and communicate a strategic course to the whole team. In spite of best intentions, we usually end up with a pivot about every 3-6 months. This can be taxing and is only survivable if the team is nimble and has excellent behaviors. The behaviors (and internal definitions) that Raw Garden focuses on are four:
- Teamwork—open communication, celebrate wins and losses together
- Improvement—constantly asking, “How do we make it safer, fresher/better, or more efficient?”
- Integrity—take pride, do it right, and speak-up if needed
- Process—embrace continual improvement and adherence to Raw Garden processes
We have found that strong culture happens when teams commit to certain behaviors and constantly judge themselves in relation to them. It is not easy, and we are far from perfect.
Where do you see the future of legal cannabis in California and Raw Garden’s place in it?
California will continue to lead the world in quality and differentiated cannabis products, and will one day be the largest single-state exporter. This will take a very organized and concerted effort by California farmers to fight against the negative stigmas associated with farming. All types of farming are under threat, not just cannabis. In the meantime, Raw Garden intends to continue to carve out its space as a market leader in differentiated cannabis goods in the most competitive market in the world, California. If Raw Garden is fortunate enough to couple serendipitous timing with differentiated products that the consumer trusts and values, then it could have a shot at being the “Sun-Maid” of cannabis.