Sungrown Cannabis: Talking Shop with Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs
What is it like being a cannabis producer in Canada? What is it like testing your flower in Canada? In this week’s edition of Talking Shop, we sit down with Canadian cannabis entrepreneur Dan Sutton of Tantalus Labs. Known online for his #Sungrown movement, Sutton is a proponent of new growing standards. He believes in utilizing the sun, not necessarily nature, to create the best quality cannabis. He doesn’t grow outdoor, but he doesn’t support the black market indoor growing standards that many adopt as the industry transitions from a black market to a regulated commercial industry. Hear from one of Canada’s largest, most provocative cannabis growers.
Written by Maxwell Davis & Dan Sutton
Edited by Maxwell Davis & Jon Russell
Maxwell Davis, GreenSea Distribution: Thank you for sitting down to speak with me today, Dan. I appreciate you taking the time to talk a little cannabis. So, with that being said, let’s jump right in! For our readers who may not know who you are, or know about your company Tantalus Labs, would you briefly introduce yourself and your business?
Dan Sutton, Tantalus Labs: Hey Max, how are you? I’m Dan, and I am the founder of Tantalus Labs. We exist to advance the frontier of cannabis through natural production methodology and agricultural technology. My team are scientists, designers and engineers committed to cultivating world-class cannabis products in technical greenhouses, writing a new chapter in the story of the #Sungrown movement.
Tantalus Labs was founded by a handful of agronomists with experience in tech-driven greenhouse production of forestry seedlings, tomatoes, and bedding plants. We might have a bit of cannabis experience thrown in there too.
The technology experience we draw from focuses on environmental monitoring, control and automation. This traverses hardware and software to give the modern grower better tools to control their outcomes within the cultivation environment.
Maxwell Davis: That’s incredibly interesting. When I think of lab, I usually think of testing facility for cannabis products where they test THC percentages and residual pesticides. What are the testing regulations like in Canada? If I needed to get some of my medical product tested before selling, what is the fee and turnaround time involved in this process?
Dan Sutton: In the Canadian legal market, the testing responsibility falls on the producer. Your products come with test results that offer peace of mind. Legally produced cannabis in Canada must be pesticide free, free of molds and mildews, and accurately quantified in terms of THC and CBD potency. Some leading firms also include comprehensive cannabinoid and terpene profiles, so the weed nerds can dive deep on what they are putting into their bodies.
Tantalus Labs is excited to offer a new level of supply chain transparency, and we believe this is a rad value opportunity in the farm-to-table cannabis movement. Know your product, know your grower!
Maxwell Davis: Okay, so it sounds like there are a number of similarities between the Oregon market I am familiar with and the Canadian national medical market. In your experience, how do the testing regulations differ between the United States and Canada?
Dan Sutton: The US is a bit of a patchwork for testing regs, and standards can vary from state to state and even lab to lab. Canada has a unified QA standard, and it would be hard to dispute that it is the most stringent in the world. Administered federally by the Office of Medical Cannabis under Health Canada, which is our equivalent of the FDA, the entire seed to sale history of each individual plant must be auditable. Plantings, transplants, pruning weight, wet harvest weight, dry weight, trim weight, and a vast array of associated minutia must all be signed off, time stamped, and quantified with acute precision. Deviation from this standard can be grounds to get one’s licence revoked.
Maxwell Davis: Yeah, I don’t doubt it. That’s close to the standards in Oregon for testing regulations, which is known to be one of the more stringent in the United States. Given the bottleneck issue of testing cannabis in the United States, especially in Oregon, what do you think would constitute fair testing protocol? What’s the most effective way to keep consumers safe and healthy and simultaneously keep product affordable?
Dan Sutton: I personally believe the next generation of cannabis cultivators will need to achieve standards we have not yet seen. The sophistication required for consistent avoidance of mold and pests while also abstaining from pesticides, at scale, requires agricultural innovation that has not been achieved by any other crop. We err towards tougher standards, as we have worked hard to internalize that knowledge base.
I don’t know anyone who would tolerate pesticides on their cannabis products, yet there are still many black market growers who use these hostile pest control methods to protect their crop investments. The agricultural sophistication required to abstain from pesticides and grow repeatable excellent cannabis at scale is what the move away from the wild west will require.
Maxwell Davis: I certainly don’t want any pesticides in my cannabis! How would you recommend other countries (or states) adopt and implement cannabis testing policy?
Dan Sutton: Unify standards, make them strict, be clear about infringement consequences, and push the testing obligations to the producer.
Maxwell Davis: That’s a great take on testing and certainly one that should be considered by anyone preparing to write cannabis laws. Now, moving on a bit, tell me a little bit more about you. What inspired you to join the cannabis industry?
Dan Sutton: The opportunity to help write a textbook that hasn’t been written! My team are all cartographers. They relish the opportunity to face novel challenges and innovate in areas that will lay the foundation for a new generation of greenhouse growers. There are kids in high school today that have the opportunity to step in and displace the uncreative old guard that believe they are entitled to owning this industry. There is room for many styles of cultivation, but if you cling to black market principles, teams like Tantalus Labs are coming for you.
Maxwell Davis: That’s great. I think the Wild Wild West aspect of the industry is what draws a lot of entrepreneurs into our industry. Personally, you’re one of the most recognizable faces in Canadian cannabis! I’ve even heard you speak at a TEDtalk. It seems like you are garnering press for your cannabis endeavors. Why do you think that is?
Dan Sutton: We have a responsibility to be vocal. Sustainability is not a topic most associate with cannabis, but it is a critical issue for the future of this industry. Every time I hear of plans for another mega-bunker to grow indoors at massive scale, I cringe at the lack of logic. Policy incentivizing sustainability is starting to gain political traction in Canada. I speak to consumers every day who wish they had a more sustainable option than the market currently provides, and I am proud to lend my voice publicly to that critical conversation.
Dan Sutton on TEDtalk
Maxwell Davis: That’s great to hear. A big push for sustainability, in regards to cannabis, seems to be happening here in Oregon too. Consumers are getting sick of the huge Mylar exit bags at dispensaries and those who monitor our electricity are becoming frustrated with the lack of forethought. We can’t have fifty massive indoor operations all on the same power grid! These days you work with large-scale cannabis producers on a daily basis. So, tell me, how did Tantalus Labs come to be created?
Dan Sutton: Tantalus Labs was actually born from a realization that cannabis is currently being grown en masse in sub-optimal conditions. We designed our state of the art greenhouse, SunLab, to offer the cannabis plant the highest quality of light possible. It just happens to come from the Sun.
The artificial lighting of indoor environments exists due to the illicit and stealthy nature of black market operations, and it can’t hold a candle to the light intensity and broad spectrum of Sunlight. We have a 4.5 billion year old fusion reactor hanging in the sky every day, and it has given life to every organism on this plant. To believe that we can improve on it with a 1000 watt bulb is hubris. As regulations change, many companies are deferring to the status quo and choosing to grow indoors. This creates an insane demand for electricity to produce a sub-optimal agricultural product.
Tantalus Labs was founded to change this and shift future cannabis cultivation into high-efficiency greenhouses. The latent effects of leveraging the superior quality of sunlight is massive energy savings, ergo substantial cost reduction. The plant, the planet, and the end user all win.
Maxwell Davis: That’s incredible! I would love to see SunLab in person, the pictures look fascinating. So, you’re all about creating quality medicinal cannabis in the most sustainable way. If you could talk to those opening cannabis grow operations in other parts of the world, hoping to be as successful as SunLab, what would you tell them?
Dan Sutton: While growing legal cannabis may seem new, the best practices of modern agriculture have been refined since the dawn of civilization. The last decades have introduced scientific study and procedural progress at an accelerating pace. Every leafy commercial crop grown today harnesses the power of natural sunlight, and the future of cannabis will be no different. Taking into consideration product quality, economic costs, and environmental impact, there is simply no substitute for full spectrum sunlight. The future of cannabis is Sungrown, so make sure that greenhouse expertise is core to your company culture.
Figure out why cannabis innovation is important to you, and breathe that ‘why’ into every decision you make. If you are just in this to make money, you aren’t going to last long.
Maxwell Davis: That’s very helpful for all of our entrepreneurs reading. Now, tell me, what are your thoughts on the Canadian medical cannabis program as it stands today? Where could it improve and why?
Dan Sutton: The Canadian medical market is growing and changing at an accelerating pace. Policy makers are listening to producers, first responders, doctors, and patients. Balancing those priorities is a delicate dance, and a job I do not envy. Currently Canadians are generally obligated to buy from one producer. I would like to see that user stickiness be legislated out, to enable a more competitive environment through easier user switching.
Maxwell Davis: Oh, I actually didn’t know that. Canadian consumers can only purchase from one producer? That seems strangely limiting. Moving on a bit, do you have faith Prime Minister Trudeau will introduce and implement a regulated, recreational cannabis industry that allows consumers safe access to safe cannabis?
Dan Sutton: I believe that is more likely than not. Age regulation, supply chain transparency, and consistently elite quality assurance standards appear to be core political objectives for Canadian legalization policy development. Safe access to cannabis produced under strict quality assurance standards seems to be a far higher priority than an inclusive industry in this early stage.
Maxwell Davis: That makes sense given what I’ve heard Trudeau say. Now, let’s jump back to the sungrown issue. I can’t seem to get it out of my mind. Why are you such a big proponent of sungrown cannabis as opposed to cannabis grown indoors? Is it just because of the electricity usage or does it affect the quality of the cannabis too?
Dan Sutton: No commercial agriculturalist grows tomatoes, peppers, or any other agricultural crop in basements under artificial lights. It is agriculturally, environmentally, and economically irrational. If cannabis production is now legal, and therefore unnecessary to hide an operation from authorities, why should cannabis producers continue to grow like the years under prohibition?
There is simply no substitute to the full spectrum intensity of natural sunlight to grow plants. We at Tantalus Labs believe that the best cannabis products in the upcoming years will come from producers who utilize natural sunlight. British Columbians like me spend a large amount of our leisure time outdoors. It’s hard not to while living in such a naturally beautiful part of the world. This leads to an awareness of how environmentally friendly certain manufacturing processes are. 1% of Americans electricity is drained by producing cannabis indoors. This is a huge and unsustainable draw on the energy grid.
SunLab ready to begin accepting new plants!
The Sun can provide a superior photosynthetic input, for free. Tantalus Labs is diligently working to not only talk about a better future, but build that future. SunLab is our testament to this.
Maxwell Davis: That’s a noble cause and an interesting statistic. I had no idea indoor cannabis growing has such a massive effect on the national energy grid. So you do consider cannabis grown in a greenhouse as sungrown?
Dan Sutton: Absolutely, and with the added benefit of environmental control that can be more effective than an indoor environment. Sometimes people confuse sungrown cannabis with outdoor cannabis. It’s an understandable mistake, as there has been a lack of education and labeling as to where cannabis comes from, but sungrown does not necessarily imply outdoor.
Outdoor cannabis is a field crop, where the natural environment dictates the success of the farmer. If it rains, the cannabis gets wet. If there is a cold snap, the plant will be affected by the temperature change. SunLab is designed to utilize the intensity and full spectrum light of natural sunlight, while also allowing us to control other environmental parameters more effectively than indoor. We actively monitor and control temperature, humidity, and over 30 other environmental variables to ensure that our cannabis is always being nurtured in an ideal way.
Maxwell Davis: Very interesting. In Oregon, as I understand it at least, sungrown typically refers to cannabis grown outdoors, without a greenhouse. Outdoor cannabis is the most prevalent product in the Oregon market at this time given Southern Oregon’s large commercial agricultural farms. That being said, as a salesperson and former dispensary manager, I can tell you that everyone in this infantile market, from consumers to those representing the dispensaries, seem to prefer indoor grown flower. What would you tell these folks?
Dan Sutton: Push your outdoor producers to invest in environmentally controlled greenhouses, sometimes called hybrids, so that their sungrown can sit on the top shelf next to the other AAAA products.
Maxwell Davis: That makes sense. I hope the consumers follow suit and start experimenting with new types of flower too, not always gravitating to the indoor flower with the highest THC percentage. With education, I believe, will come a change in how cannabis is produced and sold. I want to extend my thanks, Dan. Thank you very much for your wonderful insight. You are truly a trailblazing cannabis pioneer! I look forward to watching Tantalus continue to grow. Thanks again for your time. I, and everyone reading, truly appreciate it!
Dan Sutton: Thank you for your time, as well. It is a privilege to share our message with your audience, and I encourage them to vote with their purchase habits for the change they want to see in the industry.
Maxwell Davis: You couldn’t have said it any better.