Pride in product: Cherokee’s cannabis operation

by Jul 20, 2023NEWS ka-no-he-da0 comments


One Feather Asst. Editor


CHEROKEE, N.C. – The sun shines through the top of a greenhouse as a Cherokee agriculturist tends to his plants.  James Bradley, cultivation manager at the cannabis farm operated by Qualla Enterprises, LLC in the Birdtown Community, planted the first seed at the operation and works hard to expand his own knowledge and skill in working with the plants.

Totsie Welch, an elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, trims buds at the cannabis farm operated in the Birdtown Community by Qualla Enterprises, LLC. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photos)

“That is something that we’re finding, even now, is that the certain genetics that we’re running are doing better in our environment versus others…finding those genetics that are going to work here. We’re already finding them and dialing in a lot more on those. It’s been wild,” said Bradley, who is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

The operation is currently growing 45 different strains of cannabis.

Forrest Parker, Qualla Enterprises, LLC general manager and an EBCI tribal member, said, “Last year was all about research and development – what do we do infrastructure-wise that gives us the ability to cultivate the cannabis product to meet a menu, totally in house, vertical, at the lowest cost so that our margins are the highest for the people. That’s been the business principle behind this operation from day one.”

“What we want the community to understand is how much hard work has gone in…we didn’t invent anything, but we did invent marrying all these things together to make it Cherokee and Qualla-specific.”

The operation uses and has re-purposed many of the buildings that were already on-site.

Parker states that one hoop house will pay for itself 14 times over again on the first harvest.  In the next 60 days, the operation will have 75 hoop houses operational.

“We’re one of the few people in America, if not the only ones, that are actually producing cannabis 52 weeks a year – and we’ve proven that – inside hoop houses,” said Parker.

“Christmas week, we were harvesting cannabis and growing cannabis in the coldest week in recent history in western North Carolina. So, we have proven through last summer and the coldest week in modern history that this little concept that us and some old country engineers in Tennessee came up with works, and we’re very, very proud of it.”

Parker added, “Our hoop house plan was developed, primarily, to produce biomass to support the concentrate production side. Also, the pre-roll production side of our business. And, a small portion of the premium flower production.”

Forrest Parker, an EBCI tribal member and general manager of Qualla Enterprises, LLC, checks the barcode on a plant in a greenhouse at the operation.

“We have to do all of it ourselves. We can’t go buy it. So, we’re having to take our local community, and we’re having to partner with people and learn together, and train them, teach them, and bring them into this family and grow this family extremely rapidly but at a very tight rate because there’s so much importance here in what we’re doing. We can’t cut any corners. We’re tested on every aspect. We’re regulated on every aspect. We’re watched on every aspect. So, everything we do has to be top-notch, state-of-the-art, at the highest levels. So, we have to get there very fast but we’re doing that with our own people and our own community.”

Bradley stated, “Every week we’re harvesting two to three hoops, depending on how many we’re planting, so we have to plan ten weeks ahead of everything…it’s a whole ten weeks of scheduling that we have to go through to make sure we’re not on top of each other, we’re having harvest every week, our guys are staying busy, we’re staying on top of any defoliation that needs to happen.”

The operation is planning to open a dispensary, located at the old Tribal Bingo Hall, for medical cannabis sometime this fall.  Parker said that the product they have been growing and processing will be fine.

“The good thing is that none of it goes bad. No, we’re not going to sell flower that’s not fresh. We’re going to sell fresh flower. But, if we have flower that’s premium flower that we want to sell as jar-able flower but it has sat here too long because our open date was pushed, no problem. We’ll just send that same quality flower over to extraction. Instead of selling it for jar-able flower, we’ll then extract it. We’ll take all the valuable cannabinoids and THC out of it and we’ll use it for other products. Nothing goes to waste, regardless. It’s just like corn and soybeans, it’s biodegradable. The longer it sits, the less quality it is. But, we’ve worked really hard to produce some stock because before we open we need to produce a lot of concentrated products – your vape pens, your edibles.”


Tribal pride

 With the summer sun coming into the hoop houses, Erica Watty and Jordan Littlejohn, both EBCI tribal members, go plant-to-plant auditing them to make sure every plant is accounted for.  Each plant is audited weekly and is tracked from beginning to end.

Watty said, “I feel awesome everyday just to wake up and know this is my job. This is the only job that I’ve never woken up and dreaded thinking ‘oh, I’ve got to go to work’. I’m growing medicine. I’m going to help people on our land. I think it means everything in the world to me.”

Erica Watty, left, and Jordan Littlejohn, both EBCI tribal members, are shown in a hoop house containing cannabis plants. They audit each plant in the operation, thousands in total, every week to make sure every plant is accounted for.

Littlejohn noted, “It’s nice to be able to come in and know that you’re doing something that’s going to benefit all enrolled members. I love it. It’s all new. I’m learning a bunch of new things so it’s very exciting.”

The employees at the operation are proud that it is being run locally by EBCI tribal members.  Of the 67 total employees, a total of 75 percent overall and 85 percent at the farm itself are EBCI tribal members.  There are five divisions to the operation including cultivation, production/processing, administration, security, and retail which has not hired anyone yet but will see 20-25 hired soon for the upcoming dispensary.

Parker is happy with the camaraderie of the employees.  “This is the culmination of not just a lot of hard work in Cherokee, but a lot of really smart people and a lot of science. Cherokee is pioneering cannabis in a very different way because we’re trying to grow such a large amount to meet such a large demand. We’re trying to do it in the most economically-feasible way to create the highest level of margin.”

He went on to say, “I’m so proud of them and the teams here and all the people because they banded together and realized that if they don’t hold themselves accountable and there’s not accountability in our daily work processes then things don’t get done. When things don’t get done, harvests end up getting interrupted. Our ability to be profitable is decreased. They all own that. So, everybody’s bought in to the same goal.”

“They get to take pride in that ownership because each house, each group of houses, reflects someone’s or a small group of people’s dedication to the task and the pride they’re taking in their job. When you look through this property and you see so much consistency between houses, what that tells the leadership is that people are all doing the same things and they’re all doing the same things right because our consistency is really starting to be across the board.”

Bradley said, “It’s extremely rare, especially for just a group of guys out of the same community having that same goal in mind. Everybody is on that same page. Every day these guys come in, we talk about what needs to happen, they’ll go out and make it happen. That happens every day. We just keep hitting those milestones every time just doing better and better every day.”

“It’s nothing short of incredible considering we just brought a bunch of people together with the same goal in mind, we communicate, and we let them go to work. That’s what we get with everyone having the same goal.”

Cannabis plants grow in a hoop house.

Casper Wolfe, an EBCI tribal member employee in the processing area, talked about the success model of the operation.  “I came in and everybody was willing to help, willing to teach. It’s all a team effort. Anything that they knew they shared with me. If I had any ideas on anything to help make it better, faster, more efficient, they listened. It’s basically about having a good team. So far, we’ve got a great team. Anybody who comes in, if they want to know anything, we teach them. As long as one succeeds, we all succeed.”

Lisa Lowery, an EBCI tribal member and co-worker of Casper’s in the processing area, added, “Thankfully, we have a good staff where everybody has the same goal. It’s always financial and community-driven so we all have the same purpose for the Tribe.”

Parker said the pride in work is what makes the operation go.  “The average person may sit out there and think, ‘oh, they’re down there walking around fields of cannabis just smoking it all day long’ but the truth is that these people are learning and growing and committing at a super-high rate…and putting themselves out there and trusting in their teammates and learning and growing and staying humble because they know that what they’re doing is bigger than themselves. And nobody wants to mess it up because everybody is focused on the same goal.”

“These folks are surpassing every measurement we’ve ever set. They are exceeding that. Every single one. That’s what we want the community to know. Those are the things we want to talk about. We want the community to know that we’re really, really, focused and committed to being the best stewards of this business, of this opportunity. Not just with what we spend and what we choose to do, but the profitability down the road, what we’re setting this business up for for the future, the longevity. We want to prove to them that being first to market is one great advantage. But, taking pride in your work and learning how to do things at the highest level ensures your market advantage down the road because then your product quality is at the highest level. If no one can surpass you on product quality, then they’re not going to shop anywhere else.”


‘Medicine, not a drug’

 Voters of the EBCI will get to vote on whether to allow adult-use (sometimes referred to as recreational) cannabis on tribal lands.  During its regular session on July 13, Tribal Council approved Res. No. 633 (2023) which adds the following referendum question to the September General Election ballot, “Do you support legalizing the possession and use of cannabis for persons who are at least twenty-one (21) years old and require the EBCI Tribal Council to develop legislation to regulate the market?”

James Bradley, left, an EBCI tribal member and cultivation manager at the operation, examines small cannabis plants with Brian Lade.

Bradley said, “Cannabis is a medicine no matter how you use it. Anybody that smokes weed now that’s older, they smoke it for a reason. It’s not ‘oh, I just want to get high’, it’s because it’s a part of your life. You don’t do it any differently than Tylenol or Motrin or any other over-the-counter medicine.”

“I don’t look at it any differently than over-the-counter medication. I think we as patients, and people in general, should have more of a right to a plant that just grows outside. I think it’s ridiculous we’re having to fight so hard for a right to grow a weed.”

Darin Rilatos, a member of the Siletz Tribe of Oregon, works in the cultivation side of the operation.  “We’re talking about how this stuff works for people. Not just the whole misnomer of ‘oh yeah, all they do down there is smoke pot’ – that’s not what it’s about. There’s ninety different ways of getting it into your system that has nothing to do with actually smoking it. And that’s the part, the medical side, that I’m about, because of the benefits. Like these women, the elderly women, instead of being on the painkillers that are going across the United States, get them on cannabis. It’s still a pill, it’s just a cannabis pill. It does the same thing but it’s way better for you. I’m a real hard proponent of the medical side of it.”

“It’s works, and it’s proven to work. It’s a passion-driven industry.”

Wolfe said, “They’re wanting to give people more drugs instead of something natural, more cost-efficient.”

“It (cannabis) can help with all the same side effects, but it doesn’t kill you. It’s not another drug. It’s medicine. So, for me, it’s personal and I’m still alive because of it.”