Unlike other farmers and horticulturists, cannabis cultivators tend to be myopic with their growing expertise. Meaning, they really only know about one crop, cannabis.
COO at Ayra and PhD Entomologist John Dunley, had a cannabis journey that was the opposite of most growers. Dunley is a horticulture expert. A research scientist at Washington State University, Dunley specialized in fruit trees.
Apples are big business in Washington state, and fruit tree farmers take their craft seriously. When it comes to making the most money they can with their crops, apple farmers don’t mess around. And Dunley’s job was to research how farmers could make their fruit trees more efficient and profitable.
Before Ayra was even an idea, Dr. Dunley was helping out cannabis growers.
“Ever since I was in grad school, I would get calls from the public,” Dr. Dunley said with a chuckle. “They’d often start off with, uh, ‘Mr. Dunley, I have these plants.’ And I knew what they were talking about, and it wasn’t tomatoes. Because if it was tomatoes they would have just said tomatoes. So it’s always sort of been around. But I didn’t jump into production until it became legal.”
So Dunley came into cannabis with a huge advantage. His was a perspective that most cannabis growers didn’t even consider. A research scientist in the commercial agriculture sector is going to look at cannabis grows through a completely different lens. That lens is what inspired Ayra to operate in a more scientific manner.
“We began as an experiment. Testing different cultivation technologies and genetics in Wenatchee.” Tim Dunley, John’s brother and business partner explained. “Working in the back of an orchard under medical licenses. That helped us to understand what worked in our system, and how it needed to work. From there we found a space in SoDo, and are now operating a Tier 2 producer/processor facility here.”
From the beginning, Ayra put its energy into finding the most cost-effective and sustainable way to produce super high-quality cannabis. John’s background in helping orchards run in a cost-effective manner helped inform their process.
“Pretty early on we embraced the idea of growing under LED lights, we’re now a 100 percent LED facility,” Tim Dunley told The Sesh. “We looked at different grow techniques and found that aeroponics was ideal in terms of quality and consistency and maximizing resources. We’ve probably gone through five or six generations on our grow design. But we’re really locked into minimizing the use of power, minimizing water usage, delivering the plants only the things they need, and really just controlling the environment from start to finish. So we’ll never need pesticides, nothing will touch our plants other than dissolved minerals only at the root level.”
Dr. Dunley also has a background in genetics. This background gives him an edge in breeding his own strains for production.
“On the quantitative genetics, the breeding side, my background certainly plays a role,” Dunley said. “We breed our own varieties. Cannabis horticulture itself, because there hasn’t been research or extension involved as an agricultural crop, has not been developed to the extent that it should. Especially for the high value. And that’s afforded us a lot of opportunities.”
A valuable cash crop like cannabis that hasn’t been studied extensively for yield and productivity is a dream for a research scientist with Dr. Dunley’s background.
“Some of the stuff that was done in tree fruits in the sixties, I’ve repeated some of the experiments,” Dunley explains. “And changed our horticultural practices, you know pruning and such. And it’s made them many times more efficient as far as labor.”
Being on top of research science for commercial tree fruit crops has allowed the Dunleys to take the decades upon decades of science that has led to the ultra-efficient orchards that are planted today, and apply that knowledge to cannabis.
“If you look at an orchard planted in even 1980, there’s a lot of wasted space, there’s a lot of wasted tree. Very inefficient at intercepting light,” recalled Dr. Dunley. “We’ve taken all that research from other areas, and incorporated it into our growing techniques. We’re as efficient as we can figure out how to be now. And much more efficient than a standard growing practice. At least we feel we are, and we have data to support it.”
For the past few decades, cannabis has largely been an underground industry. Being illegal led cannabis growers to turn to experts who were all too happy to sell them a product that promised more yield.
Research like that which was happening in the fruit tree industry, which once established becomes industry standard, doesn’t really exist for cannabis. Pioneering scientists like Dr. John Dunley are leading the way in taking knowledge from other crops and applying it to cannabis. And the result is an excellent and exceptionally clean product.