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In The Race To Provide The Next Best Strain, Wave Rider’s Ahead Of The Game

Union Electric has partnered with leading greenhouse growers to provide premium cannabis at affordable prices.

Proper and Union Electric have teamed up for this farm-focused series that tells the stories behind your bud. The second farm we’re highlighting provides you with strains tried and true, and brand new. Wave Rider Nursery prioritizes pheno-hunting in Salinas to give the cannabis community some of the best buds under the California sun. Let’s dig in to learn about their property, people, process and purpose.

Spending a day at Wave Rider provided a welcomed reminder that you can end up where you’re meant to be without ever meaning to get there. This cannabis company has always been a family operation, and while it’s wrong to say that Drew simply followed in his father’s footsteps, he always knew where to pick up the trail. Though neither of them thought it would lead to such a massive operation in Monterey. From the overall climate to individual practices, there’s nothing typical about growing cannabis outside the City of Salinas. Wave Rider’s operation is no different. Driving through the guard shack past rows of greenhouses looks similar enough, but before long you see what sets them apart from the other growers that border them on every side.

Walking up the steps to their office, you’ll often hear the familiar sound of friends ragging on each other. It would be easy to slap a label on Wave Rider and say, “This is what a cannabis company looks like when a bunch of surfers from Santa Cruz get together and start growing weed.” And while there is a sort of “Lords of Dogtown” feel to their origin story and friendships, that would be a far too reductionist way of putting it, and a disservice to their dedication to the plant.

In fact, spending their youth trying to catch the perfect wave set them up for what they're doing today, and what they hope to accomplish in the future. A hundred things need to go right to ride a wave, and a hundred things need to go right to produce the premium strains they do on a regular basis.

For Drew, the knowledge of how to master both came from his father, and together they form the growing side of Wave Rider’s leadership team. The current facility was purchased in 2016, but the history of Wave Rider goes back much, much further. Their roadmap is almost reminiscent of a roving band from Laurel Canyon in the 70’s. They collaborated in backyards to create something revolutionary, and once people got a taste they couldn't get enough. These beach boys went from getting their footing in the industry to headlining with hit strains. Members and facilities have come and gone, and those who left have started their own thing and are thriving in their own way.

Being around cannabis operations has been a part of Drew’s life for as long as he can remember, but his true induction to the family business came in 2012. His father was building two compliant medicinal greenhouses in a buddy’s backyard, and reached out to see if he wanted to help. He was already running a successful screen printing business out of his home, but he had experience in construction and figured he might as well lend a hand to get the things off the ground. Once everything was up and running he returned home, but he’d soon receive a call that would set his cannabis career in motion.

During the first grow at this site, his father had a heart attack. Drew dove in and took care of the entire harvest. He dried, bucked and trimmed everything, and just like that the seed of cannabis curiosity was sown. He started to get more involved as time allowed, and the rest is history. His father recovered quickly and was back on site in no time, but Drew's interest was piqued, and there was no going back.

That space was about 5,000 square feet, and before long they moved on to build another site double the size. Drew paused to laugh as he looked back to what he thought was a huge operation at the time. He still had his screen-printing business going in the background, but the writing was on the wall for him to get more involved. The guy handling all of the clones at their second facility wasn’t working out, so Drew stepped in to take the reins. If there’s a moment to point to when everything changed, it’s here. This is the genesis story of Drew’s obsession with genetics.

This new role gave him the ability to start something of his own, and truly wrap his head around how he wanted to carve out his corner in cannabis. After filling each greenhouses with clones, he was free to keep and do what he pleased with whatever was left. This led to a pretty substantial nursery business, but it also stoked his creative fire to push and explore the potential of the plant. 

From facility to phenotype to flower, everything’s planned, and nothing’s left to chance.

It didn't take long for them to outgrow their second site, and they were soon faced with the decision of where to go from there. At the time, the flowering canopy tax in the area was so high, and the flower business itself was such a mess, that it made sense to stick with the nursery model. Not only was this the right move economically, it also helped establish the meaningful and substantial partnerships they maintain today. Now that the flower market has rebounded and they’ve ramped up their production, it certainly doesn't hurt that the best clones around come from their own facility. Having such a strong genetic backbone is something Wave Rider takes seriously at every step of the process. From facility to phenotype to flower, everything’s planned, and nothing’s left to chance.

There’s a quote from Lincoln that says, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend six sharpening my axe.” And you can pretty much look at anything Wave Rider’s ever done and see this thought process baked in. Their current facility came fairly equipped, and where most companies would’ve jumped right in to get the ball rolling, they took the time to perfect it in their own way. It took a year before they put their first plant in, and even at the time of writing this article, four years later, they’re finishing their last greenhouse.

Going from 10,000 to 80,000 to ultimately 230,000 square feet of growing space is no easy feat, and it’s a testament to their crew that they’ve transitioned to each facility in stride. Especially a crew of their size. Just like nearly every nascent brand in the industry, as you get going you start by hiring people you know. In the beginning, whether those you get to help are good or not isn't as important as whether they can be trusted, and sometimes you just need hands. Drew would be out surfing, and it was basically a situation where he knew a harvest was coming and he’d ask, “Hey, can you come work for the next week and maybe not tell anyone where you were?” And as their operation grew, some started pulling more hours to where it evolved into a full-time gig. As they continued to scale to their current facility, they quickly realized the need for that same reliable crew to be there year round.

The same “bad kids” who were selling pot in high school are now running multi-million dollar compliant businesses.

That's when people like Conner and Brandon went from helping out to handling damn near everything. Seasonal stints segued to solidified roles, and they’re still there today. As the operation rapidly grew, so did its needs, and they were fortunate to have such people already onboard ready to rise to the occasion.

Conner went from helping with product to heading up sales, and he’s responsible for every single thing leaving the facility. Be it a clone, flower or trim, it’s on his radar, and ultimately his responsibility. He was actually kicked out of his parent’s house 18 years ago for selling weed, and now he’s walked them through a facility he helps run that sells hundreds of pounds of it a week. The same “bad kids” who were selling pot in high school are now running multi-million dollar compliant businesses, which isn’t an uncommon theme in the Central Coast of CA. The Lords of Dogtown went mainstream. What was once counterculture now has state of the art tissue-culture labs.

Brandon first worked in the area’s strawberry industry, and he uses his experience to keep the day-to-day operations humming. His expertise and knowledge of the area are invaluable, and they come in handy in instances like pinpointing the surrounding Big Ag farms that overspray pesticides that end up affecting their plants.

But there are two employees that few others in Salinas, if any, have managed to hold on to. Prior to Wave Rider purchasing the property, it was owned by a Japanese family who’d been running a cut flower business for years. This is a similar story to every greenhouse in the area, but Wave Rider’s the only facility we’ve heard of where the owners stuck around. Tats and Yoriko previously grew orchids, and more than one person referred to them as plant wizards while we were at the facility. Have you ever tried to keep an orchid alive? Did it work? Didn't think so.

These two sticking around meant that on top of getting the solid bones the facility provided, they also got to keep the heart and brain.

One of the best things that could’ve happened to Wave Rider was these two sticking around. Not only did they get the solid bones the facility provided, they also got to keep the heart and brain. The husband, Tatsuyo, did briefly retire, but he soon called and asked if he could return to work. He complained about his days becoming monotonous, but more importantly—beer lost its flavor. He was never a big drinker, but the crisp, cold one he used to crack after a hard day’s work was now meaningless. The effervescence was gone, and everything felt flat.

When he came back, it was obvious he was where he needed to be. His knowledge of the layout of the entire site is essential. The second something breaks, he’s the first one they call—and he could draw you a map of every pipe on the property from memory. He also worked harder than anyone there every single day. At 70 years old, he was racing those around him to see who could fill the most pots. He was fresh out of retirement and telling the guys around him, “You aren't very good at this, I'm better than you, keep up.” He retired again a few weeks prior to this interview, but everyone seemed sure he’d be back to lend a hand when his beer again became bland.

His wife, Yoriko, still works on-site. She’s in charge of what makes Wave Rider so special—their pheno-hunts and genetics. She’s responsible for keeping track of thousands of strains, and making sure that each stays healthy, or is instantly culled. Her keen eye and attention to detail keeps things running smoothly, and her experience is vital to choosing winners.

Pheno-hunting is essentially the process of identifying strains with the dominant traits you want passed from generation to generation. You pop a bunch of seeds, choose your winners and add them to your rotation. By doing this you can stabilize and strengthen the weaker strains, or make better those that are already selling out. Anything from smell and flavor to THC content and growth characteristics can be upgraded in this way, and Wave Rider’s constant experimentation through their pheno-hunts is what helps make their products unique. It's also been a part of Drew’s family for longer than anyone is willing (or allowed) to say.

Wave Rider’s constant experimentation through their pheno-hunts is what helps make their products unique. 

When asked what sets Wave Rider apart, Drew paused before saying that while it may not be unique, every single person at the facility truly cares. From the trimmers to those at the top—everyone loves their job. It comes through in the atmosphere, and ultimately in the products. Individuals like Conner, Yoriko and Brandon are why they can get away with doing what they do with the staff they have. Some sites the same size have double the people, but when employees care the way theirs do they’ll put in the extra hours without being asked.

As the facility stands today, there are four acres of flowering space, an acre and a half of nursery and their pheno-hunting greenhouse. The percentage of clones to flowers has steadily shifted towards the latter over time. What was once primarily a nursery operation has transitioned into a seed-to-sale, fully-functioning flower factory. Having both provides them with the unique selling point of being able to show someone clones, and then go to the next room and give them a glimpse of what they’ll look like when they flower.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the facility would ever go fully in the direction of flower, but Drew shook his head. He loves the nursery side, and the hunt is what feeds their fan-favorite phenos. There are strains in their experimental greenhouse that no one will ever be able to find unless they go through Wave Rider. These genetics, and the passion felt towards creating them, are the reason you'll start to see their logo more and more in your favorite dispensary, and why they partnered with Union Electric to provide a direct way for consumers to get their premium products. 

As we walked through the pheno-hunting area, Conner and Drew kept pointing out the plants they’d had their eye on. They have so many unique strains, and every one has its own story. Stopping at each individual plant can easily yield a 15 minute conversation about its lineage, and where they hope to take it. Golden Tangie, a variety produced by Drew’s father, filled the immediate area with a citrus aroma that nearly had me forgetting what type of farm I was visiting. Some of the strains were unidentified, unlabeled blind tests from growers who sent in seeds. We stood in awe at a purple, trichome heavy behemoth. It was Wonka’s Factory, and any plant you saw could be the next Everlasting Gobstopper. A winner among winners ready to take California by surprise in the form of the best new high.

While it may have merely felt like an afternoon in the fog layer to us, the greenhouse where they conduct these tests is a veritable Cannabis Thunderdome. Each pheno that makes it into production has to first survive this harsh environment, and when we visited there were thousands fighting to do so. The sea of green was being tested by humidity and temperatures much higher than normal, and anything hearty enough to make it out alive can essentially make it anywhere. Humidity is the single hardest thing to deal with in Salinas, and while they combat it with the way they’ve built their greenhouses, they also breed their strains to work around it.

The window where humidity and pests affect the plants the most is around week eight or nine. By breeding strains that flower at seven weeks, they can eliminate these issues altogether. When most consumers think about choosing the genetics to create the perfect plant, the images that come to mind are the centerfolds in old High Times magazines. While bag-appeal and potency are certainly important, you must first breed your strains to survive. Ensuring viability and testing your phenos so thoroughly is vital to any reputable nursery. When you send your clones out into the world, you want to make sure they can survive anything because if a crop fails, the first finger pointed will be back at you. 

This is why when they first started growing they focused on staples the same way everyone does. There are certain winning strains that simply grow well and will always sell, like SFV OG. Prioritizing those first allows you to fly a bit closer to the sun with your experimentation without worrying about overextending yourself. While dialing in your space and the strains you know is one thing, what makes your brand stand out is obviously creating the next best thing. Genetics are the real root of the cannabis plant. A good way to think of it is that you can have a Ferrari body, but if you put a Camry engine in it who cares?

Having so many strains going that could end up being game changers excites Drew every single day. Knowing that you have no idea what each plant will look like a week out means you’ll never get bored, and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised. Nothing pumps up the team more, and it isn’t hard to see why. A few week’s from writing this they’ll have around 30 new strains in jars, ready to test. The same strains they’ve been tracking daily with the level of excitement usually reserved for Christmas Eve.

The last thing anyone on the team wants to see is their pre-roll tube on the beaches they surf.

Not only is this essential for keeping the staff engaged, it’s also what makes them regularly sought out by leading flower brands. If someone's selling flower, they don't want to be packaging the same genetics as everyone else. If they do, they’re just another company with the same ol’ strains. Sure, how each plant is produced will vary slightly, but the genetics are the same, which means in theory the effects should be too. Wave Rider’s very selective with who gets to sell their products. Whether it’s in their own jars or through Union Electric, they want the consumer to know the source of their flower, and the amount of thought and care that went into it. They don't have a big name in the retail space, but they’re working to get there. And by pairing with brands like Union Electric and Proper, they’ll get their unique, game-changing strains in front of more people than ever before.

It shouldn’t surprise you that the same care they put into planning their facility is going into building their brand. Instead of just rushing to market, they’re taking calculated and substantial steps to create products that’ll be instantly loved and consistently purchased. Since Prop 64, the amount of excess packaging added to every single product has been staggering. The single-use plastics are getting out of hand, and aren’t at all what the cannabis community stands for. Beyond their sustainable farming practices, Wave Rider takes things a step further by using recycled ocean plastic for their pre-roll tubes and jar tops, making them both fully recyclable and originating from recycled materials. The amount of money they could save by using something cheaper would be substantial, but that isn’t who they are. The last thing anyone on the team wants to see is their pre-roll tube on the beaches they surf.

The name and logo are constant reminders of their roots. When they were just kids who surfed and intermittently harvested weed as a fun way to make some extra cash. I asked Drew if the ocean is their company’s golf course—where they go to get out of the office and discuss the next leading strain, or where their facility’s headed. “No,” he said smiling. “The ocean is where you go to forget everything else. To block out the world and find time for yourself.” It makes sense. A crew that works as hard as theirs deserves respite from such a demanding and ever-changing industry. And it’s those moments that’ll give them the creative fuel to continue to provide the cannabis community with the game-changing strains we so desperately desire. So for our sake and theirs—may the sea, and their beer, never be flat.

This article was created in partnership with Union Electric. Photos by Abby Sherman and Marley Sutter.

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