Ben & Vinnie Celani: Big Cannabis Is Coming

This week, the brothers behind High Life Farms detail their divide-and-conquer approach to running a multi-state operator.

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This week, Ben and Vinnie Celani, co-founders of High Life Farms, discuss their operations in California and Michigan — and continued expansion. High Life primarily conducts cultivation, manufacturing and distribution in California, while its Michigan operations are more vertically integrated. 

The brothers take a divide-and-conquer approach to operations, with Vinnie overseeing sales and marketing and Ben leading the cultivation side of the multi-state operator (MSO). 

The brothers said they grew up with a love for cannabis and a respect for its ability to improve lives. Although they always wanted to set up their own shop, they initially found roles within the industry to gain knowledge and get comfortable with the sector.

Upon founding the business, High Life grew rapidly. In Michigan, the company grows flower and produces edibles, working closely with partners at Wana and Kiva on product development. The company currently has 150 employees and plans to add more than 50 more jobs by the end of 2021. 

In California, cultivation is the focus, with another 75 employees working toward the company’s white-labeling and contract manufacturing efforts. 

According to Ben, most of the equipment in Michigan and California is the same, with a few differences as a result of climate variations: the weather in Chesaning, Michigan, is a bit different than in Desert Hot Springs, California. He emphasized the importance of making sure that equipment is tailored to growing the best cannabis.

The company’s success hasn’t been without its challenges, and Vinnie admits that High Life tried to expand too quickly. The company previously had operations in Colorado, but they decided to leave the already established market for better opportunities in California and Michigan. While they were selling in Colorado, they were ramping up in California and Michigan, and Ben admits that they bit off more than they could chew. However, the growing pains helped the brothers become more methodical, building the business piece-by-piece.

Many of the early challenges were solved by trial and error, and many late nights fixing problems with HVAC systems and irrigation. Cannabis leaves very little room for error, and the brothers were steadfast in their determination. 

High Life remains privately held and self-funded. Although making things work is more difficult on their own dime, it allowed the brothers to stay nimble and make quick, strategic decisions. 

Ben describes the Michigan side of the business as “medium” vertically integrated as a result of a 50/50 partnership with Joyology dispensaries. High Life has big plans for the Michigan market, including 30 new dispensaries by the end of this year and 60 within the next 24 months. 

The big opportunity in Michigan is edibles. The company saw seasonal trends with the flower market that haven’t translated to edibles. High Life is currently producing 80,000 gummie 10-packs every day, all hand-mixed and handmade over two shifts. 

The company is also cultivating about 50-55 pounds per square foot over 250,000 square feet of grow space, hand trimming about 80% of the crop. So far, the record harvest has been about 290 pounds, but new greenhouses coming online in Michigan (with the first harvest scheduled for April) will reach 450 to 500 pounds per harvest, with 15 harvests expected per year. 

The market opportunity will only continue to expand, particularly with the onset of federal legalization. Vinnie optimistically predicts legalization at the federal level within the next 24 months, although he admits that it faces many hurdles. 

The company will also continue to expand white-labeling efforts and strategic partnerships in California. For Vinnie, it’s a point of pride to be able to walk into a dispensary and see High Life’s flower sold under five to 10 different brands. 

As for the future, Ben argues that "Big Cannabis" is coming, and large operators like High Life are necessary to keep quality cannabis in the game — and make sure that consumers receive a quality product.

The Cannabis Equipment News Podcast is an interview series with growers, processors, manufacturers, distributors and other professionals who work within the legal cannabis industry.

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