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In the Weed Part II: Production Begins

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From its exterior, the 6,000-square-foot production facility of Heartland Labs in Buffalo is nondescript. That’s intentional, said Michael Pearcy, managing partner of the family-owned operation.

There’s no signage and the building is set off from Ash Street behind a secured gate. It’s intended to put out an unassuming vibe, he said. For security reasons, the company doesn’t want to draw attention to itself.

Inside the building, the nine-person staff manufactures cannabis-infused products for Missouri dispensaries – a process started last month. Those include vape cartridges, capsules and edibles, such as cookies, honey and gummies.

Maddi Pearcy, the company’s director of operations and Michael’s daughter, said “making the place a home” is still a work in progress. The facility’s white walls remain without any decor, as framed art still sits unhung across from her desk. A large portion of her father’s office is currently covered with partially opened boxes of Heartland Labs-branded hats and T-shirts.

As production has ramped up, interior decorating has taken a backseat, the Pearcys say.

“That’s a low priority,” Michael Pearcy said.

Creating product
The first shipment of cannabis products left Heartland Labs on April 2 to dispensaries in southwest Missouri and the following day to the Columbia and St. Louis areas, he said. Twice-weekly shipments are scheduled for the foreseeable future.

“Right now, we have about 40 we’re going to be supplying goods to, but only about 15 are open,” Michael Pearcy said of the dispensaries. “That gives you an idea about how busy we’re going to be because we’re having trouble keeping up right now. Part of that is just the growing pains of getting production up and streamlined a little bit better.”

The smell of chocolate chip and peanut butter cookies frequently emanate from the commercial kitchen, where longtime family recipes of kitchen technician Jannette DeGood are used. Roughly 1,400 cookies are made daily. Along with some undisclosed ingredients, she uses three kinds of chocolate chips – white, milk and semisweet. The butter for the cookies is infused with distillate, a pure tasteless and odorless cannabis oil. The distillate is produced in Heartland’s lab, led by Michael Pearcy’s son Hayden.

“We just have crazy demand for our cookies right now,” Michael Pearcy said, declining to disclose sales figures. “Those and the vape cartridges seem to be the most popular at the dispensaries. We can’t make enough of them.”

Weekday production typically runs in a single eight-hour shift, the Pearcys say.

Gummies also are popular as production has ramped up to roughly 6,000 per day, he said. The gummy recipes were developed over several months last year to meet the desired taste, chewable consistency and number of days needed to dry, Maddi Pearcy said.

“We had a lot of [research and development] days and made a lot of gummies and consumed a lot of sugar over that time,” said Hayden Pearcy, who developed the recipes.

The biggest challenge was finding the right liquid-to-gelatin ratio and balance of sugar and citric acid, he said.

“It is medical cannabis, but so many people get away from the side that something is also supposed to taste good,” Hayden Pearcy said. “People are supposed to enjoy what they’re consuming and not just choke it down.”

All cookies and gummies are released under Heartland Labs’ Sweet Stone edible line, Maddi Pearcy said. They are sold 10 to a package at a total of 100 milligram increments of THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis.

The Pearcys say the market sets the prices for its products, and they don’t place manufacturer’s suggested retail prices on them. Dispensaries are selling the cookies, gummies, capsules and honey at an average of around $40 per package, while vape cartridges are roughly $70, she said.

Testing bottleneck
Green Precision Analytics, a Kansas City-based licensed medical marijuana testing facility, exclusively examines Heartland Labs products. It’s one of only four testing labs operating in the state as of press time, according to Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services data.

Josh Kollmeyer, Green Precision Analytics laboratory director, said the company is at Heartland Labs collecting random samples at least twice a week.

“We have agreements set up that they’re going to send so much product our way, and we’ll complete in a certain turnaround time for them,” Kollmeyer said, declining to disclose contract terms.

The distillate, which comes out of the raw cannabis flower, and edible products are all tested for contaminants, which include mold, microbials, pesticides and mycotoxins.

“We also verify they’re putting in the right dosage and manufacturing everything uniformly and at the correct milligrams,” he said, noting those totals vary from one product to the next. “There’s no sampling here. We just ensure what they put into their product.”

Heartland Labs is yet to fail a test, he said, adding the turnaround time goal is three days.

Michael Pearcy said the testing time is understandable and necessary for the safety of the patients. Still, as he stood April 12 in his facility’s vault, where products are kept in a humidity- and temperature-controlled environment, he acknowledged testing was a bottleneck in the production process.

“Every product we make has to go off in batches to a state-certified testing lab,” he said, pointing to boxes containing several dozen packages of cookies. “All these cookies are waiting on test results.”

On the horizon
As more dispensaries begin to open around the state, the Pearcys expect product demand will multiply. It’s a challenge they are prepared to tackle as research and development for more products is ongoing.

Next up is a seasonal lemon sugar cookie and pineapple gummy – the latter of which was selected by customers via a social media poll, Maddie Pearcy said. Both are expected to debut by the end of May.

“That’s plenty,” Michael Pearcy said of the company’s product roster, which would reach near a dozen next month.

His daughter agreed, but quickly added that the flow of ideas and collaboration among staff is encouraged.

“There’s just a world of options. But we don’t want to sacrifice our quality,” she said. “We’d so much rather have quality over quantity.”

The family members agree: Just because the products are medicinal doesn’t mean they have to taste like medicine.

“We understand that if a patient is eating three or four (gummies or cookies) to get the relief that they need of THC, gosh, you don’t want to eat something that tastes like metal,” Michael Pearcy said. “You want it to be something they really don’t mind doing.

“That’s the whole point of everything we do here – to try and give the patient the relief that they need and make it a pleasurable experience.”

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