Will Bowden’s path to founding Grasshopper Farms wasn’t exactly conventional. While many cannabis farmers and brand founders trace their origin stories to a love of cannabis, Will had never been one to partake.

“I have a little bit of a different path,” he joked. “I always tell people that I’m from Santa Cruz, so this product was never controversial to me, even though I grew up in an era that was heavily impacted by the Nixon and Reagan administrations with the anti-drug campaigns and enforcement.”

But while Will grew up in an atmosphere where cannabis use was normalized, and even celebrated, the life path he followed meant there wasn’t much space for personal exploration of the plant. “I chose law enforcement and military service as my careers, and because of those choices, I never had the opportunity to either try or work around this product. But I remember looking at this industry and going, wow, what an amazing business opportunity… for someone else.”

An Unlikely Origin Story

To Will, the idea of entering the world of cannabis was like the idea of going to Mars—exciting, thrilling, pushing new frontiers, but not something he was likely to encounter. Still, he remained intrigued by the potential he saw while he sat on the sidelines. Then fate intervened.

“This is where I tell folks to be careful of the energy you put out there. Because the exact month that I retired is the same month that I met a gentleman who wanted to hire me to work for his company, which was an aspiring multi-state cannabis operator out of Wilmington, Delaware.”

Will and his wife decided to take a chance, and it wasn’t long before he fell in love with the industry. After a few years of working behind the scenes in cannabis, he even found a gap in the market that interested him: premium sun-grown cannabis.

Stepping up the Sun-Grown Game

As Will began to gain more familiarity with the world of cannabis, he discovered that the majority of the products in the marketplace were grown indoors, particularly anything that had a premium tag on it.

“There was a university study that I read in 2011 that said that indoor cannabis cultivation was occupying 1% of the US power grid. And I thought to myself, wow, that is not sustainable.”

Will quickly found out that sun-grown cannabis had something of a bad reputation.

“When this industry became illegal, people left the outdoor arena and they went indoors. And then it wasn’t just decades, it was actually generations of families that passed down this knowledge and expertise on how to grow cannabis inside, so people became very good at indoor growing versus outdoor farming. And those two things are really, really different!”

Cannabis growers used to operating inside were discovering that indoor farming methods produced inferior results when used outdoors, giving sun grown cannabis a reputation of being, as Will put it “…kind of your discount, crappy weed.”

He knew there was a way to do things better. And so, after his employer decided to grow in another direction, Grasshopper Farms was born.

Thinking Small

From day one, Will was determined to do things differently with Grasshopper Farms. “We developed a quarter of the property that we own,” he said. “Some folks, if they had 160 acres, they would plant all 160 acres.”

Not Will. “We are always going to be a craft grow,” he said. “For me that definition means we’re going to be less than 5% of the state supply.” Their craft-oriented, people-first approach means that Will can keep his focus on the thing he’s now so passionate about: premium sun-grown flower.

This commitment to craft and quality helps Grasshopper farms stand out. “We established ourselves quickly because we were able to give retailers something they didn’t have,” said Will. “When we approached retailers, we were able to say, ‘Hey, you don’t have this on your shelf, this is a new segment of product.”

With the growing success and popularity of their sun-grown flower taking off, Will knew they needed to include a value-added category into their product mix to provide a slight buffer to the extreme fluctuations in flower price. The steady, consistent growth of the pre-roll market seemed like a good fit. The only issue? The machines they experimented with produced subpar product. “The first machine we bought promised numbers that it just never delivered on,” Will said. “It needed a lot more care and maintenance than we anticipated.”

Grasshopper + RollPros = the Perfect Fit

Will reached out to other cannabis processors to find out about the machines that worked for them.

“We went and tested their pre-rolls, and we really looked at the quality of the preroll itself. Some were okay, some were good, but most fell short in one way or another.”

Thankfully, the Grasshopper Farms team was introduced to RollPros by a mutual friend. After research and careful consideration, they decided that the Blackbird was the perfect fit.

“We really follow the specifications of our machine and work in collaboration with the RollPros team,” he said.

Will Bowden

- Grasshopper Farms

“We have meetings with them once a week, and we we work together to make sure we’re creating a premium product, every time. There are some machines out there that will crank out cones at an insane speed, but the business model that’s doing that is trying to go for a very discounted product. We believe it makes sense to focus on quality and work smarter.”

Critical to maintaining the integrity of their products is the Blackbird’s ability to process flower with a higher moisture content, (10-12% compared to cone-stuffing machines that need the product dried to 6% or less.) A cone-stuffer simply couldn’t pre-rolls that did justice to their flower and its characteristics.

Consumers keep coming back for more, and Grasshopper products regularly sell out at retailers.

“My argument to retailers is that when the consumer has a bad experience, canoeing, harshness, too dry, stuff like that, they won’t come back and buy that same brand again. We’re telling retailers, okay, ours does cost more. And it’s because the product is different.”

By sticking to their sun-grown, quality first approach, Grasshopper Farms has been able to stand out in a crowded preroll market, connecting with consumers and creating a memorable smoking experience even a cannabis novice like Will could love.

Craft vs Automation

While some might feel that craft brands can’t embrace automation, Will takes a different approach.

“You have to know what you can automate and what you can’t, as it relates to the quality of your product,” he says, “it’s a balance.”

Grasshopper chose the Blackbird as the right tool for their pre-roll business, but it still is a tool. To get the best results, it needs to be controlled, tweaked, and dialed in by an artisan that is as passionate about the product as Will. But what about the common trope that automation costs people their jobs?

“The thing that brings me the most satisfaction in life is helping other people, creating jobs, and building a culture that allows people to thrive. But you have to have a viable business, and if you don’t embrace the right kind of automation you put everything at risk.”

Quality Leads to Growth

Grasshopper has developed a loyal following. It’s evident in the feedback they receive via social media, and orders and reorders growing. “In the first year we did 1,000 pounds of pre-roll material. In year two we did 4,000 pounds of pre-roll material. And this year we’re probably somewhere in the realm of six to eight thousand pounds of prerolls.”

Grasshopper has found their place in the “accessible but premium” middle ground between mass producers and super small high-end brands, achieving a level of sustainable growth that’s virtually unheard of for single-season outdoor operations. In the three years since the brand was founded, they’ve gained a strong foothold in the very competitive Michigan market, with expansion plans in the works.

“It’s our first outdoor season in Colorado,” said Will, “And we’ll soon be in New Jersey and Minnesota,” he said. “We know what we’re trying to do, so we know our identity, but we’re also open-minded enough to be learning, constantly learning.”

Want to learn more about how RollPros can help you blaze your own trail?