Mums, clones and Crunch Berries: Behind the scenes at River Valley Relief
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Mums, clones and Crunch Berries: Behind the scenes at River Valley Relief

Aug 31, 2023

If Ryan Kenaga’s passion for cannabis wasn’t clear in the way he speaks about the plants and the business he oversees at River Valley Relief Cultivation, the evidence is right there on his body.

The molecular bonds for THC and CBD are tattooed on his arms.

“I’m a one-to-one ratio,” Kenaga joked, alluding to the industry standard for describing an edible that’s one part CBD, one part THC.

Kenaga’s been the president of the Fort Smith cultivator for a little more than a year, meticulously tending to medical cannabis in a facility located in an industrial park on the south side of town. There’s little enough signage that I drove past it a couple of times and eventually had to ask someone if I had found the right place.

Once inside, Kenaga asked us to don white lab coats. It’s important to prevent lint and pet hair from finding their way to the plants, he said. Employees even wear company-issued shoes that never leave the facility.

First, Kenaga showed us some of the back-end operations that help the plants live their best lives in the 25,000 square feet of grow space. Each flower room is supported by a 9-ton air handler unit that can change the environment in a room in less than a minute. As quickly as 49 seconds, to be precise. It’s roughly the size a Holiday Inn Express might use, he said.

The air system, which uses 18 filters and UV lights to clean the air, allows Kenaga to keep the air around the plants “super clean,” which he said is important to prevent mold spores, root rot and viruses.

In addition to the air, Kenaga controls the temperature and humidity in the rooms, which vary depending on the age of the plants and what type of environment they need.

“Each one of our rooms is its own little tropical sub-environment,” he said.

Kenaga took us to the “mums and clones” room where mother plants are grown and clipped, allowing the cuttings to become plants of their own. The mother plants, known as mums, go through three or four cycles before being retired. Using the same mums for too long “jeopardizes the lineage” of the clones, strains and genetics of the plants, so Kenaga will take a few good clones and make new mother plants out of them as the cycle goes on and on.

He even keeps a “library” of cannabis plants on hand that allows him to bring different strains into the rotation and offer more variety to the state’s medical marijuana patients.

Next, Kenaga showed us the other flower rooms where the plants are grown. In one room, the plants were green and lush. In another, the plants were nearing the end of their life cycle, their leaves yellowing. They didn’t look as happy as the others in the greener room, but this was all by design, Kenaga explained.

Throughout the plants’ lives, the River Valley team is flooding them with nutrients. As they get closer to harvest, the team flushes the nutrients out of the plants so that no impurities remain in the plant material to be used by the state’s medical marijuana patients.

At this point, Kenaga gives the plants nothing but water and the leaves begin to curl up, forming what he called an “eagle claw.”

“They are starving and reaching for more nutrients but that’s what we want to happen,” he said.

In one of the flower rooms, I grabbed the Crunch Berries strain and gave it a big whiff. I took in notes of lemon and pine, and Kenaga confirmed pinene is among the terpenes in Crunch Berries.

Terpenes, among the nonpsychoactive components of the cannabis plant, are the part of cannabis farming that gets Kenaga the most excited.

“What we are here to do is farm terpenes,” he said. “The most valuable aspect of cannabis to us is terpenes and how the terpene profiles really drive the medicinal effects of said product.”

Kenaga describes River Valley as “medicinally focused” and sees patients seeking out results beyond just getting high. He aims to find cannabinoids that work with diabetes, for example, as the struggle for equitable access to insulin looms large. He’s also interested in exploring THCV, a psychoactive cannabinoid that some studies have shown to be an appetite suppressant, he said.

While Kenaga is focused on terpenes, he’s also proud that River Valley has been able to grow three strains with a THC content of 30% and some as high as 32%.

“People spend their entire careers in cannabis trying to hit 30% THC levels,” Kenaga said.

Kenaga showed us the lab where the River Valley team creates concentrates and distillates. The team takes plant material and places it into what Kenaga described as a “closed loop hydrocarbon extraction system.” The machine lowers the temperature of the plant and uses a proprietary blend of hydrocarbons to extract the “beneficial materials” from the plant. (Kenaga didn’t want to say exactly how low the temperature goes because, in his off time, he consults with other cannabis businesses out of state and charges them for such information).

The process allows Kenaga to create concentrates known as budder, badder and diamonds, which he explained are similar products made into different consistencies. The appeal of these products is that, unlike cannabis flower, the materials can reach THC concentrations of 65%, with some materials extending into the 90% range. Flower, on the other hand, tops out in the 30% range.

Kenaga also showed us what Arkansas Times staff photographer Brian Chilson astutely described as a “weed still” like that used to make alcohol. As cannabis oil is heated and cooled, it moves along pipes that allow certain components to fall out along the way. At the end, Kenaga is left with a clear, solid substance known as THC distillate — “the pure grain alcohol of cannabis,” Kenaga said, a colorless, flavorless, odorless substance that can be added to edibles or other products with no marijuana taste or smell.

River Valley’s kitchen, which we saw next, is probably best known as the place where all of the state’s Wana gummies are made. The Colorado-based company only has one manufacturing partner in each state, meaning all of the Wana gummies sold in Arkansas are made at River Valley — and they make a lot of them. Kenaga said they produce 15,000-20,000 gummies a day and even more during the holiday season.

Since federal laws prevent cannabis from moving across state lines, the gummies can’t be shipped in from out of state. Instead, Wana provides its strict guidelines and recipes to River Valley, including testing the pH levels of the water and calibrating the scales every day.

Kenaga described Wana’s “Quick” line of products as a “cannabis happy hour.” These products have a quick onset and quick offset, he said, so the effects kick in quickly and won’t zonk someone out for the whole night. Some people like to relax with a glass of wine before making dinner for the family, and these offer a similar experience, he said.

One of River Valley’s newest products is cannabis-infused freeze-dried strawberries, which Kenaga said have been very popular since their introduction.

Finally, Kenaga told us about ArkanRaw, a cannabis oil that comes in a syringe (though cannabis folks prefer to call it an applicator). Patients have used ArkanRaw orally, sublingually, in cooking, in making their own topical lotions and even as a topping for flower, he said.

The brown oil inside is a bit mysterious, since Kenaga hasn’t told anyone exactly how to make it, although he does have at least one person who helps with production. Kenaga developed the product himself, and he describes it as a joint venture between himself and River Valley.

ArkanRaw has a THC content of about 70%, and River Valley’s website says it is recommended for patients “medicating symptoms of terminal illnesses, conditions requiring higher dosages, or those with a higher tolerance for cannabinoids.” The product is known for relieving pain, reducing anxiety and sedating effects, and a serving is the size of “a single grain of rice,” the site says.

He said it’s made from plants grown inside the River Valley facility but declined to say much more because he said others in the cannabis industry are trying to replicate it. Despite potentially lucrative offers to license it to producers in other states, Kenaga’s been reluctant to do so, though he said he would make the leap if the right partner came along.

It’s important to Kenaga to sell the product at a reasonable price for patients who need the product for relief. He doesn’t want to see it marked up so producers can rake in more money at the patients’ expense, he said.

After we took off our white lab coats, I had to ask Kenaga about the elephant in the room. River Valley’s cultivation license has come under scrutiny in the past year as a court case has wound its way through the legal system to the state Supreme Court. Plaintiffs have argued, and a circuit judge agreed, that the state erred when it issued River Valley its cultivation license in 2020. Late last year, the Supreme Court issued an order allowing River Valley to continue operations while the case plays out, which Kenaga said could last two or three years.

Kenaga said the court case hasn’t impacted operations and that River Valley’s work is business as usual.

“The patients need their medicine,” he said.

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