Know your grower: Top Leaf
It started as a group of friends who were determined to push the limits of cannabis—dreaming of cultivars with unheard-of levels of flavour and effects. Since then, Top Leaf has emerged into an industry leader dedicated to delivering the most potent, terpene-loaded bud to recreational consumers. From legacy market underdog to captains of craft production, the company hasn’t lost their small-scale perspective. Instead, they’ve made it their mission to preserve the deep connection to the plants that makes their products magical.
With a lineup of unique genetics sourced from around the world, plus award-winning cultivars they developed in beautiful British Columbia, Top Leaf is ready to redefine excellence in the legalized industry.
Meet the people behind Top Leaf
In 2018, Top Leaf’s team of growers, strain curators and grassroots marketers joined forces with Sundial, a licensed producer in Alberta. With the larger company’s roster of engineers, scientists and experts in the consumer packaged goods industry, they set out to reinvent the concept of “craft at scale.”
There are roughly 800 people employed at the flagship cultivation and processing facility in Olds, Alberta. Most are divided into cultivation teams consisting of growers, team leads, and master growers.
I wanted to grow to help my friend’s sick father.
There is also an army of environmental service technicians who maintain the strict hygiene standards that keep the plants healthy and ensure the products are safe for consumption. Finally, processing technicians who handle the trimming, curing and extractions, round out the number.
Team members come from varying backgrounds prior to working in cannabis, bringing skills in everything from agriculture and process engineering to logistics, sales and even childcare. Some have taken courses or certificates in cannabis production, such as the program at Olds College.
What they all have in common is a willingness to learn, which is indispensable in such a young industry. Regulations and standards are still being amended and teams can barely implement changes before they’re out of date. This makes adaptability, collaboration and communication skills prized assets.
Drawn to those who are passionate about the process of growing, Top Leaf has managed to maintain their intimate atmosphere, constructing a second family among co-workers. The Master Growers work alongside their teams, passing down hard-won lessons about how to coax the best out of each plant. Every one of them can name the OG growers who inspired them to develop their craft, including teammate Gregg Wigeland who was recently honoured by Grow Opportunity magazine as one of Canada’s Top Growers.
Anytime there is a problem, we all band together as a team and come up with a solution.
Many of Top Leaf’s masters were drawn to the industry because of loved ones’ positive experiences with cannabis. Master Grower Rob Rosario says, “I wanted to grow to help my friend’s sick father.” Hailing from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Rosario says that at the time, his friend couldn’t find medicinal cannabis for less than $280 an ounce. Seeing the need for quality cultivation made him curious. Later, a piece in Popular Mechanics jumped out at him and planted the seeds for his career as a cannabis cultivator. Rosario says, “If I could go back to when I started, I’d tell myself, ‘Don’t hold back. Someday this will be a profession’.”
Another teammate, Chris Di Pinto, names Rosario as one of his inspirations. To Di Pinto, the close bonds among the grow team make the long hours and challenges of large-scale production worthwhile. He says, “It’s awesome growing in the new facility. I like the fact that there are so many good and supportive people. Anytime there is a problem, we all band together as a team and come up with a solution.”
How they grow
Translating their incredible terpene yields from small grows into mass production was a complex task. The partnership with Sundial was instrumental for Top Leaf to capitalize on their expertise, providing them with cutting-edge infrastructure.
One of the company’s greatest assets is the custom-designed facility in Olds. That’s where the Top Leaf crew perform extensive R&D to make their artisanal methods work “at scale” in the huge commercial space. The process is a mix of art and science, where their combined decades of hands-on experience guides systematic experiments with every variable they can tweak.
Growing at this scale can be a little intimidating, but that's what makes my job so exciting.
The 250,000 square foot facility is divided into over 90 grow rooms which are individually isolated and feature extensive automation and measurement equipment. Each room is a testing ground to see how given variables affect the output of a particular strain. The teams track the influence of different growing media (i.e. what the roots are planted in), as well as variations in temperature, humidity level, nutrient formulations, lighting spectra, timing of the watering cycles and more.
The amount of data the team needs to gather and analyze is mind-boggling. For example, the temperature can be controlled within 1.5℃ in each high-tech chamber. This level of obsession isn’t possible in a traditional greenhouse, but it is critical to make Top Leaf plants express the mouthwatering experience that their fans expect. When each harvest is cut, cured and tested, it can represent months of fiddling with minute details. For extracts, the journey is even longer—up to 18 months from concept to cartridge. The results from every batch inform the decisions made and questions asked about the next grow. The cycle is intense, but the crew wouldn’t have it any other way.
Director of Cultivation, David Finlayson, says, “Growing at this scale can be a little intimidating, but that’s what makes my job so exciting. I get to grow so many strains at one time with fully independent and controllable environments.”
Rosario adds, “Growing with all the regulations is actually quite comforting. I’ve always leaned away from using chemicals and toward approaches like touching the plant to induce stress (which, done properly, can increase yield). The regulations are quite restrictive and slow to change, but there is plenty of comfort knowing the product on Canadian coffee tables is safe for consumption.”
Products & prices
Since partnering with Sundial, Top Leaf has been busy testing and perfecting each plant through science, experience, and good old TLC. They refused to launch until they had everything just right.
For those who have been patiently waiting for a taste of their lovingly tended buds, suffer no more, because the wait is finally over. Consumers can get their hands on strains like Strawberry Cream in most provinces and soon; Blue Dream, Jager OG, GSC, Oregon Golden Goat, Super Skunk, Four Star General, and Sweet J are on their way in the near future. Strawberry Cream and Jager OG Vaporizer cartridges will also be available before the end of 2019. Prices are set around $14-15/gram.
“I am very excited to see our award-winning strains, Strawberry Cream and Sweet J hit the shelves. The flavour profiles and effects are top notch!” exclaims Finlayson.
Products are packaged in black glass jars for everything over one gram to preserve the lifespan of the buds’ potency and freshness.