During the 1960s, a semi-pro surfer who spent endless summers chasing waves picked up a hobby collecting cannabis seeds in every country he visited. It was a pastime that resulted in a legacy that one of the man's young relatives, Eli Bilton, would inherit.

Coming back home to the Emerald Triangle in Northern California, the surfer and pot activist would trade seeds with other surfers. Eventually, he created an unofficial seed bank. Today, with Eli joining the effort, the medical marijuana seed bank has grown to 40 different strains with names like Prehistoric, Sensi Star, and Cali Mist.

"We have been evolving and breeding our seeds, me and my dad, for years," says Eli Bilton, who first started growing as a caregiver in 1996 when he got his medical card.

Drawing on the skills he developed growing up in the Emerald Triangle, where an estimated 80 percent of the country's marijuana is grown, in January Eli founded The Attis Group in Portland, Oregon, where he has lived for the last two years. With $1.8 million in funding (Bilton declined to name his investors), the company will grow and cultivate weed, as well as manufacture concentrates and edibles.

Oregon, where legal recreational marijuana will become available for sale on October 1, is a highly anticipated market for entrepreneurs. Pot companies can advertise their business legally, unlike in other states, and the taxes are only 12 percent, less than half the rates in Colorado and Washington. Bilton has ambitious plans to take advantage, opening three marijuana dispensaries in Portland next month (initially for medical weed) and two more in December. 

Organic farming and innovative technology

Growing up around cannabis farms, as well as tomato farms and wineries, Bilton has spent decades honing his horticulture skills and agricultural design. He ran a dispensary for five years in Orange County, for which he built outdoor and indoor grow facilities. For his business in Oregon, he is building a fully automated greenhouse, as well as both outdoor and indoor grows. But unlike the majority of the industry, which uses hydroponic systems and use synthetic chemicals to increase potency, Bilton will utilize his West Coast-bred earth-conscious methods to produce "ethically-grown" marijuana.

"We are focusing on organic growing techniques. It is important to us that people come to our stores and get a quality product that sets the standard for Oregon," he says.

He also is integrating sustainable technology like solar power and LED lighting systems, which can cut power usage by half compared with high-powered metal halide and high-pressure sodium lights. The goal is to keep a low carbon footprint while doubling his yield compared to what he'd get with conventional lights and growing practices.

Extract to the Future

The concentrate and edible industry, which includes products from vape pens, wax, and infused food and drinks, is responsible for 45 percent of all pot sales in Colorado. These new products are healthier than smoking the plant and appeal to a wider customer base. 

"Extraction is the future of the industry," Bilton says.

That's why he's working with a Harvard-trained chemist to build a state-of-the-art extraction lab for making THC concentrate and developing edibles and other new products infused with THC oil. The extraction machine will be big enough to fit 160 pounds of marijuana, which will produce 15,000 to 20,000 grams of concentrate a day--an industrial production level. Bilton says the lab will be ready by the time the first three dispensaries open in August, and that he should have no problem keeping up with supply even when all five are operating.

Big and potent

Throughout years of R&D and studying industrial agriculture, Bilton has come up with a way to keep the cannabis plants in an extended vegetative state. The result is his most striking innovation, a 17-foot-tall plant. (Most cannabis plants top out at 7-10 feet.) But that's nothing compared with an in-development project he believes will be his masterpiece: a 100-foot tall cannabis plant.

"If you extend the vegetative state, you can do anything," he says.

He explains that since marijuana has been illegal for so long in the majority of the country, most growers haven't been able to experiment to produce plants of such size. He has been working with engineers and architects to design a system that caters to the plant, instead of the plant adapting to its controlled environment like in most grows. 

Above all else, Bilton says, he wants to change the image of marijuana by offering his customers a useful product that has a low impact on the Earth. "Being raised in the industry, getting rid of the stigma around cannabis is important to me. I am trying to educate people about how it's not only a medicine that relieves sickness and symptoms, but it can be used responsibly and be a safe industry that supports the economy." 

Published on: Jul 24, 2015