The police had taken everything but the fertilizer.
Amid the ruins of a long-ago bust, Michael “Big Mike” Straumietis was suddenly a cannabis grower with nothing left to sell. So in the spirit of “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” he turned to the nutrient-rich fertilizer, which he had concocted himself over years of cultivating, as a source of income.
That decision would bring him riches and fame far beyond that of a cannabis farmer, a life of private jets and bikini models and a “marijuana mansion.”
“It’s kind of like you’re pushed in a corner and it’s the only thing you’ve got left, so what are you going to do?” said Straumietis. “You just concentrate on what’s in front of you and it turned out it was a really great thing because Advanced Nutrients turned out to be the number one [cannabis] fertilizer brand in the world.”
With more than 200 employees and $65 million in annual sales, Advanced Nutrients is also one of the largest cannabis-oriented companies in the world, poised to grow even more as the tide of legalization leads to more home and commercial cultivation.
After a lifetime in the shadows, 56-year-old Straumietis is living the high life, in a very public way.
Trial and Error
Straumietis accidentally killed his first grow.
“In 1983, there was very little information on growing marijuana, nothing,” he said. He left the lights on but didn’t consider ventilation and his plants wound up brown and shriveled. In his second attempt, he waited too long to harvest, resulting in buds not in their prime.
“I fell in love with the plant over time. I could watch it go from a vegetative state, where it’s just a plant with branches and leaves, and then it starts forming buds and the buds form colas and it’s, ‘Holy shit! You watch this plant go through this beautiful metamorphosis and it smells terrific and you can smoke it and get different effects.’”
Despite the missteps, he felt he was onto something and gave up his lawn and tree care business to focus on growing cannabis.
“When I first got into growing marijuana, it was for the money. I was 23 years old and had all these things in my mind about what I could buy if I grew so much weed,” he said. “I fell in love with the plant over time. I could watch it go from a vegetative state, where it’s just a plant with branches and leaves, and then it starts forming buds and the buds form colas and it’s, ‘Holy shit! You watch this plant go through this beautiful metamorphosis and it smells terrific and you can smoke it and get different effects.’”
Not content with fertilizers on the market, he began mixing his own, boosting yield and bud quality dramatically. Sure, he was breaking the law, but it didn’t feel illegal. There were no guns or turf wars.
“Everybody I dealt with was happy. The people I bought the equipment from and all the stuff I needed to grow, they were happy to see me. The people I sold the product to, they were happy, and the people they sold to were happy and they came back and wanted more. They were good people I dealt with,” he said.
Unfortunately for him, the authorities didn’t see things that way.
On the Run
Success in cultivating drew the interest of law enforcement, so Straumietis moved to Canada, at the time a more liberal place than the U.S. for cannabis, to escape the heat while he continued to grow.
After the aforementioned police raid (charges were eventually dropped), he founded Advanced Nutrients in 1999. His timing was impeccable. Three years earlier, Californians had approved medical cannabis, soon to be followed by other states, which opened the door for the dispensary boom of the late 2000s.
“You have to like what you’re doing. You can’t grow it just for the money.”
Building on his own experiences as a grower for 16 years, he hired scientists to meticulously study this plant and what nutrient mixes made for the best harvest, made possible by a license from the Bulgarian government to conduct the research there. He boasts of having 22 PhD recipients working over a span of 10 years on finding ways to increase THC and plant biomass in hydroponic grows. Having grown through the darkest days of the “War on Drugs,” he had the experience to rise above the competition in an industry just emerging from decades of prohibition.
Today Advanced Nutrients offers more than 30 products for different phases of the grow cycle and desired appearances, aromas, tastes and overall plant quality. The company plans to develop a product line for industrial hemp. With recreational cannabis legal in several states and poised to be legalized in several more in 2016, Straumietis expects his $65 million company to be a $250 million company within a decade.
Private Jets and Worldwide Success
He is clearly enjoying the success. Straumietis has himself become the face of the brand, posting pictures to social media of him flying in private jets and partying in his mansion with bikini models, the six-foot-seven “Big Mike” living the high life for the rest of us.
“My personal life and my business life are just seamless almost. That’s the way I like it because it doesn’t feel like I’m doing work that way,” he said. He points out that he also posts about other things, such as his charitable endeavors. They just don’t get as many “likes” as big buds and bikinis.
So yes, he’s enjoying the money and fame, but cultivation for him is still a labor of love, for a plant with so many recreational and medicinal possibilities. He recalled an episode from his black market growing days, when a friend using the same seeds and methods as him couldn’t sell his product. His friend was legitimately confused and vocal about how successful Straumietis had been, and how he couldn’t compete.
“I told him, ‘That’s the problem. It’s a plant. It actually needs TLC, and I believe the plant knows if you like it or not. If you’re in love with the plant you’re going to take care of it better and get a better end product. You have to like what you’re doing. You can’t grow it just for the money.’”