A Growing Business

Rough Brothers

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Rough Brothers has been designing, engineering, manufacturing, and installing greenhouses for 80 years. The Cincinnati-based business creates its custom greenhouses for a variety of customers including commercial growers, retail garden centers, research facilities, universities, and schools.
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Rough Brothers (pronounced Rauh) got its start in 1932 as a maintenance and repair facility for greenhouses constructed from redwood. The company evolved over the decades, growing from a small workshop with a few employees to the largest greenhouse, garden center, and conservatory manufacturer in North America.

The company’s team of horticulturists, designers, engineers, systems integration specialists, and project managers work together to create Rough Brothers’ customized, turnkey product. Throughout the process, this team partners closely with the customer to choose the best layout, structure, and materials for the customer’s goals. The result is a high-tech environment specially designed to help commercial growers optimize their space and increase yield.

These high-tech greenhouses do far more than just capture sunlight. “Customers choose us because we are an environment provider,” says Tom Vezdos, Vice President & Divisional Manager of Commercial Greenhouses. “We deliver the environment that the plants need. The plants all need sunlight, water, nutrients, and a [certain] temperature and humidity for them to grow ideally. So we control the systems that do the heating, cooling, shade, light transmission, ventilation, irrigation, fertigation, water management, and material handling.”

The legalization of cannabis is creating huge opportunities for the customized greenhouse producer. “Cannabis is the biggest growth market out there right now,” Mr. Vezdos reports. Obviously some of this growth is caused by the simple fact that cannabis growers are able to take advantage of commercial solutions for the first time, creating a boom for greenhouse manufacturers. But in addition, cannabis is particularly well suited to high-tech greenhouse solutions. “Because it is a high cash crop, the return on investment for small percentages in yield can really become beneficial.”

Improving the yield of one acre’s worth of cannabis crop by just one percent will drive up profitability by $3 million or $4 million, Mr. Vezdos explains. “The greenhouse environment can really have a big impact on what your return can be and how quickly you can obtain that return.”

There is a hurdle to overcome, however. “The problem is that most people don’t realize [that] environmental design can create those increases in yield. [Cannabis] has historically been grown indoors because, when people were smuggling it, they grew it in basements. So we are trying to overcome this perception out there and this historical understanding of how to grow it. The greenhouse has been much slower to evolve than you would think because of the familiarity with [growing cannabis indoors].”

Because cannabis can grow in less than ideal conditions—such as basements—many people do not realize how much better it will grow in ideal conditions. “To grow it is not hard. To grow it optimally is hard,” Mr. Vezdos explains. “Because it is a weed, it will grow in a ditch. It is a pretty robust plant. However, if you want to optimize your cannabinoid yields, you want to try to optimize its growth to get a higher yield from that same plant.”

What makes cannabis growing difficult, Mr. Vezdos says, is that the plant prefers a low humidity environment. This means that growers cannot just stick the plants in any greenhouse and expect optimal results. “You can almost think of a greenhouse as being like a gymnasium. You are working these plants like an aerobics class; you are bombing them with sunlight, you are giving them water and nutrients so they can produce, and they are transpiring—inhaling and exhaling—so it is like a jazzercise class in the room. All of the humidity that transpires through those plants ends up in that environment.”

Cannabis growers need a specially designed greenhouse to maintain a humidity that is ideal for the plant. “What separates a low-tech greenhouse from a high-tech greenhouse is the amount of air exchange from the environment,” Mr. Vezdos explains. The solution is more expensive upfront, but the technology quickly pays for itself. “They cost more to buy and they cost more to operate but, because it is such a high dollar crop, the return on investment is typically less than a year or two.”

In addition to creating higher yields, high-tech greenhouses are energy efficient, saving money as well as natural resources. “Everybody realizes that, as time goes on, additional regulations are making energy more costly. The greenhouse has free sunshine, so ultimately you can reduce the cost of your crop compared to an indoor grow.”

Mr. Vezdos believes that the business potential of cannabis will continue to grow. “There are only seven or eight states that do not have some form of legalized cannabis program going on right now.” This does not mean that all of those states have legalized recreational use of the plant; most programs are concerned with other uses. “Look at it as an umbrella. And below cannabis is the marijuana crop, but there is also hemp and also variations or hybrids.”

These hybrids are developed for medicinal purposes. “[Hybrids can] take a cannabinoid of CBD—which is the pain masking portion of the cannabis plant—and minimize the amount of THC, which is the psycho-inducing portion of the plant,” Mr. Vezdos details.

Legalization programs—and their purposes—vary from state to state. “Some states are CBD only. In some states you can provide CBD or THC for medical use only, and some states are starting to get into recreational.”

Not surprisingly, Rough Brothers’ cannabis related business has been strongest in Colorado. The market has also been very strong in California, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and Illinois. “Obviously we have spent a fair amount of time on the west coast over the past few years, Colorado primarily. When you go to recreation, you open up the users and the demand becomes much higher. So that is going to be a huge drive. We think the market potential for cannabis is very high. I would say we have tapped less than five percent of the nation’s potential.”

It will take time to feel the effects of the most recent round of legalization, however. “Even though we have 43 states that have legalized a program, they have not necessarily rolled the program out,” Mr. Vezdos explains. “We only get involved once the program is rolled out and they start executing it. It can take up to two years from the time it is approved, or state legalized, to the time that [the new program is actually implemented].”

Cannabis is not the only sector that is experiencing extremely rapid—and lucrative—expansion. “We are seeing as much growth in the local vegetable growing business as we have seen with cannabis,” Mr. Vezdos shares. The grow local movement, which considers both the consumer’s health and the impact to the environment, is behind this phenomenal growth. “What is driving that [grow local movement] is the consumer’s desire to be more contaminant-free, to be organic. People are trying to become healthier and they are trying to reduce the time to market.” Rather than eat week-old vegetables that have been shipped across the continent, an increasing number of consumers are demanding fresh produce with a much lower carbon footprint.

Rough Brothers’ high-tech greenhouses create an ideal environment for this locally grown produce. “Those plants [used to be] grown seasonably, but now we are talking about 12 months out of the year growing. So it is incorporating a lot more complexity into the greenhouse.” A specially designed greenhouse not only makes year-round growing possible, but also increases yield and efficiency. The company designs, manufactures, and installs greenhouses for local vegetable growers in sizes that range from a quarter acre all the way up to ten acres.

After eight decades in business, Rough Brothers will continue to provide greenhouses to its traditional market sectors as well as to the cannabis and local vegetable sectors. “We are really trying to tackle those two new markets while we continue to service our old markets that we have serviced for 80 years,” Mr. Vezdos summarizes. “We don’t want to neglect them.” The company’s ability to service both old and new markets creates a win-win situation for the business and for customers that will continue for years to come.

December 12, 2017, 3:19 AM EST