In this issue of our interview series, we get to know @Ethan and how he became a knowledgeable academic.
Tell us a bit about yourself
I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of three boys, to mixed parents; my father was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family and my mother was brought up in a Reform Jewish family. From a young age, we were taught to ask questions about everything. Because my father was an MD & PhD and my mother possessed 2 masters degrees, education and science were a big deal in my home. I was able to identify cannabis before I know what it was. I collected rocks and bugs. Then I discovered the garden and botany and I was off.
I volunteered at the Missouri Botanical Gardens from the time I was old enough to take the bus by myself (age 13). I drove my father crazy with the plants I would keep in the house and garden. He helped me build a J A Nearing greenhouse just to get the plants out of the house.
I learned tissue culture from a friend in high school, a senior who grew mushrooms. I originally wanted to grow orchids but I could not find anyone willing to teach me sterile technique. Regardless, mushrooms were much more profitable. I attended the North American Mycological Association’s annual conference from the age of 11 onwards, so I learned about ethnobotany and ethnomycology. Thank you professor Stamus!
I loved visiting the greenhouses around St. Louis and talking to older growers. I would take notes and ask about what greenhouses were like in their childhoods and what it meant to their families. More than once I was told that “my children and grandchildren don’t even ask us about these stories”. I got introduced to more and more cut-flower growers. Cut-flower production fascinated me as it was a dying art in the states.
For college, I decided to attend the University of Missouri and major in horticulture. My father always said you have to study what you love. I got my first computer, a Tandy TRS-80, as a graduation gift from my parents. They made sure that I could produce an error-free paper. For me, Kat will always be spelled with a K and not a C.
How did you get your start in the industry?
University life was liberating. Pot was cheap and plentiful, and I could easily afford it by selling my mushrooms. I volunteered for any floriculture and horticulture project I could. I learned, prior to attending university, that department and university seminars where free so I attended as many as I could in any discipline. I treated school as an 8 to 4 job; if I was not in class or looking at a tree, I was in the library reading everything.
I taught the science program at a boys summer camp, where I met my future wife, and realized I really didn’t like other people’s kids. I took a year off from college doing a paid internship and got college credit. My internship had me working at my first large-scale greenhouse operation, Alex R Masons & Sons. That job convinced me that growing what everyone else was growing was a hard way to make a living. I redoubled my efforts at university and began focusing on specialty cut flowers and computers as a management tool throughout the supply chain in greenhouse production.
I started spending my summers in school and managing the academic greenhouses. My girlfriend moved from Minnesota to Missouri to live with me, which was our “trial”cohabitation period.
Two of my professors, Rodgers and Trinklein, asked me to pursue a masters or doctorate degree at the University of Missouri. I started on my masters during my senior year. I wanted to prove matrix queuing theory was useful in commercial greenhouse production. By this point, I had run out of horticulture courses to take, so I started studying plant pathology and computer science. I accumulated enough credits in both to have merited another two science bachelor degrees. Instead, the university granted me an MS degree in greenhouse management and two minor degrees in plant pathology and computer science. This was unique at a land grant school at the time, but is a bit more common occurrence today, with things being more cross disciplinary now.
At school, I won a lot of recognition. As both an undergraduate and graduate student, I avoided entomology classes because I had tested out of entomology 101 by collecting research papers on the fecundity of insects in studies from the 1900’s to the present. I saw patterns in the data that all of these crazy entomologists had collected. I had done a big study using queuing theory, I had written my first computer languages in school and I had worked with these new relational databases coming from IBM. I had a PhD in the making. I started to receive many offers for full rides around the country with well-respected individuals. I gave a paper at the Ohio Horticulture Short Course. And I was also getting a lot of push-back from big players in the industry; they told me to get some practical experience and then do my PhD. Unfortunately for me, I listened.
I started a specialty-cut flower production operation in Kansas City, KS, doing both field and greenhouse work. We had 10,000 square feet of Nexus greenhouses with 12 foot-tall side walls. We hydroponically grew sweet peas, anemone, ranunculus, bleeding hearts, and sweet violets. We used the latest IPM knowledge and automated computer-based monitoring of the greenhouse. My wife and I were having the time of our lives. But farming being farming, my wife and I needed side jobs for financial support. My wife was a registered nurse (RN) and I consulted and taught client-server computing for DataTech.
All of a sudden, we had a child on the way. My father sat me down, like a good Jewish father, and told me that children take a lot of parenting time. At the same time I was getting recruited by some big players in the IT industry. Lo and behold, the greenhouse business sold and I started working in IT. It was a wise move as I got to do the other thing I liked, which is building models of real systems. I began by modeling the human resources system. Plants and people are not so different, but people take weekends off and plants don’t.
You mentioned you suffer from Tay-Sachs - How has it impacted your life?
We think I have a form of late-onset Tay-Sachs or a related genetic problem, but I’m still undergoing testing.
How does it impact me? It started with my colleagues noticing problems. My normally spot-on short and medium term memory was having issues. I could no longer photographically recall things after two readings. They also noticed that when I would teach long classes, my speech would start to become strange. I would mix words or forget words when speaking, even though I can write those words with no problem. I started having difficulty reading long items such as biographies or fiction. I couldn’t remember what I had read. I went from reading over a hundred books a year to none. Reading journals for work became difficult, and I started failing at simple tasks.
We began lots and lots of testing. My work put me on medical leave after I couldn’t summarize a client meeting with a big, evil bank. The medical leave has since progressed to full disability. My disability insurance has an annoying loophole; until I get a definitive diagnosis they accrue my disability payment in an interest-bearing escrow account. Because of this, I have lots of money on paper that I cannot touch.
We are getting closer to a definitive diagnosis, but on average it takes 12 years to get enough diagnostic information to make the call. I think I’m currently on year five, and I start another big round of testing this winter to determine how much my brain has shrunk, and whether the plaques in my frontal lobe have gotten bigger.
Who are your mentors and inspiration in the cannabis industry?
An old grower once told me that growing any crop in a greenhouse is a mix of science and art. The science is what you learn and apply from school; it’s what got you here. The art is looking out over an acre of a single crop and seeing a slight difference in color or reflectivity and knowing there is a problem. The art lets you know that some science is required.
I learned from Professor Ron Taven to walk your plants and walk your gardens. Get to know every inch of the operation. Do it at least 3 times each day. They are like pets – they don’t tell you anything, but they will show you. If the plants start talking to you, get a new job or a better prescription.
What are your hobbies and interests to relax?
I still try to read, although now I mostly listen to audio books. I read everything from history to biographies to lectures to trashy fiction. I love trashy fiction. I can read short things such as paper and journal articles. It has become difficult to follow instructions or do math. I don’t drive much any more, as I tend to get lost.
I still grow things: mostly oversized flowers.
If it were legal to grow cannabis in Minnesota, I would be growing. I think we are likely to retire in Vancouver BC area and then you know I will grow.