Podcast interview with Master Grower Shlomo Booklin

Israel to Canada: Growing Cannabis across the World, pt. 1 (with Shlomo Booklin)

In part 1 of this interview, master grower Shlomo Booklin talks to us about his unlikely rise as a grow guru in the cannabis industry, from his first experiences as a war veteran in Israel to his consulting ventures in Canada.

Transcript

Steve Looi 0:05
Hello, everyone, I’m Steven Looi and this is the GrowerIQ podcast. In our very first episode, we talked to Shlomo Booklin, commercial cannabis grow-guru about his first experience with medical cannabis, and about his surprising career in the legal cannabis industry. Enjoy.

I started off by asking Shlomo to tell us about his first exposure to cannabis.

Shlomo Booklin 0:27
I lived in Israel and like every other Israeli had to do – the army service is compulsory. And unfortunately, during that time – it was ’82, ’83, ’84, there was the war between Israel and Lebanon. You probably grew up too young to remember that.

However, today, it’s still considered – that was still considered to be the same as what Vietnam did for the Americans. It’s definitely divided the nation into roads. A useless road, there was no war that had any justification, maybe a political gain, but nothing existing or essential, in terms of threatening the borders or any threat. It was like a political war of the Israeli government against mostly the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that used to be a terrorist group. And we were basically stationed in the north of Lebanon close to the north of Israel border. And it was more of a nuisance and again, as I said, there was no justification to live the full deployment of the full Israeli army to deal with a couple of guys with a Kalashnikov.

However, we did go there and over the next 10 years – I wasn’t there for the full 10 years – but over the next 10 years, probably next to 2000 soldiers died for a stupid and useless reason. And, as I said, it divided the country. Still today, it’s a very deep scar in Israeli history. During my army service, as the army and war can be nasty, I was facing a lot. I had seen witnesses; a lot of things happened to a very close colleague of mine who’d been a really good friend of mine. We were hanging in Chile – we used to be very, very good friends and close friends. He lost two legs. I was too embarrassed to see him anymore. Another friend of mine, very close, we slept in the same tent together. He put a bullet in his head and completely died on my shoulder.

And, those types of really, really horrible stories. Basically, I started to become – I had very bad reactions to this. At that time, obviously, no one knew what PTSD meant. It was basically called shellshock, or what that was the name.

Steve Looi 3:37
The term for that type of thing.

Shlomo Booklin 3:39
It was the name for the condition. But basically, I was having a nightmare. I couldn’t sleep for more than 10 minutes at night; I was afraid of the dark. I slept for two hours, for 10 minutes and then I woke up screaming and sweating all over. It took me probably 4 – 3,4 hours to calm myself down and remember I was home and then fell asleep again for 10, 20 minutes and woke up again.

I remember having a girlfriend at that time and this happened to us twice. She was just lying on me in bed and I was dreaming there was a dead body sitting on me and I pushed her all the way to the wall. It was because I thought I was dreaming that she was a dead body on me. And after twice I did that to her, she basically said “you’re a nutcase” and she dumped me. And I was definitely a nutcase. No doubt. I obviously didn’t do it on purpose and the medication that the doctors gave me basically made me into a zombie. I was walking with a look of a cow on my face. Walking aimlessly without any reason or rhyme or any purpose, just killing time. I was trying to sleep, I had to take a couple of pills that kind of knocked me over in the morning. Probably at nine o’clock, I woke up took another couple of pills. And as I said, walked around the house aimlessly doing nothing.

Steve Looi 5:24
Were you able to work or study during this period?

Shlomo Booklin 5:26
No, nothing. And I remember myself quoting myself one time sitting in front of the washing machine and trying to change the channel [in front of] the washer thinking that it was the TV. Couldn’t care less about the program.

We’re laughing at it now but….

Steve Looi 5:54
Oh, no, yeah, I can imagine.

Shlomo Booklin 5:57
I was totally, totally disconnected. So I was, as I said, sitting in front of the washing machine and trying to change channels with the remote control. And then I kind of realized that I hit rock bottom as much as I had no awareness of myself. And something needed to be done. Obviously, as a soldier, especially in Lebanon as a young kid, they used to have a lot of what they call hash, so we used to smoke a lot of hash. But it basically didn’t do much to me, I just was high. I remember my first time smoking hash, I was so off I counted the tiles on the floor. And obviously, when I get to 20, I didn’t remember where I started. So I had to start again and again, so hash didn’t do much to me apart from…

Steve Looi 7:07
Tile-counting.

Shlomo Booklin 7:09
Yeah. So it wasn’t very productive. So that’s what I remember about hash. And that’s when, at some stage, my older brother said to me “why don’t you try cannabis?” And I thought cannabis and hash were the same. And it is the same in a way, but cannabis is not as pure and toxicated as hash.

Steve Looi 7:42
What gave your brother the idea?

Shlomo Booklin 7:43
I don’t know. We were all smoking. He was older than me by three and a half, four years.

Steve Looi 7:53
Okay, so he just had experience with it and figured it might give it a try.

Shlomo Booklin 7:57
Yeah, he gave it to me once and… yeah. I mean, I managed to sleep well after smoking. So I smoked it for a couple of weeks without taking my so-called night medication and I slept quite okay and then I said to myself “Wow, I don’t need it anymore”. Then three, four days later, it kind of started to creep up on me. So I remember I knew that I had to be on that kind of cannabis for longer. My brother used to buy it for me, I don’t know where he got it. He just bought it for me and gave it to me. I don’t know where he got it and what it even was, but I know that we used to take some of the tobacco out of cigarettes and instead of putting the hash like we used to before, he put in the leaves of the cannabis. Just normal leaves. At that time, we didn’t smoke the flower – we just smoked the leaves.

Steve Looi 9:16
And it was still potent enough to help?

Shlomo Booklin 9:18
Yes. See, it wasn’t potent enough to make me count the tiles but it definitely helped me sleep. So again, it was really interesting. It was probably a very low dose, it’s very hard for me to say. Later, we used to buy bird food in the supermarket. Basically going through the packet and collect the cannabis seeds out of that.

Yeah, so we used to buy those birdfood bags. And then it was 200 300 grams. We used to take all the cannabis.

Steve Looi 10:10
How many seeds would you have in one of those bags?

Shlomo Booklin 10:13
Probably 50-100. I said it’s a bag. It’s definitely 2 or 3 full handfuls of seeds. And we can, we could definitely find 30 or 50 of them are random. We had to go over – when we could see by the shape – what was the cannabis and what was not. We use to germinate those plants. Once they reached about 15, 20 centimetres, we took the leaves, we put them in the oven, or dried them in any kind of toaster. And then we crushed them and put them into cigarettes.

Steve Looi 11:02
And it worked! Oh my gosh, wow.

Shlomo Booklin 11:07
So like I said, after those two weeks, I kind of went back to smoking. Especially at night, I used to smoke probably one or two cigarettes before I went to sleep. It helped me sleep quite well. And I didn’t need medication anymore. So, after probably two or three months, I started to gain myself. You know when you become your old self? I became myself again. Okay, so what do I do with my life?

At that time, the Israeli government had a system that if you were a veteran soldier, the government would pay your tuition in the universities. So I went to the place and registered as a released soldier. And they told me “Okay, so what do you want to study?” So I said “I don’t want anything to do with people. I don’t want to sit. I want to be adventurous. Let me take care of cattle and sheep.”

Steve Looi 12:23
Sure. Interesting. Yeah.

Shlomo Booklin 12:25
They told me that the vet program for that year was full already.

But if I wanted to, I could wait for the next year – I’d definitely get a spot for next year. But then they say “By the way, if you want to study agriculture, tuition and unemployment [is provided] for the whole duration of the course.”

Steve Looi 12:53
Sounds like a good deal.

Shlomo Booklin 12:55
Of course. I said, where do I sign up? That’s how I started to work in agriculture. I was a good student, I got good marks. And I definitely did smoke during the night to be sleep. And then I started working, so I was very tired. So after about a year, I said: “I don’t need it anymore”. And I stopped both cigarettes and cannabis altogether. As I said, how could I stop even before that? It just didn’t resonate well with me.

Steve Looi 13:42
Were you able to maintain the quality of life afterwards?

Shlomo Booklin 13:46
Yeah, yeah. I mean, again, once I started working; I had a good job. And I had a good interest in life. I was very busy. I worked hard. Agriculture is a very physical, demanding job. So working in nurseries and greenhouses all day – the heat makes you tired. So, as I said, probably after, I would say a year, I don’t remember exactly, when I basically stopped without even, making into a kind of, on dead day, I’m going to stop smoking. And today, I just didn’t need it anymore. And you do it.

Steve Looi 14:32
Pretty good, actually. I mean, it guides you and helps you transition. But yeah, it’s not something you had to continue to take.

Shlomo Booklin 14:40
One day or three days or four days then I realized that actually I haven’t smoked for two days then. Probably I don’t need it. So I stopped. And that’s it. And I started to work in a very big facility in Israel, a very big company they exported to all over the world and, having a very good name in the industry. And probably a year later, I don’t remember exactly the time now, but probably a year later I got close to someone that was looking for a grower in Australia. So actually, it was the commercial attache for the Australian embassy in Israel, and I went to his house for a picnic. And actually, I knew his son, because I went to his son for a picnic. And then I spoke to his father. And as I said, he was the commercial attache to the Australian embassy in Israel. And he had a request from some company in Australia that they needed some Israeli grower. Obviously, Australia is similar weather to Israel where it’s very hot.

Steve Looi 16:13
I imagine there’s the same level of water scarcity.

Shlomo Booklin 16:15
Yeah, exactly. So the company that they had in Australia was actually importing glasshouse from Poland. So now those greenhouses are designed in a way that they keep the heat inside. And so in Australia, it was 35 degrees outside and it was 55 degrees inside. So then they realize that they need some someone that had experienced working in a hot condition. And this how they, as I said, got into contact with Australian attache in the or the commercial attache and Australian embassy. And basically, when that guy heard what I do, and I knew where I work, he asked me if I would consider speaking to those people in Australia. And obviously, as a young boy, who’d get to see the world. How can I refuse it? So I spoke to them, and they basically hired me to come to Australia. We went there at the time, I was already married. I went there with my wife, and we stayed in Australia for three and a half years. Our first son was born in Australia.

Steve Looi 17:50
Oh!

Shlomo Booklin 17:52
Yes. So then after that, we went with the Australian project finished, we were looking for another project. I didn’t want to go back to Israel, because it’s, again, Israel is a beautiful place, but it’s very politically charged. You cannot really say… you must take a stand either to the left or to the right. So yeah.

Steve Looi 18:18
It must just permeate every facet of life.

Shlomo Booklin 18:21
Essentially. So yeah. Everything in your life. So basically, we didn’t want to go back to Israel. Again, I didn’t want to go back to the old memories of war. Having to think that my son will live to go to the war because this is the reality in Israel. I said, Okay, let’s try and find something else. And we came across the project in Portugal. It wasn’t the same company, but just another company. So we move to Portugal, and we lived in Portugal for 10 years. Yeah, that’s a long time. Our second son was born in Portugal. And then, we used to export a very big amount of flowers – plants, from Portugal, mostly to England and Poland. But exporting into England, at that time, still today, it’s very strict regulation of quarantined and what they call fitosanitario. So you have to be on top of everything with truly strict regulation. So I did it for, as I said, for about 10 years. We export about six, seven to 8 million plants every season. It was very intense. It was 250,000 plants a week. Everything has to work like a clock, you cannot really miss one. Because I remember, I had to book the truck a month in the head, a month in advance, but it took me 12 days to make the plans.

So I already booked the truck two weeks before I have the plants in the ground. And when the truck is coming, it’s today. I cannot ask him when the plant is not ready to come tomorrow. So it has to be very, very well organized.

Steve Looi 20:31
And you have to be very confident in your growing.

Shlomo Booklin 20:33
In the growing and also very organized. Because again, when you think about this scale, you’re obviously giving yourself probably more than 10% mortality rate. And if you will have to produce an export 250,000 plants, you’re probably going to make 270 or 280,000. And allow yourself some throwing away some 20, 30,000 plants, which is nothing in the grand scheme of thing. And as I said, we did this for about 10 years, and then the project was about to end. Most of those clients of mine, at that time, Portugal was just getting into the EU or the part of the United European Union. But so it was a relatively cheap place to grow and work, it still is compared to the rest of Europe. But it started to be a little bit more expensive. And at that time, my competition was mostly in Kenya, Uganda and Africa. Other places because, when you ship small plans, the airfare whether it’s four or five hours from Africa or three hours from Lisbon, it’s relatively the same. So, the cost of production is a factor and I cannot compare the cost of production in Portugal compared to Kenya or Uganda. So my competition was starting to migrate to Africa. And that’s where my contract in Portugal finished.

At that stage, I had a couple of offers to go to China. I had an offer to go to India. It was after the second Gulf War, so the first call for it was a 91. Um, so someone actually offered me to go to Kuwait. And offered me, I don’t know, what kind of German fake passport or some fake identity or a German identity card. But my wife couldn’t come with me she had to stay somewhere else.

Steve Looi 23:11
And that makes things difficult.

Shlomo Booklin 23:14
Yeah. So my wife put a veto on all of those places.

And we chose to come to Canada. So we immigrated to Canada in 2002. I worked a couple of years in BC. At the time I lived in Vancouver. We lived about a year about eight years in Vancouver and in 2009, after that big recession, they altered the agriculture industry and Vancouver was relatively decimated because most of the Vancouver or the BC production was sent to across the border for Seattle, Washington. But when the recession hit America and the dollar was par with the American dollar. There was not much of export to Seattle. And as I said the industry in Vancouver was relatively decimated. So the only place I could find a job was here in Ontario. So we left BC and we moved to Ontario. I worked in Ontario. It’s a very big company. It’s called.

Steve Looi 24:34
Oh, man. I mean my mother spend way too much money at most garden centres. Oh my god.

Shlomo Booklin 24:39
Yeah. So Sheridan is definitely a very large team. So they have 10 or 11 garden centre across the GTA and they have a place in Georgetown where they produce everything. Photograph out and centre. So it again it was a very large scale facility. And I was the headquarter for a couple of years. In, Sheridan, as I said in Georgetown. That was around 2014 if I remember right. At that time, Tilray was the first LP that got a license. They had a couple of goals that knew how to do 20 plants, 30 plants, one big master grower that grew 50 plants, but no one knew how to do 5000 plans of 50,000, right, because it’s definitely a different scenario, different everything. So they asked me to join them. And I moved in 2014. I moved to BC into Nanaimo to help them basically start the operation, I had to do the floor design, the floor plant room, the irrigation system. To me, it still is an agriculture product. And in the base of it, it is still the same. The plants need water, light, and conditions to grow. So whether it’s cucumbers, strawberries, or tomatoes, to me, it’s a plant at the end of the day.

I did it. I joined Tilray for about a year, and I had them set up the facility. I was mostly training people to take it in a professional matter, in a way that, it’s not about weed and growing and smoking. It’s more about the production of good production, good standard, and making the production as smooth as possible. If you can save to five seconds from a plant, once you multiplied by 50,000 plants with two men’s job or two, full-time jobs. So basically, that was my role there. I had a lot of conflict with the traditional growers because they don’t know what calcium is, what potassium is, everything. Because they grew cannabis all their life and they don’t really accept me as an outsider to tell them how to grow cannabis because I never smoked it. And I remember one of the guys there was so proud of his record in the cannabis industry that he also said he was two years in jail because of that. So he’s proud of that. Yeah, it’s probably his curriculum that he was put in jail. So for him, it’s a show of…

Steve Looi 28:19
It’s a badge of honour. Yeah. So that’s interesting, that’s an interesting point. So a lot of Canadian growers and American growers, or all these new growers or facilities, they have this tension between sort of flat black market, former black market growers, and then they tried to bring in proper horticulturalists. How do you see that dynamic? Is that a healthy tension at all?

Shlomo Booklin 28:47
No, because – again, I don’t have anything personally against them – but the lack of basic understanding of plant nutrition, plant health; the whole concept of rules and regulation is weird to them. Right? They never did it, they never had to comply with any rules. So don’t tell me now what to do. I do it, I did it for the last 20 years or 15 years or 10 years. And I never had a problem of selling my product. You cannot tell me now that I cannot do that, and I cannot do that.

Steve Looi 29:31
Right.

Shlomo Booklin 29:32
It’s very…. still today, again, no disrespect. I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t smoke, or I don’t smoke today, I smoked 30 years ago. And I don’t, belong to the same culture of this and this. I am a very professional grower. I know that plant needs calcium, potassium, nitrogen, whatever. I know how to recognize those deficiencies or if there is too much. I know how to do, soil analysis. I know how to read reports from the lab. It’s technical, it’s scientific, this is what I learned.

Steve Looi 30:24
Exactly. But, and perhaps most importantly, you know how to do that at scale.

Shlomo Booklin 30:29
Yeah. So, and again, when I speak to someone, and their assessment is how the plants look and how the plants smell. Again, no disrespect, but you cannot spray this, you cannot spray that you cannot just feel like you’re giving this kind of fertilizer, because that’s what you think is the best. I mean, I worked in a very analytical, scientific way. If I do a soil analysis, and it shows that I have a lack of calcium, I will give calcium. I don’t care what. Because this is from a lab. And obviously, if I see the leaves getting a little bit yellowish, and I recognize that it’s a lack of iron, then I’m going to give some iron to the plants because this is what I do, and it doesn’t matter if it’s tomatoes, or, anything else. I mean, if my job as a grower or anything else is to produce, I don’t know, 40,000 kilos of tomatoes for service, I don’t need to bite each one of them to make sure it’s yummy. And it’s good. I’d rather manage to make sure that they’re good and I have to comply with food safety. When is the last time I can spray before the harvest and anything like this because I have a responsibility to the customer.

Steve Looi 32:17
Along with that, that was kind of your story on how you got into cannabis. Did you ever think at the beginning of all of this, that you would end up in cannabis?

Shlomo Booklin 32:26
No, never. Never. I mean, as I said, I was actually planning to be a vet so.

Steve Looi 32:35
Right. So could have gone quite differently.

Shlomo Booklin 32:38
Yeah. So sometimes life gives you terms that you don’t really expect, I never would think that I would grow cannabis. Again, for me at that time, especially 30 years ago, cannabis was kind of something that you’d hide from your parents, even though it helped me a lot. My parents never approved. Oh, I didn’t even bother to tell them what I do.

Steve Looi 33:07
Even your peers, I must have been people you didn’t want to tell about?

Shlomo Booklin 33:11
Yeah. So it’s not something I was proud of. Today, it’s something that I do. Like everything that you do as a teenager, if you smoke or drink or go to parties, you kind of grow out of it. And it’s a kind of phase in your life. So I never thought that cannabis was going to be a crop. I would never plan to do that. And probably with all honesty, if it wasn’t for Tilray, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into it.

I don’t know. I mean, as I said, I was always very ambitious, and I wanted to be good in what I’m doing. And when I finished at Tilray, I came back to Ontario, and I joined another company called Medreleaf. They’re also very, very big and they also grew. As it happened, after working a year at Tilray and another year at Medreleaf, I became that superstar. Yeah, having, both of those companies under my belt, I became very popular and I got a very good name. I had lots of companies wanted me to help them with the application with production planning to be a master grower, whatever you want to call it. And I worked with a couple of them and they all basically wanted to keep me for themselves. I was not allowed to speak to anyone. It’s that mentality of the cannabis industry that, if I have something better than you, then I must not tell you about it. So I was not allowed to speak to anyone apart from my peers at those companies. I try with human interaction. I try talking to colleagues. At that time with that I was at Tilray, I had a very good friend. He is name is Ryan Douglas, he was the master grower for Canopy. And although we worked for, very fierce competition between Tilray and Canopy, we on a personal level, we got very well, we had the same issues, we had the same difficulties, we had to go through the same sort of old-fashioned, growers that didn’t want to look at the calcium and potassium. So, those are the things that we kind of shared, without necessarily telling him about Tilray bank account and he’s collaborating with colleagues as pure wishing. So, at that stage, I started to think to myself “well, there are too many people who want my help”, I’m not allowed to talk to them, because then I breach of contract. Why wouldn’t I just quit and become a consultant?

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. You start giving advice to people, they never pay you. They always say that later, and one guy said that he ran out of money, and he wanted to give me shares instead of payment. And I told him, it’s Monopoly money whether it’s 5% or 50%. If the company was zero, it’s still zero. So again, I had to go through a couple of those places, where you work hard and definitely don’t get anything for it. So anyone who basically knows how to tell the difference between the BS and the genuine people. And basically, that’s how I started.

Steve Looi 37:45
That was Shlomo Booklin who chatted with us about his introduction to cannabis, and his unlikely career and legal cannabis cultivation. Stay tuned for a second episode, where we continue to chat with Shlomo about the medicinal future of the plant and growing it internationally.



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