Go inside the largest (and growing) recreational marijuana cultivation center in Illinois

Dean Olsen
State Journal-Register

LINCOLN — Employment in a nondescript building off Interstate 55 and just north of the Logan County seat has grown from 30 in early 2020 to more than 250, with plans to hire 50 more this year as sales of recreational marijuana in Illinois continue to soar.

Chicago-based Cresco Labs’ Lincoln site now is the largest marijuana cultivation center in a state where total recreational marijuana sales hit a new high of almost $138 million in December.

After heated debate in the General Assembly before the legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana in January 2020, the Lincoln area appears to have accepted the 221,000-square-foot indoor pot-growing center and enjoyed the economic impact of jobs paying an average of $40,000 a year plus benefits.

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“We have felt welcomed with open arms,” Melissa Wagamon, Cresco’s Great Lakes regional president, told The State Journal-Register. “We’ve had good access to great labor.”

Cresco officials said they are happy to be in Logan County and more focused than ever on quality and safety as they produce cannabis products that have grown in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emily Davenport, chairwoman of the all-Republican Logan County Board, said the county was “very fortunate” to attract Cresco.

Cresco’s rural Lincoln site — surrounded by high fences and easily identified by the smell of fresh marijuana that can be whiffed by drivers on the interstate — paid more than $698,000 in property taxes in 2021 and more than $1 million in property taxes since the site opened in 2015. Cresco initially produced cannabis products on a smaller scale for qualifying patients in what at the time was Illinois' medical marijuana pilot program.

The Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The facility is the largest cannabis cultivation facility in the state of Illinois. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Based on an agreement with Logan County government, Cresco recently sent the county a check for $560,000 based on revenues for part of 2019, all of 2020 and through the second quarter of 2021, Davenport said.

The county board is considering hiring an economic development director with the money, as well as funding other economic initiatives not yet decided, she said.

Cresco operates in 10 states, runs 21 production facilities and 47 cannabis dispensaries.

In Illinois, its cultivation centers are in Lincoln, Joliet and Kankakee, and it operates 10 dispensaries in communities that include Chicago, Champaign, Danville, Rockford and Schaumburg. The company employs more than 1,300 people in Illinois.

Workers tend to cannabis plants growing in the greenhouse section of the Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The plants growing also receive supplemental artificial light. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Total revenue for the company in 2020 was $476.3 million, up 271% from the previous year. And for the third-quarter that ended Sept. 30, the company posted $215.5 million in revenues, a 40.6% increase compared with the third quarter of 2020 and gross profit margins of more than 50%.

Total sales of adult-use cannabis in Illinois by Cresco and other companies totaled $1.379 billion in 2021. That figure is more than double the total from 2020, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

Wagamon predicted continued growth in the industry in Illinois as more dispensaries come online.

Purest marijuana grades

Inside the sprawling cultivation center, employees dressed in surgical scrubs and wearing masks go about the meticulous tasks of growing cannabis plants from cuttings, or “clones,” as each individually labeled plant is moved from room to room in a cultivation process that takes three months.

Cannabis products are shipped to Cresco’s Joliet facility for final processing and packaging, which can take another month before shipping to marijuana dispensaries throughout the state.

Lighting and watering are controlled to produce the purest grades of marijuana with varying levels of natural chemicals to produce the euphoria and other effects marijuana customers are looking for, Cresco officials said.

Paul Huhmke, the indoor garden manager at the Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility, explains how they use different types of light to try and mimic the natural light that would be produced outdoors during the natural growing cycle for a cannabis plant inside the cultivation facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Paul Huhnke, indoor garden manager at the Lincoln center, said the horticultural techniques are constantly refined as the site produces 72 different strains of marijuana.

“The amount of data collection and the amount of just innovation being used is something that people definitely probably don’t have a grasp on at this point,” he said.

“It’s definitely not what it used to be — a bunch of people in their basements kind of figuring things out,” Huhnke said. “We have a lot of data now, and we’re using state-of-the-art equipment. And that allows us to kind of monitor things. We’re monitoring our moisture levels. We’re monitoring our light levels, our environmental changes throughout the day. We’re operating as any other production-crop facility would be operating.

“By what we’re doing and kind of dialing in the information base, and trying to be able to understand how the plants operate, we’re able to provide a better quality product on every run.”

Paul Huhmke, the indoor garden manager at the Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility, shows the buds of a cannabis plant that will be harvested for premium flower inside one of the indoor growing rooms in the cultivation facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Tina Fry, 51, of Decatur, is the lead laboratory manufacturing agent at the site. She helps prepare cannabis concentrates that are used to make products such as dabs and liquids used in vaping.

“There are certain standards that we have to live up to, and that’s what we strive for, producing the very best,” she said.

Fry said she enjoys making products many customers use for potential health benefits. Workers at the site, she added, are “more open-minded” about the benefits of cannabis than at other places she has worked.

Chris Virden, 55, of Morton, manufacturing supervisor over the lab, used to work at a marijuana testing lab in Tazewell County before joining Cresco in March. He said his job is stimulating.

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Legal marijuana production is “the fastest-moving industry in the world,” he said. “This is a very regulated industry.”

The Lincoln site’s facility director, Andrea Meister, said the center has a good relationship with the community.

“As we grow ourselves here within Cresco at Lincoln, we try to work with the local community,” she said. “We try to hire local contractors. Local businesses do a lot of the third-party work that we have going here.

“I think we’re pretty integrated in the community, especially the larger we get and we have that opportunity to work with other companies. … I think we have a really great partnership so far, and we look to keep continuing to build that as we expand here.”

Changing lives, community acceptance

Heather Woolard, 35, a single mother of two teenage boys, said getting a job at the Cresco site drastically changed her life for the better.

She went from a part-time job making $11 per hour to a full-time job earning $15 an hour with health insurance and other benefits at Cresco. The change, she said, helped her emerge from a “bad marriage” and improve the living situation for her and her sons.

“It gave me an opportunity to depend on myself,” said Woolard, who started at the center in February 2020 and now lives in a four-bedroom house with her boys in Lincoln.

She is considered a “processing agent” and operates a machine that kills mold and bacteria on dried marijuana.

“I love what I do, and I take pride in what I do,” Woolard said.

Cultivation agent Angela Jones prunes the interior leaves of cannabis plants in the early flower stage in the greenhouse section at the Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. The pruning allows airflow along with light penetration and prevents disease. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

Cresco, she said, “has helped a lot of Lincoln people.” The community has lost many blue-collar jobs over the years, and so the growth at the site “was a huge help, especially in Lincoln,” she said.

Woolard said her sons think her job is “cool.” They tell people, “‘My mom works at the pot factory,’” she said.

She thinks more people in the community who oppose marijuana are warming up to the industry and the economic and personal benefits of its products.

She recalled shopping at the local Aldi after finishing her shift. She intentionally kept her company badge on so people who might smell the marijuana on her clothes would know she works at Cresco.

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One older woman shopping in the store told her, “I hate that smell,” while an elderly woman nearby responded, “Well, I love the smell.”

“I feel like it’s starting to become more and more accepted,” said Woolard, who uses marijuana to help control back pain. “Some people had it beat into them that marijuana is the devil’s lettuce. It grows out of the ground. In my opinion, it’s healthier for me than prescription drugs.”

Jenn Clark, 36, of Lincoln, said she used to work as a nursing assistant in a hospital and in clients’ homes before getting hired at Cresco in 2020.

She said she earns more money in Cresco’s processing department, the work isn’t as hard on her body, and she feels more appreciated.

“I feel like this is my family,” Clark said.

Cannabis plants growing inside the Cresco Labs Cultivation Facility as they receive artificial light meant to mimic the natural light they would receive outdoors during their natural cycle at the cultivation facility in Lincoln, Ill., Tuesday, November 9, 2021. [Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register]

A single mother with children ages 18, 13 and 4, she said she has encountered mixed reactions to her employment at Cresco, especially when she’s out in public and hasn’t had time to change her clothes.

“I have had some looks” when people notice the smell, she said.

But she said Cresco has been “great for this area, and I think marijuana is great for cancer patients and anxiety and depression. It’s good for people.”

Davenport, 41, the county board chairwoman who lives in Lincoln and works for the Illinois Senate in Springfield, said she had no problem with the legalization of marijuana for adults.

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“I was on board right away because of the medical benefit,” she said. “What people want to do in their own private home, I’m fine with it. I think it is accepted here.”

Davenport said the county government’s willingness to work with companies such as Cresco could lead to more development in a county that has lost many blue-collar jobs, including almost 500 jobs with the 2002 closure of Lincoln Developmental Center.

“It shows we’re progressive and that we’re open for business."