Nova Farms (Nova), like their CEO and founder, Derek Ross, has been galvanized by adversity, and rose above early challenges to become the largest, privately owned, vertically integrated cannabis operator in the Northeast. High Times recently sat down for a conversation with Ross and Nova’s Chief Operating Officer, Blair Fish, to learn how Nova is preparing for their next phase of explosive growth.
A Rough Start in Rhode Island
Ross, Fish, and the other founders of Nova are originally Rhode Islanders. Fish had been the owner of Ocean State Cultivation Center (OSCC) with his brother and Ross was also involved in the medical industry there, until they reached a breaking point. “All three dispensaries in the state were vertically integrated and the regulators forced cultivators off a cliff,” Fish told High Times. So they sold OSCC to a California company, and left Rhode Island for greener pastures in Massachusetts.
“Born of frustration, that typifies how Nova came to be,” said Fish. He had this advice for regulators, “Do what is right for the state, what is right for the market, not what is right for the incumbents.” Ross echoed his frustrations with Rhode Island and suggested looking to the future, “regulators need to talk to the best operators to figure out how to make a breathing document, something that can evolve.” To Nova, the future is outdoor cultivation, with bigger batches harvested in metric tons.
Expanding Beyond Massachusetts’ Greener Pastures
What sets Nova apart from their competitors is their use of outdoor growing in a region where many felt it was impossible. Ross told High Times, “The CCC had never seen an outdoor grow plan and most of their regulations were written with indoor in mind,” such as 5 pound batch limits, when Nova is producing in tons. Ross knew it would work because he’d been growing indoor and outdoor for years, and since Nova was “developing a model for the future,” indoor wasn’t an option. “For me hemp is cannabis,” said Ross, explaining “I knew I could develop SOPs to grow outdoor hemp, so when cannabis became legal it was effortless to transition over because we had been growing cannabis with no THC.”
Nova quickly acquired licenses around Massachusetts, starting with their ninety-acre farm in Sheffield, a dispensary in Attleboro, and a license to manufacture a range of cannabis products. Since their opening in 2020, Nova has opened four more dispensaries in three different states: Framingham (MA), Dracut (MA), Greenville (ME), Woodbury (NJ). Beyond their dispensaries, Nova has fully vertically integrated businesses in Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and soon Connecticut as well, and they have grow and manufacturing facilities in Rhode Island. In that same time period, Nova jumped from five initial employees to over 400.
To help them continue their explosive growth, Nova recently brought on Anand Shahi as their CFO. Mr. Shahi brings decades of global business experience and deep cannabis ties with him to help Nova scale up while maintaining the product quality that has attracted legions of followers. Ross and Fish were thrilled about this new addition to the team. Fish told High Times, “We wanted someone with more strategic vision, like Derek has for Nova, and Anand is a visionary with the same vision as Derek.”
“We set out with one mission — that we would dig ourselves deep and not spread ourselves thin,” said Ross. Fish called Nova’s commitment to quality their “core fundamental philosophy,” pointing out that, unlike alcohol, with cannabis you must recreate your supply chain in every state so maintaining consistent quality can be difficult. Fish told High Times that, “For us it is about building brands that people recognize and we want to make sure the quality stays great.” Nova has accomplished this with well-known brands such as Hashables, Southie Adams and Sticky Fish.
Full Spectrum Products for Cannabis Connoisseurs
While some companies are focused on distillates and the highest THC potencies, Nova specializes in full spectrum cannabis products. “THC is the same compound whether it is a sativa or indica, sure you can get the percentage up high in a distillate but that is not what we are about,” said Fish, adding “We love using the full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes.”
“Consumers need to smell the weed, the terpenes are dictating the high and consumers need to experiment with them,” said Ross, noting that there are a lot of misconceptions around the terms indica, sativa, and hybrid. Fish agreed, “terpenes have so many effects on people and we are just scratching the surface on their medical benefits.”
Nova knows that there is no one product for all consumers, which is why they have preroll, edible, vape, concentrate, and topical brands in house. “Topicals is a smaller market percentage,” said Fish, but they “really bring in that older demographic.” Ross agreed saying, “maybe next time they get a Zzzonked to help them sleep,” which has THC, CBD, and CBN.
Giving Back to the Foster Care System That Made Him
Derek Ross is a man who has overcome a lot in his life. “I grew up in 27 homes,” Ross told High Times, “For some people it must have seemed bad, but for me it wasn’t, it created me.” He credits his youth in the foster care system for his ability to “participate in any conversation.” One conversation Ross wanted to have was about the role the war on drugs played in growing the foster care system. “Whether they went in because their parents were infected with the disease of addiction or were part of the illegal drug economy, those kids were put into that system that is 96% failing,” Ross said.
When Ross aged out of the foster care system at 18 there was a 96% failure rate, while some estimates now put that at an 80% failure rate, that is still shockingly high. Out of a desire to give back and improve that horrendous failure rate, Ross founded the nonprofit Aged Out Foundation earlier this year. “I told myself that if I made it somehow I wanted to help those kids who were aging out,” said Ross. He is still working on developing the nonprofit but has “future plans for how we move forward and some of the best people helping us start it and events coming up to help us raise funds.”
Galvanized by Controversy
Mark Rioux was a real estate agent and co-founder of Nova, but when Nova was first starting in 2019, Rioux was arrested because someone was illegally growing cannabis in a warehouse he had leased them. That led the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) to suspend all of Nova’s licenses for about two months during a crucial time when they were trying to build their business. Ultimately, Rioux was found to be entirely innocent and all charges were dropped less than two months after they were filed. While the licenses were restored, the charges did force Rioux to leave his position.
“It was 100% engineered against Mark, he was a real estate agent, the worst person on our team to target,” Ross told High Times. Rioux wasn’t the only one targeted, Ross was at home with his daughter when it was raided by 15 police officers, who weren’t even sure why they were there. “We were discriminated against 100%,” said Fish, “it was a faulty charge against one of my business partners and the judge dropped it right away.” Fish told High Times that “the CCC didn’t have any rules about this situation so they just suspended our licenses.”
Fish and Ross took it in stride, to them this is part of Nova’s history that makes them the company they are today. “At the end of it all, they galvanized us and made us stronger, loyalty is developed by circumstances and this engineered us into a perfect team,” said Ross. “That galvanization is the key to Nova, “ added Fish, “it is not about us, it is about our people. Our grit. We’re not an MSO, we’re a movement.” Fish gave Nova’s recipe for success, “The best way to get back at everyone is to succeed, to get to a level they can’t deny us.”
Nova Farms is now the Official Intake Partner and one of the Exclusive Retailers for the Cannabis Cup Massachusetts 2023.