Outlook 2021: Broadalbin native able to build career she loves near home in Johnstown with Vireo Health

Kaitlyn Nedo shows off Marijuana plants growing under metal halide lights at the Vireo Health facility in Johnstown
Kaitlyn Nedo shows off Marijuana plants growing under metal halide lights at the Vireo Health facility in Johnstown

JOHNSTOWN — Vireo Health uses an array of technology to turn extract active ingredients from marijuana plants into therapeutic products for medical conditions.

But at its heart, the operation in the Tryon Technology Park is a greenhouse farm with a delicate product.

Even the managers have to pitch in sometimes.

“When it’s harvest time, it’s all hands involved,” said general manager Kaitlyn Nedo.

She doesn’t mind — she started out at Vireo processing and packaging products for the medical market and still likes the work. But she has her hands full with her own duties most of the time, and it’s a unionized workplace, so she doesn’t jump back and forth across the labor-management line unless really necessary.

Nedo, 30, is a Broadalbin native who went to work as a lab technician for Pace Analytical in Schenectady after earning a bachelor’s degree in biology. Her only other employer since college has been Vireo, which she joined when it was in the startup phase in Johnstown soon after New York’s medical marijuana program was launched.

She fondly recalls the early days, learning how everything worked and helping build it.

“That was a pleasure, getting to be a part of something from the very beginning,” Nedo said.

There was also a bit of irony in her career move: Never a recreational drug user, she had zero knowledge about marijuana.

“I never expected that I would find myself in this industry,” Nedo said.

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“My family actually thinks it’s pretty funny — I’m the strait-laced one.”

She’s never used the therapeutic products she helps make, either, having never had a medical condition that qualifies for treatment with marijuana extracts. But if she developed one of those problems, she says she’d consider medical marijuana among the treatment options.

The Johnstown site was up and running for only about a month before Nedo was promoted to operations manager. A subsequent promotion made her general manager of the facility, which has a workforce of about 40, not all of whom report to her. Security and research/development are separate, for example, and sales/marketing is done elsewhere, primarily at Vireo’s Minnesota headquarters.

Her focus is on the core duties of the facility — cultivation and processing — as well as obtaining regulatory approval for new products, strategizing shipments to dispensaries, maintaining employee engagement and monitoring site safety.

“I do miss some of the hands-on aspects of the job,” Nedo said, noting that some of her scientific knowledge may be getting a little rusty. “I think you will definitely lose some information along the way, but I don’t mind reimmersing myself and relearning.”

Instead of the indoor crop, she tends a backyard vegetable garden in the summer — or tries to.

“I have to say, this past year was crazy and it didn’t happen,” she explained.

Vireo was classified “essential” so it kept going right through the COVID lockdown last spring. But shifts were staggered to limit interaction on-site, and her own schedule was scrambled along with everyone else’s.

“We also launched several new products in 2020,” Nedo said. “Any time we’re launching a new product it’s busy.”

Beyond enjoying the work she does and liking the company’s mission, Nedo feels lucky to have the job. Her original goal while attending college — to work with wildlife — still hasn’t happened, but she was able to join a growing company in a region that can be short on opportunities for young people looking to start a career.

“Growing up, I knew I wanted to stay local,” she said. “I never thought I would be able to have a career near home.”

Nedo and husband Joe Kowalchik live in Hagaman, 10 minutes from her childhood home and 15 minutes from her office. Her childhood pet, a 20-year-old gecko, shares their home.

And when she goes for a lunchtime walk on the loop through the technology park, she’ll usually see some wildlife.

‘Incredible sight’

Inside, the facility is about as far as one can get from the backyard vegetable garden, computer-controlled and carefully monitored to keep the crop thriving until harvest.

“Seeing the full greenhouse is an incredible sight,” Nedo said.

The cannabis plant grows well on its own in the wild — “ditch weed,” as it’s called, is a hardy specimen. But it is of little use for therapeutic or recreational purposes.

By contrast, Vireo clones cultivars bred for specific traits such as dense buds and high cannabinoid content, then uses a strict growing regimen with tailored nutrient mixes to produce an optimal crop.

The labor and material costs are much higher, but so is the value of the harvest.

That’s the reason such close attention is paid. “You could potentially lose an entire crop if you have a pervasive pest problem,” Nedo said. “We are in a sealed place, which makes it very easy to control.”

Vireo uses bioremediation techniques rather than pesticides to prevent crop failure.

“Beneficial insects will eat pests such as aphids or thrips,” she said. “We have a pretty regular cadence program for each grow. [If] it’s wasp week, we’ll release the parasitic wasps. There’s also ladybugs.”

Heat and humidity are manipulated to prevent growth of mold and fungus, which can be just as damaging as insects.

The plants themselves pose no safety risk to the people tending them — the intoxicating chemicals aren’t bioavailable by touching the leaves or buds.

“That is a question we get a lot,” she added.

The bouquet of a room full of hundreds of marijuana plants can be fairly intense for the uninitiated, but it does not have an intoxicating effect.

“I definitely had to get used to the odor — it permeates everything in the facility,” Nedo said, including the workers’ clothing. “When we were first starting, there was a lot of worry — ‘what if we get pulled over?’ ”

The novelty of all that is gone after more than five years working for Vireo. But there’s still the satisfaction that comes with holding a job few people can do. And there’s the occasional surprise: “Sometimes driving up in the morning, the wind will hit in a certain way and you can smell what’s growing in the greenhouses.”

Ready for more

Vireo Health is eager to expand into the adult-use recreational marijuana industry if it becomes legal in New York state, as proposed. The company has an option to acquire 96 acres of the mostly unused business park, a former youth detention facility, on which to expand production.

“If New York state would go to adult use, we would have a total influx,” Nedo said. “It’s something that I’m excited to think about.”

Extracting and selling marijuana extracts for medical purposes will remain a priority for Vireo even if New York legalizes the potentially lucrative business of selling marijuana for the sake of getting high.

“First and foremost we’re thinking of products for our patients,” Nedo said. Vireo would pivot to enter the new market, but “at its core, Vireo is a pharmaceutical company.”

Vireo operates four medical dispensaries of its own, in Albany, Binghamton, Queens and White Plains, and wholesales its products for sale in other companies’ dispensaries.

Originally, New York required full vertical integration: Each of the handful of companies authorized to operate in the state had to grow, process, package and sell its own products, and only its own products. But the retail restrictions have been eased.

Vireo dispensaries now typically stock other companies’ products alongside Vireo products, just as other companies’ dispensaries carry Vireo products. The overlap saves on manufacturing setup costs, and recognizes that each company has its own strengths.

Patients who are certified to use medical marijuana extracts can go to a dispensary and pick out what they need, in consultation with the staff there.

Vaping products have been the most popular items in Vireo’s line, Nedo said, fast-acting and discreet.

Vireo’s sales were steady in 2020 despite the pandemic and were actually slightly higher in the third quarter than in the same period of 2019.

As much as she likes her work, Nedo likes it to end when the day is done.

This preference went out the window amid the worst of COVID in 2020, as she and everyone else adapted their routines to keep the facility running. But in normal times, she maintains the balance.

Vireo is fine with that, she said, because she doesn’t go home with things unfinished.

“I don’t dodge calls, but I’m not connected obsessively like some people are,” Nedo said.

“I want to keep loving my job.”

Kaitlyn Nedo at a glance

Age: 30

Born in: Broadalbin

Lives in: Hagaman

Education: Bachelor of science, biology, Paul Smith’s College

Role: General manager, Vireo Health’s marijuana cultivation and manufacturing facility, Johnstown

Companion animal: Gecko named Sleepy

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Categories: Business, Outlook 2021

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