It seemed like a good idea at the time. Cultivating some dynamite weed, that is. In 2015, UC Berkeley grad, former Daily Cal photographer, and superstar digital engineer Mike Lovas purchased a 70-acre farm near Brandon, Oregon, with his wife, Donna, and his stepson, Nick. Their goal: sustainable and, they hoped, profitable agriculture. The first part was relatively easy, they say. The organically certified property yielded delicious and wholesome cranberries, blueberries, and chestnuts in abundance, all produced in harmony with the local biome. But profitability? That was another matter. So the family began brainstorming, looking for another crop—one that could actually put the farm in the black. And of course, they didn’t have to look too far.
“Oregon approved recreational marijuana in 2016, so we worked out the spreadsheets, and it seemed like a reasonable alternative,” Lovas says. “We obtained a producer’s license and converted a barn on the property for an indoor grow site, and we’re now cultivating about 200 plants. We’ll have our first harvest in a few months.”
Dubbed Black Moon Gold, they anticipated their pot would fetch from $2,300 to $2,500 a pound. Lovas’ stepdaughter, Melissa, devised a marketing plan to promote the product, and the family began contemplating expansion of the operation to an outdoor site.
“Outdoor marijuana is typically lower in quality than indoor marijuana, but it can be sold for oils, edibles, and other products,” says Lovas. “But if you grow outdoors, you do have to invest more money in security measures.”
Lovas had led a pretty circumspect life before his Black Moon Gold venture, working as a contractor for the NASA Ames Research Center and as a Silicon Valley executive. So did he feel any qualms about growing cannabis, a trade still considered, well, Bohemian if not outré? Not at all, he says. It was strictly business.
“We saw it as an opportunity,” says Lovas. “We thought some of our conservative friends may get a bit bent out of shape about it, but they didn’t express any outrage at all. They all saw it as a good decision.”
Of course, a bit of the bloom has come off cannabis cultivation since the farm got it’s start. That’s because U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently rescinded the Cole Memo, the 2013 order issued by then U.S. AG James M. Cole directing all U.S. attorneys to forego marijuana prosecutions with certain exceptions, sale to minors, gangs, and cartels and cultivation or use on federal property foremost among them.
That could really put the old kibosh on the legal trade, Lovas acknowledges, though he maintains he is remaining hopeful.
“As things stand, it looks like the decision to prosecute will be made by U.S. attorneys within their jurisdictions,” Lovas says, “and the [U.S.] attorney for the Oregon district has indicated he’s not going to prosecute people who are meeting state criteria and the [requirements of the Cole] memo. So we’ll have to see.”
Along with an irrepressible entrepreneurial streak, Lovas has a news jones. His love for journalism goes back to his days as a paper boy for the now defunct Cleveland Press, when, from the ages of nine to 18, he chucked papers on porches through Ohio’s humid, sweltering summers and frigid, teeth-chattering winters.
“Then when I graduated high school, I got a summer job in the circulation department,” he says. “For a kid, it was pretty cool, getting to see how newspapers worked. Every day I’d run down to the press room and grab a paper as it came off the presses. It gave me a real sense of the importance of newspapers, and it made me a lifelong fan of the news business.”
Lovas went from Cal from Cleveland in 1964, majoring in physics. He excelled in his courses, but something was missing: that thrill he felt when the presses were hammering or reporters were yelling over the phone. He got a chance to scratch that itch during his junior year at Berkeley, when the Daily Cal flew for writers and photographers.
“I was interested in photography,” Lovas says, “and I had an old Pentax camera I had bought with money I earned at my summer jobs. So I went into the Daily Cal offices, and they hired me on the spot.”
Lovas’ first assignment was at the Strawberry Canyon swimming pool. In retrospect, it serves as something of a testament to changing mores and social standards.
“It was a hot day, and they wanted shots of girls around the pool,” Lovas says. “My editor said ‘See if you can get them to arrange themselves like a clock.’ So I went up there and talked to some girls, and they were happy to do it.”
It wasn’t all whimsy and cheesecake for the tyro photographer, however. The Free Speech movement exploded at Cal shortly after Lovas’ arrival, and by his junior year, the campus was at a high and constant roil over the Vietnam War and civil rights issues. Lovas served as the Daily Cal’s chief photographer in 1967 and 1968, and played a role in recording the history of one of the nation’s most turbulent periods.
“My time at the Daily Cal was the high point of my years at Berkeley,” says Lovas. “My classes were demanding and dense, and my photography was a welcome counterweight. It was an extremely exciting time to be on campus, and I felt privileged to cover events and help put out a paper every day.”
Lovas’ passion for photography served him well in his subsequent career. His first job after graduating was in the “Moon Room” at the NASA Ames Research Center, where he worked with a planetary geologist, studying images of craters on the moon and volcanoes and lava tubes on earth in order to identify possible landing sites for lunar astronauts. Later, at ESL Inc., he developed software for storing, analyzing, and displaying photos, and he worked on the first spy satellite digital image processing system. Much of that research was and remains classified, so Lovas can’t talk about it in any detail.
“When you work on classified projects, you learn to compartmentalize your life,” Lovas says. “It’s a necessity. When you’re aware of certain things and activities that could literally put lives at risk if they became generally known, it sensitizes you. You can’t start talking about your work after a drink or two.”
Following his time at ESL, Lovas went to Sun Microsystems, where he helped manage the team that developed software for Sun’s innovative and highly scalable Solaris operating system. When Lovas’ supervisor left Sun to form Brocade, a data and storage networking product firm, Lovas joined him, serving as vice president of customer support and a principal engineer and until he left the company in 2004. After that, he tried his hand at angel investing.
“I put aside $500,000, deciding I’d invest in ten companies at $50,000 each, and see how I’d do,” Lovas says. “I listened to a lot of pitches. One of my best investments was with a company that produced digital map products. They had software that ended up supporting the systems used by cities to map the location of sexual predators. On the other hand, I invested in a company that produced automated lawn mowing systems. I thought it was very cool—you could program mowers to learn an entire property, like a golf course. Then they’d mow automatically, and all you had to do was gas them up. But then safety issues came into play. Basically, there was no reliable way to guarantee they wouldn’t mow somebody down. So some investments worked out, others didn’t. In the end, I netted a bit of profit.”
At roughly the same time, however, Lovas embarked on another endeavor: he volunteered to serve on the Daily Cal Education Foundation Board, and became board chair of the Daily Cal. His involvement in journalism, however oblique, had instilled a deep commitment to the Fourth Estate that had only deepened with time.
“I joined the board because I don’t want newspapers to disappear,” he says. “I’m not completely confident it can be prevented, but I do think they’ll be able to survive in some form. I hope so, anyway. I just feel I have to do whatever I can to ensure that [news outlets] and reporters have a future.”
Lovas resigned from the Education Foundation board in 2015 to shepherd some investments along, including his Oregon pot venture. But now he’s ready to return; he’ll reassume the board’s chairmanship later this year.
“I get a lot of satisfaction interacting with the students at the Daily Cal,” he says. “The news business has changed, but the students today are basically like the ones I worked with in the 1960s. There’s still a lot of controversy on campus, the staff is still completely devoted to covering what’s going on, they’re still constantly brainstorming ideas for coverage, and they still devote huge amounts of time to getting the paper out. That dedication is still there.”
Posted on February 5, 2018 - 2:09pm