Planting is among the most labor-intensive parts of the cannabis growing process—and arguably one of the most crucial to get right.
While larger, commercial agriculture operations including those in hemp can use traditional equipment such as tractors and row planters, many marijuana growers still plant the hard way: by hand.
Unless an indoor grow or greenhouse operation has shelled out huge money for automated solutions, the clones, cuttings or seeds most likely are going into some type of growing medium via manual labor. But there are better ways to do this than others, experts say.
“Every time the plant is moved or transplanted, it costs time and money—and growth time is lost,” said Sam Ghods, CEO of Connected Cannabis, a Sacramento, California-based marijuana company with a grow operation in Arizona.
“In looking to decrease that cost and improve rate of growth, we look to move that plant as little as possible.”
For Ghods, that means minimal transplanting and maximal vegetative grow space and time before the plant goes into flower.
Ongoing research with different pot sizes, grow mediums and watering frequencies all factor into minimizing plant touching and maximizing growth for Connected Cannabis.
At Denver-based marijuana operator Lightshade, the cultivation staff pots clones and transplants larger plants as part of the weekly workflow in the indoor and greenhouse operations.
“One thing we do to increase efficiency in that area is to use compressed coconut coir media that is hydrated on-site,” said Dan Banks, director of cultivation strategy. “This allows us to bypass all of the labor typically tied up in filling pots.”
The organic media Banks uses is engineered to have specific and reliable air- and water-holding capacity.
“The really innovative thing about this media is that it is shipped dry/compressed and already pre-portioned into grow bags,” he said. “To ready pots for use, we just spread the dry bags out and flood our trays.”
The bricks hydrate from the bottom, and once they have expanded by absorbing enough water, Banks’ team is ready to add plants.
The 1-gallon compressed containers Lightshade uses for small plants can be placed directly on the 3-gallon final containers, reducing transplant labor.
With indoor grows, Ryan Douglas, a cannabis cultivation consultant based in Vero Beach, Florida, recommends cultivators designate a specific station for planting to increase efficiency. Douglas’ system prevents workers from having to lug seedlings and materials to a different room for each planting.
“This ensures consistency, saves time, and the transporting of plants from the planting station to the new growing area should only take a matter of minutes,” he said.
In greenhouses, Douglas suggests bigger commercial operations consider automating the transplanting process. Technology commonly found in traditional horticulture—such as pot-filling machines, irrigation stations and fertigation systems—can be employed for cannabis production to expedite tasks, he said.
As far as staffing, Connected Cannabis employs farm-labor contractors for heavy lifting such as days when the company harvests, cleans and replants a 5,000-square-foot room.
The company’s cultivation team uses farm-labor contractors for trimming, harvesting and planting. Depending on the size of the job, Connected Cannabis will bring in anywhere from 10 to 100 people to handle the task, with close supervision from company management.
“This process used to take us three days. Now we are at an average of 10 hours,” Ghods said. “Labor definitely is the No. 1 cost for us.”
As far as overall management of the process, Douglas recommends correctly staffing the cultivation team by hiring an experienced head grower from traditional horticulture or mainstream agriculture.
“It’s important to start early in the hiring and structuring of the cultivation team,” he said. “It’s much easier to teach an excellent commercial grower the specifics about cannabis rather than teaching a home grower how to manage a commercial facility.”
As a rule of thumb for staffing an indoor or greenhouse facility, cultivation businesses should employ 25 workers or fewer for every 100,000 feet of cannabis canopy space, Douglas said. “If you’re above that in an established business, that should be a red flag you’re not working as efficiently as possible.”
Kim Cisneros, director of production at Bay Area, California-based Harborside Farms, the cultivation arm of the medical marijuana company founded by Andrew and Steve DeAngelo, said cultivation is a common area for staffing bloat, especially when the company is trying to hit production goals.
“If we are ever behind, we hire temps, which is another cost,” she added. The company also tries to cross-train employees so they can pivot to other departments as needed. “As a team, we have also helped each other find efficient processes to keep labor costs down. It’s a constantly evolving process.”
An in-house purchasing coordinator manages Harborside’s spending by department. He tracks each department’s needs to keep production on track and in line with quarterly budgets. Needs vary by department and consist of things such as soil, pots, fertilizer, nutrients, tools, bags, pre-roll tubes, personal protective equipment and more.
“As for spending on labor, all overtime and additional temporary labor must be approved at the time of request, ensuring that we’re tracking spending in real time and aren’t surprised with one large sum cost at once for materials and labor,” Cisneros said.
Automation and Software
Harborside uses automation to increase efficiency in certain areas, such as transplanting clones into 1-gallon pots and moving plants into flowering houses.
“So far, automating these processes has helped eliminate labor costs by 80% or more,” Cisneros said. “We are consistently looking for new ways to improve and simplify efficiency.”
At Connected Cannabis, Ghods said the company uses enterprise-resource-planning software Acumatica in conjunction with Quantum Leaf Solutions to integrate its cultivation system with Metrc seed-to-sale software. California mandates that cultivators track every gram of product grown and sold through Metrc. Acumatica and Quantum Leaf are two of the software packages that help Connected Cannabis do that.
Before this solution, Ghods said, one worker was inputting data manually with QuickBooks. The integrated software creates efficiencies throughout the supply chain and helps with recordkeeping during the planting stage.
“These are indispensable tools,” Ghods added.