Here’s how to hire a master grower – and how to keep that person

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Ryan Douglas

It’s one thing to know how to grow a plant, but running a commercial cultivation facility is another skill completely.

So says Ryan Douglas, a Florida-based cannabis consultant and former master grower at Tweed, a major cannabis producer with headquarters in Ontario, Canada.

When looking for a lead grower to manage and operate a cultivation facility, cannabis executives should expect to hire someone with a background in commercial agriculture or horticulture, according to Douglas.

In turn, that person should be placed at the top of the grow’s pay pyramid and earn at least six figures, he added.

Marijuana Business Magazine asked Douglas what to look for when hiring a lead grower, how much to pay the person in that position and how to retain them on staff.

What are some key considerations when hiring for a lead grower in cannabis?

Cultivation businesses should hire for commercial plant-production experience, not cannabis knowledge. Ten years of growing ornamental or edible crops on a large scale are more valuable than 10 years of raising a few cannabis plants at home. Commercial growers bring with them a wealth of experience managing people, production and facilities. For businesses that are laser-focused on early market penetration or rapid expansion, these skills are often more valuable than cannabis-specific knowledge alone.

Executives should not be hesitant to place a non-cannabis person in charge of their crop. Commercial growers are trained to learn new crops quickly, and 90% of the concepts and techniques used in traditional horticulture are directly transferrable to cannabis. Whether it’s corn, cucumbers or cannabis, the fundamentals of managing a commercial-scale production site are the same.

How much should an executive expect to pay for this position?

Executives should plan on hiring the best grower they can afford and anticipate them being one of the highest-paid positions in the company. A cultivation business makes money by selling what they produce, and the responsibility of the cultivation program ultimately rests on the shoulders of the lead grower. They directly influence the likelihood of success or failure for a cultivation business.

Serious operators should anticipate paying six figures for an excellent grower. If the company forecasts selling $20 million of cannabis over the next 12 months, a $150,000 salary is easily justified. Smaller operations can get away with paying less for a novice grower, but they should be prepared for a long and expensive learning curve.

What can a business owner do to ensure the cultivator is happy when it comes to salary, bonuses and other benefits?

Be careful about production-based incentives because even world-class growers can only increase production by so much. A plant has a finite production capacity, and it would be unfair only to propose bonuses tied to production increases. A cultivator might be able to increase a grow room’s production by 15% by switching out varieties and playing with pruning techniques or fertilizer, but it’s unrealistic to assume they’ll realize this kind of increase with each harvest. Even under ideal conditions, a crop’s productivity will hit a ceiling, and your grower knows that. Once this happens, your grower may start looking for a new job.

Instead, offer incentives based on improvements that are within the grower’s control. Are there ways to de-leaf or prune a crop so that more of the harvest is sold as premium flower and less for extraction? Are there ways to reengineer the flow of the post-harvest process so that employees spend less time grabbing plants, emptying bins or looking for tools? Is there sanitization technology that could be implemented to clean grow rooms and reduce the number of hours employees spend sloshing around mop buckets of bleach?

Increasing production is a noble cause, but don’t forget about efficiency. Bonuses based on lowering production costs, minimizing labor and improving crop quality have more extended staying power than production incentives alone.

Where should an executive look to hire a lead grower?

The easiest way to acquire a new grower is to poach from an existing, successful operation. Everyone is interested in hearing about new opportunities, and it’s flattering to be recruited. Even if the potential grower is not interested, they can likely refer you to a grower looking for work.

Posting vacancies on cannabis job websites can generate mass interest, but be prepared to comb through plenty of unqualified candidates. Ask a friend or consultant who is knowledgeable about growing to help you weed through the dozens (or hundreds!) of resumes you are sure to receive.

Networking at cannabis conferences is a great way to meet potential candidates, but due to show and attendee schedules, there typically isn’t much opportunity for a lengthy sit-down interview. Use conferences to make personal introductions and exchange contact information, then request resumes and schedule follow-up interviews later.

How should the lead grower fit into the organizational structure of the company?

If a cannabis company takes the time and money to hire the best grower it can afford, it’s critical to let them do their job. Too often, companies pile layers of management on top of the lead grower like a suffocating stack of pancakes. This results in multiple decision-makers and cumbersome committees that grant or deny permission, preventing growers from reacting quickly to daily challenges and implementing rapid solutions.

To prevent this problem, a lean organizational chart is best. In small companies, the lead grower should report directly to the owner. In large companies, they should report to the operations manager—and that’s it!

The organization of the cultivation team should also be kept simple. Under the lead grower are usually section growers who manage activities for a specific area. In greenhouses, this is generally defined by greenhouse bays, while indoor operations typically divide sections by grow room. Under the section growers are plant technicians or production assistants who perform the day-to-day labor and account for most of the hires on a cultivation team.

Keeping the team lean and efficient not only keeps payroll down but also increases the overall productivity of the cultivation site.