How to manage seasonal workers for cannabis cultivation

planning ahead cultivation

(This is the sixth installment in a series focused on cultivation planning for marijuana and hemp growers. The previous installment is available here.)

Cannabis farmers and cultivation operators might need to hire seasonal workers to help fill labor demands and stay on schedule during peak season.

Planting, harvesting and trimming marijuana and hemp are all still mostly done by hand and require intensive manual labor.

To secure a reliable seasonal labor force, farm labor experts say growers should:

  • Recruit early and call back former workers.
  • Understand state laws for compensation and benefits.
  • Set expectations and provide incentives.
  • Consider foreign guest workers (for hemp only).

Recruiting seasonal workers

Competition is fierce for farm labor during peak harvest season, so growers need to secure seasonal labor early.

James Yagielo, CEO of Florida-based employment consultancy HempStaff, recommends recruiting at least 30 days before workers are needed.

Allow more time for skilled seasonal employees with previous marijuana or hemp cultivation experience.

James Yagielo

James Yagielo

“A lot of seasonal workers will come back the same time every year, so contacting the ones that worked the previous year is going to be your first step,” Yagielo said.

Amid COVID-19, the U.S. unemployment rate in March was 6%, which remains 2.5 percentage points higher than the pre-pandemic level in February 2020.

So, some displaced workers might be looking for new gigs. Even seasonal work is better than no work and can sometimes turn into a full-time position, Yagielo said.

Pre-coronavirus competition for labor was tight, but farmers now can often find experienced seasonal workers from other agricultural industries, so the learning curve is less steep.

“We recently had an entry-level job in Florida for a machine operator,” Yagielo said. “With the unemployment rate so high, they found six people in five days.”

Cultivation managers know how many workers they need based on volume, but farms might need a higher head count if they’re also extracting, Yagielo said.

Farms should appoint a manager specifically to oversee seasonal workers, as the entire hiring and training process can be time-consuming and detract from day-to-day production, he added.

Hiring guest workers

Producers in the federally legal hemp industry now have the option to hire foreign agricultural guest workers to supplement their labor supply, a benefit that marijuana growers can’t yet tap into because the crop is illegal under federal law.

Workers in the H-2A program, which provides visas for agricultural farm labor, typically go through extensive interviews by the U.S. State Department.

If accepted, the laborers are permitted to enter the country to work temporarily or seasonally. They go back to their home countries after each work season.

Farms seeking workers with H-2A visas first must document unsuccessful efforts to fill open positions with domestic labor.

Hemp farmers have not yet widely accessed agricultural guest worker programs because of the newly legal status of the crop, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t currently track the number of foreign guest workers used by crop.

However, the H-2A program has grown exponentially as demand has increased in all agricultural sectors since 2016, said Kerry Scott, program manager for guest-worker consulting firm másLabor in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Businesses that both grow and process hemp can use H-2A workers for post-harvest and processing jobs, a valuable option because current visa demand for nonagricultural workers is about three times higher than supply, Scott said.

Hemp farmers should contact guest-worker consulting services at least 90 to 120 days before they want their H-2A agricultural laborers to arrive.

“It can be done faster than that on an emergency basis,” Scott said, “but how much faster is a crapshoot.”

Using guest workers isn’t cheap, and it can be difficult to keep up with all of the bureaucracy involved, which is why many farmers use outside professionals to handle guest-worker applications.

Participating farmers must also pay equal wages and benefits to domestic laborers who are doing the same work as those in the program.

Keys to success with seasonal workers

State regulations vary regarding offering benefits or paying overtime to seasonal workers, so it’s important to stay current with state law, Yagielo said.

If competition is high for seasonal labor in their area, some farms will pay above the minimum wage to attract workers, while others might pay less but offer benefits such as free housing, he said.

“If you’re bringing in 50 people to a rural area, there may not be a place to house (them), especially when you only want them for a month … so a lot of times people will build row housing or have a bunch of RVs on their farm that the people can live in,” Yagielo said.

Some states have prioritized employees in the agricultural and cannabis industries to receive vaccines.

But farms should still plan to adhere to local, state and federal guidelines to keep their workers and their families safe from COVID-19.

Company culture is important, too, and word travels quickly among workers if companies are good – or not so good – to work for, Yagielo said.

He recommends giving bonuses to workers who exceed goals as well as planning team events to keep morale high and build camaraderie.

“That’s really big in the cannabis industry – people are very passionate about cannabis and hemp, and they want to be passionate about the company they work for,” Yagielo said, “and if they’re not, that word gets out very quickly.

“We definitely recommend that they treat their temp employees like they treat their full-time employees.”

Temporary or longer

Workers focused on harvesting and trimming might be needed for only a month, but if they’re doing harvest, trimming, extraction and packaging, it could be more like three months, Yagielo said.

“If they’re growing outdoors and especially in Northern states, they only have one season, so they harvest, trim and package everything all at once,” Yagielo said.

For an indoor grow, producers should try to keep at least half their seasonal workers on duty year-round to avoid the tedious process of rehiring every 10 months, he said.

The ultimate incentive for seasonal workers is landing a full-time job, and depending on the company’s profitability that harvest, managers might offer longer-term employment to seasonal workers.

“In (marijuana), it tends to happen more often,” Yagielo said. “Hemp had some struggles in the past few years with selling flower and there weren’t enough buyers out there, where (marijuana) never really had that issue.”

Laura Drotleff can be reached at [email protected].