Cannabis cultivation is hard: Operators explain why

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Fluresh’s cultivation facility in Adrian, Michigan.

Cannabis cultivation operators are a cautious and somewhat cynical bunch, perhaps by nature, perhaps from experience. And when starting up, finding a strong top grower is a difficult challenge.

“Everyone you talk to, they are the greatest grower of all time. I’ve never met a grower that doesn’t grow the greatest weed of all time, and someone that doesn’t use the state of the art HVAC system,” says Dave Murray, co-founder of Southwest Michigan’s Redbud Roots.

“In Michigan, we have caregivers who know a ton about growing. But the common phrase is, ‘Seventy-two plants is not 720 plants is not 7,200 plants.’ You need different skills as you expand,” said Chris Anderson, general counsel of Michigan’s Fluresh.

“At the beginning everyone looked around and said, ‘Who has experience growing at scale?’ It was Mexican traffickers and illegal growers in California. There weren’t a lot of people on LinkedIn,” said Jon Loevey, co-founder of Justice Grown, a multi-state operator based in Chicago.

“Early on, people made a lot of mistakes, hiring black market guys. Everyone thinks they have the best master grower, but a lot of their methods did not translate to modern industrial processes. So, a lot of them failed. A lot of the big MSOs struggled, because they couldn’t get on YouTube and figure out how to do this. People were making mistakes left and right,” said Loevy.

“Everyone thinks, ‘Once I get the license, that’s the hard part,’ but that’s the easiest part of the whole process,” said Murray.

For the cannabis business, cultivation is where the money is made. While facilities have a high fixed cost, an individual plant that takes six months to grow can be worth as much as $1,300. Then, when you consider that many flowering rooms have 400 to 500 plants, and many cultivation facilities can be running fifteen to twenty groups of plants a year,  it’s not uncommon for a single facility to grow upwards of $20 million of product a year.

Still, cultivation is not easy. Many new cultivators stumble for a couple years before they’re able to produce a steady flow of usable product. In Missouri, only 21 of 60 possible facilities are certified after a year of legal grows, and dispensary owners report that supply is far from satisfying the demand of the 122,000 registered medical marijuana patients. In 2020, Illinois BioTrack data obtained by Grown In showed that of the state’s 21 licensed cultivation facilities, 77% of supply came from just six cultivation facilities.

To better understand what makes cannabis cultivation so hard, Grown In conducted lengthy interviews with a half dozen cultivation operators across the Midwest. They mostly shared the same early mistakes, and although they don’t all know each other, tended to share the same hard-earned wisdom, like, “It’s not like you’re planting tomatoes.”

Once you have your license in hand, one of the first hurdles a cultivator has is to build out their facility. How you design a building, and what equipment you install, determines a lot about how you’ll operate in the future.

“Creating a system that’s built around your specific approach is really important. And making sure whoever is using that system is using it in the way it was built to be used,” says Bridge City Collective’s David Alport, who operates facilities in Oregon and Missouri.

“If you’re building out a massive facility, the people designing the facility [and] sourcing equipment, there’s a connection between those people and the people actually using it. Making sure the techniques for the framework of your building are aligned with the program is really important.”

“It’s really important to have a maintenance team right from the get-go,” says Anderson from Fluresh, which has two cultivation facilities in Michigan. “If you hire the team when things start breaking, they don’t know how it was built. They need to be there when it’s put together. We have a full maintenance team of four to six people in each facility, which is way more than I would have guessed!”

The head grower you start with, isn’t always the one you end up with. Many cultivators we talked with had parted ways with their first cultivator, finding that having a great relationship with the plant doesn’t mean you’re ready to manage a big staff for a large-scale, labor intensive job.

“Growers are artists,” says Murray. “In the black market, they have been very successful. Made a lot of money – half a million plus. For them to come into our industry, take a massive pay cut and do it legally, it’s hard to find somebody.”

Operators putting together some of the first legal cultivation operations had to turn to growers with experience in the underground market, which didn’t necessarily translate to what legal operations needed, said Justice Grown’s Jon Loevy.

“For one thing they weren’t able to get financing or scale particularly well, so they had to avoid attracting attention with big electricity bills, they learned how to do it by jerry rigging, as  opposed to using modern industrial methods,” said Loevy. “Back then there was literally nobody that wasn’t in the shadows. Over the last three or four years, there’s now plenty of legitimately skilled people out there. So it’s become easier to find people with [legitimate] experience.”

Once you’ve got a head grower hired and a facility built out, there’s a blizzard of other potential problems coming at you. And you’re not likely to figure them all out soon.

“In the beginning are microbials [and] trying to manage the environmentals. The whole process takes about 100 to 110 days beginning to end. It takes a long time to just get data points,” said Murray. “You might have done well in your cloning, but your flowering went too high, with lots of mildew. Powdering mildew, in the drying phase [because], you pulled the humidity down too fast, and now the weed is powdery.”

“People talk about VPD, vapor pressure deficit. It’s a mix of humidity and temperature in the room, how much moisture is contained in the space. The plants thrive under specific conditions. Depending on where they are in the life cycle you might want the conditions to change,” said Alpert. “If you’re dealing with powdery mildew it might not be good to be following the path of your VPD because the humidity will be too high, and then your plant would be useless. You might need to drop your VPD to something below your VPD chart, and that’s only something a skilled grower would understand.”

“We had a wildfire in California that one year made our product smokey tasting,” said Loevy. “I’ll tell you another thing: There’s no insurance. A lot of manufacturers can plan for bad events. You can’t insure these things [in cannabis], so it makes it a lot harder.”

And every flowering room can be different too, each with different outcomes, say cultivators.

“Every room will operate differently every time. I have rooms that are mirrors of each other, and they all operate different. Different dead zones, different low points. It doesn’t make sense. It is the law of error,” says Murray.

“Each strain behaves differently. We’ll adjust with nutrients and humidity and lighting for a strain specifically. One room you might run at 73 degrees, and the next is at 80, because that’s what that strain needs,” said Alpert.

“Everybody thinks they can put the plants down and instantaneously grow things. Cannabis likes a certain temperature range, a certain humidity, moisture range. Balancing that in a facility that might have more than 5,000 plants in it. That’s a challenge,” said Paul Chialdikas, from Illinois’ Bedford Grow.

Once a room is set up and working efficiently, cultivators still expect a certain amount of loss each year.

“It depends on the type of grow you’re in, outdoor, or indoor. Outdoor crops you kind of write off a certain percentage of drop. You know you’re going to lose a good chunk of it, because it’s outside,” said Alpert.

“We keep a certain percentage of annual loss. For us it’s 15 percent. You could lose to hermaphrodites, which is more stress related, like getting light in the middle of the night. A light leak, lights were off for too long, they were put into shock for a heat wave,” said Murray.

And then, in order to ensure you don’t bring in microbials or pests, you have to keep everything clean. Very clean.

“All our rooms are self contained. They are designed to carry the air only for that room, to create the climate for the strains in there. No cross contamination. You shut it down, and destroy the room, rather than the facility,” said Chialdikas, whose cultivation facility has eleven flowering rooms. “Each one of our flower rooms has in excess of 70 filters to clean the room.”

“[We make] sure people only wear freshly clean clothes before they come in facilities. [They] shower before they come to work. We make people put little booties over their shoes, or they have Crocs that get washed that stay at work,” says Alpert.

If a facility isn’t kept sparkling clean, and grow workers aren’t clean themselves, plants often get mites.

“Spider mites are really common,” says Alpert. “Those will do less damage than a broad mite, but they are microscopic. You don’t know you have them until it’s too late. They’ll crush your crop, they eat the roots of your plant.”

“There’s different kinds of pests that can destroy a plant,” says Redbud’s Murray. “Spider mites are specific to cannabis. They have an acid on their feet, and so you can see footprints on your leaves. To prevent that you deploy predators into your grow.”

The most effective predator for mites, says Murray, are ladybugs.

But then, perhaps a cultivator’s most oppressive enemy is bureaucracy.

“Compliance, compliance, compliance. It runs the business,” said Chialdikas. “Nothing is moved in this facility without a document.”