One of the pressing problems in the horticulture industry is the lack of a specialized workforce. Even more difficult is the search for growers that are knowledgeable regarding the specific processes that a growing operation carries out. This problem is particularly felt within the cannabis industry. This subset of horticulture is a combination of medicine and agriculture; therefore, growers need to be careful of working always in the same, and especially clean, way.
In order to find a solution to the shortage of manpower in this nascent industry, Brent Van Zile came up with a concept which aims to solve this issue, providing cannabis companies with specialized growers that are suitable for their needs. “I have run a couple of different vertically-integrated facilities, one in Rhode Island and another in Massachusetts, and I have always run into staffing issues myself – especially on the East Coast where the cannabis program wasn’t very well established,” he explains. “Through the different connections and contacts, I started working with a couple of clients as a consultant and found out that there was a real need for finding specialized workforce in this sector.” And this is how he got the idea of Get-a-grower.
Finding the right grower
“Get-a-grower is a staffing and consulting company primarily focused on the recreational and medical cannabis markets. I oftentimes work with companies at the start-up phase to help them staff a head grower or a director of cultivation – somebody that already has years of experience who companies can use to start off on the right foot, thus preventing them from resorting to someone who comes from the black market and has to figure out along the way how large-scale operations function,” he explains.
In order to find the right person for a specific growing operation, Brent actively participates in the designing phase, taking care of outlining flexible SOPs. “A lot of times projects take months and years to complete, during that time I act as an ad interim head grower to set up SOPs, and then we can find a grower that can take over the facility from there,” he says.
“During the facility design, I focus on the HVAC and the irrigation systems and run a couple of metrics on them so as to be sure that we have enough variable control for implementing flexibility in the design since the beginning,” he continues. “It is cheaper to design one system and never change it. But then, if you want to implement new technologies or methods, then doing it down the road can become extremely expensive,” he says.
According to him, the main problem among growers is that many of them have a black-market background and therefore lack the knowledge to manage large-scale operations. “Education and knowing how these bigger rooms are going to react is a major issue among growers with previous experience in the black market,” he explains. “Also, some growing operations are on a pretty tight budget. So, it might be that these ‘inexperienced’ growers are in charge of facilities that don’t have the best HVAC equipment and are not sized correctly, for instance. Another thing these people struggle a lot with is the regulation that varies from state to state and changes very frequently. This means that they need to adapt themselves and their operations to the changing regulations.”
The worst grower vs the best grower
From his extensive experience in working with many different types of growers, Brent outlines the attitudes growers should avoid if they want to be successful. “The worst growers are the ones that are not open to changing anything on how they’re set up - maybe they are used to basement setups, using liquid nutrients in bottles (which oftentimes is just ‘sugar in a bottle’, so to say).”
Then, Brent points out a very important aspect that growers with no experience in large-scale operations tend to overlook: “Growers should understand delegation. When working on small scale operations, they can be perfectionists. However, in large-scale operations, you need to be sure not to burn yourself out and develop very good SOPs. This is when ego sometimes gets involved, preventing processes from being optimized.”
Then, Brent describes what is important for a grower to be successful: “The best growers are pretty much the exact opposite. They are constantly looking for upgrading their process and new researches. I think that horticulture is important and can provide growers with a lot of knowledge on best practices, but leadership quality is what really factors in for long-term success.”
Being successful despite the strict regulations
Working with many companies, Brent can rely on extensive hands-on experience with regards to the best solutions for companies to be successful, while at the same time respecting the regulations in effect. “The Rhode Island scene suffers some regulation issues. They have only 3 licensed dispensaries, but the state approved 70 cultivators that can supply only those 3 retailers. So, there is an oversupply and prices dropped, pushing some growers to shut down. I worked with a company there and we were able to create effective SOPs, thus increasing their yield and reducing the cost. They are only one of the few growers that are active there and can make a profit,” he says.
Future’s looking bright
However, the situation is going to improve soon as a lot of things are happening, especially in higher education institutions. “I think it is going to even it out effectively. I have friends in academia in horticulture science classes. There is a new wave of students graduating that see being a cannabis grower as a viable job and opportunity for the future. This is their plan from the beginning and they are traditionally trained to do this. We will see the work force evening out as these people enter the job market.”