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Identifying and recruiting a master grower is one of the biggest challenges and most important decisions for any cannabis cultivation start-up. Referrals often start with, “So my buddy knows this person …” and offer little reassurance. For owners with minimal cannabis knowledge or experience, the task can be daunting. Hire the right grower, and your grow could prosper for years. Make the wrong choice, and your cultivation facility might not ever get off the ground. This column aims to demystify the hiring process through five practical pointers for finding and hiring the perfect grower for your needs.

1. Look for Top-Notch Qualifications

At a minimum, your master grower should have five years’ experience with commercial plant production. Cannabis experience is preferred, but skills gleaned from cultivating ornamental or traditional agriculture crops can be transitioned to cannabis easily.

In addition to cultivation experience, character is critical because whomever you hire for the position will help establish company culture through leading by example. This includes arriving on time, working a full day and being willing to work outside regular business hours. Master growers should live near the production site, especially during the start-up phase, as they will be the first to respond to system emergencies and equipment alarms.

Because a master grower’s job is only 50-percent growing, excellent candidates should possess people-management, conflict-resolution and delegation skills. The ability to communicate effectively and intelligently with board members, media, investors and visitors is a plus. Time management skills are also critical for growers as they balance office demands with time on the production floor.

While not a prerequisite, it may be beneficial if your master grower is also a cannabis consumer. Would you hire a chef that never tasted his food? A grower who is a medical marijuana patient, or who may legally consume in a recreational state, may be more in-tune with product quality and customer satisfaction.

2. Search for Candidates in the Right Places

Poach - The easiest way to acquire a new grower is to poach him or her from an existing successful operation. Almost everyone is interested in hearing about new opportunities—it’s exciting and flattering to be “recruited.” Even if the potential grower is not interested, he or she might refer a grower who is.

HeadHunters - There are plenty of professional recruiting firms that specialize in the cannabis industry, and they can be an excellent way to identify qualified growers. Anticipate paying a recruiting fee of anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of the grower’s salary, but make sure to include a rider that if the hire quits or is terminated within the first 90 days, a replacement will be recruited free of charge.

Want Ads - Post vacancies on cannabis job websites to generate mass interest; however, 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 of resumes that you are sure to receive.

Network - Cannabis conferences and trade shows are 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, exchange contact information, request resumes and schedule follow-up interviews.

3. Approach the Interview Wisely

The best approach for vetting your potential grower is the same as with any industry: the job interview!

It can be helpful to provide the candidate with scenarios of typical growing challenges, and see how they respond. Show a photo of cannabis plant with a common nutrient deficiency and ask the candidate to troubleshoot the situation. Beware of candidates that provide a singular solution, such as “give it more fertilizer.”

Top candidates will answer your question with more questions to correctly diagnose the problem before prescribing a remedy. Excellent growers will understand that most problems develop over the course of days, if not weeks, and can be the result of multiple influencing factors that require thoughtful and thorough solutions.

4. Pay Fairly

Your master grower will be one of your highest-paid employees. Your operation profits by growing and selling cannabis, so successful cultivation is paramount to your business. This value is reflected in today’s salary range for experienced cannabis cultivators.

Cream-of-the-crop growers (those who require no training and have the knowledge to launch a successful commercial operation from scratch) will cost you roughly $250,000 to $300,000 annually. They have experience complying with state regulations and have no history of product recalls under their management. This type of grower is truly “plug and play.”

If you can’t afford a grower of that caliber, don’t despair—the typical master grower today earns between $120,000 and $150,000 a year. While these individuals may not have commercial growing expertise or training in government compliance, many will have cannabis-specific experience and the desire to learn.

Tightly budgeted family operations may find entry-level growers to be their best option. Be prepared to spend $60,000 to $90,000 annually for an entry-level grower. Consider bolstering this hire by bringing on a cultivation consultant to help ensure against costly mistakes that are common among entry-level growers.

5. Retain Your Grower While You Await Your License

Once you hire your grower, you want them to stay, as retaining talent is more cost-effective than hiring. Groups applying for a cultivation license often identify a grower and then draft a conditional employment agreement stating that if the group is awarded a license, the candidate will be hired. The interim between signing the contract and starting the job is when touchy issues can arise.

Some groups will request that the grower plan cultivation activities while they await the license. Facility design, fertilizer recipes, standard operating procedures (SOPs), equipment, technology and material lists are common requests. The conditional grower may even be asked to draft job descriptions, conduct interviews and recruit the cultivation team.

It’s no secret that consulting firms charge considerable fees to do this work, and requesting (or worse, insisting) that your conditional grower handle these tasks for free is unethical. In states that implement new cannabis regulations, the wait to receive a license can stretch anywhere from six months to two years. The longer the wait, the more your conditional grower’s frustration and animosity can build. He or she may begin seeking opportunities elsewhere.

The solution to this problem is simple: Pay them! Whether it’s an hourly fee or set compensation for pre-license work, pay your conditional grower for his or her help without any strings attached. You’re already paying application writers, lobbyists, accountants, lawyers and architects regardless of whether you win a license. Your grower should be no different.

Head growers are not a dime a dozen, and as cannabis cultivation businesses continue to launch nationwide, competition for the top growers will continue to heat up. Follow these pointers to help ensure that you find and keep the most talented growers who fit your company’s culture and cultivation needs. 

Ryan Douglas provides cannabis consulting services through his company, Ryan Douglas Cultivation, LLC. He has worked in commercial horticulture for 20 years and spent three years directing cultivation for Canada’s largest licensed medical cannabis producer.