Does Having a Green Thumb Help When Starting a Marijuana Farm?

A worker touches plants at a cannabis greenhouse in 2011 in Safed, Israel.

Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

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Answer by Caroline Zelonka, advertising copywriter:

Yes. For a new marijuana business, your grower is akin to your technical co-founder. And it’s not just your random green thumb—it’s a marijuana-specific thumb. Marijuana cultivation has a very short history as a legitimate pursuit. Sure, there are people who have been growing large crops illegally for years and many more smaller, quasi-legal operations in Amsterdam and select other locations. But there is no LinkedIn for pot farmers; the best you can do is Craigslist, maybe through High Times or specialty organizations.

Since its roots are in the illegal world, experienced growers are, by default, experienced criminals. Sourcing expertise in illegal matters is tricky and ripe with misinformation.

If growing plants is also tricky, growing crops is even harder. Sure, there are fertilizers and pesticides on the market, published light-and-dark schedules you can follow, reproducible cloning methods, and the like. But at the end of the day, this isn’t code-slinging or materials manufacturing; these are living plants that can and will react differently to the same stimuli.

Whether it’s minute changes in temperature and humidity, slight variations in the intensity of light produced by grow lights, the level of pest resistance or resiliency, the factors involved in successful plant growing are many. 

Heck, the plants can up and change gender on you—a phenomenon known as environmental hermaphroditism—introducing seed that can devastate a carefully cultivated all-female crop. The plant flowers are considered the usable part of the crop; the leaves and other tissue contain trace amounts of the active THC and cannabinoids, e.g. the elements that relieve pain and induce euphoria. Female plants make flowers; male or hermaphrodite plants make seeds.

There are many people who have deep knowledge of these issues, but again, through participating in formerly illegal enterprises. There’s no agriculture school or even community college teaching the marijuana growing arts, so credentials are harder to establish as well. 

In an ideal scenario, a marijuana farm enterprise should include an experienced grower who consistently raises high-quality crops. The proof is in the product, and product quality can be poor even if the grower is technically doing everything right.

In Washington state, it’s been legal for medicinal patients to keep up to 15 plants for personal use, meaning there’s a lot of shed-based growers out there who have beautiful, thriving plants—producing mediocre marijuana.

In a for-profit operation, an attorney is also a good person to have on the team. The amount of red tape is frightening, and even the state can’t keep its website current with ongoing permutations of the law. 

I’d also love to have an accountant/quality control engineer, someone who can keep track of the numbers and perform traceability requirements. I’d asked a compliance or enforcement offer (one of several state positions newly created by the marijuana industry) what typical problems he encounters during random compliance checks.

He mentioned “keeping track of the plant during harvesting,” which basically means tracking the bar code of the whole plant as it goes through the harvesting process, which involves dismantling the plant in order to dry it, trim the flowers, set the unusable parts aside for destruction—all while tracking it by plant bar code—and reporting numbers to the state.

A competent attorney and accountant can be found and trained on the nuances of legal marijuana cultivation, but a farmer isn’t so easy to find.

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