hand examining cannabis plant

What is a Master Grower? Probably not what you think

The title “Master Grower” sounds fairly straightforward. But, like many things in the world of cannabis — from strains to slang — this title has hazy origins that beg many questions.

What is a master grower? What does that title mean in today’s industry? How does one become a master grower?

Below, we’ll clear the air around this ambiguous title.

The controversial meaning of ‘Master Grower’ in cannabis

While investigating what it means to be a master grower in the cannabis industry, one thing became clear pretty quickly: many very experienced growers cringe at the title.

“Anyone that has been cultivating long enough to be considered a ‘Master Grower’ hates that term. I think you’ll find that pretty consistently across the board,” said Jason Davidson, Director of Cultivation at New Genetics in Michigan — and a cannabis grower with over 20 years of experience.

He wasn’t wrong. I heard from nearly every source I spoke to that, at best, this title has little relevance in today’s cannabis space. “Master Grower is a title that generally comes with negative connotations,” said Jody Vukas, Director of Cultivation at Happy Valley in Massachusetts.

While the exact origins remain hazy, I heard from many growers that the title was self-appointed and often used in the early days of legalization to get attention from owners and operators who needed a cannabis grower. “Shortly after hiring these ‘Master Growers’ it became clear that the individuals had little to no commercial cannabis cultivation experience,” Vukas shared, “This resulted in serious negative impacts to businesses.”

Unlike other trades, such as blacksmith, plumber, or mason, in cannabis, there are no governing bodies that provide certification of the title ‘Master’ based on skill testing and years of experience. In that sense, Master Grower is a title that’s been borrowed for cannabis but doesn’t have standardized requirements or certifications to back it up.

“I’m not a huge fan of the term Master Grower, just because way too many people call themselves Master Growers that have no idea what they’re talking about,” said Davidson. “It’s literally been made into a meme.”

The craft of cannabis cultivation

Cannabis cultivation is an art and a science. It’s also a craft that takes years of experience to do well and at scale. The term Master Grower implies just that: mastery of the craft of growing cannabis. For many growers in the industry today, both who come from cannabis and those who have cultivation experience with other plants, the idea of mastering the craft is just not possible.

Sayra Small is a grower with decades of experience. She co-owns and operates Farley’s Cannabis Farm in Maine. Among several other topics we talked about, she jumped from mold to relative humidity, wind speeds to the latent hop viroid, sanitation requirements to breeding — all are vital aspects of the craft that a Master Grower would need to have a deep and solid grasp … but she does not refer to herself as a “Master.”

“When I was a young grower a couple of years in, I believed my own hype and thought I was god’s gift to weed,” she said. “I probably would have popped off and said I was a Master Grower. Now, even with all these decades of experience, I realize the more I know, the more I don’t know.”

For many like Sayra, claiming mastery of the craft implies that there is nothing left to learn. “That’s what we cringe about,” said Angie Moreland, a cannabis grower who cut her teeth in legal cultivation with Cresco Labs in Illinois. “Be humble or the plants will humble you.” Moreland now works for Ball FloraPlant, one of the largest horticultural companies in the world.

The cannabis industry is attracting folks from many different areas of commercial horticulture and agriculture. According to Steve Garner, the Vice President of Cultivation at Ethos Cannabis, a multi-state operator in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland, the title Master Grower isn’t even used in these sister industries, either.

“Within the general horticulture world, including hydroponic vegetables and other crops that I’ve cultivated at a commercial scale in the past, if you used this terminology, you would get laughed out the door,” he said. “There is a humility in the broader industry and an acknowledgment that we’re all eternal students — that doesn’t seem to always exist in the commercial cannabis space.”

What is a Master Grower?

While some cannabis companies use the title Master Grower, you’re probably more likely to see high-level cultivation positions sporting titles like Head Grower, Lead Grower, Cultivation Manager, or Director of Cultivation.

Regardless of the title, the highest levels of commercial cannabis cultivation carry with them high levels of responsibility that require a wide breadth of skills — many of which have nothing to do with actually growing the plants.

What does it take to run a commercial cannabis growing operation?

It’s no secret that the art, science, and business of growing cannabis are changing — and changing quickly. In the regulated commercial markets driving the industry’s growth today, reaching the upper echelons of cultivation demands plant-touching, managerial, and general business skills.

“A Cultivation Manager [at Ethos] is responsible for all aspects of the health of their crop and their team,” said Garner. He explained positions like this require a wide breadth of knowledge and a whole host of tangible and intangible skills, for example:

  • People management
  • Production management
  • Foundations in plant sciences like biology, horticulture or agronomy
  • Creating a physical environment that is conducive to crop health
  • Competence with a variety of mechanical and controls systems such as plumbing, pumps, HVAC, fans, and motors
  • Foundations in entomology with a focus on cannabis pests and their integrated management (IPM)
  • Analytical troubleshooting and problem solving
  • Tracking and analyzing all key performance indicators related to the grow (like yield, potency, and costs for example)

“And a humility that allows you to test what you think you know daily,” he added.

A complex and demanding position

Considering that, as of 2021, the average size of a cannabis cultivation facility was about 40,000 square feet, it’s not surprising that running a commercial cannabis operation is a very complex and demanding position. “Some of the best growers I have met in the last 20 years can’t cut it in a commercial setting,” said Davidson. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

At MariMed, a company with a presence in seven states and the territory of Puerto Rico, the individuals in charge of the cultivation facilities must be well-versed in all aspects of cultivating cannabis in addition to being educated in horticulture, agriculture, and/or botany. “Our Directors of Cultivation are expected to know every aspect of the grow facility, including its design, equipment requirements, development of standard operating procedures, along with hiring and effectively managing staff,” said Tim Shaw, MariMed’s Chief Operating Officer.

Another common theme I heard from growers was the importance of being meticulous. “It’s not just the growing. You need to have extreme attention to detail,” said Jason Maclean, Partner and Lead Horticulturist at Cherry in Colorado.

Maclean has been growing cannabis for the past 18 years and got his start in a regulated commercial setting with one of the first medical license holders in Colorado. Today, he has a team of growers managing Cherry’s state-of-the-art facility, but he’s out there every day checking out crucial details like lighting, wind movement, and humidity while scanning for pests and other potential problems. Maclean also applies his attention to detail to business matters like projections for new markets as the company takes its brand national. “I love my job because it’s evolving every day, and I am always pushing myself to learn something new.”

Whether you’re ultimately tagged a Master Grower or not, success in commercial cannabis cultivation requires not just a wide variety of aptitudes but time, energy, and dedication to get there.

“There’s a very wide range of skills that need to be developed, and all of these take time,” said Garner. “Not days or months, but years and years of repetition in various settings and environments. Success in a single facility, environment, or moment in time is not sufficient to develop the skills to be a well-rounded grower.”

How can I get into cannabis cultivation? Advice from experienced growers

As David Kessler, Chief Science Officer of Agrify pointed out: Today, the cannabis industry employs more people than Starbucks. As of January 2022, the industry supported over 420,000 full-time jobs, and that’s up by over 100,000 jobs since 2021.

With the rapid growth of legal cannabis markets, there are lots of ways to get into cannabis cultivation, and the growers I spoke with offered some guidance for getting started:

Read books

Get your hands on some required reading material, namely a grower’s handbook or bible, and read it cover to cover. Then do that again a few more times.

The Cannabis Grower’s Handbook by Ed Rosenthal and Marijuana Horticulture: The Indoor/Outdoor Medical Grower’s Bible by Jorge Cervantes are two staples.

Grow your own plants

If you live in a state where you can legally grow your own cannabis plants, get on it.

“Knowing the language of the plants is the most important thing, and interacting in a way to bring them to their full genetic potential,” said Ben Lind, the Chief Science Officer and owner of Humboldt Seeds. That takes time, energy, and copious amounts of consistent practice.

And it doesn’t have to be cannabis plants either. “Grow an acre of food to feed your family, and then see if you want to get into cultivating,” said Small. She also suggests practicing with tomatoes or other more cost-effective plants to supplement your cultivation experience.

And take notes. Get a trusty notebook and record as much detail as you can. “Truly understanding the nuances of growing the plant requires you to collect a wealth of data,” said Moreland. Not only that, but many commercial operations use specialized software like Kessler’s Agrify and BlakThumb to streamline this process.

Cultivate passion

Those who love cannabis describe the experience of growing it as everything from “healing” to “fun” to downright “magical.” But have realistic expectations about what you’re getting into. There’s a lot to do in cultivation aside from spending quality time with the ladies during their growth cycle — especially for those at the top ranks of growing.

“It’s incredibly long hours and incredibly hard work, and there are a million responsibilities. The to-do list is always longer than you will ever be able to get done,” said Moreland. A passion for the plants and what you’re doing is a prerequisite for rising through the ranks.

Get a job, any job, and then work really hard

Across the board, every grower I spoke to underscored this point: The only way to become a proficient grower is through experience — lots of it and a variety of it, too.

“There’s nothing [that can replace] that lived experience,” said Small. “Some of the people that are studying this stuff in college can’t compete with someone who has been actively growing and working in the industry for 10 years. As far as experience is concerned, you can’t teach that.”

Several of the growers I spoke to got their start with entry-level positions, sometimes in other areas of the business outside of cultivation, like processing or packaging, just to get a foot in the door.

“The people that show up and care about the plant are the people who want to advance and move up in this industry,” said Maclean. “They love to come to work, and you can see it.”

Understand the history

Getting a solid grasp of the history of the cannabis plant, both globally and here in the US, is deeply important for understanding the social, cultural, scientific, and commercial context of the plant today. History informs much of how the industry is taking shape, from the racist beginnings of prohibition to the war on drugs, its medical and scientific significance to today’s social justice movements, and all the beautiful gnarly bits in between.

Understand that the industry is quickly evolving

Legal markets are maturing. The industry as a whole is expanding. Scientific and technological advances are plowing ahead. One thing is for sure: Change is a constant in cannabis.

Kessler believes we can look to commercial agriculture to inform the types of jobs we’re likely to see in cultivation. “We’re starting to see the organizational structures [in cannabis] mimic commercial agriculture,” he explained.

You may see entry-level positions called “Cultivation Associate” or “Technician,” with various levels (I, II, III, etc) within them. Section Leads oversee a group of technicians and carry responsibility for specific swaths of land or grow rooms. Beyond that, you start to reach the higher levels of cultivation, with positions such as Director and Head of Cultivation. Kessler also believes we’ll start to see specialization of these roles across functions and skills like propagation, cultivation, pest management, compliance, and so on.

Where to get cannabis cultivation training

Some cannabis companies require formal education in fields like horticulture, plant biology, or agronomy for cultivation jobs, and some don’t. The good news is that cannabis-specific formal training and educational options are becoming easier to come by. “Universities now are starting to realize that this is a full-fledged industry that is thriving,” said Kessler.

So while you may not be able to go out and become a certified Master Grower just yet, you’ll find many colleges and universities now offer cannabis training and degree programs with options that are cultivation specific.

Not sure if you want to invest in a full degree? “There are a lot of good ways to bolster your cultivation prowess without having a traditional or formal academic background,” said Kessler. As an example, he recommended auditing classes at a local college or university. Most institutions allow you to sit in on classes for free. You might also consider general agricultural training around greenhouse management or controlled growing environments to give you a leg up in getting a cultivation job.

But to hammer the point home: Hands-on work experience is invaluable. “A certification with these fundamentals could get your foot in the door with an entry-level position; but in the end, the only way to be able to step into and perform in these managerial roles is through solid experience — and lots of it,” said Vukas.

Bottom line

If you’re looking to reach the highest levels of cannabis cultivation, striving for the title of Master Grower might not be the way to go. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t many opportunities to learn about and work with the plants, even if it’s just in your backyard or grow tent.

“There is only one qualification that means anything, and that’s time,” said Lind. “And, I have to say, it is usually the plants that master us and not the other way around.”

So get out there and get growing.