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When Bigger Comes Back to Bite You: Sizing Up Your Cultivation Business

How big should you build your next cultivation site?

What size facility will offer you the right balance of commercial-scale efficiency and product quality?

The answer is not easy, and the topic is rife with dissenting opinions.

Every grower’s goal should be “craft-quality” cannabis: a product that looks attractive, tastes amazing, smokes smoothly, and delivers the desired effect when consumed.

However, there is no clear standard for what makes a production facility a craft grow operation. There is no canopy or facility size that, once exceeded, magically becomes commercial-scale production.

In some states, the cut-off for micro-cultivation licenses is 5,000 square feet of canopy, and many in the industry would agree that this size—or less—constitutes a craft grow operation.

In a recent interview with Cannabis Business Executive, Steve DeAngelo echoed this sentiment, opining that the sweet spot for quality cannabis cultivation taps out around 5,000 square feet.

This is a commonly held opinion; the larger a cultivation operation, the lower the quality.

But is this always true in the world of plant production?

If a hydroponic tomato grower scales from 5,000 to 40,000 square feet of greenhouse, do the tomatoes automatically lose their flavor? Would a similar-sized expansion cause ornamental flower growers to produce poinsettias that are less red or Easter lilies with fewer blossoms?

Probably not. The connection between large facilities and poor product quality has less to do with invisible forces and more to do with oversights in planning, expenditures, and execution.

If your business is experiencing problems after a large-scale expansion, here are nine of the most likely culprits and how to fix them:

1. The head grower is not experienced with large-scale cultivation.

A home grow is not a production facility, and an indoor grow site isn’t a greenhouse. When these worlds collide, it’s usually the end product that suffers. Determine how you will grow (indoor, greenhouse, or outdoor) and hire a grower with a track record of successfully cultivating in that environment.

2. You hired the wrong director of operations.

Tight deadlines, investor pressure, and rushed decisions can result in hiring the wrong person to run your facility. If operational decisions are based more on spreadsheets than horticultural expertise, this will be reflected in the cannabis you grow. Arm your executive team with trusted advisors to help ensure the integrity of your cultivation program is safeguarded at the highest level.

3. The genetics have changed.

Scaling a business is not the appropriate time to introduce new varieties. Growing genetics that haven’t been adequately trialed can result in mediocre cannabis that won’t sell. If you have outstanding genetics, scale up using those same varieties. Trial new cultivars only once the expansion is complete, and do so in a dedicated R&D setting.

4. The environment has changed.

A cultivar grown indoors may express different traits when grown in a greenhouse. This can result in undesirable flower from a plant that was previously a winner. If you’re scaling up from a small indoor site to a large greenhouse, expect to take time dialing in the new growing protocols. You may not want to sell product from the first run.

5. Your genetics are contaminated.

Populating a large facility with contaminated starter plants will result in—you guessed it—a contaminated crop. If you’ve spent millions to build a new facility, spend the money to start pathogen-free by contracting a tissue culture lab to propagate your starter plants.

6. The focus is on meeting deadlines, not proper growing techniques.

Construction delays can make investors anxious to start seeing green, but rushing the cultivation process will do more harm than good. If construction gets pushed back, make sure the production schedule doesn’t suffer as a result. You can’t rush good growing.

7. You have insufficient staff, untrained staff, or the wrong staff.

Facilities don’t grow plants; people do. Scaling up and launching a production site without the correct number of adequately trained people will always lead to crop problems. If it were possible to run an understaffed cultivation site successfully, everyone would be doing it. Your plants are only as good as the people taking care of them. Hire and train wisely.

8. Someone eliminated critical processes that were deemed unscalable.

Craft-quality cannabis is often associated with growing practices that may not scale efficiently, such as organic soil cultivation, hand trimming, or slow curing. If you cut them from your cultivation program, don’t be surprised if the quality of your cannabis declines.

9. The facility was not built correctly.

The longer a crop spends outside its ideal environmental parameters, the more likely it is to suffer from disease or production problems. Facilities that aren’t designed to hold these parameters will consistently generate an inferior product. Skimping to save $20,000 on designers or engineers can quickly result in $1 million of unsaleable product. This never makes sense.

Quality cannabis can be found in production facilities of all sizes. When an expansion project goes wrong, don’t blame the fates. Plants are a product of their environment, and we create that environment. The fate of your crop is in your hands.

Ryan DouglasRyan Douglas

Ryan Douglas

Ryan Douglas helps businesses cultivate a profitable future in the cannabis industry. He is the founder of Ryan Douglas Cultivation, LLC and author of From Seed to Success: How to Launch a Great Cannabis Cultivation Business in Record TimeRyan has worked in commercial horticulture for 25 years and specializes in legal cannabis start-ups.

Before entering the cannabis industry, Ryan spent 15 years as a commercial greenhouse grower of ornamental and edible crops, growing up to 600,000 plants annually. As Master Grower from 2013 to 2016, he directed cultivation for Tweed Inc., the flagship subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation. Ryan now offers cultivation advisory services to cannabis operators worldwide, and he can be reached through his website, douglascultivation.com.

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