As the cannabis industry evolves toward something resembling maturity, it’s time to dispel the myth that cannabis “grows like a weed.” While it may be true that humans have been growing cannabis under a wide variety of conditions for millennia, growing cannabis that produces consistent chemical profiles, results in predictably high yields, and meets quality standards is a very different proposition—especially at scale and over time.
Successfully growing commercial cannabis is a highly complicated balance of plant science and business management. In a physical environment where the slightest errors can have catastrophic results for your plants, and in a market environment where downward pressure on wholesale prices has forced many operators out of business, cultivators simply cannot afford to repeat others’ mistakes.
With decades of combined cannabis consulting experience, we've seen it all at Canna Advisors. Whether you’re planning your own cultivation operation or working with someone who is, here’s your cheat sheet to the most common cannabis cultivation pitfalls - and what you can do to avoid them.
1. Thinking a horticulture degree or background equates to cannabis cultivation expertise
Many make the assumption that horticultural experience alone (or cannabis experience alone) is all that’s needed to be successful in cultivating commercial cannabis. In reality, it takes a combination of both, typically between more than one person. Without the expertise in large-scale horticulture necessary to run a commercial-sized operation and the cannabis-specific knowledge to ensure the plants are grown to their full potential, many companies hit technical snags or fall short of production goals, both of which could spell the end of the business.
2. Lack of proper facility design
Designing (or retrofitting) your facility to fit your operational needs is imperative to success. Many are tempted to cut corners to meet an aggressive startup timeline and be “first-to-market.” Then, once operational, they find themselves stuck working around inefficiencies that could have been avoided had they spent more time planning. This requires a thorough understanding of your operational needs for the entire cultivation cycle as well as redundancy considerations.
3. Obtaining bad starting clones or seeds from breeders
Plant genetics are the foundation of every cannabis cultivation operation, and sourcing them is the most overlooked and potentially ruinous part of initial operations. Cultivators who purchase unstable genetics from disreputable sources are left with few options to source new plants and often do not recover from such a major misstep so early in the life of their business. Remember to fully vet your source: see the adult plants and finished flower from the strains themselves, ask about their breeding process, and cut the clones or select the seeds yourself (or observe the person who does).
4. Failure to track and optimize plant growth
Many cultivation licensees make the mistake of thinking that all cannabis strains have the same needs and grow in the same way. The best cultivators pay attention to each individual strain and plant, making adjustments to nutrients and environmental conditions in order for them to thrive. By recording these adjustments in logbooks for each strain, along with the potency and yield, you begin to build a cumulative stream of data you can then leverage to improve crop performance. Failure to do so means your cost per gram of production never decreases, and you’re likely to be undercut by a more attentive competitor.
5. Inconsistent cycled cultivation and harvest timelines
Cultivators must adjust production schedules to remove bottlenecks and shortages. What do you do when you have a propagation room full of clones ready to be up-potted into vegetative growth, but there’s no room because your vegetative plants aren’t ready to be moved to their flowering cycle? What do you do when you just finished harvesting and cleaning your flower room, but plants in vegetative growth are not ready to switch phases? Cultivators who schedule their production timelines effectively are able to optimize their entire process flow and maximize facility output. Those who do not are stuck answering questions like these while watching money leave their bank accounts.
6. Improper propagation methodologies
Plants that produce the best yields all start as strong clones, and cultivators must establish a clear process for propagating their plants. These young plants are often the least well-cared-for, and many cultivators accept very high levels of plant mortality at this stage. While some clones will die, taking good care in the propagation stage allows cultivators to select from the best of the best, not just from the best of those remaining. Standardization of the cloning process is important, so that clones are all cut, dipped in rooting hormones, and cared for consistently.
7. Growing without an established integrated pest management schedule
Pest management requires significant planning and continuous preventative measures in order to protect crops and minimize the possibility of contamination. First, plan your facility design to incorporate strategies like air-curtains, sterile gowning rooms, and compartmentalized grow areas. Second, establish a monitoring procedure and preventative measures like foliar essential oil sprays and decontamination procedures for reused equipment. Lastly, respond to pest incursions immediately and severely. Cultivators who fail to establish these measures will find themselves faced with dramatic incursions which could spell the end of their entire harvest.
8. Operating without multiple specialized environments and nutrient regimens
Many cultivators assume that all cannabis plants grow in the same way or are stuck working within a cultivation facility that does not have the ability to customize different environments and nutrient regimens to fit the preferences of different strains. Breaking larger grow rooms into smaller areas and installing a fertigation system capable of sending different nutrient batches to different plants will allow you to customize environmental and nutrient conditions to each strain and optimize their growth.
9. Failing to train staff effectively or provide a structure for reporting observations.
Understanding the interlocking system of operational inputs is crucial to success in cannabis cultivation. Incorporating this understanding into training materials for all staff-members empowers your employees within your space. This knowledge, along with a clear reporting structure, gives employees the ability to voice their observations regarding operations and builds in fail-safes against lapses in quality and operational integrity. For example, training your trimmers to identify signs of powdery mildew or spider mites empowers them to report contamination that might have been overlooked by cultivation employees during harvesting.
10. Not establishing a strong network of relationships with equipment suppliers
The market for cultivation equipment and supplies has exploded in recent years, making it challenging to choose all the products necessary for operations. Ask potential equipment providers if their products are Underwriters Laboratory-certified. Ask potential supply providers if they provide certificates of analysis ensuring the quality and consistency of their products. Establishing good relationships with all your vendors will help to ensure they are there for you when equipment fails or supplies get held up. But don’t put all your eggs in one basket - it’s wise to have backup vendors identified to maintain your production schedule should supply problems occur.
11. Waiting until the last minute to address operational issues
Burying your head in the sand never once solved a problem. Backup plans are essential for all areas of operations. That means backup staff on call for when someone is sick, backup nutrients for when your supplier fails to deliver on time, and backup generators for when a winter storm knocks out power to your building. Leading a commercial cultivation operation requires planning ahead and addressing challenges before they become insurmountable problems.
12. Failing to set the bar as high as possible for the first inspection
It can be tempting to think of your first health and safety inspection as a trial run. But that mindset can cause you to miss out on one of the simplest ways to inspire excellence in your operation. Your team will never be more incentivized and enthusiastic than they are at the very beginning, when everything is fresh, new, and exciting. That is exactly the time to set a precedent for the highest possible commitment to compliance. When your team clears that bar the first time, there’s no room for excuses in the future.
Garrett Cropsey is Project Manager at Canna Advisors. His areas of expertise include business planning, feasibility studies, inventory control, record keeping, QA/QC, standard operating procedures, operational efficiency, sanitation, security, testing requirements, and staffing/training, amongst others. Garrett has a BA in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from CU-Boulder and worked in both the pharmaceutical and geoscience industries prior to his transition into cannabis.