Smoke Signals

High Quality Cannabis At Scale

Simple management and design choices that can help your team grow award-winning cannabis at scale

I smile when I hear large-scale cultivators drone on ad nauseum about how impossible it is to grow high quality cannabis at scale. They throw up their hands, assuming their choice is black or white. Go big or go home, right? They obviously haven’t thought things through.

Of course, commercial cultivators need to grow quite a lot of cannabis to survive this volatile market. If you’re planning to build a boutique garden that dedicates less than 5,000 square feet to cultivation, you are taking a serious risk. At that scale, you have no room for error. One mistake, one regulatory fine, one act of God—and you’re done. I know, I started out in a 3,000 square foot commercial grow in 2009. It gave me ulcers.

At the same time, it’s short-sighted to focus exclusively on increasing yields without investing in quality. Too many cultivators take this approach, and while they keep yields up and employee costs down, they grow terrible cannabis that no one wants. It can sell for less than $600 per pound, while high quality wholesale cannabis ranges from $1800 to $4,000 depending on location. This low-quality product is generally used for low-quality extraction and infused products.

If you are an infused product manufacturer who grows cannabis solely for the intention of creating distillate or isolate to add to an edible, topical, or pill, quality matters less. Although you will certainly achieve higher extraction yields when using higher quality flower, in the end those yields have to outweigh the increased labor and facility design costs to make a high quality grow worth it. I get it. This may not be for you. Fair enough.

However, be careful not to box your company in with a cheap cultivation strategy. You lose the chance to identify with customers who care how their cannabis was grown, which is becoming increasingly important in both food and medicine. You lose the potential to sell flower at premium prices. You lose the ability to compete in any kind of qualitative contest, which can be important for brand exposure. If you make this choice, understand the trade-offs.

Like ancient civilizations that assumed the world was flat and the oceans infested with monsters, and so never left the comfort of shore, most large-scale cultivators haven’t given any thought as to whether it is possible to have both quantity AND quality. Good news: it’s totally possible, and some of the world’s most innovative cultivators are doing it.

Here’s what I present to my clients during each design phase:

Create intentional room sizes and invested teams

  • Reduces the threat of cross-contamination
  • Smaller teams are more invested in each harvest batch
  • Seamless workflow for post-harvest and sales teams
  • Predictable weekly cash flow

How to pull it off:

    1. Room Size Matters

  • a.How much cannabis do you plan to harvest every week? Your grow rooms should accommodate one week’s volume of cannabis. For mid-range cultivators, this might be 1,000-2,000 square feet each. For larger-scale cultivators, rooms could be 5,000-10,000 square feet. If needed, a very large producer might harvest 2-3 rooms per week, which is fine as long as the same number of rooms are harvested each week.

    2. Number of Rooms

  • a.How long is your flowering cycle? Build the same number of flowering rooms as the number of weeks in your flowering cycle, each staggered a week apart. Like clockwork, each Monday one room begins a harvest and by Friday it’s empty and ready to sterilize. Plant it the following Monday, and begin harvesting the next room.
  • b.For every 3 parts of space dedicated to Flowering, I allocate 1 part to Veg. For example, for nine 1,000 sqft Flower rooms, allocate at least 3,000 sqft for Veg and Propagation.
  • c.Drying space is important! Don’t throw away all your hard work by drying and curing your harvest poorly. Hang-drying remains the best way to ensure quality isn’t lost when buds squish themselves under their own weight, as with baking racks. Keep harvest batches separate and disinfect rooms between uses (you need at least 2 rooms for this). Drying rooms should be about one-third to one-half the size of your flowering room.

    3. Small Cultivation Teams

  • a.Create micro teams who work together in just a few rooms. This leads to the same kind of oversight and ownership you’d expect from a craft cannabis grow, and makes a huge difference. I appoint a team lead for each micro team, who is in charge of record-keeping and organization. Because each team sees the same plants each day, they catch problems much faster. And they care more—which means they work harder. Additionally, the most successful Team Leads can be identified and promoted—which is essential for retention and growth.

    4. Post-Harvest Teams

  • a.Spikes or dips in production mean that your facility isn’t utilizing its staff or its space to maximum benefit. By designing your facility to have consistent weekly production, you can hire and retain a post-harvest team that is more efficient than an outside temp-trimming crew.

You can absolutely grow craft cannabis at scale. Construction and labor costs will be higher, but it will give your business a competitive edge, maintaining greater flexibility to create high quality cannabis products as the market develops.

Let’s run the numbers: Imagine your facility yields 1000 pounds per week of cheap, low-quality flower that sells for $800 per pound. It costs you $250 per pound to produce since you run a bare-bones operation and you don’t pay your employees well. Great, you net $55,000 per week. Or, you invest in better infrastructure and more educated employees who you compensate fairly. It may cost you $1000 to produce each pound—and that seems crazy at first blush—but you’re selling those pounds on the wholesale market for $1800. Congratulations, you net$80,000 per week, and everyone talks about your amazing brand.

Quality matters. As each market comes online, there’s a race to the bottom at some point. But when the dust settles, it is generally the companies who offer value that emerge victorious. As you consider your next project, I hope you aren’t fooled by the ”flat earth“ growers who say you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can—and you should!

Cassandra Maffey
Cofounder and CEO of Fire Tower. Cassandra is the creator of Scalable Living Soil, an organic, high-volume cultivation system powering large-scale producers around the country. Recently named one of High Times' Top 50 Women in Cannabis.