Cultivating Success

Looking to experts in traditional agriculture instead of garage growers can pay dividends for commercial cannabis businesses

I’ve talked to and interviewed dozens and dozens of cultivators since Washington and Colorado first legalized marijuana for recreational use. The overriding theme that has emerged is that the business of growing cannabis commercially has almost no connection to the previously illegal industry.

If you’re thinking about growing marijuana commercially and your plans call for a larger version of a garage operation, prepare for a rude awakening. At Marijuana Venture, we’ve been pretty outspoken in our belief that success in the new industry is far more dependent on factors like the right hires and a solid business plan than secret strains and prior Cannabis Cup victories. Nothing has changed since we first started publishing these views, and in fact, the more I talk to growers, the more obvious it becomes that they will win or lose based on some fairly simple principles that would be considered “Business 101” in any other industry.

With that in mind, here are several suggestions that I believe can save future commercial growers a lot of money and heartache.


Pot culture books and articles are great for the general public, but the serious professional should be reading real articles written by real experts. There is a wealth of great information published on the Internet and university websites.

If you’re contemplating commercial greenhouse production — known in academic circles as controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — that particular form of cultivation has been extensively studied and researched at several major universities, including the University of Arizona, Michigan State, Cornell, Utah State and Washington State. Remember: Plants are plants, and photosynthesis is photosynthesis. Almost all university CEA research applies to cannabis in one way or another.

One great site to check out is PLOS ONE (, which publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers that are open to the public. If you want to read about the efficacy of grow lights based on university research, search for professor Bruce Bugbee on the PLOS ONE website and you will find the  comprehensive study conducted at Utah State University that rates all the major types of grow lights. It provides straight-forward, unambiguous information based on scientific data.

Michigan State University also has plenty of articles on greenhouse production on its website. Professor Erik Runkle and his floriculture team have published dozens of great papers on everything from supplemental greenhouse lighting to early flowering techniques, and most of Runkle’s papers are written in a style that is easy for non-academics to understand.

Attend ag shows

I admit that going to cannabis events is fun, but if you’re about to sink big money into a commercial cannabis farm, you might want to consider an agriculture trade show instead.

Attend the Cultivate’17 trade show in Columbus, Ohio on July 15-18. It’s not a cannabis show per se, but it is the largest CEA trade show in North America with 600-plus exhibitors showing everything a grower could need — grow lights, commercial greenhouses, HVAC systems, blackout curtains, soil, nutrients, containers, tools and more.

I’ll be blunt: If you’re thinking about commercial cannabis production in a greenhouse and don’t attend Cultivate, you’re either not serious or not very smart. Another non-cannabis show worth attending is Farwest in Portland, Oregon on Aug. 23-25.

Hire slow, fire fast

This basic principle guides most smart business people.

The smooth-talking closet grower with no experience in managing a commercial business is probably not the right person to run your large-scale cannabis farm.

Time and time again, growers have told me that they got sucked in by someone who knew how to grow cannabis in a garage or basement, but were essentially worthless when it came to managing 4,000 plants in a commercial CEA facility. So, take your time hiring. The smart thing to do is to heavily discount any advice from a “master grower” whose business background comes exclusively from the illegal pot industry.

Hayden Library on Arizona State university Tempe campus

Attend classes

I don’t mean classes at Weed University. I mean real classes.

The University of Arizona has several short courses each year at the CEA center on its Tucson campus. The university offers two- and three-day courses on greenhouse management, hydroponics and other subjects, taught by people with advanced degrees in floriculture and lots of experience designing and managing large, commercial CEA facilities. The classes are not about cannabis, but the general science behind plant cultivation.

Several cannabis growers who we previously advised about the courses said they learned more in those two days than in years of growing before legalization. For information on the University of Arizona courses, go to and click on “CEAC Seminar Series” or “Public CEA Events.” One of the best is the Greenhouse Crop Production & Engineering Design Short Course. The program is April 3-7. Email Austin Smith for more information:


The above universities and professors are government-funded and do not research cannabis specifically; however, many have pointed out that the research they have done applies to any plant grown in a controlled environment.

We believe that the key to success in the new legal marijuana industry is knowledge. We admire and like to hear about the experiences of growers who have learned their craft from years of clandestine gardens.

However, there is simply no substitute for proven research and experience that comes from folks with advanced degrees in plant sciences. The growers who will be most successful in this industry will be the ones who continually build upon their existing knowledge and never reach the point where they think they’re masters of the craft.

Greg James is the publisher of Marijuana Venture and SunGrower & Greenhouse magazines. He has more than 25 years of experience running a consumer software company with more than $500 million in sales to Walmart, Costco, Amazon, Best Buy and other major retailers.



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