In Cannabiz Team’s newly updated 2020 Cannabis Salary Guide, the director of cultivation role stands out as one of the top-paying jobs in the cannabis industry today. As hot as this position is, what does it actually entail behind the scenes? What does success look like? What do people hoping to obtain a cultivation director role need to know? For answers to all these questions, Green Flower sat down with Steve Council, Cultivation Director for Natura Life Science, for some surprising insights.
“Most people don’t really understand what this position entails,” Council says. “If you look at my Instagram, you might think this job is just running around in giant fields full of weed, but you don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes.”
Council compares the unseen complexity of his work to fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, where the average consumer has no idea what goes into bringing products to shelf. “You don’t understand how many months it took to grow that one piece of produce, or that it took 50 different workers caring for it over a 100-day span and harvesting and then everything else it took for it to actually get there in the supermarket.”
During a videoconference interview, Council gestures to the office environment around him, indicating multiple computer screens and big whiteboards full of information. “This is just a lot of people collectively working diligently every day for hours and hours to put their best into the product for whatever our goal is – whether it’s producing oil, pre-rolls, or top-shelf Grade A flower, or contract growing for another company,” he notes.
Duties Of The Job
When taking larger scale operations like Natura into account, the director of cultivation position requires all the more focus, patience, and time on the job, Council explains. Currently, he works about 70 hours a week, although this week he admits he’s pushing 100. “It’s not going to be like that forever. We’re in the startup phase, so there are a lot of things happening – bringing on staff every week, implementing new systems – we like to say we are filling up the gas tank while turning a corner.”
Council is currently overseeing the cultivation of tens of thousands of cannabis plants across 30,000 square-feet of operating space. “When we are at full capacity, we’ll be operating with about 100,000 square-feet of actual flowering canopy, and about 175,000 square-feet of overall greenhouse, and there’s going to be a lot of automation going on throughout,” he notes.
With the operation still in startup mode, there is never any shortage of tasks to be completed. “I’ll start off the day with a list of responsibilities I need to do, and throughout the day I’ll get a whole new list of things that pop up all of a sudden,” he laughs.
As director of cultivation, Council is usually first to arrive each morning and last to leave at the end of the day. “I come in and check out all the plants. I walk through all the greenhouses and all the areas just to see if anything has happened overnight and to see if there’s anything I should be worried about, and also just to appreciate the plants in the building, to send some love and energy to all the beautiful ladies in there,” he says.
After the initial walk-through, he’ll start to think about what he can do to help get his team prepared for the day. “Right now, a lot of our responsibilities come down to metric and inventory tracking and tracing, maintenance of plants, and scheduling of those plants,” Council reveals. “So right now, what I’ll do is go through and make sure we are either on or off schedule. I’ll go through and check our clones and see if they are popping roots, go through the veg areas, check out the plants, check on the stage of growth, and how they are acclimating to their environment since this is a brand-new grow.”
On top of tracking and maintaining all those plants, Council is also overseeing the commissioning of the equipment coming into the new facility. “Part of my duties throughout the day is just making sure the equipment is functioning as it should. We have a ton of automated equipment and a ton of things happening to make sure the whole plant is working and staying healthy,” he notes.
Drop cloths, blackout curtains, vents, pads, motors, and pumps – all these things need to be working with each other at all times. If something malfunctions, it’s Council’s job to get with the engineers, IT department, construction crew, or whoever it is to help resolve the issue. “Right now, there is just a ton of different work all over the place, and we’re doing whatever we can, whatever it takes to make it happen.
With so much happening, it’s an environment where things can get stressful real fast if energies are left unchecked, which is where a big part of the team’s culture comes into play. “I’ve started implementing this from day one, that we have a positive mindset. Myself, the managers, and the entire crew understand that we can literally accomplish anything with our minds,” he says. “We don’t come in with bad attitudes, we don’t bring anything negative to the grow space. We are very adamant about having a great mindset, and we understand that is the key to all the stuff that we are doing. It just comes down to faith and belief, you know?”
More Than Just Growing Skills
Council learned a lot of his current skills coming up in Las Vegas. He actually started his career in the advertising industry, only to realize his heart wasn’t there. So, despite the success he’d achieved, he quit and tried out as many different jobs as possible – all while growing his own cannabis on the side. He’d discovered early in life that the plant helped him with his ADHD and that he couldn’t trust other people to grow it properly without cutting corners.
Eventually Council found his way to a few different consulting roles in the legal industry before opening his own consulting agency, which he left to join Natura. Essentially, all the experience and knowledge he’d built up over the years is adding value in his role as cultivation director because, as he says, “this job is much more than just growing cannabis.”
Managing large teams of people, understanding good business practices, and knowing all the rules and regulations – perfect examples of how this job entails more than one might think. “And I have to want to do those things. I have to show up every day with a good attitude to do those things because if you don’t, it all starts up here and trickles down. If I don’t have a good attitude, then how is everyone else I am working with going to want to show up and have a great time? It’s not going to happen. You need to understand those things,” Council says.
“You also need to understand business. Honestly, if you don’t have a degree in business, you better get some books and start reading. Think of the business as a giant ship you have to sail. If you don’t understand business, that ship is going to sink fast and hard.”
It’s also helpful, Council continues, to have some understanding of construction, learning how the building was constructed and being able to work on or fix things yourself when necessary. “If you’re constantly relying on everybody else when an issue comes up, then you’re not going to make it through,” he advises. “For instance, if you don’t understand your watering system for your building, if you don’t understand the software through it, if you can’t work on a computer – if you can’t do those things then you’re not going to be able to cut it. It just is what it is.”
Be Prepared For Anything
In a work environment where the most unexpected catastrophes can suddenly occur and potentially upend your entire work week, positive energy is indeed a must. “Everything that you think is going to go to plan won’t. It’s going to blow up in your face. Things are going to happen,” Council cautions.
He recalls one of the earlier grows he’d been overseeing in Las Vegas. Nobody foresaw how one of the investors would go in and mess with the AC system, ultimately shutting the whole thing off. “When over 100 high pressure sodium lights come on, the temperature is very hot. Imagine that with no AC. In the desert, no less,” Council says.
At 11:30 p.m. that night he got a call from the fire department. The sprinkler system had popped and was flooding the building. “The next thing I know, I’ve got 20,000 gallons of water spread across about 10,000 square-feet of grow, and I had to figure out what to do because in two days I’ve got plants going into these rooms, which we just finished dialing in.”
To prevent the incoming crop from molding, Council had to call in construction crews to start ripping out the bottom two feet of the walls and basically rebuild a grow in 48 hours. “That was an emergency that popped up which I never saw coming. I could have never planned to basically have Shamu’s swim tank dumped into my grow in one night. That’s something I never thought would happen,” he recalls.
Council recounts another emergency scenario during his Vegas days, which happened right before the facility was scheduled for inspection. The team learned they had to silicone seal the entire floor, and that the seal had to go up the wall 4 to 6 inches from the actual base of the floor. “We got that information the day before our building was to be inspected – a 20,000 square-foot facility – so I was there for almost 36 hours straight with two other people silicone sealing the floors all the way around the entire facility. I’m talking every office, every room; we had to silicone seal everything by ourselves just to pass the inspection,” Council remembers.
“And that’s amongst everything else you need to do just for a normal business operation on top of that. That’s something I would’ve never seen coming. I didn’t think I would be sealing floors for 36 hours just to put plants in the building. I could probably write a book about all the stuff I would’ve never thought I’ve seen in cannabis that I did see.”
Final Advice For Directors Of Cultivation
Working in the legal cannabis cultivation space requires a lot of flexibility and a willingness to adapt, Council emphasizes. This is part of one of the biggest misconceptions he sees among legacy growers attempting to enter the legal space. “A lot of legacy growers have only grown one or two different styles, and in current commercial cannabis there are a lot of different regulations and rules – things that you just have to follow and that you can’t change or that you sometimes can’t do or isn’t workable from what you used to do,” he explains.
“If you want to join and get on this side of cannabis instead of the traditional market, just be able to adapt, be open to new situations, and be open to a new category because that’s what we’re doing with cannabis right now – we are opening it up to the world. And to do that, there are certain rules that you have to follow.”
The other big piece of advice which Council is adamant that every grower ought to follow is straightforward: keep good practices and don’t cut corners. “Don’t spray your plants with pesticides that are going to harm people. Don’t put moldy products out there that you flash fry to get past testing,” Council advises. “I’ve seen so many people with bad products out there, just to turn a profit. Please don’t do that. You’re not only harming yourself in the end, you’re harming other people – and that’s not cool.”
For anybody who does sense they have what it takes to succeed as a director of cultivation, Council offers the utmost encouragement to embrace the role head-on. “This is a real job, and it’s a real industry, so if you have passion, and if you believe your skills are capable of being at this level, go for it. I support it. Be patient, diligent, get it together, and work hard. And believe in yourself.”