Photo: Blue Rose Designs Photography

Twenty-nine states plus the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana cultivation as of summer 2017. As a result, cannabis has become the fastest-growing arm of the commercial horticulture industry — an arm increasingly drawn to ornamental horticulture professionals to fill its ranks.

For individuals attracted to this “new” industry and a plant prime for advancement in many ways, commercial cannabis presents intriguing professional avenues. The following insights from three horticulture professionals now working with cannabis provide an inside look at opportunities and realities.

Miles Jonard
Photo courtesy of Solstice

Miles Jonard

Farm Program Manager, Solstice
Seattle, Washington

As an Ohio State horticulture student, Miles Jonard didn’t foresee a cannabis career. His master’s thesis and project focused on ornamental horticulture. But a 2013 post-graduation job search, fueled in part by a desire for West Coast employment, piqued an interest in this new crop and its challenges.

He was soon hired as production manager for Solstice, a Washington-based cannabis producer/processor, cultivating exclusively indoors under artificial light. Since January 2017, he’s been the company’s partner farm manager, providing technical and horticultural services to outdoor and greenhouse farms that supplement Solstice’s indoor cultivation.

Having never grown marijuana, his transition was challenging. “For all intents and purposes, it’s a new crop for the professional horticulture and agriculture industries,” he explains. Cannabis has lacked the rigorous trialing, breeding, and R&D programs common in ornamental horticulture. “Step-by-step growing guides do not exist,” Jonard says. Part of the challenge is scaling a plant that’s been bred and selected for small-scale, indoor growing with lots of attention.

Jonard finds his work both satisfying and occasionally frustrating. “It’s rewarding because it feels like something important is happening; it feels like innovation,” he shares. “But it’s also very difficult. It’s quite possibly the most scrutinized crop on the market.” Extensive post-harvest handling significantly impacts value, yet is outside the grower’s control.

Solstice exemplifies an industry shift Jonard sees toward hiring horticulture and agriculture professionals who understand horticultural practices and scalability over applicants with hobby-grow cannabis experience. “Solstice’s goal has been to legitimize cannabis — bring it to light, so to speak — to show that it’s an agronomic crop that deserves the same sort of credibility as any other,” he explains.

Jonard stresses researching career moves carefully. “Definitely consider why you want to grow and difficulties you’ll face,” he says. In his experience, grower pay is comparable to similar ornamental positions. State laws regulating production and production styles can be restrictive, and profitability shrinks as supply increases.

“Don’t light-heartedly make this choice to switch over to cannabis because you think it’s going to be a cash crop,” Jonard advises. “Do it because you’re passionate about cannabis and the use of cannabis, whether you believe in it recreationally and think it should be legal, or you believe it has medical or therapeutic value.”

Allison Justice
Photo courtesy of OutCo

Allison Justice

V.P. of Cultivation, OutCo
San Diego, California

Growing up on a ball and burlap tree farm, Allison Justice lived horticulture. After earning her doctorate in ornamental horticulture at Clemson University in 2014, she returned to Hope Greenhouses, the South Carolina specialty greenhouse business she co-founded with her mother. An interest in biologicals led to a raise-your-own beneficial nematode business, Biological Defense Systems, and a side career as an Integrated Pest Management consultant.

As her business grew, Justice consulted for a few cannabis growers and “something set off a spark.” She increased her cannabis work and reached out to develop consulting relationships. One contact led to OutCo, a California-based cannabis producer/processor, and a full-time job offer too good to refuse on several levels. She’s been OutCo’s vice president of cultivation, overseeing indoor and greenhouse facilities, since June 2016.

“It’s exciting to have the ability to work with a plant where there’s very, very little scientific knowledge,” she explains. “As a scientist, to be at the forefront of a crop and be able to explore these things and put some hard answers to it is challenging and rewarding. There is no real baseline to start from.” Justice finds the crop easy to grow, yet finicky, like many other specialty crops. Once its idiosyncrasies are understood, good horticulture prevails.

Justice’s career turn was well received by personal and professional connections, including a past professor from Clemson. She is now working with her second Clemson student under an internship program designed to educate the next generation of cannabis horticulture professionals. Though Justice has reached out to other schools, Clemson is the only participant so far. She hopes to see the program grow.

For anyone considering a shift to cannabis, Justice advises newcomers to be careful and research companies thoroughly. “Be sure you’re working with a legitimate company and stay on the legal side of everything,” she says. “But horticulture is horticulture, no matter the plant.” She also suggests not waiting too long. “Now is the time to make the crossover, this year and next year. It’s exploding right now,” Justice says.

David Risley
Photo courtesy of David Risley

David Risley

Head Grower, Euflora
Denver, Colorado

David Risley graduated from Colorado State in 2009 with a horticulture major and business minor and took his first post-graduation position as a stock plant grower for a large ornamental greenhouse grower. But a chance connection and opportunity changed his course later that year.

Risley’s first cannabis job was a five-year run as head grower with Kind Love, a Colorado marijuana grower-retailer. Since 2015, he’s been head grower for Denver-based Euflora, and he’s establishing a cannabis consulting business as well. Even so, he shares that organic hydroponic food production remains his personal horticultural love.

Cannabis cultivation afforded Risley increased pay and a more lenient schedule, but he emphasizes the switch wasn’t simple. Compared to ornamentals, he says marijuana is more difficult to grow well. “The learning curve is steep,” he explains. “While the crop is valuable, profits are eaten up quickly.” He points to high inputs and overhead, taxes, extensive state regulations, and mandatory recordkeeping that requires even minimal plant waste be weighed and reported.

Colorado’s cannabis market, which Risley describes as “saturated beyond what is economically prudent,” presents extra challenges. Wholesale prices have dropped by more than 50 percent as product floods the marketplace, but large-scale operations continue to open. “Growers are under tremendous pressure to produce at lower and lower costs, but higher and higher quality,” he warns.

Risley urges professionals considering cannabis to stay well-rounded, as he demonstrated by earning ASHS (American Society for Horticultural Science) professional certification. “Keep all your options open, and be as diverse a grower as you can be,” he advises. His diversity remains attractive outside cannabis, as evidenced by continuing interest from the ornamental sector.

“The people who are most successful are just fascinated with plants and horticulture, period,” Risley offers. “If you love horticulture before marijuana, you’ll be successful as a grower. Keep that desire and love for horticulture, and your horizons will be broad.”

Jolene is a freelance writer specializing in the horticulture industry. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media publications.