What’s in a name? When it comes to the title of cannabis Master Grower, the answer is not instantly discernible.
Its implication, clearly, is one who has mastered the art of growing cannabis. But what qualifies one as a master? Is it a level of formal education? A degree conferred from an institution of higher learning, whether physical or digital? A requisite number of years spent toiling with our beloved plant, cycle after cycle, slowly but surely perfecting a particular prescription for aromatic, flavorful, potent bud?
Or is it something in between?
Like so many other of life’s questions, the answer depends on whom you ask.
Wading through the various online cannabis forums, you’ll find a few common themes running through the spirited and often scurrilous responses.
“A master grower would be adept at all fields of growing and all styles. Should have extensive knowledge of soil science, plant biology and integrated pest management,” wrote a user with the handle Hibrix in the Define a “master grower” thread of THCFarmer.com, dating from 2014.
“I’ve never met one, at least not yet, but I’ve had 100’s of people introduce themselves as one,” offered username Texas Kid in the same thread, before continuing, “The other funny thing to me is that I know some of the best growers in the biz and in the country and not one of them would ever refer to themselves as a master grower. … For me it is almost the fastest way to [lose] all credibility in this game.”
Over on the message boards at cannabis.com, username Dutch Pimp summed up the feelings of many a grower in a thread titled, “How to become a certified master grower”:
“The proof is in the pudding.”
These statements give us a few insights into the general sentiments of cannabis cultivators with regard the term “Master Grower” and its perceived meaning. While some hold to an ideological principle that one can always learn more and, therefore, never attains true mastery over the plant, others see a balance between book learning and real-world application as requisite to earning the title.
Josh Ferla has spent the past seven years as lead grower and propagation specialist on a commercial farm in Northern California’s famed Humboldt County, though he has been cultivating cannabis in some form or another for more than two decades. Along with cannabis, Ferla has grown a variety of exotic plant species and spent time in the formal study of environmental sciences.
“I consider myself a Master Grower, meaning by definition that I have mastered growing things,” Ferla says. “I am by no means perfect, nor have I completed all of my degrees and certifications that I am pursuing at this moment. However, actual dirt experience is what allows me to cruise through these exams of technique and tests of knowledge.”
Ferla admits that the term is far from standardized and echoes the sentiment so prevalent among the grow community: “My definition is not everyone’s, but I think we can all agree that … your results speak for themselves.”
While the semantics seem like nothing more than fodder for endless stoner debates, cannabis commercialization is adding a new layer to the conversation.
The Rise Of Cannabis Credentialing
It should come as no surprise that, along with legislative reform and the emergence of the legal marijuana industry, we’ve seen a proliferation of so-called cannabis universities and training programs.
A simple Google search for “master grower education” will yield offers of Master Grower Certification from the likes of learning platform Green CulturED, for the mere price of $597 (pre-tax, natch). Others proffer even more ambiguous credentials, such as the Marijuana Master Certificate Program from the Cannabis Training University. According to the course catalog, students in this program can learn not just how to grow cannabis, but how to set up and use a hydroponic system, prepare edibles and extracts, open and manage a dispensary, and how to be a budtender, while also learning cannabis history and law — all for a one-time bargain payment of $347!
While online diploma and certification mills are certainly not new or unique to our industry (or any industry, for that matter), these programs serve as further indication of the cannabis community’s need to clarify the term “Master Grower” — or do away with it altogether.
Commercial-Scale Cannabis And The Fate Of The Master Grower
For Michael Visher, the distinction between the old-school notion of a Master Grower and the present-day reality of industrial-scale marijuana cultivation is clear.
“Growing in your garage or basement and commercial growing are not the same thing,” he says.
While Visher admits he’s no Master Grower, he speaks from experience. His résumé includes the 2009 founding of Tender Healing Care, one of Denver’s first medical dispensaries. A few years later, THC would merge with a cultivation company and dispensary to become Green Man Cannabis, one of Colorado’s best-known brands.
These days, Visher serves as president of US Cannabis Pharmaceutical Research and Development, a Florida-based cannabis consulting firm. This role has afforded him a front-seat view of the developments in qualifying and hiring practices by cannabis companies across the country and abroad.
“A few years ago, you’d just put an ad out — ‘Grower needed’ — and you’d get a thousand applications,” he says. “Then you started looking at experience: ‘Basement grower for 10 years,’ ‘Grower in a large warehouse space.’ People with 10 to 20 years’ experience.”
Nowadays, Visher says, companies are looking for more than just “someone who’s been growing in his garage or basement for 10 years and figured out a nutrient recipe.”
“Growing is simply a science,” he expounds. “[Cannabis cultivation] facilities hire agronomists. They hire people with degrees in botany and horticulture. They hire scientists. … You need the same skills for the cannabis industry that you’d need for any other league. If you’re a corn grower, you need the same skills — you want to grow the biggest, tastiest, best corn you can grow.”
So, what is Visher’s take on the “Master Grower” terminology?
“It’s kind of like a title,” he explains. “Like ‘head chef’ in a restaurant doesn’t necessarily mean you do all the cooking. It really means that you manage the kitchen. And when you talk about Master Growers, it’s probably more in line with that.
“Now they try to get more technical [with the title] — now it’s usually ‘director of cultivation,’” Visher continues. “Master Grower is, it’s a backyard farming term. Scientists aren’t Master Growers — they’re agronomists. They’re botanists. They’re agriculturists.
“That’s where I personally see the industry going and growing. Why should I have someone just guessing at it when I can have someone who can put it under the microscope and know for sure?”
What does this mean for the grower with years or even a lifetime of demonstrable dirt knowledge, but no formal education?
“There’s definitely a place for those people, but it’s not necessarily running the show,” Visher opines. “It’s basically a farmhand — you come into the farm and use your knowledge and experience to help the plants grow on a day-to-day basis.”
And what of those educational institutions offering certifications either online or in bricks-and-mortar classrooms?
“Quite frankly, it’s really not worth the paper that it’s printed on,” Visher says. “Any master’s degree student out of a state school with an agriculture or agronomy program, they’re going to run circles around those Master Growers.
“[The master’s degree student] can put the plant under a microscope and analyze what’s happening at a cellular level. No Master Grower who took a weekend class at some cannabis university is going to know how to do that.”
So, what becomes of the Master Grower? Has the industry outgrown this ambiguous term? Or will it live on, finding its place in the hierarchy of commercial cultivation chain-of-commands — somewhere between a cultivation director and a green thumb?
Only time will till.