What Does it Take to Be a Head Cannabis Cultivator? A Q&A With Jarad Ratcliff
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Image credit: Jarad Ratcliff
Becoming a head cultivator at a cannabis company doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over a lot of nights. How many? I hear you ask. Well, we asked Jarad Ratcliff, head cultivator at the Australian medical cannabis company Cannatrek, to get a rough idea.
This article originally appeared in the Analytical Cannabis August 2022 Digest. Click here to read the full issue.
Leo Bear-McGuinness (LBM): So, how did your career in cultivation start?
Jarad Ratcliff (JR): My career started out as a sheer passion for the plant. I found it to be my medicine early on at the age of 19. Being diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and having a dislike for everyday pharmaceutical drugs prescribed today, I found that cannabis could help me to focus/calm me. I felt I was just simply a better human in everyday life. I started cultivating my first plants at home, outdoors, over the next few years. In 2013, at the age of 25, I was arrested for four counts of distribution along with possession of firearms (legal and for hunting purposes only.) I was facing two years, bare minimum, in a South Carolina state prison. I pleaded guilty and managed to sway the judge to have mercy on me, being a first-time offender. I was sentenced to an 18-month probation period. After successfully completing this period, I gathered every bit of funds I had and moved out west to Colorado, to what would become the legal commercial path I’m still on today.
LBM: You’ve cultivated in Colorado, California, and Australia over the years. How have the experiences differed?
JR: I moved to Colorado in 2015 with no intentions of being a legal cultivator, but shortly after my arrival I fell into a labor position at a local greenhouse in Boulder. This was not long after the market had transitioned to recreational. It was truly the ‘greenrush’ at that time. The Colorado recreational market was booming and it was a sight to see. People freely buying, consuming, and medicating with the plant I too had come to love so many years prior.
During my time at the Boulder location, I watched three ‘master growers’ fail miserably at successfully producing perpetual cannabis crops. I literally learned what to do commercially by watching others’ mistakes. Within a year I was running the operation as the head cultivator. I had a team of just three, including myself; three full-time cultivators (thank you, Andrew and Willis) for a nearly 20,000 square foot farm! By outsourcing temporary labor for harvests and trimming, we managed to successfully begin perpetually harvesting quality cannabis to a schedule like clockwork. After a year of doing so with no love reciprocated from the owner, I came to a conclusion: if we couldn’t be paid properly or hire the help needed, I was going to move on. Neither happened. So I moved to California for the next medical to recreational transition that was on its way to happening in a few months’ time (2017-2018.)
But my move to California wasn’t as easy as I had anticipated. It was a much more competitive industry there, given the amount of growers within the state and how old the medical market was. I bounced around a few licensed outdoor operations between Sonoma and Mendocino County for a few months, helping streamline processes, but not exactly finding the position and pay I felt I was worth. Eventually I landed a gig as a propagation manager for a large operation in Salinas, California.
This Salinas gig was massive and yet again was being ran by another ‘master grower’ who was never in the greenhouses or on site. The processes he was trying to implement weren’t working and he wouldn’t listen when he was around. This led me to make changes necessary to avoid complete failure. During this time my work made him look great while no credit or pay increase was given to me. I filed a complaint with HR. They fired me with a severance package. My emotions probably got the best of me at that operation, but that’s okay because they were sending large quantities out of the back door anyway and that was not the kind of company I wanted/needed to be involved with. I had my run in with the law already and wanted no part of it again. To my amazement, a month after my departure the company was looking for another head grower. They had fired the ‘master grower’ whose incompetence I had previously shed light on.
Image credit: Jarad Ratcliff.
I floated around SoCal for the next few months. Couch-surfing with a good friend (thanks, Scot) in San Diego for a while. I looked for more cultivation opportunities to no avail, before finally broadening my horizons. I began to look internationally for work. Why not? I knew the plant had the potential for a global takeover, and I could see the California recreational transition was not going smoothly. Many license holders were struggling to make ends meet, which meant opportunity for work was low. It was not nearly as organized as Colorado. It was a complete mess at the time in my honest opinion.
I finally found an opportunity to get my foot in the door of the medical market Down Under. Near the end of 2018 I moved across the world to pursue a job as the head of cultivation for one of 29 licenses (medical only). Upon my arrival, it took me all of two weeks to realize and understand that I had stepped backwards in time. From my perspective, Australia seems to be nearly 10 years behind in this whole cannabis game. Nevertheless, I had come to help spread the knowledge and love of the plant that I was passionate about.
The first company I was a part of in AU for two years could not get it together. Partly due to lack of funding and how extreme the red tape is here. This country proceeds with the utmost caution and does not move with any speed whatsoever. After a few years of sitting and wasting my time for a dream that seemed as though it was never going to happen, I parted ways with that operation.
In a few months’ time, I found another local opportunity to be the head cultivator at another facility that was much better off in many ways.
LBM: Irrespective of location, how has cultivation changed over the time of your career? Have you included any new technologies and methods? Or is still the same, reliable practice?
JR: Cannabis cultivation methodology is constantly changing within the industry, as there is a plethora of information being shared across many platforms on the internet today. It’s always about finding what suits the environment you’re working in. There is a different method for every situation at every farm. I’ve come to learn that what I’ve done over here may not necessarily work over there. In my time of commercial cultivation, I’ve seen a lot of changes happen with the processes. Many have been around automation and integrated pest management. We are obviously trying to produce as many of these plants as possible, as easily as possible. With that comes an array of issues. These issues are generally solved with seasoned cannabis/agriculture experience and advancements in technology. The technology I’m referring to mostly is software such as Priva/Argus/Autogrow, etc. Seasoned experience in cannabis/agriculture is not just about farming experience, but more so about being resourceful and thinking on your toes logistically when problems arise with the technology we have come to be so reliant on today.
LBM: In a nutshell, what does being a head cultivator entail? What kind of decisions need to be made?
JR: Being the head cultivator is not an easy task by any means. It’s the most challenging job I have ever had. We’re dealing with multi-million-dollar crops here and there is no room for lapse in judgement. Every call made must be made with confidence and knowing those calls will not always be right is tough. You must be willing to accept failure; failing ultimately breeds success in this role.
A typical day starts at 5:30 am and sometimes doesn’t finish until 4 pm, Monday to Friday. You often need to on call during the weekends, too, for the emergencies that can occur. Typical tasks include:
- Forecasting production/corresponding with sales and marketing.
- Managing people/delegating tasks.
- Overseeing upgrades/maintenance to the facility.
- Purchasing supplies.
- Lending a hand with any daily task as needed.
- Hiring/educating new employees.
- Creating batch reports.
- Monitoring track and trace.
- Trialing new products etc.
- Overseeing large pheno-hunts.
- Implementing/improving procedures for production.
- Mixing salts for nutrient tock tanks.
- Tank run-off samples for analyzing.
- Fixing and replacing water pumps as needed.
- Improving workplace health and safety standards as needed.
- Improving daily workplace culture.
The list goes on...
LBM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JR: Last but not least, I’d just like to say that while my time in this industry and with this plant is unique to me, I know a lot of people out there have shared similar experiences. With that being said, I want anybody who is passionate about the plant and has the dream of working with it to know one thing: yes, you can do it if your heart is in the right place. You may not always get to where you want to be in the time you expect to be, but you’re always where you are supposed to be at any given time. If you take care of the plant with genuine love, the plant will take care of you. No matter what. That goes for any dream or aspiration in this lifetime. Never give up. Much love and blessings to all you aspiring cannabis cultivators out there. We are all changing the world one seed at a time.
Leo Bear-McGuinness, science writer at Analytical Cannabis, was speaking to Jarad Ratcliff, head cultivator at Cannatrek.