This is a question that I am often asked either at the beginning stages of building a financial model or by someone who has invested in a cannabis company and is trying to determine if their overhead is too high. Understandably, there’s no one formula for answering this, so let’s explore the determining factors. 

The number of employees that you need to cultivate cannabis effectively will depend upon: 

  1. The size and scale of your operation
  2. The growing style you choose to implement, and the materials you choose to grow with
  3. The infrastructure in your facility. 

I’ll dive into all of these different aspects below and give examples for each.

We’ll be using an example facility throughout this article to illustrate the differences between scale, grow styles, different materials, and different infrastructure. 

For this example facility, let’s assume:

  • A total footprint of 12,000 SF with 4 flower rooms each measuring 1,000 SF for a total of 4,000 SF of flowering canopy, planted at a density of 1 plant/SF, for a total of 1,000 plants per room. 
  • We have a mother room that shares space with propagation totalling 400 SF, housing 20 mother plants and housing 1,200 clones at any given time. 
  • We also have one vegetative room that supplies all 4 flower rooms using a multi-tiered rack housing plants on 2 levels, each 500 SF, for a total of 1,000 SF of vegetative canopy, planted at a density of 2 plants/SF, for a total of 2,000 plants in veg at any given time. 
  • The rest of the space in this example facility is split between a dry room, hallways, bathrooms, locker rooms, a break room, an irrigation room, a vault for storage and order fulfillment, a security room, a small office and a mechanical / utility room. We are assuming any extra offices for additional support staff are housed elsewhere. 

In this facility, we’re going to run a relatively standard life cycle for our plants. Plants will propagate for 2 weeks, live in the vegetative state for 2 weeks, and flower for 60 days. Each flower room will be harvested together so that the room can be cleaned and reset after each harvest.

Size / Scale

We’re first going to touch on the size of your facility and the scale you’re trying to run. Size and scale can be different, albeit slightly. Size reflects the measurements and square footage of the facility whereas scale reflects the volume of product you’re trying to produce out of that sized facility. To dive further, a 12,000 SF facility that’s turning over 4 crops a year versus that same 12,000 SF facility turning over 6 crops a year will be operating at a larger scale, even though the size is the same. The latter, the 6 harvest facility, will have different human capital needs than the 4 harvest facility. Why? 

Turning over 6 crops per year allows for one 24 hour period between harvests to reset your room. This is no easy task; resetting the room requires staff members to harvest the entire room, to clean all surfaces in the room including walls, floors, ceilings (if possible), and requires staff to ideally clean all equipment and lighting fixtures in the room before moving the next crop into the room. In many instances, certain treatments are used that need upwards of 8 hours to fully run their course. Afterwards, plants can be moved in. To turn over 6 crops per year, your operation has to be fully dialed in and you need the staff to support it. This usually requires a staff to run harvest while a separate team of staff follows closely behind to start the cleaning process while the rest of the room is still being harvested. 

For comparison, requiring staff to turn over 4 harvests per year allows for greater flexibility. Instead of having a rigid 60-day harvest schedule, you may be able to run half of your room with cultivars that finish in 56-60 days and then choose cultivars for the rest of the room that finish in 63-70 days. Your staff could harvest the room one day and wait for the rest of the plants to finish to harvest the rest. This splits the harvest workload naturally. That same staff can then spend the next three days cleaning and sanitizing the room instead of less than 1 day for 6 harvests per year. On the last day, they can bring the plants in. There is natural downtime between the first time you harvest the room on day 60 and the second time you harvest the room at day 70, giving your employees freedom from this room’s demands for nearly 10 days, allowing them to work on the other areas of the facility. Therefore, a smaller staff is needed to run 4 harvests per year instead of 6. 

So in our example 12,000 SF facility with 4 flower rooms, a mother/propagation room, and 1 vegetative room, how many staff do you need and how are their tasks split? 

If we are harvesting 4 crops per year, I would recommend the following breakdown:

  • 1 dedicated team member running the mother/propagation room
  • 2 dedicated team members running the vegetative room
  • 2 dedicated team members per flower room for a total of 8
  • 1 director level position to manage the plant’s schedules and employees
  • 1 dedicated pest control team member that oversees pest management for the entire facility

To some this may seem like overkill, and I’ve seen many facilities operating with far fewer employees. In those operations, turnover is often high because employees are overworked and feel like they never catch up. In the system laid out above, many of your team members are afforded flexibility. For example, the team members in mother/propagation, in the vegetative room, and in pest control will not be maximally scheduled in their dedicated duties. Instead, they’ll have extra time to float between certain tasks that require a peak of labor such as cloning in the mother room, transplanting into the vegetative room, transplanting into the flower room, or harvesting and resetting the room. In addition, they will have time to work the dry rooms. Their roles are somewhat shared which allows for an enjoyable balance of tasks, rather than having the employees doing the same thing forever. This reduces turnover and makes for a less expensive operation to run and one with a more stable team. 

I want to acknowledge here that professionals from parallel industries like pharma may dispute this shared task concept, arguing that for quality control purposes it makes sense to have the same person do the same thing over and over, learning that one thing well and not leaving any room for variation or error due to task crossover. While I don’t want to disregard the validity of this point, I would also say that for where cannabis is right now, and since we’re talking about living plants and not inanimate objects with fixed processes, it makes sense to still prioritize people and avoid the costs associated with constantly training new employees because you burnt yours out.

Now let’s flip over to that same sized facility operating at a different scale; one that is turning over 6 crops per year instead of 4. The basic team will be the same as listed above, but we’ll need to add a few more employees. 

If we are harvesting 6 crops per year, I would recommend the following breakdown:

  • 1 dedicated team member running the mother/propagation room
  • 2 dedicated team members running the vegetative room
  • 2 dedicated team members per flower room for a total of 8
  • 1 director level position to manage the plant’s schedules and employees
  • 1 dedicated pest control team member that oversees pest management for the entire facility
  • 4 dedicated team members to manage harvest, the dry room, and the reset process

    The addition of these 4 extra team members allows them to focus specifically on the harvest schedule. It adds the extra labor during the most critical labor peak; harvest and reset. It reduces the responsibility of the other floating team members by taking the dry room management completely off their plate; this should not be understated. I would argue that the dry/cure room is the most important room in your facility since all sunk costs are already invested in the flower and this is where the flower either grows in value or immediately starts to reduce in value, depending on how it’s treated and looked after. Maintaining proper staff here is imperative.

    Additionally, these 4 team members will help the rest of the staff during all of the transplant and plant moving days. When operating a 6 turn-per-year schedule, you have far less flexibility in moving from step to step. Each transplant step has to happen on the same day. Every harvest has 1 day. All resets have less than a day. Operating on such tight time margins requires extra staff, and in a facility of this size, these 4 team members can handle it. 

    A word about temporary labor –

    Some people hate temps, others love the flexibility it affords. In my experience, temps cost about 40% more per hour than your traditional employees. If you only need to bring in temporary labor occasionally due to staff illness or some other out-of-the-ordinary situation, I’m all for it. If you’re bringing in temps for every harvest, it’s going to be much more cost effective to hire the additional staff. Another, more difficult to measure metric, is team morale. Since you can’t guarantee the temps you bring in each time will be the same people – they rarely are – your stable team members have to work with strangers every time you utilize temps. This slows them down because it requires your staff to teach the temps exactly how you do things in your facility. For those companies that keep their processes extraordinarily close to the vest, it also allows your intellectual property to escape the facility more easily and more frequently. While temporary labor can be a real life-saver at times, the risks should be considered carefully before relying on them all the time. 

    Brian Staffa is a seasoned Executive Cannabis Operator specializing in solving for operational underperformance, maximizing profitability, and foundational planning & structuring. Connect about your project below.

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