Col­leges ramp up train­ing for grow­ing weed in­dus­try

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY ALLY MAROTTI Chicago Tri­bune

Mar­i­juana com­pa­nies are on the prowl for new em­ploy­ees, but ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing weed in the base­ment likely won’t fly on a re­sume.

The bar for en­try-level po­si­tions is mov­ing higher as mar­i­juana com­pa­nies grow so fast it is no longer prac­ti­cal to train work­ers new to the in­dus­try. Grow­ers and dis­pen­saries in­creas­ingly want em­ploy­ees with aca­demic train­ing. The re­sult: More col­leges are start­ing to of­fer, for lack of a bet­ter term, a de­gree in grow­ing mar­i­juana.

“You’re go­ing to need some­body who’s got some knowl­edge (that can) then adapt that to the fa­cil­ity,” said Paul Chialdikas, vice pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing at Bed­ford Grow, which has a cul­ti­va­tion fa­cil­ity in Bed­ford Park, Ill. “Tim­ing is go­ing to be crit­i­cal for us to grab an em­ployee that has ex­pe­ri­ence. … We need them now.”

Most em­ploy­ees that have en­tered Illi­nois’ young mar­i­juana in­dus­try did so ei­ther with ex­pe­ri­ence earned in the black mar­ket or in states with more ma­ture cannabis pro­grams, like Colorado or Cal­i­for­nia. Of­ten, they have not worked with the plant at all.

Brian Kirk­land and Jake Tracy started at Bed­ford Grow about three years ago with­out any ex­pe­ri­ence. Kirk­land was a butcher, and Tracy was in land­scap­ing. Like all new em­ploy­ees at the fa­cil­ity, they started as trim­mers, and have since worked their way up. For the past two har­vests – or about six months – Kirk­land and Tracy, now as­sis­tant cul­ti­va­tors, have each been in charge of the crop in one of Bed­ford Grow’s four grow rooms.

Sun­glasses on, Kirk­land moved among mar­i­juana plants as blaz­ing grow lights beat down, pre­par­ing a so­lu­tion that would de­liver nu­tri­ents to the plump­ing buds. The plants in his grow room were about a month from har­vest, and they needed the food to pro­duce dense, fla­vor­ful buds. Kirk­land knew the so­lu­tion would clog the tubes nor­mally used to wa­ter the plants, so he had to feed them by hand.

In a plant-filled room nearby, Tracy cleaned his wa­ter lines. The plants in Tracy’s room were younger than Kirk­land’s, maybe two months old. “In about a week they’ll be ready to start grow­ing buds,” he said.

Kirk­land and Tracy learned how to tend to the highly val­ued mar­i­juana plants by ap­pren­tic­ing un­der the fa­cil­ity’s head grow­ers. Soon Bed­ford Grow will add more cul­ti­va­tion rooms and need more grow­ers to man­age them. On a re­cent af­ter­noon, Chialdikas opened a door at the fa­cil­ity to a sprawl­ing room cur­rently used for stor­age.

“This is the op­por­tu­nity for us when the mar­ket goes rec (recre­ational) to add eight more grow­ing rooms,” he said, look­ing out across the mostly empty space.

Many Illi­nois mar­i­juana op­er­a­tors are al­ready ex­pand­ing their grow­ing fa­cil­i­ties. They’re work­ing to sup­ply a med­i­cal mar­i­juana pro­gram that has added 25,000 pa­tients in the past year, and they’re get­ting ready for the state’s po­ten­tial le­gal­iza­tion of recre­ational use, which could send de­mand soar­ing.

DE­GREES IN MAR­I­JUANA

Schools around the coun­try are rolling out cannabis cour­ses or de­gree pro­grams. Northern Michi­gan Uni­ver­sity launched a fouryear medic­i­nal plant chemistry de­gree in the fall of 2017. That first se­mes­ter, 20 stu­dents par­tic­i­pated. En­roll­ment was up to 220 a year later. The Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis started of­fer­ing a class on how cannabis com­pounds af­fect the hu­man body last fall. Mar­i­juana law classes are be­com­ing more com­mon, too, with cour­ses at schools in Colorado, Ohio and Chicago.

More Illi­nois col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties see the ad­van­tages to train­ing their stu­dents for the ad­vanc­ing in­dus­try, but there are lim­its to how quickly they can roll out new pro­grams.

Al­most daily, Karen Mid­den, in­terim dean of the Col­lege of Agri­cul­tural Sci­ences at South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­sity in Car­bon­dale, gets a call from some­one with a ques­tion about the cannabis pro­gram the school an­nounced last year.

ZBIG­NIEW BZ­DAK TNS

Brian Kirk­land, as­sis­tant cul­ti­va­tor, tends to plants in flow­er­ing room at the Bed­ford Grow, a mar­i­juana cul­ti­va­tion fa­cil­ity in the Cook County, Ill., vil­lage of Bed­ford Park.

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