Jobs in the Weedconomy: The Grower

Jul 28, 2014 at 7:21 AM ET

As Colorado’s $1 billion marijuana market coins first-time millionaires and creates thousands of new jobs, we trailed five different workers to collate snapshots of this new world of legalized weed. This is the first job in the series. You can also meet a trimmer and a baker.

The grower and owner are out front, smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk and talking about that South Park episode where all the KFCs become weed dispensaries and people are so desperate for medical marijuana prescriptions that they start microwaving their nuts to get some kind, any kind, of qualifying disease.

It’s come up because the owner and grower are doing the same thing—turning a KFC into a dispensary, that is. As if to reassure me, they tell me: “You do not need to microwave your nuts to get a red card.”

In fact, now that recreational marijuana is basking in the light of legitimacy, I don’t need a red card at all. People like 40-year-old Greg Fortemps, the lead grower at the Colorado Harvest Company, are growing tons (literally) of ganja for everyone over 21 to indulge in as freely as a head of broccoli from the supermarket—as long as they don’t do it in public, anyway.

Colorado Harvest Company’s dispensary and attached grow operation is tucked away in an industrial neighborhood on the outskirts of Denver alongside lines of fenced-off train tracks and what look like abandoned buildings. Zoning restrictions require grows to be essentially hidden—1,000 feet from parks, schools, similar businesses, drug treatment facilities, etc.—so even though it’s perfectly legal, there’s still an aura of shiftiness, a bit of back-alley grit.

Fortemps, dressed in a collared shirt, frayed blue jeans and shades resting above a black hat, looks a bit like Christian Bale when he played Dickie Eklund in The Fighter. He stubs out his cigarette and says, “You wanna see the garden?” When he opens the door to the back of the warehouse, we enter a jungle, Rasta jams (predictably) blaring on the speakers as grow technicians pick through buds in preparation for an upcoming harvest. It’s musky and floral, crowded with vegetation.

The plants’ stems are threaded through what Fortemps calls a “scrog” (square netting set horizontally between braces) so that every part of the plant sees the light. “That way even something that’s lower on the plant will produce something,” he says of his personal method for growing. “This doesn’t give you huge buds, but it gives you a lot of quality buds. We’re way above the industry standard using this.”

As the lead grower, Fortemps tries to inspect the plants every day, but working in the garden is only a small percentage of his job duties. He is constantly tracking the plants’ data, not just because the state requires it, but also because there’s a shitload of money involved in all of this, and an error—like losing a room of plants to pests or mold—would cost in the “high hundreds of thousands.” Recreational weed has doubled Colorado Harvest Company’s business since January. “We had 700 people lined up around the block for about two weeks after that,” he says. “It was crazy.” And now planning the upcoming expansion takes up most of his time.

So today, rather than spending time with the plants, we’re driving to new warehouses to meet with engineers and electricians and builders to go over the plans. The former KFC building they’re aiming to buy isn’t locked down yet, but a 10,000-square-foot warehouse is in the process of being retrofitted. We meet with engineers at yet another warehouse, which will be 35,000 square feet of pure ganja once the second floor is built. By the time it’s retrofitted, the building will contain more than $3 million in marijuana plants, and Colorado Harvest Company will need to hire at least 40 new people to keep up with the volume.

Thing is, even though money talk about the recreational weed industry hits on words like “millions,” and at some point in the not-too-distant future, “billions,” most of the new jobs that involve directly working with the plants are low-wage. A grow technician, for example, starts off around $12 an hour. Positions like what Fortemps has, on the other hand, pay significantly more. (The exact amount is a bit of an industry secret, he says, but suffice it to say he does OK.)

And jobs like his are also hard to come by. There’s very little turnover at the master grower level. “I’m not quitting anytime soon,” Fortemps says. Plus, as he puts it: “It’s not like I’m at home, stoned, saying, ‘Whoa, dude, you gotta look at this bud.’ It’s way more serious than people think.” A typical workweek is 90 hours, dealing with plants (though that’s less and less as he moves toward increasing automation), building codes, spreadsheets and electrical systems, as well as staying up-to-date on the ever-changing legal minefield that is recreational marijuana compliance. “This shit is stressful,” he says.

In a former life, Fortemps worked in commercial real estate selling hospitality assets, dabbling as a home grower in his spare time. He’s entirely self-taught when it comes to marijuana cultivation. “I have zero biology or horticulture experience in my life. I’ve got it down now, but that’s because of multiple failures and experiments and constant research.”

Eventually he was hired with a medical dispensary in Colorado Springs, then helped start another, and finally he got a job two years ago running Colorado Harvest Company’s gardens. He doubled their yield within a year. “We’re going to keep him around forever,” says Tim Cullen, one of Colorado Harvest Company’s owners. Fortemps says there are lots of people who think they’re really good growers. “And they are,” he explains, “but they’re good with their basement. They don’t have the scale or business side of it that I’ve been lucky enough to have.”

After touring the new warehouses, we end the day where we started—in the first garden—with Fortemps inspecting the latest buds. “This is really dense,” he says, hunching over the plants and under the lights. “Nice big buds, nice trichome formation, nicely trimmed so there’s no leaves—it smells delicious.”

He pauses and shakes his head. “In any other place, I’d be a common criminal.”

Bryan Schatz is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. He’s written for Mother Jones, Pacific Standard, GOOD and others. Follow him on Twitter @BryanSchatz.