Our AROYA® Grower of the Month series spotlights the stories of craft cultivators whose ingenuity and resourcefulness we find inspirational. Every feature is a chance to celebrate growers who constantly find ways to optimize, refine, and improve their processes while also blazing new trails—and finding success—in this emerging industry.
This month we spoke with Josh Ginsberg, Director of Cultivation with vertically-integrated cannabis company Sozo. After graduating from Temple University, in 2013 Josh packed his car and drove from Pennsylvania to Colorado to become a trimmer. He rose up the ranks to become a grower, then worked at a few different companies before ultimately landing the role - and living the dream—with Sozo in 2019.
During our chat, Josh shared his reflections on how the industry is shaping up, what it takes to monitor over 2,000 lights and 30,000 plants, and how AROYA has helped him and his team become better growers. Enjoy the read, then get to know Sozo better by checking out their website and giving them a follow on Instagram.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
AROYA: What's your setup like?
JOSH GINSBERG, DIRECTOR OF CULTIVATION: Being in Michigan where there's all the factory plants, we feel like a factory ourselves. We're big enough to support over a hundred employees, over 70 gardeners. It's crazy how many careers that we're able to start for people in the cannabis industry. I've been doing this for almost nine years now, started at $12.50 - $15 an hour. Our entry-level growers, whether they have experience or not, they're starting about $35K. They're getting medical benefits, they get PTO. We're legitimately creating careers by giving people jobs that they don't have to leave to get the next thing to make another dollar per hour. Super proud of Sozo, and really happy to take the job and come out here.
AROYA: Sozo has really been smart about its expansion, and making sure to have all the tools you need – not being afraid to get advice when you need it, and trying to make that facility run as efficiently as possible. How has AROYA helped with that?
Josh: That's honestly why we have AROYA; this is just another one of the tools. It's crazy because it used to be just a bunch of people picking up a pot and telling us always light, so I need some water, pump the feeds or shit, man, you start to lose seeds. So who knows what we didn't know? And that's the whole thing about not being afraid to ask questions—it would be foolish for us to think that we have all the answers. It's only been the last few years where there's legitimately scientific data on it, and we want to make sure that we're gathering that data. We're up to over 2100 flowering lights, it's really hard to collect data on 30,000 plants at every given moment. Y'all get stacks of papers, just sitting to the left that people were taking data by hand, and now we need data entry analysts to put all that information together.
Now the moment we got AROYA, I [have] just been staring at that screen, constantly gathering as much information as possible. It's only been here for a couple of months now, we haven't even really had multiple rooms with full cycles. I've already learned so much about the individual cultivar. It's literally like having the world's greatest grower, top-level plant scientists constantly on call. We didn't just buy AROYA, we hired guys like you and Jason and the rest of your team. You guys are essentially another branch, now Sozo’s employees. So it's great to know that I can hit you up and say, “Hey, this looks weird.” That doesn't happen with most places. Usually, you get the sales team and they push you out to engineering, and engineering pushes you back to sales.
You guys are updating the software data daily, so we're seeing changes regularly. And Luc is reaching out to me personally saying, “Hey, anything that you have that's going to make your user experience that much easier, shoot me the seed back. We love it.” And I took him up on that immediately. We had an hour call two days later. I've ran down this crazy list that I had gotten from the rest of my team and everything I mentioned, he was like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let me show you this demo, we've already got a few of those things in the works.”
AROYA: What was the biggest selling point when deciding to try AROYA?
Josh: The big selling point for us was the idea to figure out what's going on in the media. For so long, it's been 10 different people with different strengths and different intensities picking up the plants and going, “This feels like 48%”, or, “No, that's actually more like 51.” You're constantly playing this guessing game.
When you've got a facility like ours where it's so large, even within the same cultivar, each plant is behaving a little bit differently. To have eyes on a part of growing that nobody ever was really looking into scientifically, and then collecting that data and interpreting it - we have our meters for our lights, we have temperature and humidity and we can monitor all these other things, but the most important aspect is happening in this place that you can't see. So for us to not stick a probe in there and figure out what's going on seems silly.
This is allowing us to make those data-driven decisions that every cannabis company says they want. But the data that people collect is just anecdotal. You might have some guy who just got high, and now he's walking into the garden and sticking the probe under the wrong plant. No, I know the sensors in these rooms, they're not getting high at launch. Not only that, but they're not taking one data point at one single snapshot of that day; they're literally taking it every minute. I'm able to see it as it changes constantly.
We’re making decisions now driven by actual data that's collected from day one till the end. And then the ability to compare run after run – I don't have to go through this crazy long list of pages. I used to make these harvest reports by hand, literally. It's literally been like a clipboard hanging on the door, or one of those college calendars you'd have on your desk. The system's been great, the people have been great. It's awesome.
AROYA: We built the task management feature for incredibly overloaded people like yourself. How has AROYA improved efficiency?
Josh: I can't be in 21 places at once, let alone two. I told the team: AROYA is the hotline, the detectives [who] just got a call that a plant isn't performing, so go check it out. Maybe it's actually doing well at a lower saturation point. And now we're actually learning something about this plant, rather than some heady bro saying, “Oh, she's a real drinker.” It's like, no actually, what's happening there? Why is she drinking so much? Is this a lack of watering, or is she actually taking everything that we're giving her? We can track that in real time. I can literally program a feed and watch what happens inside the plant in the media. I don't have to let the feed happen, wait a few minutes, then go pick up every plant by hand and make sure it's working.
I can walk around the facility and I can see a tray or a crop or a zone that needs some specific attention. I just create the task, assign the person, and now they're aware of it. I can give them the deadline right there. I can tell them the prioritization if it is high or low - [either] run down here right now and take a look at it, or make sure you do it before you leave. My team loves it. They don't have to remember what the whiteboard said for them to do at noon. The thing that I love about it on my end specifically is I can see people start the task, complete a task, and then I can see all right, that person's a little inefficient in what they're doing - maybe I should go talk to that gardener, figure out what's going wrong. Or great, they're meeting the deadline expectation.
It's the labor that you guys are tracking for us as well. I can tell you if we're running efficiently from a label perspective, it is part of the data-driven decisions. If I'm recognizing that we're spending twice as much labor on this one crop that’s not testing or doesn't yield as much as other stuff – maybe she's a nice smoke, we like her, she looks pretty, we want to keep around, but she just takes so much effort and extra work - maybe it's not cost-effective. Ultimately, this is a business and if we're not generating a profit, then it's not a business anymore. It's just a bunch of people growing…and not for very long either.
AROYA: What kind of results have you seen so far with AROYA?
Josh: How me and the rest of the management team were able to get ownership behind this is the ability to get our return on investment almost instantaneously. We have seen markedly increased yields [and] we haven't even had a full cycle yet with the whole system from start to finish.
We're steering them in ways that I didn't even know was a thing. The thing that made the most sense for us was getting a solar sensor first - it worked, and we started making small decisions off of that. I had guys coming in at the crack of dawn until eight o’clock doing manual readings to see if we could actually see our plants in a direction. And just with a handheld sensor, we saw a little bit of an increase in a few crops.
It's easy to walk through the garden, say the garden looks great. I can tell you if the plant is alive or not, but can I tell you if it's thriving? I'd have to go back over five cycles worth of data and comb through all the variables that happen left and right.
AROYA: How has the data helped you as a grower?
Josh: I've learned a lot about growing and the plants. I went to university for four years studying it, and I feel like I've learned more about my specific job and what I'm doing here as the lead cultivator just by having AROYA and watching these graphs.
That's the big issue with this: it's a living thing that we're dealing with for up to 15 weeks, depending on your veggie time and your flowering time. Being able to find the moment that it's happening and fixing everything in there is so much easier on my mental state and my ability to sleep at night, rather than just crossing my fingers and saying, “Well, I hope tomorrow there's no issues.”
That's the goal too: eventually optimizing all of our inputs. Just because we're not physically touching the plants and doing as hard work as we used to, doesn't mean we're not still growing plants, or that we can't put a lot of passion into it. It's just a little different now. When I bring some of the managers in here, I'll want to talk about this graph and what stands out to me; here's the real science of what we're doing here. Everyone's like clued in; it's totally changed the game for them. Coming out of research, going into commercial cannabis, and watching this industry catch up – what's been rad is, it's full of people just like you guys that are willing to push it technologically. You want to do better all the time, and cannabis has the value to really push that.
We've made decisions based on the data. It's like we're working with a university, except you guys are responding much more frequently. I'm doing R&D constantly; we're monitoring them completely—all facets of it. The headaches are gone. The backbreaking work has gone. The data is legitimate. I can actually do something with it.
AROYA: Why are data and transparency so important to your operation?
Josh: I can tell you right now what we need to be doing tomorrow, what we need to be doing next cycle, what we need to be doing next year, what we need from a cultivation space in order to optimize our stuff. Actually learning that you can precisely repeat some of your recipes and schedules—that to me is huge. That's one thing that's been so hard in this industry so far.
For me and any other grower out there listening to this: you can sleep better at night. It's been such a relief knowing that I can just take a quick peek at the graphs and be like, all right, everything's exactly where it should be. I could tell right in the moment I'm supposed to, rather than coming in the next morning and trying to figure it out.
You can easily teach people when you have a tool like this and say, “Hey, these are the things we're looking for.” We're all learning. We're all getting better. You don't have to have a four-year degree, or even remember what you learned in high school. You can learn it right here, every single moment. I can pull up the graph right now and learn something here on our live feed. We can do side-by-sides right next to each other [with] the data, instantaneously. We use Slack a lot—absolutely love it, it's changed the game for us, communicating, keeping threads of each individual room. But you guys have that too, and I'm currently working with the managers to get us off of Slack. Something that I can't even believe I'm saying out loud!
Anybody can keep a plant alive, but to maximize the output of it is what's going to make this business great – those are some of the things that we need to think about. Honestly, I'll take it back. I don't even need to think about it; it's literally projected right there on my monitor.
AROYA: How has using AROYA helped your team with overall product consistency?
Josh: If you suddenly can't put out products for a month and you're not on any shelves, I'm not saying you're gonna go out of business – you're going to be building back up from there. And they're certainly going to call somebody else first before calling us back after we just told them we didn't have stuff for a month.
I can literally compare every piece of data that's collected by the system, by the sensors, so I could find the one small difference that made this test a little bit higher this time. I can go ahead and tell my boss we're going to be able to keep it at that percentage because we found the thing that put it over the edge. Before it was, we're going to do five different things this run, and then it goes well and you're not really sure which of the five was right. Or somebody who isn't taking the data seriously [is] recording it by hand [and] shifts the numbers, and now all of a sudden we make a decision because somebody got stoned and wasn't paying attention. That part of my job has gone away, so I can really now dive into what each cultivar needs, and that's a decision that I don't even really have to make – AROYA is telling me, I just have to be the one to pull the string.
It's helped the gardeners. We saved a lot in labor; I don't have to have people walking around and picking up plants to tell me, themselves, or the fertigation department, like,” Where are we at with this? How's it going?”—just stopping the backbreaking work there. That these guys are actually going to learn something while they're here, it's not just this fool's gold. You learn a lot, that [it’s] really hard work, and every year, this industry just gets better and better, easier and easier. And I think it's foolish to not jump on the AROYA bandwagon right now and make sure that you're getting literally the best gardener in your facility. AROYA is a better gardener than me, I'll be the first to say that. I can't, you know, stick my finger in that pot and tell you what's going on.
It's literally the best employee that we have here - no offense to any of the employees that might be listening right now, I love you guys. We've got the best gardener on the planet working with us 24/7 rather than just eight hours a day, or five days a week, or as a consultant over the phone once a month. It's super helpful.
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