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In 2016, HEXO made waves as the first licensed Canadian cannabis producer to have a female master grower. But Quebec-based Agnes Kwasniewska, who started as HEXO’s manager of cultivation and moved up to her position as master grower in fall 2016, never understood the hype.
“When I kept hearing about the rest of the industry making a big deal about me being a woman, I was surprised,” she remembers. “It was funny because when I came to HEXO, it was full of women. We have a lot of equality.”
The fact that a female master grower was big news isn’t that unusual. Traditionally considered to be a bit of a boys’ club, the legal cannabis industry continues to favour men—in positions of power and in consumption. In early 2019, Statistics Canada revealed that men continue to consume cannabis at a greater rate than women (22 percent versus 13 percent). There’s also a staggering disparity between the number of Canadian male and female CEOs: 92 to eight as of earlier this year.
But with women like Agnes leading the charge, the cannabis space is slowly becoming more welcoming for women looking to work in the industry. Here’s a peek into her path to master grower (and how you can follow in her footsteps):
A new frontier
Agnes didn’t plan to work with cannabis specifically. “It wasn’t a goal for me,” she says. “My goal was to grow plants.” But when a position at HEXO fell across her path, she realized it was a chance to “start something new and be a pioneer.”
Education and experience
Before Agnes became HEXO’s manager of cultivation, she studied plant-insect interaction as part of a degree in entomology. She then worked on farms researching and implementing optimal pesticide use before moving into the more stable world of greenhouse cultivation. “I started working in a large-scale operation for annual flowers—petunias, calibrachoas, all sorts of tropicals,” she says. “It was beautiful. And that’s where I gained the most experience that led me toward this job at HEXO.”
Agnes then worked under HEXO’s previous master grower for a few months before she took over the position. “He trained me in the specifics of the cannabis plant and how to manage it in a light-deprivation greenhouse,” she says.
The role of master grower
The job changes from week to week, says Agnes. But in a nutshell, she’s in charge of every decision that involves HEXO’s cannabis plants—from irrigation, fertigation (injection of fertilizers into irrigation systems), growth timelines and treatments to organizing the schedules of the cultivation team. “A big part of my job is also monitoring the environmental systems to make sure the greenhouse is stable and that it’s adequate for the survivability of the plants and the people,” Agnes notes. And she does all these tasks for HEXO’s enormous 1.3 million sq. ft. facility at the main campus in Masson-Angers.
Women in greenhouses
Women tend to be less well-represented in the cannabis field, and the same is true for greenhouse work. “It’s physically demanding,” Agnes says. “We work a lot with our hands. We move stuff around. It gets hot.” But when Agnes arrived at HEXO, she found that most of her cultivation team was made up of women. “I didn’t feel like I was alone as a female because of that.”
So, you’re a woman and you want to be a master grower
Don’t worry about your gender. “I don’t think gender should ever stop anybody from pursuing something they love,” says Agnes. But do complete a degree in horticulture or agriculture, which can be helpful when you’re starting out. Then get experience working with plants in a large-scale greenhouse. “Experience is key, and we learn a lot on the job,” she says.
An exciting future ahead
Legal cannabis production is still new, which means that studies about growing techniques, plant strains, side effects and medicinal benefits are in their infancy, too. “We’re getting a lot more data and there’s a lot more to cannabis than we thought,” says Agnes. “Now that we’re able to take samples and send them to labs, we know exactly what’s going on inside of the plant and that enables us to fine-tune our techniques.”
It’s clear that the future of the cannabis plant is bright, and it’s anyone’s guess what exciting secrets it will reveal. For Agnes Kwasniewska, that’s all part of the charm.
For more information about HEXO, visit hexo.com.