Canada’s first crop of commercially grown outdoor cannabis could sprout from the ground of a former organic farm in Southwestern Ontario this year.
Marijuana producer 48North has applied for an outdoor cultivation licence — the only cannabis company to do since the government approved outdoor growing in the summer — to plant marijuana on its 40-hectare property outside of Brantford in one of the nation’s richest farm belts.
Company co-chief executive Jeannette VanderMarel, who hails from a family of apple producers, says she’s drawing on her agricultural background for the endeavour.
“Basically, I’m planning this like an orchard,” she said, adding work on the operation is well underway while the company awaits approval from Health Canada.
“I know that I need to work the ground this fall in order to have it ready for spring planting.”
The outdoor operation would yield 40,000 kilograms of cannabis a year, VanderMarel said. By comparison, 48North’s 4,230-square-metre indoor site in Brantford, which includes warehouse operations, harvests 1,000 kg a year and its 3,780-square-metre Kirkland Lake facility produces around 2,500 kg a year.
The outdoor crop would be used to make cannabis extracts, VanderMarel said.
“It’s a huge volume that has to be processed all at once. The most efficient way to do that . . . is to process it into oil,” she said. “But the quality of outdoor grown versus greenhouse is basically the same.”
After the government announced it was lifting the ban on outdoor growing, some of the largest licensed producers pushed back, raising concerns about such issues as product security and cross-contamination from other crops.
The head of a cannabis industry association echoed those concerns, but says outdoor cannabis will be an important part of a diversified supply mix.
“Outdoor will be a very viable and successful part of our cannabis mix in Canada,” said Allan Rewak of the Cannabis Council of Canada, an umbrella group representing some of the country’s largest pot producers, including Canopy, Tilray and Aurora.
“It will never replace indoor and greenhouse growing entirely, but it will be a part of a constellation of different production methods that all feed toward one common goal: growing great cannabis consistently and in the volumes that Canadians need.”
Other producers are hesitant to jump into outdoor growing, Rewak said, because of uncertainly over a government-imposed excise tax that’s calculated on weight, rather than the content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the two main components in marijuana.
“So the comparator would be for beer, paying an excise tax on the amount of barley you’re using to create the beer, as opposed to the alcohol content in the beer,” he said.
“I think we’ll see further licensed producers follow (48North’s) lead in outdoor cultivation, but this market will not be fully mature in terms of production for years.”
Health Canada has imposed the same strict security rules for growing pot outside as it requires for indoor cultivation. Those include surveillance cameras, perimeter monitoring, intrusion detection and alerts, access control, tracking anyone who enters or exits the site and microphonic cabling to detect movement or vibration near the fence.
“Within so many feet of the fence, and I won’t say how many, we get an alert even before somebody comes to the fence,” VanderMarel said.
VanderMarel worked a nurse at McMaster Children’s Hospital prior to co-founding the Green Organic Dutchman, one of Canada’s largest licensed cannabis producers. She became co-chief executive of 48North after the company acquired Good and Green, a Brantford-based producer VanderMarel also co-founded.
The company employs 55 people at its operations in Kirkland Lake and Brantford, but that number will double by next year, VanderMarel said.
“We’re going full steam ahead,” she said.