Canada's growing number of cannabis greenhouses

A growing number of cannabis producers in Canada are using greenhouse space for a lower operating cost and a smaller carbon footprint.

While the majority of licensed producers in Canada grow cannabis in an indoor setting, there are a growing number of secure greenhouses of all sizes being approved for production under the MMPR. Currently 5 of the 20 producers licensed to sell cannabis for medical purposes are growing 'under glass', as are several others at various stages of the Levantine application process.

Greenhouses offer a smaller carbon footprint, but also a corresponding decrease in operating cost, by some estimates up to 90% lower hydro/electrical costs. Not only do the numerous lights used in an indoor operation draw an enormous amount of power, but the subsequent heat these lights generate then needs to be cooled with massive and costly air conditioning systems. The cost of lighting and cooling a typical indoor MMPR facility can range from $5-10 per sq ft per month, depending on size and region.

That's not to say greenhouses are inherently better than indoor operations. Greenhouses can bring their own unique challenges, from humidity, temperature and associated pest control to security challenges. Heating a greenhouse is the tradeoff for not having to cool an indoor operation. Keeping it cool in the summer can mean venting, which can potentially allow pests and moulds/pathogens to be introduced. While an indoor operation can more closely resemble a totally-controlled environment, growing in a greenhouse can be closer to traditional agriculture. Many new greenhouses seek the best of both worlds by building fully-enclosed indoor operations with glass roofs to let in sunlight.

Light can also be a challenge in an area as far north as Canada. Four of the five currently-approved greenhouse LP's are in Ontario's ‘banana belt' nestled between several of the great lakes, and the 5th is located along the Ottawa River in southern Quebec, providing warmer relative regional temperatures. Parts of southern Ontario are at a latitude roughly parallel with Northern California and Spain. But even with longer daylight hours in the winter than many other Canadian regions, the lack of sunlight in the winter months can still be a challenge. Blackout sheets and shoulder lighting can be very helpful in summer months when the daylight is too long, but not all greenhouses use these.

Interestingly, British Columbia is currently home to no licensed greenhouse operations, despite having one of the most mild climates in Canada, although at least one current applicant, Tantalus, hopes to change that.


The Producers:

Aphria IncLocated in Leamington, Ontario, the greenhouse capital of the world. Aphria was the first approved producer under the MMPR to begin growing in a greenhouse. With a current 20,000 sq ft footprint within a 450,000 sq ft existing glass structure growing ornamental flowers, Aphria currently represents the mid-sized producer, but has the potential for a much larger scale. They are currently in the process of expanding their footprint by another 20,000 sq ft and are awaiting final Health Canada approval for this new space.

Aphria is run by Cole Cacciavillani and his partner John Cervini, who have been growing food and flowers in this region for decades, and their approach to cannabis is a stark contrast to many indoor facilities one comes across under the MMPR. While their drying, processing and packaging rooms sit inside their 600 sq ft vault and feel more like the typical indoor LP, their 3 large greenhouse rooms full of cannabis very much feel like a typical agricultural operation. You can read and see more about Aphria here.

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Tweed FarmsOriginally an independent applicant under the name Park Lane Farms, Tweed Farms was acquired by Tweed Inc. in July 2014 and received their license to produce in August 2014. The 350,000 sq ft facility had previously housed numerous market vegetables over the past 20 years. After initially being licensed to produce in a 30,000 sq ft space inside the larger facility, Tweed Farms is now fully approved for production in all 350,000 sq ft. The buildout of a new structure housing administrative space and a vault is expected to be completed soon and would allow Tweed Farms to process and store all their own product. They currently are required to ship product to their Smith Falls facility prior to harvest.

Tweed Farms currently only uses supplemental lighting on their mothers and young starts, and not in their flowering room, meaning their need for electricity is minimal in comparison to many indoor operations. Angus Footman, President and Founder estimates the power consumption of Tweed Farms is 1/25 the rate of a regulated, indoor, commercial grow.

A greenhouse does have to pay for heating, and this can be very high in the winter (~$40,000 a month in January/February), but overall still ends up being far less than the associated power costs. In addition, while some indoor operations bring CO2 in to stimulate plant growth, Tweed Farms is able to scrub pure C02 from the exhaust from their boilers and pump it directly into the greenhouses. Since the plants only consume C02 during the day, they will run their boilers in the day and store the heat in massive water tanks, which will be circulated through the greenhouses at night. Tweed Farms also has a 100,000 gallon cistern for rainwater collection buried under their facility. They are currently experimenting with a third crop in mid summer, and are researching the benefits of full spectrum light on cannabis. 

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RedeCan PharmApproved for production in June of 2014 and sale in March 2015, RedeCan Pharm is another Niagara-on-the-lake area farm, although producing in a smaller facility. Meeting the Redekop family at their small farm, I was greeted by 26 y/o CEO Rick Redekop, his mom Barb, and his sister Amy on a property surrounded by fruit trees and grapevines. A truly family-run operation, RedeCan is producing inside 15,000 sq ft of greenhouse space on a larger 30 acre property, allowing for future expansion. Rick and his sister Amy grew up in the small farmhouse on the property.

Rick began working in the greenhouse growing hydroponic vegetables as part of a program at the University of Guelph in 2004 and grew vegetables for 8 years, primarily mini cucumbers, under contract with a large produce shipper. Redekop graduated in 2006 and kept going with commercial production. In 2012 he began growing for a medical patient under the MMAR as a designated grower for 2 years before applying to transition to the MMPR in 2014. He hopes to begin focussing on expansion as well as oils in the next year, depending on consumer demand.  They currently grow 3 crops a year, and are looking at adding supplemental lighting this winter and expanding harvests to 5 crops a year.

"Greenhouse is ideal because we are utilizing the natural sunlight," says Redekop. "All grow lights are trying to mimic the sun and capture a spectrum of light as close as possible to the natural sun, so why not just use the original source? Also, by using a greenhouse environment and natural sunlight, it allows us to keep production costs down which in turn allows us to keep our price per gram much lower than the competition. This translates into lower costs for our patients and a more affordable product for those who can't afford the expensive indoor cannabis that costs upwards of $10 dollars per gram or more."

 

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The HydropothecaryApproved for production in March 2014 and sale in June 2015, Hydropothecary's current facility began as an application sent in by Pierre Gagnon, Hydropothecary's Master Grower. Built on Gagnon's existing property where he once ran a commercial retail nursery, Gagnon designed the MMPR facility himself before partnering with Adam Miron and Sébastien St. Louis in early 2014.  

The current 7,000 sq ft facility houses several hundred plants just arriving at the flowering stage during our visit. Sitting beside this is the new 35,000 sq ft purpose-built greenhouse facility that blends the best of a controlled, indoor environment with the benefits of free sunlight through its greenhouse roof. In addition to utilizing free sunlight, the facility also incorporates water from the nearby river, which is actually used to cool the greenhouse in the summer as it is piped around the facility. The surrounding property is 80 acres of farmland, allowing for future expansion. Their new facility is expected to be completed soon.

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Maricann. Approved for production in March of 2014, sale in December 2014, Maricann is a partnership of several different investors and growers, with roots going back to the previous MMAR system. 3 greenhouses are currently in production, totalling 15,000 sq ft with another 2,800 sq ft for mothers/clones, and 5th 7,200 sq ft greenhouse currently under construction.

Unlike other producers, Maricann grows directly in the soil, not on tables or in containers, and feeds their plants by amending their soil, not mixing nutrients with water. Plants are grown in a way that, according to Maricann consultant Derek Pedro, best mimics natural, outside growing conditions, including chilling plants as they near harvest to mimic cooler fall nights, as well as the blackout shades used in most greenhouses. It's a steep learning curve moving from an indoor setting to a greenhouse, according to Pedro, and one many growers underestimate.

"I believe it is at least a 2 year learning curve from indoor," says Pedro, 43, who helped design the greenhouses. "Not only do you have to understand the plant, you have to understand the dynamics of the greenhouse. A greenhouse is very much an environment. It's not just the plant, it's what's going on around the plant. With an indoor operation, you are really zoning in on the plant itself, but with a greenhouse, we mimic a more outdoor setting".

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The Applicants:

Supreme Pharma. Supreme Pharma is a 342,000 sq ft retrofitted industrial facility in Kincardine, Ont. still waiting in the application queue for approval to produce. Located near Lake Huron in the same 'banana belt' corridor as the above producers, Supreme has converted their greenhouse space into numerous 3,000+ sq ft grow rooms within the larger 7-acre facility. The flowering rooms are a hybrid of an indoor facility and a greenhouse with insulated walls and a glass roof, getting what Supreme's President John Fowler calls a perfect combination of the two technologies, although their municipality no longer considers their former tomato greenhouse as such.

"We have an indoor growing facility with all the environmental controls what goes with that, but we've peeled back our lid and give our plants 100% sunlight.  Our grow style is more similar to an indoor than a greenhouse, to the point that the city of Kincardine no longer considers us a greenhouse. We're considered an industrial facility now."

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Tantalus Labs. Tantlus is a 40,000 sq ft purpose-built greenhouse still under construction in Maple Ridge, British Columbia also currently awaiting Health Canada approval. The facility will utilize rainwater collection and sunlight to bring operating costs to a relative minimum. According to CEO Dan Sutton, the facility will be the first purpose-built cannabis greenhouse of its kind in North America.

"At Tantalus Labs, we believe that the future of cannabis cultivation is sun grown," says Sutton. "Canada has a unique opportunity to leverage our highly specialized greenhouse expertise in the service of this new market. This is a rare opportunity to establish our nation as a technological innovator, guiding the rest of the world towards a credible and technically sound future for a plant experiencing a renaissance in social attitude. Tantalus Labs aspires to be a meaningful voice in this progress, and we stand behind a commitment to proliferate our technology transparently. Together with the most exciting greenhouse growers in this emerging industry, we can show the world a tenable method to advance the frontier of cannabis."

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"I believe it is at least a 2 year learning curve from indoor. Not only do you have to understand the plant, you have to understand the dynamics of the greenhouse. A greenhouse is very much an environment. It's not just the plant, it's what's going on around the plant. With an indoor operation, you are really zoning in on the plant itself, but with a greenhouse, we mimic a more outdoor setting". -Derek Pedro

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2 comments

  1. Neil Tabatznik Reply

    Great article, but no mention of qualitative advantages of greenhouse growing.

    1. Profile photo of David Brown

      David Brown Reply

      An excellent point and one I would like to cover in the future. Thanks for the feedback.