By Connor Lynch
QUEEN’S PARK — Dave Key, project manager with agri-food consulting firm Mallot Creek Group in Western Ontario, was at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last year courting farmers with crop know-how, available land, and empty barns to grow medicinal pot that will soon be legal. Ontario passed the Cannabis Act in December and is now set to legalize and regulate recreational marijuana this summer.
But Eastern Ontario farmers have not revealed a strong appetite for growing weed. Of 10 farmers that Farmers Forum spoke to, not one had ever seriously considered growing commercial or medicinal marijuana, nor did they know any farmer who had. Most growers said that the rules for growing recreational marijuana would be similar or identical to growing medicinal marijuana, which requires licensed growers to have high-security indoor facilities. Large companies dominate the industry with huge indoor facilities, such as the refurbished Hershey plant at Smiths Falls. Major investors have started to wade in. The Bank of Montreal bought $175 million in shares of the Smiths Falls plant last month.
Greenhouse farmer Carmen Perez, who runs SunTech Greenhouses Ltd. of Manotick with Bob Mitchell, said that they had looked at growing marijuana a couple of years back, but had ultimately decided it would be a risky move without a guaranteed payout. The farmers were considering expanding their greenhouse for pot production as a supplement to growing tomatoes. But even a pot farmer is still a price taker, and without industry connections or even a guarantee that they’d get a licence if they applied for one, it was too much risk, she said.
Lindsay-area crop farmer Joe Hickson said that growing pot was a common joke among farmers when the federal Liberals took power, but never more than that. Although Hickson doesn’t see any ethical issues with the idea of growing recreational pot, the 58-year-old farmer certainly sees logistical ones. He experimented with growing hemp on his farm, and eventually threw in the towel because of all the paperwork to be done and red tape to be cut through. For marijuana? “I’m not even interested in looking at it. We have problems with raccoons and deer in our corn already. I don’t know what the hell we’d have in marijuana fields.”
Cash crop farmer Ross Hawkins, at Elgin, south of Smiths Falls, said that right now he’s not interested in trying to learn a new style of farming. But if marijuana were to become a cash crop, “I might consider it.” The 71-year-old farmer said he was indifferent to legalization. “It doesn’t really matter to me whether it happens or not.”
Growing marijuana in a field is one thing. But what about upgrading an old barn or even converting an active one into a growing facility? Northumberland County beef farmer Scott Honey wouldn’t even think about it because he doesn’t think it’d be moral. “It’s hard to tell your kids not to use drugs when the government says you can. I could probably make some money with investments, but it’s something I don’t want any part of,” the 45-year-old farmer said.
Meanwhile, dairy farmer Robert Sonneveld, who runs Cloverview Farms, just south of Kingston, is more on the fence. Though not looking into growing the crop himself, he’s not sure how he’d react if approached to grow it. “It would depend on input costs, the risk, the red tape to grow it. There’d have to be some pretty big security stipulations. You can’t just grow it in a field.”
Lanark County crop farmer John Vanderspank said that legalization likely wouldn’t change much in his county. “This is Lanark. Everyone grows a little bit behind their houses.” But he thought that legalization could make some backyard growers a little nervous about the government insisting on its tax revenue. “If you’re (growing) illegally and get caught, the sentences will be stiffer, because (now) you’re stealing from the government.”
Vanderspank added that “from what I’ve seen, it’s a pretty hard crop to grow out in the fields. I’d consider it, if there’s profit in it.”
Vanderspank said that he helped out a grower for a marijuana facility in Peterborough a few years ago. That grower ran into a problem come harvest time. Without a herbicide spray for marijuana, it was choked with weeds, which was a mess for the combine, he said.
The federal government has set the age limit to buy recreational marijuana at 19. The Canadian Medical Association wanted the age limit for marijuana use set at age 25 because regular marijuana use can permanently affect a developing brain, and most research suggests that the brain continues to develop until age 25.