By Connor Lynch
QUEEN’S PARK — “I can’t imagine any greenhouse operator not looking at marijuana opportunities,” said Leamington-area greenhouse grower Jay Colasanti.
Colasanti said that with increasing pressure on Ontario greenhouses from increased labour costs and booming hydro rates, the thriving medical marijuana industry looked like manna from heaven.
Until one looked at costs. The highly lucrative crop comes with huge investment demand. Upgrading a greenhouse with the proper lighting could run as high as $1.5 million per acre just for the basics, Colasanti said. Putting in serious measures for quality control runs closer to $2 million per acre. Another major hurdle is stringent high-security measures at each production facility.
Nevertheless, greenhouse growers are all talking about the possibilities, said general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Growers Association, Joe Sbrocchi. And when companies with licences and capital come knocking, farmers are listening.
He cautioned growers not to leap without looking. “I get the sense, though I can’t say for sure, that there are going to be more promises made than promises delivered,” Sbrocchi said.
Agri-food consultant Dave Key was at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show last year, courting farmers with crop know-how, available land, and empty barns to grow recreational pot that is expected to become legal this summer.
Meantime, Western Ontario cash crop farmers have not shown any appetite for growing weed. Of 10 farmers contacted by Farmers Forum, not one had ever seriously considered growing commercial or medicinal marijuana, nor did they know of any farmer who had. Most growers said that there are too many obstacles to growing recreational marijuana including the huge capital investment and requirement for a high-security indoor facilities. Not surprisingly, 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.
Chatham-Kent farmer and former commercial ag banker, Jay Cunningham, said that the prodigious costs in growing pot means that the overwhelming majority of farmers are locked out of the market. Cunningham, who’s also toured with professional agrologists through a licenced operation, said: “Whatever you think it will take, multiply it by three.”
He added that banks have been cautious about investing directly, meaning that prospective growers looking for starting capital have to look elsewhere. Some large companies have been buying majority ownership in a greenhouse operation and provide the licence and capital for upgrades. The greenhouse owner provides the space and the skillset.
Some growers said that all the hype around growing pot is creating a big green bubble that is bound to burst.
Most farmers had no strong feelings one way or another about marijuana legalization, though some expressed distaste for the idea. Huron County farmer Keith Black, 64, said that legalizing it for ages 19 and over was “very stupid… Why would we make something legal that we know is going to cause brain damage?”
Other farmers expressed no moral concerns but said they wouldn’t consider ever growing pot because the regulations would surely be too difficult to meet. “Nobody really has any feeling it’s an opportunity for (a cash crop) farmer,” said 30-year-old Stratford-area farmer Josh Boerson.
Middlesex County farmer Dave McEachren said that the sheer dollar value per plant of marijuana would raise too many concerns, even if field production were legal. “If you had 50 acres of marijuana, that’s a tremendous amount of product in one spot.”
Of course, for some growers, growing marijuana in their fields hasn’t been optional. Mark Huston, who farms at Kent County, is familiar with finding pot in his more conventional fields. “We grow it ourselves whether we want to or not. We traditionally find it in our fields.”
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.