Meet Nova Scotia's 3 legal cannabis growers

There's a bumper crop of marijuana being legally grown at three facilities in rural Nova Scotia. And there are several other new facilities being built as cannabis production is ramping up in the province.

The race is on for growers to achieve the next level of licensing from Health Canada — the licence to sell

An employee at the Wentworth-based Breathing Green Solutions. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

It might sound like a setup line to a joke.

What do an old slaughterhouse, an empty Bowater building and a former military facility all have in common?

The punchline: All three are now being used to grow cannabis in Nova Scotia — the start of what the farmers say will be a bumper crop in three communities.

In the Wentworth Valley, there are hundreds of plants in various stages of growth at Breathing Green Solutions.

The operations manager, Joe Sanford, says the old North American Aerospace Defense Command facility came up in a private sale about five years ago. It took more than two years to retrofit the old building, but thanks to its military history, the site came fenced in and with two security gates.

The Breathing Green Solutions facility in Wentworth Valley is located in a converted military building. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

The company's taken other measures to secure its product and meet regulations — there are about 150 security cameras on the property and staff need security cards to move from room to room inside.

Different-size plants fill each room; small ones are packed into a humidified area, while those standing half a metre tall are reaching maturation in a larger space.

Down another hallway, the most mature plants can be found, standing two metres high and covered with buds that are ready for harvest.

3 N.S. companies with Health Canada licence

The company is the first of three in Nova Scotia to receive a cultivation licence from Health Canada.

On the South Shore, Aqualitas is now growing cannabis in an old Bowater Paper Products warehouse in Brooklyn, Queens County, and Highland Grow has set up in a converted slaughterhouse in East Ohio, Antigonish County.

Although there's still debate about the exact date cannabis will be legalized, it's clear the race is on for these growers to get to the next level of licensing from Health Canada — the licence to sell.

And all three say they're getting close.

A cannabis plant at Breathing Green Solutions. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Next step: licence to sell

"In order to receive a final sales licence, we have to produce two full crops of product," Sanford said. "We'll have to dry that product, package it, send it off for testing."

Then, they wait for Health Canada's approval.

Breathing Green has a dozen employees. Its master grower, Bruce Cormier, worked in the cannabis industry in British Columbia for two decades.

"I'm really happy with the growth of our plants," Cormier said, standing among a crop of metre-high plants. He estimates they'll each yield about 450 grams of pot.

The Aqualitas facility on the South Shore. (Submitted by Aqualitas)

Aqualitas and Highland Grow are also in their second grow cycles and hope to soon send samples to Health Canada to get their sales licence.

Aqualitas uses an aquaponic growing platform that combines horticulture and aquaculture. By using fish waste from 1,300 live koi fish, the company says its cultivation process requires 50 per cent less energy and 90 per cent less water than the average operation.

CEO Myrna Gillis says the company uses neither synthetic chemicals nor pesticides.

"We utilize live fish and use their outputs to provide the nutrients to the plants in a closed-loop system that recirculates," she said.

Aqualitas has more than 30 people on its payroll. Gillis said when the company finishes its 25,000-square-foot expansion, the number of employees could rise to 100.

Aqualitas has 30 employees, but the company anticipates it could grow to 100 workers after it expands. (Submitted by Aqualitas)

Frank MacMaster, president and master grower at Highland Grow, said he was "lucky" to secure a cultivation licence. He recently sold the Antigonish County operation to Biome, a Canadian company that plans on running licensed cannabis production facilities.

They have a dozen employees, including a recent hire whose resumé includes director of food safety for Sobeys and director of quality assurance at Oxford Frozen Foods.

"We want to provide people with good-paying jobs," MacMaster said.

Highland Grow has begun its second growing phase. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

​Employment opportunities

And with the advent of the green market, there are other Nova Scotia firms looking for financing and licensing.

The Truro Herbal Company has yet to get its cultivation licence, but its vice-president of strategy says the company is almost done construction on where it hopes to begin growing.

"We've really picked up steam in the last four to six months," Sandy Schembri said. "We're anticipating beginning our first phase test grow in about six weeks."

Highland Grow's Frank MacMaster holds a tray of cannabis buds. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

Truro Herbal Company was the first business group to announce publicly that it planned to grow and sell cannabis in Nova Scotia. But it's been years in the making.

"Our application goes back to the summer of 2014 and the timeline really shows the burden and the rigour of the Health Canada application process," Schembri said.

Other companies are building growing operations in industrial parks in Windsor, Kentville and Lower Sackville.

Truro Herbal Company's new facility is under construction. (Submitted by Mike Currie)

AtlantiCann Medical Inc. is building a new facility on Estates Road in Lower Sackville. Company president Christine Halef has a background in pharmacy and her family is among a group of well-known developers in Halifax.

'Good-paying jobs'

Two other companies have applied for building permits in Halifax Regional Municipality to construct growing operations — one in the Woodside Industrial Park and another in the Eastern Shore community of Pleasant Harbour.

And in Stellarton, cannabis giant Zenabis has extensively renovated the Clairtone factory, which used to produce high-end stereos.

AtlantiCann Medical Inc. is building a new facility on Estates Road in Lower Sackville. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

The company already has licensed grow facilities in Atholville, N.B., and Delta, B.C.

"We are still confident licensing will happen here," Stellarton Mayor Danny MacGillivray said. "This would mean a lot for this area — not just jobs, but good-paying jobs."

NSLC plan

Health Canada will not provide the names of the companies from Nova Scotia that are seeking licences. The department did confirm, however, that there are 14 active licence applications in the province.

Thirteen applications have already been rejected.

Once the pot regulations change in Canada, cannabis will be sold at certain Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation outlets in Nova Scotia.

But unless the three legal cultivators in this province earn their sales licences soon, they will initially be shut out of providing local pot to the Crown corporation.

Local growers are unsure whether their product will be in NSLC stores when pot first becomes legal. (Nova Scotia Liquor Corporation)

"The lines of communication are open between the NSLC and local suppliers and we have met with them to explain our approach to cannabis and our requirements," NSLC spokesperson Bev Ware said. "We plan on initiating a followup market call once we have some sales history and once we know there is locally produced product available."

The NSLC estimates it will need 15,000 kilograms a year to keep its shelves stocked.

About the Author

Paul Palmeter

Reporter

Paul Palmeter is an award-winning video journalist born and raised in the Annapolis Valley. He has covered news and sports stories across the province for 25 years.