Class is in session at Canada's first 'pot school'

An Ontario college is offering what some might see as a pretty cool credential — a one-year certificate in growing pot. But the class comes with hard work.

Niagara College offering instruction on growing weed

A worker at Cann Trust's Niagara region greenhouse cultivates marijuana plants. Cann Trust will be one of a number of licensed marijuana producers looking to hire graduates from Niagara College's new commercial cannabis program. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

The school year may be two weeks old, but there's still a buzz at one southern Ontario college over a unique new offering — a full-year cannabis production program.

"I never thought five years ago, maybe even two years ago, that we'd be here in this classroom starting a course on commercial cannabis production," said professor Bill MacDonald.

MacDonald is the head of Niagara's College's new cannabis program. On the first day of school, he not only had students huddled around him, but also reporters and cameras.

The root of the excitement is that Canada is just over a month away from making pot legal for recreational use, and licensed cannabis producers across the country are hiring greenhouse staff as they ramp up operations.

Niagara College is offering what some might see as a pretty cool credential— a one-year certificate in growing pot. But if it has cachet, the class also comes with hard work. 

Some of the classes take place in a facility MacDonald says is nicknamed "the cannabunker": a series of shipping containers linked together to form a high-tech, high-security production lab for growing marijuana.

The teaching lab for Niagara College's new cannabis production program is nicknamed 'the cannabunker.' (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Students will get intensive hands-on training in growing pot with classes that focus on topics like plant nutrition, climate control, pest control and plant selection.

There are also courses about the regulations governing cannabis in Canada. The program ends with a field placement for students at a cannabis producer in the region.

Upon graduation, they'll be ready to work at one of more than 100 cannabis producers already in the country.

While smaller programs of this kind exist elsewhere in Canada, Niagara College was the first to begin classes in a comprehensive postgraduate diploma program.

Popular program     

Over 300 people applied for 24 spots in Niagara College's program, making entry to the pot school very competitive. The two dozen students in the first cannabis class range in age from 21 to 54, and several of them left full-time jobs for the opportunity.

Professor Bill MacDonald addresses students in Niagara College's commercial cannabis program. (James Dunne/CBC)

"This isn't a program for people who are just thinking about, what am I going to do at college?" explains Vivian Kinnaird, Niagara College's dean of Business, Hospitality and Environment. "It is for people who know something about plant science, and understand the principles and fundamentals scientifically of what goes on in a growing environment so we can start the program at a higher level."

John Skilnyk, who spent five years as an RCMP officer, is one of those who made the cut. After 28 years living and working in the Yukon, the 54-year-old wanted a life change.

"I must admit I did have to reconcile with myself the whole idea of legalization, having been in the RCMP," says Skilnyk. "I was witness first-hand to the effects of addictions." 

He came to the view that legalizing recreational cannabis could lead to a better world. "As I thought about it, I sort of did reconcile that this is an opportunity to do things right."  

John Skilnyk, who worked as an RCMP officer for five years, is now enrolled in the commercial cannabis program at Niagara College. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Fellow student Elizabeth Foley just completed an undergraduate honours degree in biology last year. She sees the young cannabis industry as "the start of something very big." Foley is confident about her job prospects on graduation. "All the licensed producers will know that I'm a professional, skilled worker who knows what she's going to be doing when I get in the door of their facility."

Pot companies need people

In the Niagara region of Ontario alone, there are currently more than 1.8 million square feet (nearly 550,000 square metres) of greenhouse space dedicated to producing marijuana. As that number grows, more and more skilled greenhouse workers will be needed.

"Every week, it's a new head count," says Michael Ravensdale, the vice president of quality and production at CannTrust, a local medical marijuana producer. "The last update I had, we had over 200 people in Niagara. We think we will be about 350 by the end of the year and that's just the second phase of expansion."

Niagara College student Elizabeth Foley wants to get into the commercial cannabis program because she believes the pot business will see massive growth. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

CannTrust has a perpetual harvest facility in Niagara, meaning plants are always in bloom and workers are always busy. The company has jobs in cultivation, processing, manufacturing, quality control and other areas, including product development and research. Ravensdale says the pot economy is evolving at a rapid pace. 

"Most people in the industry talk of it in dog years," he chuckles. "So one day in the cannabis world is like seven days in the regular world."

PhD's in pot also for real

The fast pace of pot industry growth has educational institutions rushing to respond at all levels.

For example, Olds College in Alberta started offering online courses in cannabis production in the spring. New Brunswick started a French-language, 12-week community college program for medical cannabis cultivation technicians in the fall of 2017, though students enrolled in it visited licensed local producers to work with actual pot plants, because the college could not provide access to them on campus. In spring of this year, the province offered a 20-week program.

Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont., begins classes for its one-year program for Cannabis Applied Science in mid-October.  

The University of Guelph's lauded agriculture school recently announced plans to build a centre for cannabis research, which will include a commercial-scale greenhouse. The university already works with cannabis producers who are keen to adapt techniques from the school's work on controlled environments for growing plants in space.

In fact, Guelph has already produced a student believed to have completed North America's first Ph.D in pot production. Deron Caplan sped up his studies so he could graduate in time for the legalization of recreational pot next month. He hasn't lined up a job yet, but believes his prospects are solid.

"I have been approached a number of times, and I have talked to various producers about what kind of research they can do and what they are interested in," says Caplan, whose Ph.D work looks at the role of fertilizer in the potency of different strains.

Deron Caplan will soon be what is believed to be North America’s first Ph.D in pot production. (Turgut Yeter/CBC)

His professor and Ph.D supervisor, Youbin Zheng, says that in addition to people with practical training on the operations side, the industry needs more academic types.

"All these growers, they need technical support, scientific research, to help them," observes Zheng. "I frequently get phone calls asking, 'Youbin, do you have any graduate students? We want them.'"

He's sure it won't be long before his first cannabis graduate is working, like many other skilled workers, in an industry clamouring for talent.

About the Author

James Dunne

Producer, CBC News Business

James Dunne researches, produces and writes stories for the business unit at CBC News. He has a decade of experience in business programming including on the shows Venture and Fortune Hunters. An award winning video journalist, he's also worked on special projects and as the late lineup editor for the World at Six on CBC Radio 1.

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