From herbs to weed: Saskatoon market gardener EcoBain plans switch to marijuana
EcoBain Gardens once sold basil, chives across the west but is now transitioning into a pot nursery
If everything goes according to plan, Brian Bain will convert his Saskatoon market garden to a marijuana nursery by next year.
He said it's a matter of economics.
"All of a sudden, you have a crop that comes along, that you can pay your employees better, you can pay yourself better and the business itself will do better," he told CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning. "It's really hard not to make that switch."
Right now, Bain grows herbs like mint, chives, dill and basil and sells them to grocery stores across western Canada. He plans to convert his hydroponic garden to a nursery that will sell live pot plants to licensed stores.
Bain said margins in the produce business are tight and it can be difficult to make money.
"Growing produce in Saskatchewan is a little bit tough," he said. "The population we have is a little bit difficult to sustain a farm of our size."
Bain heard about Health Canada's plans to release micro-licenses for small marijuana producers last year. He has sent his application to the federal government and hopes to hear back soon.
"The risk is very low, but at the end of the day, Health Canada could say no," he said. "We're investing quite a bit into our facility in developing our facility and retrofits."
The new security features include motion detectors, more cameras and keycard access to every door.
"At the end of the day, security is really, really big for Health Canada," he said. "We won't necessarily have cannabis in the facility, just young plants, so that's less of a worry for us."
In the meantime, Bain has given his staff a four-month vacation while he gets the facility ready.
"We're transitioning into a much more science-based company," he said. "We're bringing on a chief science officer, we're bringing on a lot of new staff to help elevate the company."
Bain is not the only greenhouse owner to make the switch to marijuana.
Many existing greenhouses in Ontario and British Columbia have already converted their facilities to cannabis production.
The trend worries Rachel Engler-Stringer, a professor in the College of Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.
"In the long run, we are making a huge mistake if we don't have production within our own province," she said.
"Everything from climate change to upheavals for other reasons, we could be putting ourselves at risk for not having any food."
Engler-Stringer said Saskatchewan ranks among the lowest in Canada for vegetable production that is consumed inside the province.
She believes the government should do a better job giving producers incentives to grow locally.
"We don't have a provincial government that has ever incentivized vegetables and fruit producers to sell within the province," she said. "Virtually all provinces have a Buy B.C., Buy Alberta program. We don't have any of that in this province."
However, not all growers in Saskatchewan are interested in growing marijuana.
Bob Purton has owned a vegetable farm near Yorkton for almost 20 years, and has no plans on converting over any time soon.
"If you look at cannabis stocks, for example, they've been all over the map in the last three months," he said. "Nothing's sorted itself out in the marketplace."
Unlike Bain, Purton sells most of his produce locally at farmers' markets in the area. Still, he isn't totally ruling anything out.
"If anything, I'll wait a year or two and see what happens," he said. "See if it all settles out and then make a decision."
Meanwhile, Bain said he already has plans to build a new facility and get back growing basil and chives, probably over the next two years.