by Emily Leeson
Adam Webster’s cannabis plants have not yet been transplanted into the new fenced plot he prepared for them on his Port Williams, NS farm in late May, but he was already very concerned about the profitability of his next crop.
“A lot of people get well under $ 1 a gram,” said Webster. That’s a lot less than the $ 3 per gram price he expected and is a huge hurdle to the long-term viability of his new business.
Webster believes the problems are due to his inability to sell directly to the public and he is asking the Nova Scotia government to make the necessary regulatory changes to make this possible. He started an online petition a few months ago stating just that, and the petition had more than 780 signatures by the end of May.
With his micro-cultivation license issued by Health Canada in January 2020, Webster can grow plants with a maximum canopy of 200 square meters (approximately 150 normal-size cannabis plants).
However, before his product can be sold to the public, it must first be passed through another level: a producer who has a processing and sales license (a license that he does not want to apply for because of additional costs). According to Webster, the problem right now is that few of these licensees are buying – or at least buying at a reasonable price.
“Some processors and distribution licensees are not interested at all,” he said. “They just say ‘talk to us next year’.”
Webster said the Nova Scotia cannabis market did not perform as forecast and now most of the producers he could sell through are mostly busy selling their own crops.
“You are not required to buy anything from micro-cultivators,” he said, adding that he spent the winter months calling around, searching for potential buyers, and going empty-handed.
It’s a particularly daunting situation after investing approximately $ 80,000 in the infrastructure required to comply with Health Canada’s stringent cannabis production regulations.
WANT TO BE A LEG
Webster’s cannabis business, Annapolis Valley Craft Cannabis, which he runs with his father Don, was originally intended to be a family who owned a 100-acre farm that produces vegetables, fruits, and herbs.
The family’s Olde Furrow Farm only grows GMO-free seeds or heirloom seeds. The Websters don’t use synthetic pesticides or chemical fertilizers, and the only pest control systems they use are companion plants, crop rotation, hand removal, and the attraction of beneficial insects. Weeds are combated by mulching, flaming and hand weeding. They fertilize with catch crops, compost and compost teas and grazing cattle.
Expansion into a high quality plant was a tempting opportunity, and cannabis appeared to be a natural addition. “We’ve considered a variety of crops like apples and cherries and grapes over the years,” said Webster. “When cannabis was legalized, we looked at it and found that it was the best option to earn a good income on our plot of land.”
Webster wants to grow his cannabis in a similar way to the other plants on the farm – as naturally as possible. This includes taking the plants outside as soon as the weather is warm enough.
Outdoor production goes well with Webster’s farming practices and, under the right circumstances, could be a selling point for consumers interested in a naturally grown product. But there is a hurdle when selling to other licensees.
“Growing outdoors can lower THC,” he said, referring to tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. Most larger growers have indoor hydroponic systems and produce cannabis with higher levels of THC.
“A lot of people are looking for 20 percent THC or more,” said Webster. “Mine is just below that. But I know that no matter what the THC levels, people will still want to buy my product because they know how I grow it. But I have no way of selling it to you. Most smallholders have the same problems. “
But he believes the solution is simple, at least in theory: have him sell directly to customers, just like with the other agricultural products he grows.
“It just makes sense,” he said. “Instead of doing everything through NSLC (Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. Stores), why can’t farmers markets or individual farms sell it directly from there? It would give us a plan B if a processor doesn’t want to buy our product. “
Justin Cantafio, executive director of the Farmers ‘Markets of Nova Scotia (FMNS) cooperative, agrees that farmers’ markets could be ideal places for small cannabis producers to sell their product should regulations change.
He said the situation was similar to what the craft alcohol industry went through in the mid-2000s. Until then, craft alcohol manufacturers could only sell their products from their own facilities and, when large enough, through the NSLC.
Shortly after forming the FMNS organization, the group successfully campaigned for change that eventually led to the sale of craft alcohol being allowed in farmers’ markets across Nova Scotia.
“We were one of the first provinces in the country to allow this,” said Cantafio. “And in my opinion it is not entirely irrelevant that today we have the most farmers’ markets per capita in Canada and the most microbreweries per capita in Canada.”
He said farmers markets and craft alcohol go hand in hand to help create a thriving agrotourism industry and rural revitalization.
“Craft alcohol not only benefits the bottom line of the rural economy through economic recirculation and job creation, but it also drives people to farmers’ markets and therefore brings more people into that space to buy other products that include locally produced foods, crafts and arts” said Cantafio.
Many small cannabis producers – like Webster – already sell other agricultural products at farmers markets. Cantafio said it was logical to add cannabis to the products on offer.
By accessing this market, small cannabis producers could access better prices for their product and ultimately help build the credibility of the artisanal cannabis industry.
“The government offers a tremendous opportunity to explore regional branding, traceability, and transparency that will allow people to tell the story of how products are made and generate greater returns,” Cantafio said.
With the current system, the artisanal production culture is being lost and cannabis is treated as more of a commodity. Micro-cultivation license holders are forced to merge their crops with others and high volume is encouraged by unique quality.
“When you turn something into a commodity right from the start, it’s really difficult to turn it into a craft,” says Cantafio.
In Ontario, Thrive Cannabis recently became the province’s first licensed producer to sell cannabis products at its own facility, thanks to new provincial regulations governing the sale of cannabis on the farm. But the Nova Scotia government doesn’t seem interested in changing its rules.
“Nova Scotia has adopted a public retail model to keep cannabis away from teenagers and to ensure Nova Scotians have the information they need to safely use and consume cannabis and cannabis products,” said Tracy Barron, spokeswoman for Nova Scotia Finance Department responsible for provincial legislation governing the sale of alcohol and cannabis. “As the industry evolves, we continue to monitor how we best meet consumer demand while ensuring that public health and safety are paramount.”
Meanwhile, Webster has a good head start on the 50 kilograms of cannabis he plans to produce this year, but nothing is set in stone yet.
“I try to get people to talk and to be aware of what is going on because people might think cannabis growers are really making it, but a lot of us aren’t,” he said.
Webster said that with this status quo he could hold onto his business for about two to five years. “More like two,” he added.
“It takes a lot of time – not so much to grow and keep all records and follow strict regulations, but just to call the various licensed producers,” he said. “I was probably talking about the winter when I was 20. It takes a lot of going back and forth. And mostly it ends with nothing. “