Future weed: How one B.C. company wants greenhouse cannabis cultivation to become the new standard

Photo by Amanda Siebert

Originally published on The Georgia Straight

As Canada gets closer to cannabis legalization, one local licensed producer is taking a decidedly different approach to cultivation by embracing the tenets of sustainable agriculture.

At SunLab, Tantalus Labs’ futuristic cannabis greenhouse situated on the outskirts of Maple Ridge, founder and managing director Dan Sutton oversees a team of experts who specialize in everything from quality assurance and e-commerce to commercial agriculture and, of course, cannabis cultivation.

Here, Tantalus and its shareholders have spent five years and many millions of dollars constructing what might just be the most sustainability-minded purpose-built cannabis-growing facility in Canada.

Presently, just 500 seedlings have been planted—but over the course of the next few years as SunLab becomes fully operational, the 75,000-square-foot greenhouse will employ automated irrigation systems that utilize recycled rainwater, while a filtration system will cycle air every seven minutes to reduce the risk of pests and mould.

Special sensors that hang from the ceiling will allow staff to monitor the greenhouse’s humidity and temperature, while remote-controlled partitions will help facilitate the separation of plants at different growth stages. At full scale, SunLab will be 120,000 square feet in size. The facility’s use of sunlight will not only reduce its electricity demand by 90 percent, Sutton says, it will also make for high-quality cannabis.

“Just look at these pots,” Sutton says, pointing out a stack of planters while giving the Straight a tour. “It took us four whole months just to decide which ones had the best air-flow capabilities.”

Indeed, the nuances of the greenhouse and the company are many, but the goal of SunLab is simple: to prove that top-shelf cannabis can be grown sustainably and at a commercial scale with sunlight.

“The core of it is certainly sustainability. We see the history of cannabis cultivation as one that’s been closeted, one that’s been kept in the dark, kept out of the light and subjugated to the shadows,” he says. “This is a plant that thrives in sunlight, it thrives in high-light-intensity environments, and it’s a fast-growing plant, so we really wanted to take that sustainability mission and attach it to a product that has been given every biological, genetic, and agricultural opportunity to thrive.”

Location plays an important role as well. Sutton is of the opinion that there’s no better place in Canada to grow cannabis than the Fraser Valley, where, he says, the combination of humidity, wind patterns, and mild seasonal changes in temperature provides excellent conditions for cultivation.

“It’s an environment that almost caters itself to cannabis, and that really is the origins of the storied history of B.C. bud,” he says.

By combining carefully employed technology with the area’s nearly ideal environmental conditions, he says, it will be SunLab’s job “not to re-create that environment, but to take it and nudge it in the right direction”.

Among the array of experts on the company’s roster is a master horticulturist whose move to Tantalus marks his 20-year anniversary in the greenhouse industry. Before this, the horticulturist, who wished to remain anonymous, was employed by the largest forestry nursery company in North America, PRT, where he helped grow high-yield forest seedlings, starter plants, and energy crops.

He is one of many commercial horticulturists who are finding themselves in unique positions as licensed cannabis producers seek out experts who know their way around large-scale growing operations.

He says one of the biggest challenges in transitioning to cannabis has been “getting up to speed” with the underground growers who have been building on their knowledge since the 1970s.

Photo by Amanda Siebert

While the next-level technologies present in SunLab might have basement growers wide-eyed and wanting, the horticulturist says they represent what you’d see at any other large-scale horticulture outfit. He hopes that as more and more producers realize not only the financial but also the environmental costs associated with producing cannabis in warehouses, greenhouse cultivation will become the new standard.

“It seems nonsensical to me that you’d grow cannabis in a warehouse when you have the option of growing it in a greenhouse, where you have almost the equal amount of control, combined with the ability to utilize the sun and save on energy costs,” he says. “Why would anyone want to grow in a bunker after that?”

Ultimately, he hopes that by combining the knowledge of more traditional cannabis growers with his understanding of commercial horticulture, Tantalus and other producers like Aphria, Emerald Health, and 7 Acres will help propel the industry “to a place it’s never been before”.

Kelly Coulter, a long-time cannabis writer, adviser, and representative of NORML Women’s Alliance of Canada, a nonpartisan pro-legalization coalition that originated in the United States, has often compared the issues plaguing the production of cannabis to Canada’s problems with food cultivation and distribution. She thinks that a much broader conversation needs to be had: one where cannabis is discussed in the context of agriculture.

She argues that instead of modelling cannabis policy after that on alcohol or tobacco, we should create laws that reflect the errors we’ve already made in the food industry. She paints a Vancouver-centric picture to illustrate her point: “What I’m doing is I’m comparing cannabis to hops, where we make the mistake of comparing it to craft beer,” she says. “We know that the way food is being produced right now is not sustainable and it’s degrading our environment.…If cannabis cultivation remains indoors, we’ll also be looking at potential environmental issues.”

For Coulter, who has advocated for the use of greenhouses by federally licensed medical marijuana producers since 2011, sustainable cultivation and distribution will also be vital to avoiding a monoculture in the cannabis industry once recreational use is legalized.

Sutton agrees that, combined with an industrywide approach to growing cannabis more sustainably, a few calculated changes to federal regulations could mitigate the risk of such a monoculture.

Despite a recent radio debate (and a propensity for Twitter wars) with local activist and dispensary owner Dana Larsen, he says Tantalus is not interested in “being everything to everybody”—he thinks an industry’s ability to include existing operators like growers that supply dispensaries is a critical marker of its success. For that to happen, Sutton says, security requirements need to be adjusted.

“One of the broadest and most impactful changes that will enable new entrepreneurs and existing black-market entrepreneurs to embrace cannabis regulation and participate in this model, would be the specifics around the securitization of the facility,” he says. “The best security specialists within the ACMPR [Access to Cannabis for Medical Purposes Regulations] will be the first to say that there are a lot of standards that Health Canada has implemented that don’t actually mitigate risk. There’s a lot of security theatre.”

While those amendments might take years to implement, Sutton says the polarizing way we’ve positioned cannabis is at the core of what needs to change.

“Right now we treat cannabis as somewhere between a controlled substance and a pharmaceutical, and really it is a farmable, agricultural crop,” he says.

Sutton hopes that if organizations like Farm Credit Canada and the Agricultural Credit Corporation recognize cannabis as such, Canada’s industry will follow in the footsteps of California, where greenhouses are arguably the facility of choice among commercial growers.

“The proliferation of greenhouse-grown cannabis is an absolute inevitability; it’s just when we decide to make it happen. Will it be over the next 20 years or the next five?”

Ultimately, it comes down to offering consumers products that give them a sustainable option, and it’s up to retailers and consumers of cannabis to start demanding that differentiation.