There are two facts that you probably know about Canada. The first being that it is the largest country to legalize the recreational adult use of cannabis. The second? That its winters can be long, cold, and very wet.
So, what does this mean for Canadian producers looking to grow their cannabis outdoors?
Sarah Campbell, Director at the Craft Cannabis Association of BC, says that outdoor growth has always had a presence in the country.
"People have been growing cannabis outdoors in BC for decades, guerilla-style, before it began to move indoors with the advent of new technology," she said. "Still, the market has remained. Over the years, we developed strains that were specific to certain regions, and grew well with very little work."
She added that now that cannabis prohibition has been lifted in the country, "we’re excited that we’ll finally be getting back to this style of growing."
"Outdoor growth is kind of in a transitionary period right now. Although it’s been included in the cultivation regulations as outlined by the federal government, it is still affected by the local governments," she explained.
According to Campbell, the rules surrounding outdoor growth in Canada are complex and ill-defined, and when regulators are inclined to license outdoor growers, they tend not to consider the differing conditions that they may face compared to indoor growers.
"We really should be making changes that would allow these small farmers to produce more cannabis legally, and take away the land issues and stop forcing people to grow in industrial areas," she said. "We need to know that we can get their support ahead of time, rather than having to take a precautionary approach."
She believes the government ought to be working with licensed producers to build a better foundation for outdoor growth in the country. To illustrate this point, she made comparisons to the California’s wine industry.
"When the wine industry began, the Sonoma Valley took a precautionary approach with their regulations, while Napa saw the opportunity, and created by-laws accordingly. Now, years down the road, people drive right through Sonoma to get to Napa. We want to be like Napa."
There remain several roadblocks for those looking to get into outdoor growth in Canada, but Mark Spear, Founder and CEO of Burnstown Farms, says he’s willing to try.
Leasing land in the Ottawa valley, Spear is currently in the process of applying for a license for the company to be an outdoor producer with an eye to begin production by next year. Of course, it could take longer than that.
One of the biggest issues facing Canadian outdoor growers like Spear is the country’s sometimes inclement weather. Although, as he points out, there are ways to mitigate this risk.
"There are a variety of things that growers can do to prevent crop-loss," Spear said. "You have to choose your strains very carefully to ensure they can handle a variety of environmental stresses. But it is important to choose those [plants] that are relatively short-flowering. In southern Ontario, you might be able to get away with a 10-week, or something like that, but in many other parts of the country, you’d have to go with something more like 8 weeks.
Still, even with these efforts to protect the crops from the variable weather patterns seen across the country, there is always the winter.
"It will be quieter for us in the winter, but that’s the case for all seasonal farms," said Spear. "We’ll take the majority of our vacations in the winter as well so that it’ll be all hands on deck once the growing season commences."
During the colder months, Spear said that most of their efforts will be directed at processing the cannabis harvested over the previous season, as well as equipment maintenance and training courses.
Taking all of these challenges into consideration, why would one pursue outdoor growth when indoor is still an option? One of the main reasons, according to Campbell, is cost.
"The difference in expense between building a facility and putting plants in the ground is significant," she said. "Outdoor growing requires less water, less chemical fertilizers. I really think, if we follow other agricultural trends, that it is the future."
As for the quality of the cannabis itself, Spear said that it was always meant to grow naturally under the sun.
"The broad spectrum of light the sun provides is much better than artificial," he said. "Horticultural lighting has come a long way, but it will be a long time before lighting technology is able to achieve what the sun provides. I think that, consequently, we see higher cannabinoid levels and higher terpene levels in sun-grown plants."
Not only does he feel that it makes the buds better, but that the technology necessary to try and recreate the optimal outdoor environment indoors can demand tremendous resources.
"Compared to an indoor facility with similar yields, what Burnstown Farms will be doing will require 99% less electricity," said Spear. "If you were to produce the same amount of cannabis indoors as we plan to produce outdoors, that would be the equivalent to powering 11,000 Canadian households for an entire year."
Because of this, Campbell feels that there will always be an interest for outdoor cannabis in the country, both for consumers and producers.
"So, I think, too, given the consumer trends toward ethical consumption, that outdoor cannabis—on a small scale, mind you, I’m not talking about industrial agriculture, here—but especially for the micro-farmers, this is going to be a really exciting niche market that these farmers are going to fit into," she said.
Spear is similarly confident that Canada will be able to establish a solid foundation for outdoor cannabis growing in the future.
"There still seems to be this notion that we’re living year-round in igloos, but that’s certainly not the case," he said. "We are an agricultural producing country. The perception that we can’t grow good cannabis outdoors is simply false."